Winter. All of Cleveland Heights was achromatic. Streets were dark gray. Trees were light gray. In the snow, brown buildings were like charcoal ziggurats. Jewish men and boys in their black suits and hats plodded along the sidewalks as bacteria wiggles its way across a glass under a microscope. The houses along the street were a hodgepodge of mid-century architecture. A Contemporary styled Ranch home, with a brick half-wall, recessed double doors, and clerestory windows framed with exposed rafter tails, was neighbored by a Minimal Traditional home, a product of the Great Depression, made affordable for returning veterans. A brick house, trimmed in stone, with false shutters had an American Eagle fixed on an iron railing—the house’s only decoration. The entrance was graced with a steep roof, suggestive of the Tudor style. It was in a house like that where I mourned my sister. I learned from Rabbi Cohen the Cleveland Heights Jewish community owned several homes donated for people who were ill or recovering from surgery. In this Minimal Traditional home, I grieved her death. Trapped in those plain white walls, I tried to make sense of the missing lobe from my lung and why it couldn’t save her life. In that house that didn’t belong to me, quiet lurked in every corner. I turned on every light I could find as if I was freezing and they were heaters, but the house was still dark and I was cold from it. There were bookshelves stocked with prayer books, devotionals and inspirational material. No television, no stereo, or internet. It was an Orthodox home. The suggestion was clear. In the living room was a basket of potpourri, vanilla, an empty vase of apathetic green, an afflictive golden Grecian couch, cushions in colors of tan, religious Jewish magazines on the coffee
table, hideous brown sculptures, black carpet so warn it was nearly extinct, and plastic toys in case a guest had children. The bedrooms were spartan. The corners of the wallpaper were lifting at the edges. The linens were cheap and rough. The one bathroom had stains around the sink and tub. The bottle of liquid soap had been refilled half way with soap, the rest with water to save money. The toilet paper was hanging the wrong way, the loose end was inside next to the wall. Dammit Rachel, I’m not ready for this. And not here. And not without you. *** Society is fond of its titles. Early on you become a Kindergartner, a Middle-schooler, later a Graduate, then maybe a Supervisor, or a Teacher. When Rachel died, I became an Avel, a mourner according to Jewish law. When a close relative dies, a Jew must sit shiva for seven days from the burial. Then, thirty days march on like a funeral procession. Days and hours stretch out in line like black horses pulling a casket. A sad parade of long faces whisper a dirge of relentless restrictions to demonstrate grief in public and private. For the first three days I couldn’t greet or acknowledge people who came to comfort me. I was not allowed to bathe, cut my hair or trim my nails. Who would want to see me in this condition? No mind, they didn’t have to want to see me—it was a mitzvah, a commandment. Anyone who visited, came only because they had to come in order to get “credit” for performing the mitzvah according to Jewish law. On Sunday afternoon, men whom I didn’t know began filing into the house for Mincha, the afternoon prayer service. First a couple
of older gentlemen arrived, then Rabbi Gordon tripped in, took off his outer coat and hung it on an iron rack next to the heavy wooden door. The house was so warm, the snow on his coat liquefied and drip onto the hardwood floor. The smack of the large water drops hitting the wood reminded me of the black mud dripping off my fingers at the Salt Sea and plopping on the beach. I felt the warmth of the Israeli sun, and Rachel's hands touching my face and I heard her say, "Let's go float now Rubi!" I wanted that. But I had this to attend to. "You go float Rach." "Excuse me Reuben? Can I get you something?" I felt the Pepto-Bismol kicking in trying to be helpful. "No Rabbi Gordon, thank you. I'm okay. I'm just having a hallucinatory grief response induced by a present world association. It's part of the Denial/Grief process. I'm sure you'll be more comfortable when I'm on to the Bargaining phase." Rachel would have been horrified. Addison would be amused but would not approve. I was using Rabbi Gordon as the Whipping Boy for my anger. Another title I had was Licensed Psychologist, but being one didn't give me a pass at feeling emotions. Nor did losing someone give me a right to be irresponsible around someone else's feelings. "I'm sorry Rabbi Gordon, that was thoughtless of me. I was thinking of a memory of Rachel at the time I was saying something out loud. I'm sorry I snapped at you." "Oh, okay. No problem. Would you like to share it with us?" No problem? Share it? With us? What is this Romper Room? Apologizing was the right thing to do, at least for Rachelâ€™s sake. But maybe I'd said it too soon. "I'm fine just to sit here." Rabbi Cohen was scurrying to see if there were at least ten men present, a minyan, so that we could start to pray.
"Are there ten? Looks like we have ten,” he said. A haggard looking man close to my age answered, “One of them is not Bar Mitzvah yet. The other is fourteen, but of course he still doesn't count.” The man had a wide, youthful grin, but his pallor and unkempt appearance gave off a vibe that suggested caution. I felt bad for the boy who was making his way across the room with his smaller friend. They sat down a few feet from me. Since we still lacked one man to make a quorum to pray, I took advantage of the time to observe the boys. I looked at the older one and repeated to myself, but of course he doesn't count. Why say he didn’t count? He was old enough to pray with a minyan. Doesn’t count to whom? “That was so cruel.” The thought escaped my mouth. Rabbi Gordon reached over and performed a pat-pat-squeeze-pat show of comfort on my hand. He followed up the maneuver with, “It’s quite all right, Reuben.” The boy held my gaze, gave me a smile, and I, the avel, smiled back at him, which made me self-conscious, because everything about the surroundings indicated that I shouldn’t smile. I was in mourning. I sat on a sofa with no seat cushion so that I was lower than everyone else. My shirt had been torn to indicate the pain of my sister’s death. All the mirrors in the house were covered to show that no person was here, only a grieving Jew. I wasn’t allowed to wear leather shoes because I would not allow myself to take comfort in everyday, material items. But this curious boy had a quantum affect on me. In my grief, I was at once happy, because he smiled at me. Low the ground, tired, hungry, and raw, I wanted to be alone. Yet, when he looked at me, I found myself scrambling for words that wouldn’t draw the attention of the others, but would send a signal to him as if to say, You do count and I’d like to get to know you. Later that night, I would recall our glances and crave to be alone with him. Soon a few more men materialized from the grayish-white slurry outside into the pellucid air that was my temporary home. An older
man, unremarkable in every respect except for his Brioni Italian suit, looked totally out of place for a shiva call on a Sunday afternoon. People took their attention off of me and welcomed him like the “messiah” on Palm Sunday. It was something worth noting. After the prayers were over, Rabbi Cohen came over and sat close to me. "I want you to know Reuben, Rachel made such an impression from the moment she moved here a year ago for her treatments." Then, like a scalpel cutting away a lesion, Brioni's voice sliced through the rabbi, keen but jagged. ”I don't know you but I'm Sheldon Klug.” And then came the perfunctory, "HaMakom yenachem os'cha b'soch shar avay'lay Tzion vee'Yerushalayim. May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." He nodded, shook my hand, turned and walked out. He hadn't taken his outer coat off before prayer, I observed. And then that nod. It meant he had completed the simple set of behaviors that he had allotted for the time each needed, probably all preassigned in his daily planner. May the Omnipresent comfort you. It's a blessing that we religious Jews give to someone who is mourning, because we want them to realize even amidst their anguish, they should not be so self-centered to nurture the idea that their grief is unique or that they are alone in their sadness. As a member of the Tribe, the People of the Book, the Chosen Ones, the Omnipresent has marked me for suffering. By our stripes, the nations of the world will attain healing and atonement. One day they will look at us Jews and realize, according to the prophet Isaiah, who the Suffering Servant really is. It was during a circumstance like losing my sister, that I was to ponder all of this, and be comforted. But did Rachel's sarcoidosis, her death, my missing lobe bring forgiveness to some non-Jew who begged for forgiveness? I touched the place of the scar under my arm. It stung. Jacob, the haggardly man who had dismissed the boy earlier, gave the same mourner's blessing and added, "If you need
anything we're just down the street.” He gestured toward the older boy. “Everyone knows us, just ask for the Laskis." Father of the boy. Confirmed. The smaller one spouted the blessing off like a little typewriter with no facial expression. It was almost comical. Then the boy's turn. He took his time, speaking with an even, unrushed rhythm, unusual for a fourteen year old boy. He looked me in the eyes while he blessed me, searching, but for what, I didn't know. His voice was still that of a pubescent male, but not high pitched. It wasn't cracking yet but had a deeper timber to it that relaxed me. I wished, above all the others, that he wasn't leaving. I felt the familiar feeling of being nervous drop into my gut, the kind of jitters I would get before a job interview, or just before I'd make a cold call when I would poll for political candidates, or when I would first open my mouth to speak to a boy who was interesting. "Amen." I'd forgotten to say Amen to everyone else's blessing. Had anyone noticed? His was the most beautiful and the most pure. His full, ruby lips slowly parted to form the words. His sapphire eyes were a beacon inviting me to concentrate on the words' meaning while he explored the edges of my self to see how far I would let him in. He wanted to come in. Needed to come in and I could already feel that I might want him to, as well. Amen, I am not alone in my suffering, and neither are you, boy. "Jonathan!" His father was calling him from the snowy street. "C'ya.” he said through a smile and ran out. "I hope so," I said, checking to see if the others noticed. He turned back to look at me once more. He had heard me. *** I remember the feeling of his hand stroking mine the first time we touched. I might have fallen in love with him right there in a place meant for studying holy Jewish scriptures. Instead, I studied the way his eyes, blue like two worlds, locked onto mine. I noticed
him watching my lips, shifting his gaze back to my eyes. He smiled at me while he caressed my hand, this precocious newly fourteen year old boy who looked like he was one word away from a giggle. The kollel was a stale building with hundreds of chairs around tables that crowded the room. Wooden book holders called shtenders sat on table tops that held oversized books men would crane their necks over for hours in hopes of drawing out some new understanding of the Aramaic words written by rabbis two millennia ago. Thousands of books lined the walls of the kollel. Less than fifty of them were published within the last two decades. Here, age mattered, not youth. Kollels could be found in every major city with a large Jewish population. Among the pious, married Jewish men were expected to attend a kollel and learn Torah in place of finding regular work. The men who attended were paid a stipend for their learning. Laymen from the community also showed up in the morning and evening to learn with the regulars in order to supplement their spiritual lives. Young boys found their way in with their fathers or friends, like one finds younger social mammals mimicking older ones in order to pick up adaptive behaviors for survival. It didn’t seem to bother the boy holding my hand, that there were more than thirty other men sitting around us or that his best friend was standing right beside him. He didn’t let go of me and he didn’t stop talking after the local Jewish mechanic, Barry, who was praising his character and ability to speak publicly, said that this was someone I really ought to meet. It was clear Barry just wanted to get out of the conversation with the boy who was bending his ear like an joggle bend working a piece of sheet metal. “What’s your full name?” the boy interlaced his fingers with mine and swung our hands. “I’m Reuben Mendel Horowitz.” “I like your name. It sounds so important. Just like you look.” “Thanks.” I laughed and wondered if this was a schtick he did with every newcomer.
“Until earlier in the month when you were sitting shiva, I’ve never seen you here before. You’re new.” He remembered giving me that blessing. Was he aware how much I didn’t want him to leave that afternoon? “Yes, I guess I’m moving here.” “I’m so glad! From where?” He was still holding my hand. Not stroking it or swinging it, but his fingers were at rest between mine. My palm was starting to sweat from the warmth. I darted my eyes around the room to be certain that no one was paying attention. His friend Jeremy was standing at his side smiling, almost dumbly. “We’re from North Carolina, Charlotte.” “We?” he asked. I was thinking about her as if she was still alive, in this town, with me. As soon as he picked up on my slip, he changed the subject. “I didn’t know there were any Jews in North Carolina! What do you think about Cleveland?” “I’m still very new so it’s a little lonely.” “Well, it’s good you’re in Cleveland now. I’ll show you everything there is to know about Cleveland. And now that you’ve met me, you won’t be alone anymore. Let’s sit down and learn a little, yeah? Do you want some tea or coffee? I’ll get some books and our drinks.” He whispered something to Jeremy, who said, “Bye” with a halfwave, and left without making another sound. He had been dismissed, like a waiter from a VIP table. The interaction between them gave me a chance to study Jonathan’s form. I wanted to see beyond the Orthodox Jewish “uniform” all of us wore: the black suit, white shirt, and black Borsalino hat. From the distance between us, I could tell he was shorter than most boys his age, about four foot, ten inches. Tufts of sandy blond hair stuck out of the edges of his hat. There was something plain and everyday about his appearance that made him all the more nice to look at. He reappeared with a black coffee for me and a tea for him, his mouth stuffed with cake. He had managed to feed some of it to his suit jacket before he reached our table. “Hungry?” I asked.
“Yeah the food at my school sucks.” “What do they feed you?” “Fake food. But at least it’s kosher. But I rarely eat it anyway.” I thanked him for the coffee as he set the books on the table and pulled his chair very close to mine. Maybe I fell in love with him then. When everything was ready, he reached for his tea and spilled it all over himself and down the chair, which was one of about a hundred that had just been donated to the kollel. Fear swept across his face like a wave until he saw my reaction which was utter amusement at his teenage clumsiness. He let out a raspy giggle and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m a klutz.” “Don’t sweat it,” I said.” Spilling is part of growing up. Your muscles have to catch up with your brain.” “No one has ever put it that way before. I normally just get yelled at.” He gazed at me for longer than most boys would. He was searching again. “I should really know your name by now,” I said. “I’m Jonathan Laski.” “It’s a pleasure to meet you Jonathan. Let me help you clean up your tea.” Jonathan’s idea of learning ancient Jewish texts with me turned out to be him spouting off a few lines of Aramaic that he had memorized from watching his rebbe, then translating them into English and asking for my point of view. We chose a text in the Talmud that discussed the different kinds of damages and under what conditions a person would owe the one who is damaged reparations. Swaying back and forth in his seat, Jonathan sang out in a loud voice the Aramaic text of our topic: “There are four primary categories of damage: The Ox; the Pit; the tooth of an animal; and Fire. Each of these categories are unique; therefore, the law of one cannot be derived from another.” I had a hard time following the flow of logic—not because I couldn’t understand Aramaic (I am fluent in most Semitic languages)—but because this creature, this boy had engaged me with his hypnotic voice and undulating body. I watched his pale
fingers slide over a page that was a sea of black and white letters as he called out the words in a rhythmical tune. He looked like a choir boy, angelic and pure. His voice had enough depth to reverberate into my chest but was still soft, like a breathy wooden flute in the hands of a master. His fingernails had little white lines on them that were classic signs of Zinc deficiency. They were also a little longer than I preferred boys to have, which suggested that he didn’t take time to groom them before Shabbos, which was the custom. But I liked his hands. They were smooth, hairless, his palms were clean and warm to the touch. He continued: “‘The defining characteristics of this primary category of Ox and tooth and that primary category of Fire, in which the typical manner of their components is to proceed from one place to another and cause damage, are not similar to the defining characteristic of the primary category of Pit, in which the typical manner of its components is not to proceed from one place to another and cause damage; rather, it remains in place and the damage is caused by the injured party proceeding and encountering the obstacle.’ Reuben, do you see the difference in the categories?” “Yes, I think so. Ox, Tooth and Fire travel whereas Pit is stationary and the damage it causes happens by someone coming upon it.” “Okay, so I don’t need to explain anything. Very good. I’ll continue. ‘The common denominator of the components in all of these primary categories is that it is their typical manner to cause damage, and the responsibility for their safeguarding to prevent them from causing damage is incumbent upon you, the owner of the animal or generator of the fire or the pit. And when a component of any of these categories causes damage, the owner or generator of the component that caused the damage is obligated to pay restitution for damage with best-quality land.’ What do you make of that, Reuben?” “If I remember correctly Rabbi Laski, we’re only talking about primary categories. The text will go on to compare these to other examples where we see the Talmud break down these categories into smaller components that have their own idiosyncrasies according to Jewish Law.”
“Ah ha! And what is the practical purpose of breaking these down into subcategories?” Jonathan was quizzing me. “Well, in terms of transgressions related to Shabbos, the severity of the sin would matter whether it was a primary category or a subcategory. So it is in this case. I would imagine in terms of damage, over here in our subject, it would matter whether or not we were dealing with a primary category or a subcategory, because the restitution to the one who was damaged would be different.” “I wish you were my rebbe! The way you said that made so much more sense,” he said. “Thanks. But I’m just saying over how my rebbe taught me.” Jonathan put the book down on the table and took a sip of tea. “You’ve learned that section really well,” I said. “Nah, I don’t know anything. I just fake it.” “Well, it’s gotta get in there somehow. Give yourself some credit.” “Why should I? No one else does.” “Good grief Jonathan! No one?” “Grief isn’t good, Reuben,” he smiled as he gave me a side glance to see if his joke worked. It did. I pointed out that some people use humor as a distraction when they become uncomfortable. “You mean me? I would never do that.” He let out what could be described as his Cat Hiss Laugh. But only half a hiss. Or in Hebrew or Jewish culture, it’s the letter Ches like in the beginning of the word Chanukah, but just the “CH” part. I would come to learn that the Cat Hiss Laugh was his way of acknowledging what you said but also dismissing either how he felt about it, or that what you had said had any meaning for him. My compliment, having been parried and smacked to floor, opened up an area that he did want to talk about. “The rebbes at my school can be really tough.” “Tough how?” “They yell.” “Yell as in full volume, red faced, and maniacal screaming?” “Exactly. If you don’t read a verse right, or stay in your seat, they will yell at you over any little thing. Some kids even get hit.”
“Don’t you think men in their positions should have more selfcontrol?” He clicked his tongue before he answered. I would come to learn this was Jonathan’s way of saying, “I respectfully disagree but…” “They mean well,” he said. “They’re doing it for teaching purposes.” That’s not teaching I thought. That’s abuse. But what else goes on in Jonathan’s life where he gives men like these a pass to be so scurrilous and still look up to them? “Do you tell your parents?” “They know. There’s another Orthodox school here where yelling and hitting doesn’t go on. My father won’t send me there because it’s not Orthodox enough.” The other Orthodox school is where Rachel taught. “What’s wrong with it?” “The spiritual level is too low. Kids’ parents are allowed to have Internet and TV, they don’t wear uniforms, some kids come from homes that don’t have high standards of kosher, it’s a real shame,” he said, shaking his head. He watched to see how I would respond. “Judaism has a very important, fundamental principal: we are supposed to give every Jew the benefit of the doubt for what they do. Isn’t that the most spiritual thing one can do?” I asked him. “I guess so.” “You guess so,” I repeated, smiling. He was searching my face for my meaning. I liked that he did that. I liked that he tried to figure me out on his own at first. I hoped that if he couldn’t get there, one day he would ask. I hoped he would be able to open himself to me as well. And if he did, would he even have answers? The time for Maariv, evening prayers, had come. Jonathan gathered all the books on our table and put them back in their exact places. “You get extra points for putting the books back where you find them ya know.” “Extra points from whom?” “God, of course.”
So they are teaching them that God is a librarian now. Rebbes can scream and hit but God cares that the books get put back. Noted. “After prayers will you drive me home, Reuben?” He lived only about five blocks away. But I would get to spend a few more minutes with him. And we would be completely alone. “Absolutely.” The first thing Jonathan did when he saw my car was to memorize my license plate number. “Why do you do that?” I asked him. “So I’ll know for sure it’s you whenever I see a car like this.” He was planning for the future. “Can I have your phone number?” I swallowed back a good dose of panic because I knew if I gave it to him he would use it. And it wouldn’t take him long. The thought terrified and excited me all at once, like when you run a hot bath and the water feels cold and hot at the same time. How could I not give him my number? He was asking for it and to deny him access to me would communicate that I didn’t want him around. If I put off giving him my number later, he might think I was insincere or that I didn’t trust him. If I gave it to him and he called me—that was what terrified me. What do you do with a boy when they barge into your life with an agenda and they’re interested in you? “Nu, Reuben? Are you gonna give me your number or am I gonna have to show up at your house every day after school?” “Should I write it down for you?” “Oh, no. I’ll remember it. People say I remember numbers like my father. If you want to know anyone’s number in Cleveland, if they’re Jewish that is, ask my father. His name is Jacob.” “Well, I’ll keep that in mind.” I watched his eyes and face work like smooth gears as I gave him my number. He had it the first time. “I like your car. Can I show you a trick?” “Sure.” Jonathan grabbed my keys like a pauper swiping bread off the street, which gave me the feeling that I had just given ownership of my VW Passat to him. Somehow using the FOB, he was able to operate the windows, a feature I had been oblivious to.
“Hey, how did you know about that?” “My father works on cars at Barry’s shop.” “Do you and your father work on cars together?” Shaking his head without a word, Jonathan flashed a microexpression of sadness. “You’d never let me drive would you?” Jonathan had made an attempt to distract. “Is that a question or a statement? Because the first five words you said sounded like a statement but the last two you ended with had an upward lilt, which indicates a question.” “Nobody I know talks like you. I like it. And it was both I guess.” “It was both, you guess.” “Okay, it was both.” He had seized my meaning by the second repetition. “Then the answer is, ‘It depends.’” “That always means no,” said Jonathan. “Always?” I watched him trace the edges of the FOB. “Well, when my parents say something like that it does.” “Do they ever explain what it depends on?” “No.” “Do you ever ask?” “No.” “What stops you?” “What stops me from what?” Jonathan’s neck had splashes of red-colored frustration creeping toward his fair cheeks. “From asking them what it depends on.” “They’d probably say I was behaving with chutzpadik.” “Maybe because you would be asking them in a challenging way. But there’s a way to go about it with utmost respect that still fulfills the commandment of honoring your mother and father.” “Really? Would you teach me?” “Of course I would. It would give me great pleasure.” Red-faced Jonathan smiled from ear to ear and I hadn’t felt this happy since Noam when I lived in Israel. “We’re here!” Jonathan left his faceprint on the passenger’s window. “Fifth house on the right. Remember it! Can I call you when you get home?” “I have to get ready for bed,” I said.
“Can I text you?” “Just for a little bit okay?” “I’ll text you in five minutes,” said Jonathan. “Okay, bye Jonathan.” “Bye.” I hurried home to receive his text, already replaying the scenes from before in my mind to store them there for future review. What up Hi Jonathan! So how r u able to text anyway? Mom’s phone. She know? No. How no? She lays it on the counter when she goes up to bed. Trusting of her. Yeah. When can I c u tomorrow? I'll be at the kollel around 7:30. Wanna learn together? Sure. Ok thanks I'm gonna head to bed. Good night Jonathan. Nood gight what time tomorrow can i call ;-) Like after school? Yeah Anytime. Thanks Welcome It was all starting up with him already. He had a need. I wanted to mother him, to father him, to find all the places he was hurting and make them better. And I could feel my woundedness opening to him so quickly because he was safe. When I met Jonathan, it was like a layer of plastic was taken off the lens of a camera and the world was clear again, as though cotton had been pulled out of my ears and I heard the sounds of the living, as if candle wax was peeled from my fingers and I could
feel the temperature and texture of someone’s skin who was sensing my skin back. I wondered what he was doing. I thought about texting him. Too risky. I knew he’d call the next day. I didn’t want to come across too eager and chase him off. I liked to show affection and to shower praise and approval on them. I had a hunch Jonathan craved it but I would have to test that theory. I fell asleep imagining his voice calling me on the phone the next afternoon telling me about his day.