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“Know Where You Came From And Know Where You Are Going To.”
Pirke Avot, 3:1
The man wearing army fatigues was bent over at the waist. A paperback Bible poked out of one back pocket and a pistol from the other. Leaning into the circular hole in the cavern wall, he was working two levers back and forth as if controlling a bulldozer’s scoop.
He stood up and said in Yiddish, “Now you please come. Please look.”
A full-bearded giant of a man in his sixties, wearing a long black coat so caked with dirt it looked like a cowboy’s canvas duster, strode across the granite floor. The opening might have been wide enough for some men to crawl into, but not for this one who stood six foot six and weighed in at two-fifty-five. His gut clenched as he stuck his head and shoulders into the narrow passage. Breathing in short gasps, he extended his arms to maneuver the handles to adjust a mirror and light. He’d been a chaplain in the U.S. Navy during the War. He was as far below the surface as he’d been in a submarine’s test run once, but this jerry-rigged periscope did not look upwards to the waves of Pearl Harbor, but sideways around the corner of a tunnel under Jerusalem.
“Do you see it, Rebbe?” called the man in fatigues.
The large man wondered if he was committing sacrilege by using a mirror to look for the sacred object. Only the high priest was permitted to gaze upon it and then only on Yom Hakippurim, the Day of Atonement. Anyone else would be struck dead by the hand of God. Perseus had avoided being turned to stone by looking at Medusa’s reflection rather than directly at her face, but what worked in Greek myth provided no precedent in dealing with the Almighty.
“Not yet, Shlomo,” he said and turned back to the tunnel. He jiggled the two levers some more. He gripped the handles hard when he saw it – something box-shaped, almost entirely covered in pelts. The light was too dim to determine what animal they’d come from, but bright enough for the one exposed corner of the box to shine a dull gold. Perhaps the two of them here in the cavern were still alive only because the metal covered a corner of the box and skins the remainder.
The man who’d been called Rebbe pulled back from the hole and stood up in the gloomy, domed chamber carved out of rock. He swayed, thanking God in Hebrew, the holy tongue, for letting him reach this day.
Then he stopped mid-prayer. He heard voices emanating from the passage on the other side of the cavern, the one they’d used to enter it. Voices getting louder. Voices speaking in Arabic.
I hadn’t made love to my wife in a year and hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with her in two. Veronica and I lived in the same house, slept in the same bed, and loved our daughter with the same intensity. Years of trying for more kids had brought only frustration and doctors’ bills. And now Katie had gone off to college at Harvard and left an empty bedroom and empty lives behind her.
At dinner parties and charity events, friends told us they envied our marriage. Veronica and I weren’t really dissimulating, just compelled by inertia to play the roles we had perfected over two decades.
As my fiftieth birthday loomed, I realized the air had leaked out of the balloon of my dreams. Our daughter aside, I was deflated by disappointments and regrets. Oh, by Silicon Valley standards I’d done fine. Enticed by an offer price of eight times revenue and a promise that we’d form the core of a new strategic business unit, we sold the company I founded to Sibyl Software. When the inevitable economic downturn had come, the Sibyl CEO tossed away the business like a snotty tissue. Since then I’d watched a start-up company copy our technology and go public last year at a valuation of ten times sales.
Veronica and I lived in a mortgage-free house perched on top of a hill in the town of Woodside. Thanks to my morning runs and gym workouts, I’d struggled back within spitting distance of what I’d done in college for a 10K run and a bench press. I spent the afternoons ensconced in my home office on a green-striped armchair, hideous but comfortable, staring out the window at the shimmering waters of San Francisco Bay. Seven months ago, my father, who raised me alone, had died after a losing fight with stomach cancer. Now I sipped tea and read both classics and bestsellers, while trying to figure out how to play the back nine of life.
Of course, I thought about leaving my wife, but leaving her implied I would be going somewhere else. I had nowhere to go.
It was Wednesday, mid-afternoon, and I was reading The Economist. Or really not reading it, but staring at some random page in the science and technology section while my mind floated in suspended animation.
“Huh?” I knocked over the mug of green tea that had been resting on the arm of the chair.
“Ooh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Veronica remained at the door. Some women of forty-three would have shied away from wearing a sleeveless red dress that stopped five inches above the knee. No need for my wife to show such caution. Thrice weekly appointments with her personal trainer had left her limbs sleek and toned. From a distance she looked twenty-five. Close examination was required to detect the lacy lines at the outside corners of her eyes and creases angling from the ends of her mouth to her nose. When I’d married her, my friends had tripped over their tongues with envy. I’m not sure they’d stopped. How did a nerd like me end up with a beauty like Veronica?
I looked down at the wet spot spreading across the red mahogany planking of the floor and then back up at Veronica in the doorway. “What are you doing home so early?” I asked. She worked for a private foundation in San Francisco, deciding which causes were most worthy of a flighty real estate magnate’s billions. One year the target might be eradicating malaria, the next illiteracy in the third world. Nothing bite-sized for them.
“I need to talk to you,” she said.
“And it couldn’t wait till tonight?”
“Okay, come in.” I got up from the armchair. She could sit there, and I’d move over to the desk.
“No, I’d rather stand. This is your room. I’m never comfortable in here.”
We faced off at three paces. “Okay.”
“This isn’t working.”
“By this you mean us?” I asked.
She nodded and then looked down. I waited for her to go on. After twenty seconds she still hadn’t. “So we should split up?” I asked.
She raised her head and looked at me. Then she nodded again.
“Okay, so we can split up,” I said.
She lowered her gaze.
“That’s not enough?” I asked.
She took a deep breath.
Veronica still wasn’t looking at me when I said, “Oh, you want a divorce.”
She nodded for the third time.
“You must have met someone?”
This time she spoke. “Don’t get mad.”
“I’m not mad.”
“I met him....”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
She tilted her chin up. “He’s not as smart as you. Not as successful. Doesn’t look like much either. But he does pay attention to me. He cares that I’m alive.”
I stared at the bookshelf over her head. After a few seconds, I lowered my gaze and shrugged. “You don’t have to make excuses. Go. Be happy.”
“After twenty years, that’s it? It’s that simple?”
“No. Thanks to California’s divorce laws, it won’t be simple. But I’m not going to stand in your way.”
“We’ll have to tell Katie,” she said.
She took the three steps to where I stood, encircled me with her long arms, and then rested her head against my chest. I could feel the tears soaking through my shirt front. I patted her hair a few times, then stopped.
Only after she left and I was on my hands and knees cleaning up spilt tea, did I wonder whether she’d wanted me to protest, to tell her to stay with me, even to fight for her. I hoped not. I didn’t have it in me.
The phone rang. There I sat in the striped chair back with the same Economist spread open on my lap. At least two hours had passed since Veronica left, and I couldn’t say what I’d read. I went over to the desk and picked up the receiver.
“This is Alex Kalman. You must have the wrong number.”
“Are you the grandson of Reb Yitzhak Kalman?”
“This is Rabbi Natan Zweiback.”
“Should I know you?”
“No. Who is your father’s father?”
I couldn’t think of how knowledge of my grandfather’s name would enable identity theft. “Isaac Kalman.”
“And what happened to him?”
“I don’t mean to be rude, Rabbi, but why should I answer these questions? How do I know you are even a rabbi?”
“You are Jewish.”
“Well, yes.” Technically. My father had not been observant. I hadn’t been in a synagogue since I was thirteen, dancing the horas and limbo-ing lower at the bar mitzvahs of my friends.
“Your grandfather is alive.”
“No. He died before I was born.”
“He did not. Your father was estranged from your grandfather. He left his house after you were born.”
“And you are telling me this alleged grandfather is a rabbi?”
“Yes. Our rebbe, in fact.”
“And why do you think he is my grandfather?”
“He is dying. He is asking for you.”
After we hung up, I went online to book a red-eye, packed an overnight bag, and scribbled a note to Veronica.
* * *
I’d gone to Harvard thirty years before and was used to waiting behind a long queue of cars, buses, and limos to pay a toll and take the dark narrow Sumner Tunnel under Boston Harbor into town. Now my cab, piloted by a turbaned Sikh, could sweep through the well-lit and wide Ted Williams Tunnel and emerge on Storrow Drive. Even though it was morning rush hour, we pulled up at 63 Windsor Avenue in the leafy enclave of Brookline only forty-five minutes after my plane had touched down. Some hundred feet from the curb behind a screen of trees and shrubs squatted a formidable house of brick and wood. The pair of dormered windows on the top floor watched me like eyes under hooded brows as I climbed six flagstone steps and walked up a path to the front door.
Before I’d taken my finger off the bell, the front door swung open.
“Mr. Kalman?” I could only see the shadowy outline of a man through the screen door.
The screen opened and a hand was thrust toward me. Through the gloom of the house I could see a man of medium stature wearing a yarmulke and a black suit, white shirt, open-necked. Below the jacket I could see the fringes of a tallit katan, an undergarment for Orthodox men, which the head of engineering had worn at our start-up. The face that peered back at me was covered by a bushy brown beard.
“Natan Zweiback.” Shave those whiskers off and he’d look more a college freshman than a Jewish cleric. This was a whole different species of rabbi from the ones I’d met at the Silicon Valley bar mitzvahs of my friends all those years ago.
The handshake was firm. “What a pleasure to meet the grandson of our rebbe. Come in.”
If this was some kind of sham, it was an elaborate one. At least they weren’t figuring me for an easy mark.
He led me to a kitchen infused with moisture, warmth, and yeast. There a woman of sixty tended an elaborate cast iron stove. She had what looked like a do-rag on her head.
“This is Mrs. Seligson,” the rabbi said. “She is your grandfather’s housekeeper.”
I extended my hand.
Without extending hers, she said, “Nice to meet you.”
Nonplussed, I dropped my hand.
The rabbi helped her out. “Women here don’t touch men other than their husbands.”
“I see. Fine. Nice to meet you as well.” I’ll bet Orthodox women cut way down on colds and flu that way.
“Would you like some tea?” Mrs. Seligson asked.
“Yes, thank you very much.”
The rabbi and I sat down on old-fashioned high back chairs at a dark-stained table that could have fit a dozen more of us.
“You are some kind of salesman, Rabbi,” I said.
“And how is that?”
“You convinced me to fly across the country. Just like that.”
“It’s Beshert,” he said. “You were meant to come.”
“No, I had nothing better to do and your story intrigued me. Who meant me to come?”
“The hand of ha-Shem brought you here.”
“Yes, the Name. It is what we call the Eternal One.”
“You mean God?”
He shook his head as if at a child. “Out of respect, I do not say any of the names of the deity aloud.”
“Okay, fine. Now tell me about the man reputed to be my grandfather.”
“I will take you into him in a moment. One look at your face is all I needed to know who you are.”
I rubbed my knuckles against my chin. Needed a shave. “Okay.”
Mrs. Seligson put a steaming mug in front of me. I sipped. The syrupy concoction tasted like equal parts tea, milk, and sugar – a far stretch from the Japanese sencha I favored back in Woodside.
The baby-faced rabbi gave me an indulgent smile.
“The father of Rebbe Kalman was the fourth Bialystoker Rebbe. In 1938 your great-grandfather sent your grandfather to the United States along with nine congregants.”
“And his father died in the Holocaust?”
“Praised be ha-Shem, no. He died of natural causes the day after Yom Kippur in 1939. Your grandfather then became the Bialystoker Rebbe.”
“You make it sound like a royal dynasty.”
“It does not sound American, I know, but it is still a dynasty.”
“And my father?”
“He was raised to be his father’s heir. I have heard that even as a teenager, he was a Talmudist able to hold his own with the heads of yeshivas in New York and even Jerusalem.”
“Rebbe Kalman thought he should go to a great American university. We Jews are minnows in a sea. His father thought he should understand the ocean as well as the fish.”
“So he went to Harvard and then went his own way?”
“No, not then. Let me show you.”
I followed him up two flights of a dark-stained staircase. He then opened the door to a huge room with slanted ceilings. It must have been the two windows on the far wall that I’d imagined were eyes watching me as I walked up to the house. Squeezed between the windows, two twin beds stretched toward us from the opposite wall. He gestured to a bureau covered with picture frames.
I picked up the closest one. In a color photo stood a man wrapped in a white garment, almost like a doctor’s coat. Even though he wore a heavy beard and was young, oh so young, I recognized my father. Next to him, resplendent and beautiful in an ivory wedding dress, stood my mother.
“This was my parents’ bedroom?” I asked.
The rabbi nodded.
I picked up another photo in a gleaming sterling frame. Dad stood in what must have been the uniform of the day – a dark suit, white shirt, and homburg – next to my mother, who wore a high-necked dress and a kerchief. Their arms cradled a chubby little infant. Me. Taken just before my mother died.
When we entered the living room of the house, I saw a hospital bed surrounded by half a dozen men dressed in the same uniform as Rabbi Zweiback – dark suit, white shirt, and fringed undergarments. They were chanting in melodic undertones. Must be Hebrew.
From the hospital bed floated up a blue-veined hand that twisted twice in a slow-motioned simulacrum of a wave. The members of the prayer circle stepped back and then filed past me. On the way out of the room, each shook my hand and nodded gravely. The last man called me “Reb Kalman.”
The furniture had been pushed to the side of the room. I approached the figure on the bed.
The bed itself must have been oversized. The emaciated figure in it stretched well over six feet from crown to sole. My right hand felt like a little boy’s in the enfolding grasp of the man in the bed. I looked at his face. The black yarmulke on his head contrasted with the translucent parchment of the skin stretching over his skull. He looked so much like my own father in the months before he died that any doubts of who this man was, of his relation to me, evaporated.
“Aron,” he whispered.
“Alex,” I said.
“You were Aron when you were born,” he answered.
A couple of years before, Veronica and I had sent cotton swabs to a mail order lab for DNA testing. It made for amusing cocktail talk for Veronica to tell friends the biblical Aaron, brother of Moses and the first high priest, was her husband’s ancestor. Now it turned out I was his namesake as well as his descendant?
“Yes,” he squeezed my hand.
He squeezed again. “When your mother was killed in the car crash, Chaim took you and left. He said there were only two possibilities. Either the God that ruled the universe was a sadistic tyrant or there was no God at all and life was no more than a series of random events. He didn’t care which. He left this house and never came back.”
I was surprised my grandfather didn’t use the euphemism “ha-Shem” as Rabbi Zweiback had.
“Chaim was my father?” My grandfather nodded. He was known back home as Charles. “And my real name is Aron?”
“That was the name you were given at your bris.”
A bris? A ritual circumcision? For once I didn’t mind a memory lapse. “Why did you want to see me now?”
He raised his free hand. “I am ninety-four and about to die. It was time.”
“You’re not afraid?”
“Of course, I am afraid, but that does not matter.” He beckoned me closer with the index finger of his free hand. My ear was three inches from his bluish lips. “I am about to break a vow.”
“To my father?”
“Yes. When he left, I promised I would never seek him out. Nor you.”
“To provide him comfort. To help him forget.”
“You kept your vow to him. He’s dead. So it’s my decision now whether to see you. Here I am.”
“Hineini,” he said.
“It is what Abraham said, what Moses said, when God called them. ‘Here I am.’ It is a generous thing to say, to say I kept my vow. Do you know what a mitzvah is?”
“Like a bar mitzvah?”
“Yes. It’s a good deed we Jews are commanded to perform. Are you ready to undertake a mitzvah?”
Agree before knowing what I was going to be asked? I’d learned better than that in a career of doing deals in Silicon Valley. “Yes,” I said.
“Thirty years ago I was with Rabbi Shlomo Goren in Jerusalem.”
“He showed me a tunnel under the Temple Mount.”
Like anyone who followed international politics, I knew the Temple Mount. Jews believed their first and second temples had been built on it. Atop it now were Muslim holy places. Deciding who controlled the Temple Mount was a huge obstacle to any Middle Eastern peace agreement.
“He took me to a tunnel below the Mount. I saw there the Holy Ark. The Ark of the Covenant.”
As far as I knew, the Ark was in the government warehouse where it had been cached at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie.
“What did the Ark look like?” I asked. Was I just humoring a dying old man?
“I didn’t look directly at it. I saw its reflection in a mirror at the end of a pole.”
“Rabbi Goren feared what might happen if we looked directly at it.”
“So what did you see in the mirror?”
“A box covered with animal skins. I saw a corner that was gold.”
“It turned out not to be the Ark?” I asked.
“It was the Ark.”
“Did you bring it up?”
“We saw it, but did not reach it. The Arabs found out about the tunnel.”
“But they did not find out about the Ark?”
“No, we were able to hide the tunnel. Still, they found out we were digging under the Temple Mount. There was rioting. The Israeli government wanted no trouble. The government closed up the passage we’d used to go under the Mount. Sealed it.”
“For fear of more rioting?”
“The Foreign Ministry told us its discovery would end chances for peace.”
“So the government asked you to keep what you’d seen secret, and you did?”
“To my regret. No peace came. We should have listened to the ancient sages who told us discovery of the Ark would bring the Day of Redemption closer.”
The man on the hospital bed closed his eyes. He took two deep and shallow breaths and then lifted his lids to look at me. I took a step back.
“Rabbi Goren,” he said, “was always afraid if the Arabs discovered the Ark first, they would destroy it.” He paused and then resumed in a voice, now deep and vigorous. “Now you must find it. Will you look?”
This made no sense at all. This man, my grandfather, was scarcely still in this world. Why should he care? And why me? I was no Indiana Jones.
“Okay, I’ll look.”
“Life is a search for emet,” he said. “I gave up too soon.”
He motioned me closer and gripped my hands in his. He said something in Hebrew.
Then he closed his eyes. His hold of my hands loosened, and he started gasping for air.
“Rabbi Zweiback,” I called out.
The rabbi returned with his colleagues.
“We should call a doctor, Rabbi,” I said.
“He sent them away just before you arrived. He said there was no need. He was ready.”
“I understand.” I looked at my grandfather, then back at Rabbi Zweiback.
“Is emet Hebrew for meaning?”
“No, for truth,” the rabbi told me.
Truth? Maybe the same thing.
The rabbis joined hands in a circle around my grandfather on the bed and me standing beside him, still holding his hands.
They chanted prayers while bowing back and forth and watched the figure on the bed fight for oxygen. Five minutes later the Bialystoker Rebbe stopped breathing.
Temple Mount © 2013 by Keith Raffel
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This book is a work of fiction. Characters, places, companies, and events are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.