First Edition features new original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.
by keith raffel
“Know Where You Came From and Know Where You Are Going To.” — Pirke Avot, 3:1
Chapter 1 Present Day
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 purposely deceiving them. Like veteran actors in a long-running Broadway production, we played our assigned roles with little conscious effort.
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 six times revenue and a promise that we’d form the core of a new strategic business unit, we’d 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 to within spitting distance of what I’d done in college for a 10K run and a bench press. I spent afternoons ensconced in my home office on a purple paisley armchair, hideous but comfortable, staring out the window at the shimmering waters of San Francisco Bay. Seven months ago, my father, who raised me on his own, had died after silent armies of cancer cells infiltrated his colon, then his spine, and finally his brain. Now I sipped tea and read both classics and bestsellers, while trying to figure out how to play the cards life had dealt me.
Of course, I’d thought about leaving my wife, but leaving her implied I would be going somewhere else. I had nowhere to go.
It was Monday, 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 like a bottle in the ocean.
“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-four 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 twenty-five feet away she still looked twenty-five years old. When I’d married her, my friends had tripped over their tongues with envy. Even now, I wasn’t sure they’d ever 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 can’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-one 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.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Start another company?”
“I don’t know.”
“Just sit here the rest of your life?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
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 paisley chair with the same Economist open on my lap. I checked my watch. 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 Rabbi 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 danced the hora and limboed lower at the bar mitzvahs of my friends over thirty years ago.
“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.”
“A rabbi, but more. Our teacher, our leader.”
“And why do you think your rebbe is my grandfather?”
“He is dying. He is asking for you.”
“I have obligations here, Rabbi.”
“I do not know if I can come on such short notice.”
He provided me with an address in Brookline, Massachusetts “just in case.”
After hanging up, I leaned back into the paisley chair. No job and soon no wife. I picked up the Economist again.
An hour later, I was wishing this Rabbi Zweiback had argued more forcefully in favor of my coming. That would have made it easier to resist. Besides, the trip would give me an excuse to visit Katie.
I booked a red-eye online, packed an overnight bag, scribbled a note to Veronica, emailed Katie, and left for the airport just ninety minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off.
* * *
Even though it was morning rush hour, my cab pulled up at 63 Windsor Avenue in the leafy enclave of Brookline, Massachusetts only forty-five minutes after my plane touched down. Some hundred feet from the curb, a formidable house of brick and wood squatted behind a screen of trees and shrubs. 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 from the dusk a hand was thrust toward me. Squinting, I could see a man of medium stature wearing a yarmulke and a black suit with a white open-necked shirt. Below the jacket I saw the fringes of that undergarment Orthodox men wear. The face that peered back at me was covered by a bushy brown beard.
“Natan Zweiback.” Shave off those whiskers 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 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: they weren’t figuring me for an easy mark.
He led me to a kitchen infused with moisture, warmth, and yeast – as if a Danish bakery had been transported to the tropics.
The rabbi and I sat down on old-fashioned high-back chairs at a substantial table that could have fit a dozen more of us.
“You were able to excuse yourself from your commitments?” the rabbi asked.
“Yes.” I looked at him. “You expected me to come?”
“It’s beshert,” he said. “You were meant to come.”
“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.”
“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?” I asked.
“Praised be ha-Shem, no. He died of natural causes the day after Passover ended 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’s been a kind of 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.”
“Your grandfather thought your father should go to a great American university. We Jews are minnows in a sea. Your grandfather thought your father should understand the ocean as well as the fish.”
“So he went to Harvard and then went his own way?”
“It might be best if your grandfather explained.”
When we entered the living room, 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-motion wave. The members of the prayer circle stepped back and filed past me. On their way out of the room, each shook my hand and nodded gravely. The last man called me “Reb Kalman.”
The bed itself must have been oversized. The emaciated figure in it stretched at least a few inches 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. 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.
“I am Alex,” I said.
He look right at me through dark, almost black, eyes and whispered, “Aron.”
A few 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. Was I his namesake, too?
“Yes,” he squeezed my hand.
He squeezed again. “Your mother was killed in the car crash.”
“Yes, and then?”
“Chaim 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. It didn’t matter to him which. He left this house with you. He 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. Dad 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 do you want to see me now?”
He raised his free hand. “I am ninety-four and about to die. It is 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 have broken a vow to your father.”
“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?”
“Yes,” I said. What else could I say to him? He was dying. Besides, saying you are ready is different than saying you will.
Before turning to writing full time, Keith Raffel watched over the CIA, supported himself at the racetrack, founded a software company, taught writing to Harvard freshmen, ran for Congress, and sold DNA sequencing to medical researchers. He lives in Palo Alto. “Temple Mount” is his fifth novel. www.keithraffel.com.
Works may be submitted to fiction editor Ilana DeBare at firstname.lastname@example.org or poetry editor Joan Gelfand at email@example.com. Fiction excerpts may run up to 2,500 words, but only 800 words will appear in the print edition, with the rest appearing online. All prose and poetry published to date can be viewed at jweeklylit.wordpress.com.