“Saturn forces you to finally
cut all this childish crap
and man the boat.”
“When Thou sendest him away, Thou dost contend with him.”
“This is a blessing before he reads the Haftarah, from the book of the prophets…”
“Blessed oh Lord, our G_d…Who has relieved us of responsibility for this boy.”
“Says right here in the program. See, the Haftarah follows the Torah…the Torah’s the Law in our world.”
As best I can recollect how this all went down, Sydney Mendel had blown in from Telluride via Aspen well behind schedule, the trailing wind of an abrupt change in weather that had dusted the Rockies’ Front Range with two to four more inches of overnight powder, and snarled Stapleton Airport traffic for miles and hours. My charge—with Melissa’s backseat guidance—was to return the three of us to Boulder via U.S.36 before the morning slid away. Syd’s excess luggage strained baggage claim. Her mood ranged from stormy to frantic to rapt, depending upon stop-and-go progress toward her special visitational surprise: a distant cousin’s only son’s bar mitzvah, which the partially plowed turnpike delivered us unto with precious few minutes to spare. My best hope had been to sit by with the Toyota’s motor running, these holy recitations drowned out by some old eight-track Buddy Miles. But there would be no such salvation, Sydney being Moon’s former sister-in-law, this being Melissa’s car, if not her surprisingly uneasy reckoning.
“I’m still trying to figure out what’s that black thing all strapped around the kid’s head and arm,” I shifted bun to bun on the polished wooden bench.
“Tsk, that thing is his prayer tefillin, professor,” Sydney replied sternly. “Those little leather boxes bound onto his head and arm contain Shema and other biblical passages, to harness his intellect, emotions and actions in service of G_d. Wearing it and reading from the Torah’s all part of how he officially becomes a man—see, donning the tefillin, the whole glorious ceremony, bestows upon Aaron the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.”
“Hey, sorry…but it’s not like I’ve ever been in one of these places before,” I caved, “it’s not exactly my area of…expertise.”
Sydney’s special surprise had taken us to Boulder’s then southeastern fringe at the time. At the time, El-Bethel was a small, white brick solid temple standing its relatively level ground amid a rolling mesa crop of protestant prim ranch houses and mid-rise college dorms, several blocks removed from turnpike’s end. Inside, the temple exuded an air of solemn strength and implacable unity greatly beyond its physical dimension—a synagogue growing stronger and fuller, more resolute by the day, devoted to casting a much larger imprint on the community at large.
Pews, window coverings, walls and woodwork were uniformly beige, shades of a junior high school auditorium or so. Yet singularly radiant was the pulpit-crowning Ark—a broad, miter-arched, inlaid gold repository harboring the Law of Tefillin, its outer surface venerating God’s kinship and the Exodus from Egypt in colorful mosaic panels. Before the Ark and a tall brass menorah stood El-Bethel’s teddy bearish, sparsely bearded rabbi, and a pubescently fleshy youth who had just wrestled mightily with, and read from, the Torah scroll, one arm all but tied to his side.
“This is a happy day for me, the happiest day of my life,” Aaron Kavalla closed a hand-tooled Haftarah cover, smiling toward the community cantor just finishing ‘Avodat Hakodesh’. Once Rabbi Hirshhorn, who’d guided through the tefillin and prayers, handed Aaron his seudat cup, the bar mitzvah boy stepped bashfully beside the red velvet-draped bimah to unfold a yellow tablet sheet and spread it across a small podium.
“He’s a rat,” Sydney hissed. “That’s what he is.”
“I have now passed from the world of childhood to manhood. I can bear the holy burden of our religion,” Aaron read from scribbled notes, fussing with his black leather tefillin straps and prayer boxes as his eyes repeatedly searched the synagogue, row by row.
“If the shirking bastard had any decency, he’d be by his son’s side…” She whispered her running commentary between Melissa’s and my shoulders, leaning in from one pew removed. “Martin Kavalla could be here giving the Father’s Blessing and laying the tefillin. But the creep never took responsibility for his kid in the first place. That’s why he doesn’t have the balls to show up now.”
“What parents do for their children is more important than all things else,” young Aaron choked up, tugging at his Hershey brown suit and the white silk tallis tasseled about his shoulders. He smiled toward his beaming mother—seated front row, center—then zeroed in on the motionless rear doors. “I think the most fitting reward and token of gratitude I can offer is to fulfill this commandment: To honor thy mother and…thy…father…”
“What makes it even worse is the putz won’t cut the cord and give Lorraine the divorce she’s been begging for since he ran out. So he’s, like, making an agunah out of her because it’s the same as if he won’t give her a get.”
“Gotcha,” I nodded and tsked toward Moon, as if I actually knew what this unfamiliar life force was talking about.
“It’s tragic, that’s what it is.” Sydney clearly was still grating over the bumper thumper that had backed us up near Broomfield. “Here Aaron’s struggling to become a man,” she said, as the congregation rose to bestow its collective Jewish blessing. “With such a miserable weakling excuse for a father figure.”
“Man? The kid’s what, thirteen,” I said out the corner of my mouth, sneaking my own peek at those temple doors, then an uneasily silent Melissa.
“Shhh, now he’s folding up his Aliyah notes…” Syd grabbed my shoulder as though she had known me just long enough to know I should have known better.
I didn’t know from Moses. The entire morning had been a spiritual occlusion—a tie-knotting, tire-spinning race against the mortal plane that landed me three rows away from sacred ritual so foreign to what little I had retained of my Herbert family religion, I was still groping for missalettes and kneeling pads more than halfway through the Torah. Sydney stifled me once more when the rabbi began extricating young Kavalla from his prayer tefillin. I sat coldly mystified throughout the unwinding of those black leather spiral wraps up his forearm, those slender coils from the teen’s left palm and middle finger, the meticulous final removal of tiny phlylacteries from his left bicep and forehead, then their gently replacement into a plum velvet pouch.
By the time Aaron shed his blue striped tallis, I was likening Syd’s shoulder grab to divine intervention, wisdom and insight imparted through a brightly Burning Bush. That much, I granted her, but not in so many words.
“Aaron specifically requested to do the orthodox tefillin thing, just to prove that he could,” she smiled. “Isn’t this a fantastically creative religion? So sure footed and innovatively challenging—yet so simple, beautiful…simply beautiful! Don’t you think it’s simply beautiful, Moon?”
“On a certain level,” Melissa allowed, muffling her response. “But it’s been awhile…”
“Can we start the seudat mitzvah now,” young Kavalla grinned, straightening his gold laced yarmulke, leading the rabbi down El-Bethel’s center aisle. With that, his mother and the small Shabbat congregation rushed to congratulate him.
“Seudat?” I held pat for some direction.
“Banquet,” Moon said discreetly. She looped my arm as we followed Sydney closely out the synagogue doors. “You know, the reception….”
“What…you’ve never told me about such things…I’ve never even thought of us this way.”
“Inspirational, positively inspirational—a 3,000-year-old ritual, I might add,” Syd zipped up her cardinal red ski jacket as we turned down a long canopied corridor, open on one side to chilling foothill winds, which led to the temple’s satellite reception hall. “He’ll turn out good, that one—his mother’s seeing to it. Not like his lecher old man…”
“So, where is this Martin guy,” I pulled earlobe-length hair out of my snowblown eyes.
“Tsk, Houston’s what I’ve heard,” Melissa cinched her sand tan wool dress-up coat tightly about her narrow waist. “I’m sure he has his reasons…”
“Rats don’t have reasons,” Sydney snapped, as we squeezed through the hall’s compact doorway. Her cheeks flushed brightly under her rouge as she glanced quizzically at Moon. “Only excuses…”
The seudat gatherers filed in along two rows of folding metal tables, some pausing to resorb Hanukkah candles and festive bunting that still filled wide expanses of the hall’s okra-tile and acoustic paneled cinderblock walls. Simply set, buffet style, the table stretched to a three cross-table spread of catered nosh before a modest assembly stage, centerpieced with a huge cut glass bowl of sparkling punch, small ceramic menorahs to either side. This is to where my eyes drifted, as the casual, relatively youthful congregation pressed Aaron Kavalla’s flesh in the receiving line.
“What I meant, Syd,” Melissa said softly, “is that a lot of time has passed…”
“Sorry, a man just doesn’t desert his loved ones,” Sydney stepped in front of me to make her point. “Especially not to chase some floozie half his age. It’s beyond me how Lorraine has managed. She had to move out here from Evanston just to get through it all.”
“She’s got to be one tough lady, all right,” Moon led me nearer to the man of honor, within whiffing distance of the nosh, seemingly still floored, small world-wise, that the Mendels had other family living in Boulder, albeit down towards Table Mesa. “Maybe a little too tough?”
“Oh, on Martin—poor baby,” Sydney huffed. “As if a woman can be too tough these days.”
“Uh, is that stuff for anybody,” I asked, as anxious to butt out of this conversation as I was to hit those tables before everything had been spread too thin. A forward third of the line was already poring over fat platters of Nova lox and holishkes; deep dishes of whitefish and cucumber salad; asides of shav, challah, gefilte kishka and kashen varnishkes; a sweet finish of Lokshen kugel, rugalach, plus assorted blintzes and varenikehs. I white-bread knew not what to make of any of this. Then again, it all looked so delish, and I hadn’t eaten anything since Stapleton’s B-Concourse vending machines.
“I’m only saying these things are usually more complicated than they appear,” Melissa said.
“Not when it comes to marriage,” Sydney dug into her down jacket for Aaron’s bar mitzvah cards. “That’s where the complications end…like they should have with Lester…”
“Now, now—let’s not start that,” Moon backstepped to let Sydney lead the way toward the Kavallas with two more silver embossed money holder, upping the ante on a small booty of gift talmuds and fountain pens. “But you know better than anyone that I speak from experience here…”
“Aaron, you little mensch you,” Sydney interrupted, tweaking the bar mitzvah boy’s cheek, then embracing her long-lost cousin. “Lor-raine, you must be so proud…”
“Sydney dear, you did make it in,” Lorraine Ridich-Kavalla smiled, a plain, rather zaftik brunette in motherly pink and pearls. “Faith called and said you were stranded in some avalanche or….”
“Not quite, but she and Daddo apologize to death for the no-show. Florida’s just so ridiculously far away,” Sydney pulled out and handed them two silver embossed money holders. “You recall Melissa, don’t you? Turns out she’s been living right here in Boulder, too. This is her…friend.”
“Of course,” Lorraine’s smile tightened, Aaron tapping his foot impatiently beside her to a soundtrack of Dan Fogelberg, now crooning, ‘Part of the Plan’. “Melissa dear, we’ve never heard from you or…”
“Lester’s not in Colorado, Lorraine,” Sydney abruptly ushered Moon and me toward the buffet. “You know him, he’ll never cross the Mississippi…”
“Pleased to meet you. But if you don’t mind, I’m headin’ for the eats,” I shook Aaron’s hand damply and nodded toward the platters. I also craved a moment to digest this first full morning’s rasher of Melissa’s spiritual sister, her artsy world-beating genius role model goddess of freedom and light, this high-speed car chase in ski togs with the cinnamon midwinter tan. Fighting off some fresh-brewed acidity, I went whole hog for the spread—sampling some kreplach and knishes, piling on the more safely familiar fare: a plateful of corned beef, deviled eggs and spinach squares, a little lemon-honey cake and two shmears of prune strudel. I loaded up on punch, then spotted Moon staking out three chairs directly across from seats reserved for Lorraine and Aaron’s bobbeh. A few breathless swallows of sparkling loganberry, and I was already searching for the doors.
“Just look at them,” Sydney sighed, joining Melissa, seating her to her left. “And tell me Martin Kavalla isn’t a cubic shlub for running off.”
“Cube…damn.” I angled up to rejoin them, sensing an opening, my plate folded over like a pocket pita. “Moon, that reminds me I promised the dean’s office I’d finalize class evaluations and clear out my cubicle before Monday.”
“Kenny, we just…”
“Really?” Sydney added, flapping her napkin. “Sucking up on Saturday, are we?”
“No choice, Dean Cross is busting my noogies as it is,” I figured all of us could stand a digestive break. At least over on campus, I could rebury myself in more empirically recognizable terrain. “Besides, I’m sure you two have plenty to talk about…”
“But the car…you’ve barely eaten,” said Melissa. “You know how you get when…”
“Keep it here. I’ll hike over for my clunker, down this as I go,” I brush kissed her hair blossom-scented hair, then buttoned my gray corduroy sport coat. “So not to worry. I’ll see you guys later at the house, OK? Say, how’s about I get you two some punch and stuff before…”
“We’ll manage,” Sydney replied frostily. “By all means, leave the gals to their hen party.”
Care for more?
Chapter 5. A snowy trudge across campus,
and this post-holiday tête à tête is missed, as is a
sisterly meeting of the minds…