By Pete Philipps
Hands cupped around a glass of tea, Jakob Herz surveyed the scene from his sixth-floor window with wry satisfaction. The few languid flakes he’d seen the first time he got up during the night had turned into a heavy snowfall—the first since the death of his wife had persuaded him to give up the house they had lived in for nearly 50 years and move to this apartment. It’s someone else’s turn to shovel, he mused, and got up to answer the phone.
“Is everything all right, Pop?” the wife of his middle son wanted to know.
“What should be wrong?”
“I mean, do you have everything you need? They’re predicting a major blizzard.”
“Plenty, including toilet paper.”
“Very funny. Please take care of yourself, Pop.”
“Everything’s under control. If only my damn paper would come.”
“You know it will only depress you, Pop. Stay home and relax. Don’t do anything foolish.”
“Don’t worry,” he said and bid his daughter-in-law good-bye. He looked again for his newspaper, but it still hadn’t arrived. He slammed the door shut, got dressed, and went down to the empty lobby. No sign of the doorman; nor had the sidewalk been cleared. He would call the building manager. He went back upstairs and was still fumbling with the keys when he heard his phone. One of the boys, he thought, and rushed inside. But it was the rabbi to inform him that Saturday’s Bar Mitzvah had been postponed.
“The boy’s grandparents were coming from New York and, as you probably heard, La Guardia and Kennedy are closed.”
Jakob hadn’t heard. “In that case we can use the little chapel tonight.”
The rabbi said that if the snow didn’t let up there might be no need to open the synagogue. “No one will come.”
“Have we ever not held services on a Friday night?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Well, I’m going,” said Jakob.
“Jake, this is no weather for you to venture outdoors.”
“I can handle it, Rabbi.”
“I know you can Jake, but what would be the point if no one shows up?”
Jakob broke out in perspiration. He took off his cardigan and wiped his forehead. “You know we always get a few regulars. I’ll be OK.”
“Anyone who comes would understand if you aren’t there. On a night like this—”
Jakob interrupted. “I’ve been through worse, Rabbi. Besides, the streets may be cleared by then.”
“In this city? Not likely. I may not be able to get there myself.”
“You’re coming from the suburbs, Rabbi. I can walk.”
“I wish you wouldn’t take the risk, Jake.”
“What about the mourners? We have a long yahrzeit list this week.”
There was a long pause before the rabbi said, “Surely God would understand.”
Jakob promised the rabbi to check back later in the day and hung up. He went into his minuscule kitchen and turned on the radio. Even his favorite classical music station was breaking into its regular schedule with bulletins on the storm. Schools were closed and all but essential workers were being sent home. Accumulations of as much as two feet were expected before the storm blew itself out over the Atlantic.
Jakob made himself another glass of tea and went back to the window. He studied the sky. If he stayed home people would think he was sick—maybe had another heart attack. On the other hand, going out was taking a risk—he could fall and break something. How hard even simple decisions were without Fanny. Not that he didn’t know what she would have said: “Jakob, on such a night you will not set one foot outside the door!”
A minute later his mind was made up. He was damned if he was going to let a little snow make him a prisoner in his own home. It simply was a question of dressing properly. With that he began a mental list: an extra sweater, his heavy parka, the scarf Fanny had knitted for him, the Russian hat with earflaps, fur-lined gloves, thick socks, galoshes, and his inhaler. When he had laid everything out on the bed, he added a flashlight.
Several times during the afternoon Jakob tried to call the rabbi, but the circuits were always busy. At four o’clock he still had not heard from his sons. Would it kill them to check on their father? On second thought, they probably couldn’t get through either. It was time for his nap. Certain he would wake if the phone rang, he stretched out under the afghan Fanny had made for him for his 75th birthday and closed his eyes.
At seven, rested and fortified by a bowl of leftover pea soup and two fingers of slivovitz, Jakob exam- ined himself in the hall mirror and rang for the elevator. In the lobby, four women looked up from their knitting, but he had no time to get into a conversation and merely nodded. “His wife, may she rest in peace, should only know,” he heard one of the women say as he passed. Still no sign of the doorman; he’d forgotten to call the manager. Jakob pushed open the thick glass door and was greeted by a blast of frigid air that almost cost him his balance. He wrapped the scarf around his mouth the way Fanny used to tell him and stepped into the street.
The snow was deeper than he had expected. There were no footprints to follow. By the time he got to the first corner he was short of breath and wheezing. No one was about. Abandoned cars were everywhere. Except for an occasional siren the city was eerily still. He looked up expectantly at each of the few cars that managed to slog past, but he might as well have been invisible. His hands and feet were getting numb. Another two blocks and he would be on the main thoroughfare; from there the going would be easier.
He resumed walking, barely able to see through the wind-driven snow. There was a mailbox at the next corner, he remembered; he would lean against it and take a short rest. But he lost his footing before he could get there and fell flat on his back. “Nothing broken,” he said in the darkness. “Thank God.” He tried to get up, but it was as if some strange force over which he had no control kept him pinned to the ground. For a moment he saw himself shoveling snow again under the oversight of the Kapo, the Ukrainian with a habit of punctuating his commands with a truncheon. Already beyond endurance, Jakob couldn’t work fast enough to satisfy the sadistic brute. Several times he had fallen in an exhausted heap, overcome with pain, the will to live ebbing with each blow.
The horn of an emergency vehicle brought the present rushing back. He groped around until he found the flashlight, but it was dead. He struggled to his feet, found his bearings, and pushed on. He hated being late. At last he rounded the last corner, stopped, and gaped—the stainless steel obelisk in front of the entrance, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, was unlit. The caretaker didn’t make it, he thought. Good thing he had a set of keys; he had insisted on it years ago. He patted the reassuring bulge in his pocket and willed his legs on.
When he was within 20 yards he saw that the entryway was deserted. Nobody was waiting. Not a soul. The circular drive was unplowed. Foot-high drifts blocked the three massive oak doors. Under a single mercury vapor lamp, the empty parking lot glistened like a glacier. It was all Jakob could do to keep from sinking to his knees. A rivulet of sweat ran down his spine. In the darkness, the hulking granite building resembled his old synagogue on Kristallnacht.
Part of him said he should turn back and go home. Maybe the rabbi was right. On the other hand, he had come this far.... Jakob took two puffs from his inhaler, waited for his wheezing to subside, and went to work. In a few minutes he had brushed enough snow from the center door to squeeze past. Inside the only illumination came from the exit signs in the lobby. Above the Ark, the ner tamid, the eternal light, cast a fragile glow over the first row of plush mauve seats. He switched on a bank of lights. The sanctuary had never looked so cavernous. He raised the thermostat to 75 and went back to the lobby. Weary, his eyes half-lidded, he found a chair and sat down.
By nine o’clock, an hour past the usual starting time, Jakob resigned himself to the futility of waiting longer. Something, though, would not let him leave. He knew what had to be done—had known it all along. Slowly and with small steps lest his knees give way, he walked down the center aisle, ascended the three steps to the Ark, and opened the heavy brass doors. The sight of the seven Torahs, each dressed in a different multihued cover, made him feel inches shorter. He waited until he had collected himself and recited the Shema. Then he closed the Ark again, carefully descended the steps backward in the respectful manner of the rabbi, and approached the cantor’s lectern. From the list in his pocket he began to read. “Mildred Adelsohn...Charles Anderman...David Bloomenthal...” and so on, until he came to “Frederick Weiler and Dr. Alfred Young.” Finally came the names of four congregants who had been laid to rest that week. By now Jakob was hoarse. He popped a lozenge into his mouth, discreetly, as though the eyes of the entire congregation were on him, and recited kaddish.
The idea was heaven-sent, of that much Jakob was certain. Why else would it have popped into his head on Yom Kippur, minutes before the final blast of the shofar signaled the end of the all-day service? Before he died and was reunited with Fanny, he would perform a final mitzvah, a special good deed that would be pleasing in the sight of God. Not that anything was wrong with him, but at his age.... He left the thought unfinished. Pleased with his brainstorm—and tickled that he had once again defied his doctor by fasting all day—he left the synagogue in high spirits.
Two weeks later Jakob began to fret; he still had not determined how to keep his commitment. All sorts of ideas came to him at night, ideas that in the morning seemed trivial. Once he decided to call up his sons and ask them for suggestions, then changed his mind. What did they know about mitzvahs? Another time he started to dial the rabbi’s number but stopped himself. “What are you trying to prove?” he could hear the rabbi ask. Jakob was used to the question; his friends had been asking the same thing since he’d appointed himself head usher of the synagogue. Why would a sane person take on such a thankless job, let alone someone his age? Jakob never obliged them with an answer. He doubted that even Fanny knew what had led him to the decision. “What a nice idea, Dear,” was all she had said. “But shouldn’t you wait until you sell the business?”
“I won’t start until you’re fully recovered,” he promised.
Jakob asked the doctor to repeat the diagnosis and sank slowly into a chair. Better he should have died in the camp. He held his head in both hands. “What are her chances?”
“Difficult to say.” The doctor took off his rimless glasses and used his handkerchief to wipe them. “I recommend we begin treatment right away.”
Jakob nodded. “I want to call my sons.” He rose halfway from the chair and fell back again. “Would it be all right if one of them calls you so you can explain this non, non—”
“Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” the doctor repeated.
Jakob tried but couldn’t make the words leave his mouth. He mumbled his thanks, started to rise, and passed out.
That Friday Jakob went to synagogue. No point in calling his sons, he told himself; they would find some reason to beg off. A few people recognized him and looked surprised; they were accustomed to seeing Fanny at services by herself. Early in their courtship Jakob had confided to her that his belief in God went up in ashes, along with the ashes of the Jews he’d seen being led to their deaths. “How can we continue to praise a God who could have stopped what was happening but didn’t?” he’d asked.
“God was present in the camps in every tiny act of human kindness,” she had replied. “God was within every Jew who shared a piece of bread, in every mother and father who comforted a child on the way to the gas chamber.”
Jakob envied those who could believe. He couldn’t. Even now he felt like a stranger. The prayers, though familiar, rang hollow.
After a while Jakob started to notice certain things. People got up in the middle of the rabbi’s sermon and walked out of the sanctuary. Directly behind him two couples carried on an animated conversation. Three pews in front of him two teenagers were necking. Other teens were changing seats with stunning frequency. The woman on his right was chewing gum. By the end of the service Jakob had made a solemn vow: If Fanny beat the odds and recovered, he would volunteer to become the synagogue’s full-time usher for as long as he lived.
After six weeks of radiation therapy and four cycles of chemotherapy, her doctors gave Fanny only a 50 percent chance of living another year—provided she finished the course. The chemotherapy, one week of medicine followed by three weeks of rest, so devastated her that her doctors doubted she’d have the strength. But Fanny not only endured but also began to rally.
And so it came to pass that Jakob became a synagogue fixture. Squat, bald, and impeccably dressed in a dark-blue, double-breasted blazer, he stood at the entrance of the sanctuary before each Sabbath service and handed out copies of the weekly bulletin. Soon he knew most congregants by name. He thought of everything—matches for the candles, wine for the cantor’s kiddush blessing, that every seat had the correct prayer book. He tested the finicky sound system and adjusted the thermostat, tinkering with the setting as if he were at the controls of a jumbo jet. He patrolled the aisles like a movie matron from a bygone era. “This is a house of worship!” he repeatedly reminded people, from disorderly teenagers to board members talking above a whisper. After a year, impressed by the decorum he had achieved, the board proposed to give Jakob a modest gratuity. He wouldn’t hear of it, not then and not six years later, when Fanny died of viral pneumonia and the board offered to put him on the payroll.
Jakob opened his eyes. The pain in his chest was gone. He seemed to be strapped to a narrow bed; everything around him shook and swayed. The only light came from a dim fixture over his head. In the distance he heard a muffled siren. All at once he realized he was in an ambulance.
“Where are you taking me?”
A man in a white jacket leaned over him and said he would be all right. “We’re giving you some oxygen, Jakob. Try not to talk.”
Jakob nodded and thought, I’m 83 and he calls me by my first name. “Are you taking me home?”
He felt a hand on his arm. “Just try to relax, Jakob.” This time it was a woman’s voice. “We’re almost there.”
He wondered who would say kaddish for him.
“I’m sorry, Jakob. Did you say something?” The woman put her ear close to his mouth. She was sucking on a mint.
He remained silent.
“Please try not to talk, OK?”
Jakob said OK. He closed his eyes and moistened his lips. With an effort he played the night over in his head, retracing every step before the blackness. At last he remembered and a weak smile flickered across his face. Surely, God was pleased.
©2011, Pete Philipps. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.