The old cantor and the new rabbi were to meet in the lunchroom behind the office wing of Congregation Beth Tzedek, the House of the Righteous. There was no empty office for the new rabbi, Jacob Kleck, to occupy, so the plan was to split the cantor’s office into two new but smaller rooms. It was unfortunate that only one of the new offices could possess the single window of the old room; the other would be windowless.
The cantor intended to keep the window.
For over four decades, Cantor Samuel Krakowski had shared his office with no one; his books were stacked in irresponsible heaps on the floor, and his music sheets spilled over the congregation’s piano. The cantor was a gray, fluttery bird and hardly pushy. On too many occasions in the past, he had felt nudged aside by the congregation’s rabbis.
At his wife, Sophie’s, urging, the cantor had consulted with Rabbi Irving Lishner in the senior rabbi’s plush study. They had been colleagues for over twenty-five years.
“Irv, you and I need an understanding,” the cantor whispered. “I’m too old for this. I feel squeezed out. At least I should keep my window.”
“I’m going to leave it to you two, Sam,” Rabbi Lishner said. “I’m sure our new Rabbi Kleck will be reasonable.”
“I can’t agree, Irv. Kleck is hardly shy. And his opinion of me? Well. My Sophie had the Klecks to dinner. There at the dinner table, Mrs. Kleck had called her husband Jake. ‘Jake, pass me some bread,’ is what she said. So I asked, ‘Rabbi, may I call you Jacob?’ I told him I preferred to be called Sam, that even the children called me Cantor Sam.”
The cantor shifted in his chair to momentarily relieve the pain in his back brought on by his confession to Rabbi Lishner.
“Do you know what Kleck said?” Krakowski related. “‘Actually, Cantor, I would think it better if we addressed each other by our titles.’ Imagine that, Irv. A younger man I have to formally address.”
Rabbi Lishner’s elbows sat on the desktop, his arms forming a triangle of repose with his fingertips touching together under the rabbinical chin.
“You’ll work it out. After all, Kleck has taken the Hebrew classes off your shoulders. Remember, Sam, you complained that you were too old to work with the young kids anymore. And remember the Shulkin affair.”
The mention of the Shulkin affair made Krakowski wince. In the course of the preparation for his bar mitzvah, the Shulkin kid—whom the cantor found rude, stupid, and unteachable—had called him a name to his face. “Cantor Crackpotsky,” the kid had said, and Krakowski had refused to work with him despite Rabbi Lishner’s desperate pleading. In this regard, the cantor simply refused to be the politician, and in a rage, the Shulkins had quit the congregation. The Shulkins had been generous donors.
“So what did I do when bar mitzvahs became too much for you?” Rabbi Lishner said. “I hired a new rabbi. That’s why we’re making room for Rabbi Kleck—to lessen your burdens, Sam. Don’t forget.”
Rabbi Lishner rose to end the discussion and said, “I know the arrangements are far from perfect, but until the congregation raises money for a new wing, we will have to make do.”
The cantor sighed at the carefully pronounced “we,” and then he fell silent as he glanced about the chief rabbi’s suite. Rabbi Lishner sat behind a medieval refractory table, a deliciously carved, walnut antique that served as his desk. Rich Persian rugs poured across polished wooden floors in a room five times the size of the space that Krakowski would have to share with Rabbi Kleck. Chartreuse bamboo leaves rubbed musically against glass doors leading to a small, outer meditation garden surrounding a small goldfish pond.
As always, talking to Rabbi Lishner made the cantor feel as if he were shrinking. He became aware that his blue polyester jacket was worn, that the fabric of the coat cuffs had unraveled. Indeed, the cantor’s wrists seemed to stick out of a confusion of loose threads that resembled dried-out grass on a sunburned lawn. Thinking about his coming meeting with Kleck, who insisted on titles and on being called Rabbi, made the cantor feel dried out too.
* * *
In the Congregation Beth Tzedek lunchroom, the dishes and coffee cups had been pushed away, and the remodeling plans for the cantor’s room were spread out on a Formica table flanked by three metal folding chairs. Pushpins attached a large lithograph depicting the tablets of the Ten Commandments carved in Hebrew to the beige wall. To the left of a sink, a Mr. Coffee machine sat on the counter between two microwave ovens. Xeroxed instructions were taped to the wall over each microwave; the one designated for meat bore the picture of a T-bone steak. The other machine, pasted with a picture of a milk bottle, was used exclusively to warm dairy products.
Dark and bearded, Rabbi Kleck sat in one of the chairs next to Krakowski. Kleck’s arms were crossed, his pudgy legs in an open stance, as his eyes shifted from the shabbier and older cantor to the remodeling plans that lay between them. Both men wore round, black skullcaps. They waited for Alper, the construction contractor, to join them.
Krakowski turned the drawing upside down and then back as he gazed at it. He had once attempted to assemble a model airplane with his son, Adam, but had found the directions incomprehensible.
“It appears there are now two windows,” Cantor Krakowski said as, mistaking inside for outside, he pointed at the sketch of the two new internal doors.
Rabbi Kleck shook his head and said, “Can’t be.” He moved his chair closer to the drawings on the table. “If you look at the plans for the construction of the wall, Cantor, the windowless portion would be closer to the restroom, no?”
Rabbi Kleck understood the plans no better than his older colleague.
“I think not,” said Krakowski. “It’s the other way around.”
“I wonder where Alper has disappeared to?” Rabbi Kleck said. “That Alper’s kid, Simon, that’s a wild one. Last week I had to throw Simon out of Hebrew class, I’m afraid.”
Cantor Krakowski had already heard the story. Alper’s middle son, Simon, known to be the hellion of the family and no student, had been ejected from Hebrew class by Rabbi Kleck. His offense was so great that neither Simon nor the rabbi had been willing to tell Mrs. Alper the reason for Simon’s ouster when she had come to the synagogue to pick up her by-then wilted son.
Krakowski attempted to get Rabbi Kleck back to the discussion of who would get the windowed office.
“I’m sure Alper will expect us to make up our minds as to who needs the room with the window,” the cantor said. “There are two office spaces; there is one window. There are two of us. I have a piano; you have a desk. I need to practice and sing, while you need to write.”
Rabbi Kleck adjusted his glasses with both hands, a gesture not lost on the clear-eyed Krakowski. Then Kleck said, “Cantor, my eyes need the light. You seemed blessed at your age with better eyes than my younger set.” Kleck sniffed for emphasis.
The cantor acknowledged this statement with a bow and replied, “It is the vision of my soloists, not mine, that is of my concern.” The cantor had the job of directing the congregation’s choir, who performed each year at New Year services.
Strolling around the table to the sink, Krakowski found a cup that he carefully washed.
“Coffee, Rabbi?” he offered. Kleck shook his bearded head from side to side. The cantor continued, “Perhaps the contractor can divide the window equally—in the great tradition of Solomon—between our two rooms.”
“Can’t be done,” Rabbi Kleck stated flatly. “Rabbi Lishner says that division costs as much as building a new window.”
So, Krakowski thought, Kleck has been fishing in Rabbi Lishner’s bamboo fishpond.
“On the other hand,” Rabbi Kleck proposed, “a seasonal exchange between us would make some sense. I’ll take the room in the summer through the New Year holidays in the fall, and you use it during the winter and spring.”
The building lacked air conditioning, and the cantor knew that the bulky rabbi would want to be refreshed by an open window in the heat of a summer’s day.
With an absent-minded gesture as if he had forgotten something, Cantor Krakowski went over to the cupboard and extracted a cookie tin. He handed it to Rabbi Kleck.
Then the cantor said, “My wife, Sophie’s, strudel. Try one; they’re fabulous, really.”
It did sound as if Kleck was attempting to be reasonable, but something troubled the cantor about the young rabbi’s attitude. His insufferableness at dinner, that haughty tone, and “I prefer to be called Rabbi” even while breaking bread in the Cantor’s home, was too much. It made it impossible for the cantor to even consider the offer.
The rabbi nodded thanks and carefully peered into the container as he selected a cherry-, nut-, and raisin-flecked morsel. Then he repeated with a note of impatience.
“What about the rotation, Cantor?”
Krakowski shrugged. “Of course at my age, moving a piano is no small thing.” He paused, looked down at the plans, and continued, “It appears that the doorway is smaller than the piano, in any event.”
Clad in jeans and a blue work shirt open at the neck, Alper entered the lunchroom. His skullcap was firmly fastened to his hair with a bobby pin; this kept it perched on his head. He looked as if he had just completed a massive physical feat; his lips and forehead were dimpled with perspiration, and his big hands, usually at his sides, were jammed into his pockets.
“Rabbi. Cantor Sam.” He barely nodded to both. “I know we need to get to work here, but I can’t until we can clear the air about something.”
Alper sat down on one of the folding chairs across the table from Rabbi Kleck. Usually Alper was a man of energy and few words. Now he struggled to speak as he stared at the table.
“It’s about my son, Simon, my Simon. Rabbi, I need to get Simon back into your Hebrew class, or else he won’t be able to finish training for his bar mitzvah. It is humiliating that I must discuss my son now, but I can’t work until this is settled.”
“Really, Alper,” the rabbi said. “This is not the place or time to have this conversation.”
The rabbi looked at Cantor Krakowski, who sat silently just as he had done the day before while Alper had measured his office for the construction of the wall and simultaneously vented about Rabbi Kleck’s decision to expel his Simon from Hebrew class.
“Cantor Sam,” Alper had confided, “I don’t get along all that well with Kleck anyway. Maybe you could just talk him into letting my Simon back in. You could help me a great deal.”
Alper had stared at the office’s lone window as he had spoken; his look had not been lost on the cantor.
“I really can’t, Alper.” Krakowski had raised both hands, his wrists cocked in open confession. “I’m sure you would agree that the issue must be resolved between Rabbi Kleck and Simon. That’s where the problem arose, and that’s where it must end. What did Simon do to get thrown out?”
“I don’t have any idea,” Alper had said. “Rabbi Kleck refused to tell my wife. And Simon says if the rabbi won’t talk, he is not about to.” Alper had scratched his head. “You know I spoke to Rabbi Kleck. That man is stubborn; he won’t reverse his decision. He told me so.”
“We, the three of us—you, me, and Rabbi Kleck—are meeting tomorrow to talk about the room and the window,” the cantor had mused. “Perhaps you can approach the subject of Simon’s readmission then.”
That was why Alper raised the subject of Simon when he entered the lunchroom to meet with Kleck and Krakowski.
“At the very least, Rabbi,” Alper asked, “can’t you tell me why my son is so bad that he cannot be bar mitzvahed?”
Rabbi Kleck spoke in low, even notes, as if he were pronouncing judgment.
“Here is why. Simon blasphemed the Torah. He committed blasphemy.”
“Blasphemy?” Alper said. “What does that mean, ‘blasphemy’? I swear all the time. Really, Rabbi, they’re just kids. Twelve-year-olds, for Pete’s sake. Just a couple of words here and there. Punishment, yes. But termination from bar mitzvah training? That’s too strong. It punishes the whole family.”
Rabbi Kleck crossed his arms again, and his suit, too tight for his plump body, strained at the sides.
“I considered that, Alper. I truly did. But under the circumstances, I cannot agree to let Simon return, and that’s final.”
“Cantor Sam,” Alper appealed, “will you tell me? Shouldn’t I be told what happened, what my Simon said?”
Krakowski’s head swung from Alper to Kleck, as if he were the net umpire at a tennis match.
“Yes, well, Rabbi,” the cantor said, “I think it will help us to get back to business if you would explain a bit. After all, we are here to decide on our offices. Why don’t you tell Alper what Simon said? Then hopefully we can return to the subject of our meeting.”
Rabbi Kleck wiped his lips and mustache with two fingers of his right hand.
“All right. All right,” the rabbi said. “I was working with Simon and the Epstein boy. Ernie, I think, is the Epstein boy’s name. We were in the sanctuary. I had placed the Torah on the altar for the boys to practice reading, and I was opening the scrolls when Mrs. Gertler came in from the front office to tell me I had an unexpected phone call. It was my wife, so I had to leave for a few minutes.”
The rabbi stopped and frowned in an effort to accurately recall the facts.
“When I came back into the sanctuary, Simon was still up at the Torah with the Epstein boy, and they were laughing. Simon had his hands—no, his fingers—sticking between the rolls of the Torah, and the two of them were laughing. So they didn’t hear me come in.”
Rabbi Kleck stood up and cleared his throat. “I heard Simon say something, Alper. I heard him say that sticking his fingers between the rolls of the Torah was like sticking his fingers in a woman’s private parts.”
“‘Private parts’? What parts?” Alper was fairly shouting. “What are you talking about, Rabbi?” Alper was standing up, across the table from Rabbi Kleck.
“Rabbi,” Cantor Krakowski said, “I am puzzled too. What did Simon say? What were the words he used, Rabbi?”
Rabbi Kleck shut his eyes.
“Twat. The boy said ‘twat.’” The sound of the word coming from Rabbi Kleck’s lips was like the sound of a bullfrog croaking under a full moon. “To-at. To-at.”
Beads of sweat gathered on the rabbi’s forehead as he continued, “I heard Simon say that sticking his fingers in between the rolls of the Torah was like sticking his fingers into a woman’s ‘to-at.’”
For one minute, no one uttered a sound, and then Alper said, “Well…so.” Then he stopped.
The cantor and the rabbi stood there in silence, first looking at each other and then looking at the plans on the table, which lay there open and still.
“I don’t know about the two of you,” the cantor whispered, “but I need a glass of water.”
Krakowski really had nothing to say. After all, the Shulkin affair—“Cantor Crackpotsky”—was nothing compared to this.
Alper was trying to compose a statement that would get his Simon reinstated.
“I have to agree that if had I been there, I…I would have been upset,” Alper began. “In fact, I am upset, as much as Rabbi Kleck.”
Then he trailed off. His speech was getting him nowhere. He looked lost. Alper shrugged his shoulders and then collapsed in silence back into the folding chair, which took his weight with a metallic groan of sorrow.
As Krakowski stood at the sink, he thought about the Shulkin kid and Alper’s son, Simon. Kleck and I are not so different, then. Just as inflexible, just as stubborn. Both he and Kleck had hidden so much shyness under their skullcaps. They were no athletes and couldn’t snatch a ball from the air. Couldn’t even read a building plan.
Krakowski tried to take it all in. He would try to be like Rabbi Lishner on this one: appear to be concerned for both of them while working to get what he wanted. It made Krakowski feel sad to think like this, but he could not help it.
“Rabbi,” Krakowski said, “shouldn’t the boy be allowed to apologize if he is genuinely sorry? Shouldn’t he be allowed to continue his training outside your class?”
Rabbi Kleck was slow to speak, the cantor thought.
“Yes, I may agree to that proposition,” the rabbi said. “Some other rabbi could work with him. But there really is no way to train Simon in time, in any event. That Simon is not much of a student, right, Alper?”
Krakowski poured a paper cup full and drank it all. A window was such a little structure in the great scheme of things. The water was cool and clear but with just a little aftertaste of metallic bitterness. He set the empty cup down on the counter.
“I would be willing to try with Simon, Rabbi,” Krakowski said. “With, of course, your blessing and that of Alper.”
“You?” said Kleck. “You? Even after the Shulkin affair?”
So, Krakowski thought, Rabbi Lishner has gossiped to Kleck about the Shulkin kid. The cantor readied a response. But Alper saved him.
“Shulkin schmulkin!” the contractor cried. “Who cares? Simon will write a full apology to Rabbi Kleck this afternoon. I guarantee it. What do you say, Rabbi? Will that be enough?”
Rabbi Kleck looked overheated. His eyes swept the plans on the table looking for a miracle, a vision of two windows, but the drawing continued to reveal only the existing single aperture.
“Well,” he sighed, “I really don’t have much choice.” His beard drifted downward past his collar and sank toward his chest.
“Then should we return to the room design?” the cantor asked.
Rabbi Kleck retreated. “Perhaps, Alper, you can divide the window equally—in the great tradition of Solomon?”
“Sorry, Rabbi,” Alper answered. “Not with the budget the board of trustees has given me. That’s actually a pretty pricey piece of carpentering. Besides, then the rooms wouldn’t be the same size.”
The cantor asked softly, “Alper, can the piano be moved in and out of the new doorways?” The cantor’s voice shook ever so slightly, as he was afraid that anything he said might block this little notch of opportunity.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” Alper said. “As you know, Cantor Sam, I just measured your door yesterday. It’s none too wide. And turning a piano in the hall would be impossible.”
Sensing that his chance for the window was disappearing, Kleck looked up quickly at Alper, but the contractor wisely kept his eyes on the drawings, turning them about with his right hand as if to give one more consideration to the problem while stroking his chin with his left hand. Then he shook his head with finality.
“I’d have to redesign the whole hallway, actually,” Alper said. “Once that piano is in a room, it had better remain there. Does that help?”
Krakowski saw that it was two against one, the Shulkin affair or not. And Rabbi Kleck must know it, too, he thought.
“I’ll take the office with no window,” Rabbi Kleck said to the floor. Then he looked up. “I know you’ll enjoy the window, Cantor—Sam.”
The cantor heard “Sam” from the Rabbi’s lips for the first time. Possibilities loomed in his head. He would prove Lishner wrong. He would show them all. Krakowski imagined young Simon Alper practicing his singing of the Torah blessings in the new office, Simon standing under the window, the sounds floating out to the street. Maybe the boy would be a soloist someday. The cantor saw himself and Rabbi Kleck together filling the synagogue with powerful prayers accompanied by soaring music. Perhaps the New Year would bring other changes as well, changes blowing into the room through a single open window. He felt new again, ready.
“Thank you, Rabbi.” Krakowski beamed. “This is most considerate of you, most considerate indeed. Maybe a rotation can be worked out if we just put our minds to it.”
He reached out and grasped Kleck’s pudgy hand in his own.
“What do you say, Rabbi—Jacob, that is—if I may call you Jacob, Rabbi?”
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