One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross

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One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross

Harry Kemelman

IN CELEBRATION OF

The twenty-fifth of Ruth and George

The fifteenth of Arthur and Ziona

The tenth of Diane and Murray

And our own fiftieth anniversary

1

When at sixty-five, Barney Berkowitz decided to retire—why should only wage earners retire?—he sold his small chain of three Army and Navy stores, and entrusted the money, well over two million dollars, to a money management firm. Then, since his employees had not thought of it, he bought himself a gold watch and had the back engraved, “To our beloved B.B., on his retirement, from his grateful employees.”

As a person of means, he had always been involved somewhat in the temple in Barnard's Crossing; he had been a member of the Board of Directors for years, but never an officeholder. Whenever it was suggested that his name be put on the list of candidates he would shake his head, lowered and turned to one side, while at the same time wigwagging a hand to express complete negation. “No, boys, no. No honors for old B.B. I'll just stay in the background.” Holding office might mean getting involved with one faction or another, whereas he tended to think of himself as an independent, a kind of elder statesman giving advice to all factions.

A little potbellied man with a round head, which was balding and rimmed with sparse, mouse-colored hair, he made a point of going to the Saturday morning services just to show that he could even though his stores were open Saturdays. After his retirement, however, he would sometimes even drop in on the daily minyan. But it was the Saturday services that he particularly enjoyed, especially when a Bar Mitzvah was to be celebrated. He enjoyed mingling with the large crowds, the boy's relatives and friends who crowded the sanctuary on those occasions, and then retired to the vestry for the inevitable collation. It was on one such occasion, a particularly lavish one, that he found himself thinking of his own Bar Mitzvah. His father had taken him to the tenement that served as a house of prayer in their neighborhood. It was on a weekday, and he had gone to school immediately after. His father had whispered to the
shammes
who was in charge of running the service, and when his name was called during the reading of the Torah, he had gone up to the reading table and recited the blessings he had been taught by an itinerant rebbe. The passage from the Scroll was read by the official reader, after which he gave the second blessing. And that was all. He had not been taught to read the passage for himself, nor did he read the section from the Prophets. There was no party afterward. No celebration. His father, restive and glancing repeatedly at his watch, hurried him out as soon as the service was over, only nodding shortly to the two or three who wished him
mazel tov
, good luck. Then he went off to school and his father to his job.

That had been his Bar Mitzvah, and he had never been sure that he had actually undergone the rite. Had he really and truly been initiated into the tribe? Well, now he could settle the question once and for all. He would have a real Bar Mitzvah. He came to think of it as his Great Idea. A Bar Mitzvah that one could not possibly cavil at. In Jerusalem. At the Wall.

Characteristically, he went not to David Small, the rabbi of the congregation, but to Alvin Bergson, the president.

“Why don't you check it out with the rabbi?” asked Bergson.

“Well, I had in mind to have it done in Jerusalem, at the Wall, and since you're in the travel business …”

“I see.” Bergson was instantly alert. This was business. “When were you planning on going?”

“I thought maybe July.”

“July is a good time,” Bergson agreed. “And you'll be able to fly El Al direct from Boston then. So you'll want a ticket to Israel. And Mollie?”

“Of course.”

“So that's two round-trip tickets to Israel.”

“And the rabbi, I'd want him along to conduct the ceremony. I'll even spring for a ticket for his wife, if he doesn't want to leave her here.”

Bergson mentally rubbed his hands. “And a minyan? You'll need eight besides you and the rabbi.”

“No. B.B. is no fool. He doesn't go tossing his money around like a drunken sailor. A minyan I'm sure I can get in Jerusalem. Of course, I'm planning a party afterward, and anyone who comes from here is invited, but I'm not picking up the tab for a free vacation for them.”

“Oh, sure, no trouble with getting a minyan. I just thought you'd like to have your friends with you. Tell you what, maybe I can get up a charter, and that will cut expenses all around and—”

“Now, that's an idea. And you'll take it up with the rabbi?”

“Leave it to me.”

“How would you like a free trip to Israel, David?” was the way in which Bergson introduced Barney Berkowitz's plan to the rabbi. Bergson called the rabbi by his first name, one of the few presidents of the temple who did, partly because they were the same age, but more because he genuinely liked him.

Although his shoulders had a scholarly stoop, his hair was beginning to recede, and he was beginning to develop a middle-aged paunch, Rabbi David Small looked younger than his forty-odd years. His face was unlined and his eyes behind his thick-lensed glasses were innocent and candid.

As he listened to Berkowitz's plan, his face relaxed in a broad smile. “And what am I supposed to do, Alvin? Make a little speech, saying, ‘Today, Barney Berkowitz, you are a man'? Didn't you tell him that it was unnecessary, that he was Bar Mitzvah when he reached thirteen, whether he had a ceremony or not? All it means is that he has come of age and is responsible for his own sins, just as in our secular society one comes of age at eighteen.”

Bergson grinned. “I'm in the business of selling travel. Here's a guy who is willing to spring for four round-trip tickets to Israel. Am I going to discourage him? I even suggested to him that he'd need a minyan, but the shrewdness that made him such a hotshot in Army and Navy store circles asserted itself, and he turned me down. Look, David, here's a guy who has worked all his life, and now for the first time he has money and leisure and wants to enjoy himself, but he doesn't know how. He wants to travel, but he can't just pick himself up and go. He has to have a reason, a mission. He's made that way. He's willing to give you and Miriam a free trip to justify it. So how about it?”

Still smiling, the rabbi shook his head slowly. “I'd love to go to Israel, to live there for a while, but I can't swing it right now and I can't accept his offer. My conscience wouldn't let me.” His smile broadened. “If Barney feels that he has to rededicate himself to his religion, why don't you tell him he became party to our contract with God when he was circumcised, and it would be more in keeping with his plan if he had himself recircumcised.”

Bergson laughed heartily. “All right, I will. But look, David, I'm planning on arranging a charter for the occasion. How about coming along as a tour guide? That would give you and Miriam a free ride.”

“No, thanks. I don't know the country that well, for one thing. But even if I did, the idea of sleeping in a different hotel every other night for a couple of weeks, and riding on a tour bus every day, doesn't appeal to me.”

When Bergson reported the conversation to Berkowitz, he took the rabbi's refusal philosophically. “Well, he doesn't want to, so he doesn't have to. I'm sure we'll be able to find a rabbi in Jerusalem who will officiate.”

To the suggestion of recircumcision offered with a straight face, he said, “How can I? The ladies—” And then as Bergson smiled, he said, “Oh, I see. It's a joke. Ha-ha.”

Nevertheless, he was annoyed. As he explained to his wife, Mollie, “I offer him and his wife yet a free trip to Israel. So if he couldn't go for some reason or other, couldn't he at least call and explain, and thank me?”

“But you didn't offer him, Barney. You sent Al Bergson. How would he know it wasn't some kind of joke on Al's part?”

“Aw, he knew, all right. But he doesn't like me, so he won't accept a favor from me.”

2

The morning service,
shachris
, was scheduled for seven, and for once, perhaps because it was a bright, sunny June day, there were ten men, the number required for a minyan, present, and they were able to start on time. Half an hour later, Rabbi David Small was back at home for his breakfast while his wife, Miriam, was in the kitchen wrapping sandwiches and filling the thermos for the lunch they would take with them on their journey, since they could not eat in a restaurant and it might be late afternoon before they got back. She was small and quick in her movements, exuding an air of brisk efficiency. Her blond hair (nowadays occasionally “touched up” at the hairdresser's) was piled on top of her head as though she had hastily pinned it up to get it out of the way. In blouse and sweater and jeans, she could have passed for a high school senior, except that there were now tiny lines at the corners of her eyes, and her firm skin showed not only purpose and determination but also maturity.

Upstairs, in her bedroom, their fourteen-year-old daughter, Hepsibah, square-faced and to her despair unmodishly stocky, was still trying to decide whether to wear her relatively new jeans and pack the old ones with a tear on the knee, or to pack the new and wear the old. And whether to wear her badly scuffed sneakers or her new moccasins. They were driving up to New Hampshire to drop her off at summer camp, and it was important that she make the right impression, although that depended on who was already there. She finally settled for the torn jeans and the sneakers and came down to announce that she was ready.

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