One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (2 page)

BOOK: One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross
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Her father stared blankly. “Are you going like that? With a hole in your pants?”

“Oh, Daddy, it's a camp in the woods. You want me to wear a gown?”

“She can change when she gets there,” said Miriam soothingly. “Now, bring your duffel bag out to the car, Siba. Daddy mustn't lift it because of his back. We want to get started right away.”

The rabbi did not enjoy driving and regarded with dread any trip of over ten or twenty miles. He constantly worried about a flat tire, the ignition shorting out, losing his way. He reflected morosely as he got behind the wheel that if he had inquired, it might have been possible for Hepsibah to take a bus to a town near the camp, where she could have been met. Or even that he might have arranged matters so that his son, Jonathon, who was a counselor at a camp in New York, could have delayed his departure by a few days so that
he
could have driven Hepsibah to New Hampshire.

He drove with both hands clutching the wheel, looking straight ahead. Miriam, beside him, did not try to engage him in conversation, speaking only to direct him, from the map on her lap, when to turn and approximately how far they would have to drive before they reached the next point that might present a problem. Hepsibah, in back, had been gazing out of the window and had then dozed off.

They reached the camp well before noon. They made a cursory inspection of the main buildings and the hut to which Hepsibah had been assigned—they were familiar with the place from the year before—refused the offer of lunch by the director, saying it was much too early, and then made their farewells to Hepsibah. She had met a girl who had been there last year, and to their mild disappointment was not at all averse to their leaving.

The rabbi was much more relaxed on the trip back. He had accomplished his mission, and he had the whole long summer day to get back home. Shortly after noon, they found a picnic site by the side of the road, and they stopped to have their sandwiches and coffee. He stretched luxuriously. “Now we've got the whole summer free,” he said.

“And what do you plan to do?” Miriam asked.

“Do? We'll do nothing. Just relax. No kids around. No religious school to watch over. No sermons to give.”

“And you'll be just as busy as you were last summer, when we also had Hepsibah and Jonathon at camp. People will come to see you with their problems. You'll still have to go to hospitals to visit the sick, and to the homes of the bereaved to sit with them during their
shiva
. No, David, if you really want to relax and take it easy, you've got to get out of Barnard's Crossing. Because while you're there, people will come to you.”

“And when we went to that place up in the mountains, people still came to me. As long as they know you're a rabbi, they come to you with problems.”

“We could travel,” she suggested.

“You mean drive across the country?”

“I thought we might go abroad.”

“One of those twenty-one-day tours? No, thank you. We'd end up exhausted. Even those we've taken to Israel, I've found were more tiring than pleasurable.”

“But when you took a sabbatical and we spent the whole winter there—”

“Ah, that was different. But we were able to do that only because your Aunt Gittel managed to get us an apartment. You kept house and we didn't have the expense of a hotel room or eating in restaurants all the time.”

“Well, maybe she could get us an apartment again.”

He shook his head. “I doubt it. That was in the winter, but now we'd be going in the summer, at the height of the tourist season.”

“We could try.”

He shrugged.

But when they got home, there among the dozen or so letters on the floor under the mail slot was a letter from Gittel. Miriam tore open the envelope and read rapidly, handing over each sheet as she finished it to her husband. He pushed his thick-lensed glasses up on his forehead and peered nearsightedly at the tiny script. It was a typical letter from Gittel.

She gave news of her family, of her son who had married the religious girl and of how meticulous her daughter-in-law was in her observance of the religious regulations; of their young son who was attending a religious school instead of a secular school in spite of all her arguments and protestations—“and, of course, he always sides with his wife”; of the child's precocity—“and I'm not saying this because he's my grandson.” She spoke about the economic conditions that prevailed since the “new administration” got in—although it had been in for six years already.

“But the big news” (it was on page three) “is that I am now a Jerusalemite. His Lordship” (by which she obviously meant the prime minister, of whom she disapproved) “has decreed that our office must be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Never mind that most of our work is concerned with the Tel Aviv area. We must establish facts of our presence! It is a beautiful city, I admit it, but it is for Jews, whereas Tel Aviv is for Israelis. If you don't care for synagogue services, what is there to do?

“I managed to rent my apartment in Tel Aviv to an American professor who is teaching at Tel Aviv University for the year. But what do I do next year?” So she had come up to Jerusalem and rented an apartment. The real-estate people had suggested that she sell her apartment in Tel Aviv and use the money to buy one in Jerusalem. “But what do I do when the government falls and the regular government” (by which she meant the Labor Party, of course) “comes back into power and they decide to move my office back to Tel Aviv? So I'll have to sell again and buy again, which means more commissions for them, which is what they're really interested in.”

It was not what she had hoped for. It was much too big. What she had wanted was a small, modern apartment that would be easy to take care of, but she had gotten a very good deal on this one—“through a friend”—and so she had taken it for a year. “About next year, we'll see.”

“So if you could come for a visit, a few weeks or months, or as long as you wanted, you could stay here and not have to pay the ridiculous prices of the fancy hotels. And I can assure you that everything is strictly kosher, so that your David wouldn't have to worry because if it satisfies my daughter-in-law, believe me, it will satisfy him. I go along with all this foolishness because I am all alone, and if I want my son and his family to come here for a meal on occasion, I have to. Even then, if it were just my son and his wife, believe me, I wouldn't mind if they had only tea or a cup of coffee and maybe some fruit in my house. But can I let my grandson grow up feeling that he must not eat in his grandmother's house?”

When he finished, Miriam said, “Oh, David, it's—it's as though it's ordained.”

He looked at her quizzically. “Ordained? From Heaven? You didn't have anything to do with it?”

She blushed. “Oh, I wrote to her a couple of weeks ago. You know, just a newsy letter telling her how we were. I may have mentioned that Jonathon and Hepsibah would both be off to camp and that we—”

He laughed. “All right, I get it.”

“Then can I write and tell her we might come?”

“Sure. Or you might even call her.”

3

Hassan El Dhamouri, associate professor of fine arts at Harvard and curator of the Islamic Collection at the Fogg Art Museum, was a tall, arresting figure. His thick hair, brushed back, was peppered with gray, but his bushy eyebrows, which turned up at the corners, and his moustache and imperial were still jet black. In spite of, or perhaps even because of, his Mephistophelean appearance, his students liked him; and he was an easy marker whose courses were not demanding.

He sat behind his desk in the inner room of his offices at the museum, teetering back and forth in his leather swivel chair as he gave instructions to Mrs. Mills, his secretary, a woman in her thirties, who came in only mornings.

Professor El Dhamouri passed a paper across the desk to her. “Tell them I'm not going to make it, that my calendar is full for the month, but if possible next month …”

“Yes, sir. Next month or the month after?”

“Even better. You might look through my engagement book and suggest a couple of dates.”

“Very good.”

He glanced at another letter, and tossing it across the desk, said, “The usual on this one. And on this one. And likewise on this one, but a little more buttery.”

Her thin lips twisted into a smile. “The best grade of butter?”

“I would say so. The man is a professor. Make it sound as though I know of him, or am at least familiar with his work, if he's done any. Look him up and see if he has. On this one—no, hold off. I'll be talking to him in a day or two. Let's see, that's about it. You'll have the tape on my last lecture typed up, won't you?”

“I'll finish it tomorrow and I'll have these ready for your signature at the same time. I'm leaving now.”

As she opened the door, a young man who had been waiting in the outer office rose and said, “I am Albert Houseman. I have an appointment with Professor El Dhamouri.”

She turned to the professor and said, “A Mr. Houseman? He says he has an appointment.”

“Oh, yes, send him in.”

She stood aside for him to enter, and then called out, “Till tomorrow, then.”

He was about thirty-five, short and thin, with eyes so dark they seemed all pupil. His nose was long and thin and parrotlike and seemed to bisect his black moustache. The professor went to the outer door, poked his head out, and looked down the corridor at the retreating figure of his secretary. Then he closed the door, set it on the latch, and returned to his seat behind the desk and surveyed his visitor, taking note of his tweed jacket, pressed slacks, and his polished brown loafers, and said, “Jeans and sneakers would have been better.”

Houseman said, “I thought in the East, especially at Harvard, I'd be less noticeable if I were properly dressed.”

“Well, we're improving—a little—but most graduate students would still be apt to wear jeans. Your name is?”

“Abdul Ibn Hosni, but I Americanized it—officially.”

“That's the name Ibrahim used when he called to tell me you were coming. He probably forgot that you had changed it—officially.”

“It's what he always calls me.”

“And you're staying …?”

“As you suggested, at the Holiday Inn.”

“For how long?”

“That depends on you. If you can help us, I'll go back as soon as everything is arranged. If you can't, I notify Ibrahim, who will have an alternative plan that I may have to implement.”

“I see. Ibrahim told me very little of what was involved. He said you would fill me in. All I know is that he wants something transmitted to his brother, Mahmoud, in Jerusalem. He suggested that if we were going to be together for a while, I could pass you off as a graduate student in my department. Normally I would have had you stay at my house as my guest, but I sensed—more from his tone than from what he said—that the matter is of—er—very serious importance. That's why I suggested you stay at a hotel and come to see me here rather than at my house. My house may be watched.”

“By whom?” Ibn Hosni asked quickly.

El Dhamouri shrugged and smiled. “By the FBI, by Mossad, by the PLO, by almost anyone. Any Arab who achieves some prominence here in the States and who continues to be Arab is apt to be approached by any one of a dozen Arab organizations for help with some special project, for a contribution, for permission to use his name on a petition, or just for a handout. So I assume that my house may be watched from time to time, and I'm careful about whom I invite. But here, my office is at least semi-public. Anyone can drop in, and dozens do. There's safety in numbers. Perhaps I'm a little paranoid. If a Jew enrolls in one of my courses, I suspect he might be an agent of Mossad. And if it's an Arab, I wonder is he really Arab and which faction, one of Arafat's boys or one of the Syrians? Is he Lebanese or Jordanian, or maybe even a Libyan? It's not a good way to live, Abdul.”

The younger man shrugged and spread his arm deprecatingly. “It's the way things are, Professor, the way they've been ever since the Jews came into our midst and set up their accursed state.”

“You think so? I wonder. We have always fought among ourselves, we Arabs. Seemingly, when two Arabs get together it's to plot against a third. Then came Israel, and for the first time we were united because there was now someone we could hate more than we hated each other. All the brothers against our cousins—that's what the Israelis call us, you know, the cousins. But the plain truth is that Israel more or less made for peace among us for thirty years or more. Unfortunately, in recent years the effect has diminished, I suppose, because we have pretty much come to accept them, the fact of them, and we no longer think we can drive them into the sea. So we have Iraq fighting Iran, and Syria against Jordan, the Muslims against the Christians in Lebanon, and the Syrian PLO against Arafat's PLO, and Libya against Egypt and Chad and everybody else. If the Jews hadn't come, we would have had to invent them just to keep us from killing each other off.”

Abdul looked at him doubtfully and then smiled. “You know, I can't tell if you're fooling or serious.”

“Oh, I'm serious, all right. Look, Abdul, we are Druse, Ibrahim and I.”

“So am I, from Lebanon.”

“Very well. Now, we Druse have followed the principle of being loyal to the country where we happen to reside. So your people were loyal to Lebanon when there was a Lebanon, because that's where your people live, and I am now loyal to the United States, because I am an American. But my people come from the Galilee, from Israel, and are loyal to Israel. If I had not come here as a child, I might have fought in the Israeli army along with other members of our clan. However, with respect to the rest of the Arab world, my loyalties are primarily with the Druse in whatever country they happen to live. Right now, the Israelis are the least we have to worry about. They're out of Lebanon and are not likely to come back. We could be friends with them.”

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