Fiction

Who was he? What was he?

By Robert Feinstein

There are these elderly men …  I don’t think they are actually rabbis, who spend their days roaming through Jewish cemeteries, looking for the bereaved.  Give them a few dollars and they’ll conduct a grave site service in memory of your loved ones.  At first, I thought he might have been one of them. But he wasn’t.  He was definitely something else.

I approached the plot where my father is buried with both fear and determination.  I had never visited it before, and I was not there to honor him.  Suffice it to say he was a parent only by dint of biology … nothing more.  As I got close to it, I suddenly heard a loud and admonishing voice say to me: “Don’t do it, Shmuel!  Don’t do that!  To spit there would be a sacrilege, and you would long regret it!”

To  say the very least, I was surprised.  “Where did you come from?” I asked.  “I didn’t see you just seconds ago. And my name is  Sam.  Nobody has called me Shmuel since I was in Hebrew school.  How did you know that?  And how did you know what I have to do?”

I looked at him with a tremendous sense of bewilderment, and just a bit of anger about his intrusion.  Peering back at me was a somewhat pleasant-looking man, with a long white beard … a sort of a thin version of Santa Claus. 

The intruder ignored my questions.

“He gave you life, Shmuel.  Just for that he deserves some respect.”

I grimaced and shouted back at him: “That’s easy for you to say.  He wasn’t your father.”

At that, his tone became compassionate:  “I know that you are hurting, Shmuel.  I know that he hurt you very badly.  But he had his hurts …  his sadness too.  If you can find it in your heart to give him some forgiveness, those nightmares will lessen, and if you forgive him completely, they’ll go away.”

“You know about the nightmares too?”  I queried, in utter amazement. “If it takes doing that to stop the nightmares, I’ll stay with them,” I continued.

“Yes, I know about the nightmares., he said, with the unhappiest and kindest  of voices. 

I reached into my wallet and offered him ten dollars.  “I don’t want your money, Shmuel, he said.  “I just want you to heal.”

At that, he extended his hand, which was holding a kippah.  “Put this on and cover your head. We are standing on sacred ground here, Shmuel.” 

I don’t know why, but I did as he asked.  For some reason I felt compelled to.  And the fury that had engulfed me as I had made my way to my father’s grave had subsided … not totally, but quite a bit.

“Shmuel, you know how to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish … the Prayer for the Dead.  Let’s do so together.  Say it with me and you’ll feel better.  I promise you that,” he said.

I hesitated.  I said nothing for several minutes, as I stared into my supplicant’s eyes..  And then  I did it. I no longer wanted to spit.  I found myself wanting to pray for my father’s soul … the father who was only one by dint of biology.  Together the figure with the long white beard and I chanted that prayer which honors a departed loved one.

He then entreated me to put a small rock on my father’s tombstone.  “It’s a tradition, to show that someone was here …  to show that he has not been forgotten,” he said.  And I tearfully obeyed.  My eyes were now transfixed on that marker, and when I looked up, the stranger was gone.  He left so silently.  I didn’t hear the sound of footsteps.

As I left the cemetery I felt a peace that I had rarely known.  I touched the top of  my head and the kippah was still there.  I removed it and looked at its interior.  Boldly printed in gold thread I saw the words, in transliterated Hebrew:  “KOL HAKOVOD,  SHMUEL.”  “WAY TO GO, SHMUEL”

Who was he?  What was he?

***

Robert Feinstein is a retired library director.  He holds a B.A. from Long Island University, an M.A. from Brooklyn College, and an M.L.S. from Pratt Institute.  His short stories have previously appeared in  LITERARY YARD, THE FORWARD, DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN, STUCK IN THE LIBRARY, NEW ENGLISH REVIEW, and LOWEST LOFT CHRONICLE.

Categories: Fiction

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