Moo’s feeling a little religious today. Just got home from synagogue where I said kaddish (a mourning prayer) for my father.
It got moo thinking about older days of the due-niverse, when the moo and her “generation” had their heyday. Sigh. In those days the moo used to write a custom birthday fic-let for anyone in one of her yahoo-group. That was the shtick – tell the moo your birthday and anything you wanted a fic about, any topic, mood, pairing. On your birthday it would be posted.
For moo’s own birthday I would indulge ideas that may not have any interest to anyone else but I just did them anyway. Strange indulgences. Well, Moo’s own birthday is coming up next week – another reason to be thinking about those lost days.
I’m reposting after some years a strange little thing I put together for my own birthday some year or other, and it has to do with kaddish. One of some stories that I occasionally played with in which I made Benny Jewish.
And a special note to Lucysmom, if she is out there. In the following fic, Ray’s observations about a synagogue service, as a visitor, came from Lucysmom’s description of her own such visit once. The synagogue building Ray and Benny visited is one from the moo’s childhood, the old synagogue of my great-grandfather where the moo spent many long, boring hours.
The name “Meyer” mentioned pre-dates the protagonist of my novel in progress by many years. No connection. I just like using the name.
Anyway . . .
"Ray, would you like to come somewhere with me on Saturday morning?"
Ray found the wording of the question a little strange. On any given Thursday, Fraser was wont to ask something like this, but usually he said "Would you take me somewhere Saturday morning?" meaning he had some errand that required a ride in the Riv. Fraser's phrasing, once you got past the embarrassed stammering, was usually precise. Ray was instantly intrigued. This change in wording must mean something.
"Where'd you have in mind, Benny?"
Fraser looked away. Since it was also unlike him to avoid Ray's eyes, Ray knew something really important was up.
"Somewhere with Mort and me. If you're not too busy."
Wow. Both evasive and passive-aggressive so early in the conversation. The haircut and the visit with Uncle Leo would definitely wait. "Sure, Benny. What time should I pick you up?"
Ray parked the Riv outside an old brick house with a lot of old men, a couple dozen Ray figured, milling about on the sidewalk out front. Upon closer inspection, it wasn't a house. There were two wide doors and over them a Jewish star and a Hebrew inscription.
Fraser was in his brown uniform, which he hadn't worn for nearly a year since the Dragon Lady had ordered him out of it and into the blue one. Fraser so detested the blue that she had taken pity on him and agreed to a compromise – the red serge. Ray agreed that the dark brown went better with the camel Stetson, even though brown wasn't Fraser's best colour.
Ray found a place to park a few blocks away, then he and Fraser walked back. At first all the men looked alike in their similar dark, conservative suits, black skullcaps and advanced years. A taller one of them detached from the herd and headed towards them. It was Mort.
"Good, you made it!" Mort declared, grabbing Fraser's two hands in his own and pumping them. "And you, Ray. You came too. Very nice, very nice. Come, I'll introduce you around."
Mort did just that, for many minutes, presenting them to old man after old man. Their forearms were all covered with their suit jackets but Ray suspected many of them had concentration camp tattoos on their forearms as Mort did.
With great ceremony, Mort and a group of three more brought Ray and Fraser into the presence of a very tiny man. Mort pushed Fraser forward "This is him. The one I told you about. And this Detective Vecchio, he came along for company. Gentlemen, this is Rabbi Farb."
Fraser touched his hat and Ray muttered something polite.
Yet another man came up and from behind the Rabbi said "Mort? Did you ask him?"
"I'll ask him. I'll ask him. Fraser, I forgot to ask you. We don't have a Co-hayn today. You're not by any chance . . .?
Fraser looked at the pavement.
"I knew it! I knew it!" Mort slapped Fraser on the back, "A Mountie comes to the rescue!" He turned and pushed through the crowd shouting, "Meyer, I found one! Oh wait, I forgot . . . " he turned back and made his way back towards the Mountie. He then took a piece of paper and the stub of a pencil from his pocket and shoved them at Fraser. "Write your name here."
Ray tried to make out what alphabet Fraser was writing in. Benny knew every language so why not Hebrew? But in the crowd of little old men, he couldn't see.
By now the group of old men were joined by a smattering of younger ones and a half a dozen women of different ages. They all started to move into the building.
Mort was back now, having delivered the paper to Meyer, and resumed his role as guide.
"I guess this is a synagogue?" Ray asked him.
"Yes, Ray. You ever been in one?"
"A few times. Some bar mitzvahs. A wedding."
"Good, then you know the routine. Take a kee-pah when we go in. Stand up and sit down when Meyer says. Don’t fall asleep." Mort put one arm around each of the friends' shoulders and they joined the crowd heading for the door. Ray wondered what Fraser and Mort had cooked up that had to be done in a synagogue but he figured he'd be told in good time, so he just went along.
Once inside, Ray took a black skullcap from a basket on a table near the door. Mort already had one of his own on, embroidered with gold thread. Fraser simply kept on his Stetson.
Most of the men carried velvet pouches under their arms and once inside the building they opened the pouches and pulled out long, narrow, white shawls with fringes on both ends. Another larger basket containing shawls, apparently loaners like the kee-pahs, was also on the table.
Fraser surprised Ray by picking up a shawl from the basket, holding it in front of himself, then bringing the cloth to his lips twice, in spots about two feet apart. Then, as were the other men, he slung the garment over his head. It stuck out comically over the edges of the Stetson, while the other mens' shawls lay flat against their heads. The same as the other men did, Fraser muttered some phrases in a language Ray presumed was Hebrew then took the shawl down from his head and settled it around his shoulders.
"Fraser, should I do that?" Ray asked as he trailed after the Mountie and Mort towards an inner door leading to the sanctuary.
"No, Ray. It's not necessary."
Indeed, Ray could see that perhaps 30% of the men present had no shawls on, nor were any of the women wearing any. So he thought no more of it and only briefly reflected that Fraser seemed to know exactly what to do and say. Well, if Fraser knew everything about everything anyway, why shouldn't he know this?
The inner part of the synagogue was sparse to Ray's eye. There were no coloured windows, statues, flowers, candles, nor any of the usual trappings he associated with a house of worship. There were rows of wooden chairs, a small stage with a lectern in front. Also on the platform was a wooden cupboard closed off with a curtain. From the ceiling over the lectern hung a small lamp.
The three men settled into a row midway down the hall, Fraser in the middle, Ray to his left and Mort to his right. Mort leaned across the Mountie and gave Ray a quick briefing. "This is a normal Saturday morning service. Nothing special happening today. We'll finish in about 2 hours, then we'll have kiddush. That's refreshments. Honeycake, some fruit maybe, and wine."
The wine would be way too sweet, as Ray recalled from other such visits.
"The stage is called the 'bee-mah', the hat's called a 'kee-pah' – you knew that already, right – and the shawl's called a 'tah-liss'. Behind the curtain we've got scrolls. We'll read from some later."
"One's a 'Torah'". I remember that. It's got the Old Testament in it, right?"
Fraser interposed here, and began lecturing Ray on what kinds of text were in what scrolls, then all fell silent as Meyer, the rabbi and a few other men came up onto the bee-mah. Everybody picked up a prayerbook, some from pockets looped over the chairs in front of them, some had their own. The service began.
The few times Ray had sat through a Jewish service he'd found it exotic but just a little less organized than what he was used to in his own church. Meyer told people when to sit and stand and occasionally reminded them what page they should be on. One man did most of the singing. During one very long prayer, everyone stood up and went off mumbling at their own pace, some slow, some fast, some bobbing up and down from the waist, some staying still, some with their tah-liss over their heads, some not. Everybody bowed at one time or another, never any two at the same time. As the speedier ones finished, before the rest of the group, they either stood quietly and waited or had whispered conversations with other speedies.
When Meyer announced they should be on a certain page, most of those not yet finished abandoned what they were doing and flipped over the suggested page, others remained standing and went on doing their own thing. Fraser was one of this latter group.
After the novelty of watching Mort and Fraser wore off, there was nothing much to hold Ray's attention. He began to wonder, idly, if there was more to Fraser's knowing all this Jewish stuff than just Fraser knowing stuff. Fraser Jewish? I look more Jewish. Still . . .
When the standing and bobbing part was done, a couple more men gathered on the bee-mah and consulted with Meyer. Then they were satisfied with the results of their deliberations (all in Yiddish) another section of the service began.
The curtain was opened with great ceremony and singing. One of the men on the bee-mah lifted out a scroll. He faced the audience and sang, others joining in for a few lines here and there. The singing continued while the man paraded with the Torah all around the room, with the others from the bee-mah following behind. As the scroll passed each row people touched the ends of their shawls, first to the scroll and then to their lips. Those without shawls used their prayerbooks instead. Ray felt like joining in and hoped his priest wouldn't mind. It was a Bible after all.
Once the scroll and its entourage had finished the circuit of the room, they placed it on the lectern, removed its embroidered satin cover and unrolled a portion. Ray knew from other visits, and you didn't need to be a detective to figure, that they would now read from the delicate parchment.
Meyer stood forward and called out, "Yah-mode Baruch ben Reuben ha Co-hayn!"
Ray recognized the last word from the conversation outside. He looked towards Fraser to see this was perhaps his friend's cue to do something. He wasn't disappointed. Fraser stood up alone, left his seat and made his way to the bee-mah. This went just a little beyond what Ray was expecting.
A man was in position ready to read from the scroll. Fraser stopped in a spot just to the man's right. He sang, all alone, a short passage with a haunting Eastern tone, glancing from time to time at a laminated piece of paper that was also on the lectern. Then, he stood quietly while the other man chanted his Torah reading.
Seeing Fraser go solo like that was a bit of a shock. He must be . . . He can't be . . .
After about five minutes of chanting, Ray heard a falling tone which he correctly figured must mean the end of a section. Fraser sang briefly again a passage similar to his first (Ray hadn't realized Fraser had such a fine, clear tenor voice) then faded to the back of the bee-mah. He stood there doing nothing while another man was called up and went through an identical performance to Fraser's except that his guy was far off key. Still, he got nods of approval when his singing was finished. So, they don’t pick them for their musical talent, Ray decided.
The second man finished and moved to where Fraser was standing. Fraser relinquished the spot to him and stepped off the bee-mah. As he did, smiling men shook his hand and clapped him on the back. The Mountie smiled shyly at each one and headed back to his seat. People at their seats reached out hands or called out "Yah-sher Ko-ach" and "Well done" as he went by them.
Mort jumped up like a proud father, and embraced him. "It's his first time! Imagine!" for all to hear. Fraser wriggled free and blushed as he sat down.
"I didn't want to do that, but they needed a Co-hayn," Fraser whispered to Ray.
"It means . . . well . . . it's not important right now, Ray." Fraser's eyes told a different story. They were glistening, tears gathering at the corners.
Son of a gun. He is. Go figure.
Other men took their turns. There was more singing, more reading, more marching. The old rabbi delivered a sermon which Ray tuned out. It was as boring as any other sermon. Ray had his own thoughts to occupy him.
Ray had been getting along fine standing and sitting when told and following Mort's and Fraser's lead. Then came a point of confusion. Meyer announced "Mourners' kaddish". What, wine and cake already? No, that's 'kiddush'.
Fraser and a handful of other men stood up. Everyone else remained seated.
"Do I stand up?" Ray whispered to Fraser.
"No, Ray. You stay down." Not that he didn't believe the Mountie, but Mort was also staying down so Ray felt comfortable doing the same.
The handful of standing men began chanting. "Yitgadal vehyitgadash shehmay rabbah," Fraser began with the rest. Muttering in unison was something new to Ray, but these guys seemed to be doing it. Everybody sitting down added "amen" here and Ray joined in, it was easy enough.
The unison muttering continued.
Then Fraser and the other standing men, all together, took three small steps backwards in their places and bowed to their left. "Yahseh shalom beemroomav."
Then they bowed to the right and said "Hoo yahseh shalom aleynoo."
They bowed forward. "Veh alcoll Yisro-ayl. Veemroo ahem." Everyone else said "amen" again. The kaddish-sayers then took three small steps forward, stood for a brief moment and then sat down.
All sat down but Fraser, that is, who dashed from the room in tears. Mort and Ray followed. In the outer hall they saw Fraser sitting on a couch with an older Mountie, also in brown. The older man had his arm around Fraser's shoulder. He looked up at Ray and Mort as they approached.
"Benton did well, didn't he? Never thought I'd live to see my Benton on the bee-mah." said the older Mountie. He looked somewhere in his fifties.
"You didn't live to see it," Fraser managed to say. "That's rather the whole point of this, Dad."
"Don't quibble, Benton. You know what I mean."
Fraser now took in the situation. "Dad, Ray and Mort can see you."
"Oh, sorry. Just got carried away. Wait'll I tell your mother. She'll be so proud! Have some extra honeycake for me." So saying, the older Mountie got up, gave Fraser's shoulder a final pat and left the building.
Fraser jumped to his feet and went after him, clutching his tah-liss about his shoulders as he ran. "Dad! Wait!"
Ray and Mort just stared after them, not quite sure how to react.
"What's a co-hayn?" Ray asked, finally.
Mort had to take a second to re-orient to Ray's question. "Long ago, we had priests. It was a hereditary thing. We still keep track. A co-hayn is someone whose ancestor was a priest."
"And when he went up there in front, what was that for?"
"It's called an 'ah-lee-ah'. It's considered an honour. In every service the first ah-lee-ah has to be a done by a co-hayn. I'm surprised Fraser knew how to do it."
Ray had long since given up being too surprised by anything Fraser came up with, including being a priest. If Benny were going to be a Jew, trust him to arrange somehow to be a strange one.
"What was that last thing they did for, with the bowing?"
"You mean the kaddish? You say it on the anniversary of the death of a close relative. Last month Fraser told me it was going to be two years since his father was killed and he felt bad he never said kaddish. Who was that Mountie he was talking to? You know him? Fraser called him 'Dad'."
"Never met him," said Ray, for once being as literal as his friend. "Do we have to go back in? Couldn't we just wait here for the honeycake?"
Live Long and Prosper,