Short Fiction By Dan Ornstein
Some swore that the building was haunted by ghosts, for the relentless creaking of the wooden beams in its roof would make you shiver and wonder if you were hearing davveners long gone. Bernie, the old hazzan who had been pushed by the congregation into retirement, didn’t have to wonder; he listened to them with aching familiarity. Each morning, before his cool, young replacement breezed into the synagogue office, Bernie shuffled around the darkened sanctuary, where his voice had built a bridge of prayerful melody between God and people for decades. All those spirits of his glorious cantorial past floated by and with him: the bar and bat mitzvah students proceeding haltingly, then confidently, with their parts of the Shabbat service; the tearful, thankful parents at their sons' brises and their daughters’ namings; his late wife, Roberta’s, soprano lilt when she sang in the choir; his own tenor loveliness when he chanted Kol Nidre, and helped everyone achieve God’s remittance of their hasty vows and promises for the coming year, at the beginning of Yom Kippur.
One Sunday before Yom Kippur, he stood alone in that cavernous space that the board members had recently stopped calling a sanctuary. “Too old, stuffy, and alienating,” they had declared. “From now on, we refer to it as our beit kesher, the spiritual connection center.” He chuckled bitterly, thinking about their latest ridiculous attempt to replace religion with religious hipsterism, which was right up there with the open-toed-sandaled rabbi, and with Bernie’s baby faced, guitar playing successor. He stepped onto the bimah and saw himself chanting Kol Nidre the previous year, his final time before the people he had served faithfully betrayed him. Roberta’s voiceless face had appeared before him then, making his old voice creak worse than the roof, and his eyes flood with tears. He had lost his place in the Mahzor, standing in front of the open ark and before a thousand dead-silent congregants.
After the board refused to renew his contract and his lawyer persuaded him that suing them on grounds of ageism was futile, Bernie’s friends tried to convince him to continue tutoring students. He taught wonderfully, so they thought it would be the perfect post-retirement job for him, but he declared that he would never again work for the congregation. The Religious School was in session that Sunday, so the chapel just across the lobby from the sanctuary was filled with students practicing prayers. Angry but unable to curb his hunger for his memories, Bernie snuck outside the chapel door to eavesdrop. A muffled chant wafted into the hall from inside. At first, he assumed it was just the perpetual ringing in his ears, but when it would not stop plaguing him he forced himself to open the door and walk in.
Around a table, his junior colleague struggled to engage twenty bored, restless seventh graders. Near them lay their iPads, iPods, and iPhones, the gleaming armaments of modernity that they reluctantly shed when they entered that holy ground. The young cleric stood in the middle, pressing the clunky REWIND and PLAY buttons of an old tape recorder, and desperately attempting to keep them interested in the retro-toy. Bernie recognized the tape of Kol Nidre he had made years ago for a nursing home resident too frail to attend services. As the kids’ attention wandered to their queer looking old guest, their teacher looked up at him in nervous surprise and said, “Cantor, welcome. We found your old recording in the music library.”
Bernie listened and wondered:
Sh’vikin, sh’vitin, b’teilin u-m’vutalin, lo sh’ririn v’lo kayamin.
“All vows—null and void, no longer valid and binding.”
Should he move towards the table?
(c)2011 By Dan Ornstein