Everything was not illuminated in Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. All of the overhead lights were off. The sanctuary was lit only by the Eternal Flame of the Holy Ark, the lights in the fluted glass hoods on the four posts of the bimah, the tiny round white lights next to some of the memorial plaques, and the two lamps by the vestibule. Gavriel Kestenberg placed lit candles at various spots throughout the first floor—several tables in the women’s section, in the window in the hallway between the sanctuary and the kitchen, and on the kitchen table itself. The dance of their flames contributed to the somber mood of the synagogue and Gavriel’s sense of disquiet.
Gavriel noticed the women from the hevra kadisha enter a small room near the back of the synagogue. To be precise, he saw them walk the path to the back door and heard the quiet of their tread. He hadn’t actually seen them enter the room since he remained in the sanctuary and did not engage the women in conversation or even greeting. Gavriel was expecting them, and they were aware of his presence in the sanctuary or the women’s section. He wasn’t sure himself where he’d be. He found himself moving about the first floor—roving, really, more than pacing. He sat on a bench and began swaying, then stood and moved to another bench. He repeated this practice at the beginning of the evening and then as the evening turned into night.
The body of Mindl Vakhtman lay in a small room near the back of the synagogue. The women were surely washing her body and all of its crevices and orifices with care and thoroughness and reciting the various prayers. Soon the shrouds would be donned. Gavriel had performed this sacred rite of honoring the (male) dead many times and valued the privilege greatly.
Mindl had been the heart of the synagogue for decades. A tireless financial contributor to its ever inadequate coffers, she was the force behind the celebrations, from the weekly Shabbas kiddush to bar mitzvahs and sheva berakhot. Mindl remembered the names of all the adult congregants and many of the names of their children. She was the person who made sure the physical environment was as presentable as possible, even cleaning the synagogue herself until she was eighty years old when her body prevented her from performing this task any longer. And that was just three years before her death at age 83.
In the years after she stopped cleaning, Mindl’s other activities remained just as strong. She came to the synagogue several times a week, never missing a Shabbas service. Even if she couldn’t help with the setting and cleaning up of a kiddush or joyous occasion, Mindl would still let people know where things were kept and how things should be done. The synagogue had its own domestic traditions, and Mindl wanted to make sure they were passed on.
Some of the younger generation didn’t care one way or another. Did it matter if the paper towel went in the cabinet above and to the left of the sink rather than the one below it and to the right? Was it essential that the Kiddush cup was placed in the center closet of the butler’s pantry between the women’s section and the kitchen?
Still, others always sought Mindl’s perspective on things. They wanted to pay Mindl the respect she deserved, and they wanted to include her in the festivities, even if she couldn’t bustle about as she used to. And they wanted to remain in her orbit, however briefly, to absorb the institutional memory she embodied and imparted. Mindl never received a penny for her services; she only gave. She gave her time, her energy, her wisdom, and, yes, Gavriel had to acknowledge, her love, too.
As Gavriel composed these thoughts in his mind, he realized he had the basis of a eulogy. Maybe even a rough draft. He rummaged through his pockets for a piece of paper. There wasn’t any. He went to a bookcase in the back of the small weekday sanctuary where he kept a pad of paper. Taking a fresh piece of paper, he sat again on a bench to jot down notes—both the thoughts that had been running through his mind earlier and others. But the ideas that had flown so freely in his mind just moments before vanished when he tried to commit them to paper.
Instead of writing them down, Gavriel decided he would reflect on Mindl’s accomplishments in his mind. He would remain with her physical presence, here on the first floor. Not near the room in which Mindl lay waiting, but close enough. The hevra kadisha women wouldn’t even notice.
I go now, Mr. Gabi,” Gavriel opened his eyes to hear a woman standing above say. He had fallen asleep prone on one of the sanctuary benches.
“I must have fallen asleep,” he said, stating the obvious, rising into an upright position, “What time is it?”
“Is three o’clock in the morning,” the woman replied, “You let ladies know if you need something.” And before Gavriel could thank her for her services, she turned around and departed. Gavriel didn’t even know her name. He prided himself on knowing—at least the names of—all of the congregants, the immigrants no less than the native-born, the women no less than the men. Who was this woman? Had she been properly vetted to serve on the hevra kadisha? It was such a privilege to serve, not something that could be given to just anyone. He knew that; he served for the male deceased. Of course, Haverim Ahuvim couldn’t be that selective; their numbers had never been great, even in the best of times. He would have to check with Mrs. Reznikoff. Gavriel trusted her judgment, but just for his own peace of mind, he would check with her. When he heard the synagogue door close behind the unknown woman, Gavriel returned to the supine position on the bench.
Lying there, he curled his body into the fetal position and allowed himself a few moments of rest. How could he have fallen asleep tonight? He was supposed to keep watch on Mindl’s soul, outside of the ladies in the room at the back. Gavriel hadn’t seen her body since her death really. Her landlady Mrs. Ivers, who lived below Mindl across the street discovered Mindl.
“I checked her pulse and everything, but she was gone. Miss Vakhtman must have been lying there a full day. I didn’t know who to call. You were the only one listed as an emergency contact,” Mrs. Ivers told Gavriel on the telephone. She pronounced the name as “Vaktman” as in “vacuum” instead of the “kh” sound. In his duress, Gavriel honed in on this detail. Mindl had seemed fine just this past Shabbas. Beaming, in fact, a smile adorned her face throughout the Kiddush and then as he wished her a good Shabbas as he escorted her to the front doors of Haverim Ahuvim.
“You did the right thing,” Gavriel assured the landlady, “I’ll be right over.”
Gavriel rushed over still in disbelief as if he had to verify for himself what Mrs. Ivers was saying. He’d known this day would come. But now? So suddenly? It was just a brief walk across the street, no less than a minute and a half, two at the most. Gavriel raced across the street in his slippers. One slipper fell off in his racing. A driver in an oncoming car honked impatiently at him. Gavriel mouthed “sorry” and held his hands together in a gesture of apology. The landlady was waiting for him at the front door, between the glass outer door and the open wooden one.
“I always check on her,” she said, opening the door, not quite meeting Gavriel’s gaze. “Every day, in fact, just to make sure she’s all right. But I had to go out of town to take care of my grandson.” Mrs. Ivers went on into some detail about her own daughter’s various troubles. A cheating boyfriend? Something about attention deficit disorder. Did her grandson have it? Or was she talking about her daughter? Gavriel couldn’t concentrate on what Mindl’s landlady was saying.
He looked down at the outline of Mindl’s form on her living room sofa. Mrs. Ivers had covered Mindl’s body with an afghan. At least Mindl hadn’t fallen to the floor in pain. She must have passed away in her sleep. He lifted the afghan to see for himself. Yes, it was Mindl. Of course, it was, he chided himself. Who else would it have been? And then he tuned in again to Mrs. Ivers as she returned to the topic of Mindl.
“I asked her if she was going to be ok without me. I told her I wouldn’t be long—no more than a day or so. Depending on how Cindy and Billy were doing. She said not to worry; she’d be fine,” Mrs. Ivers said.
How like Mindl to assure others not to worry, never want to be a burden. For as long as Gavriel could remember, she’d been like that.
“I shouldn’t have left her alone. I should’ve called Elder Services or somethin’. But I wasn’t thinkin’ right. I just had to go to my Billy,” she said, finally looking directly at Gavriel. Or what is pleadingly? Mrs. Ivers seemed to be seeking some kind of absolution from him.
“Of course, I understand completely, Mrs. Ivers,” Gavriel answered, “How could you possibly have known? How could any of us have? It’s not your fault. You did what you could.”
Not that Gavriel was in any position to grant absolution. He felt that he should be asking Mindl for absolution. But that was absurd. How could he be responsible? And yet . . . ? Is this how the “conscientious” among those who discovered the alone dead necessarily felt, Gavriel wondered. Feeling that they should have been there, should have done more.
In the many decades he had known her, Gavriel had never been in Mindl’s apartment. He realized this suddenly as Mrs. Ivers left the room. Mindl furnished it modestly in shades of taupes and tans. Only small pillows on the sofa and the wing chair were in shades of yellow and orange. What did the designers call it? Pops of color? Old-fashioned but updated. Vintage? The overall effect was quite pleasing, Gavriel thought. Was he surprised?
And then Gavriel went to Mindl’s rotary telephone and dialed Mrs. Reznikoff. She answered immediately.
“Mrs. Reznikoff, I’m afraid I have sad news,” he said. She wouldn’t have been surprised. Whenever Gavriel called her, it was with sad news. “We have a deceased here. She passed away just a short time ago,” he continued. Mrs. Reznikoff didn’t need to know all of the details about Mindl lying dead alone for over a day. Maybe longer? He still felt responsible. And then with Mrs. Reznikoff at the helm, the hevra kadisha sprang into action.
Still, Gavriel had lurked in the back of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim earlier. Hoping for what? Another glimpse of the dead? To see if Mindl’s mien exuded some kind of serenity? What? Tactfully but firmly, Mrs. Reznikoff had ushered him out.
Gavriel walked around the first floor of the synagogue. The candles were still burning. No danger of them burning out. And he checked the fire alarm system just last week. It wasn’t even a battery-operated one, so there was no need to replace batteries. The only time it would ever sound an alarm was if there were a fire. As he made his rounds, Gavriel felt exhaustion getting the better of him, despite the catnap he’d had on one of the sanctuary benches. He really had wanted to stay up all night for Mindl. That vow to himself (to Mindl?) had already been broken. He wouldn’t maintain the charade of staying up all night, as he did years before when he told his parents that he stayed up all night studying Torah on Shavuot, along with most of the men and some of the boys of the congregation.
Gavriel climbed the staircase in the small hallway between the sanctuary and the synagogue kitchen to his studio apartment above the synagogue.
Despite his exhaustion, sleep didn’t come easily to Gavriel in his apartment. He realized he was hungry, not just tired. In the cupboard, there were some cans of beans and rice, soups, and cans of tuna fish and sardines. Gavriel removed a can of lentil soup from the cupboard, placed it in a small pot and then on the stove. There were some hard-boiled eggs in the fridge and, in the freezer, some TV dinners. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to last him through the week. Bachelor food, he thought, not for the first time, removing the heated soup from the stove and sitting down to eat.
However, Gavriel wasn’t, technically speaking, a bachelor. Or at least he hadn’t always been in his adulthood. Did the word “divorcee” apply to a man? How many years had it been since his divorce? It must twenty-five years, at least. Yes, it was. This very year. My silver anniversary, he joked, then caught himself. Not tonight, not on the night of Mindl’s passing.
Looking around his one-room living quarters above Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, Gavriel tried to remember when he first hit his wife, Hadassah. It hadn’t been all that long after they got married. Three years? Four years? What was the catalyst?
Maybe it was her poorly cooked meals—the wet spaghetti, the undercooked rice. He really couldn’t have done any better, and indeed hadn’t then or since, he thought, looking down at the dense lentil soup in the bowl before him.
Maybe it was Hadassah’s way of lying there in bed, barely tolerating his presence above and inside her, her body rigid in fury and disgust. Please let this be over soon; she must have been thinking. And usually, it was. Fairly quickly, in fact. Sometimes, Gavriel ejaculated quickly, as eager as she was to be done with the act. Other times, he rolled off Hadassah and masturbated mechanically. Still, she never pushed him away or refused him. He would have heeded that, he was sure of that. He wasn’t a monster. Even back then, he wasn’t.
And they both wanted children, if for different reasons. Hadassah: to nurture and cherish, as she never was by her own parents. Gavriel: to save their marriage from themselves, to fulfill his obligation to be fruitful and multiply, to instill the Torah way of life into a child, someone to whom Congregation Haverim Ahuvim could be bequeathed, to be truly a part of the nation Israel.
And perhaps that was the source of their trouble. They went to numerous specialists. The first, second, third . . . the tenth opinion. It was always the same verdict: there’s nothing wrong with either of you.
“Mr. Kestenberg, Mrs. Kestenberg, I really don’t know what to say. You’re both perfectly healthy. This is not something we see very often in our profession, but it does happen. All I can say is keep trying,” a Dr. Goldstein informed the couple, as they sat beneath a detailed anatomical drawing of the human form. Looking up at it, Gavriel thought, “Why can’t my body look like this? What’s wrong with me? With us?” Dr. Goldstein handed them the brochures and pamphlets he had given them on several previous occasions, aware surely that he had done so, but unable to stop himself. Presumably, he felt he had to give them something since he couldn’t actually do anything for them. Neither of them had the heart to refuse the brochures. Hadassah threw them out when they got home. Gavriel found them all in the trash can the same day of their last visit to Dr. Goldstein. Had she kept the earlier copies the doctor had given them?
Gavriel and Hadassah even visited several alternative healers, who prescribed a potpourri of herbs. Cranks, charlatans—the lot of them! Profiteering off the pain of decent people. Not that either Gavriel or Hadassah was decent to each other or decent at all back then. Some of those herbs actually did increase the frequency of and the overall strength of Gavriel’s erections, but alas no pregnancy. Gavriel remembered becoming erect once during a Haverim Ahuvim council meeting. He had to force himself to concentrate on the grim budgetary matters under discussion before it subsided. And during this period, Gavriel would also get erections while studying Gemara with his study partner Natan Hartman in the evenings at Haverim Ahuvim. Years before, he might have thought it would be fun to have raging boners all the time, but it wasn’t. Sure, maybe as a teenager, but not in your thirties. That was when he got off those “naturopathic” pills. It was high (!) time.
And the fights between Gavriel and Hadassah grew in ferocity. The days of “grin and bear it” were over between them.
“What kind of a man are you? Grinding away at me night after night and still can’t pop a bun?”
“Me?! What about you? How do you know your equipment’s in order?”
“Because I do. Trust me. I do,” Hadassah answered.
“Oh yeah. How?” he insisted.
“Because I had an abortion years ago,” she stated, without a moment’s hesitation.
Gavriel felt the floor spinning, his head being pressed into a vise.
“Slut!” he shouted, and then, in Yiddish, “Kurve!” He saw his hand fly out and meet her cheek, and then Hadassah was suddenly on the floor. What? How did she get there? Had he done that? Yes, he had. Or so it seemed. And then Gavriel was mortified, bending down and trying to help her off the floor. Only she waved him away, sobbing into the linoleum floor. When she stood up, Gavriel saw a purple and blue circle forming on her face. So yes, that must have been the first time he hit his wife. That was when he became an abusive husband. A wife beater.
Hadassah’s abortion of years before. Why had he lost his control over that? Did he expect her to be a virgin? He couldn’t possibly have. She came from a less observant milieu than Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. By the time they were married, Hadassah was thirty, and Gavriel was thirty-three. Gavriel had been so pleased that they had found each other. Through a friend of his—Natan, in fact. In the world of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, this was late in life to be getting married. If Hadassah never made his heart flutter, that was just fine with him. Still her unremarkable face, her sturdy body moved him. They would provide each other companionship. How could a coming-together begun so reasonably be unraveling so wildly, at such a fever pitch? Maybe that abortion had damaged Hadassah’s organs for good? He never discussed the circumstances of that abortion with her. Maybe it had been a matter of his parts not being in order. Or maybe God was simply preventing life from forming where it should not.
Things didn’t improve after that. It was true what they said—that abusers don’t improve unless they get help. At least, that was true in Gavriel’s case. And he never did get the help he needed.
Gavriel’s parents Arnold and Myrna were mortified. Arnold was the Founder of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. Hadassah always stayed in the apartment after one of the violent episodes. She didn’t want Arnold and Myrna to know. She didn’t want anyone to know and appeared to have successfully concealed it from the congregation as a whole. But, of course, his parents found out. Leave it to Arnold and Myrna! Gavriel never did find out exactly how they found out; he couldn’t bring himself to ask them or Hadassah. Arnold spoke to his son one day after evening services. Someone had to talk sense into his son. If not his father, then who?
“Gavriel, this has to stop,” Arnold couldn’t even utter the words: “hitting” or “beating” or “slapping” or “smacking.”
“I know, Ta,” Gavriel responded, looking away.
“This cannot continue. It’s a terrible sin. You must stop. You must get help,” he said.
“I know,” Gavriel repeated.
“Is that all you have to say for yourself, Gavriel? ‘I know’?” his father asked. The silence weighed heavily between them. Gavriel saw the worry etching lines into his father’s forehead as if he were aging before Gavriel’s very eyes.
“Is this how I raised you? To be violent? How could you do this to your wife? A man of your size against a small woman?”
“No. No. And again, I don’t know,” Gavriel responded directly, if literally, to his father’s first three questions. And then, in response to the last—what, it was more of an observation than a question—he wondered if it would have somehow been less appalling to his father if he had been a smaller man, as if the forces might have less unevenly matched. Now he really was being a khutspenik, he thought about himself.
“Are you trying to be funny? Don’t you come from a loving home? Weren’t you loved? Was it something we did? I can’t have the gabai of my shul beating his wife. I won’t stand for it,” Arnold said. And with that, he walked away from Gavriel in disgust. Why did Arnold have to bring up the synagogue? Would the violence have been more palatable if Arnold weren’t the founder and his son the gabai? It always came back to Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, didn’t it? Gavriel thought.
Myrna said nothing directly to Gavriel, but her sighs and her worried eyes said it all. How could my son be doing this? Where did we go wrong? Gavriel couldn’t answer those questions even in his mind. Of course, Arnold and Myrna were loving and supportive parents, if a bit obsessed with Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. Maybe that is my problem—that I think of my parents by their first names—as Arnold and Myrna, thought Gavriel that night after his “talk” with Arnold.
Arnold and Myrna Kestenberg weren’t impressed with Hadassah when they first met her. They mistook Hadassah’s quietness for sullenness, and she didn’t seem to know the most basic rituals. She didn’t stand at the appropriate time during Kiddush. She didn’t wash her hands in the correct ritual manner before eating bread. Instead of doing it twice over each hand, she did it just once. Myrna’s sharp eyes caught that. As for the blessings, Hadassah just seemed to be mumbling them. Arnold saw all of this, too, but he believed she could learn.
Apparently, Hadassah was raised by an aunt in a distant city. Arnold and Myrna really didn’t know anything about her or her roots. But, at thirty-three, they had almost given up on ever seeing grandchildren from Gavriel. Gavriel’s brother, Hayim, had left the city long ago. It was up to Gavriel to tend, and hopefully, carry on the flame of Haverim Ahuvim. He had been doing the former by fulfilling his role as gabai of the synagogue, but as for the latter—well, that had yet to happen.
So when Hadassah came along, Arnold and Myrna put aside their worries about Gavriel. They danced joyfully at the wedding. When Arnold danced in the inner circle with both of his sons in the circle of dancing men, Gavriel saw bliss on his father’s face. And what else? Maybe a dash of disbelief, too.
The violence and their marriage ended by Hadassah finding refuge elsewhere. She went to stay with Mindl. Gavriel didn’t know that at first. He looked around their apartment one day after his job teaching at a day school. He remembered that he had had a fairly short day. The school principal (and nominal rabbi of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim) Rabbi Ariel came by his class to observe and then ended up taking it over. He started grilling the students on the Torah portion and then slipped into his sermonizing. The children’s eyes didn’t dare glaze over, but Gavriel could see they wanted him back in charge of the class. For his part, Gavriel enjoyed it when Rabbi Ariel took over the class. He got to relax a bit. But yes, Hadassah packed all of her things—specifically her clothing and accessories. Shoes, jewelry, toiletries, all of it gone. The food and furniture and household items were still intact, exactly as they had been before Gavriel went to work that morning. The entire apartment seemed particularly tidy. Did she do extra cleaning before she left or did it just look cleaner since her personal effects were gone? Gavriel was never sure.
In fact, it was several months before he even discovered Hadassah’s whereabouts. The restraining order that was sent to their apartment did not list her address. The divorce papers were not far behind. Gavriel signed all of the documents immediately after he opened the envelope, barely glancing at the terms. Hadassah asked for nothing. Clearly, she just wanted to be free of him. Looking back now, Gavriel didn’t blame her. Back then, he was still so desperate for a child. That dream vanished with Hadassah. Of course, it had been gone before, but her departure was the nail in the coffin, so to speak. The coffin of their child that never was.
He never saw Hadassah out and about in the neighborhood. He certainly never saw her at Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. Not that he was looking. Hiding from the monster with the short fuse, the temper, and the uncontrollable hands. Word would get out soon if it hadn’t already. Matchmakers wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Her former husband—the gabai, the monster.
It was a youngster in the congregation, little Shifrah Fogel, who informed Gavriel of Hadassah’s whereabouts.
“Hello, Mr. Kestenberg. How are you,” she asked. “How is your wife? I saw her with Miss Vakhtman a few days ago,” Shifrah smiled up at him and then skipped away in a cloud of pink froth.
So that was it. Hadassah was with Mindl. Of course, he might have known. Hadassah must have been waiting out at Mindl’s place, rarely or never going out. Mindl always had to get involved. Dear soul or meddling busybody? Tonight, of all nights, Gavriel had to think the former. And always so controlling, couldn’t let the smallest detail go. She had to clean the synagogue until infirmity set in. What kind of woman does that? Gavriel remembered when some members of the council had reached their limit with Mindl. Not unreasonably, they found it appalling that an elderly and extremely active member and ardent supporter of their congregation was cleaning the floors of the synagogue. Something had to be done. Those were the words of Mr. Fogel, “Something had to be done.”
But Mindl wouldn’t hear of it. The floors of the synagogue were sacred to her; her parents were founding members of the synagogue along with Gavriel’s. Gavriel thought of the custom of kissing the ground when landing in the Holy Land. Was that how Mindl saw the floors of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim? The filthy floors upon which snow and sleet were tracked in the winter and mud in the warmer seasons? Gavriel himself had had to intervene forcefully on her behalf before the Council. The Council finally relented and allowed Mindl to continue her cleaning.
Gavriel never told Mindl about his intervention, but she must have sensed it. She had an uncanny sense of things, that one. So Mindl sheltered his wife from his own violence, but never spoke to him about it. No chastisement, no cold shoulder, not a word. Professional, collegial, committed to the synagogue. They understood each other. They had been allies, despite it all. Or perhaps—and that was all. Just that.
Finishing the last bit of his lentil soup, Gavriel realized when he was in Mindl’s apartment just after Mrs. Ivers called that he could have asked Mrs. Ivers if he could see Mindl’s spare bedroom. Mrs. Ivers wouldn’t have known the difference; she would have thought Gavriel was paying his respects. She would have nodded discreetly and then slipped out, just as she did when Gavriel called Mrs. Reznikoff on Mindl’s rotary phone. He could’ve seen the room where Hadassah found refuge after she escaped Gavriel.
But now it was probably too late for that. Mrs. Reznikoff had taken over. And they’d already found a brief last will and testament. Mindl willed all of her estate to the Federation Thrift Shop. She bequeathed her rather liquid assets to the Fashion Institute for a scholarship fund for a female student who wanted to make her mark in designing women’s undergarments. Mindl’s parents had owned Vakhtman’s Ladies Garments, and Mindl worked there her entire working life selling underwear to women. Gavriel wasn’t sure that what Mindl did could be called “a career.” Mindl left the store itself to its longtime manager, Vera Levinsky.
So Gavriel had no real justifiable cause to return to Mindl’s apartment at this point. But still, he was curious. Why didn’t he remember to look at that second bedroom? What would he tell Mrs. Iverson? That he wanted a second look around? It probably would have worked. He had been Mindl’s emergency contact, after all. Not Vera Levinsky. Not Mindl’s sister. What was that woman’s name? Rosa? Yes, Rosa Klein. He’d have to call her. Mindl and Rosa hadn’t spoken in many years. Who knew what that was about? Mindl never told him. He wondered if it was because Rosa married a distant cousin of Irving Klein, the man who jilted Mindl months before the wedding? Mindl must have been enraged by that. But no, if he was correct, the sisters were estranged even before Rosa’s marriage. He’d better look up Rosa’s number, he reminded himself. That was something he must not forget to do. A sister, even if estranged, had a right to know about her sister’s death.
He wouldn’t go back to Mindl’s place again, Gavriel decided. He scraped the leftovers of his lentil soup in the trash can and placed the empty bowl and spoon in the sink. It hadn’t been much of a meal but still something to fill his belly. Looking down into the sink, Gavriel remembered how in yeshiva they used to groan about the food the cook prepared them. On the day she prepared potato knishes, they would sing (under their breaths) the first lyric of the Yiddish song “Bulbes”: zuntik, bulbes, montik bulbes . . . Sunday, potatoes, Monday, potatoes—what he would give for those potato knishes today! Once the bowl and spoon were filled with dish soap and hot water, he stared at them blankly, as if willing away the next logical step in this process. He’d wash them tomorrow. With extra diligence. And then Gavriel thought this: Why hadn’t he gotten to know Mindl better when she was alive? A sigh, rising bitterly from his depths, escaped him.
Now, how about some sleep?
Nearly the entire congregation attended the funeral service. Rabbi Ariel spoke eloquently of Mindl’s continuing the work of her parents, her decades of service and devotion to the synagogue—the very points that Gavriel had intended to cover. He could’ve repeated them; no one would have minded. When Rabbi Ariel turned to him signaling that it was his turn to speak, there was the briefest moment when Gavriel considered declining the request, but then he thought better of it. He stood up and spoke these words:
“For many decades, Mindl Vakhtman was Haverim Ahuvim. Through her selflessness and mental, spiritual, and not least, physical work, Mindl improved the well-being of our sacred space. She helped consecrate this ground. But much of that has already been covered today.”
“What I want to say is this: Mindl Vakhtman lived her life intensely, fully. If her life didn’t necessarily turn out exactly as she may wanted it, she never complained, and she never blamed or spoke ill of anyone. Mindl devoted herself to our shul because she believed in us, believed in our mission of providing a welcoming spiritual home for all. No one was ever lesser in Mindl’s eyes because they had less money or were less observant. Mindl saw dos pintele yid—the Jewish essence—in all of us. And she was as kind to those outside our faith as inside it. She never passed a beggar without giving something. She volunteered at public schools, helping children who had fallen behind in their reading skills.”
“Mindl also opened her home to someone fleeing my worse self, someone whom I cared about deeply. I never thanked Mindl for that act of hospitality, and I never thanked her enough for her many other such acts. Mindl, thank you. Mindl, forgive me.”
“Mindl Vakhtman, we honor you, and we wish you eternal peace.”
Gavriel said Kaddish for Mindl that day, and he vowed to continue to doing so for a year. After all, Mindl had no one to say Kaddish for her. Rabbi Ariel confirmed the permissibility of saying Kaddish for someone who was not a relative. Gavriel felt his father would have been proud, too. His father was always fond of Mindl, as he was of her father, Eli Vakhtman, even if they hadn’t always seen eye-to-eye on all matters congregational. What were the causes of those disagreements? Gavriel couldn’t recall. And now Mindl wasn’t there to ask.
Rosa Klein approached Gavriel after the service. Gavriel saw her consider leaning in and down to give him a cheek kiss and a hug and then think the better of it, remembering just in time the prohibition against touching a member of the opposite sex.
“Thank you for your words today, Mr. Kestenberg. Thank you so much for all you’ve done,” she said.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Gavriel said, aware that it probably wasn’t his place to thank the sister of the deceased for attending the funeral. But he had to say something, and that’s what popped into his mind. And he wondered what Rosa meant by “all you’ve done.” Did she mean all he’d done for Mindl? For the synagogue? Gavriel couldn’t think of a polite way to frame his question. And then Rosa nodded briskly and walked away. What a striking figure she cut, Gavriel couldn’t help but notice, all in stylishly cut mourning black. It suited her. Mindl couldn’t hold a candle to her sister stylewise. Never could. Not that Mindl was a slouch when it came to fashion; she certainly wasn’t. But she didn’t have Rosa’s innate elegance. Their mother, Ida Vakhtman, on the hand, really was frumpy. Even in synagogue on Shabbas, she invariably wore a shapeless sackcloth dress of charcoal gray and black. How had such well-turned-out women like Rosa and Mindl emerged from such a woman? They must have absorbed something from that ladies’ garments store, even if it mostly (entirely?) sold underwear. As Rosa disappeared, Gavriel wondered briefly if Hadassah had heard about Mindl’s death. He didn’t see her at the service, but perhaps she escaped his detection. He should have told her about Mindl’s death, but reconnecting with Hadassah, even through an intermediary, hadn’t even occurred to him. Of course, it was too late now. Hadassah wouldn’t be able to pay last respects to her . . . “benefactor” of long ago. My final injustice to my former wife, Gavriel thought, one of the two women I’ve betrayed. If Hadassah had been here, their “triangle” would have been united in place, reverberating for the final time. At some point, before he died, he would have to ask Hadassah for forgiveness. All these many Yom Kippurs gone by, and he never had.
Kaddish yes, shivah no. Gavriel decided at the gravesite, shoveling dirt with several other congregants onto Mindl’s casket as a light, cold rain fell below a makeshift plastic “awning.” He wouldn’t tear his clothes or sit on a low stool or cover the mirrors for Mindl. It wasn’t his place to do so. It wasn’t legally required, and he wouldn’t ask Rabbi Ariel if he could. Gavriel had to draw the line somewhere. Every relationship had its limits. Perhaps if Mindl had bequeathed her fortune and the store to Congregation Haverim Ahuvim instead of to ladies’ underwear scholarship students and Vera Levinsky, Gavriel might have felt differently. Still, maybe another congregant would organize some kind of shivah for Mindl? For his part, his recitation of ancient Aramaic words three times a day in honor of her soul and the sacred work in the synagogue she loved would suffice. And it would be more than enough for Mindl. In fact, Mindl would be pleased. Of that, Gavriel was somehow sure.