A Minyan for Miriam
By Keith Bloomfield
The incessant "putt, putt, putt" of the motorbike's tiny engine made communication between Rob and Ilene Hermann virtually impossible. Seven years was much too long between vacations for the Hermanns. Every time they tried to get away, something stopped them. Finally, they cut a week from their schedules for a cruise to Bermuda. The week was more than they ever imagined it would be. They spent almost ever minute of the week together. Eating. Swimming. Eating. Shopping. Eating. Gambling. Eating. They covered the length and breadth of the entire island as they rode the motorbike along the narrow, twisting roads outside of Hamilton, with Ilene's arms wrapped around her husband's ample waist.
"Remember, it's just like driving in England," shouted Ilene into her husband's ear over the rumble of the bike's motor. "You have to drive on the left!"
"Just let me doing the driving, will ya hon!" With one hand, Rob adjusted the brim of a beige colored cap with the word "Bermuda" embroidered in blue letters on its crown. He hoped it would protect his receding hairline from the ravages of the wind and the sun. "I don't want to go home with a sunburn," he yelled at his wife over the sound of the motorbike.
The week was ending and they had spent the morning buying a few presents for members of the family and a few close friends. They returned to the ship just before noon. The huge ship dwarfed everything in town. Its decks and smokestacks seemed to touch the sky above the wharf. They would be sailing that afternoon at 4:00 and there was still so much to do.
"Why don't you take the packages back to the room and I'll get a table near the pool for lunch," suggested Ilene.
They clambered up the gangplank, balancing bags and boxes in their hands and under their arms, and into a waiting elevator. Ilene got off on the pool deck and Rob continued up to the deck where they stateroom was located. As Ilene left the elevator, a man in crumpled white linen pants and a very loud flowered Hawaiian shirt replaced her in the wood and chrome lined cab. The top few buttons of his shirt were open and tufts of white hair bloomed from his chest. The hair on his head was white as well and as far as Rob was concerned, he was a few weeks late for a visit to his barber. The two men smiled uneasily at each other as the car continued upward. Rob studied the awkward curls that tumbled over the stranger's ears, his bushy sideburns, and the way his hair flipped-up at the back of his head.
"Last minute shopping?" asked the man in the flowered shirt. Rob nodded. The elevator soon came to rest on the stranger's floor and the man began to exit. Suddenly he stopped and turned to Rob. "We need a tenth for a minyan. Can I count on you?"
Rob understood immediately. "Where and when?"
"The Theater on C deck at 7:30," he smiled and stepped back out of the car. "We'll see you then," he added with a wink as the door slid shut.
Ilene was studying the menu when Rob finally joined her. He sat down at the table opposite his wife and absentmindedly perused the lunch selections. The same lunch selections he had looked at throughout the cruise and had all but committed to memory. "I met someone on the elevator," he said nonchalantly.
"Really," said Ilene, brushing away from her face a long strand of blond hair that had escaped from her ponytail.
"Maybe you saw him as you were getting out."
"No. What are you having?"
"He was wearing a bright flowered shirt. I don't know yet."
"No, I didn't notice. Maybe I'll have the tuna salad platter."
"He needed a tenth man for a minyan and I agreed to help him. The French dip sounds good."
Ilene closed the menu and laid it down in front of her. "Who invited you to a minyan?"
"The man in the flowered shirt."
"What's his name?"
"I don't know."
"Have you ever seen him before?"
"How did he even know you were Jewish."
Rob suddenly paused and thought for a moment. "I don't know," he said slowly.
"I didn't even think about that."
"So a stranger who you never met and without a name. . ."
"I'm sure he has a name. I just don't know what it is."
"So a nameless stranger invites you to a minyan, and you said yes."
"Meshugag! You, who begrudgingly goes to services three times a year. You, who avoids every family simcha like a plague. You accepted an invitation from a nameless stranger to join a minyan?"
"What was I supposed to do? It's a mitzvah!"
"You could have introduced yourself and then you would have known who he was."
"It happened so fast." Rob pushed himself away from the table and stood up.
"What are you worried about?"
"It's a crazy world Rob. How do you know he wasn't some kind of terrorist? You can't trust your friends and you can't trust strangers."
"If you can't trust your friends, then they probably aren't your friends in the first place. I would rather be disappointed by a stranger than by a friend."
"Because it hurts to be disappointed by a friend, but if you're disappointed by a stranger who cares?" Ilene stood up as well. "Now where are you going?"
"To find out who reserved the theater for 7:30."
"What about lunch?"
"We can eat later. I'm going with you, so you don't get us into more trouble!"
The Hermanns took the stairs to the Purser's Desk. A nice young man with epaulettes on the shoulders of his jacket, giving it a nautical flair, eyed them carefully as they approached. "How can I help you?" asked the Assistant Purser.
Rob started to answer his question, but Ilene jumped in. "Can you please tell us who reserved the Theater on C deck at 7:30 this evening?"
"Certainly madam." He pushed several keys on the keyboard in front of him and slid the computer mouse around for a moment. "That would be Mr. Rubin. He is a very nice gentleman. He's sailed with us before."
"And what room is he in?" asked Rob.
"I can't tell you that sir, it's against Company policy, but I can give you his telephone extension." The Assistant Purser jotted the number down on a green paper sticky, and handed it to Rob. "You can call from that phone," he added, pointing to a bright yellow telephone perched on a tiny table between two heavily upholstered leather chairs.
Ilene grabbed the tiny piece of paper and walked to the phone, leaving Rob behind to thank the young man for his help. By the time Rob joined his wife, she had already dialed the number and had the phone pressed firmly against her ear. "It's ringing," she whispered. It continued to ring. "He's not picking up."
"How do you even know he's in the room? Did you really think that he was going to wait for your call?" asked Rob.
Ilene returned the receiver to its cradle. "Would you recognize him again if you saw him?"
"I think so. I'll never forget that haircut."
"Then we'll walk around the ship and try to find him."
"What happened to lunch?" he asked, stifling his growling stomach with his pudgy hand.
"We'll have something along the way," said Ilene, as she led him to the stairs.
For the rest of the afternoon, Rob and Ilene traipsed through every available square foot of the massive vessel that they or most any passenger was allowed to enter and a few that passengers were forbidden access to as well. From the bridge to the engine room and every deck in between, they looked for the man in the flowered shirt. They circled every pool. They explored every store in the ship's shopping mall. They looked in every restaurant and bar, lingering briefly in several of them. They shuffled through every common room. They peered through the locked doors of the casino. They walked down every corridor on every deck. And through all of their journeys, they never crossed paths with the man in the flowered shirt. He was either one step a head of them or one step behind them, never suspecting that they were in hot pursuit.
"I've had enough," admitted Rob. "Let's just go back to the room and get ready for dinner. We'll stop at the minyan along the way." Without much of an argument, Ilene agreed.
Rob and Ilene arrived at the Theater a few minutes before 7:30. Rob opened the door for his wife and they stared silently at what they found inside.
"I thought you told me that he said you were the tenth," said Ilene.
"That's what he said."
"The room holds two hundred people and it's practically full!"
As they stood at the door, even more people formed a line behind them.
"Let's just find seats," said Rob.
They took two seats in the center section and looked around. They saw familiar faces that they never would have expected to see at services. Ilene nudged her husband with her elbow. "Look, it's the Coopers who sit at our table?" Rob nodded in agreement. "I didn't even realize that they were Jewish," she giggled.
Suddenly, a man dressed very differently from when Rob met him in the elevator, appeared at the front of the theater. His crumpled linen pants were replaced with a pair of dark gray slacks with an impeccable razor sharp crease in each leg. Instead of a flowered shirt, he wore a crisp white shirt beneath and immaculately tailored blue blazer with shiny brass buttons that reflected the glare of the ceiling fixtures into the eyes of the people seated in the first three rows. He stood silently before the crowd and waited for silence.
"I want to thank you for joining us this evening. My name is Michael Rubin. My friends call me Mickey and I invite you to do the same. Today is my father-in-law's yartzeit. He's been gone for ten years." Mickey held out his hand toward the first row and a woman stood and joined him. "This is my wife, Miriam." She nodded and tried to smile at the hundreds of eyes that stared back at her. "She wanted to say kaddish, for him, but we weren't sure how to find enough Jews aboard a cruise ship to make a minyan."
"You told me that I was the tenth," called out an angry voice from the back of the room."
"That's what you told me," yelled another.
"You said the same thing to me too," screamed a third.
Mickey raised his hands to quell the crowd. "The fact is, that's what I told every one of you. I thought that if each of you believed that you were key to the minyan, you would show up. I guess I got a bit carried away, but look at all of you. You're beautiful!" Several members of the crowd began shouting at each other and Mickey raised his arms like Moses to try to quiet what had become an angry mob. "Some of you made it very easy. For those of you who wear a chai, a Mogen Dovid, a mezuzah, or a name in Hebrew on a gold chain around your neck, it was a no brainer. A kippah or tee shirt with a Hebrew slogan on it was just as easy. Then I had to be more creative. I listened carefully to what you spoke about when you thought no one was listening. I heard families planning Bar and Bat Mitzvot while they sat around the pool. I heard couples talking about what their Rabbi did or didn't do like so many yentas. I listened to people speak to each other in Yiddish as I walked through the casino and the shopping mall. I watched a young man practicing for his Bar Mitzvah with his portion laid out on his lap and headphones covering both ears. At first, I wasn't sure if he was listening to the newest hip-hop tune or to his Hazzan, until I heard the blessing for after his Haftorah portion escape from his lips"
As Mickey spoke, giggles, titters, and outright laughter erupted from the theater as individuals and families realized that he was talking about them.
"In the end, I just guessed. I think I did pretty well. Now you know what I did, and why I did it. I am so blessed that all of you accepted my invitation. There was certainly nothing in it for you; except the chance to perform a mitzvah for someone you didn't even know. As different as we all are, we have one thing in common. We are all Jews. If I inconvenienced anyone, I am truly sorry. You are certainly free to go." Mickey paused and looked around the auditorium. Not even Ilene and Rob moved to make a hasty exit. The assembled crowd looked around at each other as well. No one rose to leave. Mickey smiled and Miriam began distributing printed copies of the Maariv service. Several men on the aisles stood up, grabbed stacks of the service, and helped her to hand them out. In moments, everyone in the room had a copy.
"Then let's begin.
As the opening strains of the Borechu rose up through the ship and caught the ears of passengers relaxing on deck beneath a starry sky, a room that was once filled with strangers, davened as chavarim, and Miriam had her minyan.
from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine