By Martin Jaeger
“Did you talk to your father about the baby’s name?” Lila asked.
The Rubins had two daughters and the fidgeting infant lying in his mother’s arms, born ten hours ago in the early hours of the night, was the boy Hal always wanted. He planned to name his son after his grandfather Ezra, a rabbi who had committed suicide.
“No,” I didn’t.” Hal finally answered. “It was late and my father was tired. Besides, I wanted to talk to him at his apartment, where he would be relaxed.” Hal had put off the subject of the baby naming as long as he could. He knew there would be an unpleasant confrontation—one that he dreaded, and one that he couldn’t avoid.
“You’re just a coward…but I love you. You make such nice babies.”
The Rubin babies all had almond eyes in an attractive oval face—with the unmistakable thin Rubin nose.
Even as Lila winced and bit her lip from the spasms and pain from the delivery she had begun planning the bris. There was so much to do.
“Meanwhile, I’ll call Marg,” Lila said, “…she’s a sweetheart…I need her to help me arrange for the food, the invitations… the deserts, the mohel…” A cramp gripped Lila again and she finished the sentence with a groan. She watched Hal playing with the newborn’s tiny hands sticking out of his tiny blue sleeves.
“And now, my dear husband, it’s time for you to leave me and prepare for the lion’s den.”
That afternoon, Hal went to see his father, Meyer, who lived in a one bedroom apartment on 10 Mile Road in an older section of Detroit. It was close to the Northland Mall, and the Avery Senior Center where he spent a lot of time playing pinochle with his friends. When his father opened the door, Hal gave him a large smile, bent his six foot three inch frame over, and kissed him on the forehead.
Hal made coffee in the kitchen and poured a cup for himself and his father. Because the apartment reeked of cigar smoke, Hal rarely came. The smoke-filled air irritated Hal’s eyes and the odor made him nauseated. It also reminded him of a painful time in his youth, when he had no choice but to endure the noxious odor--and his father’s bad temper.
Throughout the apartment, there were mementos of Hal’s ancestors: pictures, dishes, candlesticks that had been passed down for generations, and his favorite, a wind-up clock that his father’s mother, Grandma Anna, had brought with her from Russia. Whenever he visited his father, Hal would wind up the clock’s spring and set the time.
He also liked the bar mitzvah pictures of himself taken just before his thirteenth birthday even though it made him look chubby.
“So Hal, tell me what time is the bris?” Meyer asked, now seated across the kitchen table stirring half and half into his coffee. Although he adored Lila and Hal’s two daughters, there was something special about having a grandson.
“I thought you’d never ask. Ten-thirty, next Tuesday. I hope you can make it,” Hal said with a straight face.
“A personal invitation. And from my son. I’ll check my calendar.”
“Order your tickets soon. We’re running out of them,” he smiled. “How does it feel to be the guest of honor—next to the baby, of course?”
“If you don’t have Russian Coffee Cake, I’m not coming.”
Hal smiled again. “You drive a hard bargain.”
“You know my time is valuable. I’ve got places to go, people to see. I have a standing date at the Senior Center with the kibitzers.”
Hal enjoyed bantering with his father who had a good sense of humor. But it was time--time for Hal to ask his father the question.
“We were thinking of naming the baby after your father. What do you think?”
Meyer stopped sipping his coffee; his face turning crimson. “Are you nuts?” he said, his eyes on fire and his face contorted. “Don’t you know it’s against the Jewish religion to name a baby after a person who committed suicide? Where are your brains?” His hands shaking, he nearly spilled his coffee.
Hal had seen his father’s anger while he grew up, and feared his father’s fury. He’d never forget the time he’d gone to the grocery store and lost a fifty cent coin; his father screamed at him as if he had smashed the family car. Adding to Hal’s frustration was the fact that his dad never allowed anyone to talk back. With the finality of a judge rendering a decision, Meyer ended any conversation. By never disagreeing with anything his father said, Hal had learned to get along with his father. Even the wrong opinion about the weather could send Meyer into a tirade.
“Since when have you become so religious?” Hal responded.
“Some things you don’t forget. You just don’t do it,” he said, his voice getting louder and his eyes defiant.
“Even so,” Hal said, “I would like to name the baby Ezra.”
“So, you want every time I see the baby to think of my crazy father?” Meyer gave his son a look of disgust.
Hal knew this would be difficult. He felt like a fighter; he didn’t know if he would win--he just hoped his father would let him finish.
“Pop, he died a long time ago,” Hal said in a quiet voice, “Maybe it’s time to forget and forgive.”
“Forget and forgive! Wise guy. That’s easy for you to say.” Meyer gritted his teeth and took a labored breath. “Why don’t you name him after your uncle Jack—Aunt Sarah’s husband? He was a good man.”
“I know that but…”
“Okay, Mr. Smart Guy. Let me tell you about my father…the man you want to name a baby after.”
Afraid that Meyer had become too agitated and might have another heart attack, Hal interrupted him. “Pop. How about moving into the living room where we can spread out and relax? I’m tired of sitting around the table.”
Meyer followed Hal into the living room, eased into his arm chair, and lit a cigar. Then he shook off his soft blue slippers—he had developed neuropathy, and his feet felt better when they were uncovered. Hal sat at the far end of the couch, as far away from the smoke as possible.
“My father came to Toronto from Russia when he was twenty five. His family was very religious. You know, the beards, and the tsis tsis, and the payis… ultra-orthodox. He got a job as a rabbi of a small Hassidic temple on the outskirts of Toronto. His religion was everything to him. He prayed from morning to night, and when he didn’t pray he studied. That was his life.” Meyer paused. “One day a cop shows up at the schul and wants to arrest my father.”
“Arrest your father? For what?”
“ For running a house of prostitution.”
“Wow, that’s a shocker.” Hal leaned back against a pillow on the sofa, and shook his head.
“It turned out the shule had some extra money and wanted to make an investment. A member—a real estate broker---found the property and rented it out. For five years the schul got payments every month like clockwork. Who knew it had become a brothel?”
“So what happened?”
“What do you think happened? Because he was the rabbi everyone blamed him. It was his fault,” Meyer said closing his eyes and continuing. “The schul fired him immediately because they said he had brought shame on them. He was disgraced. He left Russia because of the Cosacks, and the Hassidim finished the job.”
“But he didn’t know anything about it.”
“You’re right but they’re ultra-orthodox—they don’t know from reasons. And the sad part was my father blamed himself also.”
Hal was quiet for a moment.
Then Meyer said, “We left Toronto because we were treated like lepers by them. We moved to Detroit, where my mother had an aunt—Aunt Sarah--and she took us in, and no one ever knew a thing about my father.”
“But then why do you hate him so?”
“Because he was a coward when he committed suicide. He left my mother without a husband, and me without a father.”
“And after all these years, you still hate him?”
“What do you know? Did you have the dreams about your father killing himself over and over again?”
“But imagine the pain he experienced… to feel trapped, hopeless, and ashamed, until he reached a point where he had to kill himself, and give up his wife and son?” Hal thought to himself what that moment must have been like when his grandfather was so distraught he needed to destroy his life—to snuff it out like a candle.
“He should have been a man and lived and taken care of us.” Meyer spoke again with his particular gesture of finality. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. He seemed worn-out and Hal knew the discussion was over as far as Meyer was concerned.
But Hal was no longer that child who could be brushed off, who was afraid to talk back. He had been an architect for nearly twenty years, and had dealt with developers of large properties where fighting for his beliefs was the difference between getting the plans for the projects he envisioned approved, or some administrator scaling them back.
He was determined to go forward.
“Pop, don’t you feel deep in your heart that you could find one bit of sympathy for him? He killed himself because he was such an honorable man. He couldn’t live with the guilt and the shame he brought on you.”
“You should have been a lawyer instead of an architect. For your information, I didn’t go to college like you because we needed the money. And what about my mother? She died of a broken heart. Do you know what it’s like seeing her cry week after week?” His voice choked up as he thought back.
“But your father loved you and Grandma. He hoped his death would end the miserable treatment you were getting. If he were alive, people would ridicule him, and you. There wouldn’t be a moment of peace. He sacrificed himself for you.”
Hal stood up and walked to the window opening the blinds so there would be some light to illuminate the dingy smoke filled apartment. Hal could see outside into the sunlit street and he imagined he could smell the cool, crisp air outside the window. The sunlight, like a spotlight, streamed in on Meyer until Hal adjusted the blinds to shade his father’s face.
“But your mother didn’t think like you did.” Hal said and went into the kitchen to refill his cup with more coffee.
“What do you know about my mother?” Meyer shouted to the kitchen.
Hal returned to the room. He wondered if he really had the courage to precipitate the first battle he had with his father since he was a teen, or should he avoid confronting him, as he had learned to do. A part of him welcomed the challenge but Meyer was in his eighties and Hal couldn’t expect him to change. Most of all, Hal worried if he continued fighting wouldn’t he be as guilty of being stubborn as his father?
Hal returned to the sofa. “I was just thinking about Grandma,” he said, “and the cookies she made--with all kinds of jams--and how great they smelled when she took them out of the oven…and the latkes she made every year for Chanukah. I remember she used to give me silver dollars. It was wonderful visiting her with you and Mom.”
“I remember too.” Meyer smiled as he recalled his mother cooking for them and her warmth. “That woman was a saint. I wouldn’t have survived without her.”
“Do you remember when we went to visit her at the hospital and you left the
room to talk to the doctor in private?”
“How could I forget?”
“Well, while you were out of the room, she took my hand and made me
promise if I ever had a boy I would name him Ezra, after grandfather.” Hal paused, “And I promised, Pop. I promised I would.”
“You were just a thirteen year old kid. What did you know?”
“I don’t care how old I was. I made a promise to Grandma and I intend to keep it.”
Meyer looked at Hal as if he were going to vaporize him with his eyes.
“Pop, the baby is going to be named Ezra and I want you to hold him during the ceremony.”
“Damn it! Doesn’t it matter what I just said to you? Weren’t you listening? Go ahead and do what you want, but if you name the baby after my father I’m not coming to the bris.” He took his cigar and crushed it out in the ash tray.
“I’m sorry, Pop, but I can’t break my promise to Grandma.”
Hal felt exhausted, as if he had been on a long plane trip. He stood up and kissed his father on his head, as he always did. Once outside in the fresh air he patted his clothing trying to get rid of the smell of cigar smoke. Tears filled his eyes: for his grandpa, for his grandmother, for his father, for himself, and all those years of missed relationships.
The next morning, Hal met his Grandfather Ezra for the first time. Hal was shaving, and when he looked up, just as he was just finishing washing his face, he saw a little old man standing behind him, with the Rubin nose, a brown beard, and a black yarmulke. Hal wasn’t frightened, and for some strange reason felt at peace; he continued shaving.
“Hello, Hal,” a thin, wispy voice said. “I’ve got you into a fine mess.”
“Yes you did, Grandpa Ezra. But that’s okay. I’m a big boy.” Hal smiled under his heavy white lather.
“Yes, but you are up against a tough customer. I don’t know who he got it from.” The voice took on a more somber tone, “I don’t want any bad blood between the two of you. Besides, Meyer has suffered enough because of me. Look, I’ve got a suggestion. Call Meyer and tell him that you want him to come to the bris, and you’ll name the baby after your Uncle Jack.”
“Look,” the voice said. “I don’t have all day. I know you mean well…”
“All right.” Hal interrupted. “All right. I always listen to my grandfather.” There was silence and then a calm enveloped Hal. He rubbed the mist from
the mirror and finished shaving.
Tuesday, September 14th was a lovely day for a bris. The Rubin house was dressed up with Lila’s finery—her dishes, candlesticks, silverware, her set of delicate Canadian tea cups she got from Grandma Anna—all ready for the ceremony and festivities to follow. As friends and relatives came in the unlocked door, they found the happy parents, congratulated them, and located a comfortable seat near someone they knew or hadn’t seen for a long time, and became part of the hubbub of noisy well-wishers awaiting the mohel.
And then suddenly the front door flew open and Meyer entered. Hal was gathering some napkins and cutlery when he heard the commotion; everyone was huddling around his father.
Meyer was wearing the traditional clothing of a Chasidic Jew, black suit, black felt hat, black shoes, and a white shirt and a white prayer shawl underneath. Hal had never before seen his father dressed as a Chasid. He had a bag in one hand that contained the phylacteries an observant Jew wears when he prays, and in his other, an old prayer book that belonged to his father.
“I heard there was a party and I’m hungry,” Meyer said.
. “I’m glad you found the place,” Hal said embracing his father. Then he stood back and examined his father as if he were a piece of sculpture. “Why, the get up?”
“It’s time,” his father answered, with a sigh, his eyes in his wrinkled face narrowing. “After a lifetime of hate it’s time to forgive my father. And for your information, I also came to the conclusion that with the crazy way you think, Ezra is going to need all the help I can give him.”
Hal put his arms around his father’s shoulder and pulled him close. “And he’s going to need all your help very soon, so I hope you’re not squeamish.”
Lila approached the two men, carrying the infant in her arms.
“Pop, what really made you change your mind about the name?”
“I never liked your Uncle Jack and the thought of naming a kid after him was too much.” Meyer, his face glowing like a piece of hot briquette, took tiny Ezra in his arms. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll take the boychick, but only if Hal passes out the cigars.”
from the August 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine