A Minyan

    February Purim 2002            
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The Tenth Man

by Charles Rammelkamp

Morgenbesser walks through the metal detector at work. It reminds him of the chuppah under which he and Amy were married. Only, the marriage canopy did not object to his keys and coins. He steps back through, the alarm ringing again, and empties his pockets. Then he walks back through again. Silence. The security guard nods him on to the turnstile where he waves his security badge at an electric eye and punches in his private code. The latch clicks and he is able to push his way through into the lobby. At last he can go to the elevators and ultimately to his desk.

What strikes Morgenbesser as absurd about the metal detector is that the federal employees do not have to pass through it, only the contractors. Something to do with the union, he understands. But you could hardly call it a fail safe security system, could you?

Especially when you consider some of the federal workers, he thinks, looking at Steve Gordon breezing past the security guards to the federal employee turnstiles. Steve is a scruffy young guy with a set of eyebrow rings that makes Morgenbesser think of a shower curtain rod, and spiked hair dyed a blinding shade of blond. Tattoos trail up and down his arms like animal tracks, peace symbols and flowers; he even has a tat on his cheek of a small butterfly. Like a sixties hippie born too late. But for all that, Gordon's probably not a danger to anybody, though he is supposed to be some sort of computer wizard from M.I.T. and could conceivably bring the agency to its knees if he wanted to.

Morgenbesser rides the elevator to the fifth floor where he walks down a maze of corridors to the cubicle where Mary, the company secretary, presides over the logbook he must sign when he arrives at work and when he leaves each day.

"Raining out yet?" Mary asks. She's a fat woman with beehive hair dyed a flaming orange.

"Not yet, but it's getting cloudier," Morgenbesser tells her. There are no windows in the building, so nobody knows what the weather is like outside.

"Supposed to rain today. Chance of thunderstorms."

"Yeah, that's what I heard," Morgenbesser agrees, and then he goes back to the elevators to descend to the fourth floor, where his own desk is, in one of several hundred cubicles set up like a refugee camp.

*    *    *

"Dan, we need you for the minyan." Josh Polansky, a heavyset guy with a thick mustache, looms over Morgenbesser, who sits at his computer typing away at a report. It's just after lunch. About half a dozen Orthodox Jewish guys have started organizing a mid-day minyan to recite the minchah prayers. Or maybe they've been doing it all along and Morgenbesser has just been made aware of it via Bernie Potts' e-mail broadcast.

Bernie himself is not Orthodox. A short, squat, gnomish man in his mid-fifties, Bernie has confided to Morgenbesser that he'd prefer to play bridge with his cronies in the fifth floor lounge when the minyan is taking place, but he's glad to fill in when they need a tenth man. Bernie set up the e-mail list at the request of Seth Friedman, one of the Orthodox dudes who wear kippot at all times. Yarmulkes, skullcaps.

Since the Orthodox dudes run the minyan, it's only Jewish males who are allowed to attend, and they have a tough time fielding the required ten male Jewish bodies. Morgenbesser has been the tenth man on occasion, the final body that enables the others to do their praying.

One Thursday they could only come up with nine, and they'd disbanded without reading the prayers, though Morgenbesser suspects the real reason they did not persevere until they got a tenth was that Seth Friedman had not come. Everybody called Seth Sammy because his Hebrew name was Shmuel. Sammy was the one who brought the bag full of kippot and siddurim, the prayerbooks, and without the prayerbooks, how could you pray? Morgenbesser packs his own kippah these days, keeps one handy in the drawer of his desk, one he scarfed from a kid's bar mitzvah last winter, freebees offered to guests to commemorate the event. Have yarmulke, will travel. Like a knight errant from chivalric literature. Paladin.

Once they've got all ten guys, Ted Kaplan usually leads them in prayers. Facing the eastern wall of the conference room they've reserved, he davans like a dervish, bobbing and swaying in place while he mutters the Hebrew prayers at an amazing rate, lifting up on his tiptoes with the kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, bowing and ducking like a courtier. It's the best Morgenbesser can do to recognize an occasional prayer (yit-gadaal, v'yit-kadash, sh'may rabah.. the kaddish prayer goes licking past his ears like a movie in fast motion) and to utter the odd "amen" at the appropriate interval.

"Just a second." Morgenbesser saves the text he has been working on, logs off of the computer and rises from his desk. He follows Josh as he weaves down the corridors of cubicles to the fourth floor conference room.

"Thanks a lot, Dan," Josh says over his shoulder. "We only have eight so far." The minyan was scheduled to begin five minutes ago. "We're running a little late," he continues, "but we're on Jewish time, so it don't matter." He chuckles. Josh is about as skilled at praying and recognizing Hebrew as Morgenbesser. His son became a bar mitzvah the year before, though, so he's been through the synagogue wringer recently, steeped in the protocol. Like Morgenbesser, he basically sees himself as an enabler; his presence as the tenth man allows the fervent davaners to proceed, and he basks in their performance by reflection. It's a mitzvah, a good deed.

They pass Myra Goldstein on their way to the conference room. A tough-talking sixty-ish woman with dyed red hair, Myra runs a little group of technicians who go around fixing people's computers. They call her Mama, like the leader of a little band of hoodlums, which is how Morgenbesser thinks of her. A ringleader, a "boss." As they nod at each other, he reflects that Myra's more Jewish than he is, only a convert; even if you can't "really" measure such things, and no Jew is "really" more Jewish than another, still, she comes from a long line of Jews. How convenient it would be for the dudes if they only let women join. But to Sammy and Ted and the others, that would be like saying you could have a minyan with five or eight - just as much an anathema. Ten men - ten Jewish men - was just the way it was. They didn't write the rulebook, after all. God did that. Hashem.

Morgenbesser kind of likes the men's club atmosphere. It's a cross between a locker room and a library. All the men are studious, serious, subdued - but there is an unmistakable male camaraderie. While they wait for the minchah prayers to get underway, their talk is unremarkable but spoken without the slightest hint of flirtation or sexual competitiveness, as there might be in a mixed crowd. No gallant guys. They speak indifferently, with the matter-of-fact modesty of men talking to men.

Sammy and several of the dudes are sitting at the conference table when Josh and Morgenbesser enter the room. Nine men, counting the new arrivals.

"Anybody seen Bernie?" Elliott Rosenthal asks.

"He's in Chicago for the next couple of weeks," Sammy says. "What about Shlomo?"

"Shlomo's out today," Mark Stainman says. "There's a message on his voice mail." Shlomo Cohen can usually be depended on. He's one of the dudes.

"What about Marty?"

"Give him a call."

Sammy calls Marty Levitsky on his cell phone but doesn't get an answer.

"I'm gonna go see if I can't find somebody," Josh says. He leaves the room, reducing the number to eight. A man on a mission.

"The security team has a meeting here at 1:30," Ron Plotkin announces. Plotkin glances at his wristwatch. It's five to one. The hourglass is running out. The prayers take about ten, fifteen minutes to perform.

"You still with security?" Stainman asks him.

"CICS, but they're always calling me and sending e-mail messages."

"When'd you join CICS?"

"A year ago? Last fall."

"Huh, I didn't know that."

"Who's Josh looking for? Anybody in particular?"

"Who is there?"

"Roman or Gennady, maybe?" The Russians, men who escaped the Soviet Union where Jew was essentially something stamped on an identity card. To Morgenbesser, they seem uncomfortable among the dudes, self-conscious and unsure how to behave around such fervent praying.

"You hear the one about the Jew who went to China?" Marvin Miller asks. It sounds like a joke, but then, Marvin, a kind of clownish-looking near-sighted bald guy, always sounds as if he's about to deliver a punchline. He fills up the expectant silence. "He's walking around the streets of Hong Kong when he hears the sound of Jews praying. He can't believe his ears. They're chanting the kaddish prayer. He goes down this little flight of stairs, the sound growing louder, and into this basement room, and sure enough, there are about a dozen men praying. He's overcome with emotion and asks if he can join. So one of the Chinese gentlemen comes up to him and says, 'You Jewish?'" Marvin lampoons a Chinese accent. "He says yes, and the Chinaman says, 'Funny, you don't look Jewish.'"

Polite laughter ripples around the room. It's a joke they've heard before. Morgenbesser wonders if this is somehow directed at him.

"One o'clock," Plotkin announces. Tick, tick, tick.

Just then the door pushes open, and Josh Polansky enters, with Steve Gordon in tow. Steve Gordon! Eyebrow rings, tattoos and all!

"Okay, we've got ten!" Josh announces triumphantly.

Everybody seems about as surprised as Morgenbesser by the tenth man. He hadn't known Gordon was Jewish, and apparently neither did the others. Ted is facing the eastern wall looking around as if for direction. Ron Plotkin glances again at his wristwatch. Mark Stainman looks around to see how the others are reacting.

Morgenbesser is the first to take a prayerbook from the bag.

Charles Rammelkamp has been Jewish since the age of 30, today, at 49 years old, he is still wrestling with the angel, so to speak. He continues to grapple with the implications of having chosen his own religious identity. "Judaism is part ethnic, and I don't have that ethnic background,"

A father of two girls, ages 11 and 14, Mr. Rammelkamp makes his living as a technical writer with the Social Security Administration. He and his wife, Abby, attend Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill

"The Tenth Man" is a story from the "A Better Tomorrow" collection. "A Better Tomorrow" is available online from the print-on-demand publisher PublishAmerica (www.PublishAmerica.com ).


from the February Purim 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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