Mizmor L'David Anthology 

 

 
Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award 

Poetica Magazine, Contemporary Jewish Writing


Black Silk, White Polka Dots
by Martin Marcus

          Leonard’s sister died. Her husband, never a religious Jew to Leonard’s knowledge, oddly put her last rites in the hands of an orthodox rabbi. As a result, when the company Leonard worked for sent flowers to the funeral home they were rejected. He was embarrassed on both ends of this--at his office for not having known to warn the well-meaning Gentiles in the human services department that flowers might be unwelcome at a Jewish funeral, and at the
funeral home for seeming ignorant of Jewish taboos in the eyes of other Jews. The truth was, of course, that he was ignorant of such things, and by his own
choice.

          Religion held no comforts for him. Leonard and his sister, Elaine, had been raised by parents who maintained only the thinnest connection to a
synagogue. While some of his boyfriends had been required by their families to have a bar mitzvah, Leonard had been merely encouraged. Elaine had had no religious education at all. It was true that in her mature years she took an interest in some of the highlights of the faith, the Friday evening candles,
Hanukah customs, Passover feasts. She was the kind of woman who enjoyed what Judaism had to offer at home in its mixing of tradition and family. But he
didn’t think she would have been comfortable with the idea of her funeral being overseen by an orthodox rabbi any more than he was.

          But her husband, Alex, was in deep grief, and nobody in their family had the heart to question his decisions in this bleak hour. Twenty years earlier, Alex had already lost one wife to the same disastrous illness as his sister’s, an exceptionally cruel fate for a widower.

          Alex was normally a dictatorial man. Now he was being positively Napoleonic. He marched through his house giving out instructions seemingly as
fast as he could think them up to relatives arriving from out of town. “Put those suitcases over here.” “No, not there. I said over here.”

          Everyone had wondered how Elaine, a serene person, but proud and even stubborn in her own way, was able to tolerate his authoritarian personality. He must have been difficult to spend every day of her life with. “Who is making the coffee? No, don’t use that pot. Use the other.” At this point his orders
were like a frenzy, yet Leonard supposed it was his brother-in law’s way of holding off the whelming tides of his grief.

          Even so, Alex’s decision to have a strict orthodox funeral seemed wrong-headed and a little bizarre. After all, everyone on both sides of the family was
either the most liberal kind of reform Jew or, like Leonard, well...indifferent. Not that Leonard felt any need to apologize for this. He and his late sister were
informal persons, hardly used to dealing with hoary rituals, to say nothing of taboos.

          So, for the service at the funeral parlor, Leonard was not pleased to be shunted with the rest of the family into a walled-off room at one side of the hall.
By this arrangement they could not be seen by the larger audience of more casual acquaintances who faced the rabbi at the rostrum. Leonard had a view of the rabbi’s side. It was as though he looked on from the wings at a stage performance.

          As he sat there in hiding Leonard could only guess at the reason for this practice. Another of those old taboos that said you should not look on the face of the grieving as they mourned or grief would come to you yourself? Come to think of it, he seemed to remember that a good many of these old-world
superstitions particularly prohibited looking. Don’t look at an unclothed woman, for example. Wasn’t that one of them? And there was that evil-eye business.
Certainly a modern opinion would deem it more right and more healthy to look upon almost anything than to look away. To him, this isolation did not feel like
protection from people’s gaping eyes. It felt more like a stigma, as though grief tainted you with some disagreeable smell. Later he learned that this quarantine is a custom not much in favor any more even among the orthodox. Yet his brother-in-law had thought it necessary, making a special request for it.
          
          The prayers were long and, of course, entirely in Hebrew. Leonard had read few Hebrew words since he was thirteen. He could remember almost
nothing of his six months of Hebrew training. He hadn’t attended a high holidays service in over thirty years. He had become a wedding-and-funeral Jew. Now, in this dimly-lit coop, although full of the sadness of Elaine’s loss, he felt ostracized. The rabbi’s prayers hung heavily in the torpid air, not one
word able to reach into his heart. 

          At the cemetery, the men of the family were called up in a rank at the front of the huddled mourners. The rabbi silently reviewed the six or seven of them as if he were a military commander inspecting their uniforms. Then he produced a scissors. At the rabbi’s suggestion, the other men, including Alex, removed their ties. A subordinate handed out ceremonial neckties of cheap cloth which they tied on in place of their own. Brandishing the scissors, the rabbi turned to Leonard and asked if he would like to exchange his tie. The tie he was wearing was a particular favorite, black silk with small white polka dots. He hesitated. Sacrificing it would hurt a little. But wasn’t that the whole idea? No, he said, to the offer of the stand-in tie.

          As Leonard watched the rabbi snip away at the others he knew he wished him to destroy his own tie, not some cheap substitute. His sister was a genuine person in everything she did, there was nothing substitute about her, she was a silken lady. This was one ritual he felt okay about. He would follow it
wholeheartedly.

          The rabbi seemed to approve of Leonard’s decision, a faint smile showing on his lips before he left him with the stump of his tie.

          Back at the house they needed a minyan which, among the orthodox, means the minimum number of menfolk required in order to say the next round of prayers. Leonard’s brother-in-law tugged at his sleeve. “Come on we need you,” he ordered him, handing him a prayer book. He then motioned to him to
follow him into the dining room where several other men were standing in wait along with the rabbi. Leonard’s presence would complete the minyan. He
strongly wished not to go. “But I don’t know how,” he protested, which, although true, was the mildest of his objections. Alex ignored his resistance.
He pulled him by the arm into the room where he took his place among the others.

          He did not recognize most of these men. Except for Alex they were not members of the family. Perhaps they were friends of Alex and his sister whom
he had never met. They all looked quite at home in their role of official mourners, as though they had performed this function many times before.
Reluctantly, he donned a prayer shawl and skullcap.

          The rabbi asked, “Which way is the east?” Alex pointed to one wall and all the men turned. The praying began. Leonard held the book open without
turning the pages as the others chanted the words. They were rocking as they prayed in the manner of real orthodox Jews. He was amazed that his brother-in-law not only seemed to know the prayers but was davening along with the others. Apparently Alex had as a child a far more serious Hebrew education than his.

          When Leonard realized he had involuntarily begun to move his own head and shoulders with the others his amazement turned to himself. What was he doing? Trying to fit in? How far would he go not to hurt Alex’s feelings? Certainly for Leonard this activity was having no soothing effect on the painful
thoughts of his lost sister. Nor did he believe this process was expediting her soul to some approved Jewish heaven, if that’s what such prayers were supposed to do. He felt a terrible hypocrite. The yarmulke crawled like a living creature on his scalp. The satin tallith over his shoulders had the weight of cement. He was clammy and a little sick to his stomach. He slipped out of the room. He was relieved that the other men did not seem to care about his leaving but went on praying. With sour humor he speculated that maybe once the prayers begin the rules allowed a diminished minyan, like an ice hockey team that starts with six players, but may have to play shorthanded as the game proceeds. But he quickly reprimanded himself for having such a smart-aleck thought.. Even if he could not subscribe to such rituals, he should be respectful of those who did. He still wasn’t sure, however, if that respect should include his brother-in-law, who until this event had been happy to eat bacon and to drive his car on Saturdays, never showing any particular devotion to the strictest
observances of their religion. He wondered what Elaine would have thought of all this taking place in her home. She might have had a cutting thing or two to
say herself.
 
          Later that evening Alex asked him to join him in a walk. Leonard welcomed the idea. Although it was early December, the night was mild and he
thought the fresh air would taste good after a day of suffocating religiosity. Alex was one who needed always to appear in control, common enough with some men, but with him, sometimes taken to extremes of punctiliousness, even fussiness, which began to look like a feminine trait. At the start of the prayers earlier he had pulled the rabbi’s shoulders about, in order to position him more precisely toward the east. Finding himself alone with Alex at this late hour and struggling with his own feelings of sadness and anger over Elaine’s loss, Leonard was not sure he would have any forbearance left to put up with his commanding ways.

          In the gathering darkness Alex’s usual brisk, purposeful gait slowed to an un-Alex-like meandering. Under the weak light of a gray moon his hard-edged form turned to something softer and uncertain. His usually erect head sank back into his shoulders. Water pooled in his critical eyes. “Oh, I will miss her,” he wept for the first time that long day. “I loved your sister more than anyone knows.” He shot wild searching looks off into the dark as if to find her there.

          Leonard wondered. A second wife, could he have loved her more than I did, her only brother? Was that likely? And such a man? A man who follows
one religion during his life and demands something different in his grief?

          And what about her love? She never spoke of her love for him, not exactly. She would call Alex a good man, a kind man, the same way she had
always described their father, who himself was not a man who could be easily loved.

          And yet... to be with such a man, to accept his love. Elaine was genuine, she would not accept less than genuine. Elaine was silk. This was a hard sort of man he never could have believed would weep. Yet his tears were real. And now they were softening him, and they were having that effect on Leonard too.

          They rambled several blocks through the suburban neighborhood before turning back. The whole time Alex had no words of condolence for him. If
Leonard brought up something wonderful about Elaine, Alex would nod in agreement. But he never offered any sympathy directly to Leonard. Maybe in
Alex’s mind he had no right to expect any. Leonard had only lost a sister. He still had a wife while Alex had lost two.

          The question Leonard meant to ask him all along was still in his mouth when they reached the doorstep: “Alex, why did you choose to have an orthodox funeral for Elaine when none of us is orthodox?” But it would not pass his lips. He had been intimidated all day by Alex’s actions, was made to feel
uncomfortable during these long dreary hours for the other man’s sake. Now he realized he did not really want to know his answer.

          With Elaine gone, he knew he would not be seeing his brother-in-law much in the future. Why now risk an unnecessary argument? Maybe
religious zeal was something Alex had secretly wished for while she was alive and only now with her gone could bring it into his own life. Maybe his question
would expose some painful disagreement between Alex and Elaine he was never aware of. No, he wanted to leave his brother-in-law’s house that night feeling only that he had loved his sister and she him. He wanted to remember them this way.

          In six months Alex married again. A woman with false eyelashes, an enormous wardrobe and a complaining voice. He died two years later. He had
given orders that he be buried in a plot next to the first of his wives.


Martin Marcus has written for radio and tv and is a published novelist and humorist with two books of ethnic humor, one a national best seller. His essays, memoirs and verse have appeared in national and regional magazines. His poetry has been published in literary journals, and of his collection, "File Under Melancholy" Pulitzer prize poet Maxine Kumin wrote: "Lucky for us that Martin Marcus has returned to his first love, poetry. There's not a false note in this bravura performance."