It’s a Sunday. Samuel Rosen sits in sunshine, sunshine, sunshine, taking a beating from the salt wind, on a fighting chair high up in the fishing tower of his son’s big boat. But he’s not fishing. Sundays, Peter insists on floating him around in the yacht.
He laughs, suddenly, a big laugh. My son the captain!
Samuel’s remembering a joke his mother, God rest her soul, used to tell him: a nouveau-riche Jewish businessman buys a yacht and invites his mother to see. He stands on the bridge in his brimmed and braided captain’s hat and calls down, “Nu, mama, so do I look like a captain?” “To me, my darling,” she says, “certainly you look like a captain. But—to a captain do you look like a captain?” Old story about assimilation, its point almost lost—hardly any comic contradiction remaining between Jew and yachtsman.
He laughs aloud and is ashamed at the laugh, knows it’s his way of standing apart from his son—remembering this joke from 60 years back.
Samuel’s son Peter, he wouldn’t get it. He’s at home on The Promised Land, his 55-foot cabin cruiser, small yacht really, built of fiberglass and polished, imported woods. Or if he does get uncomfortable, it’s not a question of Jew/WASP nor a question of class. A boat this big, he’s terrified he might scrape the hull; last year he snagged an unmarked chain and it wound up costing him a couple of thousand dollars. Berthed at Marina Del Rey, The Promised Land rides level on stabilizing bars; it’s air-conditioned, powered by two giant inboard engines yet almost silent when you sit in the main cabin. You can cook a small standing rib roast in the galley oven; one night, Ruthie did just that. The four staterooms, finished in cherry, are like small bedrooms in an elegant hotel; there are three heads, the flush a purr, a living area with soft lighting and TV, stereo. The music, which no one but Peter controls, is piped all over the ship.
Peter controls and Peter worries. In baseball cap with the logo of some dot. com, he can run the ship from the bridge or the fishing cockpit where Samuel sits, set 15 feet up above the deck. At his command are radar, sonar, Loran systems. With a computer, he can plot a precise course, and the instruments can serve as his skipper. The Promised Land is an expensive toy that uses the same abilities and obsessive need to control that he employs in his work. Weekdays, he worries about corporate strategies; weekends, on the boat, when he’s not on the phone for work, he tinkers with electrical panels, charts, depth of channels. He keeps track of tide and weather. When he goes into a harbor, it’s like a military operation, eyes narrowed, shoulders tense, and Samuel looks at him, bewildered; saddened that his child should have grown into this tense adult. What did we do wrong?
It’s difficult for Samuel to know (25 feet above the calm water, rocking gently through a long arc of sky) how to love this big, graying-haired son of his. At 40, Peter is so self-contained. Samuel hears him down below on the bridge. He hears the radio picking up a conversation between boats. Do I know my own son? When he was a child, even when he’d come home from college, Samuel would make him pancakes. Pete loved pancakes soaked in syrup. Or as they walked up Broadway together to pick up bagels on a Sunday, Samuel would shmooze and philosophize, and under cover of language he’d pat Peter’s back or wrap an arm around his shoulder, sing Cole Porter songs till Peter would say, “Pa, Pa, please!” They’d laugh. And he’d buy him things on impulse—electronic gadgets, a translation of Psalms, whatever.
But now, oh, Peter is so hip, so L. A.-cool, his voice a flat, mellow monotone; anything New York in the voice is gone. There seem to be no open places to touch now, no way to give him anything. Peter knows just what he wants and puts in a call on cell to get it. Now Samuel is the one being given.
First of all, a home. With Hannah gone, Pete’s mother, Hannah, dead almost a year now, Pete came to his father: “What d’you want to be stuck in New Rochelle for?” Well, the fact is, he didn’t, Samuel didn’t. When it came right down to it, except at his shul he had few friends, and some of these he lost contact with when Hannah died, others when he retired from teaching at Sarah Lawrence. And then his dear friend the rabbi was nudged into retirement by some of the younger families, and Samuel said to himself, Well, Abraham was already 75 years old when God said to him, “Lech lecha . . . Go from your land, from your relatives, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” Samuel would only be 70 next month.
On the other hand, unlike an Abraham he feels, to all intents and purposes, already dead. Don’t get me wrong. He’s in pretty good shape. Mornings, he gets up with energy, and if his joints ache a little, so what? He does his stretching exercises and gets to his study. Still . . .still, he’s ready enough to follow Hannah when the time comes. After all, listen. After all, what? I mean how long?—a few more years of this consciousness? Set it against the mouth-gaping immensity of God’s time, before he awoke into consciousness, after consciousness ends. A drop in the bucket. And the thing is, that’s okay with Samuel. It’s been more than a year since Hannah’s death, but the loss of her and the lacerations of the two horrific years of her dying haven’t closed up. Maybe he can only cope with the loss by denigrating the loss. He wonders: What’s so beautiful about this world? Is it really worth God’s while? There’s God, always, but when Samuel blesses, it’s with a little irony. I’ll bless because You say so. But I’ll tell You frankly . . . So death, death doesn’t scare him a whole lot; he doesn’t feel any need to suck desperately the last bit of juice in the glass, mostly ice by now. It’s all right; to reenter God’s time is all right. And this way of seeing changes things. God’s radiance hovers over the sad world. You float up here above the ocean in this extraordinary light without worrying about getting anywhere. He’s where he is to get.
From this death before dying he finds himself looking down at a world that doesn’t bear closer scrutiny. Is, frankly, unbearable. The 15 months of Hannah’s decreasing abilities, increasing pain, sobered him forever. Samuel remembers a character in Dickens, his loved ones in coffins under the ground, who yet “did not make a coffin of his heart.” Hannah’s slow dying seems to have flayed a layer of skin from Samuel. Isaiah prays to remove the foreskin around our hearts. But then, how keep going? He asks every day of God, How do You keep going? If it’s unbearable to me, what can it be for You? Take the child soldiers kidnapped into service, forced to prove their loyalty by being brought through their home village and, drugged into numbness, told to slaughter family, friends—or are themselves killed by the other children. He’s read the accounts.
And so on.
Still. . . it makes him uneasy, to be inside this—well, this clarity of light, to feel the sea rocking the boat, to feel a wind misting his face, and then—not to feel all this as blessing? It’s peculiar in fact. In fact, there’s something wrong, unholy, with how little he’s moved. As Wordsworth says, “. . . I see, not feel, how beautiful it is. . . .”
“So am I fooling myself?” he asks the Holy One this afternoon, asks in a whisper, his lips barely moving (old city trick so you don’t look crazy) as he puts on a yarmulke and prepares to pray Mincha way up here above the ocean. “I’m not saying I haven’t got work left to do with this soul You’ve given me. God knows.”
They’re cruising south towards Newport, parallel to the coast; Peter’s down on the bridge with his charts. Samuel’s grandson Dan is playing cards with Ruthie in the main cabin. Up above, Samuel whispers his afternoon prayers, swaying as the boat sways, when he hears footsteps on the ladder leading up to the tower. To avoid discussion he stops, puts yarmulke in shirt pocket. Peter in his white boat shoes, white shorts. Samuel in an open white shirt, long beige pants.
“You’re okay up here, Pop? Some people get sick.”
“I’m an old sailor. From before you were born.”
“Look how clear Catalina is from up here. Pretty. Some Sunday we’ll check it out. Pop? Ruthie gave me an idea. Look—you’ve got time on your hands. Isn’t that right?”
“What? You think I’m bored, Pete?”
“No, no, you sit around reading, you fix things—you’re terrifically handy, Pop, I never realized—something breaks, boom, you fix it. In L. A. , you call somebody, and it’s three months before he comes. We’re grateful, Ruthie and I. And you study. But I wish you had a friend or something. So anyway, Ruthie had this idea. How would you like to prepare kids for Bar Mitzvah—You know, teach them their Haftorah—a few of Danny’s friends are ready. One family especially, they’re looking for someone right now. It’s not a money thing, but it’s like psychoanalysis—people take it seriously if they have to pay.”
“The boy is serious about spiritual study?”
“Jeremy? I know his family is making a big deal out of the Bar Mitzvah. Good kid, Jeremy Siegel. You’ll like him. And the thing is . . . we want Danny to be better friends with Jeremy. Ben Siegel has fantastic contacts in finance.”
“Let me ask you something Peter. At the same time, maybe I could teach Danny?”
“Please. Pop. Don’t make an issue. Okay?” Peter’s hands are raised, palms out, an image half surrender, half karate-readiness.
Peter’s recently turned 40, a tennis player, just missed taking top singles in his club’s master’s category. He doesn’t look at all like his dad. Peter’s tall like Samuel, but an athlete, big shoulders, thick neck. His cheekbones are broader than his father’s. He played baseball in high school, could have made the team at Penn but needed to work. He’s beginning to look distinguished, his wavy black hair silvering at the temples. The pugnacious edge to his face has softened, his eyes are more open, his walk has eased. His look says, I don’t need to shove myself into the world. I get where I want without forcing the issue.
Samuel’s always wondered where this muscular American came from. He himself is slightly stooped, not from age but always, as if he were surrounding, protecting, the hollow of his chest, embracing an invisible fate even if convinced the fate was not a pleasant one. Or maybe . . . as if the weight on his shoulders was too much for such a narrow chest. He’s long, a Don Quixote. His eyebrows float up in sadness, and his head, his whole self, nods back and forth, as if affirming, This is it, is life, it’s what we’ve been given. Ludicrous to thrust oneself forward.
All right. This was always something of a con. It covered up a shrewd, secret aggression. With no noise, he did pretty well in academic life, didn’t he?—as scholar and teacher of the 19th-century novel, he wrote essays—an often-reprinted essay on Daniel Deronda, a respected book on George Eliot. And for the past ten years, he was Dean of Graduate Studies. But his stooped stance isn’t so much a con since Hannah died, may her soul rest in peace. The nodding, nodding, the submission—they seem . . . well, just himself. He has no kudos to win; he prays, he studies.
Getting back to Abraham—California doesn’t seem like a land God sends people. Yes, sure, it’s a land overflowing with milk and honey. But . . . so why is there a “but”? Why is he suspicious of comfort and sunshine? Why does it make him sad to stroll along the “board-walk”—cement, really—that runs along the beach, under the Santa Monica Pier, down to Venice, stroll and see the hard-muscled, well-tanned young men and women skate by? If you asked Samuel, he’d shrug, laugh at himself. If he trusted you (not many people, old friends, in that category) he’d say, “It’s emptiness, it’s meaninglessness—nada—and everybody—you see, this is what’s so bizarre —agrees about the emptiness but nobody even worries. It’s . . . cool. Now, you see, it’s one thing for God to be murdered” (he’s thinking of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra). “It’s another when God is simply not invited to the party.”
And then the family, his own family, his toledot, his descendents: look at this boat, for instance—and then what about the house— Peter has been adding to a house that seemed to Samuel already ridiculously large for his small family. Just the three of them—Peter, Ruthie, Danny, just turned 12—in a house 4,000 square feet. Already there was a guest suite where Sam-uel could stay. Now, Peter has added 2,000 square feet more. Rooms, “living areas,” more rooms. Plus pool, and terrace, and irrigated lawn, a green carpet on a slope overlooking the tops of trees and roofs of houses. For what? All surface. Nowadays there is a delight in surface—no, more: a backlash against critiques that depend on an orientation to depth, ultimately to God, to the Holy. Well . . . too bad, thinks Samuel. No way he’ll fall for that!
Peter is, if not close, decent to him. Ruthie is positively kind, making sure he’s included in conversations and meal planning, taking him to meet their friends, thanking him (too much) when he stays with Danny so they can go out to a party. Friday nights, they let him say the blessings over the candles, the wine, the challah. Ruthie doesn’t keep kosher, but they eat mostly vegetables and rice anyway, and she buys kosher chickens to keep him happy. She’s so busy—at home a lot, but busy writing scripts turning children’s stories into animated half-hour TV shows. He makes allowances for the kitchen, that it hasn’t been kashered. He makes do. He uses his own set of dishes and keeps away from her shellfish and bloody meats.
And Danny—Danny listens to his stories. A great virtue in a grandson! Already 12 years old, he should be studying for his Bar Mitzvah, but—”Look, pop, he’s just not interested. Okay?” He leans over Samuel, standing beside the table. “Okay?”
“You mean you’re not interested. Let me tell you something. Maimonides—Rambam—says, “Just as a man is obligated to teach his son, so is he obligated to teach the son of his son, as it is said, “Make them known to your sons and the sons of your sons.”“
This was two nights ago, a Friday evening in October, a week after Sukkot. Danny has cleared the dishes. The candles have been burning down, and by himself at the table, for all of them, Samuel has said the Birchat Hamazon, the blessings after the meal.
“I guess, sure,” Peter says, “he picks it up from me.”
””Veshinantam levanecha” . . . “You shall teach the words intently to your children.”“
Peter lets the words sit between them for ten, fifteen seconds. “I guess in that case—I guess you didn’t do too good a job on me, Pop.”
“No. Those days, I didn’t know my tuchas from my elbow.”
“Well, you see?”
“I do see. You can’t imaging how I regret. I was rebelling against your grandfather. And my awful cheder in Brooklyn where they yelled and slapped. I didn’t want to impose. Even me, I myself was hardly observant. But now, I regret. You can’t imagine.”
Peter puts a hand on his shoulder. “Hey. You know—you didn’t do such a bad job, you and Mom.” And he grins and opens his hand as if to hold in it this showplace of a house and, beyond, the landscaping lit by outdoor spots; holding in his hand, as an offering, himself. Samuel tries not to offer up a sigh—it’s his sighs Peter especially can’t stand.
Listen: here’s what Samuel is not: he is not an immigrant, he’s no ancient Jew from a shtetl or even from an Orthodox community in Brooklyn. So many stories, a couple of generations back, about the conflict between father and son, the old Jewish way, the new, assimilated way. The son forgets the old ways; the father rends his clothing. But that’s not it. Samuel himself is assimilated, a professor of English literature. By the late ’60s, when Peter was born, Samuel had stored his tefillin and prayer book in a box on the top shelf of a closet. That was not only revulsion against the severity of cheder and home; it was a conscious political gesture. There were more important things to consider: protest against the war in Vietnam, organizing to build a new society. His congregation was composed of political comrades. Laws of kashrut seemed absurd—well, he’d never kept kosher since he left his parents’ house. Anyway, Hannah wouldn’t have stood for it in those days. Assimilated, hip, he experimented with drugs, even had a brief affair Hannah never discovered. It was only when Peter was already in his teens—too late, too late—that he came back.
It happened when his father died. Then, the next year, his mother. And while he had a sister in Chicago who’d stayed observant, he felt he should be the one to say Kaddish. At first, only once a week; then he grew hungry: once a week wasn’t enough. He found an Orthodox morning minyan and stumbled through the prayers until the prayers came back. And then, he began taking Shabbat more seriously. He began by lighting the candles and saying the blessings. Peter, coming home from Yale, would roll his eyes and grin when Samuel, in skullcap, would press a hand on his head and bless him on a Friday night. And little by little, little by little. Baruch Hashem, as a child he’d had good training; soon he was leading services, chanting Torah. It was Hannah who asked—this was 1985, 1986—If you like, we can make the kitchen kosher—Would you like? Not so easy; she was working full-time as a school psychologist.
But we did it, he thinks. It’s hypocritical to be critical of Peter. It’s my own fault.
In this part of L. A. , Samuel has no shul to walk to on the Sabbath. Or yes, there is—a long walk, too long by Jewish law, and for years now, he’d been shomer Shabbat, keeping the Sabbath as well as he could. But all right, the first Saturday morning, he walked, to check it out. The synagogue, cantilevered audaciously on a hillside, looked, Godforbid, like a Las Vegas nightclub. The slick architecture and expensive materials said that the life of the spirit was enjoyable, uplifting . . . and expensive. This was no shul; it was a facility!—a place for weddings and Bar Mitzvah banquets, with a big kitchen and an elegant sanctuary. A Torah scroll from Czechoslovakia, saved from the Holocaust, was a museum piece behind glass in a gold-framed cabinet. A choir sang, in banal New-Age harmonies, made-up hymns about love! The Shema itself they hoked up with a schmaltzy melody, poor second cousin to Fiddler. He queried the young rabbi, Rabbi Levine, about the peculiar order of the service—a revised order. “We are blessed by having a dramaturge in our congregation,” the rabbi told him. A dramaturge? “To shape for our contemporary congregation a deeply religious experience. But tell me—you can chant Torah for us?”
“I’ll get back to you.”
But so what?—Twenty minutes’ drive away there’s a real minyan that meets weekday mornings at seven. And that’s where he goes. He prays Shacherit with a lawyer, a few retired men, a carpenter, a jazz musician, a doctor at U. C. L. A. Wrapped in tallis, wearing, on arm and forehead, the black leather boxes filled with the precious words, tefillin his father gave him at his Bar Mitzvah, he feels like a Jew. Saturday, since he feels uncomfortable driving, he leads his own Shabbat service for a congregation of one.
He looks forward to teaching this Siegel boy. What he should have given his son, his grandson Danny—Baruch Hashem, he can at least give this stranger.
Jeremy comes to the house on his own—by bike. Small for his age. But Samuel remembers the psalm: “Not the strength of the horse does He desire nor the swift legs of men.” On the little oak table in Ruthie’s conservatory, the boy slaps down a Xerox of his Haftorah, the passage of prophecy by Micah he will be chanting. It’s in Hebrew, in English, and in transliteration line for line. They shake hands, but Jeremy doesn’t look at Samuel; he aligns and realigns the pages. Among orchids and giant tropical plants, here’s old Sam Rosen, long, stooped and skinny with a little paunch, a knitted skullcap over his bald spot, and here’s Jeremy Siegel, 12, small and plain skinny, skullcap over his hair. He’s got a long, pale face. His hair, like Danny’s, is Marine-short, and his ears stick out; he’s wearing jeans, big sneakers, broad dark sunglasses, but, Baruch Hashem, when he takes them off, his eyes don’t match the wished-for all-American look. Soft eyes, soft. Wounded, he looks; he looks wounded. Or is that my mishegos? Samuel looks and nods, looks and nods. The boy keeps his eyes on the text.
Samuel taps a forefinger to the stapled xeroxed pages. “So tell me—what’s this?”
“It’s—you know—what I’m supposed to memorize.”
“For what?” Samuel asks, pretending bewilderment.
Jeremy gives a Look, like Who is this guy? “For my Bar Mitzvah.”
Samuel keeps himself from laughing at the look. He keeps playing dumb. “Ahh! Congratulations. You’ll be a Bar Mitzvah. So you’ll put on your first tallis, you’ll be wrapping yourself in the mitzvot, the commandments. Tell me: you understand what that entails, Jeremy? You go to Hebrew school?”
“Uh huh. I started last year. I read but slow.”
“You’ve talked to your rabbi? Who is your rabbi?”
“Rabbi Levine—you know, the synagogue near here?”
Samuel closes his eyes. “I’ve met him.” It’s at this point that he becomes aware of a rustling in the living room that adjoins the conservatory. The glass door’s ajar. Almost hidden in a big leather reclining chair, his grandson Danny is reading. All Samuel sees is his big basketball sneakers up on a hassock. Now, Danny has a big desk in his own room, and that’s where he usually does his homework. In fact, usually, in the afternoon, he’s out Rollerblading or playing basketball. He’s at the verge of developing an underarm odor, keeps sniffing for it, hopeful. He swaggers around but unconvincingly, as if he hasn’t quite got it right, hasn’t grown into his own imagined body. So he’s gawky, not as cool as he’d like, a little uncomfortable under the eye of an invisible camera. He’d like to be a jock. So why is he interested in what’s going on out here? Just in case, Samuel raises his voice to the level of a chant. “Jeremy, I’m not talking about your skill at reading Hebrew. I’m talking about growing up a Jew. Tell me, does your family keep the Sabbath?”
At first Jeremy doesn’t answer at all. He screws up his face, he shrugs. Finally: “Sometimes . . . we light candles and say a blessing.”
“Good. Baruch Hashem. You know, I’d like to meet your father and mother.”
“Sure. But they’re both real busy.”
Jeremy looks at him with big, steady brown eyes. And the look, its vulnerability, so different from the California-cool eyes he sees everywhere, does something to Samuel to end his arrogant catechism. It goes to his heart, this softness. “You see—Jeremy—I want this to be real for you. Okay? Look: believe it or not, you don’t even need to chant a Haftorah passage to be a Bar Mitzvah. You just need to come up for an aliyah. You come up to the reading of the Torah and say a blessing. I could teach you that in ten minutes. It’s just a custom, chanting Haftorah.”
“You’re not going to teach me? My Dad said. . . .”
“I understand. Sure, I’ll help you with the cantillation. But first we work on what it’s all about. Otherwise, why bother?—No matter what your parents say.”
In the next room, the big sneakers uncross, re-cross.
They’re sitting among the orchids and tropical plants. Who needs a conservatory in L. A. ? For Ruthie it’s just a tiled glassed-in patio, pretty, and the odor that Samuel assumed to be flowers turns out to be mostly the perfumed spray that moistens the orchids. While Dan, sitting at the conservatory table, half listens to the lesson, half does math, Jeremy in yarmulke half-closes his eyes—because it’s the only way he can get the cantillation right—and sings, sings beautifully so it hurts, though without Yiddishkeit—more like a boy soprano in a Cathedral—the introductory blessing to his Haftorah portion. Like a boy soprano and maybe—maybe a little like a café singer singing of gone love. Because really, what can the boy know? What are his models? How many times has he been to shul in his life? And what kind of shul? But his voice is so sweet, so tender, that Samuel’s eyes fill with blessing, and he reaches out and touches Jeremy’s cheek. “Nice, nice.”
Dan and Jeremy grin at one another.
All right, Samuel’s embarrassed. Ordinarily he’s no gusher. But this: like rain falling on parched earth. To feel the blessing of this blessing! But now, ah hah, something uncomfortable grabs his insides and tugs: So tell me, mister—who’s been the one painting by the numbers, blessing by rote? Not this boy with his big, serious eyes and tender voice.
Out of the corner of his eye, warped through a bit of water, he sees Peter leading through the living room a small portly man in running suit. Jeremy’s father. What’s left of his hair is curly, graying, loose, damp—he’s been exercising. Peter’s smiling, Ben Siegel’s smiling, smiling. “Rabbi, rabbi. A pleasure to finally meet you—I’m ashamed I’ve been too busy. So, is my son behaving himself?”
“Baruch Hashem, your son is a fine boy. He’s learning very well.”
“One smart kid, isn’t he, rabbi?”
“Very. . . . Danny and Jeremy, both smart. But Mr. Siegel, I’m not a rabbi.”
“Ben. Call me Ben.” And he says for Peter’s benefit, “This kid I’m grooming for Stanford.” And then to Samuel—”You . . . were a lit professor, am I right?”
“At Sarah Lawrence.”
“Good school. Wait a minute—Jeremy, Danny?—you two guys go take a walk for a few minutes. Okay, Peter?” And he waits till the boys are gone. “Not a rabbi, huh? You know, it’s funny—that’s just what I thought,” Ben Siegel says. “Just what I thought. But . . . with all this religious business he’s bringing home . . .”
Samuel, Ben, Peter sit at the glass-topped conservatory table. Samuel can see Peter’s cool dissolving. Peter’s grinning. Oh, Samuel has known that uncomfortable grin for about four decades; today it makes him furious. He’d like to slap it off his face. As if thousands of years of Jewish history have ended up in this son of his, laid-back businessman with amused, wry look, embarrassment for his own father. Wait—wait till the Bar Mitzvah—he owes that to Jeremy— then (he says to himself) fly back to New York, go live on the West Side near Columbia, go live in Brooklyn, somewhere it’s not so odd to be a Jew.
“Pop can get just a little carried away,” Peter says, patting Ben’s shoulder.
Samuel is grim. “Religious business? So? Something wrong with that? What do you suppose he should be bringing home?”
“A skill. Okay? Like piano. A skill.” He speaks into the circle of forefinger and thumb looped to contain, to frame, each point. “So he can be initiated into the tribe, you know what I’m saying? It’s a big day. All the relatives! My relatives, my wife’s relatives. Big expense, big party, but look Mr. Rosen, let me put it like this: If I feel like sending my kid to a yeshiva, I got the wherewithal. You get me?” All said heartily, as if he’s joking, pretending to be annoyed. When it’s quite clear to Samuel that it’s the pretense that’s the pretense. “But other than that, hey—you’re doing one great job, the boy’s taking it seriously. Not like those lousy classes at the synagogue.”
“Piano. Exactly, Mr. Siegel. Suppose I were teaching your boy piano. Wouldn’t I want him to feel the music inside the music, the music under the notes? What kind of teacher would I be, I just taught the notes?”
Peter laughs, pretending it’s light banter passing back and forth.
“I’m glad we had this little talk,” Ben says. “Look. My son’s telling me he wants tefillin for his Bar Mitzvah. Tefillin! You kidding? No offense, but that’s left over from the Middle Ages. It’d spook me out just having them in my house.” Now, having spoken with professional toughness, Ben softened. “Otherwise . . . I love what you’re doing. Amazing! You know a hell of a lot about motivation, I’ll say that. I could use a guy like you in my business. Just go a little easy, okay?”
A Sunday afternoon. Ben Siegel’s party—Jeremy’s parents are moving up, literally, into the expensive rocky hills of a canyon above the ocean. No house yet, but plans have been approved, the site cleared; construction is about to start. Tonight will be a 40th birthday party for Ben’s wife Elaine; and this house, Ruthie tells him on the way, is Elaine’s dream. Ruthie’s voice slides half an octave down the word. Samuel thinks of a Haftorah trope.
Samuel expects a picnic. But—”Better dress up a little,” Peter says.
“Open shirt, nice pants. And Pop? Please, if it’s okay with you—no yarmulke?”
Boating doesn’t make Samuel sick, but this ride in the back of Peter’s Mercedes, up switchbacks into the rocky hills, does it. Brutal rocks look ready to fall on the car. Switchback, switchback, switchback. A little dizzy when the car stops, he sucks in a deep breath; as he lifts himself from the car, he finds a young man in a black shirt standing above him, holding the door. Behind their car is another, and another valet waiting. Two more valets, Hispanic, all in black pants, white shirts, stand by to park the cars.
It’s been a warm day, but up here it’s cool—he’s glad he wore a jacket. Peter leads them to an arched trellised gate that’s been set up, like a flowered trellis in a ‘30’s movie about country life, to establish an entrance. Here are three really massive black men in open white shirts—they look like football players, weightlifters. Any one of them you’d turn in the street to look at, that big. They’re wearing walkie-talkies on their belts, like pistols. A white guy with a list on a clipboard takes names, lets the Rosens pass under the trellis.
It’s not a bare site; a house was built here in the ‘20’s, a big stone house, recently burned down, and so there’s a wonderfully irregular brick path, and the plantings are beautiful and well established —giant cactuses, palms, and succulents, 20-foot Reuses, a massive thicket of bougainvillea, and California greenery Samuel can’t name. Posted on a leaning fat sycamore, a sign, Happy Birthday, Elaine! The giant plants, obviously planted yet in a wild, rocky place, look like something out of The Wizard of Oz. So it’s as if he’s suddenly entered into a Technicolor dream. And in fact, it has the quality of a movie set. Platforms have been hammered together, leveled on concrete blocks; actual living room furniture, rented, or maybe borrowed from some back-lot warehouse, has been clustered into imagined open-air “rooms,” bars set up, young men and women tending, black-shirted waiters cruising with trays of food. The tang of a platter of spicy shrimp, darker pungent scent of sausages in pastry rolls. Treyf.
Beyond, an enormous walled tent has been set up for dinner— maybe 50, 60 yards long! It’s such a big place it doesn’t seem crowded, but there must be a hundred guests. More. Samuel guesses—thirty thousand dollars? No, ludicrous!—easy fifty thousand. Maybe twice that. Beyond the tent, a rough lawn slopes down, clipped from wild grasses, and a little wooden stage for the music later on. And past the stage, the lawn comes to a point, like the prow of a land ship, then a steep declivity and across the canyon, other hills, and past the hills, a snip of ocean.
He’s critical of such expense. What a difference money like that could make for fifty, a hundred families in L. A. But, frankly, he’s also impressed. To go to the trouble of setting up outdoor rooms, with coffee tables and leather sofas—rooms with invisible walls and invisible ceilings. From a tree limb hangs a large ornate picture frame, empty: the implied picture: the landscape beyond. And he’s impressed by these young successful people sitting on the sofas—film producers, high-tech executives, entertainment lawyers exchanging business cards, negotiating lunches. It’s a party, but a lot of people seem to be walking off by themselves, talking to themselves—actually into cell phones. Considered as a whole, all right, it’s a Fellini scene of capitalist excess. Still, when he looks at the faces one by one, when he presses between clusters of black shirts and stops to listen in on conversations—admit it!—he finds intelligence, energy. They talk about e-business, of course, and financial moves by Time-Warner and Intel, but also about their children’s schools, and debt relief for undeveloped countries.
He gets into a conversation with a young man with one gold moon earring who directs a television series—robotic machines that battle one another. But then two women in white linen come over, lovely looking women with hardly any makeup, and conversation changes to the spiritual benefits of some fabulous resort in the desert. “When the mudpacks go on you practically leave your body,” one woman tells the other. At the fringe of another conversation, he hears someone say, “I’ve read that half the young boys in sub-Saharan Africa will die of AIDS.” To which a young woman drawls, “Well, I’ve never understood people wanting to travel to Africa,” as if the chief point were her perspicacity in choice of tourist destinations. But the others in her little group don’t nod agreement; they glance at one another, raising eyebrows, recognizing her foolishness.
As if this were Italy in the ’20s, nearly everyone’s wearing a black shirt. And the black pants, black jackets—what you’d expect among the Orthodox in Brooklyn.
This is no simple birthday party, Samuel sees that right away. It’s a celebration of some acquisition. Is Siegel a senior partner? A broker? Everyone else, he’s sure, must know what’s going on. Now he sees, hanging from the branches of a eucalyptus, a Calder-like mobile made up of laminated posters with the new logo—a stylized eye held in palm of stylized hand, and bordering the eye at the top, echoing the arc of the cupped palm, the words: I-CON/TACT. The logo is everywhere: on cactuses, the walls of the tent, inside, outside, and hugely on the rear of the stage. And stapled on tree trunks, Velcroed to rocks, a slogan against the mauve background of a sci-fi space ship entering a space station: We bring the world to your data port. . . .
Past an empty swimming pool, tiled by hand, tile by tile, perhaps 75 years ago, he finds the central “living room,” and here, on a table like an altar, stands a great black television thin as an attache case, and beside it, flat black speakers, like manufactured monoliths. They’re like beautiful sculpture. A video camera has been set up to look out from this hill into the valley, all the way to the ocean, and as you turn it, the picture on the video changes, zooms in on houses and boulders: a virtual landscape to compete with the real.
Samuel feels nausea. It’s too beautiful a day to let himself get this sour. He closes his eyes in distaste and walks and breathes the way Hannah, who did yoga for years, always tried to teach him. But his breath comes hot. He has nothing to say in this crowd. Off by themselves on the lawn near the prow of the cliff, back-lit by the late afternoon sun, Jeremy and Danny are tossing a Frisbee back and forth. Big, athletic kid, skinny little kid. Samuel waves at the two of them, walks past them to the edge, and in the face of the rocky fingers of canyon stretching to the sea, rocky cliffs with a few jutting houses but no slogans, puts on yarmulke and begins murmuring Ashrei, “Happy are those who live in Your house . . .”—the great psalm of praise he prays every day, one line for each letter of the aleph-bet. He knows what he’s doing: singing a music that can beat down this imposition of commerce—worse than commerce, unreality—onto God’s world.
That’s not what he’s doing. Please! He’s trying to wrap himself in some kind of comfort, because he feels particularly bleak, particularly alone today. He praises because he can’t feel any reason to praise. He’s fearful, high on this cliff edge, no one here. Hannah, if she were with him, would make for him, as she always did, an alternative world he could stomach living in. Even when they snipped at each other. Which was often. Even when he grew petulant. Peculiar—or maybe not at all peculiar—that surrounded by beautiful landscape, high-energy people, a feast, he should feel this down, this alone. He misses Hannah. He aches, missing her. He remembers things. Moments. His memory has never been all that hot. Hannah used to say, “Remember that dumb little café near Pont Neuf where they served those awful croissants we laughed over, said McDonald’s could do better?” and he, no, he couldn’t remember a thing, while she could tell you the color of the plate!—could laugh about a chip gouged out of its edge! But here’s the strange thing: now that she’s not with him, he recalls moment after moment of their time together, can feel how the sun slanted in, feel the menu card stock in his fingers. More: he even remembers what was on the menu, the font of the print. One day it’s like that for Paris, one day for a moment in New York.
The sun is low over the sea; he squints. Hannah would have gotten such a kick out of being here. They would have laughed together.
What kind of life is this? He sways in the wind. And all this time the words of Ashrei tumble from his lips.
“Grandpa? You’re praying, Grandpa?” Danny joins him, Jeremy, too. They’re curious. Or being kind.
“I’m praying Mincha—Remember we learned? “Mincha”, afternoon service? Before sundown—and look how low the sun is. Jeremy—you remember, we talked about “Ashrei”? We thank the Holy One for the world He has made according to His will. “You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” It’s God brings the world to our data ports, Mister. Look—look how beautiful”—and like some old Charlton Heston take-off of Moses at the Red Sea, he lifts his arms wide to the view, chuckling at himself.
And at once the prayer becomes true: Happy are those . . . . it’s as if this is his ship; and of this ship, for the moment, he’s captain, and yes, happy—it’s beautiful, isn’t it, God’s world. It’s a world you’d be loath to leave sooner than necessary. To feel this so suddenly! It’s the boys. Gawky 12-year-old boys who walk cool but with tender eyes.
He can’t help but add, “Too holy, this world, to desecrate—boys, you understand “desecrate”? To make unholy—with those phony advertisements!” Now, having gotten started, oh!—he’s furious! ” “I-CON/TACT.” You hear, boys? They’re building a temple to an icon. Exactly! “I” as an icon, an idol. And whose world is this? Huh? What chutzpah! Do they think they really own it? Are they really going to bring it to your “data port”?”
Danny doesn’t get it. But Jeremy says, “Dad’s slogan? It’s weird.”
“Come,” says Samuel. “Never mind me, I talk. Sit down with me.
We’ll talk Torah together and be in His presence. “Blessed be the Holy One by Whom all this came to be!”“
Then why do I need to rail like this?
If Samuel had turned at that moment he would have seen the boys exchange a Look, seen them wave at the small, thick man walking toward them across the lawn. But eyes shut, high drone of wind making a peculiar harmony, Samuel davens, rocking slightly back-to-front, spilling out fragments of Hebrew—psalms—praises to hold and protect them.
Danny says, “Hey, Grandpa?” and Jeremy says, “Mr. Rosen, it’s my father!”—and their voices are at the same emotional pitch, bespeaking an intimacy that surprises (pleases) Samuel even before his eyes are open; he hears in the voices an urgency to protect—to protect him! They’re worried, they’re warning. This intimacy, he knows at once, comes from many conversations.
And Ben Siegel is with them. His jacket is a soft gray wool; he’s wearing a black silk vest, black slacks, black shirt and tie. “Mr. Rosen. So—what are you doing at my party without a drink in your hand? I’m told that’s against the law in Malibu. Only kidding. Maybe you don’t drink.”
“I drink, I drink. A little later, Mr. Siegel.”
Siegel tilts his head and narrows his eyes, looks at Samuel the way you’d look at a peculiar object. “Now, tell me, Mr. Rosen. A beautiful day like this, is this a time for prayers? Whatever are you doing?” A sharp laugh. “I caught you saying prayers out here, am I right?” And, not waiting for an answer, he closes in until Samuel can smell the whiskey on his breath. “Hey.” A shrug. “It’s your business if you feel like praying—hah!—on Sunday? Like the goyim?—but Jeremy I’ll take with me. People I want to introduce the kid to.”
They walk off. Jeremy looks back and waves, hiding the wave from his father. Samuel says nothing. But in his heart he recites in the Hebrew from the prayer at the close of the Amidah. . . . To those who curse me, may my soul be silent.
And, Baruch Hashem, it is silent.
Danny’s looking at Samuel. He picks up small stones and throws them off the cliff into the valley. Keeps looking. “Grandpa?” Samuel raises his brows. “I was wondering. You think, as long as you’re teaching Jeremy, you could teach me?”
“The whole business. All the stuff. So I could do a Bar Mitzvah?”
“A Bar Mitzvah! That’s a big undertaking, Danny. It means learning—”
“I’d have to speak to your mom and dad.”
“Talk to Mom.”
At this, Samuel laughs, and Danny picks up the laugh, and back and forth they carry it awhile like a secret puppy you sneak home and hide. “No, but Danny, seriously . . .”
“Dad said no way. He said all the synagogues are booked way, way in advance, and anyway, we’re not even members.”
“Danny, that’s inconsequential. You don’t need to do it on a Saturday. If you’re serious, you come to my minyan in the morning, get used to it, and when it’s your birthday, on a Monday morning, you go up for your first aliyah. That’s all. Danny, it’s everything else that matters. It’s learning the mitzvot, living a Jewish life, living a sanctified Jewish life—that’s what matters.”
Danny shrugs. They’re sitting cross-legged. Danny’s throwing stones.
“So? All right. You want the whole megillah, like Jeremy? Okay, Danny. It’s possible. Rabbi Levine needs a good Torah reader at his shul—a chazzan. My voice isn’t what it used to be, but good enough. I’ll bet I could make a deal with Levine. Let me talk to your dad.”
By dinnertime it grows dark. At a large circular table, one of maybe 15 tables, he sits with seven or eight strangers, 30 years younger, who speak to him with respect, then talk to one another in a verbal shorthand about dot. corns and IPO’s that leaves him out as if they were speaking a foreign language. Lotus flowers float in glass bowls in the center of circular tables eight feet in diameter. Hannah would love this party. She’d be on the phone to all her friends for days. She’d notice the dresses, the hairstyles. She’d say to him, how beautiful this site is; he’d say to her, How can a Jew live this far from a Jewish community? And she’d make fun of him. A pleasure.
There are birthday toasts to Ben Siegel’s wife, Elaine. Afterwards, lanterns light the way to the prow of lawn where the temporary stage has been constructed. The music is already playing when Samuel wanders down. He can hear drumming, a tabla, the whine of a harmonium, a high, male voice swooping up and down. “It’s that really cool group from Pakistan,” someone says.
Cushions have been arranged in front of the stage; some guests sit cross-legged on these, some stand behind. The singer is sweating; he’s a giant fat man in white—they’re all wearing soft white pants, white jackets or shirts—and he’s gesturing with his hands as if he were telling them all something funny, something tender, full of wonder. His eyes close and the perspiration pours down his cheeks, and every couple of minutes he wipes his face with a handkerchief. His repeated lifts and falls, the soarings into high tenor, are speech at the edge of becoming ecstatic cries.
What kind of music? Samuel has never heard music like this. It’s like hearing the blues for the first time. Fingertips rap a tabla faster than seems possible. The singer’s face is radiant. The singer listens to the tabla, head cocked to one side, answers in a brief phrase, long, feminine fingers gesturing Is this what you mean?—listens, answers, goes off into a long flight, half wailing, half laughing, eyes shut, eyes wide again. The harmonium grounds his song, and the harmonium player sings chorus, sometimes hovering over the singer, sometimes doubling his song. Around him in the dark, the guests nod their heads. It’s sacred music, he’s sure. Sufi music. He looks for Danny and Jeremy, spots them off to one side, takes up a cushion and sits beside them.
The fat singer is offering a love song to God; of that, Samuel is certain. He wants to believe he gets it, wants to believe this L. A. moneyed crowd can’t possibly get it. Well, it’s true that for some, yes, it’s background, they aren’t listening, they stand in clumps talking. But the ones who are listening, why, they’re intent, not talking, eyes narrowed; heads nodding to the music. That beautiful young woman near him—rocks, rocks, eyes closed. Davening.
Samuel takes Danny’s hand in the dark, holds on. The singer reminds him of a great cantor, but so intimate, so personal! On Yom Kippur the cantor chants a heartbreaking prayer of his own unworthiness to stand before God on behalf of his congregation. This singing is a little like that, though the feeling is different: is joy. Tonight it’s Samuel who feels unworthy. Sitting in the dark, holding his grandson’s hand, he is aware of feeling distaste for his judgmental, isolated old-man self, as he stares past the stage to the prow of land, small lanterns marking out the edge where lawn becomes cliff, looks past, down the valley, to lights of canyon houses, silhouettes of rock clefts, lights of boats on the Pacific a few miles farther on.
To be this old and still so petty! My soul not illumined. Dark, grim with death. Sour, still, with Hannah’s death. It’s as if the music— music from another tradition—is teaching him where he could be. How his soul could become light, enlightened, could dance.
He needs to speak to Peter. He needs to make it up.
Samuel hears someone in the dark behind them: “Hell of a lot of money to be made in world music.” This, he ignores.
He wants to make it up to Peter—as if the music, the prayers and bitter loneliness at the cliff edge—have been, partly, a form of discourse about Peter and himself. My son, my son, he thinks, to prime himself as he leaves the boys, walks over to Peter and Ruthie across the lawn, rehearsing regret but saying only, “That was some music.” He sits down on a cushion in the dark. “Pete, do you know the poetry of Rumi?” Then, not wanting to embarrass him, he says, “Rumi was a mystical Sufi poet, 13th century, he wrote poetry of spiritual ecstasy. Like these songs.”
Peter comes close to his father’s ear and whispers in a parody of a tough-guy voice, “Listen, Pop, I hate to spoil the romance, but one of Ben Siegel’s companies—one of I/CON’s subsidiaries—produces world music. This is just classy promotion is what it is.”
Blood flushes Samuel’s face; his good intentions come crashing down. He says, too loud, “Why do you insist on cheapening it?”
“Shh. Pop. Pop. Hey.”
“Peter?” Ruthie says quietly.
“Sorry. Sorry . . .”
“Come,” she says, “we have to get home. It’s late. Danny’s got school.” She waves Danny over. “Go say goodbye to Jeremy and catch up, all right, honey?” Now, she tugs at Peter’s sleeve; they pass through the huge tent and down the brick path. But Peter stops in the middle of the brick path. People are leaving, new people coming. Mouth to his father’s ear he whispers, this time without pretense of parody, “You know what this party is about, Pop? It’s about money and power.”
Ruthie squeezes Samuel’s arm to comfort. “Please, Peter.”
Samuel stiffens. “You know something, Peter? You’re too old for this.”
“For what? Tell me, for what am I too old?”
“To prove how grown up and tough you are. Why do you still have to fight me?”
Peter’s laugh explodes over the brick path, lit now by hanging Japanese lanterns. “I fight you? Haven’t you got it upside down? You’re the one. You changed all the rules.”
“Peter, please,” Ruthie says.
“When I was a kid, you wanted me to work hard, make a success. Well, I made a success. I made a success, Pop. You’re supposed to be proud. Instead, you got new rules, and my life is no damned good, I see it in your eyes. I can knock myself out for you, nothing’s good enough.”
“The whole point is, they’re not my rules.”
“The whole point is, you think you know what the whole point is! Nobody knows the “whole point”! God’s rules, huh? Says who? Says who! Some rabbis two thousand years ago?”
“Well!” Samuel steps back and laughs. “You know, this is the first decent fight we’ve had, Pete. You know that? It’s been little snide, cool digs, you to me or me to you, Ruthie trying to make peace. Ruthie, dear, it’s all right. This is a good New York fight.”
” “New York”—there you go—more snobbishness,” Peter says.
This, Samuel grants.
“Why fight at all?” Ruthie says.
“And God has given you one additional commandment: Thou shalt demean thy son.”
“Ha ha! Nice! Peter, dear, if I’ve done that, I regret it. It’s been my terrible failure. I get obnoxious, I know it—a judge pretending to be a prophet.”
At this, Peter laughs—my father the prophet! They stand grinning at one another.
“The thing is,” the prophet says, “I can’t stand it—people think the world is made up by themselves for themselves. Listen: We received a great vision: the world according to His will. We can live by that vision—or choose not to.”
Ruthie lets them go ahead; she waits for Danny to catch up to her.
Peter laughs. “So—God wants us to be more Jewish?”
“That’s not it. No! That’s not it.” He stops on the brick path, tugs at Peter’s jacket collar to turn him around. “Those Sufi musicians tonight, they know. It’s not a question of Jewish. I’m saying, it’s not okay, this way to live—whatever you call it—America, California. I can’t be “tolerant.” It’s not just another, equally valid, way to live—it’s empty . . .”
“What exactly does “empty” mean?”
“The way a holograph is empty. It’s getting suckered into pseudo-hungers for things, it’s feeding a voracious narcissism. Voracious, Pete! Because it cannot be satisfied. It’s a virtual world. Icons. That’s the only world they bring to your “data ports.” And it hurts me to see you caught up in it. Listen—there’s another kind of life, where you try to line up in accord with the orientation that’s built in—like iron filings over a magnetic pattern? And that is a superior way to live. Get it? Superior. Sanctified. And if that’s lost, it doesn’t matter, Jew or gentile.”
“You were never like this when Mom was alive. So angry.”
“You’re right,” he sighs. “She soothed me, your mother. I see more darkly since I watched her die.”
Peter walks along quietly beside his father. Then he says quietly, “You did. Dad? I mean watched. I know. I came at the end, but you were there alone with her every day.” He puts his arm over his father’s shoulder; Samuel permits it to remain. They continue up the brick path.
Behind them in the dark, music starts up again. Tick-tick-a-tick of the tabla, singer’s wail. It’s carried over loudspeakers through the darkness. The path is lit by lantern, but overhead the trees are dark, so that it feels as if they’re inside a cave. “I see more darkly, yes— but also more truly. Those last months, I wanted to plug my ears. But I felt I was supposed to listen.” Samuel lifts his brows, and it makes him feel for a moment as if he’s lifting above the path into the dark. A giddy feeling. Reaching over, he touches Peter’s cheek, as if to ground himself.
They’re almost to the entrance when Ben catches up to them. “No! You leaving so early?”
Ruthie is right behind him. “Ben, it’s a lovely party, but there’s school tomorrow.”
Ignoring her, Ben says, “Mr. Rosen? Can I see you a minute?” He speaks low so Danny can’t hear. “Don’t mind me—my clowning—I had a bit too much to drink this afternoon.”
Samuel shrugs. “It’s of absolutely no consequence.” And that’s true. What matters, after all, is Jeremy. Siegel is apologizing because he requires his services. Who cares about this grubyom? Samuel is grateful he’ll be able to teach the boy; maybe, Baruch Hashem, both boys.
“But I spoke out of turn. You’re not offended?”
Samuel shrugs, stays silent. Clearly, Ben is waiting for reassurance, so it’s a terrible silence. The tick, tick-a-tick-tick of the tabla over speakers set in the rocks underlines the silence.
Now what happens can’t be expressed as dialogue. What matters is gesture and expression seen in extreme close-up, its significations understood—the action seen in slow motion, even frame by frame. For example, now Ben smiles at Peter, lifts the corners of his lips while his eyes stay hard; it’s apparently a smile of camaraderie: He’s a handful, your dad. But oh, it’s making a demand. Debts are being called in. For Ben is surely not willing to be humiliated. The apology expressed a kind of noblesse oblige; not accepted, it becomes a sign of weakness. Tonight, especially, here on this beautiful land at the top of the canyon, he sees himself as some kind of feudal lord of California, a newly-minted aristocrat, to whom Peter is vassal. Ben knows that Peter’s firm needs an infusion of new capital, and unsecured capital isn’t all that easy to come by these days.
But Peter gives him back a blank stare. He doesn’t know how Ben insulted Samuel, but he can imagine. It must have been ugly if Ben feels he has to acknowledge it as insult. Ben won’t let Peter go, Ben’s smile freezes, he’s upping the stakes, demanding response, a shared smile, that’s all, and though knowing the cost, Peter keeps refusing. Even at this instant, while Peter is almost breathless from the effort of resisting Ben’s demand, another piece of him is already skimming mental lists for alternative financial contacts.
Ruthie is worried. “Dad? Time to go.”
Samuel just turns away, but as he continues up the path, he looks back at the great tent lit by candles, floating above the trees.
Ben calls after him, “I saw you enjoying the music.”
Peter turns. Now he can be polite. “My father was just saying—”
But Ben won’t let him finish. “Hey. That’s religious music, your old man should like it. We got lucky. They happened to be starting an American tour. They’re for real, these guys. Big shots back home in Pakistan.”
And that should be that. Good night, good night. Only something peculiar happens. Maybe because Ben is nervous, feels unsupported by Peter, and because Samuel remains silent? Ben blurts a laugh—a cynical little laugh. To Samuel’s ears, the laugh is mean, caustic. You think I give a damn if you accept my apology? You think you mean a damned thing to me? I can buy you and sell you. It’s meant to communicate contempt, but Ben doesn’t expect to get called on it.
“That music,” Samuel says, turning back to face Ben Siegel, as Peter tugs at his elbow, “It moved me. It moved me. Very much. But—how can I put this—? You just rented it. It’s like your black silk shirt, Mr. Siegel, or that silk vest—a little touch of style you put on. . . .”
Ruthie puts her arm around Samuel’s shoulders. “Dad, Dad, please, we do need to get home. Another day you can have this discussion.”
But Peter, in for a penny, in for a pound, says, “Oh, let Pop alone. He’ll just be a minute.”
Having to speak loud over the music, Samuel says, “And here’s the thing, Mr. Siegel—at some level you know it, that’s the trouble, so it looks foolish on you. A costume. Or an alien from another planet speaking colloquially, you understand?—but not quite getting the intonations right.”
Now Peter: “Pop! Enough, Pop.”
“Mr. Siegel, you’re like a Jewish Gatsby. You try to become special, glorious. And let me tell you frankly, that’s not going to happen. But even if it were to happen, what would you have? What? Is this what you really want your life to be about?” This feels so good to say—and immediately Samuel regrets saying it. He feels a whirring in his ears from the rush of the fight.
Ben blurts another laugh, turns to Peter, another try. “You got some peculiar father. What’s wrong with this guy? He getting a little funny in his old age?”
“I don’t see anything peculiar,” Peter Rosen says. “My dad is just a little outspoken, Ben. But Ruthie’s right—it’s time for us to go home.” He takes his father’s elbow and steers him away, and when they’re at the trellised gate, Peter stops them—out of earshot of the young man with the lists of names and the drivers standing around having a smoke. “He’s pretty peculiar himself.”
“I’m sorry, Pete. That cost you. I know it.”
Ruthie goes up to the parking attendants to hand them the ticket for the car. She’s shaking her head. But Peter sings a laugh that harmonizes with the singer’s cry. “Well, you are really something, Pop. —What a mouth on this guy!” he calls to Ruthie. Then—”Oh, you—you old prophet! Listen, I’ve been wanting to cut that phony down for months.”
“I’m ashamed. For your business—you need him. And it’s not just that. Me, I need to stop judging so much. It’s a real disease. I give everybody grades for living. I’m ashamed.”
Danny doesn’t get it. He keeps asking, “What happened? Grandpa? What?”
We’re back on The Promised Land; it’s January but warm, a clear Sunday; Peter’s cruising toward Catalina, where he promises everyone a marvelous brunch at a restaurant overlooking the ocean, and he’s making time to keep his reservation. It’s choppy; they’re clipping the waves.
No piped-in music today—Peter’s made a deal with Samuel, who’s in the main cabin teaching Torah cantillations to Jeremy and Danny. Instead of yarmulke, Samuel is wearing one of Peter’s baseball caps, logo of the Dodgers. And Samuel has agreed to fishing on the way back; Peter’s got several heavy rods rigged and strapped up like aerials on the fishing tower.
Small accommodations like these have been made, nothing said; for instance, Samuel shows an interest in the boat. Occasionally he takes the helm and lets Peter correct him. Occasionally, he watches TV without lecturing the family about false gods. Fridays, he’s taken to baking and blessing the challah. In fact, he’s taken over most of the shopping and cooking, spent a day kashering the kitchen—which they pretend they know nothing about. Ruthie’s grateful—she has plenty to do without cooking.
Oh, there are times—Samuel knows—Peter can’t stand being in the same room with him.
Today, there’s shalom b’bayit, peace in the house. Or on the boat, this massive venture skipping over the waves.
In the main cabin, Samuel is struggling to keep Danny on pitch, then to get Jeremy to link the tropes, to put phrases together legato, not as a disconnected series. The two boys are learning different Haftorah passages, but Jeremy is learning to chant some of Danny’s, Danny, Jeremy’s. How did it happen? Samuel has no idea. Somehow, there—last week—was Jeremy for his lesson. There was Danny. “Dad says okay.” Samuel hasn’t questioned. The boat slams a swell, another. The xeroxed sheets slide along the table. “Let’s stop for today and go up on deck,” Samuel says. “Let’s end with a niggun. You’ve almost got it, both of you. You should be very pleased.”
He works them too hard, he thinks, these L. A. kids in jeans and baggy crew-necked shirts. But they do love learning these niggunim, melodies without words that seem to say . . . everything. Mostly a sad music. This, the music says, is how life is. And that’s how it leaves him when the boys grab a Coke and turn on the TV. The melody shaping his breathing, he goes up on deck, climbs to the fishing tower.
Peter is steering a course from the upper cabin; he’s been teaching Ruthie how to program the computer memory for navigation. Above, in the fishing tower, alone, floating above the ocean like the gulls, Samuel picks up the niggun in his head, then hums aloud, but after a minute it simply comes apart, turns into a keening, like the cry of the gulls, a keening, a howling no one below can hear, but he feels ashamed—Still, after a year? What kind of faith?—and then one of Hannah’s deep breaths, and again into the niggun, a melody that knows more than he knows, knows what we go through. The music doesn’t try to cope in any way—except to love the sad world and let the singer know it knows, knows for all of us. It holds us, or it breathes us.
Port ahead: Catalina. Boats streaming towards, away. A ferry sounds its horn in warning as it lumbers out of its dock. Over a loudspeaker he hears Peter’s voice: “Dad? Come on down from there while we’re docking.” Aye, aye, Captain. Samuel climbs down to the deck of The Promised Land; the melody still in his head, he rejoins the family.