Commentary Magazine


In Acknowledgment of a Chief Rabbi

“When she smiles at me,” Ralph said, “I get a pain here.” He pressed his palm tenderly against his blue woollen chest.

“Jewish girl?” his mother asked, but as both an interrogation offering no choice of answer, or a purely social formula to which there could be only one reply.

“What a question,” said Ralph, “you know everyone at our school’s Jewish.”

“You said Mrs. Hanna was Jewish that time I asked you, and she isn’t,” his mother said, but as a point of argument, not reproof.

“She’s a teacher. How was I to know?” said Ralph.

“Jewish people aren’t black,” his mother said, “not as black as Mrs. Hanna, anyway. Is this girl the one who puts your coat on and does your shoes up for you?”

“Sometimes,” said Ralph.

He was unbearably dilatory in his personal toilet. It was as if his socks and pants, though no objects of meditation in themselves, were the keys to vast halls of reflection. On his socks, as it were, Ralph told his beads. When, that summer, he had gone off confidently to camp for a fortnight, his parents in fear and hope awaited the breaking or making of their son, both proved baseless by his first letter. “I have made a friend,” Ralph wrote, “called Emmanuel Kaner. He is a very convenient boy.”

“He must be the one who washes and dresses him,” his father said.

Morning palaver broke with the full seven-thirty light over 122 Bolsover Road, London, E. 15., where Ralph lived directly opposite the Leytonstone and Woodford synagogue, conveniently situated for his father, who presided there, and the intending Chief Rabbi, to which calling Ralph had early dedicated himself. Regular communiqués of the time were delivered at three-minute intervals for forty-five minutes as a rule. Then his mother would go up, threats swelling stair by stair, till the climax was reached in Ralph’s bedroom, the intolerable tension broke, and a roaring filled the house, all described by his sister Norma, with the casual stunning accuracy which is the vital characteristic of the true impressionist, as the sordidness of Ralph getting up in the morning.

“Still in your pyjamas, you lump!” the dreadful dialogue began.

Caught, pants in hand, eyes fixed to an invisible spot through the wall, all sight turned inward, “Hush,” he would murmur desperately, “I’m in the middle of a poem.”

“I’ll poem you!” his mother employed a variant of her ancestors’ substitution of literature for lethal weapons. “When Judith was three,” she drew out of her rich compendium of virtuous examples from Ralph’s next-of-kin, her eldest daughter, the first of the four aces up her sleeve by which means Ralph lived in the childhood of his sisters, “she could dress herself from head to foot in five minutes. Not a button undone. Not a shoe-lace untied.” She pulled his pants up over his shining delicate rump. Ralph cooperated, but passively. “I looked at your sums last night,” she accused the headless torso crowned with a flannel shirt-collar, “15.4 multiplied by 4.2. How can the answer possibly be 3 point anything?”

“That’s what I want to know!” Outraged justice emerged into the daylight.

“When Dinah was seven,” she produced her second model, “you’ve seen her sum-book, how neat it is, scarcely any sums wrong.”

“Only two,” Ralph said with unstinting admiration, “on the last page but one.” He turned to the staircase.

“Hands,” his mother said. She scrubbed them at the sink. “Face. When Pauline was six—what a manager she was! Bathed herself from head to foot.”

“And Norma,” Ralph marveled with her. He was content to applaud such precocity. He would not compete. He went downstairs to his cornflakes and the football results and murders in the morning paper.

“That man’s done it again, Dad,” he said.

“Tottenham Hotspurs’ center forward?” It was a bizarre phrase in the mouth of Ralph’s father, too English, too mundane, for that (though naturalized thirty years past) interminably alien, incontrovertibly spiritual and otherly British citizen.

“I mean that man who cut the girl’s head off in Hounslow,” his eyes held his father’s. “He’s done it again, in Epping.”

“Why do you think every murderer’s interested in you?” his father comforted him. “There are plenty of other people.”

“O, Dad,” Ralph said. Words failed him. But a perceptible downward straining at the corners of his mouth betrayed a grudging propensity to laughter.

“You’re off school straight after lunch today, aren’t you?” his mother said. “Do me a favor and take the washing to the laundromat. It’s in the laundry basket. I’ll be home by the time you get back.”

“Time,” his father said, and prepared to accompany him down the street and across the main road, which was unnecessary now, but his father loved to do it.

He occupied the deepest level of his parents’ communication with one another. Their conversation was laconic, often wordless. They referred to their son by the pronoun only. There was no other he.

“I’ve got an appointment with his headmistress this morning,” his mother said, but in Yiddish, which infused it with a richness and depth and such intimacy that it was as if she were talking to herself. “He must get more help with his sums.”

“He’s not stupid,” his father said carefully. But he meant: the boy is deep, meditative, highly aware, full of a rarer intelligence.

“He knows nothing about sums,” his mother said.

“Don’t let him see you,” said his father.

“Would I let him see me?” his mother’s face duplicated the exasperated martyrdom worn by her son earlier that morning.

_____________

 

She sat in the office of Mrs. Leibowitz, who detested Jewish parents in particular, since these she knew most intimately, and it was a rare one whose child did not, by signs carelessly undetected by her, subtly manifest his genius. “He’s slow,” Ralph’s headmistress said, “and rather dull. Brilliant in Hebrew, of course.”

“If he’s brilliant in Hebrew, he’s not dull,” his mother said. “He wasn’t born with his Hebrew, you know, he learnt it.”

“His father taught him, of course,” Mrs. Leibowitz smilingly discounted Ralph’s talent. “He’s a proper little rabbi,” she said, which in Ralph’s father’s boyhood would have been praise indeed; but Mrs. Leibowitz in England 1960 tacitly intimated contempt.

“If he could get some personal attention in arithmetic, I think he’d do better,” Ralph’s mother made her appeal in the irresistibly persuasive voice she had practiced off and on, over a period of thirty years, to get one or another of her five children to eat.

“I’ll speak to his teacher,” Mrs. Leibowitz said. Then shockingly she called her secretary to fetch Ralph.

“No, please,” Ralph’s mother was aghast. “I told you he doesn’t know I’m here.”

“It won’t do him any harm,” Mrs. Leibowitz said.

Ralph came. He stopped short when he saw his mother, and his face was helplessly the victim of his shocked blood which drained away in a moment, then hurled itself mercilessly into his cheeks and remained there. “Kiss your mother,” Mrs. Leibowitz said. Ralph stood stock-still, his eyes frozen in the boiling whirlpool of his face. “Kiss your mother,” Mrs. Leibowitz repeated, sharp this time. Ralph couldn’t move.

“We don’t do that in our family,” said his mother, forced to reduce to one paltry sentence a long and complex family history.

“Don’t kiss?” said Mrs. Leibowitz. “Nonsense. Kiss your mother at once.”

“No,” his mother said for him, “we don’t need to demonstrate affection in our family.”

“How strange,” said Mrs. Leibowitz. “Very well, Ralph, you may go.” He turned slowly, and his mother, dwelling miserably on that scarlet wing-eared face and the pathos of his humiliated, undefended blue and gray back, was amply punished for her errand.

_____________

 

At two o’clock Ralph let himself into the house, stood in the center of the living room, regarded himself in the glass, hissed quietly, “No, Mrs. Leibowitz, no, no, no” at his reflection. Then he half-closed his eyes, dropped the comers of his mouth, inflated his chest. Mrs. Shapiro interrogating his sister Norma. “Why you not married, heh, a nice Jewish girl like you?” His eyes narrowed further, he nodded several times gently, “I understand. You haddit a disappointlement.” Then he read the football results again, intoned a portion of the Pentateuch he knew by heart, walked three times round the room, slowly, right hand outstretched, a slight social smile on his mouth, bowing a little at each step, the Chief Rabbi wishing his brethren Sabbath joy. After which, without further delay, he took the laundry basket and went on his way, but traveling over the doorstep at the speed of light, he moved now into a crowd cheering Leyton Orient into the first division.

He did not, as a shallower lover of the game might have done, make skillful passes with his feet, nor did he flick his head with superb confidence to send the ball in a glorious arc to the touchline, as he pushed the family washing down the street. He meditated with a purer love, as a spectator merely, which characteristic of disinterestedness he had directly and uniquely of all the children of that household inherited from his father who, least homo ludens of all men on earth, diligently pursued the study of the game for the pleasure of his son.

Ralph maneuvered the basket round the corner. From the back you noticed most his gait, which was erratic, the left hip raised a little higher than the right, the trunk perched on the long slim legs suggesting a person walking rapidly, and with the careless ease of long habit, on stilts, a barely perceptible but absolutely characteristic limp from breaking his thigh twice in three months, seven years earlier in his first walking year. But if you were approaching him face to face you would be struck most forcibly not by the pebble-thick spectacles that cruelly concealed the honey-brown velvet of his eyes, or the square preoccupied forehead, or the clipped rough mealie-brown hair that would have been a cascade of shining ringlets if his father’s word had been obeyed and his mother had not introduced him to a barber six years back and once a month ever since; or the glow and curve of his cheeks which is the perquisite of all the young of the species but of Ralph more so; or the long nose that crowded his face with his big mouth which was soft, being young, but witness too to the accumulated sorrows of nine years of living; you would be impressed beyond the pattern of all this by the extraordinary gentleness with which it had been assembled and indelibly autographed.

As he proceeded to the main road, through the window of the garage of the third house on the left, he saw the woman hanging. He turned the basket round sharply and advanced at great speed in pursuit of duty. The key wasn’t under the loose edge of the doorstep. He beat on the door. His father, who was saying grace after meals, which is a four-minute job at the shortest, answered the door, still blessing the Bread-Giver. “Dad,” Ralph said grimly, “there’s a woman hanging in the garage at 5 Cormer Street,” and waited, first things first, till his father reached the amen.

“You’re always seeing things,” his father indicted him. And always have, he might have added, in view of Ralph’s recurrent assertion that his earliest memory was the painful look on his mother’s face as he was born. But he didn’t insult his son with a smile.

“Dad, I tell you—” Ralph’s voice rose, “O what shall I do? She’s hanging there. She might be dead, Dad.”

His father resisted a persistent temptation to press his son’s head between his hands. He called him in self-defense an unflattering name in Yiddish as he put on his overcoat. “I have to go out now,” he said. “Go and get that washing done. Ma wants to iron this evening.”

“O Dad,” the mild downy forehead was an intricate network of wrinkles. “All right then,” he was resolved, “I’ll go and get Norma.”

“She’s teaching now,” his father said, “you can’t interrupt her for nonsense.”

“The woman might be dead” Ralph repeated, and though this kind of dying, like jokes about corpses, was deeply divided from his grief at the notion of that ultimate silence which terribly awaited him and his, he did not hesitate to lend it with his voice the identical sorrow with which for the past four years he had regularly alarmed his mother, and in desperate defense against the death of whom, since fifty too nearly approaches the three score and ten allotted by the Scriptures, he had permanently invested her with the age of forty-nine. It was in deference to this that his mother, long since purged of all vanity of her own person, though she lied about the ages of her two unmarried daughters with a consistency and energy for which she received no gratitude, was eternally forty-nine for her son.

_____________

 

Ralph turned the laundry basket toward the kindergarten where the youngest and favorite of his four sisters dragooned, to Ralph’s delight, twenty midgets fresh from the incubator. They were in the midst of recitation. Ralph generally rejoiced in their smallness and enchanting ineptitude, and though there was sterner business afoot now, he was not, for all that, as he crossed the room to confer with his sister, oblivious of how tall and how senior he must appear to the thirty-inch disciples, nor did he fail in a silent acknowledgment of the responsibility this demanded of him.

“A hanging woman!” his sister’s utterly sincere horror warmed him. She got up and directed her forefinger at the adjoining room which faced her twenty dwarfs. “Anyone, Michael Levine, Peter Simonovitz, Norman Klein, Perry Miller, who causes any disturbance, who fights, who shouts, who brings disgrace on this school while I’m out for ten minutes, will be reported to me by Mrs. Shapiro in there. What I will do then will be more horrible than anyone here can imagine.” Ralph, assimilating the forty hypnotized eyes and the odor of sanctity that filled the room, suppressed a complex urge to grin.

The two of them walked briskly out of the playground. “All I’m saying, Ralph,” his sister put some pressure on his elbow, “is that if this is a joke, you will not even live to repent it,” a warning born of long experience of Ralph’s jokes which may be divided roughly into three categories. The first might be exemplified by the occasion on which he swallowed his sister’s contact lenses, thinking, he said, they were crystallized fruits; and it wasn’t until she said, “Forty guineas’ worth of crystallized fruits, we’re going to Doctor Horwitz for an emetic,” and actually got him into the doctor’s waiting-room, that he produced them from his blazer-pocket with huge if short-lived mirth. The second category was the funny story, regarding which his mother, whose intermittent patience with her last-born astonished Ralph’s sisters, all of whom remembered a childhood fraught with domestic violence, said of her only son: “He is a good boy, a kind boy, and without him what your father would do I don’t know, for he is the greatest joy of his life”—meaning her own, though it was nonetheless true—“he is not shallow or mean: he is a pleasure to look at and not stupid; he is good company and very sweet-natured and dependable; but when he tells a joke, I could . . . ,” she closed her eyes, her face registered anguish no less profound for all that it was simple and wordless, her voice fell to a whisper, “pass out from sheer boredom.” The third category contained what Ralph called “Anecdotes from Rabbinic Times,” and some short conversation pieces which he recounted expressionlessly, without accompanying gestures or vocal inflections, so that years afterward his family remembered most clearly not the joke but the flat colorless voice he told it in. “There was this woman, you see, and her husband died in Shul, and all the men were terrified of telling her because they thought she might die of shock. So the Rabbi said, ‘All right, I will then. I’ll break it gently.’ So he went to her house and knocked on the window, and she said, ‘Who’s there?’ So the Rabbi said, ‘It’s me, the Rabbi, Widow Cohen.’ So she said, ‘I’m Mrs. Cohen, not Widow Cohen.’ So the Rabbi said, ‘Well you are now.’”

“O Norma,” Ralph said, “it’s no joke. Murder isn’t a joke.”

_____________

 

When they got there the body was gone. “Somebody’s cut her down,” said Ralph. His sister examined his face. It was unarguably the face of one who has seen a woman hanging in a garage and returns with help to find the body gone. If it had been any other of his four sisters standing there with their brother and the laundry basket, Ralph’s day would have been less memorable. The eldest would have explained with care that whereas what is seen by the sensory eye can be related immediately to the real world, what the eye of the imagination, the visionary eye, beholds, has no practical framework of reference. His second sister would have divined that the victim was certainly a witch anyway, a constant source of misery to her innocent husband and children, full of evil and incurable malice. His third sister would have said, “She was doubtless standing on a table knocking a nail in the garage-roof.” But Norma knew the world, knew, had always known—with the special knowledge that is so central to any given person’s apprehension of the world that it seems congenital—that a murderer was not exceptional among men. She knocked at the door. There was no answer and no sound within. They turned the laundry basket homeward and telephoned the police. Two uniformed men arrived promptly. Ralph, with decent pride, boarded the police car with Norma, and gave succinct directions. The police knocked. There was no reply. The people next door came out, said their neighbor was on holiday, that they were keeping an eye on the house, and with evident contempt but no hesitation briefly supplied further dull information. The police dropped Norma off at the kindergarten, drove Ralph home and thanked him.

His mother came in at five o’clock with a carefully prepared explanation and covert apology for the disaster of the morning. The house was quiet. Ralph was not in the kitchen nor the living room. The moment she heard the sound of muffled weeping she saw him through the window, his back toward her, his head bent, sitting among the packing cases in the lean-to. She called him with synthetic brightness. He came into the kitchen at once, his forefinger wedged between the pages of a book in his right hand, but his mother’s eyes were only on his damp face.

“What’s the matter?” she asked painfully.

“Lancelot. And Guinevere,” Ralph moaned quietly. “I wish people wouldn’t die, Ma.” He took out the crying-rag he kept permanently at the unbearable page and mopped his eyes; then he replaced the rag and balanced the book on his head.

“I don’t know why you go on upsetting yourself with that,” his mother hid her relief. Then she said timidly, “What sort of day did you have at school?”

“O Ma,” said Ralph, “that Mrs. Leibowitz! Thanks ever so much for not kissing me.” Then he said, “You should have been home an hour ago. I thought you’d been run over.”

In his diary that evening he wrote: “Forecast for Arsenal vs. Leyton Orient tomorrow. Leyton Orient 3 Arsenal 1. Went to laundromat. Saw dead woman. Called police. Saw Mark Arieh with his dog. He ran after us. Mark said he thought I had been kidnapped. He was a bit surprised to see me in a police car. That was my day.”

_____________

 

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