Commentary Magazine


Reading to Jacob

Every night he reads to his beloved dead brother. Reads poetry, reads stories, and, accompanying himself clumsily on guitar, sings Jacob’s own songs to him. The odd thing about this is that Michael is a non-believer. Or no; he’s a believer all right—but in nothing—he has certainty that there is nothing beyond or within the material world. The material world is not a veil masking a deeper reality. It’s just what is. Not that Michael believes only in what we can see. He believes in a world best explained by impossible-to-see quantum mechanics and string theory, best described by equations—problematic, quirky, even irrational. He was a double major at Cornell, marketing and physics. Now he’s a successful businessman and a confirmed skeptic. However strange the world might be, it is not holy, not partaking of spirit, whatever that word means. And when we die, we die. Jacob is dead. That’s it, and he’s sure. He’s sure. Michael mourns, he weeps when he can’t stop himself—only when he’s not observed. But he doesn’t want to lie to himself. There are no bridges to another world and no other world to reach.

So why read to a non-existent Jacob? And why, before he goes to bed, does he sit on the end of his bed across from the…“memory shelf” (as he calls it so he can’t accuse himself of considering it an altar) and talk to Jacob’s picture and read to his brother, who he knows can’t hear him. Michael has never particularly liked poetry, yet every day Michael reads aloud, reads Jacob’s favorites, reads Yeats, reads Donne, reads Whitman, reads Lawrence.

Michael and Jacob were always close, very close. From the time they were little children—Michael the older by three years—they loved each other, and loved to battle. But only with words. And each would have been upset if the other had given in, changed his position. It was sparring, play fighting. As an adult, Jacob played the contemplative, ingenuous one, in touch with spirit. He would, if Michael was there to observe, put his hands on the trunk of a tree, and draw energy from the earth or pass negative energy into the earth. And Michael would roll his eyes. “Jacob! What’s your theory about this tree thing? You think it’s got magical powers or something?”

Jacob hit back his brother’s serve—“This maple tree? Well kind of actually. I’m kind of respectful of trees. A tree is energy turned into bark and leaves and such, a pretty damn magical process you gotta admit, but Mike, it’s not a question of trees. There’s energy everywhere. All around us. Me, too, I’m energy going in, energy going out, changing and changing. We’re made of it—of energy. You took physics. Energy can never be lost. Right? ‘Conservation of energy.’ Like when we die, we just change forms. So I lift up my hands to the tree and I touch this eternal energy. Adonoy Echad: God is One.”

Michael didn’t believe that for a moment. He still doesn’t. Jacob is conflating different meanings of energy. When Jacob says energy, he doesn’t mean the energy of the physicist; it’s energy seen by mystics. Isn’t it enough, this amazing world of ours, without all that about holiness and God? Ah, give your brother a break.

Jacob felt the Divine Presence around him. He sang about it in his songs. He raised his hands, palms up, as if to gather it in and offer it to Michael. “The world is grounded in God,” Jacob said, looking around him as if everywhere he could see the signature of God. “It throbs with God. Like a divine pulse. If you’re quiet, you can hear. Ahh, Mikey. You—you just pretend to be a materialist.”

“Why is materialist a dirty word? A sailboat is a material thing, but it makes you feel free. Now, that’s the kind of spirituality I can understand.”

Michael has been, financially, a lot more successful than Jacob, who struggled to get by as opening act on the tours of the famous, as “recording artist” making a pittance, in spite of great reviews; from solo gigs at small clubs and the sale of CDs or downloads. Michael was also more wealthy than their parents, Naomi Schulman, the head of the language department at Newton North High, and Nathan Schulman, a professor of Judaic Studies at Brandeis. Not a problem. Their dad didn’t at all mind driving a used Prius while Michael drove a BMW. Michael had, by thirty-three, built and sold a business, was growing another. Nathan, Naomi, Jacob cheered.

And then one night, between sets, Jacob took a breather out the backdoor of the small Boston club where he was playing, wearing an embroidered blousy pirate shirt his girlfriend had made for him, a pretty shirt he used on stage. He was sharing a beer with his bass player when a couple of nasty drunks came down the alley and started heckling, putting him down. “Yo! Faggot in that faggot shirt. You come here and blow me.”

Jacob waved them away and headed for the backdoor of the club. The bass player, a big guy, wasn’t going to take shit. He pulled out a long-bladed knife. “Please, Danny, put that away,” Jacob said. “Let’s get back inside.”

The bass player backed away, waving the blade side to side. They were almost to the door when one of the drunks pulled a gun tucked in his belt and shot twice—one shot hitting Danny in the belly. He dropped, bunched over, screaming. Jacob tried to get inside but the two guys charged, and he was shoved to the ground and kicked in the head, kicked again and again. They took turns and he was unconscious. Danny, the bass player, was writhing in pain.

“C’mon, c’mon!”—the guy with a gun said. And they ran down the alley. Now the club’s bouncer came out and, seeing what was happening, dialed 9-1-1, took off his shirt and wrapped it around Jacob’s head.

Jacob lived for three days. Before he dropped into a coma, he mumbled to his brother, “Mike? I’m not going to die, am I? I feel like I’m sometimes in another world.”

“Don’t be an idiot. You’ll be fine.”

But he wasn’t fine. A cerebral hemorrhage no one anticipated, and he was gone.

Now comes the grieving. Michael and Naomi comforting and taking comfort, though there is no comfort. It’s spring in Boston; the trees are blooming. That only makes it harder. After the funeral, for almost a week they sit shiva in the family home, mirrors covered. The first night, Rabbi Fogel comes to the house to lead a service. He knows Jacob well—has known both Michael and Jacob as children, officiated at the big conservative synagogue when they became bar mitzvah. Friends, family speak. It seems like group therapy. Michael doesn’t want to talk. He doesn’t want to cry.

But the next morning, the next night, it’s a very different rabbi, Rabbi Alter, who comes to the house. He leads services, says little. A peculiar, dark figure, not old, maybe forty, forty-five, the rabbi of a tiny basement shul and house of study—a shtiebel. He seems to Michael the last rabbi on earth to have inspired his passionate brother. The nephew of a well-known rabbi in Brooklyn, who leads a minor Hasidic sect—unlike this uncle he has little charisma and less of a congregation. Yet Jacob had grown close to him. He used to tell Michael about Rabbi Alter. And knowing that the rabbi was important to Jacob, Nathan Schulman, himself perfectly capable of leading a service, permits Alter to lead. Nathan sits holding Naomi’s hand—two children, eyes closed, hardly paying attention to the quiet chanting.

Jacob, singer-songwriter of love songs human and divine, used to attend, when he was in town, Rabbi Alter’s side-street congregation in Brookline, a gathering of men, only men. Mostly in black. Now, after the family has stopped sitting shiva, Michael attends one weekday morning. It’s not a question of belief. Michael simply wants to get it right, somehow, for his beautiful dead brother—though Jacob won’t know one way or the other. At the shtiebel he attends morning service and says Kaddish. He’s not the only one.

The shtiebel is in a basement. Rough reading desks were hammered together out of recycled, oiled wood by one of the men who prayed and studied there. There are some wooden chairs, some folding chairs, a beautiful, tarnished lamp from the remains of a synagogue in Prague hanging from the ceiling. Wire is stapled down the wall. Light in the rest of the room is from sickly yellow energy-saving bulbs. It’s a small room, cement-block with a painted cement post in the middle, an ark with two small Torah scrolls, wooden shelves with shabby commentaries and prayer books given by a big synagogue that’s been updating their editions, a leather-bound set of Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic with English translation. In the dim light of the narrow basement windows at head level, Rabbi Binyamin Alter is as gray as his beard, matter-of-fact, drab, slight, eyes cast down, quiet to the point of seeming depressed. He’s mildly asthmatic, and the asthma seems like a condition of his being, as if to breathe in this world were problematic. And he seems so separate from other people.

He looks at Michael for a moment, then looks away. Why did Jacob think this guy was so holy? And now Michael is amused: The rabbi’s polyester coat is so clean and pressed, the beard trimmed and with no crumbs of food. Meaning, for Michael, that Alter doesn’t even have the crumples and grease stains of imagined old-world wonder-rabbis.

Even Jacob, Michael remembers, was a little embarrassed by all the black. “But it’s a custom, Mikey. And Rabbi Alter doesn’t mind if I get more colorful. Rabbi Alter, he’s the real thing. You see it when he smiles at you.”

But Rabbi Alter doesn’t smile.

So why does Michael come back? He’s busy, especially mornings, and not only for his work. He and his parents have to dismantle Jacob’s rented apartment and to store or take his things. Michael takes a few shirts that feel like Jacob to him, takes a pair of worn sneakers, photos, Beatles CDs, a T-shirt advertising Jacob’s own music. He takes a notebook with the lyrics of half-written songs, a cassette recorder with Jacob humming melodies. He takes a few well-thumbed books.

So much to do, and he’s so filled with the absence of Jacob. Still, he drives to the shtiebel on weekday mornings. Standing, feet together, trying to read the Aramaic smoothly, he recites the Mourners’ Kaddish.

Some nights Michael and his fiancée, Renee, have dinner with his parents. Renee wants to be a part of their life, especially now, to offer comfort, though she’s often too busy to join him. She’s on a state senator’s staff part-time and studying at the Kennedy School of Government for a master’s in public policy. To see his parents is to amplify his pain, to bring his mourning to a higher pitch, but he needs them and they need him.

One night when Renee is there and he’s washing dishes while she straightens the dining room, he catches her standing in the doorway and staring at him, and he realizes—oh!—I’ve been talking aloud to myself, and she’s been hearing. “Hey!” he laughs. “I’m not crazy, Renee. It’s just that some-times, especially lately,” he says, lifting his hands in surrender, “I talk to myself. Okay?”

“I know. I know, honey. But Michael, this is different. Do you realize you’re not just talking to yourself? You’re talking to Jacob.” She waits for him to take this in. “And Michael? Sometimes it’s like Jacob is talking back to you. It’s his voice talking. You imitate him. There’s a dialogue.”

“It’s just a hard time, honey. Like, you won’t believe this. Know where I went this morning? To services. I’ve been going.”

“You went with your father? To services at Brandeis?”

“No. To that little guy in black who led services here.”

Back home alone in his apartment in the South End, he examines the pile of books on the side table by his bed and chooses what to read to Jacob. Is it Rumi tonight? Or Szymborska? A short story by Chekhov? What’s your plea-sure, Jacob? He sits at the end of his bed across from the memory shelf. So foolish, to think—if that’s what he thinks—he can channel Jacob by this reading. Jacob would laugh, Read for yourself, Michael. What do you want to read? But this way of reading to Jacob soothes Michael. It makes him read very differently. It’s not that the gap disappears—the gap between the living and the dead. If anything, it makes him look down dizzily into the gap—it’s bigger than the Grand Canyon.

He tries reading a chapter from Walden—reads in Jacob’s own voice. Since Renee made him aware, he’s been hearing that voice of Jacob’s. Because Jacob loved words, because he wrote songs and poems, Michael can hear just how Jacob’s voice would sound, reading. The rhythm of his speech. And then the reading turns to conversation.

-I saw your friend Rabbi Alter. I said Kaddish for you again this morning.

-That’s great, Mike. The big secret is that the Kaddish is for you.

-Don’t you think I know that?

But does he know that? Is it true? He thinks—for me? For me? Next morning Michael goes back to the shtiebel in Brookline—between service and driving he loses an hour and a half of his morning. Maybe that’s why he does it—to give up something for his brother, not do mourning by rote.

He notices that again he’s the tenth man, the one who makes it possible for there to be a minyan, to have organized prayers. The day before, the day before that, he’d been the last to arrive; today, he was one of the first—but each day, without him there’d have been no minyan. He mumbles as much of the text as he can; he was good in Hebrew as a child, but oh, it’s just sound now. He really doesn’t know much of what he’s praying. Yesterday one of the younger men led services; this morning the rabbi is leading—murmuring, murmuring.

What the hell am I doing here? I’m being so phony. But as the congregation chants the Shema, he finds himself heaving hot breath and tears, as if tears were burning in his chest. And he can’t stop. He keeps his face turned from the others, he wipes his cheeks with quick motions of the back of his hand. But the rabbi sees. Michael sees that he sees. Now he feels shame, as if he’s weeping in order to impress Rabbi Alter.

The service goes on; he collects himself. Last night he practiced saying the Mourners’ Kaddish. This morning he recites it smoothly, as if he suddenly understood the Aramaic. He glances across the page to the translation…May His great name grow exalted...Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, mighty, upraised, and lauded....What can all that mean? It’s not even about the dead—about his lost brother. But he finds himself hungry to speak the words.

Michael removes and folds away his tallit, hangs it on the rack. He thanks the rabbi and turns to leave. Rabbi Alter says, out of the blue, “Michael? I think when you weep, you’re weeping not just for your beloved brother, may his memory be for a blessing.”

“Oh?” Michael’s hackles go up. “You’re saying it’s for me, then? For myself?”

“I wonder. Do you see?”

“Rabbi? You’re saying that maybe—well, maybe I’m mourning an empty place in myself?”

“That I can’t know. I can’t know that. Forgive me for being so direct, but I feel I know you. When I see you, I see your brother.”

“Oh! We’re so different, me and Jacob. You wouldn’t believe. Jacob was so good. So much better than me.”

The rabbi doesn’t answer. Michael takes this as an answer. He’s annoyed. What am I doing this for? To hell with him. He vows not to return. I don’t need that guy’s judgment.

But two days later, he does return. He tells himself, well, it’s for Jacob.

It’s a Thursday. On Mondays and Thursdays they chant three passages from the Torah portion of the week. A congregant comes up to bless the Torah for each passage. Today, Michael is the third. He stumbles over the blessing; it doesn’t matter. The rabbi drones Torah so that the words stream together: pure sound. Not that Michael would understand the Hebrew if Rabbi Alter chanted it like some great cantor. Michael’s mind floats off and off.

Somehow, in the gap, he’s aware that he’s aware of the presence of Jacob. Jacob is not in one single place in the shtiebel; but he’s really here. Michael knows. Oh, not that he’s present as a ghost, a spirit in pants and shirt. No. Simply, he’s here. Michael closes his eyes. He thinks of this as absolute craziness, it’s grief talking. God, I do need help. But he doesn’t want to lose it, this presence, crazy or not.

Jacob, Jacob.

No Jacob, of course, during the rest of the day—his time at work. He’s busy; it’s not till 9:30 he can get home with a couple of slices of pizza. In his apartment, protected from anyone overhearing, Michael sits on the end of the bed and talks to Jacob. Not that Jacob is present as he was at the shtiebel. Michael asks,

What kind of brother are you?

What are you doing to me?

Are you doing?

Are you?

“Read to me,” Michael’s Jacob whispers. “Read me a psalm.”

“You say that because you know that the psalms are hard for me. You know I don’t have faith.”

“Ahh. Read.”

Jacob, who isn’t there, whose presence isn’t even invoked by his memory shelf, just laughs—of course only in Michael’s head. Michael sits across from the shelf and reads.

When he returns to the shtiebel the following week, he’s wearing Jacob’s favorite shirt—not the pirate shirt Jacob sometimes wore on stage and wore the night he was beaten, but the light blue silk shirt with broad open collar he wore the last few years on family occasions. In the car Michael has left a business suit, a shirt and tie, for when he goes to his office.

During the service he tries to make the Hebrew words invoke the spirit of Jacob. Of course nothing happens—nothing. Jacob’s absent. It’s a dreary, dusty room with a bunch of religious guys, some in black, some in jeans, praying. Only when he gives up all attempts to contact Jacob and, along with the rabbi, chants what he can of the eighteen blessings of the Amidah, and when, along with one other man, he recites the Mourners’ Kaddish, recites it for its own sake, not as magic spell but as testament, only then does Jacob slowly come to Michael. No—not exactly “come”—Jacob simply permeates the room again. He’s in the musty smell of old books. Michael senses him in the odors of the room, in sweat and mold, in the dust caught in two parallelograms of sunlight that come down into the shtiebel through the dirty basement windows. Michael opens his hands and, in a sense, touches his brother. Well, something hovers between his hands; there’s warmth in his fingers and on his cheeks. He wouldn’t dare say any of this to the rabbi; he’d be ashamed. It would sound like sorcery, witchcraft, which is, Michael remembers, cursed in Torah. May his memory be for a blessing implies that he’s gone—as much according to Torah as for a skeptic like me. He’s here only in memory.

He doesn’t want to leave the shtiebel after services, doesn’t want to go to work. If this is where Jacob is most present, this is where Michael wants to be. A young boy, surely one of the rabbi’s many children, comes in and puts scattered prayer books on a shelf, then goes off to school. A young man in black sits murmuring, barely audibly, in sing-song, a passage of, maybe, Talmud.

What am I doing here? When I’m so busy downtown.

The rabbi stands by Michael and puts a hand on his shoulder. “The Kaddish, you should know, it’s not just for you. It may comfort you, but it’s not just therapy. Some say that for the first eleven months, when you recite Kaddish you are giving comfort to the soul of your departed; after, that soul can win you favor in heaven. Do you believe that?”

“No. Not at all. Sorry, Rabbi.”

“No, you don’t believe. I know. That’s all right. Belief doesn’t matter.”

“Rabbi? I have to tell you—I’ve been sensing his presence, Jacob’s presence.” He waves his hand in the air. “Here, right here.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” the rabbi says, and finally smiles—smiles at Michael. Jacob was right. It’s unexpected. A loving smile. Michael stares; does the rabbi notice?

The rabbi goes to his office at the back of the shtiebel. Michael isn’t ready to leave. As an excuse for staying, he finds a pail and sponge in the cement-block bathroom, finds a ladder, cleaners and paper towels, and, before he goes to work, he washes, rinses and dries the two basement windows and puts the ladder back. He does it as unobtrusively as he can, then puts away the cleaning supplies. He looks at what he’s done and is pleased. Through the window, above on the street, a tree is in its last days of flowering.

Now he goes to the rabbi’s office. “I just want to thank you for morning services. The Kaddish—See, I don’t believe it, what it’s saying, but it turns out to speak to me. It catches me in the chest,” he says, thumping, thumping. “But I notice,” he says, “you’ve got barely enough to make a minyan—just ten men, including me. We’ve been lucky the past few days. If you like, email me your contact list, I’ll make calls to build up your minyan. I’m a pretty good organizer. It’s my way of paying you back.”

The rabbi reaches into a drawer and stirs the papers within. He comes up with a two-page handwritten list. “Active congregants,” he says, handing it to Michael. “And men who study here. Not so active except for ones I’ve starred. I’m not good at making calls. Thank you.”

“I’ll scan the list into my computer.”

“Perhaps you’d like to learn with us?—I teach Talmud Wednesday evenings.”

“Rabbi—what we were talking about the other day. About some missing part of myself? It was alive in Jacob. That’s what I need to learn. I don’t think it’s something you can teach in a class.”

I’m calling for Rabbi Alter. My name is Michael Schulman. We need you whenever you can make it in the morning for services. 7:30. But even part of the service—a few minutes—would be great. I need to say Kaddish—others, too. We’d really, really appreciate it.

Again and again and again for half an hour.

Renee sits at her computer in his living room. When he’s done, when he comes to sit by her, bringing her a glass of wine as guilt offering, she says, “Mike? You don’t expect me to cut my hair and wear a wig?”

“Oh, Renee. You know I’m not like that.”

“Oh—I do know. I’m joking. But lately I’ve been wondering. Reading to him? I dearly love you. I love your devotion to your brother. But should I be worried?”

Should she?

Next morning there are twelve at minyan; the next morning, fifteen. As services begin, the rabbi simply nods to Michael in acknowledgment. It’s not a question of belief, Michael says and says again. Then of what is it a question? As the men unstrap their tefillin, Rabbi Alter reads quickly through a few psalms. From the facing page Michael whispers the English translation to Jacob. I search for You, / my soul thirsts for You, / my body yearns for You, / as a parched and thirsty land that has no water.

And he gets it. Oh.

Tonight, alone, Michael sits across from his memory shelf and reads a few psalms to Jacob. He reads tonight with a whole heart.

“You see, Jacob, it’s not a question of faith. I understand. The psalmist has plenty of faith—sometimes so much you want to say, Stop, enough already! But he’s a troubled guy, this psalmist. Like me. We haven’t got the Word. All we’ve got is our longing.”

“The psalmist is hungry for justice. Why, he asks, do You hide Your face from me? Or why, he asks, do the wicked triumph? I saw the wicked at ease....It’s true. It’s true. Lawlessness enwraps them as a mantle. The wicked run from the alley, leaving you to die. You lie beneath the ground, while your killers go free. How can we handle that, you and I?”

Michael reads to Jacob of pain, he reads to Jacob words of longing—the longing of some-one long ago, yet not so different from now, from himself.

Not so different from you, Jacob.

Here, Jacob.

Let me read to you our longing.

About the Author

John J. Clayton is the author, most recently, of the short-story collection Many Seconds into the Future. His latest stories in Commentary are “Light Gleams an Instant” (July/August 2012) and “The Name Changer” (March 2011).




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