The Succession A Story
Rabbi Everett Siegel walks stealthily through the mall carrying a Woolworth’s shopping bag. Tall and stout, he cannot hope to hide in the crowd of young mothers and strollers. If he is to avoid recognition he must rely on speed, and so he trots along puffing with little quick steps. He is nearly out the door when George Kugel runs up calling, “Rabbi! What are you doing in Hawaii Kai?” Siegel stops and holds his shopping bag uncomfortably. “Well, George,” he counters, “what are you doing with your Friday nights? You should come back to the temple.”
“Ha!” George laughs.
Martin Buber Temple stands in one of Honolulu’s oldest neighborhoods. Old Pali Road is no longer residential. Its 1930′s colonial mansions now fly the consular flags of Japan and Indonesia and the King of Tonga. Outnumbering even the consulates are churches and shrines: Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Episcopalian, and Shinto. Next door to Martin Buber the Cochran estate houses the Kwan Yin Temple and seminary. A two-storey gilt statue of Kwan Yin-Boddhisatva beckons serenely in several directions, caressing the Cochran garden with the sinuous shadows of her many arms. John and Susan Cochran lie in the Congregationalist churchyard with their son-in-law Prince Pauahi. It was their great-grandchildren who converted the old Mission House into the Cochran estate. Now the white pavilions ring with temple bells. As John and Susan had always hoped, the house of their descendants remains a house of prayer.
It was the bells that caused architect George Kugel to resign from Martin Buber Temple. Kugel says he left MBT because he underwent a personal crisis. He needed to become Unitarian in order to come to terms with his Jewish roots. But this is not the real reason Kugel left. The main reason is that the board grossly mismanages the development of MBT property. Kugel hears the bells of the Kwan Yin Temple and is overcome with aggravation that the MBT board didn’t listen to him back in ’71 and buy the Cochran estate when it came on the market for $50,000.
Even without the estate, MBT is a large temple. “We’re not talking size,” Kugel still argues, “we’re talking market potential.” In any case, MBT presents a noble modern profile on Old Pali Road. Kugel designed the sanctuary. But contractors slapped together the religious-school buildings. This was the last straw. Kugel submitted a three-page letter of resignation to the president. It began with cool formality, but warmed at the end. The architect wrote: “I am an artist. I pour out my soul in my work. When you massacre such work, you spit on my soul.” He left while the Samoan construction team built a lava rock wall without fitting the rocks together. They spray-painted between the rocks to disguise their white mortar in black shadows. Kugel did not return in 1979 to see the new rust carpet in the sanctuary or the beanbags that replaced the conference table in the library. Years later the earth-tone chairs still stand, as do the coarse lithographs of the Old Country and the abstract sculpture that is said by some to look like a cross. Kugel refuses all conciliatory offers. “I sweated blood for this building,” he tells Rabbi Siegel. “You don’t know what it does to me when I see those add-ons. This design was an original. This was my plan.”
“What can I tell you?” the rabbi answers in his deep mournful voice. “I also had a plan.”
Everett Siegel, Rabbi Emeritus, has served MBT for a quarter-century. He is known for infusing Friday night services with pathos and dignity. He still presides in black robes, and his deep tones fill the sanctuary even when he turns his back to the congregation to lift the holy scrolls. He has a special microphone built into the ark. Siegel’s sermons are long, and many find them deeply moving. When Dr. Sugarman came to say Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance, for his first wife, the new Mrs. Sugarman was moved to tears by the rabbi’s words. Siegel does, in truth, have a gift for speaking to the bereaved. His secret is that he does not try to comfort or give hope. Instead he gives eloquent voice to the pain and anger of the mourner. He speaks of the injustice of the world, the enormity of personal sorrow, and the everlasting, unhealing scars of grief. He understands that this is what the mourners want: the reassurance that they are inconsolable.
With the passing years, the rabbi has become more eloquent. His sermons are longer and more profound. Siegel is a community figure in Honolulu with his work in interfaith relations. He joins priests of Buddhist and Christian sects in ecumenical services. On these occasions with the other religious leaders he officiates in Hawaiian print vestments. He listens to the hymns and mantras sung in turn at Thanksgiving; and, like all the other ministers, the rabbi believes he is Gauguin among strange blessed holy people in their exotic rituals.
Five years ago the MBT Board decided that Rabbi Siegel was old, and before Siegel could resign, he was made emeritus by the congregation’s president, Steve Gottlieb. Siegel will never forgive Steve for that. Next the board conducted a national search for a rabbi who would be good with young people. They made an offer to the third-choice applicant because the first and second choices would never come to Hawaii, and if they did, they would never stay. “Look,” Gottlieb reasoned, “we’re not going to get Stephen S. Wise out here, so don’t push it.”
And so today, Rabbi Barry Liebowitz presides at Elijah Oshin’s bar mitzvah. Rabbi Siegel watches from his place of honor on the pulpit with Gottlieb and Betsy Sugarman, the Sisterhood president. The altar rises in flaming tropical flowers, anthuriums, proteas, orchids, and birds of paradise. The choir soloist sings to soft organ accompaniment while the congregation stands in silent meditation. Gottlieb glances at his gold pavé diamond watch. The new rabbi nods to signal the end of meditation, but he can’t get the organist’s attention, and so the music rolls on for several more minutes while the friends and family of the Oshins shift from one foot to the other. Finally the organist notices Rabbi Leibowitz and resolves his last chord. Liebowitz is thirty-one years old. He has light brown hair and a limp moustache. He seems short with his slight build and tight, bent shoulders.
Rabbi Siegel leans forward, adjusting his legs uncomfortably. He is keenly interested in the performance of the young rabbi. Over the years, Siegel has become known for his words on the occasion of bar mitzvahs. He speaks for at least half an hour, developing plays on the youth’s name, elaborate metaphors about the future, the planet, love and life. His homilies have been collected and published in the volume, On This Your Bar Mitzvah Day. Siegel knows that Liebowitz could never provide sermons of this calibre. But Liebowitz doesn’t even try! He lays his hands on the head of the Oshin boy and whispers something to him away from the microphone so no one else can hear.
While Mrs. Sugarman is presenting the Sister hood kiddush cup, Siegel leans over in his chair and glares at Liebowitz. “No sermon?” Siegel asks.
Liebowitz smiles quickly. “I always talk to the bar mitzvah boy instead because it’s really his day. I mean, this is his experience; it’s not for the parents.”
Siegel knits his brow and declares, “Young man, you are mistaken.”
Siegel feels like a black cloud among the celebrants at the reception. How many of these people even know he is the rabbi? The social hall is bright with expensive tropical clothes: muumuus from Carol and Mary, Reyn’s subtly patterned reverse print aloha shirts. The elegant set stand apart in darker clothes. This may be Hawaii, but Mrs. Steve Gottlieb will never wear white shoes in February. Siegel moves his lips in silent argument as he spreads cream cheese on a whole wheat bagel. These people don’t remember what it was like before Hawaiian Bagel opened. Transients is what they are. The overflow from California. They come in and push out the people who worked and built for twenty years.
Siegel leaves the temple and walks outside through the packed parking lot. Since the space reserved for the rabbi now belongs to Liebowitz and his Mazda he has to walk all the way down to the Kwan Yin Temple to retrieve his gray Lincoln, parked under a dark banyan tree that drops sticky berries and the mess of mynah birds.
Rabbi Siegel lives with his wife Grete in an olive drab apartment building with a view of the Ala Wai Canal: canoe teams paddling on the dark water, tourist couples in their matching aloha wear, local kids fishing for tilapia, deep sunsets, a symphony cellist practicing outside. Living above all this, the Siegels don’t often look out the window.
Grete gives Siegel an appraising look as he walks in. She has a face much given to appraising, pricing grey eyes and a sharp nose. “So they ignored you at the service,” she says. Grete sets out a plate of Sara Lee cheese danish. She stopped baking years ago when she stopped wearing makeup. “What did I tell you?” she prods. Siegel retreats into his study, but he lives in a non-Austinian world where there are no doors to close. Grete follows him through the open-plan apartment and sits in his desk chair, elbows on his desk. “Why did you go?”
Siegel turns his back and scans the bookshelves. At one time he worked here on a monograph about Martin Buber, but he stopped writing around the time Grete stopped baking. Grete stands up suddenly. “What did they serve? Did they serve you lunch?” She shoos him into the kitchen and hands him two pita halves filled with tuna salad mixed with celery. Siegel is on a diet and always ravenous. He has to eat lunch before he gets home in order to survive, so he usually sneaks to the Woolworth takeout counter and buys Yakitori chicken and veg tempura. Or he hides sushi in the first-aid kit of the car. Now, eyeing the danish on the coffee table, Siegel decides to stay in the living room to await Grete’s afternoon visitor.
Evelyn is Grete’s oldest friend in Hawaii. When the two women sit down to talk they speak in their own learned tongue. All common words become technical terms; all names are replaced by pronouns.
“I told her,” Grete says, “I said, what do you mean, a bridal shower? Have you seen this boy? Have you met the parents? So she’s twenty-nine years old and she’s not getting any younger. Who is? But if you ask me, the mistakes in the long term are the ones to worry about. And that kind of boy is long-term trouble.”
“Israeli,” Evelyn murmurs.
“Exactly what I thought,” Grete sparks. And Evelyn nods in mystic understanding.
“Ach!” Grete points to Siegel stealing his second danish. “They retire him and still he’s working like a dog. Finally they bring in a new slave and the phone rings even more. I have to fight to get him an hour’s rest. They’ll kill him yet. He’s not going to any meetings this week. I called and canceled.” Siegel smiles indulgently at Grete because he knows this infuriates her. “They want to work him into the ground,” she fumes. “Even after he retires. What do they give him? The same job at half price. They keep this genius here at half price and they give the little nebbish double the money. Do you know how much this Barry Liebowitz gets? You don’t want to know. I hear it’s the wife. She demanded $60,000. Salary plus child care. For one shtikl kidl”
Evelyn pats her napkin to her lips and says earnestly, “They say he’s very good with the young people.”
Siegel smiles at Evelyn because she is so beautiful. She has soft white hair and amber-brown eyes. Her hands are delicately wrinkled. After her husband’s death she remained a widow for three years. Then Max Engel snapped her up.
Grete and Evelyn clear the supper dishes and leave together for the Honolulu Symphony. When Grete starts the car, Evelyn automatically takes out her compact and touches up her lipstick. After Evelyn’s first husband died, Grete tried to teach her to drive. But Evelyn only cried and took cabs and then remarried. After forty years of marriage she could not learn to see the world from the driver’s seat.
They walk from the car to the concert hall. A musician bikes past, violin strapped to his back. “It must be sixty degrees!” Evelyn shivers. She drapes a white cardigan over her shoulders. The evening is so cool some of the women in the concert hall pavilion have an excuse to wear their little fur capes. Grete sniffs at them, the women in their imported silk dresses and their scraps of fur. All claws and tail.
In the concert hall the young rabbi and his wife stand talking to the Gottliebs.
“What we do,” the congregation president says rapidly, “we sell all the units before they’re built.”
“Yes, I see,” says Barry. “Very good planning. This sounds very good.”
Grete greets Linda maternally. “Well, the young rebbetzin,” she says.
Linda looks pained. “I am not a rebbetzin .I don’t derive my identity from my partner’s social role.”
“How is little Benny?” Evelyn asks soothingly.
“Doing well in school, I’m sure,” Grete presses.
“Oh yeah. He’s got an amazing vocabulary. We play dictionary games. He just eats them up.”
“Oh, you’re working with him,” Grete says significantly. “Is he reading O.K.?”
“He reads fine,” Linda retorts.
Grete draws closer and whispers, “You have to work with them early or any little problems could grow out of proportion. They reverse the letters or have some little eye problem and suddenly dyslexia. You’ve got to check the eyes all the time. I have a niece legally blind because they didn’t start the eye-muscle exercises early enough.”
“So this is how she uses all that child care,” Grete tells Evelyn as they sit down. “What kind of mother . . . I tell you she doesn’t know the meaning of a day’s work.”
At her aerobics class, Linda glows with sweat. “It’s the one thing I do for me,” she always says. Linda hates aerobics. She takes class three nights a week and leaves their son with the sitter. She could come in the mornings when Benny is at school, but the evening class is much faster-paced. The women are younger, tighter, more driven.
“Higher! Higher! Knees! Get them higher!” gasps the instructor. Linda had a lot of trouble finding a high-powered aerobics class when she got to Hawaii. Out in Mililani Town where Linda lives the women are cows. As for the YMCAs, the women come straight from work and begin the class exhausted. The Honolulu clubs are twice as expensive as New York, but what can you do? So Linda pounds down on the polished floor of The Spa. “Breathe! Breathe!” screams the instructor. The other women gasp like fish, eyes drooping open, dulled with exertion. Linda clenches her teeth and holds her mouth shut as she jumps. In the mirror her determined face is tightlipped, unbreathing except for a slight flaring of the nostrils.
Linda’s aerobic glow wears off quickly as she drives back to Mililani, buys milk for the morning, and takes the sitter home. By the time Barry comes home from his board meeting, Linda feels hot and fat again. Looking for a V-8, she has her head in the fridge when Barry comes in. “Hi, sweetie,” she calls, facing the milk cartons, Wonder Bread, ketchup bottle, and the bruised eggplant that won’t fit in the crisper. Barry sits at the kitchen table as Linda announces there is no more V-8. She slams the fridge door shut and starts unloading the dishwasher. Outside, the moths bat against the screen. “I’m bored,” she sighs.
Barry looks up, surprised. “But honey, we went to the symphony just last week.”
Linda grimaces. “Thanks. I don’t need to spend my free time with Grete Siegel and her sicko, hypochondriac advice on childrearing. I’m so tired of talking to these women twice my age. Barry, there aren’t any fun people here. There’s nothing fun to do here. I could die. I run around all day and there’s nowhere to go.” Tears start in Linda’s eyes. “Barry, I’m so bored.”
Barry reaches over and pats Linda’s hand. “That’s why Steve Gottlieb’s idea sounds so good. He’s putting together an investment group for a new development out on Kauai. We could put up money for a condo and make quite a bit renting it out. We’d have a retreat for vacation and even a place for retirement.”
“What!” shrieks Linda. “I’m not moving to Kauai. My God, do you remember that weekend we spent? I’m trying to tell you I’m bored. Bored .I don’t play golf. I don’t play tennis. I don’t sit on patio chairs. We’re not spending our retirement money on Kauai.”
“But Linda,” Barry says, “I thought you’d love it. I mean, I sort of said yes.”
“Did you ask me?” Linda hisses. “I’m saying no. We’re not doing it!”
Barry’s eyes widen. “Baby, I just want you to be happy. I’ll call in the morning and pull out.”
“Damn well better! Oh, God, I am so. . . . Seriously, I just want to scream!”
Barry gives her a soothing look. “I’m hearing you,” he says. “I’m hearing you.”
“This is not a seminar,” Linda screams. “This is not a workship! This is my life. I’m telling you I’m bored .You’re not getting the message. I am not sixty-five. I am a young person. I need to go out. I need to go dancing. For Christ’s sake, we don’t even live in Honolulu. We don’t go to any clubs.”
“I understand,” Barry says. “I really do. I think we need to spend more time together. Just the two of us.”
Barry phones Gottlieb Investment at nine the next morning. Steve is in conference, but his administrative assistant takes the message.
Sunday morning Linda drives Benny to Sunday School. She walks him up to the first-grade classroom and his teacher Becky runs out covered with flour from the challah unit. “Linda!” Becky calls. “Linda, I couldn’t reach you yesterday. Rachel Katz’s wedding is off. She called me from Israel. Apparently this guy never cared about her as a person.”
“Uh huh,” says Linda. “So I take it, Rachel isn’t coming home.”
Becky dusts off her hands. “Oh yeah, she’s coming. That’s the thing. We’ve decided to carry on with the shower as a celebration of Rachel.”
“Oh, come on,” Linda groans. “That’s going to be such a downer. Listen, I don’t go to wakes.”
Becky stares. Screams rise from the classroom. “Linda, the shower was for Rachel anyway. You should follow through. Her self-esteem is probably really low right now. You probably already bought her present. You’ve got to come. Rachel needs your support.”
Linda turns away. “I guess she won’t be needing The Liberation Ketubah.”
“You got her a feminist marriage contract?”
“As I said, she won’t be needing it.”
At Rachel Katz’s surprise Welcome Home Party, Rachel’s mother Ruth sends her daughter’s friends out to the pool for chips and dip. Mrs. Katz has always sent Rachel’s friends outside to the pool. It makes no difference that the girls are now in their late twenties. Ruth remembers when they were born. Some of them had naming ceremonies at the temple and Ruth took pictures. She is the self-appointed photographer of temple events and has filled many albums. The temple pictures are jumbled in with the Katz family pictures: Rachel naked at three, the Kantor wedding, Tu B’Shvat picnics at the beach, the kids playing volleyball, numerous bar mitzvahs, the dedication of the Sunday School. She’s forgotten the occasion for some of the photos. One mysterious black and white print shows what looks like the Sugarmans dressed as each other in a mock wedding ceremony. Dr. Sugarman wears a white veil and Betsy, the Sisterhood president, holds eighteen carrots which symbolize an 18-karat wedding ring.
Ruth Katz ushers her own friends into the living room for drinks. The room is cool and hung with textured wall tapestries Ruth made in her weaving class years ago. Betsy Sugarman sits in a straight chair near the couch. “Ruth!” she exclaims. “I cannot believe that Linda Liebowitz refused to come.”
“Believe it,” Ruth says. She sits down heavily and her queen-sized muumuu billows around her. “She didn’t want to spend on a present now that. . . . No, no, I’m fine. It’s my sinuses, you know. I’m trying to cut down on the allergy medicine. I think it’s carcinogenic. So no rats have died yet. That doesn’t mean a thing. Meanwhile I’ve been taking the stuff for years.”
“Linda,” Betsy clucks. “She should have come for Rachel. It shows selfishness. It makes you wonder about the Liebowitzes.”
Ruth shrugs. “They seemed like nice people. It’s just at times like this I have to say I miss Rabbi Siegel.”
“Siegel could write,” Betsy announces. “Siegel could speak. When I heard Siegel at Yizkor it was really one of the most moving experiences of my
life. And when I same back this year—such a change. I was in shock. Liebowitz stands in front of people who are literally grief-stricken and he gives a sermon about how his grandfather died in his sleep and what peace it brought him to see zaydeh go at ninety-three with no pain. This is not what a mourning person needs to hear! No person tearing his hair with grief should have to listen to this. The rabbi should be there to comfort, and I felt this year my husband was not comforted when he said Kaddish for his first wife, may she rest in peace. And I’m going to bring this up at the renewal meeting.” Betsy folds her arms across her chest.
“Well,” Evelyn says in her gentle voice, “they do say he’s very good with the young people.”
Rabbi Liebowitz holds weekly meetings with Yoel Brodsky. Yoel came to Hawaii as a shaliach, an emissary sent from Israel to work with American Jews, and never left. Now he is director of the MBT religious school. It seems that every week there’s a crisis. Yoel pounds his fist on the rabbi’s desk. “Barry, tell me you’ll make a stand. The parents are screaming for three days. They want your decision. Should we continue the contraception and safe-sex unit for the confirmation class? Steve Gottlieb is withdrawing his child if you say yes. Irving Glazer is withdrawing the twins if you say no.”
“What do you think?” Barry asks.
“My feeling is clear: better to lose one tuition than two. But they want rabbinic opinion. And they want it yesterday! I’m up to here with this.”
Liebowitz massages his temples. Finally he looks up at Brodsky and says, “Yoel, I know you’re under a lot of pressure. But don’t put this on me now. Not now when the whole community is so divided. Don’t put this all on me. Please, please don’t raise your voice like that. Look, I’ll go during juice break and talk to the kids themselves.”
The confirmation class lolls under the lychee tree in the courtyard. Their teacher is packing up a clear plastic model of a uterus. Barry squats down among the tenth-graders on the grass. “Hello, people,” he says.
“Hi, Barry,” the teacher calls out cheerfully.
“People,” Barry says, “I hear you’ve been studying contraception. That’s pretty heavy stuff. There’s a lot of issues in contraception. What do you think about that?” He pauses. One of the kids blows a condom into a balloon and throws it into the air.
“I want to know your views,” says the rabbi. “Because I think you should make decisions and discuss things on your own. How about some ideas. Emily Gottlieb?” he asks, looking around.
“Gong,” intones one boy. The kids roll on the ground with laughter.
“Oh, Rabbi,” the teacher whispers quickly. “I guess you didn’t see the paper. All the Gottliebs have disappeared. The paper says Steve was involved in some kind of investment scheme.”
Barry stands white-faced in front of the class. He feels suddenly that they knew all along and watched him sign the check and could have warned him but chose to laugh among themselves as if his fly were open. Why didn’t Steve return that call? Steve had his number at home. He must have been gone before Barry even tried to reach him. The rabbi feels hollow, as if Gottlieb had eaten out his stomach along with his savings.
Alone in his study he puts his head down on the cool, smooth desk. He wants to close his eyes and sleep. Curl up alone with his books and never go out again. He looks up at his shelves. The Book of Job. He could read that. Or maybe, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Good books about men who face disaster. But nowhere do they answer the darkest question: how do you tell your wife?
“Aw shi-i-it,” says Linda, and slams the bedroom door. Barry waits a few minutes and then follows her. She looks like a monster lying on the bed with a white mud mask on her face. Barry stands by the door uncertainly.
“Don’t you have anything else to say?” he asks.
“No,” Linda snaps.
Linda thinks for a moment. Then she adds, “It’s your fault.”
Barry starts to cry. He looks like a man rocking with silent laughter. “We aren’t communicating,” Barry says.
Linda sits up suddenly. The white mask is cracked and dry. “I don’t know what the hell you thought you were doing with our wedding money,” she says, “I don’t even want to hear it.”
Benny runs down the hall and jumps on the bed. “Ooh, gross,” he says, touching Linda’s mask.
Grete examines the Olga brassieres at the Liberty House Foundation Sale. She tests the wire in a solid black one and then systematically empties the bin looking for ecru.
“Grete!” Ruth Katz calls from Sleepwear. Ruth sails out with a pile of nightgowns cresting over her arm. Grete looks up, annoyed, and moves toward Ruth and the less personal zone of bathrobe racks.
“So tell me,” Ruth whispers loudly, “any more news on Gottlieb? I’m still in such shock I can’t believe it’s true.”
“I know nothing at all.” Grete idly shuffles hangers on the rack. “I never follow the Hawaiian business news.”
Ruth smiles. “I take it that’s Everett’s part of the paper.”
Grete’s eyes narrow. “We didn’t invest in Steve Gottlieb, if that’s what you’re trying to say.”
“So you know about Barry,” Ruth says slyly.
“What about him?”
Ruth leans forward. “He gave Gottlieb twenty-five thousand.”
Ruth smiles. Gossip well played is a dramatic art. In college she loved the Restoration comedies, “Obviously,” Ruth says, “this is confidential.”
“Obviously,” Grete echoes.
After Grete has phoned Evelyn, Everett comes home. “It’s in the papers,” he announces. “Gottlieb sells 300 units in a 200-unit building not even built. Then he funnels out all the money from Gottlieb Inc. into a new corporation, declares Gottlieb Inc. bankrupt and leaves town in the dead of night. Our president of MBT. It’s a shame to the last good souls in this community. This Sodom. This Gomorrah. This pillar of salt. Even ten worthy men are impossible to find.”
Grete closes her eyes and listens to Everett’s dark voice. Eloquent he always was. He dictates sermons like a prophet. Even now in the kitchen when Everett speaks, Grete’s fingers lift, ready to fly over the typewriter keys. Everett was not made for small talk. His mind is too large and sweeping. His voice is an orator’s, ranging for vast audiences. Grete opens her eyes and reports the news on Barry Liebowitz.
Out in Mililani Town, Linda calls to her son, Benny. “Come into the kitchen, punkin. Daddy and I want to talk to you.”
Benny plants his fully-jointed Predator doll in the dirt and runs inside growling airplane noises. “I’m a Blackbird,” he screams, “fastest plane in the world.”
“Do you want some ice cream?” Linda offers.
Benny sits down. “Chocolate,” he tells her.
“Chocolate please,” Linda adds.
“Ben,” Barry starts, but he can’t go on.
Linda looks intensely at Benny. Benny looks up and then continues spooning ice cream into his mouth.
“Honey,” says Linda, “when people get married they love each other very much and they want to live together all the time. But people change and grow, and sometimes they start needing more space. So we decided Mommy and Benny are going to go see Grandma and Grandpa for a while. I need some space and Daddy needs some space too. That’s part of what a divorce is all about. Daddy and Mommy don’t want to see each other any more, but that doesn’t mean we’re ever going to stop loving you. Honey, we know it hurts inside, but we’re going to try so hard to make it feel better. You’ll see Daddy every summer and you’ll see Mommy all year long. Don’t you think any of this is your fault. It’s just that there’s been a change between Daddy and me. That’s why Mommy is going to take you to California.”
Benny puts down his spoon. “O.K.,” he says. “Can I go to Disneyland?”
Linda and Barry stare at each other. “Doesn’t he care about us at all?” Linda sobs. “Little beast!”
“He’s breaking my heart,” Barry whispers.
Linda turns on Benny. “Did you hear that?” she cries. “You’re breaking Daddy’s heart. And me too. We’re just tearing up inside. Can’t you see that? We are in such pain!”
Linda’s voice frightens Benny and he starts to cry. Tears run into the chocolate ice cream on his face. “It’s O.K.,” Barry says. “Don’t be afraid to cry. It’s all right to. . . .”
“Shut up,” Linda cuts him off. “You’ve traumatized him enough.” She wipes Benny’s face and whispers, “Don’t cry. Everything’s going to be all right. You’ll see Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Laurel and Uncle Matt and. . . .”
Before services on Friday night Evelyn cooks dinner for the Siegels and the Sugarmans. This is Evelyn’s first dinner party at her new apartment and she feels claustrophobic in the tiny kitchen. While Evelyn fusses in the kitchen, her husband Max pours himself a generous rye and ginger ale in the living room. Max loves to watch the sun set over the lagoon. That sunset sold him on the apartment. The realtor jabbered about closet space and footage and the fitness spa at the Hawaiian Village, but Max just looked out the window. The water was golden in the warm light and a young couple walked along the sand. They seemed so happy leaning together, feeling the water with bare feet. Max chose the apartment for the view. Sunsets and young love. Even his first wife called him a sentimentalist. He longed for youth even when he was young.
Max owned a business that made nurses’ uniforms: white dresses, starched white wimples, white, arch-supporter shoes. The shoes proved unprofitable. He moved to Hawaii when he won a contract with Tripler Hospital. Then, after his wife died, he retired and became Religious Vice President of MBT. That was where he met Evelyn.
When the Sugarmans arrive, Betsy walks into the kitchen and watches Evelyn cook.
“Evelyn, this is beautiful.” Betsy purses her lips with pleasure as she nicks a carrot stick from the salad bowl.
“Mm-hm,” Evelyn half answers. She dashes out with the butter dish and runs into Dr. Sugarman, who smiles beneficently.
At the table, Grete leaves her salad untouched. Raw vegetables do not agree with her. She nudges Everett to slow him down as he tears into his lettuce like a man who hasn’t eaten in weeks.
Everett puts down his fork. “Do you think Liebowitz will get renewed?” he asks.
“No shop talk,” Grete commands. “How are the children?” she asks Evelyn.
Evelyn twists her napkin in her hands. “They’re well,” she says, “as far as I can tell. Mark doesn’t write.”
“He called last week,” Max reminds her.
“It’s not the same,” Evelyn says stubbornly. “I can’t reread a phone call. I can’t hold a phone call. The grandchildren don’t know any better, but Mark was brought up differently. He has no excuse. He has a secretary. He could dictate.”
Evelyn gets up to refill the wine glasses. She skips her husband. Max looks flushed.
“In the ’40′s,” Grete tells Betsy sternly, “on the base in Hawaii there wasn’t any underwater cable connected. We used telegrams.”
“I used to write from the ship,” Max says, laughing, as if this were an absurd occurrence. “I was in the Navy, you know. I wrote three letters a week. One to my wife, Marjorie, one to my brother, and one to my girlfriend. Once I mailed them together, and I was awfully upset because I couldn’t remember which letter I’d sealed in which envelope. Because. . . .”
He trails off and realizes he hadn’t meant to tell the story quite that way. He hadn’t really meant to tell it at all.
Betsy laughs gaily into the hushed room. “Evelyn,” she asks, still laughing, “did Max ever tell you all this before?”
Evelyn shakes her head, bewildered. Later, after services, she feels embarrassed for Max. He brings in a stack of dishes from the table. “I never knew that about you,” Evelyn says.
Max smiles dreamily. “Oh, goodness,” he sighs, “I haven’t thought about it in years. I was so young. We all had no idea whether we’d make it through the war. You have to admit it was a funny thing with those envelopes. Anyhow, it shows I was always absentminded.” In the past few years Max has had a small problem with his eyes and he can’t control their tearing. He looks as unconcerned as a man chopping onions, with his radiant smile and the tears gathering in his eyes.
Because the Philippine mahogany conference table was taken from the MBT library during remodeling, the board meets in a classroom belonging to the religious school. Before the scandal, Gottlieb had chaired the meetings, flanked by Max and the Social Vice President, Gary Roth. Gary is a real-estate developer and owns a world-class shrimp farm out on Molokini Island. He bought the farm as a tax loss, but profits doubled when accidental overfeeding produced super-jumbo-sized shrimp. Gary received a Governor’s citation for his contribution to Hawaiian aquaculture. After the Gottlieb scandal he was voted in by the temple board as Acting MBT President.
“Old business,” Gary announces.
The newly-divorced divorce lawyer, Phil Lieber, rises. “I’m still concerned about the treasurer’s report on dues,” he says. “The collections situation is out of control and we need to exert some kind of pressure. I’d like to propose public posting of all dues offenders. It works at my club and it should work here. There’s no reason I can think of why MBT can’t run as smoothly as the Pacific Club.”
“Is that a motion?” asks Ruth Katz as she takes minutes.
“Um, yeah, O.K.,” says Phil.
“Yes or no?” Ruth demands.
Ruth records the motion and then says, “O.K., now I have an objection to the motion on the floor.”
“Wait,” the chair says, “you weren’t recognized by the chair.”
Ruth shoots back, “Don’t try to shut me up, Gary. I’ve been a member of the temple for twenty-eight years. O.K., this is what I’m trying to say. I personally am not offended by public posting of dues violators, but there are people who might not have the funds to pay because of financial difficulty, and I think they might be embarrassed if they were posted. I mean, we all know who they are, but posting would be a little blatant.”
Phil stands up. “Amendment to my motion,” he announces. “Those persons who the board feels may be unable to pay up will not be posted. They will be called in for a private session with the subcommittee on finances and we will determine the nature of the financial problem and how much the individual can afford to pay.”
The amendment is seconded but the motion is tabled for further discussion. “Time is at a premium,” Gary reminds the board. “We move on now to my report on the remodeling problem. I’ve called several contractors for estimates but nobody will touch the sanctuary because of the height and kind of wood used. Also, the brass fixtures came from the mainland and they can’t be repaired locally. We’ve had to conclude that George Kugel’s firm is our only chance if we want to get this renovation done. Now apparently George has some problems with coming to work on the building because of some things that happened years ago. I wasn’t here yet, but from what George tells me the temple didn’t strike him as a very welcoming place at that time. I think what we need to do is make George feel needed here at MBT, since obviously he is needed. The executive committee did some brainstorming on this and we think the best thing to do is invite him as guest of honor to the annual dinner dance, where we will present him with a lifetime MBT membership and some suitably inscribed gift.”
“That’s beautiful,” murmurs Betsy Sugarman.
“All right,” Gary says. “Moving right along. In new business, Rabbi Liebowitz’s contract renewal. And I’ll have to ask for a three-minute limit on individual comments. Also, please remember that our recomendation is subject to a vote of the full membership.”
Betsy Sugarman begins. “I find that the rabbi is too inexperienced for the needs of mature people like my husband and myself. Most of you know how strongly I feel about what happened at Yizkor.” Her voice trembles. “I don’t think I can talk about it now. It was . . .” she stops. “Well, you know what I’m trying to say.”
“Thank you Betsy,” Gary says. “Just to put in my own two cents, I’d like to comment that I enjoy the Hebrew Liebowitz is introducing into the service.”
“Now, that’s just what I find offensive,” Phil cuts in. “This temple is not chartered to serve Israelis. This is an American temple in the American tradition. The services aren’t for Hebrew speakers; they’re for all members. I’m deeply disturbed by this movement to Hebraize all the prayers until we’re muttering by rote. Vatican II got over this sacred language fetish; so can we.”
The room hushes as Rabbi Siegel stands up to speak. Gary taps his watch and shows him three fingers before he even starts. “As an ex-officio member of the board,” Siegel begins, “I rarely make an appearance. But I feel moved to say a few words about the character of the young man we are considering as a possible spiritual leader of this community. Barry Liebowitz has many fine qualities. The boy has a sweet nature. A gentle manner. But I fear he has also showed many weaknesses in the past year. When we choose a leader of Martin Buber Temple, we choose a Jewish representative and ambassador to the community at large. This was the position I filled in Hawaii for twenty-five years—thirtyone, if we include my time as military chaplain on base during the war when there were so many hardships and shortages. You remember, Evelyn. I like to think that during my time here I gave a little that was unique to Hawaii. After all, few of you remember how different these islands were without. . . .”
Gary taps his watch again.
Siegel rolls on. “I like to think that I never brought shame to this community. I am deeply distressed when I think that my proposed successor might have even a tangential connection with any kind of dealing based on principles of dubious probity.”
Ruth Katz rattles the minutes furiously. Liebowitz loses his savings and they’re using that against him? She feels a sudden sympathy for Barry. Sympathy mixed with guilt. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything to Grete at the Foundation Sale. Poor Barry. Such a victim. And married to such a cat. Linda didn’t come through for Rachel after the engagement fizzled, and she didn’t come through for her own husband either. Ruth always had a feeling Linda wouldn’t make it in Hawaii.
Siegel continues. “At first I dismissed as vicious rumor the very hint that our young rabbi might be involved in a shoddy get-rich-quick scheme. . . .”
“I hope everyone’s listening,” Ruth snaps, “because I’m not taking this down. With all due respect, Everett, I think this kind of assassination is—”
Gary thumps his gavel. “Everybody just cool down,” he says. “Rabbi, I think your time is up, but I know we all thank you for your input. I think right now we need to get back to the bottom line issues. What was the rabbi hired for? The young people. This is his forte, and I think we all agree that he’s made the new confirmation class the best-attended in years.”
Three days later when the votes are counted, Siegel mopes in his apartment. He looks out the window and watches the after-school canoe teams race down the Ala Wai, “Grete,” he says, “what am I to do with my final years? They’ve all turned against me. They voted Liebowitz in, and I’m resigning.”
Grete throws her arms heavenward. “Thank God!” she exclaims. “They would have killed you if they’d had the chance. You were never meant for a pulpit. You’re a genius. You need to write. Beautiful prose like yours, and you wasted it on people who never listened. I’ve told you a thousand times to finish your article. Listen, no one in the world understands Buber like you. Don’t give me that about your final days. You have four grandchildren to visit. My God,” Grete breathes, “this is the happiest day of my life.”
She picks up the car keys and goes out to look for hazelnuts for a Linzer torte.