At every synagogue, the month of Elul at the end of summer is exhausting for the leadership of the congregation and for the rabbi—as it is at B’nai Shalom (Children of Peace), in Brookline, Massachusetts. The Ritual Committee has to organize services and distribute honors: This one will come up to the bimah to bless the Torah, that one will carry the Torah scroll through the aisles. Services at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are for many Jews the only services they attend all year.
The long wall of the small sanctuary at B’nai Shalom accordions away, making the large sanctuary larger. Rabbi Ari will play to a packed house. So he’s busy preparing sermons, talking to the cantor, and practicing the nusach (the melody) that is traditional for the High Holidays.
Sam Schulman, who leads a morning service on most Tuesdays, feels for Ari—Rabbi Ari Stein—Ari’s in an especially tough position this year. At the start of summer, the board treasurer discovered that, over a period of five years, almost a quarter of a mil-lion dollars had been embezzled from B’nai Shalom. The executive director agreed to plead guilty in ex-change for serving minimal time in prison. Some money he paid back, some was paid by insurance. Some is gone for-ever. Sam knows that Ari will have to speak about the loss while not making too much of it—he has to keep the community together.
Elul, the month surrounding High Holidays, is a time of preparation. We are to change our lives. On Rosh Hashanah, the New Year—we are inscribed in the Book of Life; ten days later, Yom Kippur, as we pray for change in ourselves and for forgiveness, we are judged, the Book sealed. We live, we die; we prosper, we fail to prosper. God has judged.
Who believes this literally? Maybe only the Orthodox. Yet as myth, communal shaping of our lives, it has great power. It’s not theoretical; it enters our hearts. Surely it has power over Sam Schulman. Neither believing nor disbelieving, he lives as if the holy power of the Days of Awe rumbled through him. Sha-ken by the blast of the shofar—a curving trumpet made of a ram’s horn—we are enjoined to listen, and maybe tremble. Sam lives, we live, much of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as if the Holy One watched over and judged us all.
The rest of the time, Sam teaches Nineteenth-Century Novel at Boston University.
The shofar blast is heard not only on Rosh Hashanah and at the very end of Yom Kippur services, but also at weekday services during the month of Elul, just before High Holidays. Tuesday morn-ings throughout the year at B’nai Shalom, a minyan meets. Ten or more if they’re lucky. During Elul, two or three mem-bers of the minyan bring their shofars and blow them together. The air quivers in a prescribed pattern of blasts—long, short, very short, finally very long—sounds meant to raze your ordi-nary con-sciousness and blast you into Teshuvah—repentance, a turning to God.
This is a story about Teshuvah.
On a Tuesday morning at the beginning of Elul, Sam is happy to see Deborah Pearl come into the small sanctuary. Her first time. She sits next to Kate, Sam’s fiancée. It’s hard to bring together at 7:30 in the morning ten adult Jews—a complete minyan—allowing them to pray as a community, to say the Barechu and Kaddish. Counting in his head, he thinks now that Deborah has come, they’ll make it today. Sam knows Deborah’s recent story the way most inner members of the synagogue know it: Her husband, Dave, left her for a young colleague. Sam sighs. He feels for her. Deborah is, fortunately, a freelance writer; she’s able to adjust her time and as a single parent take care of her eight-year-old daughter.
At the end of the service, the blast of the shofar—blown, this morning, by a professor of physics from M.I.T.— echoes through the small sanctuary.
The next Tuesday morning, Sam is surprised: Deborah’s back. She listens, eyes closed, to the harsh blare of the shofar. After that service, just about everyone gone, she sits watching Sam take off tefillin and fold away tallis.
“I wonder,” she says. “Do you have a minute, Sam? I’d like to speak with you. It’s about Teshuvah. Do you remember, I was in that adult-education class you led?”
God, does he ever! She talked and talked. Feverishly. It rankled him—others didn’t get to speak. She was articulate, but she seemed more interested in herself-saying than in what she was saying. He was fooled at first—hard for him not to give the benefit of the doubt to a clever, pretty woman, with wild black hair, in long dresses revealing her figure. But he stopped calling on her so often—wouldn’t let her take over. Still, he tried to remain patient. Beneath all that talk, he told himself, there’s true longing.
“I don’t want to talk to the rabbi,” she says. “I guess I’d be frightened. But I thought you might be a big help—about guilt and, you know, repentance. Maybe point me in the Right Direction. You probably don’t remember, but in that class we spoke about Yom Kippur and forgiveness. Yom Kippur is meant to wipe clean a sin against God. But, according to the Talmud”—Deborah takes a folded slip of paper from her purse and reads from a printout—“For sins committed against other human beings, Yom Kippur does not atone. Prayer is not sufficient. We have to beg forgiveness from those against whom we’ve sinned.”
“That’s right. Many sources tell us that. So, Deborah, do you need to forgive someone? Or ask someone for forgive-ness?”
They sit in adjoining chairs, and she takes a deep breath and tells Sam her story.
Amelia Ross has been Deborah’s closest friend. “You know Amelia?”
“I know who she is. I was on a committee with her.”
Well, when Deborah was slogging through her sepa-ration and divorce, Amelia held her hand. Literally Held Her Hand. This was two summers ago. Some days after work, they’d sit on a bench at the esplanade by the Charles, and Amelia would take Deborah’s hand.
“‘They’re going to think we’re lovers,’ I whispered. ‘I mean, like, holding my hand?’”
“‘I don’t care,’ Amelia said, and she patted my hand. ‘Do you really care?’”
“And I didn’t. She soothed me.”
Once or twice a week, Deborah and her daughter, Susan, went to Amelia and Rob’s for dinner. The women were proud of being able to share cooking fluidly, dancing around each other preparing food while Susan practiced piano or hung out with Amelia’s son, Noah. When Rob, who worked hard as a lawyer, a specialist in mergers and acquisi-tions, came home, dragged out, all was ready. He poured drinks.
The two couples had met in birthing class eight years before. They had babies at the same time, joined B’nai Shalom at the same time. When one of the women took on a project at the synagogue—organizing the auction, laying out food for a scholar’s talk—the other joined in. The men were good casual friends. Now, Deborah’s ex, Dave, has moved to California to take a new position and begin a new family with a woman colleague—“Twenty years younger,” she tells Sam, “can you imagine?”—and Deborah and her daughter ate often at Rob and Amelia’s apartment.
“One night Rob laughed, ‘My God. The adults in this here dining room, we’re practically a ménage à trois.’
“Then, embarrassed, he changed it: ‘I mean, like…a commune. We share meals.’
“So, Sam, I told them, ‘I don’t mean to take advantage. Susan and I are probably here too often. You two have been such a comfort.’
“Which is true!
“But Rob said, ‘Please! Not at all. Please.’”
“And I couldn’t help wondering, Sam, did he really mean a ménage à trois? And I couldn’t meet Rob’s eyes. I must have turned forty-seven shades of red.”
Often, Deborah says, Rob drove her and Susan home the few blocks to her apartment. He drove that night—the night of the ménage à trois. “And Rob told me, ‘What I said before, you really misunder-stood. I was celebrating, not complaining.’
“And while we were waiting for the light to change, he whispered so Susan wouldn’t hear, ‘You, you’re the spark in my eyes, Deborah.’”
He didn’t look at her; he looked straight ahead, both hands holding the wheel.
Sam listens. Deborah goes on and on, as she went on and on in class. But he can see she’s in pain. He lets her talk about her feelings:
Her feelings when Rob said she was the spark in his eyes.
Her feelings for her beloved friend.
Her feelings for Rob, her beloved friend’s attractive husband.
“And now,” Deborah tells Sam, “a new narrative begins to write itself. You see where this is going?”
He nods, nods, puts a hand to his chest, sighs. He’s trying to remain nonjudgmen-tal. Judge everyone on the side of merit. So says the Talmud. But Deborah, oh, she’s such a child! Her feelings, her feelings. It’s all about her. Still, he thinks, a child can suffer. Deborah’s really suffering. He remembers how aggravated he became when Rabbi Ari spoke about Nick, the embezzling bastard: poor man. Ari felt that anyone who could betray friends and a community that’s based on the love of justice, must be, even if he didn’t know it, deeply suffering. That’s how Sam feels about this woman, who is about to tell him how she betrayed her best friend: poor woman.
What was happening, God knows (and Deborah affirms) she hadn’t planned. Of course not. In the dark car, feelings spilled from her. The times she and Rob had been together, maybe these feelings were always there, unrecognized. “You think so, Sam? I mean, haven’t I always kept them tucked away in a pocket of consciousness?”
“And now you’re feeling guilty?” He says this by rote; Sam would prefer to be alone over a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
“No, no. Wait. I haven’t told you the half…Sam? You have a few more minutes?”
He looks at his watch. Faculty Personnel Committee isn’t until eleven. “Sure. Go on.”
“A little flirtation, well, that’s one thing,” Deborah says. “But I certainly didn’t intend to betray my friend. You think I was fooling myself, Sam?”
“I’m really not a therapist, Deborah. And I’m not a priest.”
Still, Deborah goes on, hadn’t she listened to Amelia complain about her marriage, about how busy Rob is, about how indifferent Rob seems? Amelia is the principal of a private school, K through six, and most of the time she doesn’t talk about her marriage—she tells Deborah how excited she is with changes she’s brought to the school. “Amelia isn’t a complainer. Me, I’m sometimes a complainer,” Deborah says. “I know it. Not Amelia. But sometimes Amelia spills out teeny grumbles about Rob. I think what happened, Sam, is I reshaped the story Amelia was telling me. Like: Rob has for a long time been dissatisfied with Amelia. Rob has for a long time been in love with me. Of course that doesn’t mean I intended to do anything about it.”
One night the three of them and the two kids stay up a little late at Rob and Amelia’s, and when Rob drives Deborah home, Susan falls asleep in the car, so Rob carries Suze upstairs and puts her to bed. And there they are in the dark living room, Rob and Deborah, and they take each other’s hands and stand breathing, breathing, breathing. They just look at each other. That’s absolutely all, so ludicrous, the two of them like teenagers. Rob’s got this wonderful smile. Then Deborah walks him to the door and as always, they kiss, kiss like friends. Deborah can’t sleep half the night. She keeps re-writing and rewriting the scene. What she should have said. What she should have done.
“Then the next day Rob calls and he tells me what, I guess, I’ve been wanting to hear. ‘You know this is inevitable,’ he says. ‘Don’t you?’
“Oh, God, Sam.”
Silence in the small sanctuary, a long silence on the phone that day. Deborah imitates Rob’s powerful baritone: “’Can we get together for lunch tomorrow?’
“So I said, ‘We’ll talk. We should talk. I’ll make you lunch.’”
“When was all this?” Sam asks.
“Oh…six months, seven months ago.”
And so they meet at her apartment, and Susan is of course at school, and, she says to Sam, “What did I think was going to happen? But omigod, it’s like watching events beyond your control. You know—like on a roller coaster.”
He wants to ask, Was inviting the man for lunch at your house also uncontrollable? You couldn’t find a restaurant in Boston? He doesn’t ask.
We’re not bound to do a single thing, she says to herself as she pre-pares the salade niçoise. But she does feel bound—her hands are tied, what can she do?—and to protect herself she secrets away the idea that being bound diminishes her betrayal. If we step over the line. Not that it’s inevitable. No. We can simply stay friends.
“Oh, sure,” she says now. “Sure.”
Now she’s in tears, tears running down her face, and Sam doesn’t know what’s best to do. Tell her she’s fooling herself? Suggest she see a therapist? He doesn’t. He just listens. Through tears she talks.
“Rob’s a big, hairy man,” she tells Sam. “Hair on his chest, hair on his back—a thick, muscled man who works out in the gym. You don’t mind if I speak like this? I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t. Stop me if you want, Sam.”
She knows Rob’s body from swims on St. John when the two families vacationed together. It’s very exciting to touch him, to transgress; let’s admit it, the transgres-sion itself is terribly exciting. Just to touch him through a business shirt, then to undo his tie and—you know, like—open the buttons of his shirt, both of them laughing like children. “You know Rob’s beautiful little laugh? And then be silent with each other. You know.”
She’s sure she isn’t as beautiful as Amelia. —“God! Amelia is lean like a girl, small, a dancer, a runner. Me, I’m soft, my hair wild and black, not like Amelia’s neat page-boy blonde.”
Sam figures she wants him to tell her she’s beautiful. He refrains.
“In my mind Amelia was in the bedroom with Rob and me. A ménage a trois for real.”
She leads him to the bed where she and Dave, her ex, have made love so often in their ten years together. It’s rain-ing out, a slant rain against the windows. Somehow that matters. She thinks that if it had been sunny out, she would probably have turned him away but that in the gray rainy day she couldn’t hold back from him. “You understand, Sam?”
They kind of dropped their clothes on the floor, and part of the delight is in so totally replacing Dave. “As if it meant I hadn’t lost anything. It was both brand new and so completely home.”
“And now,” Sam says, wanting to wrap this up and get to his office, “you’re feeling guilty?”
She’s a little hurt by his summation. “There’s much more, Sam.”
He makes gestures of apology for interrupting.
Deborah plays with her scarf. “After that we were careful. We didn’t get together a lot. Rob said, ‘We don’t want to turn our lives into chaos, do we?’ And no, no, we certainly did not. The very last thing we wanted. I said to Rob, ‘It’s a heavy responsibility to be mature enough not to let love run away with us.’”
“But Amelia found out?”
“Not exactly. Well, yes, but not yet. The next thing is, Amelia was diagnosed with cancer, pancreatic cancer. Which is weird, because Amelia is a runner; she doesn’t smoke, she eats a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. She doesn’t look sick at first. She loses weight and is kind of pleased with herself, though she’s never been fat. She said, ‘I’m back to my weight just after college, I have to take in all my clothes. A nice problem, if you ask me.’ But sometimes, she got really sad and I hated myself. I shopped for her, I bought new clothes for her.”
Then one day Amelia calls Deborah. They meet at the esplanade by the Charles, and Amelia takes Deborah’s hand as if it were Deborah who needed comforting. Amelia soothes. “And she tells me, ‘It’s still bearable. All I want is not to have a lot of pain. I’m a coward when it comes to pain. And I want to know that Noah will be okay. And Rob.”
“So I said, ‘You know how much they’ll miss you.’ And here’s the thing, Sam. Amelia looks into my eyes and says, ‘You’ll help, I know you will. You’ll help.’”
“I knew what she was suggesting. If she dies, when she dies, I might take her place, might make a new family—with Susan and Noah and Rob. God! If Rob and I had only waited! It would be so different.”
Too late now. Without a word spoken, Rob and Deborah stop seeing each other. And the more they stay away from each other, the more desperately in love Deborah feels—and the more guilty. “Already Amelia is practically gone, and in my head I’ve taken her place, and the children are like brother and sister, and we both, Rob and Deborah, remember Amelia with love, so much love.”
It doesn’t happen that way.
Now they talk on the phone, Deborah and Amelia, nearly every day. And Deborah asks and asks, “How is the pain, how is your appetite?” And Amelia tells her how loving Rob has become—though, she says, he’s always been loving. But there are none of the little quarrels now. Deborah wants to find out, Have you been, you know, close to Rob? She can’t bring herself to ask.
“I see why you’re thinking of Yom Kippur,” Sam says, feeling the moral gravity of what the three of them are going through. “How do you atone?”
Yes. But there’s more.
Sam sits back and stops fighting it. He surrenders his morning.
With Amelia sick, Deborah often makes dinner for the family, separate food for Amelia. Afternoons, she visits Amelia, gives her massages, feels how flaccid her muscle tone is becoming, how the ribs and collar bones are showing.
She never speaks to Rob now. Rob never calls her. When they’re together, the three of them, they avoid each other. But one night, late, depressed, she calls. She asks, “Is Amelia awake?” “No,” he says, “no, she’s been asleep for hours.” So Deborah tells him how she loves him, and she tells him how hard this playacting is.
“I said, like, ‘How are we going to handle the guilt? I feel so awful about you and me. What’s especially terrible, it’s that I find myself longing for an ending, waiting for her to leave us.’”
And Amelia wasn’t asleep. No. Half asleep, she picked up the phone in the bedroom and was awake and couldn’t stop listening in.
“Oh! How awful—awful for Amelia,” Sam says. “Oh!”
“Yes! Awful! And for me! Imagine! Awful. When I called the next morning, she said, like, ‘I’m not feeling well enough to see you.’?”
Deborah takes that at face value. As she imagines it, Amelia is coming close to the end. Hanging up the phone, Deborah cries, suffering, miserable that she’ll lose her friend, her best friend—and miserable that, partly, partly, she wants to lose her.
Then a phone call from Rob. “Can we meet?”
Late summer. A bench in the Boston Gardens. Rob is there first. He stands up and kisses her, the kiss of a friend. At once she grows uneasy. “How’s Amelia?”
He says, “Deborah, she heard, she picked up the phone when you called.”
“‘Oh, my God.’ That’s all I could say.”
Now she says it over and over, “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” the pain building each time she says the words, each time she remembers what she said on the phone. Nothing can make it right, nothing she can do. “So I said, ‘Rob? What’d you tell her?’
“And he says, ‘What could I say? Could I say anything?’
“I said to him, ‘It was mostly my guilt talking. Not being able to stand it. A person has all kinds of feelings. Sure I wanted this to end. I also love her. I love Amelia very much.’”
“‘I guess it’s too late for love,’ Rob says. ‘Amelia hates you.’”
“Which isn’t fair,” Deborah says to Sam. “I could feel his coldness. It’s all over. Unfair! As if it was all me, only me, my sin. What about Rob? Why should he lay it all on me? And then Rob said, ‘Oh. Yes. I forgot. I did say something to her. I told her we’d imagined she’d want us to be together.’ Then he added, ‘That didn’t go over so well, Deb.’”
Now Sam and Deborah sit, both of them considering the ending of this love of hers, this guilt, especially the guilt. “What should I do, Sam?”
“What do you think? Really. You tell me. What do you think? When you asked me to listen, you knew. Didn’t you know?”
“You’re going to tell me, go on my knees, beg her forgiveness, right? Omigod. She’ll slap my face.”
“Maybe she will. Deborah, I’m not telling you what to do. But if you’re asking what would the tradition tell you? If you’re asking what’s the way to seek atonement? According to Jewish tradition, you said it yourself: Prayer isn’t enough. Inner repentance isn’t sufficient.”
“Right, oh, right. Well, thank you, Sam, for listening to me blabber on.”
“Is she dying? Amelia?”
“She may not last another month. Sam? Actually, actually…I love her. I do. I love her—I mean when we’re talking just love, you know?—more than I love Rob. She’s my shining star. The spark in my eyes. No. My compass.”
Yom Kippur services in B’nai Shalom—the large, even grandiose sanctuary of marble and stained glass. The wall of the small sanctuary has been folded back. Sam sits with Gabriel, his son, and with Kate. He knows Gabriel won’t stay for the Musaf service. He’ll leave at Yiskor, the service remembering the dead. Sam is happy that he attends at all. Kate, soon to marry Sam, will stay beside him.
Everyone has begun a fast that started yesterday at sunset. By the time we break our fast, twenty-five hours after we begin, we’re weak, maybe lightheaded. It helps bring us into a different consciousness.
Sam sees Deborah a few rows away across the room. Behind her and to the side, at the end of a row, Amelia and Rob. Looking around, she spots Sam and quickly looks away. Is she afraid that his presence will feel like judgment?—That he’ll press her to speak to Amelia, morally force her to speak?
Rabbi Ari, young, early forties, charismatic, writer of two books and a weekly column in a Jewish online paper, offers words of Torah this morning. The Torah scroll has been bound, the cantor sits down, and the rabbi speaks about repentance and forgive-ness at Yom Kippur:
“We were all victims of a thief. We all suffered damage from the embezzlement. Should the thief, whom we all trusted and liked, go up to each of you and confess? And if he did, would you forgive? Repentance and forgive-ness are a vehicle of growth for the one repenting and for the one forgiving. Maybe you’ve hurt some-one who’s in this very room, in this community, maybe the person sitting right next to you. Maybe somewhere in this old sanctuary there’s a person you’ve insulted—or maybe you’re holding a grudge and you’d like to let it go—to forgive. Are you thinking of speaking to that person? Maybe you can’t do it right now, but you can do it later…”
“You might want to close your eyes and think about this.”
The shofar won’t be blown until the end of the final service today—when the final prayers are chanted and the Gates of Mercy close. Before they close, we will make a final pitch to God, chant over and over. We beg, we demand. Then many hold up their shofarim and blast in cacophonous concert. Rabbi Ari is a strong shofar blower; he has a twisting, four-foot ram’s horn, hollowed to make a chamber for sound that can blast open ordinary con-sciousness. Now from all parts of the sanctuary, shofarim—three, four, maybe ten!—blare, as lights dim and our souls are, if they ever are, awake.
But that’s not until this evening.
This morning, as we prepare to open our souls, Sam’s eye is on Deborah, halfway across the room. He imagines—can’t really see but imagines—heat filling Deborah’s face. He hasn’t told Rabbi Ari her story, but the Rabbi’s talk, it seems as if it were directed to her. She might be wondering if he, Sam, has said something.
Three rows behind her are Amelia and Rob. Deborah is on the aisle. All she has to do is stand up and go to Amelia. So simple. Out of the corner of his eye he keeps watching. Go! He whispers to himself, Go on, go up to Amelia. Maybe not to say anything, just to lean past Rob and hug Amelia.
Would Amelia permit Deborah to come close? Or would she turn away?
Deborah looks around, seems about to stand, she’s going to do it!
No! She can’t do it. Her betrayal of Amelia is breaking her heart, Sam knows; it breaks her heart to think Amelia will die without a reconciliation. And look at Amelia: so thin, so weak, her hair too glossy—a wig.
Deborah sits eyes closed.
Now Sam finds tears blurring his own eyes—because, look!—it’s Amelia who has the strength to come over. She stands up, a little shaky, and with the help of a cane she walks very slowly down the aisle, her hand on the pew backs. As if she were the one who needed to ask forgiveness!
Sam sees: Deborah makes room. Deborah makes room for Amelia on the hard bench. They’re touching hip to hip. They look at each other and he’s sure that, all the while, Deborah must be talking, saying, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I love you, I’m so sorry. And Amelia runs her fingers over Deborah’s cheeks and must be saying, I forgive you, I forgive you everything. Forgive me. I so hated you.
Sam looks at Rob. Rob Cole is ignoring or pretending to ignore Amelia and Deborah. Big shoulders hunched under the blue and white tallis, maybe he’s watching the two women out of the corner of his eye.
We’re about to begin Yiskor, the remembrance of our beloved dead. Sam will remember his parents, he’ll remember his beloved Bennie, who died of cancer as a third-year student at Yale. Most of the congregants are whispering to one another or reading in the prayer book for High Holidays, waiting for the rabbi to begin. One or two seem to notice the two women weeping, but after all, this is Yom Kippur—service of personal and communal repentance. All sorts of passions are felt.
He sees that Deborah and Amelia hang on each another and weep. Amelia’s the one comforting. Oh! Deborah’s repentance is the repentance of a child; Amelia’s is deep, real.
Deborah is too far from Sam to speak. And he’s not, after all, what’s important. Still, she does turn to look at him and she nods. Wants him to know. See?
It’s very good. He himself is almost crying. Amelia’s gesture: how beautiful!
The cantor is chanting, and soon Yizkor—May God remember…the service recalling our beloved ones gone from us, will begin, and Sam will remember his mother, his father, his son Bennie. And he foresees that next year they’ll be remembering Amelia. Deborah hugs Amelia closer, as if she’s already mourning, as if she already lost her friend. Clearly, they don’t care who watches them. They’re in a pool of being that separates them from everyone, as if they were surrounded by a shimmer of light.