Spring had attacked rashly, and the open sewers of Sarechal had filled to near overflowing with melted snow, sounding at night like a bubbling mountain stream. Yaghoub Eliaszadeh was buried today. And in his head the Rabbi still heard the chanting of prayers from the small afternoon service he had given Yaghoub beside a mound of half-frozen earth and a hungry-looking hole.
The shoes of the Rabbi were caked with mud, from the unpaved streets near the Jewish cemetery. The street where he presently walked was dark and empty, but for a slowly moving patrol car of the Tehran Municipal Police Department. Driving by, the two officers stared out with passive boredom. The Rabbi was ruminating in his own world. He spoke all at once to God. “May You forgive me, Lord,” he entreated, under his breath. The sin he had committed, in his mind, was one of selfishness: in grieving for Yaghoub, he had been more concerned with how the old man’s death would affect the temple—the loss of a few tomans at the times of giving, and one less male congregant for minyans—than the suffering of a poor man and the family left with memories and not much else.
He had no delusions of being some brand of holy man, incapable of sin. Growing up in Sarechal, poor and streetwise, had made this Rabbi irredeemably human. He could swear like a truck driver if he wanted to. But his faith system girt him all around like the snug black suit he wore for burials. Senseless words were not going to be permitted to chew little holes in that suit.
The Rabbi turned automatically from the side street into the alley adjoining the back entrance to his synagogue. Halfway down the alley it stood, a small unadorned building between a little bakery and a vacant shoe repair shop. It was a temple without stained glass, but stained and cracked walls instead. What brought his thoughts back to the present was a light. It was a flickering light. He got closer to the flicker and saw a thin young man crouched beside a pile of rags which had been set afire in the splintered doorway of the synagogue. The fellow had a cigarette lighter and was trying to ignite more rags and direct the flames onto the door-frame. The Rabbi could not run, with his bad joints, but in panic hobbled as fast as he could. When he got near the arsonist, he yelled sharply, surprising the young man. The young vandal looked up, and his fevered face was clearly illuminated by the flames. He snapped his lighter shut, jumped up, and ran off desperately down the alley.
As the Rabbi reached the building and laboriously beat his overcoat against the burning door-frame and stomped upon the burning rags, he knew that he had recognized the face. It was the son of Massoud, a Muslim man who had worked as a caretaker for the synagogue, but had been laid off when the synagogue’s finances became too strained to pay the man’s salary. The Rabbi knew that Massoud had recently died of lung complications. He had said silent prayers several times for the memory of Massoud.
Now, with the fire out and gasping for breath, the livid Rabbi also knew he had a decision to make. He had no choice but to report the arson to the police. The members of his small congregation would see the blackened planks of the doorway and would insist on filing a report of arson. But should he tell the police that he had caught the arsonist in the act and could identify him with no doubt whatsoever? That would satisfy his anger, and would serve justice.
But, depending on circumstances, he knew that the penalties for crimes in Iran can be severe, sadistic, unspeakable. He had no idea whether the boy would be subject to indefinite imprisonment, lashes, dismemberment, or death. He was doubly angry now, because the boy had put him in an impossible quandary. Will God guide me out of this moral dilemma? he asked himself.
But the Rabbi took only two or three deep breaths and one meditative squeeze of his gray beard to make this emotional decision. He could not, and would not, subject that young person to the cruelty of the Iranian justice system. He would simply tell the police that he had frightened away the arsonist, but was too far away and did not get a good look at the individual.
The next morning, with deep misgivings, he went to the police station and made such a report. In light of the sparsity of information, the police were not able to pursue their investigation very far. The congregation carried on, repairing the small amount of fire damage and, for a time, enlisting members of the Jewish community to put a 24-hour watch upon the synagogue.
There was no more fire from below. But as the Persian spring dried into a hot June, the fire from above flared down upon the nearly-treeless street of decaying old shops and tenements of which the synagogue was a virtually indistinguishable piece. Though continuing to lead his congregation, the Rabbi felt himself tiring more frequently, sometimes short of breath. He went to the doctor, finally, at the nearby Jewish charity hospital, and was told that it was his heart. He would have to take better care of himself, and take heart medicine daily. As had always been his practice, the Rabbi refused to be a charity patient, since there were vast multitudes less fortunate, and insisted on paying from his pocket for the medical care and for the new medicine. As he left the hospital this warm afternoon and walked homeward in the shadows of towering cypress trees, he remained largely oblivious to passersby: men in everyday attire and chador-covered women—though an occasional young woman in mere head shawl and manteau could be seen, had he been interested.
He was absorbed in mentally rebalancing his little income and expenses to allow for his new medical needs. The call to prayer of a muezzin from high above in a nearby minaret reminded the Rabbi of his own spiritual responsibilities to the small congregation that depended on his continued well-being.
On the high holy day of Yom Kippur, the Rabbi fasted and led his congregation in day-long prayer. “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Fasting, indeed hunger, had new meaning to the Rabbi this year. For, despite this being one of the few remaining synagogues of the old Jewish district, its limited finances were continuing to dwindle. More Jewish families had moved away, more elders had departed for good. Even today, the holiest of days, a mere dozen or so men stood before him, chanting and bending. Of these, the youngest was approaching 50, most had passed 60 or 70. This included the Rabbi himself, and there was old Esagh who had no idea of his real age but called himself 96. Not a single one of these men had more than just enough to scrape by on.
Although he and his flock technically broke their Yom Kippur fast with a morsel of communal challah at first starlight, the Rabbi’s real dinner that night was at home, alone. He ate polo made with good long grain rice and lentils, but no meat. His ancient samovar had enough coal for two or three cups of tea. How long could he continue to afford even that small amount of coal, and enough tea to last through the week? His small salary, like everything else, had been pared down. That was the decision, just before Rosh Hashanah, of the Rabbi and the congregation together. But how could he pay for a doctor visit or his medicine, not to mention food or other necessities? Sometimes he felt glad to be a widower and that his Miriam, always warm and plump like a gondi, was no longer here to see his decline. Likewise as to his children, who lived in Israel and could not communicate with him in any direct manner. Despite sipping his tea, the Rabbi shivered, and reminded himself that he would not be turning on the heat tonight. Heating oil, with bitter irony, is expensive in this country.
One morning the Rabbi was walking near the local bazaar, which occupied the site where the old public baths had stood not long before. He crossed the street and passed a small café. Inside, working as a waiter and looking professional and neatly-dressed, was the young arsonist, the son of Massoud. The Rabbi stood staring several moments, then reached into his pocket to find what coins might be present. He entered the café, and sat at the first little table near the door, until the young man saw him and froze with open mouth. The Rabbi waved him over to his table. The young man looked shaken, said nothing. “May I have a tea and two dates?” ordered the Rabbi. He jerked his head, at last, toward the kitchen and the young man displayed a confused look and moved away to fill the order.
Meanwhile, the Rabbi took a small notebook and pencil from his coat pocket, and wrote a note which he gave the young man when he returned with the tea and dates. The note asked the young man to bring a certain amount of money and leave it at a location near the temple where only the Rabbi would find it. The note asked the boy to do this every Monday evening. When the young man read the note, he looked distraught, and gestured with insistence that the Rabbi follow him outside to talk.
First he wanted to know why the Rabbi had not reported his identity to the police.
“I think you know the reason,” the Rabbi answered gruffly. From the downcast look on the boy’s face, it was more than obvious that he did.
“I am very sorry, Mollah. I was stupid—and crazy. I somehow blamed you and your people for my father’s death.” He looked up from the broken sidewalk and the Rabbi’s head was nodding almost imperceptibly. “But now you want money,” he said straight at the Rabbi.
“That was never in my mind, until just now,” the Rabbi emphasized. “I find myself with no other choice. I am going to have to depend on you for this money.”
A cloud of resentment drifted onto the boy’s face. He informed the Rabbi, with an edge in his voice, that he was supporting his mother, his younger siblings, and himself. He could not spare a toman.
“I am sorry, Agha. But I need this help, and justice is served by such an arrangement.” He did not add, but the teacher in him also believed, that this was an important lesson for the young man, about righteousness. He left. When the boy finally pulled himself back to the present and returned to his duties, the tea on the table had turned quite cold.
The boy brought the money each week as demanded. Sometimes the Rabbi passed the café just as a reminder to the boy. With a tray of dishes in his hands, or wiping a dishrag across a table, the boy glared out at him through the café’s large front window. One chill afternoon, passing by in the rain, the Rabbi saw the boy standing outside against the wall. He was partly sheltered by the eaves of the building, and was smoking a cigarette. His hands were thrust in his apron pocket.
“How are you, Agha?” greeted the Rabbi, rain dripping off his black fedora and down his raincoat.
A little sarcastic smile came out on the boy’s face. “You see God’s tears, Mollah? He is very disappointed in us.”
“You are a good boy. Your father would be proud of you.”
The boy did not respond, but his face reddened and the smile turned to something hard and bitter. His eyes did not leave the Rabbi, who had wished him well, nodded and walked on. He called after the Rabbi. “You look very well fed, Mollah!” These words were lost in the beating rain. The Rabbi kept walking. The boy pulled the cigarette from his lips and expelled a cloud of smoke so hard and fast that he may have been trying to blow the old man down.
The “understanding” between the two men continued. The Rabbi’s life was full, officiating at all temple services, several funerals, a simple wedding or two, and even a briss. One evening in winter the Rabbi sat alone in the temple, studying in his small office at the rear of the building. His sallow finger traced slowly along lines of bold Hebrew text. Except when there was some mention of Israel, the Rabbi largely ignored the propaganda that filled the newspapers. He preferred to read what was familiar and had been handed down from the ancients of his faith.
When a knock came at the alley door, the Rabbi was startled and asked who it was. There was no response except another knock. Annoyed, the Rabbi said to come in, and the son of Massoud stood in the doorway. The boy was in an extreme state of agitation, from his actions, and his eyes. The Rabbi was alarmed. This increased when the boy pulled out a knife and held it pointing toward the Rabbi.
The Rabbi told him to put down the knife and go back to his family.
The boy refused. “I think you know, Mollah—the reason I came here is because I cannot go on the way things are. Never having enough money. Not knowing if I have a future or not. Or if I might be arrested at any time.” The way he looked at the Rabbi was a dagger itself.
With his two withered hands motioning the boy to sit down, the Rabbi tried to calm the young fellow. They could talk this over, reach some new understanding, he told the boy. “I’m old, I won’t live forever.”
The boy shook his head dogmatically. “No. Forget it, Mollah. It’s too late. The police are on their way now, as we speak. I called them. That’s right. When they arrive, they will see a crazy man with a knife coming at them. They will have no choice but to pull their weapons and fire. There are more ways than one to become a martyr.”
“Are you out of your mind, you foolish kid! Where would you get such a crazy idea? Sit down, I will deal with the police.”
The boy paid no attention to the old Rabbi’s words. “You are a man of God,” he said. “I put my family in your hands, I know you will not let them starve.”
Both men flinched when the sound of a police siren arose nearby. The boy looked directly into the Rabbi’s eyes, then disappeared out the door, where bright spotlights were streaming down the alley, engines were racing and tires screeching. A loud warning was heard from a police megaphone. The Rabbi stood up to run outside and intervene before it was too late. But his legs did not move. He had suddenly stiffened and clutched his chest in pain. Even if he could have raised his fading voice above a whisper, it would have been lost in the terrible sounds resonating down the alley that was usually so dark and desolate.
On the Rabbi’s desk sat the Torah, that he had held and kissed ten thousand times. The book was open to Exodus. Pharaoh, it seems, would not let the Jews go free from bondage, and God was commanding Moses what he must do, in order that the waters of Egypt should turn to blood. The pages, tattered and stained, now stared up at the Rabbi helplessly. No proverbs or prayers sprung forth from the text, no heavenly sound emanated, echoed in his head, and the Rabbi, for the first time, had no words to offer.
Chuck Redman has practiced immigration and criminal law in Los Angeles for 38 years. His novella, The Meateaters, was published serially in “Between the Species” in the 1980’s. More recently, his short fiction or humor have appeared in “Writer’s Digest”, “Hemlock Journal”, “Lowestoft Chronicle”, and “The Jewish Magazine”. Mr. Redman also has a completed novel manuscript that is in the process of being submitted to publishers.
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Great story with a surprising end.
A beautifully-written, but tragic, story providing a window into the depth of struggle and despair deep within each of the two main characters and thrust upon them from without. Even more tragic that it is based upon the current reality.
This is a very poignant story about a world that we, as American Jews, cannot fully understand. This story is very moving and may also help move us toward a better understanding of that world. Your comment, Nancy, was perfect.