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By Michael Fine
(Monthly, Dr. Michael
Fine shares a short story with readers of RINewsToday.com
© Michael Fine 2019
This is a work of
fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents
are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious
manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is
When Arthur Rubinow, the
shamesh, the haysedonda of the Meeting Street Shul, counted the people in his
mind, he found only six. Eight for Mincha/Maariv today. Six for shacharit
tomorrow. A minyan is ten. Ten men, once. Ten anyone, now. Ten Jews. He needed
ten Jews to have a real service, ten people so that people saying Kaddish could
mourn their dead correctly, with memory, honor and dignity, sing G-d’s praises,
read Torah, pray, and learn together.
They were a dwindling
community, but they were a community, nonetheless. Once upon a time, not so
very long ago, their early morning minyan was warm and vibrant. They davened in
a chapel in the basement of the synagogue, a moldy place made of dark wood that
faced east, which had stained glass windows that depicted blue and green leaves
and kept out the light. Thirty men, even in the middle of summer, when families
went to their beach houses for weeks at a time. Ten or fifteen women, who sat
in benches off to one side. There was never a wall or even a curtain between
the men and the women. They were not a community that needed a wall. People
just knew where to sit, and everyone respected everyone else.
Before, most of the men had
come from Europe, most from before and some after the war. They worked in or
ran businesses: a candy factory owner, a furrier, a dry cleaner, a junk dealer
whose children would call him a recycler of used building material after they
got into real estate, a furniture store owner, a couple of sales clerks, a
jeweler or two, a rug dealer, and the owner of a small dry-goods store who had
started as a peddler walking from place to place, carrying his wares on his
back. The Hebrew teachers and the Jewish community people, the functionaries
who ran the federation and the JCC and HIAS and the Hebrew Free Loan fund, they
came as well, but less often than you might think, because by and large they
were American born, and didn’t feel the pain of history and the sadness of
unrequited longing in their souls, the way the generation who had been born in
the shtetl or in Warsaw or Buda-pest or Bucharest or Prague did.
Their children, the second
generation, the doctors and lawyers and engineers, were different. Some came as
children and continued to come, in smaller and smaller numbers, after they grew
up, but most didn’t come at all. That generation didn’t really know how to
daven even though they could read the words. They used Sephardic trope even
though their families were from Eastern Europe because that was the way Hebrew
was spoken now, in what Arthur Rubinow always called the new state of Israel
even after it was 60 years old, which he prayed for with his heart and soul but
never entirely believed could survive. The second generation came because their
fathers came, out of respect and a little fear, the ones who were given to
respect and fear, though many of that generation and most of the generation
which came after them ran wild in the streets.
That older generation, the
generation of immigrants, they really knew. They knew Torah, they knew Talmud,
they knew how to daven, to pray with their whole souls, and they had sachel,
wisdom. They listened before speaking and they turned a problem or idea over in
their minds, thinking out all the ramifications before answering a question or
stating their beliefs. More often than not, they answered a question with a
question. Who is a fool? He who knows not and knows not he knows not. Who is
wise, the Pirkei Avot asks? And answers: he who learns from all men.
When the minyan was at its height,
the Chapel would be full twice a day and sometimes the late-comers, the people
who lived in the suburbs and arrived a few minutes late or the men who stayed
at business a little too long in the late afternoon would have to stand in the
back. The late comers had to use cast off siddurim, the old prayer books which
had different page numbers and worn covers. Each of the regulars had a seat, of
course, and every man knew who would lead which part of the service at which
time and on what day. On Mondays and Thursdays, when they read Torah, everyone
knew who would get the first five aliyahs, and everyone knew that the last two,
before and after the mishaberha, the blessing for the sick, were reserved for
guests or newcomers, so even the young men, who often came trailed by a son or
a boy and girl of four and six, had a job to do and a place in the community
and so felt included and respected. Each man shook the hand of every other man
after their part or after an aliyah, so by the time the davening was finished,
every man had shaken the hand of every other man in the community ten or even
twenty times. Yes, just the men. That was normal. Part of daily life, something
no one even noticed or questioned but which happened every single day of the year,
But then generations from
Europe began to die out. The doctors and lawyers and accountants came, but only
once or twice a week, or only on Shabbos, or only mornings or only evenings and
gradually not at all. The minyan thinned. There was a moment in the late
seventies and eighties when the Russians arrived, and it looked like the minyan
might grow strong again. But the Russians didn’t last. Their old men knew how
to read but they didn’t know Torah and Talmud, they didn’t daven with their
souls the way the old men born in Eastern Europe did, and they didn’t mix much
with the rest of the minyan. The old Russian men died off quickly, and their
second generation didn’t come at all. Their second generation gave Arthur
Rubinow a little hope at first but quickly dissolved into America. They stuck together
and had big family dinners at a Russian restaurant in Brookline, but they
didn’t join the community itself. Then they didn’t come to daven and didn’t
come to say Kaddish when the old people died and didn’t even come back once a
year for yahrzeits, to say kaddish on the Hebrew calendar anniversary of a
loved one’s death like the children and grandchildren of the shtetl and the
The minyan felt the loss of
each man, of each person, the loss of the men who knew and their wives who came
with them and sat on the benches off to the side. Each loss left a gap, a hole
that could be felt and even seen, a lost tooth, because everyone in the minyan
knew the voices of every other person, knew the way they would sing a certain
part. What had been a robust and guttural chorus when the minyan sang or spoke
the shema or the borachu or words or lines of the kaddish together became a few
voices, singing alone together, the women’s voices clearly heard now, and sweet,
because most of the few women could at least carry a tune.
Sometimes only fifteen or
twenty men came. Then only twelve or thirteen. Many seats went unfilled. The
chapel was renovated and moved from the basement to the top of a flight of
stairs, facing south, not east, so the sun streamed through the windows at
sunset in winter, and the old dark wooden benches were replaced by blond wood
chairs with nice upholstery.
They coped. First the shamash
and the gabbai were replaced by men who were American born. Then they started
counting women to make the minyan, as the need for ten men became the need for
ten people. Then women had aliyahs and then women read from the Torah and then
a woman became the gabbai. Who knew?
But despite all the change, the
minyan shrank. Some days they waited fifteen or twenty minutes for a minyan.
Some days thirty minutes. Some days an hour. Some days Arthur Rubinow called
his friend Morty to come over to make ten. Some days he asked his wife Diane.
They thought about and discussed opening the ark and counting the Holy Presence
to help them get to ten people, as they did in some of the tiny communities in
Galacia and Georgia, but then their Rabbi ruled against such a practice. There
were enough Jews in the community to make a minyan. So, the responsibility was
to find more people to come. Was minyan attendance also the responsibility of
the Holy One, Blessed be he? No! It was the responsibility of the community!
But then the Rabbi himself didn’t come any more, so what sense did any of it
Some days they didn’t get ten
people at all, and so mourners couldn’t say Kaddish, they couldn’t read Torah,
and they couldn’t recite the shemoneh esrei out loud or say the Kaddusha at
There was a new minyan of
hippies who met in the chapel on Shabbos after the early morning minyan was
over, and the two groups met on the stairs or coming through the doors. The men
had long hair and the women had tattoos and piercings, like Cannanite harlots
or the Moabite ritual prostitutes described in Bereshit. They drummed and
played guitars. Young people. But at least they came to shul.
Now everything was different.
Women rabbis. Cantors who were converts. Gay people and lesbians and people who
went from one gender to the other and back. There were people of color in that
minyan. Chinese people and people from India and Africa, people whose skin was
as black as charcoal. The world had changed. The people of the early morning
minyan barely recognized the new world they were in.
One shabbos in early summer,
when some of the regulars were at the beach, when the sun was very strong even
though it was early, only five people were sitting in the seats and only eight
all together were coming. Two women. Three men. Five. Better than nothing.
Still, Arthur Rubinow announced the page, and David Weinstein, a retired
dentist, began the preliminary prayers. Everyone understood that Kaddish
D’Rabbanan would be left out. People would trickle in, and some of those parts
could be added back at the end of the service, once they got to ten. If they
got to ten. If a miracle happened.
But Arthur Rubinow had already
counted in his mind, and he knew a minyan was impossible. Diane Berkovits was
at the beach. The Golds were visiting their son and new daughter-in-law in
Bethesda. The Aroniwitzes were in the Berkshires. Arthur Kaplan had just had
foot surgery and couldn’t walk yet. Arthur Rubinow had made his phone calls the
evening before, and he knew what he knew. Eight. With luck they might get
eight. But no more. The world was full of Jews but no more than eight Jews in
the whole city were available to pray together, read Torah and sing G-d’s
praises that day in late June.
The door lock buzzed. There
were footsteps on the stairs. Penelope Yellin came in and took her usual seat,
so now they were six. They did not say Borachu, but they read the Shema out
loud together. If you can say the Shema out loud when you are davening alone then
you can certainly say it out loud when you are davening with only six people.
Arthur Rubinow closed his eyes
and went out into the hallway where he could use his cellphone without being
seen. Pikuach nefesh. It is permissible to break all rules in order to preserve
life. Wasn’t a minyan life itself? He texted Morty and Diane. Diane texted
back. She was getting out of bed and would drive over. That would make seven.
Jeffery Sussman, their Gabbai, would arrive right at 8:17 as he did every
shabbos, just in time for the Torah reading. He was a lawyer and acted like the
rules that applied to everyone else didn’t apply to him. But he came every
week, and that was enough for them. They might get to eight. But no more.
Ten was impossible, at least
this week. They would cope, they would go on living, and, G-d willing, they
would have a minyan again shabbos the following week when people returned from
But a little part of Arthur
Rubinow felt shame, nonetheless. They were a community, and as a community they
had failed to keep this small promise to themselves. He was a man, and he had
failed to find ten people, in a world that was full of people, in a world that
had once been full of men who wanted only to stand together, to sing G-d’s
praises, to remember, to give to charity, to do good deeds, and to carry on.
Now there was almost nothing left. He had been delaying the inevitable. And was
unable to admit the truth. There just weren’t enough people for a minyan
anymore. He lived in a lost world.
They were ready to read the
first Amidah. Waiting for more people wasn’t going to change anything. The
Amidah would have to be said silently, without the Kiddusha. Arthur Rubinow
stood to announce the page.
But when Arthur Rubinow opened
his mouth, a siren came out instead of words. An earsplitting, brilliantly
painful, too loud to think siren. WHHOP WHHOP WHHOP WHHOP. Who makes noises
like this on shabbos? For a moment, Arthur Rubinow wondered if he was having a
stroke, and perhaps the siren was only in his brain. But the other people
looked around, put down their sidduriem, their prayer books, took off their
tallasim, folded them, put them on their seats, and marched toward the doors.
The siren was a fire alarm and it was loud.
Arthur Rubinow followed the
little group out the door, climbed down the stairs, and left the building.
Three fire trucks pulled up in front of the shul, their red and white lights
bathing the streets. Two police cars arrived, adding blue and white lights to
the red and white lights washing the buildings and the cars. The street smelled
like diesel exhaust, though there was still a hint of the sweet green taste of
late spring because of all the flowers and trees that were in bloom in the
plantings and from the trees planted next to the street.
Teams of fire fighters went
into the building. The six people from the minyan clustered on the sidewalk in
front of the stoop. The men still all wore kippas and the women wore white lace
dollies pinned to their hair, but the little knot of people standing together
looked somehow out of place, six Jews in nice clothing standing together on a
bright June morning, as firemen with red fire hats and yellow rubber fireman’s
boots stood in front of their trucks, trotted back and forth to the shul, or
prowled inside the synagogue.
“I didn’t smell smoke,” Pauline
“Was my davening that bad that
it set off the fire alarm?” David Weinstein asked.
Diane walked down the sidewalk
and joined them. Jeffery Sussman arrived. Now they were eight. Eight Jews on a
sidewalk. Too few and with no place to go.
The firemen walked in and out.
A team of three, carrying an oxygen tank, came out of the building. Better they
are coming out than rushing in with hoses, Arthur Rubinow thought. In a real
fire we would need to go in ourselves to rescue and protect the Torahs. Six
torahs in the chapel alone. Many more in the main sanctuary and the vault.
More firemen came out.
The fire trucks turned off
their flashing lights. Then the police cars drove away.
False alarm, Arthur Rubinow
thought. We’ll go in soon and finish. Only eight of us. No Torah reading. We’ll
“How long do we wait?” David
Arthur Rubinow approached a
group of fire fighters who stood in front of the first truck, killing time. Two
“Gentlemen are we free to
return to the building?’ he said. “Fire, or false alarm?”
“No false alarms, only tests of
systems’ integrity,” one of the firefighters said. His hat was under his arm.
He had a ruddy complexion, a thinning hairline, and a bushy moustache.
“No fire. If there was a fire
we wouldn’t be standing here, blowing smoke,” said a second fire fighter, who
was tall, dark skinned and powerfully built.
“Ya gotta wait for the Fire
Marshall to sing,” said a young one, who was fair and pale, had close cropped
red hair and green eyes, who was slight but had big shoulders and blue and
green tattoos that flowed over his arms and neck. They check carefully. I think
he’s almost done. Hey, Shabbat Shalom, Mr. Rubinow, it’s Neil Green.”
Arthur Rubinow took half a step
backward. Neil Green was a little boy, a mischief maker, a pipsqueak, who came
to shul only once in a blue moon, when his divorced father, an animator for a
film studio, was in town and came to say Kaddish. The mother was a teacher and
was Portuguese. She had converted when the kid was born, but lost interest as
soon as the father moved out. Neil Green. He was always a kid Arthur Rubinow
gave candy to when he came, so his memories of Torah would always be sweet. Who
“No hurry,” Arthur Rubinow
said. “We’re only eight. We’ll be done in five minutes.”
Two men in orange hats came out
of a side door. They were older guys, in their forties or early fifties, ruddy
faced and beefy.
“All clear,” one of them said.
“You can go back now.”
We’ll have to hurry, Arthur
Rubinow thought. We started twenty minutes late. We davened for ten or fifteen
minutes before the fire alarm and have been twenty or thirty minutes outside.
The hippies with their drumming will be here before long. Start on Page 115. It
shouldn’t take us long.
The others were starting to go
A young man wearing a kippah
and carrying a talis bag walked toward the shul. Or perhaps it was not a young
man. The person walking had long hair that was held in place by a hairband, and
glasses, and he wore white shirt and trousers. One of the hippies coming to
drum, a little early.
“Shabbat Shalom,” the person
said, and held the door for Arthur Rubinow.
“Shabbat Shalom,” Arthur
Rubinow replied. “Can you daven with us? We don’t have a minyan yet. We’ll be
done in ten minutes.”
“Of course,” the person said.
They walked up the stairs
together, both of them. One more person. A little closer to a minyan, and
perhaps a little closer to G-d.
Then the buzzer went off.
Someone was at the locked door.
It was one of the firemen. Neil
Arthur Rubinow went down the
stairs to let him in.
“I can stay until we get
another call,” Neil Green said. “The boys on the truck’ll wait. Capt’n’s good
Arthur Rubinow and Neil Green,
this pipsqueak, now a man, also walked up the stairs together, also both of
They had ten. Ten including two
people neither Arthur Rubinow nor any of the other regulars even knew existed.
They were a community, however thrown together by happenstance, however worn
out, accidental and ragtag, and together they could daven together, remember
the past, mourn the dead, and learn.
The world had changed under
their feet, while the people of the early morning minyan weren’t looking.
Neither better nor worse. Just different. What is holy? G-d is holy. Kindness
is holy. Justice is holy. Who is wise? He, and now she, and now they, who learn
from all men. And women. And everything and everyone else in between.
Kiddusha – a section of the Amidah (Silent Prayer) which is
recited only when a minyan is present.
Kippa (s), Kippas (pl) – skull cap, yarmulka.
HIAS – Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that
looked after new Jewish immigrants a hundred years ago and again after the
Second World War and the Holocaust, and then again when large numbers of
Russian immigrants came to the US, in the 1980s and 1990s, and which advocates
effectively for immigrants from many places today.
Maariv– the evening service, often combined with Mincha, the
Mincha – the afternoon service.
Minyan—traditionally, the ten men required for a service that
includes saying a number of important prayers out loud or at all and for
reading the Torah. US conservative and reform congregations now count all
people over thirteen or who have been bar or bat mitzvahed as constituting a
Mishaberha—(literally, blessing) used here to mean the blessing
for the sick, which is said as part of the Torah service.
Pikuach nefesh—A principle of Jewish law derived from Torah and
developed in the Talmud, that says other Jewish laws can be violated if doing
so is necessary to save a life.
Pirkei Avot – The Ethics of the Fathers, the second to last
book of the Talmud with one additional chapter and deals only with ethical and
Shema – A one-line prayer that serves as the central coda of
Judaism. “Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One” is a rough
translation. It is repeated at least twice a day, is said by children as a
bedtime prayer, and observant Jews try to have it on their lips at the moment
of their deaths.
Shemoneh esrei – the Amidah, or Silent Prayer.
Shul – Yiddish colloquialism for synagogue.
Sephardic trope – the sung pronunciation of the Torah read in Hebrew
used by Jews descended from those who lived in Spain and Portugal, communities
that moved to Holland, Greece, Turkey, Italy and North Africa after the Spanish
Inquisition. That pronunciation used by Jews in Eastern Europe is called
Shabbat Shalom – tradition shabbos greeting, literally,
greetings/peace on this Sabbath.
Shabbos – The Sabbath, the central organizing feature of
Shamesh – traditionally, the warden or caretaker of the
synagogue. Now used to describe the person who organizes a religious service.
Originally and also the candle on a Hanukah menorah that is used to light all
the other candles, which is the origin of the use of the word in synagogue
Shararit—the morning service
Shtetl – _Small Yiddish speaking community in Eastern Europe.
The villages where Jews lived, next to but other separate from their non-Jewish
Siddur – prayer book, singular Siddurim (plural)
Talmud– 63 complicated books of what was originally oral law
that was transcribed to text, commentaries on that law and stories about the
law and the (thousands of) rabbis who complied it over many centuries, all
developed from the law set out in the Torah.
Tallasim (plural) Talis, singular, Askenazi; Tallit,
singular, Sephardic – prayer shawl, worn on shabbos.
Torah – The five books of Moses, written by a trained scribe’s
hand on a sheepskin scroll, which is read out loud on Monday, Thursday and
Saturday (Shabbos). There is considerable ceremony attached to the reading of
the Torah, and a significant body of Jewish law laying out the way it is to be
read. Once upon a time, the law was read in the marketplace: Monday and
Thursday were market days.
Yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death of a close (parent child
or spouse) loved one, when Kaddish is recited in the presence of a minyan.
All of Michael Fine’s stories and books are available on MichaelFineMD.com
Photo: “Minyan,” by Sharon Feldstein