Arts & Letters

G. Silber presents Dovid Meyer: The Orphan From Jerusalem

Ruth Finkelstein: The Search

Michael Elkin interviews Mandy Patinkin

Elliot B. Gertel reviews Fox's Ally McBeal

Reader Response

Short Tales
December 10, 1997 / 11 Kislev, 5758
The Search

JWR presents Ruth Finkelstein's classic short story, a tale of death... and redemption.

The old woman's soul hovered above the open grave. In it rested the fancy coffin -- "She was a grand old lady, she deserves it," the mortician had told the family -- which contained her remains: the body of a woman in her late nineties, ostentatiously groomed and dressed in fashionable clothes. In the distances, the last black-clad backs of her children were vanishing from sight. Her soul shook to the vibrations of suppressed laughter wafting back.

The last spadeful of damp earth was now being flung carelessly upon the fresh grave by the alcohol-weakened hand of a stranger. "Better there in the grave," she sighed, "than laid out in the chapel." Her body had been decked out and put on exhibition, but her soul was still shamefully naked.

But this was nothing new. For years it had been the pattern. Her physical needs had been well provided for by the children. But her soul, it had been left to yearn and finally allowed to shrivel in its loveless and lonely world.

"How can I come before the throne of the Eternal without one z'chus (merit) for my poor children?" she wondered.

She made her way to the nursing home where she and her human form had lived for some time before their final separation. Her old room seemed strange and she looked around as if she were seeing it for the first time.

Two cleaning ladies were working in the stark, cheerless room. The bed had been stripped down -- her closet, dresser, and night table stood open mouthed and empty. The only thing in view, besides the furniture, was a large, well-worn Korban Mincha siddur (prayer book) looking forlorn on the bare night table.

"What's we suppos'ta do with this?" one of the cleaning women asked, pointing to the siddur.

"Dunno. The daughter said to get rid of it, but seeing like it's a prayer book and all, I don't have the heart to throw it away," replied the other.

"Just leave it there for the next one," she ventured after a while. "Looks to me that nowadays people have to get old and sick before they go back to prayin'. And that's the kind -- old and sick, I mean -- we get here, so just leave it be."

"Yeh, the young ones don't seem to have no use for prayin', do they now? I always say that's one sure sign that they need it all the more, but they gotta be taught when they're young."

When she heard this, she winced and fled. New thoughts of self-incrimination came over her and she decided to visit the home of her oldest daughter where the whole family was likely to be gathered. Maybe there she would find the one z'chus for her children which she was so anxious to find. On the way, a long forgotten memory forced itself upon her. She recalled the time this very daughter, then about six or seven, approached her tearfully.

"Mama, why do we have to be kosher? Nobody else is. I'm the only one who doesn't eat lunch in school. I sit by myself and everybody looks at me."

She remembered how her child's anguish had penetrated her. After a few more crying sessions she yielded and permitted the child to eat the school's lunches. But she had made sure to impress upon the child that she was never to bring any treif (non-kosher) food into the house.

Yes, that's how it had started. She had weakened -- permitted her children to do what everybody else was doing and they had followed through by "laying out" their mother's body the way everybody else did.

Arriving at her daughter's split-level ranch, she brightened hopefully. Here she would find something -- or would she?

She entered the smoked-filled living room and looked around. The spacious room was crowded with people, most of them middle aged: her two sons and their wives; her two daughters and their husbands; their married children and spouses; their many friends and acquaintances; and four or five of Grandma's own friends and some neighbors. There was a lavish spread on the dining room table; her oldest daughter was "presiding," making sure that everyone was properly served. The bar was open -- a white-jacketed bartender was serving drinks. People were sitting in clusters, eating and chatting in studied restraint. Now and then, a spurt of suppressed laughter hung unfinished in the air.

"Look, she had a full life. All right, so there were bad years too, as well as good ones, but that's to be expected when you live as long as she did" -- her oldest son was speaking.

"Yes, I'm sure she's better off now, but she suffered so at the end," replied his wife.

"What I always admired in her, though, was the way she never interfered with her children's lives...... and I mean never. Even when she thought they were wrong, she bit her lips and said nothing. Remember the time -- I don't know how may years ago -- we were at her house on a Saturday and lit a cigarette? She looked at you, but she never said a word. She just walked into the other room and came back with an ashtray."

"You know, Mom," a young woman in her late twenties spoke up, "maybe it's not nice to say, but I think another word for 'non-interference' is 'non-guidance'. I know if I'd see my Stevie do something I'd taught him was wrong -- and I don't think a parent loses that responsibility ever -- I'd make sure to correct him. I'd even go a step further, if I'd only suspect he was doing something wrong, I'd try to find out if he needs straightening out. That's part of being a parent. And why shouldn't it apply to smoking on Saturday as well as stealing, for instance?"

"But how can you compare smoking on Saturday to stealing?" asked another young woman who had overheard the conversation from several feet away. SUDDENLY THE ROOM WENT QUIET. Everybody turned to Stevie's mother --- she'd been born a Gentile and had converted to Judaism.

Stevie's mother remained undaunted.

"Smoking on Saturday isn't a violation against society ... it's not punishable in a court of law, that's true. But it is a violation of the Creator's law and an affront to our elders. I've been taught so in my conversion classes. Even if I don't practice it myself ..."

A hubbub of voices cut off the speaker:

"Listen to her -- since when did our convert here become a Holier-Than-Thou rebbetzin (rabbi's wife)?"

"Hey, Joe, when did you become a rabbi? After all, you have to be a rabbi before your wife can become a rebbetzin."

Grandma couldn't stand it any more. She fled from the room to the adjoining den. Here she found her grand- and great-grandchildren sprawled over the furniture and the rug, their eyes fixed on the television set -- quiet, and out of the way.

Feeling utterly desolate, she made ready to leave, but as an afterthought, she went to the kitchen. In the corner of the counter, surrounded by the clutter of food serving, she noticed an eight-day yahrtzeit candle flickering mournfully. Snatches of conversation came drifting in from the dining room.

"... Three days, that's it. You're correct, a week is simply too much. I mean our society has changed. People are simply busier these days. And about Kaddish .... if you insist on it that way, I'll give you the name of an Orthodox rabbi whose shul has prayer services three times a day. For about a hundred dollars they'll take care of it. Or if you prefer to have me make the arrangements...."

"Thanks, Rabbi, I'll send you a check for the hundred."

Not even time for the Kaddish. But then her sons had never been used to disrupting their schedule on her account, and who knows if they remember how to read Hebrew. Saddened and contrite, she turned to leave... but she heard a voice -- the voice of a child:

A psalm dear to King David: Guard me, oh Lord, because I am dependent on You. (King David said to his soul:) You have said to the Creator: `You are G-d; the goodness you have bestowed upon me, You did not have to bestow, because I am not worthy of it.'"

Swiftly and lightly, she reached the second-floor bedroom form which the voice of a child was coming. Stevie's mother stood in the doorway.

"Oh, there you are, Stevie. I missed you downstairs and I couldn't imagine where you were. Why didn't you tell me you were going upstairs?" She said without waiting for an answer. "But what in the world are you doing?"

"I--I'm--I'm praying for Great-grandma's soul, Mom," answered the little boy, "my teacher in the day school showed me what to say."

Turning back to his Tehillim (Psalms), the child continued:

For the sake of the holy ones, who died and were interred in the earth and have been pious, in their z'chus do You help me; and they are the strong ones through whose z'chus all my desires are satisfied...

And on the wings of those precious words the soul was borne heavenward.


Ruth Finkelstein is a writer living in Lakewood, New Jersey.

©1997, Jewish World Review