For several hours Isaac had stood on the craggy, enclosed grounds just inside the vast wrought-iron gates emblazoned with Stars of David. Though the sun had barely met its zenith, he had thought a few cars, if not a procession, would have already driven through. Isaac felt the heat's lethargy setting in, and suddenly, he caught himself leaning against one of the gravestones. Quickly, the old man adjusted himself. He took his handkerchief from his pocket and swiped the kernels of the sweat off his forehead. He noticed a small rock beside his foot and reached for it. Isaac ran it through his hands, as if memorizing its rough, jagged features, only to release it atop the headstone that supported him a moment before. He stepped back and read the inscription: Jacob Rosenthal "Respected his family, Lived without fear: 1930-1998." Though no one had asked or offered Isaac anything, he began to pray.
He faced the stone like he would the man, then lowered his head and closed his eyes, "Yis-ga-dal v'yiska-dash Sh'may ra-bo, B'ol-mo deev'ro chirusay, v'yam-leech mal-chu-say…" His body swayed, whispering toward the ground while speaking to the sky, "B'cha-yay-chon uv-yo-may-chon, uv-cha-yay d'chol bays yis-ro-ayl." Isaac raised his head, and in the distance could see no one.
Finally, he decided to trek up the tapered path, hoping mourners had entered through the back entrance to pay respects. Up the slanted earth, passing the struggling rows, Isaac battled heavy breathing and swelled shins. Underneath his tallis and suit, sweat dripped from his neck, skidding down his shirt, pinning the hairs against his chest. He walked over thousands, and then, as he pined for air, came to a standstill.
Isaac saw a car parked on the edge of the sliver of road, a red Volvo with two thin black stripes racing across its body. In front of the vehicle, at the edge of the grass, a man and woman held hands. Isaac caught his breath, wiped his brow dry once more, and approached the pair. Once upon them he noticed the woman leaning against the man who stood firm like a carving. As Isaac got closer, he heard her sobbing, gentle at the base, but with shrill pierce sharpening the tip end of each cry. He stroked his white, luminous beard at the point it ran off his face, he turned looked around the vast necropolis and still saw no one.
“Pardon me,” he said.
The pair turned at Isaac's voice, and he noticed errant black lines seeping from her eyes, somehow evading her tissue. The man glanced at Isaac, his pupil flickering before he returned to his pose.
"I'm Rabbi Glass, I don't mean to intrude, but if you'd like, I'd be more than happy to say a prayer for your loved one?" The young woman reached into her companion's pocket and removed a tissue. She dabbed at her eyes and swiped away pestering brown strands of hair that impeded her view.
"Thank you," she said, "that would be lovely." The man shook his head and sighed. The woman pointed to the stone, "She's our mother."
"I'm terribly sorry," the Rabbi said.
"We don't know any prayers."
“Perhaps the mourner's Kaddish?"
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders, as if afraid there was a wrong answer. "That sounds appropriate. Neither of us speaks Jewish, so whatever you think is right." “Hebrew," Isaac said.
"Yes, of course, I'm sorry. Our mother was Jewish, obviously, but we both grew up with our father.” She pointed to the headstone and, with a semblance of pride, asserted, "Our father, that's where the Latin comes from, a humanist to the end," and for a moment Isaac thought she smiled. His feet brushed the blades of grass in front of the grave as he moved in closed. Accidentally, he bumped the man's shoulder as he bent down to study the inscription.
"Pardon me," Isaac said. The man looked down, once again his pupil flared like his iris wanted to shed its hue. Isaac returned to the epitaph, reading it to himself.
Sophia Hava Cly
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci: 1920-2005"
“Our parents separated shortly after my brother was born,” she confessed. At this her brother shot around. The Rabbi raised his hand to put it on her back, feeling her confidence in him to be both honor and onus. As she chronicled their history, she once again started to cry. She hid her face in her palms like a shamed child.
“It's okay, dear,” Isaac feebly stroked her arm. He then picked up a rock and placed it on their mother's headstone. “You cannot hold yourself accountable for your parents' choices; to allow that of children robs them of their own pain.” She smiled, and moved his hand to her back as he shut his eyes and prayed. “Yis-ga-dal v'yiska-dash Sh'may ra-bo…” Isaac's eyes flickered to see the woman with her eyes closed, mimicking his stance as her brother just stared; his face bitter and collapsed.
Once Isaac concluded, she thanked him, sweeping away fresh tears. “That was beautiful, sh sh, so moving. Thank you so much, Rabbi.”
“I just hope it makes her passing a little easier on both of you.”
“It will,” she said. “I can't believe we ran into you. Tell me, Rabbi, did you lose someone too?”
“Actually, no. This is a large part of my work. I spend much of my time at the cemetery, praying with those in mourning, families who are, perhaps, uncertain as how to best respect the memories of those they've lost.”
The woman nodded. She smoothed the bottoms of her eyes with her tissue, smearing her make-up. “Where is your temple?” as she inquired, her brother stepped next to the headstone and looked down on it.
“I don't have a temple,” the Rabbi acknowledged.
“Oh, I see…” she said hesitantly, nodding her head. A small thud pulled Isaac's attention back to the grave. The rock was gone, the top of the headstone bare, as the brother stood with a smirk and his hands in his pockets. Isaac turned back to the woman. “The woman reached into her purse and, without looking, pulled out a handful of bills, messily folded one over another. “Well, we thank you so much. Here, please take this.”
“Oh, I don't know. This was not my intention…are you sure?”
“Without a doubt,” she said.
“Thank you, thank you both.”
Her brother shot around. “Don't thank me.”
Isaac's mouth fell slightly, the elastic of his jowls widening. “I'm sorry,” he replied.
He scowled at his sister as he raised his hand to his forehead. “What's wrong with you, Sidney? Look at him; he doesn't give a damn about us. He acts like he's a servant of God. He's a servant to himself.”
Mouth agape, she looked lost and in need. “Rabbi,” she said, her face crimson, “I, I apologize; he's very upset about our mother. He doesn't know what he's saying.”
“Don't apologize for me; I didn't even know the woman.”
Isaac bit his lip until it quaked under the pressure. Finally, he said, “We're all servants,” and then placed the money back in the woman's hand, forcing her palm closed. She refused, trying to push it back toward him, but he had let go. The money fell to the ground, the top bill face up, landing in a fluff of grass and dirt.
Isaac heard the woman yell at her brother, “How could you say such things? What is the matter with you!” the same slicing tone that whet her tears hoisting her rage. But he never heard a response. She then shouted out to Isaac to come back. But he too said nothing, ensuring she would be met only by the faint echo of her own call, as he continued high atop the road until enveloped by the impeding dusk in the city of stone and name.