Sounds of Life
"Yitgadal vayitgadash shmay rabah…" Cantor Yosef chanted.
At 53, he looked resplendent in his expensive, dark suit, contrasted by his full white beard. He sounded resplendent, too, with his rich baritone voice melodically chanting Kaddish, the mourner's prayer. A respectful hush swept over the small congregation of synagogue Bais Chaim, in Sunshine, Florida, a little town west of Miami.
This was a holy moment, a special moment in the Shabbos morning prayer service, when it was time to remember the dear departed souls of loved ones. Cantor Yosef's mother had died two months earlier, still young at 78, and he and Shmuel Rosenkrantz, who's wife passed on after 55 years of marriage, stood and said the Kaddish prayer together. Shmuel whispered, not wishing to interfere with Cantor Yosef's superlative rendition.
"B'almah dee varah kerootay va-"
The second verse was interrupted when eight year old Benyamin Stein burst into the synagogue from the children's room in the back, followed by seven year old Sholem Greenberg.
"You're it!" Benny yelled as he ran.
"I'm gonna get you!" Shooly shouted back.
Several of the older men uttered loud shushing noises. Shooly chased Benny to the front door. Benny threw the door open, and ran out, followed by Shooly, who slammed it shut.
Cantor Yosef's concentration was broken and a look of rage transformed his face. He stared bullets at the front doors. Finally, after struggling for composure, he continued.
"… vayamleek malchootay vyatzmach poorkanay vee-"
The front door was thrown open again. Benny ran in, Shooly close behind.
"I tagged you and you're it!" Shooly yelled.
"Never touched me!" Benny shouted back.
Cantor Yosef took his double-sized heavy-duty prayer book, the one with big print made especially for weakening 53 year old eyes, and slammed it down on the bimah, the pulpit. It was like a peal of thunder as it reverberated inside the small synagogue.
Benny stopped dead in his tracks, a look of surprise and shock on his face. Shooly was unprepared for Benny's sudden stop; he crashed into his friend, sending both of them sprawling. They landed tangled up together on the floor in front of Cantor Yosef's bimah. This situation struck them as hilarious and they lapsed into a laughing and giggling fit.
"QUIET!" Cantor Yosef shouted.
Once again he took his heavy siddur and slammed it down. It sounded like the angry voice of God Himself on Mt. Sinai, after the Holy One, Blessed-be-He, saw the golden calf.
The boys stopped laughing and looked up at the red-faced Cantor, fear written all over their now angelic faces. The Cantor, a self-righteous froth on his lower lip, raised the book again. As he lowered his arm like a sledgehammer, he was suddenly stopped.
David Cohen, known to the congregation as the 'Mystery Man', held the Cantor's wrist.
"Boys, go sit next to your fathers," David Cohen ordered. He continued to hold the Cantor's wrist while the boys scurried over to their respective parents.
The faces of the congregation were pulled to the scene at the Cantor's bimah like iron filings to a magnet. David Cohen was also fiftyish, with thinning hair, a gray beard, and a body like a steel barrel. He came to services, blended in, and then left, talking little with the other members of the congregation, leaving nothing but questions in his wake.
Where does he live? … What does he do? … Does he pay his dues? were some of those questions. Rabbi Levy ignored them, even though he knew the answers. It was not his place to talk.
"Let go of my wrist!" Cantor Yosef hissed through gritted teeth.
David Cohen relaxed his grip, but not before he warned, "Please, don't slam the prayer book down like that." The Mystery Man then turned around and headed back toward his seat in the rear of the congregation.
Cantor Yosef was a boxer in his youth, a Golden Gloves contender from the wilds of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. His retort was automatic.
"Says you and what army?"
And with that rejoinder, Cantor Yosef took the double-sized heavy-duty prayer book and slammed it down one more time on the bimah.
David Cohen turned around as if he were stung by a bee. He walked back to the bimah and said, just above a whisper, but loud enough for the closest congregants to hear, and then repeat to those not fortunate or gifted with good hearing, "Meet me outside after you finish Kaddish."
David Cohen then marched to the front door, opened it, and closed it softly behind him.
Rabbi Levi shook his head and sighed. He had been watching this scene unfold, stroking his long dark beard, hoping there would be some Divine intervention. When there appeared to be none, he thought, this is just what I need on Shabbos, a fight between two men who are old enough to know better. Rabbi Levi rose to his six-foot height and went to the bimah.
"Cantor, please finish Kaddish."
Cantor Yosef handed Rabbi Levi the double-sized heavy-duty prayer book.
"No, you finish it, Rabbi."
Cantor Yosef made a great show of taking off his prayer shawl, his expensive suit jacket, and his tie. With great reverence, he placed them on the back of one of the nearby empty chairs. Then he unbuttoned his shirtsleeves and rolled them up. He did this while Rabbi Levi stood there, watching, his mouth opened wide enough to catch flies.
Cantor Yosef strode to the front door like Joshua approaching the conquest of Jericho. The rest of the congregation fell in line behind him.
It was Shabbos, and forbidden to fight, carry money, or gamble. That being understood, Rabbi Levi still thought he heard whispers of 3 to 1 odds, and wagers made to sound like pledges to the Congregation's Building Fund.
Everyone stopped and turned around. No one had ever heard Rabbi Levi raise his voice in such a way, or to such a level before, including Rabbi Levi himself.
"I forbid this to go on! This is Shabbos, for Heaven's sake! I want everyone to come back here and sit down! Cantor Yosef, I mean you most of all."
The congregation slunk back to their seats, all except for Cantor Yosef.
"He profaned the memory of my mother, Rabbi, and I can not allow that, Shabbos or no Shabbos." Cantor Yosef opened the front door, and walked out.
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© Copyright 2012 by Zalman Velvel Inc.
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