Stilettos by a Gravestone
– Fiction by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub –
“Aargh, these weeds. And I was just here,” Shifrah Fogel Bernstein thought, as she got to her knees to yank out the invaders, the botanical equivalents of rodents or cockroaches. She held herself back from adding “damn” before weeds. Surely, God above would not be pleased if she swore at a place of eternal rest, even if she were just muttering to herself. As for the dead, Shifrah wasn’t so sure they would be unamused. Was that laughter she heard? No, it wasn’t even other visitors. It was only the wind whistling through the trees. She had never been partial to cemeteries, and she knew she certainly mustn’t let this one get to her. She knew it all too well to let that happen.
Shifrah had never been convinced by the claim that a cemetery was an ideal place to reflect, read, and picnic. There was too much quiet, too many matters unresolved, vistas never seen, scores unsettled. What was the title of that movie she once loved that was so connected to cemeteries? It was a love “affair” between the young man and the old woman? Oh, yes … Harold and Maude. When had she seen it? So many years ago. When she was a young woman, probably about the same age as the actor who played Harold. What was that actor’s name? She would look that up when she got home. And she needed to see the movie again, to think about why it had meant so much to her when she so thoroughly detested cemeteries.
If she did see it, she’d have to see it alone. Tsevi, her husband, disapproved of secular movies in general and would surely not endorse one about the love between a young man and a much older woman. He might not say anything to her if he ever found out she’d seen it, but she would be able to read his disappointment in the pursing of his lips, in the brief arching of his eyebrows, in his turning away from her in the house … and in bed. Her parents never forbade her from seeing movies. So why had she married a man who disapproved so strongly of them? Of course, when they were dating, she hadn’t known that he did. Tsevi’s level of religiosity seemed to have increased gradually over time.
Shifrah didn’t want to get grass stains on her stockings or her dress. She went through this ritual every time she came here. But there had been quite a bit of rain lately, and the weeds were worse than usual. Of course, she didn’t have to wear one of her finest dresses—a charcoal gray number with a black border—to visit a grave. And who wore heels to a cemetery? Shifrah asked herself as she held onto the gravestone to steady herself. And her new Manolo Blahniks no less. But somehow Shifrah never could visit this place in a second or third-rate outfit. It wouldn’t be right. Not that he would have cared, but Shifrah cared. Sheldon Shapiro deserved the best. All those of years of service he gave to Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. No, she would do what was right. She would present. She would represent.
Sheldon’s grave was in the Haverim Ahuvim cemetery. Well, really, it was a section of a larger cemetery the Congregation purchased many years ago, back in the day of the founders Arnold and Myrna Kestenberg. Sheldon saw to all of the details of his own burial, explaining them to Shifrah, the executor of his estate, before he passed away. Not that there was that much to pass on. He bequeathed whatever life savings he’d been able to accumulate as an accountant to a yeshiva in the Holy Land called Torah Temimah. Why there, of all places, she asked him. She’d never even heard of the yeshiva. Sheldon merely shrugged and returned to the documents before them.
Shifrah was reluctant to accept the role of Sheldon’s estate executor when he initially asked her. What did she know of his financial matters? How could she know what state they were in? What she was getting herself into? Except for the fact that he almost never missed a prayer service—weekday, Shabbas, or holiday—and that he’d taken the minutes of the synagogue Council meetings for decades, what did she even know about Sheldon Shapiro? She wished him a “Good Shabbas” over the years and told Tsevi and her children, Miriam, Netanel, and Avinoam, to do the same. But the Bernsteins moved away from Haverim Ahuvim before Sheldon’s death. In those later years, they only saw him when they were having a Shabbas meal with her brother Menahem, his wife Hayah, and their son, Avi. Not for the first time did Shifrah wish she had stepped beyond the perfunctory, polite well-wishes into hospitality or even knowing. She could have invited Sheldon over for a Shabbas meal. She could have encouraged Tsevi to get to get to know Sheldon. She realized she was kinder, warmer to Sheldon in death than she had been to him in life.
“Why did Sheldon pick me to be his estate executor? Shouldn’t he have picked Menahem or Akiva Safir or … ? Wouldn’t they have been more … appropriate?” Shifrah asked Tsevi one night at the dinner table, referring to longtime Haverim Ahuvim congregants.
“How should I know? Are you going to refuse?”
“I have to think about it,” Shifrah said.
Well, she had thought about it. And here she was at Sheldon’s gravesite. She couldn’t say no. She couldn’t deflect the responsibility onto someone else. Had Sheldon harbored a secret crush on her? Did he secretly yearn for some kind of Harold and Maude liaison in reverse? Of course not, she wasn’t as lugubrious as Harold and he couldn’t possibly be as fun loving as Maude? Or could he? Again, Shifrah thought: what do I know? Frantically, she tried to remember Sheldon’s face. Only she couldn’t. All she could conjure up were his round tortoiseshell glasses that had become, over time, a facial feature, or rather perhaps a curtain over his face. A tortoiseshell and plastic curtain, but every bit as opaque as The Iron One. Shifrah didn’t dare suggest to Tsevi the possibility of Sheldon harboring a secret crush on her. Even if he had also considered it, he would just laugh at her wild imagination or arrogance. Don’t flatter yourself, Shifrah could hear her husband say. Well, she’d never know for sure unless some secret love-letter or diary turned up somewhere. It could happen.
Maybe such “love documents” existed, accidentally misplaced or strategically placed, amidst Sheldon’s carefully taken minutes, in the Congregation Haverim Ahuvim papers at the Historical Society of P. She wouldn’t be finding out any time soon. Shifrah had no intention of going through those papers. Who would be interested in the minutes of the meetings of a small synagogue that had never been the home of anyone particularly wealthy or famous or learned? Who would care about the haggling over the expenses to keep the synagogue going? The preparations for bar mitzvah celebrations of long ago? Surely, only the most desperate Ph. D. student in social history searching for a dissertation topic. And yet, aside from the memories of the now scattered congregants, those minutes and assorted papers and this section of a cemetery would be all that remained of the Congregation.
Visiting Sheldon’s grave was not part of her “official” estate executor duties. And yet Shifrah felt called to the cemetery. She wouldn’t shirk Sheldon after his death. She would pay tribute to his contributions to the synagogue that she had never rightfully acknowledged during Sheldon’s lifetime. Had anyone? Shifrah couldn’t recall a single synagogue event in Sheldon’s honor. Of course, speaking of “single,” so many synagogue events—wedding, sheva berakhot, berit milah, kiddush—were devoted to the lives of married people. And Sheldon the confirmed bachelor was always there in support, in celebration. Now and to her end, Shifrah vowed to honor his life in the shadows.
What was the Yiddish word for minutes of a meeting, Shifrah suddenly wondered. Oh yes, protokoln. Why could she remember that and not the actor who played the title character in one of her favorite films? She didn’t even know much Yiddish. Really just a smattering, the usual nuggets of (off) color here and there. Now was not the time to search for them. How had she learned protokoln and why had it lodged itself in her mind? Perhaps because she’d always been struck by the reach of that word. Yes, minutes were a way of capturing what was—the protocols of how an institution or organization lived, what it believed to be appropriate conduct and how it acted on those beliefs, how it carried itself in the world.
Shifrah stood up from the ground and stuffed the weeds into a plastic bag she found in her pocketbook. She dusted herself off and saw that there were no grass stains on her ensemble. Good. Maybe she had gotten the hang of these visits to the dead, with their mixture of solemnity, respect, fear, and even hope. Yes, hope that the dead were watching, hope that they would remain honored, hope that someday she, too, would be similarly honored. But she had three children. Whom did Sheldon have? Distant cousins he hardly knew. And Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, a synagogue itself now turned to dust.
Shifrah wiped some dust, dried mud from the rain really, from her Manolos and then from Sheldon’s stone. There he was: Shemuel ben Mikhael ve-Sarah Liba. Granite it was, and he’d insisted on having his mother’s name—his matronymic—on his stone. She then retreated several steps and recited the prayers and blessings for a grave visit. Shifrah placed the pebbles on the gravestone. Even if you didn’t always know, even if I didn’t make it clear, even if I never brought you a Shabbas meal or home-baked honey cake, I was here for you, Sheldon, she thought. I still am.
For a moment, she considered stepping out of her Manolos and leaving them by Sheldon’s gravestone. That would be a departure from the usual pebble, wouldn’t it? Passersby could imagine some torrid, mysterious love affair now made public. Or maybe they’d think these were the type of shoes the departed favored for himself. And perhaps he had? Neither of those possibilities seemed true to Sheldon, or at least to what little she knew of him. No, she would keep her Manolos for (and to) herself.
Walking away from the grave, Shifrah decided she would eat her apple in the car before leaving the cemetery. Before she did that, however, she would stop by the main office to check on the maintenance policy of Sheldon’s plot. Wasn’t regular weeding a principal stipulation? Did the frequency of the weeding need to be increased? Well, she’d sort it all out there. She hoped someone was there. She hated negotiating, wrangling—whatever this was going to entail—over grave (!) matters over the phone.
As she backed her car into the cemetery’s main drive, Shifrah thought about what she’d make for dinner that night. She had a hankering for pasta. Spaghetti and Meatballs? Fettucine alfredo? And she’d figure out a way to watch Harold and Maude, too—without Tsevi or the kids, of course. The neighborhood branch of the public library surely had a copy or could get one for her. Only not so fast. A long funeral procession blocked her drive to the front office and the pasta repast waiting just beyond. There seemed to be a traffic jam at the cemetery. Were they headed into the Congregation Haverim Ahuvim section of the cemetery? Did she know them? Did she know the deceased?
Not for the first time did Shifrah wish she could have convinced Tsevi to purchase a plot for both of them here in the Congregation Haverim Ahuvim section of the cemetery. To lie in eternal rest with her fellow congregants was her preference. Even if the congregation was no more. No, especially because the congregation was no more. Its death would mirror her/their own. Their death would somehow complete, make whole the congregation. Shifrah couldn’t say exactly why it was so important for her to be buried in the cemetery of a shuttered synagogue. Could a synagogue die? Could one say a “deceased” synagogue?
Thinking about synagogues and death, Shifrah thought suddenly about the synagogue she recently visited in the Old Country—the formerly industrial city in which much of her family had roots. The city was barely on the tourist map; Shifrah felt conspicuously American walking around its elegant, crumbling (and unbombed) buildings, struggling to find the addresses of relatives who had perished. So many streets had changed names. Shifrah refused to ask for help at the community center, and they’d misplaced their guidebook somewhere. She couldn’t remember how they found it in the end. Tsevi had probably asked someone, scattering a few words of the native tongue in his speech. Shifrah always felt too self-conscious to use words from a language she barely knew, as if mangling the pronunciation of a foreign crime were some unforgiveable misdeed, or some disastrous faux paus, as if she were back in fifth grade when she just misspelled an easy word in the spelling bee in front of the entire school and … her parents.
It was an utterly non-descript building in a gray courtyard of five-story buildings. But yes, there it was. The door was unlocked, and the synagogue was empty. She was utterly taken aback by what she saw. The synagogue was both lush and austere. The walls were crisply painted off-white. There were Stars of David all along the balcony of the women’s section, and one centered in the dazzling cornflower-blue mural on the ceiling. And yet the benches were plain, without cushions. There was no carpeting of any kind. In fact, there were no real signs of life. Shifrah wondered when the prayer books had last been used. She found herself overcome by a terrible volcanic grief, that ruins and statistics of genocide and young girl’s diaries had never managed to elicit. Why here? In this beautiful, ghostly spiritual space? She had to sit down on one of the benches to calm herself, so that Tsevi wouldn’t see the effect of the place on her.
Now she wondered if that reaction had less to do with that particular synagogue than with Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, or rather, the contrast in their fates. Unlike this perfectly preserved synagogue, the Congregation was gone—sold off to whom she couldn’t even remember. It was gone, not to ethnic cleansing, but to the drift of time, the aging of its members, the lack of interest on the part of their descendants, the changing face of the neighborhood, the yeshiva whose shadow it could never escape. Its physical space was unlikely to be remembered. It would only live on in the memories of congregants like her … and in the Congregation’s papers at the Historical Society, she had to remind herself.
Thinking about her synagogue in the Old Country, her longing for this particular eternal home made sense to her. It would always be known as the Congregation Haverim Ahuvim section of the Jewish cemetery. Here, her children could visit her. Here, she would be immortalized in the folds of her eternal community. But Tsevi simply wouldn’t hear of it. He insisted that they be buried together, in a different cemetery, in a plot near his parents. Shifrah agreed reluctantly. She just couldn’t bring herself to fight with him over it. And she would never separate herself from her husband, even in death. Jews did not vow “until death do us part” at the wedding altar. Or did they? Or am I getting into the weeds of mystical Judaism? Speaking of weeds … Shifrah chuckled to herself wryly. This time, she was sure the dead were joining in.
And just as Shifrah visited Sheldon while she was alive, so too would she visit him after her death. Her spirit would float over to the Congregation Haverim Ahuvim section of the cemetery and see to it that he and all were well, all was still. Even if her children visited her grave in the Bernstein family plot, this was where she truly belonged.
Shifrah’s spirit would always remain rooted here in the cemetery of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, in the sacred ground of her family and community, with its ephemeral confluence of souls now congregated for eternity, with its particular blend of soil and minerals and weeds and waste and worms and bone. Here, yes here, she thought.
The cemetery still in view, Shifrah stopped at a red light, removed her Manolos and placed them on the seat next to her. Vehicles for the stasis of souls, foundations for flight. Passengers of another sort.
About the Author – Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
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