|Read Margy Rochlin’s essay on Myron Brinig and an excerpt from his third novel This Man Is My Brother.|
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, commenced on a Saturday, and would be followed on the very next Saturday by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These particular Saturdays happened to be pay days for the miners, and the coincidence made it particularly hard for the Jewish merchants of Silver Bow. Those who were sincere in their beliefs did not worry unduly about this coincidence. They were willing, even eager to sacrifice profits for the sake of their religion. Moses was such a one. Much as he loved his store and greatly as he looked forward to these golden pay days, he did not for a moment tolerate the thought of keeping his store open for business.
On the holy days it was his custom to rise at six so that he might be in the synagogue an hour later. Rebecca, too, was up at that early hour and roused the children. Since the holidays occurred in the latter part of September, it was already cold in Montana. In Roumania, it had been pleasant to wake in the autumnal morning and walk through the rich red and gold countryside to the Shule. Moses and Rebecca remembered the voices of the Roumanian congregation, a steady humming sound pierced by the rising supplications of the rabbi, a golden overtone in a full-bodied symphony. The contrast of Silver Bow was overwhelming and depressing, particularly on Rosh Hashana. It did not matter so much on Yom Kippur, for that was the day of mourning, of deep grief for the sins committed during the past twelve months. The dark skies of Silver Bow and the penetrating winds that swept through the town were in keeping with the doleful nature of the day.
Cold as it was, no fire was started in any of the stoves; and whatever servant there happened to be in the house at the time was given the day off. It was not proper that servants should work on the holy days, no matter what their beliefs might be. Rebecca and Moses dressed in their cold bedchamber, and the children shivered in their own icy rooms. There was no hot coffee for breakfast, but Rebecca served cake and wine. Since Yom Kippur was a day of fasting, there was nothing to warm up congealed bodies, and the Singermanns formed a frozen, despondent group when they left their house to attend the services in the synagogue. They left a gloomy, cold house to emerge into a dim street harsh with smoke and sulphur. But it was comforting to reach the modest Shule, dark and musty, warmed by the presence of many worshipers. The men with their hats worn low over their eyes, their shoulders draped by the inevitable tallith, or shawl, stood in many attitudes; some were bent low over the benches peering with a desperate concentration into the Hebrew prayer books; others stood with their eyes to the wall as though ashamed to show their faces agonized by grief and supplication; and still others, as if pursued by their daily temptations, strode up and down the narrow aisles, praying in their stride, beating their breasts rhythmically, on the heart, on the heart, on the heart. For it is from the heart that one must worship sincerely to Jehovah; it is as though the heart is a door to the soul, and one is beating upon that door, crying, “Open! Open! Open! I am without and lonely, and I would be in Thy presence, O Lord! Adenoi Elehenu, Adenoi Echod!”
On this Yom Kippur, Moses occupied a bench near the altar, and it was to this corner of the Shule that he shepherded his flock, his wife and five children. Michael was still too young to appear in the synagogue, and Mary O’Brien had taken him to her home in Walkerville for die day. Last year Joseph had been here, praying by the side of his father; but now he was married and his wife was a Christian Scientist. There was a yawning gap where he should have stood, his slim shoulders draped by the tallith. There had been for Moses a kind of security in the knowledge of Joseph’s presence in a Shule, a warmth of kinship that cannot be far from God. But now he was gone—sold to the devil! “O Lord, have mercy upon my son and show him the right way!” Moses prayed, and his voice transformed the ugly wooden shack into an immortal place. He sang and all else seemed fugitive and dying; but his songs were one with the million nights that have passed over the earth since Abraham and David and Solomon. “This was my son, Joseph. Now I am bereft of him. Forgive Thou his many sins, O Lord! Adenoi Elehenu, Adenoi Echod! Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, The Lord is One!”
At noon time, Moses went outside for a breath of air. He walked up and down the sidewalk in front of the synagogue, refreshing his body and lungs and feeling the wind in his eyes. Members of the congregation stood about in small groups holding earnest conversation with one another, seeking diversion and rest in gossip—aye, even on the Day of Atonement! When the afternoon prayers began, they would be able to renew their supplications to Jehovah with a more devout and strengthened ardor. After a minute, Moses became aware that they were casting furtive, uneasy glances in his direction. They would look at him and then resume talking with great heat and animation. He caught detached words. . . . “His son, Joseph . . . Such a shame . . . the son keeps open his store on Yom Kippur. . . . With my own eyes . . . disgrace . . . Only of money he thinks. . . . Should I have such a son, I would hang my head. . . . And we keep our stores closed that such a one . . .”
Moses knew that they were talking of his oldest son. He dared not meet their reproachful eyes, yet every word they spoke was a wound in his body. Usually the most courageous of men, he was moved now by a desire to flee from these critical eyes and hide away. He looked towards the door of the synagogue and saw David emerge, David so tall and strong, with grace in his walk and assurance in his manner. Moses felt suddenly free, and as he moved forward to meet his third son, he thought that Jehovah would not hold Joseph so much against him since there was David, so alive, so vivid in his young beauty.
But as David caught sight of his father, a frown appeared on his forehead, and his eyes blinked with troubled anger. For a moment, Moses was hurt by his son’s expression; but it turned out that it was not with his father that David was angry. On the contrary, this was one of those rare occasions when David was thoroughly sympathetic with his father’s attitude.
“Did you know that Joseph was keeping his store open today?” David whispered, drawing Moses to the edge of the walk. “Everybody’s talking about it and cursing at us behind our backs. It’s a shame!” David kicked at the rocks in the street.
“It was not like this before he married that woman,” said Moses, throwing the blame on Daisy rather than on his favorite son. “She’s to blame.” And he added in Yiddish, “She should roll in the dust!”
“It ain’t so much because I’m religious that I care,” said David truthfully, and Moses looked moody at these words. “But how does it look for other people? Every Jewish store in the block closed for the holidays, and his open with the Goyem!”
“It is the woman,” persisted Moses stubbornly, but he only half believed his own words. “She is to blame. She with her Christian Science! Do you think I don’t know? I have seen her go into the church with the Christians. But why do I talk? He is no more a son of mine. Let her give him flesh of the swine to eat.”
The worshipers returned into the synagogue. The rabbi’s voice that had been droning on and on during the interlude, in a kind of passive monotone, was once more raised to its high pitch of intense supplication. Its sharpness, its vehemence of expression stabbed the quietness of the street and recalled the men and women to their various places within. “It is beneath me to talk from such a son,” said Moses and returned within the Shule, leaving David to stand alone on the sidewalk.