The complexities of married life, at least for my father, began the morning after the wedding — in, of all places, the synagogue.
My father arrived early, several minutes before the service began, to look for the Shammes, the caretaker of the shul.
“Shammes, I was married yesterday in the rabbi’s home, and I would like to have Maftir.” Maftir is a passage from the Prophets that is read at the conclusion of the weekly portion of the scripture. It is an important ritual and is recited by b’nai mitzvah and other celebrants to commemorate special occasions.
“Mazel tov on your wedding, but Maftir is taken.”
“Maftir is taken?” my father asked, somewhat bewildered.
“That’s what I said.”
“So Maftir is taken,” my father said very slowly.
The Shammes said nothing.
“And who is saying Maftir today, if I may ask?”
“You may ask,” the Shammes replied. “It’s the Abramowitz boy who is being bar mitzvah. His name is Seymour, in the event you want to send him a present.”
“So… what about next Shabbos?” my father asked.
“I’ll have to look in my book,” the Shammes answered. “You would be surprised what I keep in my book.”
“I don’t want to know, Shammes. Just put me in your book for next Shabbos.”
“Well,” the Shammes began, almost in a whisper. “There are a few formalities before you go in the book.”
“Formalities?” my father asked, though he knew the answer.
“Well, let us say one formality,” the Shammes said. “Are you familiar with the Book of Proverbs?” “I’m no expert.”
“It is written that ‘where there is no wood, the fire goes out.’”
“So you are saying that I should bring wood.”
“No, I’m not saying. You are.”
“Could you give me an idea how much wood is necessary to start a fire?” my father asked.
“That is not a subject to be discussed on the Sabbath,” the Shammes said.
“I would suggest you come here during the week, and I will bring my book. We can talk about how to kindle a fire,” the Shammes said, and he walked away.
Early Wednesday evening of the following week, my father stopped in the synagogue on his way home from work. He knew the Shammes would be there. My father greeted him with a handshake. “I believe you know why I’m here.”
“Remind me,” the Shammes answered.
“I don’t think you need to be reminded.”
“Tell me anyhow.”
“Maftir,” my father said conspiratorially. “Does that sound familiar?”
“It does have a familiar ring. And you want…”
“Maftir this Shabbos,” my father said with some emphasis.
“This Shabbos, you say.”
My father was losing patience.
“I would like to offer a suggestion,” my father said. “Five dollars.”
“Five dollars,” my father repeated.
The Shammes replied softly. “I would say that is a very modest suggestion.”
“What would not be a modest suggestion, Shammes?”
“Fifteen has a good sound.”
“How about 10?”
“Ten is not a very significant number.”
“I think God would not agree with you, Shammes. With all due respect, Shammes, you never heard of the Ten Commandments?”
“So you are saying…”
“I’m saying if 10 was sufficient for the Almighty, it should suffice for a Maftir.”
“The Shammes paused. “It is true that in those days, Ten Commandments did indeed suffice. But I am sure that if the Almighty were to give us His commandments today, he would make it 15 or maybe even 20.”
“Shammes, again, with all due respect, may I quote from the Book of Proverbs?”
“It is written, ‘If you find honey, eat no more than you need.’”
“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that one.”
“I thought you might not be,” my father replied.
The Shammes did not answer. My father, too, remained wordless. He looked intently at the Shammes.
The Shammes looked at the floor. It was deadlock. In a short while, my father surrendered.
“I will agree to the 15. I will give you five now and 10 when the deal is done,” he said.
“Why not 10 now and five later?” the Shammes asked.
“I want to ensure that there are no complications.”
“How do I know you will give me the 10 afterward?”
“You will have to trust me, Shammes.”
“There is a saying, young man. ‘Put your trust in your hand and not the hand of your neighbor.’”
“Is that also from the Book of Proverbs?”
“Perhaps,” the Shammes answered and smiled. My father had the feeling he had improvised that one.
“So… are we in business, Shammes?” he asked.
The Shammes said yes and took the $5.
On Shabbos morning, my father, his cousins and near cousins, his brother-in-law, Abraham, with wife and operatic son, and an assortment of his non-Jewish customers came to the synagogue to join in the festivities. When he saw my father, the Shammes winked and my father winked back.
The early part of the service was hurried along by the cantor — a sure sign that the rabbi intended to deliver a sermon that morning. The cantor was in good voice, and only once did he stop short and glare menacingly at the audience to indicate there was too much noise.
My father noticed that the Shammes had begun a brief but spirited conversation with the rabbi. The Shammes left him abruptly and signaled to my father to meet him in the rear of the synagogue. He told my father: “We have a problem.”
“A serious problem.”
“Which is…?” my father asked.
“Do you see that young man with the pince-nez, sitting in the pew facing the rabbi?”
“I see him.”
“He is the intended of the rabbi’s daughter, Hinda.”
“The rabbi told me to give him Maftir.”
“Did you tell him that Maftir was taken?”
“No. I didn’t have the courage.”
“So get the courage,” my father said.
“How can I have the chutzpah to tell the rabbi I can’t give his future son-in-law Maftir?”
“Will an additional $5 give you the chutzpah you need?”
“The 10 is yours,” my father said.
My father’s Maftir was saved. According to him, his rendition was “excellent.” His cousin Feivel, who was no practitioner of understatement, said it was “just like Galli-Curci, maybe even better.” The other cousins, who didn’t know Galli-Curci from the Galapagos Islands, were inclined to agree, though their expertise in liturgy or grand opera was questionable.
According to my mother, my father’s performance was not as good as he claimed, though not as mediocre as her brother, Abraham, said it was. As the years rolled by and my father’s memory of that Maftir had become somewhat dimmer, he felt that it may have been his finest hour in the synagogue. As for the Shammes, he departed our community not too long after the first anniversary of my father’s chanting of his wedding Maftir. A man of many talents, he had applied for and was offered a rabbinical position in La Paz, Bolivia. He was selected by the search committee on the first ballot. Or so my father heard. He also heard that there was not an overrun of candidates.
Within the decade, it was learned that the Shammes became the chief rabbi of Bolivia and a millionaire. Tin, we were told. He had invested in tin mines, and they turned into gold. That’s how the story went.
Years later, the chief rabbi of Bolivia made a visit to our community and spent the Sabbath at the rabbi’s residence. At the morning service, he was honored with Maftir, which my father — now the official in charge of these honors — had conveyed to him. At the conclusion of the service, as the onetime Shammes made his round of handshaking and reminiscing, he spotted my father and, drawing him aside, said, “I want to thank you for the honor you gave me today.”
“It was not my idea,” my father said. “The rabbi instructed me.”
“Yes, I know, but you were the messenger. It is written that where there is no messenger, there is no message.”
“From Proverbs, I suppose.”
“Possibly,” the Shammes answered.
“You chanted the Maftir very competently,” my father said.
“I mean you made no mistakes.”
The Shammes stiffened. “You wouldn’t expect me to make any errors, would you?”
“No. I wouldn’t, but if I may say so, you do not have a very musical voice.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Wrong? Did I say there was something wrong with it?”
“I thought you did,” the Shammes huffed.
“With all due respect, sir,” my father replied, “you are no Pagliacci.”
“You mean Caruso.”
Changing the subject, the Shammes said, almost in a whisper: “I want you to know — and I’d appreciate it if you made no mention to the rabbi and the others — that it is my intention when I return to La Paz to send your synagogue a very handsome gift. Very handsome, indeed,” he repeated. The following morning, my father informed the rabbi and a number of the synagogue bigwigs of the Shammes’s impending generosity. The rabbi was especially impressed by the good news. But one person who wasn’t so wide-eyed was my mother.
“He won’t send you a single kopeck,” she said.
“Don’t be silly, Rose,” my father protested.
“Not a kopeck,” she answered.
“Ah. What does a woman know.”
“Not a kopeck,” she repeated slowly. “And not only that, but you’ll never hear from him again.” We never did.
William D. Kaufman, a freelance writer of mostly Jewish short stories, lives in an assisted living residence in Commack, N.Y. He will be 92 in November.