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‘The Argument’: An Excerpt

The following is in excerpt from “The Argument,” a short story by Rachel Kadish, winner of the 2004 Koret Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award. Kadish’s first novel, “From a Sealed Room,” was published in 1998. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Story, Zoetrope, Tin House and Bomb, and have been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize collection and other publications. She is at work on a new novel titled “Soon Also for You.”

Jacobson’s room in the nursing home is decorated in pastels. He wears a stained powder-blue sweater; there is a yellow scarf across his legs. The colors of springtime.

Today Jacobson’s mind has turned to opposites. “What is the opposite of a curtain?” he asks his guest.

Leaning heavily against the wall, Kreutzer breathes. The long flight of stairs has tired him. He looks at the sun-filled curtains.

“A carpet,” Jacobson answers. He bobs his bald head at Kreutzer. There are crumbs in his beard.

Kreutzer clears his throat. He is not a cruel man, but he has a job to do. There is a reason Kreutzer needs to quiz Jacobson: In his former life Jacobson was also known as Rabbi Harold Jacobson. And a rabbi never stops being a rabbi, even when he thinks the president of the Women’s Division is her dead great-grandmother. Even when he tells the sexton in front of the man’s entire family: I always liked you more than I liked your wife. You have a sense of humor but she is wretched. Even 10 years after his congregation and his own weary brain have fired him, a rabbi is still a rabbi. Especially when he knows the location of the deed to the land the synagogue stands on –– which paperwork the synagogue needs if it is to avoid extra legal fees for the new building.

The congregation is ready to give up on the deed. It is digging into its pockets and hiring a lawyer. A search of the synagogue’s files has revealed nothing. This is no surprise; the rabbi made it his habit to hide important documents in places known only to him. Now Jacobson’s mind has sailed to the highest branch of a tree and will not be coaxed back to earth. Even the rabbi’s oldest friends have given up, not only on deeds but on words — it is impossible to have a conversation with the man.

Kreutzer, standing in his bathrobe in the kitchen while the president of the congregation made his plea over the telephone, toyed with this notion: The congregation was asking him to visit Jacobson in the hope it would spur Kreutzer, widower that he is, to become active in the synagogue once more. After brief reflection, however, Kreutzer found it unlikely the congregation hoped this. He finds it more likely the congregants think that because he and Jacobson are the same age, Kreutzer can enter the maze of the rabbi’s mind. Kreutzer is not certain whether to be insulted.

But he agreed. And now he must do, although it will not be pleasant. The rabbi, as the president of the congregation informed him, is unaccustomed to visitors. Only the rebbetzin still comes, she knits beside her husband’s bed; wife and husband do not always, Kreutzer knows, need words. As for the rabbi’s son, he lives too far to visit — so says the rebbetzin who loves her boy. The son, everyone knows, lives someplace far from Jersey City, someplace where there is snow that he skis on. Worse, the son moved to this someplace with a black girl. His wife. Together they ski. Kreutzer tries to imagine. Black people should not ski. They have no camouflage. Jews also, Kreutzer thinks, should not ski. If God meant them to ski He would have chosen Norway for a promised land. He would have written it in one of His books. The Book of Skis.

“What is the opposite of a Dorito?” Jacobson picks a chip from his lunch tray.

The man was a rabbi, thinks Kreutzer. He had conversations with God.

Rabbi Jacobson turns the chip in his palm, forlorn.

“Jacobson.” Kreutzer leans forward, hands on his knees. Jacobson’s gaze drifts in his direction like a rudderless ship. “Rabbi.”

The rabbi’s face registers alarm. Then, as Kreutzer waits, the rabbi grows solemn. “You may be seated,” he says.

“Rabbi, I have a question for you.”

But it is no good asking. The rabbi’s head refuses to crack open like an oyster, revealing the tiniest pearl of information. The rabbi has never heard of a deed. He has never heard, it turns out, of a synagogue.

Kreutzer takes out the book he has brought: a holy book. Perhaps with some study of familiar words he will lull Jacobson into memory. All those years of training, of devout study, surely are lodged somewhere in the rabbi’s mind. And if the rabbi can summon these memories, perhaps he will summon others. Unless — the thought gives Kreutzer pause — this contemplation of opposites is a code. Could it be that the rabbi has become a mystic? He has chosen forgetfulness — abandoned his Talmudic training and fooled them all, tiptoed beyond the everyday and vanished into the forests of Kabbala.

Kreutzer eyes the rabbi. The rabbi, eyeing Kreutzer, passes wind noisily.

Kreutzer opens the book. In as patient a tone as he can muster, he addresses the rabbi. “We begin with the laws of kashrut.”

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