Kreutzer reads in the newspaper. Sipping coffee that is
lukewarm, he reads about a thing called False Memory Syndrome. This is a new
syndrome, just discovered. It happens when something terrible a person thinks
they remember turns out not to have happened after all. Kreutzer sighs. Imagine.
The quote from one of the girls interviewed in the paper
reminds him of someone, he can’t think who. “But if it never
happened,” the girl says, “why do I feel so
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 ten 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 himself. 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
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.
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
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
Kreutzer eyes the rabbi. The rabbi, eyeing Kreutzer, passes
Kreutzer opens the book. In as patient a tone as he can
muster, he addresses the rabbi. “We begin with the laws of
Kreutzer knows now who he was reminded of. The girl in the
newspaper reminded him of his daughter, Marjorie. Marjorie who also used words
like “terrible.” The pollution of the environment? It was terrible.
The attitudes of Kreutzer and Kreutzer’s wife and everyone they knew:
terrible. Also, always, the war in Vietnam. He thinks of Marjorie in high school
with her terribles. He thinks of her the summer she was twenty-two years old.
That was the summer she packed her things in borrowed suitcases and left. Jersey
City wasn’t close enough for her, she had to move right up in its face and
breathe its polluted breath: Manhattan. She stopped seeing movies and started
seeing films. She met people named Portia and Nikita, and within two years she
married a violinist.
And now this. Marjorie, with news.
This reunion with the rabbi is bitter, thinks Kreutzer as he
watches Jacobson pick through his cup of fruit cocktail with a gritty teaspoon.
Bitter not because of the man’s health; the rabbi is not in pain. Today
Jacobson is eight years old. Hitler has not come to power, the Brooklyn Dodgers
sign baseballs even when handed them by Jewish boys. Jacobson is
Bitter because unfair.
Rabbi Jacobson was a learned man. Few people know Kreutzer
appreciated this; out loud, Kreutzer spoke only of the rabbi’s faults. But
for twenty years Kreutzer relished his Sunday morning ritual. His wife swept in
the kitchen, his daughter, Marjorie, sat upstairs listening to her radio;
Gabriel, Kreutzer’s studious son, read the newspaper as Kreutzer passed it
to him, section by section. And when Kreutzer had read the news, he sat at the
coffee table and began his letter. To Rabbi Jacobson with regards, he
wrote. Sometimes he read aloud to Gabriel as he composed. I attended your
sermon this sabbath.
And although I respect your intentions in choosing your
subject, I believe you have erred in the following manner.
It was certain omissions of detail, certain liberal tendencies
with the text, that irked Kreutzer. You of all people will agree,
Kreutzer scratched onto the paper, our nature as Jews is to preserve. It
bothered him when Jacobson did not mention minor commentators who had dissented
in an interpretation, even if all agreed that the majority was clearly in the
right. The rabbi should have mentioned the dissenters in his sermon, for sake of
thoroughness. And then there were their disagreements over the state of
Israel—not, Kreutzer admitted, true disagreements. But in the formation of
a state every nuance counts, and so he took it as his responsibility to correct
Rabbi Jacobson when the rabbi strayed.
When Kreutzer argued he felt his muscles tense and the blood
breathe in his veins. It felt right. Life was not easy and neither was argument,
but both necessary. When Kreutzer was a boy in heder, the rabbis talked to him
about his soul. The rabbis did not use this word, but Kreutzer knew when they
encouraged the boys to debate one line of the Bible for hours, this is what they
were after. Souls are not easy to talk about, even for rabbis. In the
public-school hallway when lockers slammed and gym-class teammates cursed him,
he was Kreutzer. But in the softening evening hours of heder, he was David. The
rabbis rounded his name, added the diminutive. Duvidl. Gently Duvidl was
instructed in the proper posture for highest prayer: the three bows, the
backward step at the prayer’s finish, for one must never turn one’s
back to God. Paired with another boy—for a Jew must study with a partner,
a co-counsel in the court of the One True Judge—Duvidl was instructed in
the skills of debate. When God’s people debate His tradition, He knows
they love Him. True faith, the rabbis taught, was an unresolved argument.
Jews argued; in His heavens God laughed and was satisfied. And how He loved
their labor. For a week once the heder boys were made to write essays not in
regular Hebrew script but in the cockeyed alphabet of the great sage Rashi. Even
the learned man’s handwriting, the rabbis intoned as the boys worked, even
the slightest twist he put on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in his rush to
commit his thoughts to parchment, must be preserved. God rewarded vigilance; God
rewarded devotion; not a single nuance must be forgotten.
A block from the heder the Italian and black boys from Leonard
Young Elementary School waited to pound a Jewish soul until it bled from the
nose and cried hot shaming tears. Kreutzer could not ask for help at home;
evenings he tiptoed through the entry so as not to distract his father, seated
at the kitchen table worrying over the books of his faltering real-estate
office. Kreutzer’s mother was easily frightened, and if she knew she would
insist on walking him home from heder; the other boys would see. David Kreutzer
turned to God. He looked in the Torah and saw that Moses defended his people
against the slave driver. He understood that God wanted him to hit back.
Kreutzer was eleven years old. He whispered his prayer and stepped out the heder
door. Better their faces should break my hand than God should be disappointed in
one of His people. Kreutzer repeated this to himself as the boys approached. And
God guided his fist to the face of Anthony Marcetti. After that the Italian and
black boys left him alone. God was good in other ways also. Duvidl was not the
smartest boy, the rabbis said, but he worked. Kreutzer’s father came to
pick him up early for a rare weekend outing and the rabbi turned to the man
fidgeting in the entryway waiting for his son and said the compliment loud
enough for all to hear: the boy thinks.
Kreutzer was not saying, he explained to his son, Gabriel,
while folding his letter to Rabbi Jacobson, that writing an essay in the
handwriting of a man dead nine centuries was the only way to learn. Simply that
it taught a principle.
On Wednesdays came the rabbi’s replies. In haste,
they began. In haste was Rabbi Jacobson, in haste enough to warn Kreutzer this
would be a short letter, but not so much as to prevent his defending himself on
each point. Rebuttal filled a page of the synagogue’s stationery,
sometimes both sides. There was a period of years when the rabbi responded
mildly—I have reread the text as you suggest. And while I believe you
are mistaken, I do see whence your interpretation arises. Other times,
particularly the year the rabbi’s son brought home his fiancée as
well as a handful of Black Panther pamphlets, the rabbi’s letters were
longer than Kreutzer’s. Will you contradict the wisdom of our great
sages? Must you mock the tradition? The rabbi’s thick script cried out
on the paper in Kreutzer’s hands.
In person he and the rabbi were polite, although it was not
lost on Kreutzer that the rabbi managed to position himself across the room from
him at synagogue gatherings. This did not concern Kreutzer; a rabbi needed
someone to keep him on his toes. Jews studied in pairs. This was the nature of
the world. Kreutzer came to understand it as a duty. He stayed home from
backyard barbecues and poker games to write his letters.
Now Rabbi Harold Jacobson, his old sparring partner, was
sprung from memory like a schoolboy on holiday. It was indecent—a
coward’s way out of an argument. The disgrace was not that the rabbi had
skipped out on an argument with Kreutzer. The disgrace was the other argument
the rabbi was trying to escape: with God.
Sitting opposite the rabbi, book open on the table between
them, Kreutzer pauses. For the past hour he has led the rabbi through legal
reasoning. Now he ventures a test. “When a kosher pot is accidentally
touched by nonkosher metal, what is the ruling?”
“If the metal is cold, kosher,” the rabbi responds
without hesitation. “If hot, the pot must be repurified.”
Kreutzer is elated. With patience he has cajoled the rabbi
into precious memory. Now he will make him confess the whereabouts of the deed.
They have closed the book; Kreutzer makes a solemn nod to
“What is the opposite of a spider,” the rabbi asks
Kreutzer places a hand to his chest. This sudden beating
against his ribs, can it be a heart attack? He thinks he cannot bear this
cresting tension another minute. He thinks he hates the rabbi.
He hadn’t meant any disrespect to the shiksas. He was
simply stating a fact. It was the shiksas that killed Moe Roth, who was the
next-door neighbor when Marjorie was a girl. Marjorie had asked, Whatever
happened to the next-door family from all those years ago? So Kreutzer was
telling. The shiksas in Moe’s factory unionized, and it was the stress of
it what killed Moe. Moe was a good boss. There wasn’t any need for
But Marjorie, whom they had named for Iris’s mother
Malka, got mad. “Your racism is staggering,” Marjorie told him.
Kreutzer had thought racism was shvartzes and white people. He was careful about
shvartzes. About Negroes, he corrected himself. Black people. But
no one told him shiksas counted. “Do you have any plans whatsoever to even
visit the modern era?” Marjorie was not finished. “I certainly hope
you’ll let us know if you’re coming. We’ll leave a light on
for you.” Marjorie had a mouth. Always she wanted something different from
what you put in front of her. Extracurricular activities. Guitar lessons. Food
with seaweed in it, like a person ate in Japan. Food that looked like the
Japanese person already ate it. When Iris was alive she would defend it.
It’s a new world, Iris said. Let’s give our daughter a
chance to explore it.
“It’s a new world.” Marjorie stood with her
hands on her hips. “In case you haven’t noticed. In case you
haven’t noticed, Dad, you’re a dinosaur.”
And Yuri, Yuri the violinist who converted to Judaism just in
order that Kreutzer’s daughter can now ignore everything she knew all her
life about Jewish customs—can even have a Christmas tree in her living
room and still Marjorie calls the house Jewish, because officially both the
people who live there are. Dad, I do have a Jewish home. Like a home was
a thing you circumcised and then no matter what it did, it was still part of the
tribe; even if the house went out and ate pork sausages with milk all night
long, still when it dropped its pants to take a leak, right there carved on its
doorpost was the message: still a Jew.
Yuri the violinist took Marjorie by the shoulder. “Easy,
sweetheart,” he said.
Marjorie closed her mouth.
Kreutzer does not know what women see in violinists.
And now suddenly he cannot sleep. Kreutzer who always could
fall into dreams like a baby instead lies looking at shadows. His brain is a
fountain; all what he knows pools in his head. He cannot stop the
fountain’s spigot from running. Details threaten to overflow his mind. The
address of a man he once did business with. Names of a couple he met who said
they would invite him for a dinner. Surely he copied their telephone number into
his address book? By the light of the bed lamp his pajama legs look shabby. The
stripes remind him of prison uniforms; he stops this thought but cannot keep his
brain from pivoting elsewhere. There in his own handwriting in his address book
is the number of the couple. Should he? Accept a social invitation, get out into
circulation as everyone urged him after Iris’s death? If Iris were still
alive, she would tell him to stop worrying and call. David, she would
say, it’s no shame for a man to reach out for company. No, Kreutzer
corrects himself: she would not say this. She would have called already.
The clock flips a papery card: three twenty-five in the A.M.
Maybe in the daylight he will call.
When at last Kreutzer sleeps he cannot dream a regular dream.
He can only dream what was real, what he will not allow himself to think in
waking hours. Thoughts that punch through darkness to torment. He does not know
why suddenly this should be happening, yet there is no denying it: these dreams
have visited him nightly since he heard Marjorie’s news.
In his dream his son, Gabriel, is once more seventeen years
old and tells Kreutzer he is thinking of becoming a rabbi. Kreutzer can imagine
his son at the pulpit; his son the rabbi’s words sing out. The
congregation sits rapt. But to Gabriel he says only, So. So everybody thinks
they can be rabbi. He does not let Gabriel know it would please him. Same as
he never shows his disappointment when Gabriel chooses doctor instead.
Kreutzer slips from sleep, he presses a heavy palm to his
forehead, he is not dreaming but remembering. In his waking remembering mind a
fountain has spilled over, now he is unable to keep the thoughts away. Of his
son Gabriel, a doctor in the war in Asia. Kreutzer sees once more Marjorie.
Marjorie protesting on a college campus while Gabriel finishes his
medical-school training and applies for Air Force commission. “It’s
that or get drafted,” Gabriel says to his sister’s turned back.
“At least this way I have some choice about where I end up.”
Marjorie will not speak. “Run away to Canada,” she writes on the
piece of paper she throws at her brother before stalking out of the room.
“Defect to Russia. Have some imagination.”
“Thailand is beautiful,” Gabriel’s letter
reads that spring. “Although smelly if you get close to the canals.”
The legs of the chair Kreutzer sits in are spindly. He
imagines them breaking, his weight crashing to the floor. A sack of flour,
Kreutzer is. A sack of meal. He can’t think what he is a sack of.
Something soft, heavier than is reasonable. He imagines the nursing home aides
running to help. In his imagination, the rabbi sits watching Kreutzer swimming
on the floor. Belly and liver spots and gray tired face. The rabbi’s
expression is thoughtful.
“Your letters,” says Kreutzer now to the rabbi,
“ended always the same. Thank you for your response to my ministry.
Tell me, Jacobson. Did they teach you to say this in rabbinical school?”
The rabbi looks at Kreutzer as at a form spied through a wall
of glass brick.
Three weeks of visits and such is Kreutzer’s reward:
today Jacobson refuses even to recognize him. Kreutzer halves his doughnut and
passes a portion across the table. The rabbi mutters a blessing—the
correct one—and bites, scattering shards of glazed sugar over his
“Did you wonder,” Kreutzer asks, “why I
stopped writing to you?”
The rabbi picks the pieces of sugar off his sweater with care
and deposits them on his tongue.
“Did you wonder why I stopped coming to synagogue except
on highest holidays?”
Pleasantly the rabbi nods.
On Jacobson’s windowsill, an envelope from a state where
there is skiing. A son, even a son who defies his father, sends a letter now and
again. They are perplexing, such rebellious tenacious children. This son and
Marjorie would have made a good pair. Just as Kreutzer thinks to tell the rabbi
this, he notices that the son’s letter is unopened, and at the same moment
he is assaulted by a rapid slide show: shutting his burning eyes he sees his own
son, Gabriel, leaving for Thailand without even a goodbye from his sister. He
sees Gabriel’s airmail letters to Marjorie crumpled unopened in the
wastebasket. Since there is no satisfaction in not speaking to someone
who’s far away, now Marjorie, a freshman in college, refuses to speak to
Forcing his eyes open, Kreutzer thinks: Young people can
afford to believe their parents know nothing. They can afford to cram their
heads with liberal ideas. They marry people who play violin on ski slopes. They
run through the woods eating marijuana. Kreutzer pictures young people stirring
marijuana into their coffee at breakfast.
He and the rabbi know better. They know that life is no joke.
They have argued commentary together. They have argued six presidents, three
wars in the Mideast. Kreutzer has in his house two letters of condolence from
the rabbi. Together they have seen life.
Yet now Kreutzer does not understand what is happening to him.
He can feel the weight of the air in the room, pressing down. Air denser than
any air he has ever felt.
“I am a dinosaur,” he says to Jacobson.
The rabbi gives an amiable smile. “I also.”
“Perhaps,” Kreutzer concedes. “But tomorrow
you will be a butterfly. Tuesday a horse or woodpecker. And I? Again a
The rabbi pulls on his beard.
Kreutzer thinks he knows the reason he cannot sleep. Why his
daughter, Marjorie, has not had children before now is a mystery to Kreutzer.
Iris would have asked, but Iris has been gone since before anyone noticed
Marjorie forgot to have children.
Because he does not know why there have been no children all
this time, the reason Marjorie has decided to have a child now, at the age of
forty, is also a mystery to Kreutzer. But now she is pregnant. It has been over
a week since she and the violinist drove to Jersey City to inform him. There is
something about Marjorie’s pregnancy that seems significant. Momentous.
The pregnancy is like a verse of Torah; it cries out for interpretation. For
days Kreutzer has been trying in vain to figure out what it means. It
means—he has been able to proceed no further than this—she is going
to have a baby.
For no reason he can fathom, he cleans his attic. In a box
beneath a trunk he discovers a notebook Iris must have saved from the garbage, a
memento from his boyhood. In the margins in painstaking hand is the script of
the great sage Rashi. “And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it
up as a sacrifice in place of his son.” Rashi teaches: The ram had been
waiting for this duty ever since the six days of creation.
Kreutzer takes the notebook downstairs. He takes it into his
bed. A foolish postulate: it might help him sleep. Before shutting the light he
peers once more into the notebook, furtive like a spy. Inside, handwriting
inscribed centuries ago. Bit by bit, without his being aware, Kreutzer’s
own boyhood has receded, now it is as ancient to him as this argument nine
centuries past. Yet there is no denying: once he was a boy. Before
Sputnik, before Hitler, before the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Then a skinny
teenager. He was a virgin when he married Iris and she too. That night she was
so shy, he had to learn boldness or they would never have been man and wife. How
he loved her, her gray eyes, her pale shy hands, that night and after. Later he
became a father. He became a man in the world. Those years are lost to him. When
he tries to think of them, he can remember little more than finishing his
morning prayers: unwrapping his tefillin, buttoning his shirt. Walking out the
front door. He does not understand how this can have happened. He does not
understand why his wife and his growing children are not vivid in the pictures
he summons from those years when they were all young. Only the hardships are
real to him this last week: memories he has banished so forcefully they have
come back to haunt him. With the greatest of will he tries to summon his
wife’s face; instead, he sees before him the one face in this world that
most resembles hers. Helpless as if watching a film on a screen before him,
Kreutzer is witness to the single time he nearly hit Marjorie, weeks after the
solemn visit from the Air Force officer. Nineteen seventy-one. Marjorie is
twenty; letting herself into the house at midnight she stumbles into the door.
Kreutzer and his wife, roused from sleeplessness, hurry silent into the living
room to discover her kicking the door, cursing the pain. Their daughter is
foul-mouthed in her rage, she is made-up as though she would give herself to any
man for a nickel. It freezes Kreutzer to his heartstrings. He wants to shake
her, wake her out of this madness that has reigned in his home since the news
from Thailand. He calls Marjorie’s name; she looks at him with wild flat
eyes he does not recognize, a distorted mirror of Iris’s gray eyes, and he
is certain now of the worst, he is certain it is marijuana. Kreutzer turns to
his wife. And a thing happens that has never happened before: Iris gazes back at
him as if she can look through him. Kreutzer does not recognize his own
wife’s eyes. There is nothing in this world he can control. Suddenly Iris
cries out. She huddles Marjorie in her arms, she will not let him near. Kreutzer
hears his daughter’s muffled words as she sobs against her mother’s
blouse: I hate him.
That week he reads in Marjorie’s diary. Shooting up
with James and Portia at Portia’s apartment. Late afternoon. Kreutzer
cannot force himself to close the diary. That feeling when it takes command
of your pulse and your body fights at first but then after a while you submit to
that new rhythm and just feel quieted. I said to James, Isn’t it spooky
the way it makes your heart jump in its cage, like playing jazz on the car radio
with the bass cranked, windows sealed tight. James said, That’s it,
exactly. I think James likes me. For once this afternoon I didn’t think
about opening a vein. Kreutzer closes the diary. He is not a father. He is
not a man. He is nothing. There is a knock on his door; Rabbi Harold Jacobson
wanting to plan a memorial service for the one-month anniversary of
Gabriel’s death. Kreutzer shuts the door in the rabbi’s face. He
does not understand who James is or where his daughter is spending her time but
he wants to cry out to Marjorie, Your mother has lost already. I myself am
beyond forgiveness but you are young. Don’t do the one thing that cannot
be forgiven. Don’t break your mother’s heart.
Memory is cruel. The days Kreutzer would like to relive, the
sweet days, are lost to him. How can the good years have disappeared? How can a
man disappear from himself? Yet it is true: this ancient heder notebook and the
letters from Rabbi Jacobson are the sole evidence Kreutzer has of a life
vanished. Now, in the mornings, the night’s visions swirl about him; the
stubble on his face is white. He is an old man. How he longs for a single thread
of argument to shepherd him past his sleeplessness—the clear pulse of
debate in which he used to feel the murmuring of God. He would like to bring a
case before the ancient court of rabbis; he imagines assembling the Sanhedrin to
hear his argument. If Kreutzer cannot summon the good times, if he cannot recall
the years of innocence, he would like to murder the bad. Would it be so wrong?
If a man kills a year, Kreutzer would petition the assembled sages, what is his
punishment? If he murders the day of a rasping doorbell chime, the day of an Air
Force officer on his stoop, what penalty? Opinions vary. If a day kills a man,
the sages say two thousand souls have been lost. A first rabbi poses the
question, Who has been killed: the day or the man? If either, says another
rabbi, a goat must be sacrificed. If both, a third rabbi insists, slaughter the
man’s ox and divide the value among the family. Price an uninjured day in
the marketplace and compensate the wronged party for the loss of
Kreutzer cannot sleep.
At dawn he dials. “I wanted to know, is there anything
you need for the baby?”
There is a long pause. “Dad?” says Marjorie.
Immediately Kreutzer regrets his foolishness. He has insulted
her. His daughter is a grown woman. She will soon be, in fact, an enormous
woman. Why would she need from him? “I’m sure there is nothing you
need,” he says.
In the background is the sound of the violinist yawning.
“Who is it, honey?”
Marjorie’s voice sounds strange. “No, Dad,”
she says. “I guess there isn’t.”
Kreutzer dozes. The sun is pressing a pink radiance through
his swollen lids when Gabriel visits. Dad, he begins. Kreutzer plugs his
ears. Gabriel is trying to forgive him. Kreutzer will not be forgiven. With his
fingers in his ears he gazes upon his son trying in vain to address him. The boy
is suntanned. His eyes, green-brown like Kreutzer’s own, were always so
gentle Kreutzer worried for the boy. Now these eyes, they refuse to convict.
You are my father, Gabriel tells him.
You are my son.
He wakes in a sweat. The telephone is ringing. It is Marjorie
calling back. Holding the receiver, Kreutzer glances at the clock and realizes
it is time for prayers. His thoughts lurch. If his daughter learns he no longer
prays, she will think he has admitted she was right to marry the violinist. So
Kreutzer tells her, “I will call you back. I have to pray.”
He watches the clock. After twenty minutes he calls.
“I’m wondering,” Marjorie says, “what
time will you be at the cemetery tomorrow?”
Something about Marjorie’s question is not right.
Kreutzer has a feeling in his gut. Marjorie should not be in the cemetery. He
isn’t yet certain why, but he is sure she must not go—not now that
she is pregnant. Kreutzer remains rational. “You could fall,” he
“I’m fine,” Marjorie says. “I’m
stronger than you are.”
“We’re not going this year,” he insists.
Marjorie sighs heavily to be sure Kreutzer knows he is
frustrating her. “I’ll call you back when you’ve had time to
come to your senses. Will you be home this afternoon?”
“I’m visiting with the rabbi.”
“Jesus, Dad. You tormented the poor man all his
professional life. Can’t you let him retire in peace?”
“We enjoy each other’s company is a fact.”
Kreutzer is surprised at the anger in his voice. “We study Torah
“Dad, if he recognized you he’d bolt for the door.
Even Rabbi Jacobson didn’t care about every dot and comma of the Bible.
You were a thorn in his side.”
“I won’t be home this afternoon,” he
enunciates. “I have to visit the rabbi.”
“Fine, so this evening.” Marjorie hesitates.
“Dad. Why do you hate him so much?”
“You’re obsessed with him, and you’re
obsessed with digging up that deed. Look, what’s lost is lost, OK?
It’s lost, Dad. They’ve already had another deed made up,
they’ve broken ground on the new building.”
He tries to shave before going to see the rabbi. Iris would
tell him to. He lathers but cannot bring himself to lift the razor. He gazes at
it, heavy in his hand. The words float through his mind: an old man’s
blood. Afraid, he looks in the mirror. Clear as day he sees the scribes
fluttering around him with wings of ink; each brush against the walls leaves a
searing paragraph. Kreuzer blinks at the black spots floating in his mirror. Bit
by bit his bathroom walls are being covered in tiny script like bird prints.
“I am ashamed,” he tells the scribes scaling the reflected bathroom
walls. They write down his words, and immediately surround them with
interpretation: miniscule lettering that stretches from ceiling to floor.
“I should not be alive,” Kreutzer says.
The scribes, angry, stop writing and are gone.
After a while he towels the shaving cream from his face,
leaves the towel folded neatly over the lip of the sink.
At the nursing home, under the rabbi’s gaze, Kreutzer
produces the clipping from the previous day’s paper. His hands are
shaking. He points to the phrase on the newsprint. “See here,” he
It is an article about politics in today’s Israel, but
that is not the important thing. What is important is this reference to the time
of Palestine under British Mandate. Mandatory Palestine, the newspaper
says. When Kreutzer first read these two words, they meant only 1930s Palestine,
Palestine when it flew British flags. But by the time he set down the paper to
rummage for scissors he understood the words meant more. “Mandatory
Palestine”: now that was Jewish. Palestine because you had to.
Palestine because Jews owed allegiance there and no place else. Jewish
wasn’t marijuana and oblivion and T-shirts telling you to drop out. Jewish
wasn’t a Christmas tree in a living room. Jewish was Jewish. Was holding
on tight. What was so bad about guilt? Why was everyone so eager to bury
hatchets, forget deeds? So what if the rest of the world thought guilt was a
nasty word? Jews proudly fought a War of Atonement. Jews had memory even if it
“Banana?” Jacobson offers the fruit.
On the rabbi’s windowsill is the envelope from the son
with the black wife. The son who still lives, breathes, wants communication with
his father. The envelope is unopened. Kreutzer’s head feels swollen as if
someone banged on it through the night. All those precious letters from Gabriel,
he thinks. Envelope after envelope, white with red-and-blue stripes, each
holding one of his son’s carefully penned pages. Kreutzer must tell the
rabbi something. “A son’s letters are important,” he says.
“My son wrote to me every week during the war.”
The banana waves slowly in the air. Kreutzer is nauseous.
“The war in Vietnam.”
“There is a war?”
Kreutzer stands. The room reels about him. Pastel fabrics
swirl, a field of fluttering flowers; he staggers against the wall. He wants to
murder the rabbi. He wants to punch the rabbi until he bleeds from his nose.
“Gabriel was a good boy!” he shouts at Jacobson.
The rabbi cowers in his chair. His eyes widen, then begin to
In the doorway appears a nurse. Holding one hand to his
temple, Kreutzer nods to her. From the corner come soft whimpering noises:
Jacobson crying, his arms wrapped around his waist, a quivering cocoon. The
nurse watches Kreutzer put on his jacket.
Leaving, Kreutzer pauses beside Jacobson’s doubled form.
He sets a heavy hand on the back of the rabbi’s chair. “What is the
opposite of Alzheimer’s?” Kreutzer demands.
The rabbi’s gaze wavers in confusion.
“Jewish,” Kreutzer curses him.
In the parking lot and on the access ramp to the highway,
Kreutzer’s anger is so great he cannot concentrate on his driving. That
he, Kreutzer, should be trapped by memory, while the rabbi—a rabbi, who
has chosen to shoulder the suffering of the Jewish people—is excused, is
too much to bear.
But as he passes the airport, planes thundering into the sky,
Kreutzer thinks. He is not a mystical man but it occurs to him that maybe the
rabbi is showing him something. On the way home the thought grows in
Kreutzer’s mind. He is so excited he nearly drives past his exit. What if
the rabbi has found the answer, not only for himself but for everyone? What if
God has sent the rabbi to show Kreutzer the truth?
If you can’t forget, at least you can forgive,
Iris used to say. David, I forgive you. Kreutzer never knew how his wife
could say this. He will never forgive himself for his son’s death. But
there is—he now sees—another option.
Reaching home, he composes his first letter to Jacobson in
over twenty years. Dear Rabbi, at last I understand: word and deed are
dispensable to you. You have defeated suffering. Others linger in yesterday; you
soar past. Kreutzer is so excited he feels feverish. He will not be selfish
and save this discovery for his own sole benefit. He will bring the
world’s Jews to Rabbi Jacobson’s feet, let them learn oblivion under
the rabbi’s instruction. Never forget was a mistaken rallying cry;
together they would erase the painful memory of Inquisitions, of the Holocaust.
Kreutzer tries to picture it: his whole people with Alzheimer’s, millennia
of troubles gone in a flash. What couldn’t the Jews be without the last
two thousand years? And beneath all, Kreutzer is a compassionate man; he will
see to it that not only the Jews benefit. If the shiksas and shvartzes and
Italians need, Kreutzer will bring them to the rabbi also. Kreutzer will lead
the parade of forgetfulness, all who have suffered thronging at his heels.
Together they will become innocents, babes, far from any reminder of
And now Kreutzer knows he must call his daughter. His finger
swerves over the dial; the telephone is too slow. Marjorie is right—he is
a dinosaur. He with his rotary telephone. Kreutzer laughs at the folly of his
life. “You can go to the cemetery,” he explains when Marjorie picks
up her telephone. “But not the baby.”
During the few seconds’ silence he thinks he has
“Funny thing is, Dad, right now the baby and I are
rather inseparable. If I go to the cemetery, she has to go too.”
Marjorie giggles. Kreutzer is almost certain it is a giggle.
“I wasn’t going to tell.”
She meets him at the gate. Together they walk to the grave.
She is bundled in a jacket and her belly sticks out.
“You’re staring at me.”
He cannot deny. He needs to tell her what he understands now
about her pregnancy. But first he must explain to her why they need the
rabbi’s help. “Do you ever think about Gabriel?” he
“Do I think about him?” Now Marjorie stares.
“Dad, I think about him every single day.”
Kreutzer is so surprised he does not utter a word. That
Marjorie should also think of Gabriel at every turn? Marjorie who refused to
hear his name after he went to Thailand? Marjorie who called her brother
Marjorie who wears now a serious expression on her face. A
hopeful expression. As if for the first time in her life maybe her father said
something not entirely terrible. Standing beside her brother’s gravestone,
she speaks. “I think about everything. I think about the stupid fake
advice he used to give me about boys. I think about the time he convinced me to
put Alka-Seltzer up my nose. I think about the day we heard about the plane
crash, when the captain came to our house.”
There is more that Marjorie thinks. There is, it turns out, no
end to her thoughts. Every detail of Gabriel she recalls, the blond hair that
darkened as he grew older, the A’s on his homework, his tears the time he
received a C. Marjorie dredges up the names of both girls her brother asked to
his senior promenade—the one who refused and the one who agreed. Things
Kreutzer never knew about his son. Kreutzer is drowning. He cannot breathe. At
this very moment, when he has determined to shed all, his contrary, bewildering
daughter insists on parading her memories. She insists on remembering how she
refused to speak to her brother. She refused to speak to him and then he died.
Marjorie is crying.
It has never occurred to him that Marjorie might have guilt.
Not in all the years since he pleaded with her silently at the dinner table,
Help your mother; and his daughter looked out at the world through
stringy bangs and would not speak. And Iris grew silent and Marjorie was silent
and the great silence that engulfed Kreutzer’s home drove him to silences
of his own until he could no longer speak even the most intimate speech of all:
he could no longer pray. And why now? Now that he has at last decided that there
will be no more memories, nor guilt, nor struggle, now that he has decided to
embrace oblivion with all his being? Why now should his daughter
“I was high for years after Gabriel died. If not for
Yuri I’d be dead in a gutter somewhere.”
Suddenly Kreutzer sees. Tears threaten to overflow his own
lids; blinking them back, he tells himself for the first time since
Gabriel’s death: I am a father. Joy floods his heart—there is
something, after all these years, he can give to his daughter. For his mission
will bring peace not only to himself but to Marjorie as well. Quickly, before
the baby is born, they both will learn to forget. All their guilt will be
absolved. And Marjorie will share Kreutzer’s joy at what he has foreseen:
her baby will be a new generation, protected from sorrow, raised according to
the wisdom of the rabbi.
Marjorie has finished. They stand together on the grass.
Kreutzer regards his daughter, wind blowing her jacket against her belly. There
are fine lines around her eyes. Kreutzer is overwhelmed with a love so powerful
he cannot move a muscle. He knows his daughter cannot feel the same way about
him. How could she?
“Will you come for lunch tomorrow?” Marjorie
If he could speak, he would tell her that by tomorrow noon
everything will be different. But a nod is all he can muster.
“Dad,” she says. Then she does something. She
stands heavily on her toes, and kisses him on the cheek. “I’m glad
we had this talk.”
Dear Iris, Kreutzer would say, if he could. I bid
farewell to you tonight, because soon I will no longer remember. And I want you
to know I am sorry to lose these things. Your quiet and your loveliness.
He lies awake, tears slide down both cheeks and pool in his
ears. With all his strength he will endure this last night of memory.
Dear Iris, he would say. You told me I did not cause
Gabriel to die. But in this one matter you were wrong. There are things between
a man and his son. There are things. Sometimes, when he is frightened, a son
turns to his father.
A son comes to his father in wartime. A son—a son who is
close to his father—does not make an important decision like this without
“It’s a choice,” Gabriel tells him.
Gabriel in jeans and a T-shirt, pale from his medical studies.
Gabriel with a buzzed haircut that makes his ears stick out.
“Either I accept this commission in Thailand, Dad, or I
refuse it. If I accept it, I’ll be working in a hospital far from the
If not, he will be drafted. The next assignment, the one he
will be forced to accept, might be a base in Europe. It might be Plattsburgh: a
couple of dull years in upstate New York, not too far from home.
Or it might be Vietnam. Gabriel knows a surgeon who refused an
Air Force assignment in Thailand; at this very moment he is on a plane to the
heart of combat in Vietnam.
They sit in the living room. The sunset is stretched across
the carpeted floor. Outside, the evening newspaper lands on the doorstep with a
thump. Slowly, irregularly, thumps recede down the street.
“If Thailand is safe,” says Kreutzer.
Rabbi Jacobson beside the window, under a blanket of pink and
yellow. Braiding the tassels of the blanket like fringes on a prayer
Kreutzer is nervous, and excited. Who will he be once oblivion
descends? What will it feel like to learn the rabbi’s secret?
He is willing to lose his mind. He will forget the soft voices
of long-dead teachers who called him Duvidl, forget his own
father’s shadowed tired face; he will sacrifice the years of earning his
family’s livelihood, the curl of the great sage’s pen, everything
that makes him David Kreutzer. And along with it will disappear all that makes
his daughter, Marjorie, weep. Marjorie will forget guilt, she will forget fury,
she will forget wanting to drown her own heartbeat in some other hot, jarring
rhythm. She will change her mind about naming the baby Gabrielle; the rabbi, in
his wisdom, will not permit such a tribute, for the child must not bear a single
old sorrow. Such they will be: old man, mother, child, all washed of memory.
“Rabbi,” Kreutzer breathes.
The rabbi smiles a cordial smile.
Kreutzer opens his mouth to tell Jacobson about the baby, how
she will be born into forgetfulness. But he sees something on the floor. It is
an envelope, fallen from the sunlit windowsill. Unopened.
“Jacobson,” he stumbles. “Have you not reconciled with your
“My son,” says the rabbi, “married a
“So you have forgiven his intermarriage.”
“My son married a Jewish girl. The whole congregation
danced at the wedding.” The rabbi pats his stomach, pleased. “There
was almond soup.”
Kreutzer remembers that soup. Iris so wanted the recipe, she
went on the sly into the kitchen to ask. The cook, preparing dessert in a rush
of steam and barked orders, ejected her back onto the dance floor with a flurry
of curses. Iris was embarrassed and they left early; Kreutzer remembers that
almond soup well.
“That was your nephew’s wedding,” Kreutzer
says. “Not your son’s.”
Jacobson beams. “My son’s wedding.”
What matters a detail from the past? Forgetfulness is best;
how sweet its honey will taste on his eager tongue.
Yet he cannot let it rest. “Your nephew’s,”
“No,” says the rabbi gently. He sighs.
It is the moment Kreutzer has awaited. But something in this
conversation is not right. A son has written a letter; it must be answered. The
son is loyal despite transgressions, he is waiting for the father to forgive.
How can the rabbi excuse himself for condemning his boy? Whatever a man feels,
mustn’t he be mindful of his children? Kreutzer pictures Marjorie standing
in the cemetery with her belly. He pictures Marjorie with her
The smile on Kreutzer’s face tumbles, it feels to him it
will never stop tumbling.
Forgiveness. There is no escaping it. Marjorie has forgiven
him; this Kreutzer is forced to see. In the cemetery she peered at him through
tears as if to say: A child needs a grandfather. Even one who rails about
Christmas trees. And a daughter, a daughter needs a father. She looked at him
with eyes that were, after all these years, Iris’s eyes. Telling him:
Yet if he absolves himself? For years he has known he
mustn’t. Because if Kreutzer admits his own powerlessness, if he admits
there was nothing he could have done different, then there is only one other to
blame for what should never have happened—for an airplane failing
mid-landing; smashing into the single building along the base’s airstrip
that was occupied. The building in which David Kreutzer’s son lay on his
He looks at the rabbi. The sweetness of oblivion is so near
Kreutzer is lightheaded. But the muddy business of life will not be ignored. A
wrong has been done and it must be righted. Not all may ever be well between a
man and his family once there has been difficulty. But a father has a
responsibility to try.
“We are old men,” he tells Jacobson. “We
have little to offer. But what we can, we must.”
The rabbi considers Kreutzer.
“Forgive him,” Kreutzer says. “Forgive your
The rabbi makes no answer. Shifting his attention to his
blanket, he unbraids a single tassel, then rebraids.
Kreutzer lifts weary eyes to the clock. It is noon. His
daughter has invited him to lunch.
He stands. He is an old man, the chains of gravity are heavy.
For years he has made the greatest sacrifice, a sacrifice worthy of the sages:
he has blamed himself and spared another his rage. Now he will forgive himself;
David Kreutzer will rejoin the world as best as he—dinosaur, racist,
fool—is able. But at what cost. For now he must call to account the one
with whom he has held the longest silence. Dreadful words form in his mouth:
words to which there can be no rebuttal.
As Kreutzer steps past Jacobson’s chair, the rabbi
stretches a hand to touch Kreutzer’s sleeve. He does not reach it; his
fingers plait empty air. He chants quietly. “The responsive reading is on
page one hundred and five. The Torah remains in the ark.”
Kreutzer’s voice is empty. “And the deed to the
“In the storage room of Temple Beth Shalom, beneath a
box of hagaddahs. Twelve Grove Street second floor.” The rabbi purses his
lips, meditative. “We turn to page one hundred and five for the responsive
reading. We begin with blessings for a sweet new year.”
With a wave Kreutzer deflects Jacobson’s piety. The
rabbi follows his gaze. In tandem they face the sharp haze of the window,
blinding as the brightness of heaven. “No blessings without
atonement,” says Kreutzer.
“Atonement,” echoes the rabbi. His head bobs
slightly as in prayer. “At the new year, atonement must be made for both
types of sin. Two categories: man against man, man against God.”
“You are wrong,” says Kreutzer. “There is a
third category of sin.”
“Two only,” murmurs the rabbi. An anxious flicker
of his eyes says to Kreutzer, Stay.
Kreutzer stares: at the luminous window, at the spare
furnishings, at the rabbi wrapped in a tassled blanket, his mottled neck
tremoring. With a leaden step, he turns his back. “Rabbi,” Kreutzer
says. The corridor before him is silent. He drapes his jacket over his arms.
“God has picked my pocket.”