CHAPTER NINETEEN

Surely you must be joking,” exclaimed the rabbi. “You’re harking back to the Dark Ages. During the Nazi Terror, there must have been hundreds of suicides. Would you have denied them ritual burial?”

“But you yourself threatened old man Goralsky with just that, according to his son,” said Schwarz.

“Threatened him? I was scaring an adult with the bogeyman. He could tell I wasn’t really serious. I was just trying to get him to take his medicine. I told you all about it at the temple.”

“Yes, but Ben Goralsky evidently took it seriously,” said Schwarz.

“I doubt if he did at the time,” said the rabbi. “But in any case, on what grounds can you assume Hirsh was a suicide? The police verdict was accidental death. And I went to the trouble of discussing it personally with the chief of police, and he feels the evidence overwhelmingly favors that finding. Are we to be more callous in our dealings with the dead and bereaved than the civil authorities?”

“Suppose it finally was decided that he was a suicide?” asked Marvin.

“Decided by whom?”

“Well, by a court of law.”

“Even then, the chances are that he was either temporarily insane or suffering from a compulsion so extreme he was powerless to withstand it. So he wouldn’t be accounted a suicide in the eyes of Jewish Law.”

“Yes, but if he was a suicide, just suppose he was,” Marvin persisted. “Then wouldn’t it be up to us or to you to do something about it?”

“Why would anything have to be done about it? He was buried-that in itself is a cleansing action. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ Burial itself cleanses. When a utensil becomes tref, the way you cleanse it is to bury it in the earth. Are you suggesting that the presence of this man’s body pollutes God’s earth? And if so, where does it stop? At the boundary of our cemetery, which is an artificial line recorded in the Registry of Deeds, or does it go on indefinitely until it reaches the ocean?”

“Well, maybe there’s some prayer-”

“Some bit of hocus-pocus? That I can make a few magician’s passes over the grave? Is that what you had in mind, Mr. Brown?”

“Now look here, Rabbi,” said Schwarz. “We are all practical men, I hope, and we are up against a practical matter. I’m not worried about the cemetery being polluted and Marvin here isn’t either. But this is something that Ben Goralsky, and evidently his father, take seriously. Call it superstition, if you will. Call it ignorance, but it bothers them.

“Now we’re practical men, Rabbi, Marvin and I. As chairman of the Cemetery Committee, Marvin is concerned with the effect on sales of cemetery lots if this story gets around, and I am concerned with keeping the Goralskys in the temple organization. We’ve worked out what I consider a practical solution to a sticky little problem, and what we want from you is just some information. What we have in mind is to build a circular road inside the cemetery. Like this-” And he took out the sketch. “Now here is where Hirsh is buried. If we keep him outside the road and from now on sell lots only on the inside, will that satisfy the regulations? Actually, Hirsh stands to gain. Since we can’t use the corner land naturally we’d want to beautify it-put in some shrubbery, trees. What we want to know is whether that would do it.”

The rabbi rose from his chair. He looked at each of them in turn, as though unable to believe they were serious. “Is a man a dog?” he demanded, his fury all the more intense because he kept it controlled, “that you presume to toss his body from one place to another as suits you? Is the service I conducted at his grave just a bit of mumbo jumbo of no significance and no meaning? Last week I joined with other rabbis in submitting a petition to our State Department asking them to protest the Russian government’s desecration of Jewish graves. And now you would have me party to a plan to desecrate a grave in our own cemetery to satisfy the superstitions of a foolish and ignorant old man and his equally foolish and ignorant son? Are our ceremonies to have a price to be sold to the highest bidder?”

“Just a minute, Rabbi, we’re not desecrating any grave. We have no intention of molesting Hirsh’s grave.”

The rabbi lowered his voice even further. “A woman not of our faith comes to us and asks us to bury her dead husband in our cemetery because he was Jewish. She regards it as her last act of loyalty and love to lay him to rest among his own people, and you propose to differentiate his grave from all the rest? And you don’t consider this desecration? In good faith, she paid her money-three or four times the price of a lot in the public cemetery, mind you-only to have her husband separated, markedly separated from the rest of the cemetery, as-as a thing unclean?”

“I’ll bet I could get her to agree,” said Marvin.

“It’s purely an administrative matter,” said Schwarz.

“You are a salesman, Mr. Brown, and a successful one,” said the rabbi. “It’s quite possible you could persuade a widow in her bereavement to consent to your plan. But you can’t persuade me. And I consider it something more than just an administrative matter, Mr. Schwarz. I will not be a party to it.”

“Well, I’m sorry you feel this way, Rabbi,” said Schwarz. “I consider it a practical solution to a practical problem. I am concerned with the living rather than the dead. I am concerned with the effect on our congregation of having the Goralskys as members rather than whether the grave of Isaac Hirsh who was not even a member of our organization is on one side of a road or another.”

“I cannot approve and I will so tell the Board when the matter comes up.”

Schwarz smiled. “I’m sorry we don’t have your approval, Rabbi, but I’m afraid we’ll have to go ahead without it. And it won’t come up before the Board. This is a matter in which the Cemetery Committee has full authority.”

“Of course, we’ll take a vote of the committee,” Marvin observed.

“Vote or no vote, I forbid it.”

“Look, Rabbi, we didn’t have to come to you in the first place. We just wanted everything aboveboard.”

“But you did come, and I forbid it.”

Schwarz shrugged his shoulders. He rose and the two men left. The rabbi stood by his desk, angry and baffled.

“What did he mean he forbids it?” asked Marvin. “Can he do something?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, call some board of rabbis-”

“Don’t be silly. Our temple is a completely autonomous body, and the rabbi is just an employee. He’s told us that often enough himself. The only thing he can do if he doesn’t like it is resign.”

“After what I just heard, that might not be such a bad idea,” said Marvin.

“You don’t like him?”

“I think we can do better,” said Marvin evenly.

“Yeah? How do you mean?”

“Well, I’m a businessman. Over the past few years I’ve had a lot of people working for me-salesmen and office help. I’ve got a rule about help. I don’t care how good they are, I don’t care how much of a world-beater a salesman is; if he can’t take orders, he goes.”

“That’s the way I feel, Marve. Say, who’s on your committee?”

“Summer Pomeranz, Bucky Lefkowitz, and Ira Dorfman. Why? Not one of them has done a damn thing, but they’re on the committee.”

“That’s three and you make four. Didn’t I appoint another so as to have an odd number?”

“You’re on it ex officio. That makes five.”

“Good. So all we need is one more for a majority. Look, Marve, why don’t you get hold of them. Tell them as much as you think they have to know and get their vote for this new road. Just in case the rabbi gets cute.”

“No sweat. They know I do all the work, and they don’t ever go against my decisions.”

“Right. When you get it nailed down, why don’t you call the rabbi and tell him you’ve taken a vote, and your committee is one hundred percent in favor of the new road.”

“That is a good idea, Mort. It will keep him from getting any fancy ideas.”

“Let me know how you make out. But act fast. I don’t want to give the rabbi a chance to block us.”

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