Our Final Runner-up.
“A tree, finding water, pierces roof and solves a mystery.”
The tree began life with Reb Nochum, whose full name is as ephemeral as his face and deeds. Which is to say he has been forgotten as a man and remains only as a fable, the founder of the synagogue by force of will. At the edge of the wilderness, in a logging town where the church was a hotel, Reb Nochum built his shul with itinerant Jewish workers and formed a community that numbered five hundred in five years. Just as his name was reaching ears in Pittsburgh and New York, he abandoned his shul, never to return. To this day the congregants quibble over details—whether Reb Nochum left of his own accord, and if so, whether in anger or peace. Judging by the short telegram the rebbe left behind, the only physical evidence of his existence, there was some wrath in the exit.
But in the peaceful days, so the story goes, Reb Nochum ground a slot from a wall in the synagogue’s foyer and sealed an upright tree trunk in the stone, 180 degrees of it visible. When it decayed, someone had it bronzed. The cutting and installation of this trunk is the subject of a children’s book sold at independent bookstores and Judaica shops. An illustrated Reb Nochum, comically broad of chest, wearing a lumberjack’s red-and-black checked shirt with matching yarmulke, hews the chestnut wood from a grove that seems blessed and brings back a log that becomes the tree of life.
The last page of the book shows the congregants placing the first bronze leaves on the wall, inscribed with names. Those who tend the roots of the tree and sustain its growth (most children grasp that it’s really the synagogue) earn a place among the leaves. This practice continues today. Leaf-shaped plaques fan out from the main trunk on wispy, bronze branches, dark and tarnished near the trunk, brighter and clearer toward the edges.
Ben Waldenberg does not see his own name among the leaves, but he will. The honour committee is decided: few have worked harder for the shul, and Ben’s leaf is long overdue. Ben thanks them profusely with words prepared months before.
One problem, the honour committee says. There are no more spaces for leaves. Harry Kerner’s will provided for a panoply of leaves, practically a wing, in honour of his enormous family. Leaves at the top of the tree had been shaved down to fit below the ceiling. Harry Kerner used up the last of the wall space.
“Harry Kerner.” Ben shrugs. “No matter.” He has an expectant, fixed smile they all recognize. The committee hopes Ben’s next suggestion will be a reasonable one, because denying him would be unwise and unpleasant.
The shul has seen Ben through his toddling days, his teens, and most of his adult life, and now, in his seventies, he expects it will see him out. More than the rites, which have grown stale, and the members, who depress him, it is the building that miraculously fills him with more energy and creativity the older he gets. Ben has held every executive position and spearheaded nearly every initiative, tempering the ideas of those without vision, quashing anything unsuitable. He has seen the tree sprout leaves with the names of the righteous, or at least righteously wealthy; the next leaf will belong to him. A simple matter of cutting a hole in the ceiling to heighten the wall.
This proposal circulates.
Two problems, says building management. The synagogue ceiling is very old and rather thin. At most, the amount available for cutting is fifteen inches high. Then there is the structural integrity of the roof to consider. It may not be worth the trouble just to create fifteen inches of wall space.
“Fifteen inches is workable,” says Ben. “I have faith that the roof will hold.”
The next time they meet, the executive board gently suggests that the time has come to begin a new tree of life. They point out a nice recessed area near the coatroom. Ben nods, not altering his expression.
“I think we can make a little dome over the wall. As thick as the ceiling is now. Gives us the height and keeps the roof safe.” Before anyone can interject, Ben exclaims, “It’s thrilling to be connected to a symbol of our continuity. To feel that I’m part of the original commitment. By extending our tree, we’re building for the future. And each of you, when and if your time comes to be honoured, will experience that connection.” Ben smiles.
Someone says, “A new tree would be building for the future beyond just you.” At this moment, Ben decides he is going to prep for renovations.
“I have all your futures in mind,” he says. In two days’ time, a hole is cut in the roof. Ben has drawn up plans and a budget, with the help of his cousin, a retired architect. The board members are livid, but they do nothing, as Ben predicted. In private, the architect conveys serious doubts. Even a small dome will strain the building fund, and the crew Ben hired isn’t the most reputable, and slapping a dome on a small hole will look strange and won’t create much room.
During Friday night dinner at his son’s house, Ben lays these developments out. He speaks more vehemently than he had meant to, and his throat becomes parched, but it feels good to say it. Stick him next to a closet? No, sir. The dome project is happening. If they had more money it would be prettier, but they don’t. They can shit or go blind.
Later in the evening, Ben’s grandson Ari says, “You guys are the reason I’m not into shul.”
Ben puts down his wine glass.
“A leaf? Come on. Fucking politics.” Ari is Ben’s favourite grandson because he is fearless. What shocks Ben now is the defeat in his voice.
“Everybody’s so narrow,” Ari says. “It’s like, ‘Respect the order, respect the tradition, we all support it, but my problem’s different. Make an exception for me.’ Reb Nochum was right.” Ari’s normally piercing eyes cannot meet Ben’s. He jabs at his food and chews loudly.
What was Reb Nochum right about? Ben finally remembers, lying sleepless in bed that night. The only words to survive the great man exist on a ragged telegram addressed to the synagogue, now preserved under glass. It has been studied and dated, but sheds no light on Reb Nochum himself, who disappeared after its transmission. Ben knows it almost by heart.
Take my leave with sadness stop mystery of hashem unattainable there stop failure in flesh spirit stop begin my search tikun olam stop remember nourish tree keep your covenant reopen hearts stop gay gazinta hait loved ones
Ben pictures Reb Nochum as he has pictured him since childhood: a steely yet fair man in clothing from before the world wars, stroking a lavish black beard. This time, the rebbe’s shoulders are slumped and his eyes are losing their light, as the squabbling pigs break down his vast reserve of sympathy. It’s easy to see them dividing the house he built for them. Nothing changes, Ben thinks. And to prove that point, we keep forgetting that nothing changes.
Reb Nochum wrote that he couldn’t reach the divine in that place. For all he’d accomplished, he was unfulfilled. A community can’t rest on one man’s shoulders. Reb Nochum had set them on a journey; it was up to the community to complete Reb Nochum’s journey. Ben wanders through his house, uncertain at first, picking up speed as a whole series of choices and pat aphorisms present themselves, the clarity of his revelation propelling him. The tree must be allowed to grow high, toward heaven.
Ben tells the workers there’s been a change in plans. He meets with each member of the board and admits he’s been an ass. A dome is short-sighted—they will construct a new upper level, leaving a space for the tree to continue upward. Ben will launch a fundraising drive, and what they don’t raise, he will contribute. He is aware of how ridiculously Scrooge-like this must seem, and he doesn’t care. He knows they won’t be convinced right away, but he is finished railroading them with fear. He will take the time to explain his idea, to spread his passion, to show them that hashem is attainable. They will be equal to their legacy: the heirs of Reb Nochum the planter.
It starts raining on Tuesday and hardly lets up until Thursday. Work is stopped and tarps are erected. Thursday night, Ben receives a call from building maintenance. Water is coursing down the tree of life.
Ben stands before the tree and—not yelling, he’s through yelling—informs his crew that he will be hiring a more experienced company. The workers ask to be allowed to fix the water damage.
The granite façade is strong, but the rain has almost liquefied the century-old flotsam under the roof. The chisels sink into it, and the workmen discover that this material has been used over the wall. They begin clearing it away, worried about its depth. A workman’s arm suddenly bursts through the muck. Stale, eye-stinging air wafts up from the opening. There is a hollow shaft behind the wall.
Ben is at home, thinking of what to say to Ari. He wants to tell his grandson about his plans. Ari thinks it’s about pride and playing the big macher; Ben has to convince him otherwise. The extent of the project is starting to press upon him. And then the police call.
Israel Nochum Honigmann, as the passport in his coat identifies him, did not slip away in the night, beating his breast in some drafty train car on his way to new frontiers. He ended his days in the synagogue he founded, inches from the tree of life, waiting for the flashlight beam that would expose his bones.
The body is well preserved, sealed in its quietude, clothes still draped on the frame. There are bloodstains on the floor underneath a layer of dust. The victim shows a massive cranial trauma as well as a broken ankle. Clubbed, then dropped in, thinks Ben. The coroner suspects the victim did not die of these wounds, or at least not immediately. This is confirmed when the tomb is opened fully. On the wall behind the tree, amid countless clawmarks, a few Hebrew words are scratched out. Oseh shalom bimromav.
He never finished the prayer.
In the weeks to come, this detail, so perfect in its agony that some think it apocryphal, will cement (as it were) the horror of it all, bury (as it were) any pleasant memories of the shul’s glory years, inspire countless unworthy hypotheses surrounding Reb Nochum’s death, which will spread as these things do—like a leaf canopy. The shul’s name becomes the hooked hand of Camp Ramah, and having made this leap, passes not into the annals of holiness but into those of cheap comedy. The Haunted Temple. Havah neghoulah.
Ben watches the police pry open the glass case in the corridor. The gloved scene-of-crime officer slides the telegram toward the edge of the surface where a second pair of gloved hands waits, plastic bag open. They told Ben that the paper could hold some answers. He yelled at them to be careful, and they are humouring him.
As the bag closes around the note, Ben understands how badly he’d misinterpreted Reb Nochum. The police have their theories, but Ben is certain the telegram was composed by the rebbe. Because mystery of hashem unattainable was not a scolding or a challenge to succeed where he had failed but a warning: reach for the divine at your own peril. Your plans will meet with sorrow, for yours are human acts, forever imperfect, revealing imperfection. In a way, Reb Nochum was guarding against his own discovery. It makes Ben’s own disillusion seem quaint.