Autumn in South America wasn’t much warmer than autumn in Europe, but it smelled different. Even here in the heart of a city, the trees were foreign to him, the air scored by scents of unfamiliar food.
Erik had been in Buenos Aires just long enough to find a hotel and have a drink, and now he walked the darkening streets, trying to get his bearings and purge the restlessness from his bones.
True dusk had almost fallen. Away from the commercial districts, the crowds had started to thin; it was a workday evening, after all. But a turn to the right took him to a block with a steady stream of people—lone men and jostling families—hurrying down it.
Curious, he watched as most went into a stone building far down on the left. He was standing directly in front of it before he registered the rounded lintels, the carved six-pointed star above the door. And suddenly he knew what night it was, although he could not have said how he knew—he had not looked at any calendar that would have told him, not for years.
“Ven, señor, ven,” said a stooped old man in a black coat at the gate of the low iron fence that girded the schul. “They are about to close the sanctuary doors for Kol Nidre.”
Erik shook his head, but did not move.
The old man gave him a different look and a false, ingratiating smile. “Perdóname, señor. My mistake.”
Erik knew the look, had seen it his whole life, even before the war. ”You, with your height and blue eyes and straight nose, you can pass. You can be free of us. You are not marked with your difference” . If you only knew, he’d thought then. He thought the same thing now. And it was that thought, as much as anything, that made him move towards the gate.
“If I am welcome,” he ventured. “I am a stranger here.”
“All are welcome,” the old man said. “It is the Days of Awe. But hurry.”
There was a hand on his back, and for a dizzying moment Erik was sure it was his father’s, could almost hear his mother’s voice saying, “No dawdling, liebling, come along.”
But it was only the old man, ushering him into the vestibule and pressing a prayer book into his hands
Dazed, Erik took a kippah from him as well, his hands somehow remembering how to position it on his head. He refused the proffered talit. He had never been bar-mitzvahed, had spent his thirteenth year in a DP camp near Dresden, furiously avoiding any mention of God, any discussion of why He had let such things happen to His chosen people. Did that mean he’d never become a man? Erik wondered now, before he shoved the thought brutally away.
“May your fast be an easy one, my friend,” the old man said, nudging him through the door to the sanctuary and clicking it firmly closed behind him.
So many Jews. It was a plain place, though well-kept, but what hit Erik hardest were the filled rows of seats. All men, of course—he could see the women’s balconies above. So many Jews. It was one thing to know how large Argentina’s Jewish population was, to know that the city held a nineteenth-century synagogue nicknamed “Templo Libertad” after the street that housed it. It was quite another to see them arrayed before him. Young, old, tall, short, but all well-fed and decently clothed, exchanging the news of the day before the holiday began.
The cantor and the rabbi were just taking their places on the bema, dressed in white, as were many in the congregation, and wearing canvas shoes, heeding the injunction against wearing leather on this most holy of days. Erik took it all in with a dull thud of disbelief, amazed that anyone held to the arcane commandments after all that had happened in the world.
There was something else strange about the pair, though it took Erik a moment to realize what it was. They, like man outside, were old: the rabbi slight, frail, almost bald; his cantor portly, with a fine head of white curls. There were no old Jews in Europe. Most of those who had survived the ghettoes and the massacres and the camps, the hiding places in attics and barns, those who did not have rich relatives to spirit them away to the United States—or Argentina—had been undone by the hunger and misery of the post-war years.
A wave of hatred swept through him. It seemed unforgivable that these complacent souls could be alive while his mother, his father, his aunts and uncles, all the boys with whom he’d studied Torah long ago were dead. The fury burned so hot in him that he lost control for an instant, saw the metal book holder on the back of the seat in front of him begin to ripple and twist. He lurched forward with a small strangled sound, calmed the element with a quick thought.
“Estás bien, hermano?”
The man next to him put a hand under his elbow and leaned his dark head towards him. Erik managed not to jerk away—he was still unused to how easily the men in this country touched each other.
“Sí, sí. Todo va bien. Gracias.” Erik smiled, though his mouth felt too full of teeth.
He straightened, stood with the others as the ark was opened and the chant began. The cantor had a sweet, high voice that belied his size, and as he sang it seemed to Erik to detach itself from his body altogether. The melody, the words, did not flow from any single person. They swelled until they filled the room, reaching beyond the arbitrary human distinction between the living and the dead. There was only perseverance, endurance, continuity, and a force that held all memories within it. Erik lost himself for a moment in the ancient sound, and it seemed to wash away a little of his hate.
As the cantor began the imprecation for the second of the three ritual iterations, however, Erik stole a glance at the man who had touched him. He was perhaps five years older than Erik, possibly less, and yet on his other side, improbably, was his teen-aged son—fourteen or fifteen, called to the Torah only a year or so ago. If Erik had not been able guess their relationship from the identical sweep of their eyebrows, the wide curl of their mouths, he would have known from the way the father kept a hand cupped around the nape of his boy’s neck as they listened to the prayer—half-protective, it seemed, half-proud.
Erik jerked his eyes away. Something roiled in him that was worse than loss. This is what had been taken from him. Taken from him before he had a chance to know it. Stolen before he had had chance to take his place among the men.
He forced himself to join in the congregation’s ritual response. Somewhat to his surprise, the melody the synagogue used was a familiar one, and he hardly had to look at the page to remember the words. And so he chanted with them, although the very last thing Erik wanted in the world was to be released from his self-made vows.
All he wanted now was to be gone. As soon as the Kol Nidre was finished, and the doors opened again, he struggled out of his row, almost pushing his way through the trickle of latecomers now being allowed in.
Back in the vestibule, he drew a ragged breath, and removed the kippah with deliberate slowness.
“Leaving already?” asked his friend, the ancient usher. “Young people these days, never any time.”
He held out his hand for the prayer book, and as Erik reached to give it to him, the cuff of his shirt rode up, exposing the last bit of the tattoo along his forearm. The old man froze at the sight, the siddur suspended between them. When he met Erik’s eyes again, his own were blurred with tears.
“Gut yontiff, mijo,” he said gently, taking the book.
And after everything it was this, the homely Yiddish phrase, that pushed Erik past anger into sorrow. His mother’s words, from her rural girlhood on the Polish border, before she came to the city, before she met his father.
“Yom Tov, Rachel, Yom Tov” his father would reprimand her every year. “If you’re going to abandon German at least use Hebrew. No need for that shtetl pidgin.”
But Erik’s mother would just smile, and squeeze Erik to her side. “Gut yontiff,” she’d whisper in his ear.
“Gut yontiff, Abuelo,” Erik said now, though he could hardly see the old man’s face through the storm of his grief.
He stumbled outside and clung to the iron fence with both hands until he could still his breathing, force his unruly memories back into the sealed containers of his mind. Then he re-joined the metal bars where he had broken them, smoothed out a few older dents and chips for good measure, and made his way into the Argentine night, thoughts free of everything save revenge.