Solo Performance

Memories of a loved one, of the lockdown, of 50 years lived in Jerusalem fill the writer's heart as she continues on alone. Op-ed.

Faigie Heiman ,

Solo Shabbat Talbe
Solo Shabbat Talbe
Faigie Heiman

Eichah yashavt badad … (Lamentations, 1)

How did you sit in seclusion, in your apartment, in your neighborhood, in your city Jerusalem. Eichah … How did you sit there widowed, a mother, grandmother, a great grandmother to dozens, sitting for over three months, lonely, although never alone.

You woke in the morning, showered and dressed, applied your make-up, ready for morning prayers, ready for telephone calls, ready for lessons and zoom meetings. And at the end of each week you readied for Shabbat.

Surely the angels are with you, invisible angels standing beside your chair, staring across at the portrait on the wall. Despite the harsh conspicuous wrinkles ingrained in the contours of his skin, his face radiates from the artists painting. Your husband seems happy in the world to come, listening to you sing Sholom Aleichem. You sing each stanza three times, exactly as he did. His balding forehead looks like you could play tic tac toe on the lines etched there, lines that developed on his handsome face, wrinkles that developed not only from age.

The empty armchair at the head of the table is where he once sat. He always seated himself after greeting the angels, and then chanted a page or two of text before Kiddush. You never knew what that text included, but now you know, and you chant as he did, prayers to “Adon HaShalom, King of the Universe for blessing to find peace and good life for you and your family, to find favor and wisdom in the eyes of the Almighty…that I merit to receive Shabbat with joy…and say a blessing at my table that is set.”

He stares at the table, set for his queen, and he doesn’t have to ask, “Who set the table?” Only you set the table, with two small challot positioned on your father’s silver challah tray, a silver knife, European china that you purchased as a young couple over half a century ago, Wallace sterling flatware, a wedding gift from your family sixty years ago, and fresh flowers arranged in a bowl that you buy every erev Shabbat, same as he did.

You fill his silver cup. The cup you purchased as a gift for his 26th birthday after you settled in Jerusalem. You fill it first with a little wine, and then grape juice to keep the drink mild, same as he did. He appears to be listening to your Kiddush, although your voice is not the pleasant voice of the Baal Tfilla; your voice is not his voice, and it never will be. Most disturbing is that you cannot remember his nussach, you cannot make the blessing as he did. You cannot remember his specific melodious kiddush tune. You can’t even be sure that he is still smiling. Your eyes are glued to the blessings in his little booklet. And then the memory of his kiddush suddenly gets stuck in your throat.

When you leave the table his eyes follow you, almost like the Mona Lisa. You observed her portrait years ago on a joint visit to the Louvre. He wasn’t particularly impressed with Mona’s looks, or her hairdo. He thought his wife looked a lot better, and if anyone ever painted her, he would make sure they did better than Da Vinci, even if his wife’s portrait would never hang in the Louvre. But that won’t happen anymore. He won’t oversee any paintings. He won’t ever be able to do as you did; commission a painting of him.

Faigie Heiman

Museums, the arts, and theatre productions did not speak to him. Only the concert hall, symphony orchestras, their conductors, and all the great cantors of our time added a measure of pleasure to his soul. Above all, his daily Torah studies that meant so much to him.

There is no ketchup or mustard on the table, no Coca Cola, none of what was mandatory when you had dinner together. No dessert. And no dvar Torah. Not everything is his way. Some things have changed. But you still sing zmirot. All his zmirot. And when you reach that melody mei ein olam haba, you stop. You can’t go on. That was his specialty. An uplifting addition to Shabbat, he sang that song every Friday night for fifty-seven years, as if a love song, his private love song. Wherever you were, be it at your table, or as guests at another table, he recognized the week as part of this world, but Shabbat was likened to the world to come. His longing for that world was compelling. He sang that evocative melody in his rich tenor voice, reaching a breathtaking crescendo; and none, not any of your offspring, or your guests, were able to reach that high note with him.

He did it his way, lived as he wanted, and ate what he enjoyed, even if he was diabetic. He drove his car until an hour before he collapsed, and passed away surrounded by your children, praying and singing his tfillot. And now, he watches over you as you move about, doing it your way, without interference, without a look of admiration or disapproval.

Of course you had disagreements, but what remains outstanding are good memories; his kindness, his love and respect, and his unending care and devotion to family members, to the younger generations that he adored, and his wish to celebrate 60 years of Aliya and residence in the holy city of Jerusalem --- all bequeathed to you for your solo performance.

Solo performance? It suddenly crosses your mind: how can his queen perform when there is no audience? How can she perform without her jewelry? Without her mother’s gold pendant, without the earrings that Chana Mousieff designed? Where is that jewelry? From the day the shiva ended for your husband, your jewelry is missing. Over two years that you have been searching, having turned the apartment over dozens of times, all in vain. Your jewelry is gone; jewelry that he chose and purchased for you; lost, or stolen, or forgotten somewhere.

You finished your Seudat Shabbat, you said grace after the meal, cleared off the table, and went into your husband’s study to remove a book from his bookcase. The room is dark. You didn’t leave the Shabbat lamp lit. Still you search for his book on the weekly Torah portions that he always studied from on Friday nights. You finger one book, move a second book, remove a few books from their place, and then a faint sound on the floor. You bend down to try and find whatever landed there. Your fingers tap into something supple. You lift it into your palm and hurry out of the dark room into the light filled dining area. A soft creased green velvet pouch is in your hand. Your fingers tremble as you spill the contents of the pouch onto your Shabbat table. There in front of your eyes, facing his eyes in the portrait on the wall, is your jewelry, all of your missing jewelry, glistening brightly like fallen stars from heaven.

He always guarded you, always made sure you were happy, that your life be filled with the best, and now too. Precisely now, at this period when you are completely on your own, locked in due to the pandemic, he remembered. “Zacharti lach chessed neurayich”, He “recalled the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, following him into the wilderness, into a land unsown.”

He is still with you for your solo performance, a silent partner, the love of your life having passed the crown to his queen.

Faigie Heiman won first prize in the Israel Education Ministry Jewish Culture short story 2020 for this article which has now been translated into English A popular author of short stories and essays, and a memoir, Girl For Sale, Faigie Heiman is celebrating her 60th year of Aliya in Jerusalem