The Streets of Thornhill
By Aaron Kreuter
Another month, another board meeting. And somehow, this one was even more excruciating than usual. David Krasner was his usual pompous self. Cheryl has yet to adjust to her role as President—though, if Norman knew anything about his ex-wife, it wouldn’t be long before she was as presidential as they come. The building committee in-fighting is as painful as ever; JNF Jimmy and Bert were nearly screaming at each other over the committee’s foolhardy decision to buy that land up there, even though they didn’t have the money to build anything on it!
Norman Greenski shakes his head. Even though he had spent the past five years on one executive or another of the Reform synagogue he had been a member of since the kids were born, and where he was now acting chair of finances and membership, he still managed to be surprised by the behaviour he witnessed. Like Kol B’Seder, like everywhere, he supposed. Though weren’t Jews supposed to make a unified stand against a hostile, indifferent world? Well, not these Jews.
Nothing to do but walk it off, as usual.
The walk from the synagogue to the small but fully detached house he shared with his second wife, Naomi, her teenaged son, and occasionally Norman’s two daughters was twenty minutes by the most direct route, but Norman would very rarely—in sleety rain, a blizzard, the growing handful of unbearably humid days Thornhill received each summer—take the most direct route. Today, a perfectly mild late May evening, he took Atkinson all the way around.
“Hullo Norm!” It’s Julie. A neighbourhood fixture and one of Norman’s walking acquaintances. “What’s new in the Jewish world?” Julie always gave off an exuberant, infectious energy. Whenever Norman ran into her she had a smile and a story. Today she’s wearing a long skirt and a purple sweater, her hair in a loose bun.
“Oh, the usual array of worldly forces against our small beleaguered band. Any interesting sightings lately?”
Julie exaggerates her face into a mask of extreme concentration. “Hmm...hmm...yes! Of course! Phillipe and I saw a scarlet tanager in the park behind Brickshire. They rarely come this far north.” Many years ago, Julie had belonged to Kol B’Seder, but left for the Orthodox shul down the street. Norman had heard that she hadn’t lasted long there, there had been some kind of altercation, nobody was sure exactly what. Most people at Kol B’Seder did not care for Julie, but Norman didn’t mind her. You never knew what Julie was going to say; you never knew which Julie you were going to get. It was the perfect analogy for bird watching, a hobby they both had in common.
“A scarlet tanager? Well then. I’ll have to keep my eyes open.”
“Oh, you’ll see her Norman, you’ve got that special Jewish touch!”
Norman leaves the curve of Atkinson for his own street. He notices that the house beside the elementary school hadn’t sold yet. Its For Sale sign has been up for nearly two months. They must be asking too much; I wonder what sharing a fence with the school does to the property value. Thinking about the fence, about real estate, brings Norman back to the board meeting. The building committee was in shambles—it’s a good thing he declined joining. JNF Jimmy and Bert only calmed down when Cheryl suggested they hold off on making any decisions for now, continue exploring options, discuss it further at next month’s meeting. Bert was right: you’d think by now Jews would be good at getting the full potential out of land. But not these Jews—no, we’re going to lose all of our money and that land up there. We bought prematurely. Norman was in the minority—along with Bert, and, surprisingly enough, the Rabbi—who wanted the shul to stay housed at Isaac Babel Elementary, where it had always been. But others—JNF Jimmy, the Krasners, Cheryl—wanted bigger and better for Kol B’Seder. No more sharing space with a parochial school for them!
Norman’s mind runs its tongue along the memory of the rest of that day’s meeting. As usual, Bert, Norman’s lone friend on the executive, serving his second term as vice president, cracked jokes and softened the mood at any chance he got. It was Tom Berman’s first meeting as the new speakers’ series coordinator (since Sherman’s death officially called the Sherman Teitelbaum Speakers’ Series). Tom hadn’t said much in his committee report, just mentioned that he had some new things in the grinder, ready to start percolating. Norman wonders how Tom would do. Geri Krasner’s were big shoes to fill.
That scarlet tanager though. He’d have to remember to tell Naomi.
Until Norman’s mother had died the extended family would go to her and Norman’s father Chaim’s apartment every Friday night for dinner—the very last Friday of her life they were there, eating her breaded chicken and greenbean casserole, only a few thousand heartbeats left to her. Now they congregated at Norman’s to mark the end of the work week and to bring in the (for them, utterly secular) Sabbath. In attendance tonight was his father, getting on in years, though still with a fierce grip on life. Norman’s two daughters, Rebecca and Jen, who mostly lived with Cheryl at her house on the other side of the mall. His step-son, Kal, still dirty from his baseball practice. Norman’s sister Karen and her daughter Miriam. The only family member missing—except for Chaim’s first family, murdered at Auschwitz—was Norman’s brother, who immigrated to Israel fifteen years before.
They were at the table eating dinner. Chaim was fuming about the latest news from the Middle East. “Where does the U.N. get off? Why is it that the only democracy in the entire region routinely gets the scorn of the so-called international body?” His raised hands were shaking with a combination of age and emphasis. “I’ll tell you why. Nazis! Everywhere you look—Nazis!”
Norman was used to his father talking this way, and usually agreed with him, tonight being no exception. But Norman’s niece Miriam, recently returned from a two-month spring placement program in Israel for Jewish undergraduates, apparently did not.
“Saba, it’s not so simple,” she said. “As long as the occupation continues, how could there ever be hope for peace?”
Chaim’s hands fell. “Occupation? What is this occupation? There is no occupation! Grow up, Mirala. Those are disputed territories! They’re disputed! If anybody’s occupying anybody, it is those so-called Palestinians!”
“How can you even say that, Saba?”
Norman watched this exchange wearily, wisely staying out of it, though he did notice that Jen and Rebecca’s forks were literally floating halfway between their plates and their mouths—trouble brewing? Norman couldn’t understand it: how could Miriam come back from Israel so full of self-hatred? Every single time Norman returned from Israel—the last visit to his brother two summers ago as much as his first visit in the 70s—he was full of clarity, pride, light, hope, resolve. Norman wasn’t a religious person, but in Israel he was unmistakably full of something. (On certain visits, there was enough of a tug to leave everything behind, move to Jerusalem, walk the sacred streets and ancient alleyways in robes that Norman had to be careful he didn’t actually do it.) To think, an entire country built by people like him, for people like him. Yes, the soldiers with their machine guns can be disconcerting, but they are his soldiers, their guns are protecting him, their cold iron hearts are cold and iron for him and for his family. Norman looked at his father, whose face was red with anger, his usually perfect English slipping into Yiddishisms. Norman wasn’t too worried; Chaim could hold his own—how could Miriam even think of challenging his experiences? Chaim had literally been through hell and survived to tell the tale. But it was best to not get involved. Let it remain between grandfather and granddaughter, survivor and teenager. Man and girl.
Before things got even more heated, however, Naomi asked Kal about some ongoing drama taking place on his double A baseball team, pivoting the conversation away from the large and political to the small and familial. Her job as hospital administrator often came in handy at the dinner table. She was Norman’s rock in a sea of conflict. Love swelled up in Norman like the first colours of a mist-shrouded spring sunrise.
Later, after dessert, Norman saw Rebecca and Jen talking conspiratorially with Miriam in the kitchen. Jen’s eyes landed on her father’s before flicking away.
Yes, definitely trouble.
Norman takes in the early Saturday morning light over the suburban houses before leaving his front lawn. He walks towards Clark in the fresh, fluffy air. On mornings like these, up early enough to catch the coating of his dreams and spread them on the warm newness of the day, he could feel each house as a colour, a fluctuating aura. His own house a faint grey, emanating homeness, comfort, the gravitational center. His neighbour’s house a mustardy yellow, the row of townhouses at the end of his block a xylophone of darkening purples. Each house a colour, and every bird a sensation. Redwing blackbirds, calming, red shocks against liquid blue-black shimmer. A pair of blue jays, playing in the branches of a king crimson maple, sparking bursts of electricity. The neighbourhood red-tailed hawk sentinel against a chaotic world always churning just out of vision, out of sense, but always, always there. Norman walks through a group of Orthodox families walking in the opposite direction, on their way to shul, fancy black clothes and strollers, dress shoes clicking on the sidewalk. He smiles and nods, happy to live alongside Jewish people carrying on the oldest Jewish ways. If Norman’s life had gone differently, he often thinks, if his waning-and-waxing sense of the world as a place of unfathomable beauty and mystery had any element of the religious to it, he could see himself having become Orthodox. A ready made formula for communing with the divine. He wouldn’t even have had to leave Thornhill! On Rodeo Street, kids run to the park with baseball bats and mitts. Above, a lone goose streaks across the sky. The day is here now, solid, absolute. Norman’s extrasensory antennae are almost entirely retracted. He passes the park where, late one fall evening, he saw bats swooping and climbing above the slides and swings, his mind more snug with each plunge of their thread. The spot where he first met Julie, years ago; she was watering the trees along Bathurst out of a battered metal watering can with a crude sunflower painted on it. Norman passes the house on Charles that burned down the winter before last. The owners had yet to rebuild. As always, Norman wonders how much the new house will be worth. Probably a fortune. Next month would mark three years into what he and Naomi called his early retirement, even though in reality he was pushed out of his job working in payroll at Masada Assets Incorporated with a not-so-great severance package. Walking the Thornhill streets—the suburbs opening up to him like an orchestra accelerating from silence to crescendo— remained the only way to calm his mind, to fortify himself against the onslaught taking place against the civilized world: anarchists, terrorists, social justice warriors, all these young people who only want to destroy the order of things, upset the fraught balance of light and dark. What a time to be alive. Norman looks up. The sky utterly blue, laked with possibility. A mourning dove, centred perfectly on a telephone wire strung across Mountain Park Crescent, whos into the open air.
After being out for two and a half hours, Norman heads for home. Above him, a flock of geese distends the fabric of the sky like a comb through water.
Another month, another board meeting. A busy agenda. First, updates from the building committee, still stalemated. Then Cheryl reported on a new fundraising initiative being put on by the sisterhood for the annual women’s retreat. Geri Krasner, back from a month in Israel, gave a presentation on the struggles of the Women of the Wall movement. Bert asked Geri pointed questions about the movement’s successes and failures. “Do you really think the Israeli rabbinate are going to allow women more religious freedom?” he asked finally, to which Geri responded “Well, Bert, I hope so. We are all Jews, after all.” When it was Norman’s turn, he filled everybody in on the shul’s finances, the holding-steady membership numbers, plans for selling more high holiday tickets. His presentation over, Norman was finally able to relax. The last item on the agenda was Tom, who was introducing the new season of the speakers’ series.
Tom was in his late forties, with trim hair that seemed always newly cut, and a svelte figure; Norman often saw him running in the early mornings, headphones on, shutting the world out. Obviously not used to speaking at a board meeting, he stood up, his swivel chair rolling into the wall behind him with a soft crash. Handouts were being passed around.
“Well, it was more work than I had anticipated,” he said to mild laughter. “I have a whole new appreciation for the excellent work Geri had done for so many years.” Polite clapping, a hardy “hear hear” from David. Norman glanced down at the list of dates and names in his hands. “Hopefully everybody’ll agree that I’ve managed to put together a stellar line-up for the fall season. We really tried to represent a wide range of viewpoints and interests, both Jewish and otherwise.”
Somebody loudly snickered; all eyes turned. It was JNF Jimmy, looking incredulous. Nearly bald, face sunburned to the point of peeling, Jimmy acquired his nom-de-guerre—which he wore with pride—from non-stop battering for donations to the Jewish National Fund, for what Bert called an “obsequious love” for Israel. His was a frenetic and almost scary temperament; Norman usually tried to steer clear. Now, Jimmy scanned the room, basking in the sudden attention.
“You invited a Palestinian?” he asked, saying the word as if it were barbed.
There was a shuffling, an uncomfortable readjustment. Geri Krasner sighed audibly. Bert, sitting next to Norman, suppressed a surprised laugh, tried to turn it into a cough. Norman looked down closer at the schedule. Sure enough, there it was: November 19, 2011. Jasbir Khalidi. Palestinian scholar/activist.
The room’s attention swivelled to Tom, who was still standing. To Norman, Tom seemed flustered but resolved, a tree in defiant bloom.
“Yes, Jimmy, we did. Yes we did yes we did. It is part of my mandate to bring in views we don’t necessarily agree with. Jasbir is a well-regarded intellectual and I truly believe Kol B’Seder will be better off for hearing her thoughts.”
JNF Jimmy smiled, sickly sweet.
“Looks like a showdown,” Bert whispered into Norman’s ear.
“Okay, Tom, okay,” Jimmy said. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”
With that, Cheryl brought the meeting to a close. Afterwards, milling around the bagels and coffee, Cheryl came up to Norman. “So the girls are off to camp. I hear they had an interesting time at Friday dinner last month,” she said.
“It’s Miriam. Filling their heads with nonsense.”
Cheryl put a hand on Norman’s arm, held it with the same tight grip Norman remembered from fifteen years of marriage. Cheryl both had not changed and had changed entirely. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” she said, pouring half-and-half into her coffee, “what’s wrong with hearing a different side of the story?” She winked, walked away.
Norman stood stirring his coffee. He was about ready to be away from people, away from Kol B’Seder, to be on his own, walking the streets. But before he could slip away, Bert was slapping him on the back. “Hey there, buddy. Well, this promises to be a zing-dinger. JNF Jimmy squaring off against Tom. Hoo boy.” Red-haired, with a gaggle of five red-haired kids, always ready to laugh or lend a hand, Bert was a beloved presence at Kol B’Seder, and was therefore allowed to get away with positions and beliefs that would have had other members ostracized years ago. A fellow divorcee, he was probably Norman’s closest friend at Kol B’Seder; at least, Norman liked him more than he liked most of the other members. “Hey, how many right-wing Zionists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“I don’t know, Bert, how many?”
Bert twisted his face up into a paroxysm of mock rage. A pretty good impression of JNF Jimmy, actually. “‘What light bulb?! Light bulbs don’t exist. All light bulbs are terrorists!’”
“Very funny Bert.”
Either Bert didn’t know how Norman felt about Israel, or he didn’t care; Norman wouldn’t be surprised if it was the latter. Bert was supremely comfortable in his beliefs, in his worldview, and he didn’t mind getting into arguments about it. Still, for most of his life, people had felt safe telling Norman their feelings, their secrets—in the Masada Inc. cafeteria, on an airplane, on the street, people were always spilling their guts out to him. Norman, conversely, was usually tight-lipped, kept everything in, confided in no one, not even Naomi. He often wondered what it was that drew people towards him. Was it the same thing that every few months swelled in him, made the world pulse with hidden truths, before receding into the general background hum again?
He looked out the wall of windows, sipped his coffee. A robin landed under the spruce tree. A chipmunk chittered. The spruce tree remained unfazed.
Norman walks the streets. It’s just rained. The sidewalks are wine-coloured, the air thick with earthy odours. The conditions are ideal for a rainbow.
Julie’s standing at the corner of Clark and Charles, looking up into a burly oak tree, where a hornet’s nest the size of a paper-mached balloon hangs like a mutant patio lantern.
“Normal Normie, what’s happening?”
“Oh, just enjoying the air. Yourself?”
“Things are great Normie, things are truly great.” Julie’s eyes are bright. “Have you ever heard of the seventh and a half day?” she asks.
“No,” Norman says, half expecting a Bert-style joke.
“Do you really think God just created seven days? Of course not! There’s a half day, hidden, but always there. I think I finally know how to access it.”
Norman laughs, unsure how to respond. Julie’s intensity has him nearly swooning.
“Phillipe says I’ve been watching too many Kabbalah videos, but he just doesn’t have the same sight that I have. That you have.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about Julie.” Norman feels himself becoming irrationally agitated.
Julie looks at him shrewdly, before laughing.
“Yes, yes, Norman. Of course, of course.”
They contemplate the wasp’s nest together. It reminds Norman of a young pine shrub wrapped in burlap to protect it from the cold, even though it was a hot and humid day in late June.
Eventually, Norman starts to leave.
“Stay Jewish, my Semitic cousin!” Julie calls after him.
Outside of his house, Norman looks across the road. The tree in the back yard of the house across the street was now big enough to be seen over the roof of the house, making it look like the house had a bushy haircut. When they moved into the area the tree must have been as thin as a pencil.
How time moves.
Norman sat at his desk, staring at Tom’s list of upcoming speakers. JNF Jimmy had cornered him after last week’s potluck, asked him to sign a petition asking for Tom to be removed from his position for daring to suggest bringing in the Palestinian speaker. “It’s just not how we do things at Kol B’Seder,” Jimmy said, forcing a pen into Norman’s hands. “Did you ever have a problem with Geri? Now there’s a woman who understands what Jewish programming is all about! Not like Tom, who, I have to say, is exhibiting all the traits of a classic self-hater. And hey, while I’ve got you, what say you cut me a cheque for the JNF? When’s the last time you donated? C’mon, share some of that retirement wealth Ricky Rosenfeld surely showered you with. Those Jewish forests aren’t going to plant themselves!”
It was true that Norman had, for the most part, enjoyed the speakers Geri Krasner had brought in. Thanks to the circles she (and David, her big macher husband) moved in, not only here but in the States and Israel as well, Geri had often managed to bring in some big Jewish names. The esteemed Israeli novelist who lamented the political situation in Israel yet still railed against diasporic Jewish weakness—what was his name again? He’d have to ask Naomi—actually going so far as to say that Jews living in diaspora were not “fully realized Jews.” The religious woman from a West Bank settlement, Ruti something or other, who spoke movingly about the constant threats to their lives from their unappeasable Arab neighbours. Not that Geri didn’t bring in people from the left, because she did. At least once a year somebody from Women of the Wall came to talk about the ongoing inter-Jewish religious tensions in Jerusalem. There was also the Humanist Rabbi who spoke with spit-flying excitement about the revolutionary moment they had decided to remove God from their liturgy. There was the professor from the States, Dr. Kevin Klar, who argued that the world was getting better and better everyday, and had plenty of slides and charts and graphs to prove it. During the talk Bert had leaned over to Norman and whispered loudly in his ear, “This is what he calls world history? He’s left out everything from Magellan to Mengele!”
In the end, though, Norman had not signed Jimmy’s petition. He said he had to think it over. Jimmy did not let him go easily, but eventually he got away and now here Norman was, thinking it over. Why not give the woman a chance? Just because she was Palestinian didn’t mean she was a hater of Israel and of Jews, did it? Norman really didn’t know. He opened his computer and typed “Jasbir Khalidi” into YouTube, clicked on the first hit. There she was. She was younger than Norman expected, pretty, dressed like Rebecca or Jen would dress. According to the synopsis of the talk, she had a PhD in history and was a professor at Ryerson. The talk was on “The Black Holes of Jewish History and the Palestinian Narrative.” Norman pressed play, skipped ten minutes ahead so he didn’t have to listen to the long-winded introduction from some department head. “As we’ve seen,” Jasbir said from behind her podium, “Jewish history has had any number of black holes trying to consume it entirely. We live in a time when not one, but two black holes exist. The Holocaust and Israel are these two black holes, bending Jewish space-time into their gaping mouths. The question is: which will win? And which will be better for the Palestinians, whose plight depends on the unethical, unhistorical use of the latter and the existence of the former?”
Norman paused the video. What was she saying? Israel shouldn’t have been created? It was true, that some people he knew were obsessed with the Holocaust. At a mid-town conservative shul for a cousin’s kid’s bar mitzvah, every third word out of the Rabbi’s mouth was Holocaust. JNF Jimmy, for one, constantly referred to it in his fundraising attempts. Even Chaim, a survivor, for damn’s sake, had managed to somewhat move on from the defining catastrophe of his life, though he mostly filled it with a love for Israel, Norman had to admit.
Jasbir Khalidi was giving Norman a headache. He wasn’t sure who to blame for this latest crisis—Jimmy, or Tom?—but all Norman wanted was to do what was right for Kol B’Seder, for his own corner of the Jewish world. And didn’t that mean signing Jimmy’s petition, regardless of how insufferable he was?
Maybe he should leave Kol B’Seder entirely. But where would he go? He could go to Israel, live with his brother, be there at the gushing centre of Jewish geography. But he knew he would never go; he’d never leave Thornhill, never abandon the synagogue he had given so many years to. Though he rarely would admit it, he loved Kol B’Seder. The potlucks, the people, the commitment to community, the warm capaciousness when it came to religious belief and religious practice. If only all the JNF Jimmies and Toms would realize that the entire world would be happier if we didn’t exist, and stopped this infighting.
If only Norman had never heard the name Jasbir Khalidi.
Norman leaves the house. The day is mere minutes old. He walks along Clark, the air warm but not stifling. He is more cognizant than ever of the different eras and kinds of fences that separate the street from the cascading back yards he is walking past. Some, but not all, of the back yards have doors in their section of fence. A door with a brand new padlock. A door with an old, rusted lock. A fence of beige wood. A fence of brick. A fence with a turquoise door. Another fence of brick. Norman crosses Clark, onto Charles. Just like that, the sidewalks end. The modest family homes become obscene mansions with circular drives, gates, gabled four car garages, turrets, more windows than the airplanes floating above on invisible strings. Rocky ravines draining parallel to the roads. Robins pecking and hopping on the roadside. A field of close-shaved grass. The original bungalows, built in the forties and fifties when this was all farmland, still holding on, delaying the fortune that would be their owners once they sell. Squirrels jumping from tree to tree. Norman crosses through the parking lot of the church, ends up on Centre. The massive mansion going up behind the pond is almost finished. From Centre, back into the neighbourhood. A copse of red pines that was shoulder high when he moved into the neighbourhood, now towering, surely to outlive the residents it rooted under and crowned above. The unmistakable sensation that all these mornings are adding up to something new, something momentous.
Naomi accompanied Norman on a Friday afternoon walk. They were making their plans for their annual fall trip to Pelee Island for the bird migrations. “That’s Julie’s watering can,” Norman said as they walked along Clark. It was sitting under a tree, its painted sunflower unmistakable. Later, a pair of Cardinals swooping from tree to tree on Bathurst led Norman to remember the scarlet tanager Julie had seen.
Back at the house, he helped Naomi get dinner ready. Only Chaim was coming tonight; all the kids except Kal were at summer camp. Karen and her husband were on a river cruise in Europe. Norman was cutting peppers for a salad, Naomi was stirring her chicken soup. They had met at a birding event in High Park, almost six years after he and Cheryl divorced. Two long horned owls had been seen roosting behind the dog park, and various bird groups from throughout the GTA were on the prowl. They very quickly hit it off. Naomi was a serious, no-nonsense kind of woman. Bert often called Naomi “humourless,” but that was exactly what drew Norman to her: her focus, her lack of a need to constantly know what Norman was thinking. Combined with Norman’s quiet outward-facing personality, his hectic inner life, they were perfectly matched.
“Did you read the last letter from the girls?” Naomi asked, adding salt to the soup. “Cheryl forwarded it to me.”
“Yeah. They seem to be having a great summer.”
Norman thought about telling Naomi about Jasbir, the chaos on the exec. He’ll tell her later, he decided, when he had more of a handle on it himself.
That night, after driving Chaim home, Norman went right to bed. He dreamed he was paddling a canoe through his flooded neighbourhood. At first, the water was maybe a foot off the ground, just enough to use his paddle to pole the boat along. But soon the water was high enough that his paddle didn’t scrape sidewalk or lawn, the streets lost to the gently undulating lake that had taken over the suburbs. There was nobody else around; there was nobody else in the entire world. Norman was exceptionally calm. He paddled along Clark, cut through the pathway to Bevshire, having to duck as he glided under the tops of the linden trees. Maple keys swirled in the air, landing in the soft water, which now lapped the tops of the street signs. Still Norman paddled along. Now the houses were indistinguishable roofs. Now the houses were gone, only the tops of the tallest trees remaining, but then they, too, were gone. Now, as far as Norman could see, water. He was safe in his little boat. The sky was a ceiling of low silver light. There were no longer any fences.
Norman walks home from Saturday services. He had woken up with the sun, spent an hour looking at used canoes on the internet. He hadn’t been in a canoe in twenty years, but the dream had had a powerful impact on him; its strangeness stuck to him like paint. On his way back from the washroom during the Rabbi’s sermon, he had overheard some of the bar and bat mitzvah kids talking about the Jewish forefathers. He stopped to listen.
“They lived for hundreds of years, they obviously had superpowers!” one of them exclaimed.
“Way. They were even able to see the future.”
“Oh yeah? Did they see the Holocaust?”
Norman coughed loudly, walked through the youngsters.
Is this how the kids talk these days? he wonders. They sound like Julie.
Crossing through the park, there she is. Julie. Sitting on a bench, watching the swallows zip and dive in the air above them. Norman sits down beside her. Julie doesn’t seem to notice.
“I saw you abandoned your watering can?”
Julie twitches her head, turns to Norman, beams. “I left it there as a signal.”
“Oh Normathan, do you feel the change coming? Something’s in the air. Something is coming. Something to open us. For now, for now I’m still contained, but I feel myself opening. Why should I stay contained?! Who says that’s the way we should be?”
Norman, while not entirely sure what Julie was talking about, finds himself agreeing with her. A change was coming; Norman couldn’t help feeling he would be implicated in it in some way (though at the same time he knew that if he mentioned anything about this to Naomi, she would talk him out of it—which was why he knew he wasn’t going to mention anything).
But what was it?
How would he know?
A hawk swoops in from far above. The swallows scatter, their wings alternating almost too fast for the naked eye. But Norman sees.
An emergency board meeting was called on Tuesday to discuss Tom and the Palestinian speaker. Norman walked over to the shul with Kal, who was going to play basketball at the nets outside of Isaac Babel.
“Looks like Jimmy got enough signatures on his petition,” Bert said to Norman in the front hall of the shul. “You didn’t sign it, did you?”
Norman shook his head. The two men walked towards the board room together.
“Hey,” Bert said, “how many liberal Zionists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“I don’t know Bert, how many?”
“Two. One to loudly proclaim ‘two light bulbs for two people!’ while behind him the other smashes the Palestinian light bulb with a hammer.”
“That’s a little harsh.”
“Welcome to Jew-o-politics, my friend.”
They were in the board room now. The air was tense. It was the most crowded Norman had ever seen it for a board meeting; he and Bert got the last two chairs. Norman’s had a broken wheel. A bad sign. People were standing around the table, chatting quietly. Norman spotted his father, standing near the coffee machine. Chaim hadn’t come to a board meeting in years. A milling nervousness lay heavy in the room.
When Cheryl sat down, looking both concerned and at ease, quiet descended onto the room. JNF Jimmy was sitting to Cheryl’s left, looking like a general one murder away from completing a coup. Tom was on Cheryl’s right, his face set in sour concentration.
Bert leaned in. “Looks like Tom’s a head coach and the team is down twenty points but unbeknownst to anybody he’s just put in his ringer.”
Cheryl started to speak. “As you all know, we are here because of some issues about the speaker’s series, issues or disagreements. Or feelings. Anyways, issues. I have here a petition,” she said, looking at the stapled pages with obvious disdain, making Norman happy that he hadn’t signed it, “asking for Tom’s immediate ouster as head of the Sherman Teitelbaum Speaker’s Series.”
“Not soon enough!”
Cheryl took a breath. “I want to let both Tom and Jimmy have a turn to speak, then we can open it up for discussion. After that, we’ll vote. And remember,” she said, looking around at all the extra faces, “only members of the exec can vote.”
Everybody around the table and standing behind it signalled their assent, either by nodding or doing nothing. Cheryl nodded towards Tom. He took a breath.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” he said. “Jasbir is not only a professor of political science, but she is a Torontian as well. She has worked tirelessly her entire life for social justice, for what we would call tikkun olam.”
Bert leaned in to Norman: “I’ve never worked tirelessly for anything. Must be exhausting.”
Tom continued: “Isn’t it in our Reform movement’s very DNA to reach towards justice? Shouldn’t we hear what somebody with inside knowledge of the occupation and the, the situation in Israel, has to say?” A few people clapped, others nodded in agreement. Norman still couldn’t tell where the room would fall.
“Thanks Tom. Okay, Jimmy. And keep it to the point,” Cheryl warned.
Jimmy took a folder of paper out of his satchel. He looked around the room, smiled. “Now, as you know, I have nothing but love and respect for the Palestinians. Twenty percent of Israel’s citizenry is of Arab persuasion, after all. But we have to think of the security of our one Jewish state. There’s only one. We won’t get another. Which is why the more money we raise, the safer that one state will be, the safer we’ll all be. There are enemies out there who want to destroy us, and not only out there—but right here, in our very midst!” Jimmy was heating up, his voice rising. “It’s really a simple equation. The more Jewish trees we plant, the safer the Jewish people are, worldwide! We need forest armies, huge battalions of pines and eucalyptus to defend us against antisemitism! Any little amount helps!”
“Sorry Cheryl.” Jimmy sat back. Relaxed. Came forward again. “Now, through my fundraising work, as many of you know, I have plenty of contacts in the Israeli government, in the defense forces, in the Mossad.” Jimmy lifted up his folder, shook it for emphasis. “I asked around on this Jasbir Khalidi person, and I received some very disturbing intel.” He was talking barely above a whisper now. The entire room was leaning in. “Very disturbing indeed. I myself didn’t want it to be true, but, my friends, I have the irrefutable evidence right here.”
Jimmy sat back again. He patted the documents. He smiled. He took a breath. “Jasbir Khalidi is a...terrorist.”
A terrorist. The three syllables had their desired effect; it was as if a slow bomb had gone off in the middle of the board room. There’s only one other word in the entire Jewish lexicon that could create such an immediate, damning reaction, and ‘terrorist’ was like the hull of a missile protecting the explosive ordnance of that sometimes-hyphenated word. Norman could barely breathe the room was so stiff, so stalled. Jimmy looked like he had just had an orgasm. David Krasner looked constipated. Even Cheryl looked shaken. Norman glanced at Bert, who raised his eyebrows at Norman, a gesture Norman understood perfectly well: Tom was a goner. For an eternal moment, nobody spoke.
“Well,” Tom said, breaking the silence, his mouth strained, “she’s here.”
The tension in the room broke in spectacular fashion. Jimmy’s face volcanoed with rage. “You brought her here?!”
Tom shrugged. “I figured if the board actually met her, they’d see for themselves how important it is that we let her talk to the congregation.”
For a moment nobody spoke. Jimmy breathed nasally. Norman watched the two men to see who would make the next move.
Thirty heads in thirty swivel chairs turned as one. There she was. Jasbir. Norman felt the room drop an entire octave. She looked much like she did in the video Norman watched, except she had a young girl by the hand, an infant in her arms, and a teenager just visible sulking in the doorway through which Jasbir had entered the board room and had been listening for who knows how long.
She walked into the room as if it was a half-empty movie theatre and she was casually deciding where to sit. Still nobody had spoken. Even Jimmy was momentarily cowed. Norman wondered if his dad would have a heart attack. Jasbir was wearing green cargo pants and a white blouse, had an intelligent face, shiny black hair.
Tom spoke first. “Thanks for coming, Jasbir.”
Cheryl stood up, and Jasbir sat down in the vacated seat.
“Thanks for inviting me, Tom. I understand there’s some questions for me before I am given permission to speak to your congregation next fall.”
“Well, yes, that’s correct,” Cheryl said, having somewhat recovered from the shock of Tom’s hail mary pass. “Who has some questions for, for our guest?”
“What are your childrens’ names?” Magda, who organized the youth services during the High Holidays, asked kindly.
“This is Youssef,” Jasbir said, lifting the baby swaddled in white cloth. “The young lady behind me is Claire, and the haunting presence in the doorway is Tanis. Go and play outside if you want, Tanis, we won’t be long.” Tanis gave her mother a dirty look, and left the board room.
“Great to meet you, Jasbir,” Bert said, “sorry for the mess, you caught us at a bad time.”
Bert was obviously relishing this. “Since you’re here, can you help us settle something? Do you think we should pour all of our remaining funds—and plenty of imaginary funds!—into a new building miles north of here, or just stay in this perfectly reasonable space?”
“Bert!” Geri admonished. Jasbir laughed.
“I couldn’t possible say. This is a very nice space, though.”
There was another pause. Norman glanced at JNF Jimmy: his head was down, his eyes focused on the table. His face had lost its agitated glow, replaced by its customary sunburn.
“I have a question.” David Krasner. Here we go, thought Norman. “Do you believe in a two-state solution?”
“If there was such a thing, maybe I would believe in it. What I believe in above all is the right for all the people who live in historic Palestine to self-determination. I believe that as long as Zionism is entrenched in the government, institutions, and military apparatus of the Israeli state that this right can not possibly be achieved. I believe that the refugees of ‘48, the occupied of ‘67, have a right to return, or be compensated. I believe my children and I should be able to visit our ancestral homeland, to live there if we so desire.”
Krasner’s face was unreadable. “Thanks,” he mumbled.
Chaim was pushing his way through the crowded room. “Excuse me, excuse me, enough of this nonsense,” he muttered, leaving through the side door. Norman looked around. Like himself, probably nobody at this table—except maybe Bert—had ever spoken to a Palestinian before. They didn’t know what to do with someone speaking so calmly, somebody that represented their darkest fears manifesting as a normal, everyday person.
“Do you have any questions for us?” Cheryl asked.
“I was wondering what kind of child care services you provide?” Jasbir asked. The room shifted awkwardly.
Magda smiled. “I’m sure something can be arranged,” she said.
Was that it? Norman wondered, glancing at Bert, who raised an eyebrow.
“I have some questions!” JNF Jimmy said loudly. He had sufficiently regrouped. He put both hands on the table, looked hard at Jasbir. “You say you believe in rights, yet you obviously don’t believe that the one Jewish state has a right to exist. How can you call yourself an activist yet clearly hate the Jewish people so much? Do you know what would happen to them, to us, if we didn’t have a state?”
“I don’t hate the Jewish people at all. It’s you who conflate a violent ethnocratic state with an entire religious and cultural people that live the entire world over in a multitude of diverse and dynamic ways.”
“Oh yeah? Name four Jewish people you love!”
“Moses. Maimonides. Buber. Kohn. Arendt. The Boyarins. Kafka. This building’s namesake. Charles Reznikoff, Philip Roth, Grace Paley. Sarah Silverman.”
Jimmy’s face was getting redder and redder with each name Jasbir listed. Even the pate of his head had taken on a purple sheen. Norman wondered if Jimmy knew half the people Jasbir had mentioned.
Jimmy was not taking this well. In fact, he was screaming, his anger monumental, buttery, unfocused. “You’re an antisemite! Where do you expect the Jews to go? To drown in the sea?!” He turned to the board members, all the visitors. “I have the documents right here! This woman might have a silver tongue, but I have proof. I have fucking proof! Who are you going to believe?! Who?!” Having thoroughly exhausted himself, he slumped back in his chair.
Jasbir responded to Jimmy’s tirade as if he was an impartial moderator and the question he asked was done so in good faith. “Do I believe the Jews should drown in the sea? Absolutely not. Some things cannot be put away. The state of Israel should never have been created, its crimes should never have been committed. But it was, and they were.” Jasbir shifted Youssef to her other arm. “The task before us now, as I see it, is to find a way that everybody can live as equals in a free land, and to find ways where militarized domination of another people is a thing of the past.”
The room had taken all it could bear; Norman was impressed the decorum had held on as long as it had. But end it did. Everybody was talking, shouting, gesticulating. Cheryl yelled over everybody that emotions were too high for a vote, we’ll have to settle this at our regular meeting next week. Jimmy huffed out, taking his folders with him. Everybody soon followed.
Outside, people were milling around, heading towards their cars. Norman wanted to make a quick escape, he didn’t feel like conversing with anybody. There was Kal, playing handball with Jasbir’s older daughter against the side of the school. They were talking and laughing. The young Palestinian was very athletic. What were they talking about?
“Are you coming Kal?” he called over.
“Nah, I’m going to stay here for a while. See you at dinner!” Bert and Jasbir came out of the shul, chatting amicably about Tanis’ chances of getting into a good university on a squash scholarship. Norman nodded at his step-son and started towards the sidewalk. He had to find his father.
On the walk towards Chaim’s apartment he heard robins in the trees, saw a quarrel of sparrows lifting like a blanket from lawn to lawn, felt the neighbourhood hawk, somewhere up above, watching, surveying the streets of Thornhill.
The streets reveal their secrets, their hidden pockets, their patterns, but only if you give them time, give them attention. Norman’s walking, his mind full to bursting. This situation in the exec, it was worse than anything that’s happened since he signed on. What was he supposed to do? Maybe it is better for the members of Kol B’Seder to be exposed to somebody like Jasbir. Were there things about Israel that most people just weren’t able to see? Then again, he couldn’t get JNF Jimmy saying the word terrorist out of his head, it stuck to Jasbir like treesap, poisoned every thought Norman had about her.
Suddenly Julie’s beside him. Norman realizes he hadn’t seen her since the day of the watering can. She’s glowing. Her eyes are on fire; Norman could fall into them. His heart rate picks up.
“Didn’t I tell you great things are coming, Norman?” she asks, the question ringing like birdsong. They’re walking together along the street in perfect lockstep. Julie’s giving off the most intense energy Norman’s ever felt. It’s like her very essence is enveloping Norman in a warm hug. He’s entranced. “Well, they have come. Oh yes, great things. I am the one we’ve been waiting for, Normie. My whole life finally makes sense. I finally understand. I’m here to lead us all to salvation, to freedom, to golden justice! Since I was a child, I knew I had a higher calling. All of the pieces fit together now. The seasons, the trees, the wasp’s nest, the scarlet tanager, you—oh you, sweet, simple Norm! Don’t you see?” Her voice is like honey, oozing into Norman’s ears. Everything he is is her voice. “We are not waiting for Jerusalem. Jerusalem isn’t a place. Don’t listen to those warmongers. Listen to me! I am not here to monger war, I am here to monger peace! I will multiply the fishes, I will enter through the east gate, I will sing hallelujah and the seasons will rejoice. Jerusalem isn’t a place. Jerusalem is here. Jerusalem is inside me. I am Jerusalem!”
Without noticing, they’ve walked right to Norman’s driveway. Norman doesn’t know what to say. He’s bereft of words. He nods his head and goes into his house. Julie waves joyfully and pertly walks on.
A month after his forced retirement, Norman had found a dead bat in a flowerpot in the back yard. The tiny body, the perfect folded wings, the eyes closed shut as if in concentration, it had shook him badly. The little guy had a white substance all over his face, as if he was eating powdered donuts. Norman had gone inside and looked up bats on YouTube, learned about their upcoming demise, the shocking number of deaths, humans’ responsibility for the spread of the disease. He was in a funk for fifteen days.
It was the closest thing to how he felt now. The funniest part was that he was inclined to believe Julie. Julie as the messiah, come to earth to lead the Jewish people to the next stage of the universe. Not the strangest thing that had happened this week. He could see himself believing her. Why not?
Naomi came home from the mall, two grocery bags in each hand. “I ran into Cheryl,” she said as she put the groceries away, “she told me what happened at the board meeting.”
At first Norman didn’t know what she was talking about. The incident with Julie had erased everything else from his mind.
“I saw Julie just now. She basically told me she was the Jewish messiah.”
Naomi sat down beside him. At first she didn’t respond. “We should call Phillipe. We should do something, make sure she’s okay. It sounds like she’s having a psychopathic episode.”
Norman nodded, knowing she was right. Knowing how badly he wanted to believe, nonetheless.
That night, he called his brother Saul. They hadn’t spoken in a few months.
“Norm! When are you coming out here again?! It’s been too long!”
“I don’t know, I have my plate full with the exec and everything over here.”
“Yeah, yeah. You wouldn’t believe this country, Norm. We bend over backwards to treat these Arabs with more respect than they deserve, and what do the so called ‘peace’ loving Jews who live here say? Not enough! Well, it’s never enough!”
“Uh-huh.” Norman could feel his brother’s smugness, it was oozing out of the phone like fryer grease.
“I’m telling you, Netanyahu really has to up his game. This country is going down the shitter. You American Jews, you think you understand what’s going on here. Let me tell you, you have no idea.”
“Uh-huh.” Not only was Norman Canadian, so was Saul.
“Anyways, how are things in Canada? The prime minister still a raging antisemite?!”
“I’m not sure, Saul. I highly doubt it.”
“What are you doing out there, anyways, with those maple syrup drinkers? Bring Dad out here, to the holy land! We need you and your accounting skills. Ha! Do we ever!”
“I’ll think about it.” Calling Saul was a bad idea.
“Alrighty, Norman. Next year in Jerusalem!” Saul laughed.
“Next year,” Norman said, hanging up.
Whatever he felt now, it wasn’t any better.
That night Norman was awash in strange dreams. He was sitting at the board room table in the middle of a forest. At the table were Naomi, Julie, Jasbir, Cheryl, their daughters, Jasbir’s daughters, Chaim, Chaim’s murdered family. Huge trees towered over them. They were discussing if Norman should move to Israel or not. Norman could barely pay attention to the back and forth debate, massive birds were flying all around them, weaving around the ancient trunks. “I’ll follow Julie wherever she tells me to go,” he said. That’s when Jasbir pulled out the gun, pointed it at Chaim. Norman’s sweet, innocent father. Everybody started chanting: “Terrorist, terrorist, terrorist.” Jasbir laughed maniacally.
He woke up in a sweat. Got up quietly, put on his pants and a sweatshirt, went out into the streets. It was well before sunrise. His mind was saturated. He had an unbearable desire to run into Julie. Should he call Phillipe and make sure she was okay?
Turning the corner, he saw a flash of red, and then, he saw it. The scarlet tanager. It was hovering in some cedar bushes. It was more impressive than he could have hoped. The red of its body ancient, pure, untouched. A bright strong little body packed with impossible life. He stood watching it. The sun rose all around him, over him, in him.
Back at home, he sat at the kitchen table, waiting for Naomi to come down. The coffee was on. He stared at the phone.
The day of the board meeting arrived. The day of the vote. Norman walked the long way to Isaac Babel. Was it only yesterday morning that he had seen Julie, right here? She was chatting with Tom, who was in full jogging apparel, running in place, one earbud resting on his shoulder like a piece of cooked spaghetti threaded through a chickpea. They were talking about the new traffic lights that were being installed beside the mall when Norman approached. “The neighbourhood is just too busy for stop signs now,” Tom was saying. “Hullo Norman!” Julie said when she saw him. She looked like her regular self; at least, her skin wasn’t radiating, her eyes weren’t endless, her soul wasn’t forty sizes too big for her body. From what he understood, Julie had been back from the hospital for a few days. Norman had called Phillipe, who, of course, knew about Julie. “She gets like this from time to time,” he had said. So Julie’s not the messiah, Norman had thought, hanging up the phone. She’s not the messiah. No.
But she is Julie.
“Hi Norm, how’s the retired life treating you?” Tom asked. He was probably trying to deduce if Norman was going to vote for his ouster or not.
“You know, pretty good. More time to walk the streets, watch for birds.”
“What a wonderful day for it!” Julie said.
“I was actually hoping to run into you,” Norman said to Julie, reaching into his briefcase. “I got you something.”
“For me! How sweet!”
Norman pulled the painting out. It was on a 12x12 canvas, a lifelike rendition of a scarlet tanager, the colours vibrant and popping. He had commissioned Bert’s niece’s girlfriend to paint it.
Julie took the painting, held it out in front of her. Didn’t say anything. Norman wondered if perhaps this was a bad idea.
“Oh Normal, I love it!” She took Norman into a big bear hug.
Waiting to cross the lights at Bathurst, Norman wondered what it meant that he—for a moment, at least—believed Julie was the messiah. Did he really want the world to end that badly? He didn’t think so. What did he want? To do the right thing. To do right by his family. To do right for his people.
Inside the shul, Norman ran into Bert outside the men’s room. Bert hadn’t shaved in a few days. The orange stubble suited him.
“What do you think’s going to happen today?” Bert asked, as if they were talking about a tennis match.
“I really don’t know.”
“Are we going to prove as insular and closed-off as ever? Or are we going to surprise even an old cynic like me?”
Norman shook his head. “I truly don’t know Bert.”
Bert nodded, thought of something, lit up. “Hey, hey, how many radical anti-Zionist Jews does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“I don’t know, Bert, how many?”
“Nobody knows, they’ve never been given a chance!”
“That’s great, Bert.”
The mood in the board room was much mellower compared to last week. Whatever happened today, at least a decision was being made. JNF Jimmy was flitting around the room, whispering to everybody, shaking hands. He was wearing a white shirt with a big pine tree on it, some Hebrew writing. Cheryl had—rightly, Norman thought—declared today’s meeting closed; only the executive were present. Norman felt tremendous pride for his ex-wife.
The meeting started a few minutes late. There were other things on the agenda—the possibility of new textbooks for the confirmation classes, the first round of negotiations with the Rabbi on his contract renewal, supposedly important news regarding the building fund—but, thankfully, the vote was first. After all that, it would happen quickly; a yay to remove Tom, a nay to keep him on. David and Geri Krasner, Jimmy, and Cheryl—Norman only feeling the slightest pinch of surprise—voted for Tom’s removal. Cheryl had to keep Jimmy from making a big speech when it was his turn to vote. Tom, Bert, Sheri, and Magda voted for him to stay. As it happened, Norman was the last vote. All eyes were on him. He was the tiebreaker; the decision was his. He looked at everybody in turn, his eyes landing on the windows. The sky outside was a gentle blue. Who knew what life was out there, behind the screen of the seen? He thought of Jasbir, of his brother, of his daughters. Mostly, he thought of Julie. Julie and her watering can, her burning eyes. If she had been born in a different time, a different place, who knows how many she would have led. The room grew impatient.
Any moment now, he was going to decide.
Aaron Kreuter is the author of the poetry collection Arguments for Lawn Chairs, and the short story collection You and Me, Belonging, which won the Miramichi Reader's 2019 'The Very Best!' Short Fiction Award and was shortlisted for both a ReLit Award and a Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature. He is an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel. His second collection of poetry, Shifting Baseline Syndrome, is forthcoming this spring from Oskana Poetry & Poetics, and is available for preorder.
You can read a story by Aaron Kreuter published in Issue 9 here.