Rosh Hashana, Mon
When Jimmy Barret looked through the window of his deli and saw the two Hasidim huddled under the awning outside, he wondered if they would come in. The rain was fierce, almost horizontal, and there was no way they could keep from getting soaked.
One was an elderly man with a bushy white beard, and the other was younger, his facial hair wispy and scraggly. They seemed to be embroiled in a discussion.
Jimmy assumed it was religious in nature, since that’s what he thought they mostly talked about in their language, but maybe they were trying to decide whether or not to come in. If they did, they would be the first Hasidim to ever set foot in his shop.
This Brooklyn neighborhood had been home to Orthodox Jews for nearly a century. About ten years ago, a small group of Jamaicans, including Jimmy’s family, had moved in. Others had followed, and their numbers slowly increased to the point where, now, a few small businesses like his deli could survive with only Jamaican customers, of whom he had none at the moment.
Jimmy felt sorry for the two Hasidim, who tried to press themselves against the side of the building, their black hats and heavy coats getting inundated. Finally, he decided it was worth a shot. He came out from behind the counter, walked to the front door, and opened it.
“Gentlemen,” he called out in his sing-song voice, “why don’t you come inside and get dry?”
The older man looked away. The younger one gave him a smile. “Thanks,” he said, “I believe I’ll take you up on that.”
He said something in Yiddish to his companion, who grunted. Then, with one more “thank you,” the younger man ducked past Jimmy into the shop. The older man stood for a moment and then followed, not looking at Jimmy, not saying anything.
“Here, mon, let me get you some paper towels.” Jimmy moved behind the counter and reached underneath for the roll he kept there in case of spills. The two Hasidim stood in the middle of the store, the elderly one staring ahead, the younger one eyeing the shelves.
“I wish we could repay your kindness by buying something,” he said, “but we have to keep kosher. I hope you understand.”
“Sure, mon, no problem.” Jimmy tore off a large chunk of paper towels and handed it to him. “I’m Jimmy Barret, by the way.”
“Hi, I’m Shmuel Pinsky,” said the younger man, accepting the towels, “and this is Rabbi Menachem Willman.” He nodded toward the older man, who continued to stare ahead. Jimmy offered him some paper towels, but he gave an almost imperceptible shake of the head, “no.”
“I hope this doesn’t last too long,” said Shmuel, squinting out the window at the rain. “Even if it’s pouring, we’ll have to leave soon.” He took off his felt hat, his head still covered by a small black skullcap, and mopped at the brim. “We have to get to shul before sundown, when Rosh Hashana starts.”
Jimmy looked at him. “Some kind’a rush is startin’ at sundown?”
The young Hassid smiled. “Not a rush. Rosh Hashana. The start of our New Year, a very holy day.”
The older man muttered something in Yiddish that sounded angry. Shmuel shrugged.
“The rebbe is very upset,” he explained. “Actually, we both are. We attended a trial today, and it was very disturbing.”
“What kind’a trial, if you don’t mind me askin’?”
“Not at all. You probably know from it; it’s been in the papers and on TV,” Shmuel said.
Jimmy was about to put the roll of towels under the counter when he stopped, his eyes widening. “You’re not talkin’ ’bout the Prospect Park murder trial, are you?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Jimmy let out a low whistle. “Wow, that’s really somethin’!” He put away the towels. “But how come you were there?”
“Because the victim, Herschel Ginsberg, alav ha-sholom, was a member of our congregation.”
The older man directed his gaze for the first time at Jimmy, a look of stern accusation.
It actually made Jimmy take a step back. He held out his hands placatingly. “No, no, listen, mon…er, I mean, Rabbi,” he said, “please don’t think that guy, Louis Reynolds, has anything to do with me or any other Jamaican. He just wears his hair in dreadlocks, that’s all.”
Shmuel put his fingers to the side of his head, twirled one of his long Hasidic side locks, and smiled. “You could almost say the same of us,” he said. The rabbi shot him a dirty look as well.
“What do you think?” Jimmy asked. “Is Louis Reynolds guilty?”
“It’s hard to say,” said Shmuel.
The rabbi gave a derisive snort.
“The rebbe doesn’t agree with my skepticism. I think that he believes Herschel Ginsberg, alav ha-sholom, and what he said in his testimony.”
“Wait a minute. You mean the victim?” Jimmy said, astonished.
“Yes. By giving a dying statement to the policeman who was trying to save his life, Herschel Ginsberg, alav ha-sholom, testified at his own murder trial.”
* * *
Officer Lance Viterelli strained to hear the words as he applied pressure to the knife wound in the man’s chest, trying to slow the blood that was spurting out of it. It was hard to hear because Herschel Ginsberg was speaking softly as his strength ebbed, and doubly hard because his wife, Raisa, also covered in blood, was right beside them, wailing. But Officer Viterelli heard it well enough.
“He attacked us,” Herschel Ginsberg gasped. “He jumped out of the bushes and grabbed Raisa. He held a knife to her face and threatened to kill her if I didn’t give him my wallet. I took it out and showed him there was no money in it because I never carry money. Then I put it back in my pocket, and he went crazy. He threw my Raisa aside and then stabbed me. You must catch this man, officer. He’s a black man, with long curls in his hair and a tattoo of a flower on his left forearm. I saw it when he was holding his arm around Raisa’s neck. Get him, officer, please. Get him!”
* * *
“And I guess,” said Jimmy, “that Louis Reynolds has a tattoo of a flower on his left forearm.”
“A rose, in fact, and a very prominent one. And he lives only a block away from the park.”
“So why don’t you believe the victim’s testimony, if I’m not offendin’?”
“I did believe it at first,” said Shmuel. “Who wouldn’t? But then his wife, Raisa, came to the stand.”
* * *
“So, let the record show,” said Prosecutor Will Hustings, “that, when asked to identify the man who stabbed her husband, the witness pointed to the defendant, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Please, Your Honor?” Raisa Ginsberg looked up at the judge miserably. “I must say something. I must say that my husband, alav ha-sholom, was not telling the truth.”
Pandemonium ensued. It took fourteen loud bangs of the gavel before the judge brought it back to order. He conferred with the lawyers, then ruled to let the woman continue.
“Yes, this man killed my husband, but none of the rest of it happened the way he said. My dear, loving Herschel, alav ha-sholom, was a good man, a wonderful man, but he was not a tolerant man. We came to a deserted area in the park, and there was a black fellow, Mr. Reynolds, the defendant, and he was urinating against a tree. As we walked past him, Herschel said a terrible thing to me. It was in Yiddish, and it meant that black people should go back to the jungle where they belong.
“He didn’t think he could be understood, but I guess it was his tone of voice and the word schvartze that Mr. Reynolds recognized. There was an argument, and they started pushing each other. They wrestled and fell to the ground. My Herschel landed on top. He was bigger than Mr. Reynolds and stronger. He started choking him, and I ran over, trying to stop Herschel, when, all of a sudden, he cried out and fell into my arms.
“Mr. Reynolds stood up with the knife in his hand. He said to me, ‘I’m sorry. I had to do it.’ Then he ran away.
“I’ll love my Herschel for eternity, but I swore before God on the Bible, and I have to tell the truth.”
* * *
“So it was self-defense?” Jimmy’s already high-pitched voice was stratospheric.
“That’s what it seemed like, and that’s what we figured his lawyers would claim,” said Shmuel. “But then, against all advice, Louis Reynolds insisted on taking the stand.”
* * *
“Thank you, Your Honor. I intended to stay quiet and take the fall, but I’m not going to. Not now and not ever.
“For most of this past year, Raisa Ginsberg and I have been lovers.”
Pandemonium returned with a vengeance. This time, it took twenty-two bangs of the gavel before it all calmed down.
Louis Reynolds continued. “This tattoo on my arm is for her. It’s a rose. In Yiddish, that’s raisa. It was our little secret. We both worked in the same office building downtown, and anybody can check on that if they don’t believe me. That was how we first met. Her husband was a salesman for a religious items company, and he was out of town a lot. We used to meet in my apartment and then go for walks in Prospect Park. That night, her husband was there, waiting.
“I guess it was crazy to think he’d never find out. He lied to her about a sales trip, and then he followed her. We were walking through this deserted area, when he came right up on us.
“I’d never seen him before, but I knew it was him. The first thing he did was start talking real angry to her in Yiddish. I couldn’t believe it. He ignored me like I wasn’t even there.
“She answered him back in Yiddish, and then the two of them really went at it. I tried to say something, but she turned on me.
“‘Get out of here, Louis,’ she said. ‘This is between my husband and me. Go home; I’ll call you later. Go!’
“I hesitated because I didn’t want to leave, but I did. She never called, and that was the last I saw of her, until this trial.”
He looked pleadingly at the jury.
“I can’t tell you what happened after I left them, but I can tell you that I did not kill Herschel Ginsberg. She might have, but I didn’t.”
* * *
Jimmy shook his head. “This just keeps gettin’ weirder and weirder, mon,” he said. “But let me ask you somethin’. They never found the knife, right?”
“Right,” said Shmuel. “The police assumed that Reynolds got rid of it somehow. He had two days to do it before they found him. The same with the clothes he was wearing. They found no traces of blood in his apartment.”
Jimmy nodded. “So, if Louis Reynolds was tellin’ the truth, and the woman killed her husband, she would still have the knife on her when the cops got there. Did they search her?”
“No, and why would they? She was hysterical with grief, and her husband had just given them a dying description of the killer.”
“So she could’a got rid of it later, is what you’re sayin’.”
Jimmy gave it some thought. “You know, I think I believe Louis Reynolds. The meanin’ of that tattoo was real convincin’, I tell you. And also him workin’ in the same building as her.”
“It’s a bubbe mayse,” the rabbi interjected, using the polite Yiddish term for “bullshit.” In impeccable English, with only the hint of an accent, he continued.
“Reynolds could have found out both of those things after the fact and then used the coincidences to his advantage.”
“You speak English!” Jimmy exclaimed. “I didn’t realize.”
“Of course you didn’t,” said the rabbi. “People have no idea how much they don’t realize. For example, Herschel Ginsberg, alav ha-sholom, could have been lying for many reasons: to protect his wife, or out of shame that he was deceived by her, or because he didn’t want to admit his assailant acted in self-defense. Or else, he was telling the truth.
“Raisa Ginsberg could have lied to protect her lover, if that’s what he was, or herself if she was guilty. Or else, she was telling the truth.
“Louis Reynolds, even more likely, could have been lying. He was, after all, on trial for his life. And if, as he claimed, they were lovers, he still could have been the killer, not her. Or else, he was telling the truth.
“All of these stories can’t be true, so, nu? Which one?” He looked at both young men.
“Something bothers me,” said Shmuel. “Why did Louis Reynolds have a change of heart and decide to incriminate Raisa? Her testimony had just given him a lifeline, self-defense. Why didn’t he use it? Why would he turn against her?”
“Dov Glickstein,” said the rabbi.
“Who?” said Jimmy.
“Ah, yes, Dov Glickstein,” Shmuel mused. “He was sitting in the front row, and she looked at him a couple of times during her testimony.”
“He was looking at her, as well,” said the rabbi. “He’s been looking at her for quite some time. He was in love with her before she married Herschel and, according to his parents, she had feelings for him too. What passed unspoken between them in that courtroom could have been noticed by Louis Reynolds.”
“Wow!” said Jimmy.
A ray of sunlight burst through the window, bathing the three of them in brightness.
“Look, it’s stopped raining,” said Shmuel. “We can get to the shul in time!” He reached into his pocket, took out a twenty-dollar bill, and slid it across the counter toward Jimmy. “Here, we’ll buy twenty dollars worth of your finest paper towels, for your kindness.” He looked over Jimmy’s shoulder at the shelf behind him. “Or else, some batteries.”
“No, no, mon, you don’t have to do that.” Jimmy slid the twenty back to him. “I’m just glad I could help out, and it was a good way to pass the time. In fact, it was much better than that.”
“Well, then, next time,” said Shmuel.
“That would be great,” said Jimmy. “Can I wish you both a happy Rush-a-ma-call-it? Would it be proper?”
“Very proper,” said Shmuel, laughing. “It’s the Jewish New Year. It’s a time of rebirth, of starting over. It’s when we consider all the sins of the past year and prepare to rid ourselves of them on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s a happy time, and it’s called Rosh Hashana.”
“That’s beautiful, mon,” said Jimmy. “Well then, Happy Rosh Hashana.”
“Thank you,” said Shmuel, and the rabbi nodded.
They started for the door, and they were about to open it when the rabbi turned and looked at Jimmy.
“Of course, after Yom Kippur,” he said with an ironic smile, “we get a whole year in which to pile up every sin imaginable.”
With that, they squinted into the sunshine and stepped out onto the gleaming pavement.