We had just finished the Mozart C minor Mass,
and rehearsals were to begin for Mendelsohn's Elijah. I had joined
the Civic Chorale on a whim the year before, having come out of the shower
into full-throated exhibitionism. The first piece was Verdi's Otello,
and it was glorious. I had sung the piece many times before with the Metropolitan
Opera--but that was in my living room, where I could simultaneously sing the
roles of Otello, Iago, and Desdemona, as well. Now, it was for real, with
a live orchestra and opera stars as soloists. Standing in the last
row of the bass section in the Veterans Memorial Auditorium was more thrilling
than pretending to be onstage at the Met.
Next came the Mozart Mass--and it was a problem. "Kyrie eleison," it began. "Lord, have mercy." No big deal--"Rahem na adonay elohenu." And then, "Christe eleison." Whoops! Was I supposed to be singing this? I lift up mine eyes from the text, and a large brass cross troubles my sight. We rehearse in the Congdon Street Baptist Church.
"Credo ln unum deum. Jesum Christum filium," we continue. When I was a child in the Yeshiva, they taught me that to go into a church was a hillul, a desecration of God's name. On top of that, it was marisayin--being seen in a place where you might sin was tantamount to committing the sin itself. Once, Rabbi Cohn caught me coming out of a treyfe butcher shop in Grove Hall. I had gone in to get some string for a kite; butcher shops always had a big ball of twine on the counter. He seized me by the ear--the time-honored method of instilling musar, and, eyes ablaze in horror, asked what business I had in this repository of pork bellies and oxtails.
"String for my kite," I whimpered in misery.
"Maris ayin! Maris Ayin!" he thundered.
I looked up and down Blue Hill Avenue, and, seeing
no-one answering, responded that I knew no-one named Morris Zion.
"Filium dei unigenitum et ex patre natum." This isn't just maris ayin; it's maris ozen, as well. And who is it who peers down from behind the cross, slowly shaking head and finger in solemn rebuke? It's my zayde, sadly admonishing, "You dassn't do that, Michel."
"It's all right, Zayde. It's just like the Hallel," I answer weakly, "Wait till you hear what comes next."
"Benedictus qui venit ln nomine domine--Baruch
haba b'shemadonay." And then, "Sanctus. sanctus sanctus, dominus
deus sabaothpleni sunt coeli et terrae gloria tua--Kadosh kadosh
tz'vaot m'lo kol ha'aretz k'vodo." Then follows the "Et incarnatusest," and my zayde is far from appeased.
He will like the Elijah better. After
all, it's by Felix Mendelsohn, grandson of Moses Mendelsohn, one of the leading
Jewish scholars of the Enlightenment. But Felix hardly followed in his
zayde's footsteps. He converted to Christianity--he committed shmad--the
very word sounds obscene, its roots steeped in destruction.
I step into the driveway, struggling with my ambivalence. My dilemma is interrupted by the siren of the fire truck, racing up the street. It stops two doors down, as an old woman dashes onto the front stairs, beckoning in terror. A fireman runs into the house, and I follow. On the living room floor lies an old man, gray and dead. The fireman forces air into his gaping mouth, as a younger man compresses his chest, kneeling over the prostrate body. The younger man shouts in rhythm with his downstrokes, "Abba! Abba!"
Who was this old man? It wasn't Burt; he was in Florida for the winter.The man and his wife must have sublet for a few months. I knelt beside the younger man. "Is he your father?" I asked in Hebrew.
"Ken," he gasped in between strokes.
"I'm a doctor," I said, "Let me do this. A son should not have to do this for his father."
We changed places, and I continued the chest compression as the fireman breathed for the old man. One, two, three, four, five...Come on! Breathe! Still no pulse. Please! Breathe! One, two, three, four, five. Help, God! From out of my foxhole I call unto Thee. One, two, three, four, five. Breathe! All right, if you won't breathe, just say so, and I'll go. I have a rehearsal. Elijah. One, two, three, four five. Breathe!
And Elijah steps forth--not from the dry text of Kings, but from the vivid color pages of a child's comic book, "Tales from the Old Testament." A woman dashes from her house and calls to the prophet passing her door, "My child is dead!" The prophet enters the house, prays to God, bends over the lifeless child, and breathes the breath of life into him. And the child lived.
Help, God! Help, Elijah! Help this old zayde!
As the Rescue Squad arrived, the man's gray turned
to pink, and he began to breathe on his own, and a pulse became visible in
his neck. A cardiac monitor was hooked up, and an intravenous drip begun.
The younger man gazed at the tracing on the oscilloscope. "It's an agonal
rhythm," he pronounced, "Probably ventricular tachycardia."
"Are you a doctor?" I asked.
"Yes, I'm a cardiologist. My father is visiting from Israel."
I laughed. "You better take over. I'm a psychiatrist. We'll deal with your trauma later."
His orders were crisp and direct: "Xylocaine 50 milligrams push, and in the drip, as well. Two more ampules of bicarbonate."
The old man's heart rhythm stabilized, and his breathing became regular and deep. The Rescue Squad rushed him to the hospital. The firemen left in their chariot of fire. After some brief words of comfort and reassurance to the family, I said to the old woman, "I must go to my rehearsal. I sing in a choir. We sing about Eliyahu Hanavi.
"M'haye hametim!" she responded, "The reviver of the dead!"
As I entered the church, the chorale was
beginning the opening chorus: "Help, Lord!" I slid into my place in the bass
section. The others moved aside, and I became aware that I was covered with
sweat. Many times I had protested to my wife, when she would complain that
it was permitted to use deodorant more than once a day, that it was "the odor
of life." Now, it was true.
We skipped ahead to Elijah's confrontation with the prophets of Baal, pronounced by the conductor as "the prophets of Bale." I had an image of Elijah with a pitchfork, tossing bales of hay onto the altar.
We finished with a serene chorus, "He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps--Shomer Yisrael lo yanum v'lo yishan." The tightness in my throat made singing difficult.
Two weeks later, some friends and I stood in my driveway, preparing to bicycle to Boston. It was Easter Sunday, and the warm south wind promised an easy trip. The old woman passed by. "How is your husband?" I asked.
"Hiney hu ba--here he comes," she answered. The old man approached, and his wife introduced us.
"We've met before," I said, "But probably
you don't remember."
"I was elsewhere at the time," he answered.
It’s’ a special day today," I laughed, "For those who have returned from the dead.”
“Yes,” he answered, “It’s a beautiful day.”
Michael Ingall is a psychiatrist and would-be choral singer
in Rhode Island.