I should have suspected all was not quite kosher with Vera Gold’s death when one of the men carrying her body accidentally tripped at the front door and almost spilled poor Vera onto the ground. This was not a good omen.
Vera died at the close of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when we are called upon to examine our lives, confess the bad things we have done the previous year, and ask both God and the people we have wronged to forgive us. In her life Vera had much to atone for and many of whom to ask forgiveness; but knowing Vera as I did, I had no doubt she was unrepentant to the end.
About Vera’s death, you might say I had mixed feelings. I was not entirely sad to see her go, although I would have preferred that she left us upright rather than horizontal.
“Ida, it’s going to be a lot quieter around here now that Vera has died,” said my friend Rose Kaplan as we watched two burly men put Vera into a hearse.
“You say that as if it is a bad thing,” I replied. “The kind of excitement Vera caused I can do without, thank you very much.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Mrs. K said. “Still, you have to admit Vera kept things pretty lively at times.”
Now, that was an understatement. And when Mrs. K made it, she and I had no idea just how lively things were to become.
As I have said before, death at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors is not what you would call an unusual event. Sad, yes. Unusual, no. Given the average age and state of health of the residents, it is perhaps surprising we are not having memorial services on a daily basis. Nevertheless, Vera’s was definitely a strange death. But then, Mrs. K seems to attract strange deaths like a dog attracts fleas.
Only fleas are a lot less dangerous.
“Did not your David use to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?” Mrs. K asked me one day last September, the day before Rosh Hashanah. That’s the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the High Holidays, the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. David is my late husband, may he rest in peace.
We were in the kitchen of the Home, helping to prepare two of the most important foods for the coming holiday, apples and challah. There were just four of us, Mrs. K and I and Karen Friedlander and Fannie Kleinberg. Everyone likes to eat the goodies but only a few are willing to help make them. Karen and Fannie, and of course Mrs. K, you could always count on.
You may know that, unlike celebrating-type holidays like Pesach, Purim, or Chanukah, with parties and presents and noshing lots of food, on Yom Kippur we are supposed to eat nothing at all. Instead, we fast for the whole day, from dusk to dusk. But maybe to make up for that, on Rosh Hashanah we eat very well.
The apples we were cutting up to be dipped in honey—it is so we should have a sweet year—and the challahs we were making were round ones. I am not sure why the challah—that’s a braided-up egg bread, it makes wonderful toast—is long in shape on Shabbos and round on Rosh Hashanah. Some people say it symbolizes the circle of life, others that it is a crown because God is the King of Kings. Whatever is the shape or why, it tastes very good.
So while we are slicing and mixing, somewhere in the building we hear someone practicing on the shofar, the twisted ram’s horn that is blown as part of the High Holiday services. When Mrs. K asked her question, I suddenly felt sad and stopped working for a moment. “Yes, that’s right,” I said. “For many years David was the baal tokea, the shofar blower, in our synagogue. I can remember him getting so excited the week before the High Holidays, making sure his lips were in shape for all the work they would be doing, just like if he were a famous trumpet player who was preparing for a big recital.”
“David I never heard, of course,” Mrs. K said, “but I remember one of the men who blew the shofar at our synagogue. Oy, such a sound he made. You know how, at the end of the final service on Yom Kippur, the shofar sounds Tekiah Gedolah, that very long note?”
“Do I know? You should have seen the color of poor David’s face when he blew that note. I was always afraid he might pass out, collapse right there on the bimah. In fact, I once asked him please to be less dramatic and not hold the note for so long. He said he could think of no better way to die than to be accompanied by the sound of the shofar. After that I really worried.”
Mrs. K laughed. “Yes, I see what you mean. And most shofar blowers, they hold the note for a few seconds and then give up. We all get the idea, and it is quite satisfactory. But this one man in our shul—a handsome fellow, not particularly tall or heavy, just ordinary build—would take a deep breath, begin to blow the long note, then turn slowly around, sending the sound to all parts of the sanctuary. You expected that after maybe twenty or thirty seconds, he would run out of air, like most people would. But he just kept on and on, sweeping the shofar back and forth, until we were all on the edge of our seats, wondering how long he could go on without collapsing. It was like he was Joshua at the battle of Jericho—you know, bringing down the walls with his shofar. When he finally did run out of breath and had to stop, we all felt like clapping, but of course one does not applaud during the Yom Kippur service. Nu, we contented ourselves with congratulating him afterward.”
“I am glad my David did not try anything like that,” I said. “It maybe would not have hurt him, but it would have given me a heart attack for sure.”
I began to get a bissel watery in the eyes, thinking about David. Mrs. K knew what was the matter—she does not miss much—and she came over and put her arm around me. “I know, Ida,” she said. “I miss my Sam too. But we must be grateful for the wonderful memories we have, and for our children, who will carry on the family after us.”
“Yes, I am being silly,” I said. “It is just that at this time of the year . . . But we should get back to work, or there will be no apples and no challah to nosh on after services.”
How important is family, I thought, especially at these times when we come together to celebrate or observe a special occasion. They provide you comfort, understanding, and hope for the future.
But not always. Standing there in the kitchen that day, I of course did not know that in ten days, when the High Holidays had ended, Vera Gold would have passed, and how differently her family would figure into that sad event.
The Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors is probably like most such establishments, except most of the residents—not all, but most—are Jewish. They serve kosher food, and we celebrate all the Jewish holidays. If you want Christmas and Easter, you probably are in the wrong place. Mrs. K and I have lived at the Home for several years now. The residents are a real mishmash of people: old, young; rich, poor; athletic, arthritic. Mentally, many of the residents are still, as they say, sharp like a tack, but some are now more like the other end of the tack, having been hit with the hammer of life much too often. You know, missing a few candles from their menorah. Alas, it is life in a retirement home.
I suppose Mrs. K and I fall somewhere in the middle in all of these ways, with one big exception: if we are measuring how well our minds are working, Mrs. K is definitely the sharpest tack in the box. There certainly is no doubt she is smarter than I am; otherwise, it would be me who is solving the murders and she who is telling you about it.
So I shall do the telling, as usual.