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Five years later: February
Briarwood Temple, Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class
Session 2, Class 1
Every single adult Bat Mitzvah student wanted the perfect date. Judith Nachman was no exception to this rule. Which explained why she was running as fast as she could, heels pounding on the concrete of the Briarwood Temple parking lot.
Thankfully, she’d kept up the exercise routine she’d started, so she wasn’t breathing hard as she arrived at the top of the hill and the entrance to the temple itself.
“Evening,” the security guard said.
He wasn’t the usual guard she’d seen over the past few months, and she made a note to ask how he’d been the next time she’d saw him. But then she realized this guard was looking at her. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m Judith Nachman, here for the adult B’nai Mitzvah class.”
The guard nodded, looking back and forth between her face and the paper list on the podium in front of him. “Class starts in five minutes.”
Judith nodded back. She knew all too well when the class was scheduled to start. But she’d been coming from the city, straight to class and the temple from work. And on days where the head of the foundation didn’t push her out the door to make sure she got out of the office at close to a normal hour, she’d be at work for hours, lost in a project or other.
Today, having noticed the fact she’d marked this date on her calendar for the past six months, he’d pushed, and yet here she was.
But all she said was, “Yeah. I know. Trains and traffic.”
The guard nodded as if he’d accepted her explanation. “Go right on ahead.”
“Thank you.” She waved back before heading through the bright entranceway into the heart of the synagogue.
Her destination was down the linoleum-tiled hall to the left, one of the smaller classrooms. The room was filled with posters of the alef-bet, notes about class tasks and desks that reminded her of being in high school—the ones with the desk attached to the seat, which never worked for her.
Except somehow, there was one miracle desk that attached on the left side instead of the right, one custom-made, left-handed desk amid the sea of right-handed desks. That desk was in the third row all the way over. Aside from being made for her, it was in the perfect spot. She was close to the front but not sitting in the instructor’s lap. And for six months, in the evening session of the class, that desk had been hers.
But tonight, the special night where the Briarwood Temple’s adult B’nai Mitzvah class were going to get their dates, that seat was filled. Not by a left-handed person but by someone leaning awkwardly with their left elbow on the desk, a pad clearly on their right knee where they were intending to write.
If it was another left-handed person, like she was, she might have been sympathetic. But as she moved closer, she hoped this right-handed person was reasonable, would understand her predicament and give her the seat. There were many desks suitable for right-handed people in the room.
So, she took a deep breath and tapped the man on his cable-knit-sweater-covered shoulder. “Excuse me.”
His voice covered her like a blanket dipped in oil.
Only one person had that voice, the depth and smooth tone, the focused bright green eyes that held you even when they were standing across the room. Combined with the broad shoulders that dwarfed the size of the small seat back, the dark hair somewhere between artfully messy and naturally styled. And the New York Empires bag that sat at his feet.
The man who killed her sister’s career.
“Never mind,” she said, turning away and heading toward one of the other seats. It would be a cold day in hell before she asked Asher Mendel for anything.
Ash’s heart fell into his stomach as the woman walked away from him.
Her face was burned into his memory. Judith Nachman. Leah Nachman’s older sister had a slight resemblance to the agent assistant who had done her best to help him when nobody else could have. She’d failed, and John Whitmore had managed it and his career ever since.
Leaving Leah Nachman behind to deal with the fallout and the promises he’d broken.
And most likely, judging by her reaction, Judith Nachman had been there to pick up the pieces.
Years later, that whole incident haunted him. But Whitmore had started him on the road back to appreciating the chance he had gotten after the surgery he’d desperately needed. And after his playing career had ended, Whitmore’s intervention had brought him to the classroom in which he sat.
Gratitude, the desire to help others and give them a voice had led him to this class six months before, realizing there was a huge hole in his life and his heart. He was here to catch up on the parts of his Jewish education he’d missed due to hockey.
He remembered years of sleeping through Sunday school after 6:00 a.m. practices, then leaving his religious education entirely when travel teams and private schools beckoned. Wherever possible, he’d billet with Jewish host families during the times he was playing hockey out of state as a kid, but it wasn’t the same as going to services every Friday night or Saturday morning, at the same synagogue your parents attended, having congregants who’d known you when you’d been a baby in your mother’s arms. And having your Bar Mitzvah.
He wanted to do his best to help fix that, which was why he was here.
Not to fight with Judith Nachman.
“All right, everybody,” Senior Rabbi Sol Leibowitz said once he’d finished going through his lecture notes. “I want to take the time to give you your dates, as well as final distribution of the torah and haftorah portions you’ll be responsible for. We’ve taken all of the available dates and distributed them according to your preferences. As we’ve told you before, changing dates leads to trouble, which means we’ve instituted a rule where nobody is allowed to change a date once they’ve gotten the assignment.”
Ash nodded. He was prepared to share.
He wasn’t prepared for the name he saw when he opened the envelope Rabbi Leibowitz had given him.
Judith’s heart pounded against her chest as she adjusted her skirt. Because there she was, sitting in the rabbi’s office, as if she’d done something wrong.
There was absolutely no way she would put her sister through seeing this man again. Forcing Leah to watch as Asher Mendel, the man who’d been responsible for derailing her career, recited a Torah portion on a day that was supposed to be special. Not horrifying.
Nine years before, Asher Damned Mendel had made promises, many of them, cementing his professional future with her baby sister. Mendel had agreed to be Leah’s first official client. But all John Whitmore had to do was breathe, and Mendel had ended everything, including the promises. All Judith could see when she looked at the smug, retired hockey player was the image of her sister sobbing into her arms after that schmuck had followed John “The Moron” Whitmore off the stationery of the newly renamed All Sports Agency. She could barely imagine what Leah would see when confronted by this man.
So immediately after class, Judith had gone up to Rabbi Leibowitz to explain the extenuating circumstances surrounding her need for a date change. Unfortunately, Asher Damned Mendel somehow managed to steal her thunder, as he’d come up to talk to the rabbi as well.
What did the rabbi do in response?
“I suggest both of you come to my office,” he said, “because no matter what this problem is, it needs to be worked out with the both of you immediately.”
Immediately meant walking to the rabbi’s office, where Judith explained in detail how Mendel had managed to destroy her sister’s professional reputation at the beginning of her career, something that had taken years to repair. She focused on the rabbi even as Mendel looked as if he’d been hit by a truck.
All the same, the rabbi shrugged. “I don’t think,” the older man said, “there’s much that can be done.”
This wasn’t a solution. This wasn’t…
No. She had to stay calm. She had to be rational, presenting her case in a way that made it clear how difficult this situation was and would be. “I don’t understand,” she said, trying to channel the head of the foundation she worked for, calm and cool despite the way the situation was falling to pieces around her. “I really don’t understand how this could have happened. Of all the people I could have shared a date with and been fine with, I don’t get it.”
“It’s simple,” Rabbi Leibowitz said, his eyes warm. “You asked for the portion you might have had, and he wanted it as well.”
“But,” she said, “why…?”
“It was my grandfather’s,” he said. “Part of the reason I’m here—and no, the rest of my reasoning doesn’t matter—is to do his haftorah. In his memory.”
“Then I’ll take another date. Any other date,” she said. “I can’t put my family through—”
“Are you sure?” The rabbi paused, looking between them, as if he actually understood the magnitude of what he was asking of both of them. “The next date is in a year’s time, and who knows what will be available, as the fourth grade gets first choice.”
Which made absolute sense. The program was, in essence, a second chance for people who hadn’t had their B’nai Mitzvahs as kids, and because of that, they got the leftover dates, the ones the fourth graders hadn’t wanted.
But having a Bat Mitzvah this year on a date that would bring her sister face-to-face with the ugly past versus waiting a year for something Judith had wanted most of her life wasn’t much of a choice, either.
End of Excerpt