I. April 2020
Irv laughed. “Don’t we wish!”
“No, I mean it,” said Randi. “The synagogue is getting bigger.”
“Membership has been dropping by at least 2% every year for the last ten years,” said the president. “And we’re in the middle of a pandemic. That can’t possibly be true.”
“Not the membership, Irv,” said Randi. “The building. The actual building.”
There was silence on the call. Rabbi Goldstein started moving his lips.
“You’re on mute, Rabbi,” said Randi. “You need to unmute.”
Another moment of silence. “I was saying that I’m glad you said something, because I thought I saw something like that but wasn’t sure if I believed it myself,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “The parking lot seems to be smaller than it used to be.”
“Yes, I noticed the parking lot first, too,” Randi said. “I mean, that’s fine right now, nobody is coming anyway. But the parking lot is shrinking because the building seems to be eating it up.”
“What was the name of the architect, the one we hired in 2008?” asked Sheila.
“Hansen,” said Irv. “What a disaster. Two hundred thousand dollars. Wasted.”
“Should we call them? Was there anything in the report about this?”
“They were just looking at the awnings,” said Irv. “Randi, are the awnings growing?”
“Well, probably,” said Randi. “But I want to steer the conversation away from Hansen for a minute. I was there just this morning, and this time I brought my tape measure. Rabbi, did you know that your office is now 10% larger than it was last week?”
“Sounds like contract negotiations are going to be a little easier this time around,” laughed Rabbi Goldstein. Sheila and a couple of the newer board members laughed, too. Irv didn’t laugh.
“And also the Barenboim chapel,” continued Randi. “It’s also around 10% deeper, probably 10% taller, too, if I would guess. I even checked in the main sanctuary, which I thought looked big last time, but maybe that’s just because it was so empty. Do you know what I found there? The Torah scrolls, Rabbi, are loose! The ark is growing, but they’re not.”
“Oy, did any fall out?” asked Rabbi Goldstein.
“Thankfully they didn’t, but I’ve laid them all on their sides for the moment,” said Randi.
“Randi, you’re not allowed to do that,” said Rabbi Goldstein.
“I’m sorry, Rabbi, I didn’t know. Do you have another suggestion?”
“Oy, what a mess,” said Rabbi Goldstein. “Irv, have you noticed anything like this? When’s the last time you were in the building?”
“Purim,” said Irv. “If Randi says it’s growing, it’s growing. Harv, what’s our liability on this?”
Harvey Mandelbaum was sitting in front of a bright window. His face was entirely in shadow. He unmuted himself and cleared his throat. “Well, there’s the structural concern, which has already been mentioned, but besides that, we need to think about the property lines. The eastern boundary connects to Rabbi’s parsonage, so that’s not a problem. But on the south and west there’s private property, and on the north side, which is where the parking lot is located, the synagogue might eventually protrude into the street, and that’s when we get into serious trouble. I am 90% sure that our insurance would not cover us in that circumstance.”
“Harv, what do you think we should do?”
“I think—” said Harv, but at the same time another voice came in.
“Hi, hello, can anybody hear me?”
“We can hear you,” said Irv. “But who is speaking? Can you turn your video on?”
“I’m sorry—hi, it’s Aviva, I’m just in the car right now, I can’t put on the video. Is it okay if I say something? Was somebody else talking? I can’t see anybody, I’m sorry if I interrupted anybody.”
“No, go ahead Aviva,” said Irv. “The floor is yours.”
“I was just going to say,” said Aviva, “that I feel like we’re missing the forest for the trees here.”
In the chat window, Randi wrote: yes I agree!!!
“I’ve never heard of a synagogue expanding before—like, ever. Do we have any idea why this is happening?”
“Well—” Sheila started, but Irv broke in.
“I’m sorry, everybody, I think this is an important conversation, I really do, but we’re already fifteen minutes behind schedule and I know that a few people on this call have a hard stop at 3 p.m. I’ll send an email so we can find a time to revisit this. Okay, everybody? Okay. Thank you. Okay. What’s the next item on our agenda?”
“Passover gift baskets,” said Randi.
“Passover gift baskets!” laughed Irv. “Wonderful. Rabbi Goldstein?”
“I think—hold on, I’m very sorry folks, I have to get this. Hello?” Rabbi Goldstein picked up his phone and turned away from the camera, muting himself. Everyone else waited awkwardly, not sure what to do.
The rabbi ended the call. “Folks,” he said, “that was just the rabbi of Beth Sholom in Atlanta. He says his synagogue is melting.”
On May 29th, I opened the newspaper and found an Associated Press photo of an Arby’s burning in Minneapolis, flames bright against the night air, the raised fists of masked protesters in the foreground. Above the flames, the eerily lit stone columns of Temple Israel loomed.
III. June 2020
All around the world, synagogues began to change. They ballooned to enormous heights, spilling into the streets and pressing against adjacent buildings. They got tangled in telephone wires, got embedded in alleyways, jutted into harbors, and ventured their footprints over cliff faces. Their basement social halls dug deep into the soil, sometimes penetrating bedrock. Offices began the size of chapels, chapels the size of sanctuaries, sanctuaries the size of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Not every synagogue changed in the same way. In places where congregants lived far away and drove to services, the buildings expanded outward in all directions, with sanctuaries doubling and tripling in size but basically staying the same shape. In communities where the synagogue was close, however, the buildings moved like amoebae, bending their rooms toward population centers, their peaks oozing down and out, flattening chapels and mikvahs and multi-purpose rooms against main sanctuaries. Women’s balconies became one with the ground level. In Boston, the perimeter of one Conservative synagogue spanned more than five city blocks.
Some synagogues grew taller, but not wider. A few became untethered from the ground and began to float.
“What’s the status of the Torahs?” asked Rabbi Goldstein at the mid-May board meeting.
“They’ve all been safely removed,” said Randi. “I didn’t want them all in one place in case of an accident, God forbid, so I distributed them to a number of families. There’s a spreadsheet I put together, I can send it to you.”
“The fire department helped you get inside the building?” asked Irv.
“Irv, I needed a ladder just to get up the steps to the ark,” said Randi. “My full cardio for the day, and more. I’m exhausted.” She dabbed at her eyes.
“Are you okay, Randi?” asked Rabbi Goldstein. Behind him was a row of kitchen cabinets.
Randi sighed heavily. “I’m okay, Rabbi, but I don’t think I want to go in there again, not until this is all over. It was just hard, you know?” Her voice broke on the word “hard.”
“The emptiness,” agreed Rabbi Goldstein.
“Well that, but not just that,” continued Randi, a quiver in her voice. “Rabbi, have you been in the sanctuary since this started? Have you been there at all?”
“Not since Purim,” said Rabbi Goldstein, sheepishly.
“Rabbi, I’m telling you that when I was in front of the ark, carrying down those Torah scrolls, I just—I just felt like the walls were closing in on me, like if I didn’t go outside I’d be trapped alive. That’s not quite right—I can’t exactly describe it, I’m sure you’d be able to express it better, Rabbi. It just felt like I was just this mass at the center of the universe, like a giant magnet or something, and if I let myself the whole building would have flown straight for my face.”
“Randi,” said Harv. “Do you mean you felt the building was shrinking?”
“Exactly,” said Randi.
“Do you think if you went back in there it would go back to its normal size?” asked Harv. “Because, I mean, that would be incredible.”
“I’m sorry, Harv, I’m not going back in there,” said Randi.
“Because I don’t want it to go back to normal size around me.”
On June 10th, someone posts a thirty-second video to Twitter that immediately goes viral. In the video, an unidentified federal law enforcement officer in Portland is dragging a man from the middle of a sanctuary to an unmarked van, which was parked in the back. A woman screams, desperation in her voice, “He didn’t do anything! You’re kidnapping him!” but the officers ignore her. The van door closes. They drive straight toward the ark, but rather than crashing they simply continue on, as though the ark had never been there at all.
V. September 2020
The birds began chirping. Rabbi Goldstein cursed silently. It was not unusual for him to have trouble sleeping while writing his High Holidays sermons, and this year was particularly difficult. Two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, he lay in bed, unable to sleep, trying in vain to further a train of thought that would most certainly be forgotten by morning.
Had he really lost a night over this? Through bleary eyes, he could see the outline of dawn around blackout shades. It was confirmed: he had royally messed up. The rabbi sat up slowly in the dark room. The clock read 10:32 PM. Another thing to fix, he thought, and he headed downstairs in search of strong coffee.
As he entered the kitchen, the rabbi spied the clock on the wall. 10:33 PM. Two broken clocks? he wondered. Confused, he looked out the window and immediately gasped, then unlocked the front door and ran outside, his bare feet getting soaked in the grass. Far above him, hundreds of meters in the air, shone a bright flickering orange light, visible only as a corona around a massive brass candelabrum, supported by a chain that deflected the light and led upward into a cloudy sky, its anchor out of sight.
The eternal light, he thought, and he was right; the synagogue’s ner tamid had grown to vast and powerful proportions, an outline looming over the full moon and turning night into day. Beyond it, saw the rabbi, stood the ark, embedded in the eastern face of the synagogue, rising from somewhere near the river well into the sky, and two curtains hanging like dark purple skyscrapers on the horizon. The surrounding metalwork sparkled in the light of the flame. To the right stood the rabbi’s chair, now the size of a small mountain, forever unoccupied. Like Elijah’s chair, thought Rabbi Goldstein, and then he shivered. He went back into his house and crawled into bed, trying to fall asleep while staring at the glowing edges of his closed windows.
On January 6th, countless phones captured footage of insurrectionists storming the Capitol building, ransacking the offices of elected representatives, and entering the House chamber itself. Inside, the men discover that the chamber has been transformed into a neon sanctuary: the walls are lined with memorial plaques in bright and sickly blues, the podium has been replaced with a golden bimah, and every seat in the balcony has been cordoned off for everyday use. The men stop for a moment, as if to pray. Then a man takes out a bat and begins smashing the memorial plaques off the walls.
VII. August 2021
On August 18th, social media platforms were flooded by images from all across the West Coast depicting a sunless, deep-orange sky caused by wildfires of historic magnitude. Visibility was atrocious, and it was hard to see more than a hundred feet in any direction, which meant that the giant synagogue walls, to which everyone had grown accustomed, were hidden from view. When visibility finally returned, the walls did not return with them. They had finally grown too big to see.
Tomorrow is Rosh Hashanah, and there are no synagogues left. All that remain are echoes, which propagate by ricocheting between the vast, invisible cosmic walls and ceilings. Around the world, people remark that even the quietest conversations now sound as though they had been uttered inside the Grand Canyon, and that echoed fragments of distant conversations can be heard just about everywhere. Nobody remembers what it’s like to live in a world with real silence.
Every once in a while, if he listens carefully enough, Rabbi Goldstein thinks he can hear the reverberated fragment of distant prayer. When he does, he mouths a prayer in return. “Please,” he forms, “stop this.” But the words never pass his lips, and no one ever answers.
On February 28th, someone posts a video to TikTok showing a Russian tank driving down a major thoroughfare in the city of Kharkiv. A pedestrian car is on the road, stuck. The tank is barreling toward it, apparently intent on crushing it and its occupants. Around twenty meters from its target, the tank suddenly and violently stops and its turret twists sharply to the right, as though it had run into an invisible barrier. Shimmering in the air, it is possible to see the barest outline of a giant velvet purple curtain, separating the tank from the car. The car sees its opportunity and reverses with all possible speed. Fifteen seconds later, the tank is hit by a missile, and it explodes.
IX. May 2022
It took Randi, Rabbi Goldstein, and a construction crew several hours of backbreaking work with shovels and an excavator to gain entrance into the sanctuary, and when they finally stepped inside, Randi had to force herself not to scream. The roof was gone; the whole building looked like a disaster zone. As it had contracted and became solid once again, the walls had scooped up everything in their paths back toward their old locations. Two sedans and an SUV, together with some of the concrete from the parking lot beneath them, now sat in the center of the sanctuary, precisely where the bimah had once been. A giant mound of dirt stood on each side of the sanctuary, covering all but the frontmost pews. The memorial plaques that lined the walls were completely submerged in earth. The whole place smelled like soil and spring. Somewhere—Randi couldn’t tell if it was coming from inside or outside—a fox yipped.
Stepping carefully, the two moved from the entrance toward the ark, Rabbi Goldstein carrying a Torah scroll in his arms. The heavy doors were intact, but the roof of the ark had been damaged. The building felt porous and vulnerable, and the idea of rededicating the sanctuary now seemed hopelessly premature.
The front of the room was bathed in sunlight. Rabbi Goldstein handed Randi the Torah, opened the doors of the ark, and gasped. Inside, where Torah scrolls had once stood, was a young tree, alive and covered in bright purple blossoms.
“Oh, Rabbi,” said Randi, tearing up. “I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
Holding the Torah tight to her chest, Randi closed her eyes tight, took a deep, shuddering breath, and held still for what felt to her like a very long time. She opened her eyes and handed the Torah back to Rabbi Goldstein. Carefully, she plucked a blossom from the tree, put it to her lips, and then placed it in her pocket. She closed the doors of the ark, and then, for the first time in more than two years, she began to pray.