Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash
Isaac saw himself standing on the bimah before the lectern on a Saturday morning. He wore his royal blue tallit with silver embroidery. He looked out over the sanctuary as he prepared himself to deliver his sermon and saw a sea of empty seats. The southeastern sunlight seeped through the cracks of the bedroom blinds and through his closed eyelids. He heard the rhythmic breathing of his wife beside him; he heard the trills of the song sparrows as they twirled by the bird feeder his wife had hung under the backyard sugar maple. He opened his eyes and took several deep breaths. “Modeh Ani,” he whispered the first words of the morning prayer. “I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”
Carefully slipping out from under the blankets, he went about his morning rituals of showering, beard trimming, and eating a breakfast of granola, soy milk, and orange slices. After sitting in silence for fifteen minutes in the breakfast nook, he left for the day, gently closing the front door of his three-bedroom bungalow on Chestnut Street, leaving his wife and two children still asleep inside. He ambled through his neighborhood of small bungalows, admiring the well-kept front gardens, and pulled the collar of his long coat up around his neck in an attempt to keep out the chill fall breeze. At Grand Avenue, he turned right and proceeded past the Oracle Movie Theater. Rabbi Stein glanced up at the water stains and cracked windows on the facade as he walked by at a fast pace. The decaying facade filled him with melancholy. The movie theater had been empty for the past ten years. He hoped that an adventuresome entrepreneur would buy the building and transform it into a new enterprise.
Isaac unlocked the back door of Beth Israel at eight am and stepped into his office. A pile of papers and journals awaited him on his desk. He had dismissed his longtime secretary, Louisa, two months ago. The dues paying members of his congregation had dwindled over the years along with the funds to pay his secretary, the Saturday morning guard and the janitor. He sifted through the papers, turned on the computer, checked his email. After napping at his desk for twenty minutes, he picked up one of the journals and read of Maimonides’ views on the Messiah. “The Messiah will be a very great king,” the rabbi read aloud. “His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him. Though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day.” Oy vey, Isaac thought, I’ve been waiting my whole life.
At precisely five pm, Isaac locked the back door of Beth Israel. He walked along Grand Avenue on his way home. When he reached the Oracle Theater, he noticed the posters, three pasted to each side of the main entrance on the plaster wall. He stopped to study the first one he reached. Five women dressed in flowing white dresses that displayed their arms and hid their legs stood on the stage of a theater. They held cobalt blue spherical candle holders in their cupped hands and the flames of the candles lit their faces from below, casting faintly menacing shadows about their eyes and throats. Below the image of the oracles, in Gothic lettering, the poster read, “Grand opening for the New Oracle Theater, Friday evening, October 30th, at eight pm. Bring your questions and the oracles will provide the answers.” And, in fine print at the bottom, “We request that all questions be submitted in writing and anonymously. Your identity will not be revealed.”
Oracles? The rabbi thought as he stroked his graying beard. What would Maimonides think? I could always ask a question. Ask about the Messiah. But what would they know? Who are these oracles?
Isaac walked the rest of the way home, to his bungalow with the two stone piers holding up the porch roof. He proceeded up the stairs. His wife, Sarah, sat on the pine bench reading the Oak Brook Daily. “Did you see the posters?” he asked. “The ones for the New Oracle Theater?”
“They have an ad in the paper. Take a look.” She handed him the newspaper.
“Same as the poster.” He stroked his beard and looked at her. “Whaddya think? Should I ask a question of the oracles?”
“How are they any different than the astrology forecasts in the paper?”
“Maybe they’re in touch with the spirits.”
“Do you believe that? You’re a rabbi, is that part of your training?”
“Think about Moses, the great prophets. God spoke through them.”
“So you think God will speak through these oracles?”
“Not God, but perhaps something, something of the inner spirit, some force that knows more than we do.”
“Rabbi Stein,” she stood up and touched his beard. “Have you been watching Star Wars again?”
Over the next few months, on his walks to and from the synagogue, Isaac observed the carpenters, painters, plasterers, and electricians working on the theater. The water stains were gone and the sculptures of the muses – music, comedy, tragedy, dance – that occupied the niches under the second story cornice line shone with a clarity of detail he had not seen for years. Isaac would pause in front of the theater to marvel at its renewal and to watch the ballet of the workers as they clambered about the scaffolding, fixing and polishing.
As a boy, he had watched Hollywood comedies and adventures on hazy Sunday afternoons. Inside the theater, Moorish horseshoe arches topped the walls and above him, as the lights slowly dimmed, a cerulean sky faded through to light indigo and then to a dark blue-violet pin-pricked with stars. He would sink into the plush red seats while munching on popcorn as the adventures of Robin Hood took him away from algebra and schoolyard bullies.
As he grew older and sought out other entertainments, the theater on Grand descended into a shabby senescence. Water stains marked the umber exterior, the red seats were shredded as if by the sharp claws of feral cats, and the customers wore dark overcoats and fedoras with faded feathers.
His own children haunted the video arcades and, eventually, fixated on the flat panel computer screens hidden away in their bedrooms. No longer did children congregate in movie theaters or playgrounds with bent basketball rims. They communicated with text messaging and played multi-user online games with compatriots from Chile and Taiwan. His children ignored the posters depicting the oracles, and they wondered why their father would want to ask questions of these strange women when he could simply Google it.
After walking past the theater and continuing home, Isaac began to wonder, who were these oracles? Could they surrender their psyches to a higher wisdom? Or were they simply impostors? Hucksters hired by unscrupulous businessmen. And what questions would he ask? Will the Messiah ever show up? Why was his congregation diminishing? Could he get them back?
On the day of the grand opening, the scaffolding disappeared. The muses gazed out from their perches below the cornice. The blue and white tiles inset within the arched entryway above the oversized doors formed crisp geometric patterns of five, seven, and nine-pointed stars. In the glass of the series of smaller arched windows to each side of the main entryway, Isaac could see his reflection.
He had joined the line at six pm. He read a book, The Multi-Cultural Jew, while he waited. The line grew longer as seven pm approached. At half past seven, a tall man wearing a tuxedo opened the front doors of the theater and beckoned the awaiting crowd to enter. Isaac purchased his ticket and stepped into the renovated lobby.
Persian style carpeting covered the floor and three Moroccan chandeliers with delicate wrought iron patterns like a series of interwoven spider webs hung from the ceiling. Ten booths, each with a curtain to allow for privacy, lined one wall. The tall usher explained that the booths were for privacy while the patrons wrote down their questions on pads of paper inside the booths. The crowd started to form lines in front of the booths. Isaac joined a line. He felt the pat of a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Debbie Luster, a member of his congregation he hadn’t seen for the past few months. “Hello, Rabbi Stein,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I’m as curious as the next person,” he said smiling. “So you can make it to see the Oracles, but not to the temple?”
“Oh, you know how it is, with the kids and the job and the house. I’d like to be attending services, but I’m just so exhausted.”
“Maybe you’d end up with more energy if you showed up to some of the services.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve been so busy. I’ll think about it for next time,” she looked over his shoulder to see that the Rabbi was now first in line. “Your turn Rabbi Stein.”
“Nice seeing you, Debbie. We’re having a Hindu guru speak next Friday evening. You might find that interesting.”
“Yes, sounds fascinating. What about tonight, Rabbi?”
“Yes. Who’s conducting the services?”
“Oh! I asked Cantor Goldberg to take over for tonight. I had to experience the Oracles for myself.”
He stepped inside the booth. Placed on a tall, narrow table he saw a box with inlaid geometric patterns formed of mahogany, ebony, and Mother of Pearl. He hesitated; he pondered; he tapped the pencil on the table top. He wrote down his question and slipped the paper through the slit at the top of the box.
Isaac left the protective cover of the booth and purchased some expensive chocolates from the snack bar. He hoped he wouldn’t see anymore congregation members among the crowd. The lights began to flash on and off. Two more ushers appeared and guided the patrons into the main auditorium. Heads turned up to appreciate the restored ceiling of sky and stars as they filed into the rows and took their seats.
After several minutes, the red curtains parted a few feet and a middle-aged man stepped out onto the stage. He wore a dark navy business suit with a white shirt and a powder blue tie. His black and gray hair was combed straight back from his high forehead. His goatee remained mostly black. He walked to the edge of the stage and looked out at the crowd.
“Thank you all for coming to the grand opening of the New Oracle Theater.” He paused. “Tonight, we present to you a resurgence of the art of the oracle. The tradition of the oracle is a part of our collective history. It is often forgotten, neglected, or even repressed. You may have thought of oracles as part of the past, a lost art, something we have moved beyond, but this tradition has never completely died out. Teachers have passed on their knowledge and techniques to their students. They have done this throughout the ages despite the dangers from various authorities. The five women who will answer your questions tonight are part of that long tradition. They are able to move into a state of mind whereby they tap into a deeper knowledge. This knowledge is available to all of us if we would simply listen.” He smiled, took a slight bow as the audience politely applauded, and retreated from the stage.
The house lights dimmed and the recorded tones of Gregorian chants emanated from the speakers placed within the Moorish arches. The red curtains parted completely and the lights were brightened half-way. The chanting ceased. Five women now stood on the stage, each one about three feet from the other. They wore the graceful, full-length white dresses that were depicted in the promotional posters. Their ages varied from late-twenties to about sixty. Isaac didn’t recognize any of them as being from Oak Brook.
Each woman stood beside a narrow, waste high table with slender, curved legs that flared out as they touched the stage floor. Two of the Moorish boxes sat upon each table. A spotlight highlighted the first woman on the audience’s far right; she was the youngest oracle. She stood with her eyes closed for two minutes as the patrons watched in silence. She then opened her eyes, lifted the lid of one of the boxes and withdrew a piece of paper. She read the question aloud. “I’ve been offered a new job with more pay and prestige, but I would need to move my family to another city if I took the job. I’ve lived here for twenty-five years. I’ve been going back and forth about this for the past three weeks and I must make a decision. What should I do?”
She held the paper in her right hand and placed her hand between her breasts. She closed her eyes. Wisps of steam rose from the cracks in the floorboards in front of her. A scent of faded roses wafted through the theater.
The oracle dropped her right arm to her side and released the paper from her hand. It spiraled to the stage floor. Her head rocked back and forth. Her jaw relaxed and her mouth opened wide to reveal her pink tongue. She began to moan and to utter insensible syllables in a voice deeper and more masculine than her original feminine reading of the question. Isaac looked around to see his neighbors and friends in the audience. Was this all some kind of hoax? he asked himself. Should I even be here?
The Oracle stopped all movement and stared into empty space above the crowd’s heads.
“I speak through this woman. I know of your concerns.” The house lights dimmed further and Isaac could only see the oracle illuminated by the spotlight. “We are often tempted in earthly life by earthly rewards. Whether a merchant or a king, humans seek things that gleam. The golden crown, the amethyst gems, the steel sword. And we want our names emboldened by Sir or Lord, Duke or Duchess.”
Several in the audience coughed while others twisted their torsos in their seats. The oracle continued to speak. “We also desire the love of our children, the love of our spouses, the love of our friends. Our choices in life take us to unforeseen places. To live our best lives, we must be guided by a voice beyond reason, a voice that speaks more to our hearts than to our minds. That voice comes in part through the oracle, but it must come primarily from within your own soul.”
The oracle closed her eyes and her mouth. Her head drooped forward. She began a slow crumbling descent toward the stage. Two male ushers rushed out from the side stage. Each one put an arm around her before she reached the floor and guided her offstage. Several members of the audience began to applaud, at first tentatively, and then the rest joined in their applause. A few stood up as the audience applauded with a loud and rhythmic clapping. Isaac stayed seated. Not a bad answer, he thought, but what about his synagogue or church? After twenty-five years, it’s hard to replace that.
The spotlight now swerved to stage left and shone upon the eldest of the oracles. Her gray hair was cut short except for several long strands on the right side of her forehead that reached to her eyebrows. She was tall and slender, and her face remained largely unlined. She opened the Moorish box on the table next to her and selected one of the notes. “I’ve been thinking of offing myself,” she read. A sin, Isaac thought. Well, a sin to do it, not to think it. “My life has become an empty routine, so dreary. I realize that I’m not alone in this predicament, but I see no reason to go on. Then, why am I asking this question? I suppose I hope there is an answer, a way back to enthusiasm. I’ve seen a shrink, that just makes me feel worse.”
The oracle closed her eyes for a minute or two while she focused her mind. She opened her eyes. There was no dramatic transformation as in the case of the first oracle, but she seemed somehow different. A subtle luminescence surrounded her. She returned the note to the box and shuffled the papers around. “Death will come to you soon enough. To seek it before it comes to meet you will cause great pain both to you and others. Perhaps the tedium you speak of is at least partially of your own making.”
“Oracle!” A male voice called out from the darkest portion of the balcony nearest the upstairs exit. The oracle raised her head and looked toward the balcony. “Why should I live? Tell me why!”
“I cannot provide a reason for you.”
“You sound like my shrink,” he yelled back to her. Several audience members laughed a bit before stifling their laughter.
“Don’t laugh at me! Please don’t laugh at me.”
“And your reason for death?”
“To escape this hell. This hell where I’m not wanted, not valued, not loved.”
“You will find another hell if you force death,” she answered. “You will find a hell far worse than anything you may be encountering in this world.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have died many times, sometimes with great peace and other times with great violence. The violence in my mind carried through to the astral realm, and it was not pleasant.”
“There is no astral realm, you fools.”
“You are free to believe that; however, at some point, you will find that you are mistaken.” Isaac glanced behind him at the balcony for a second, but could not see the man’s face. He had counseled a number of depressed congregation members who threatened suicide. None of them had followed through with the threat.
“Seek out what you love,” the oracle continued. “You must do that.”
“I love death,” the man cried out. “I love death!” Isaac looked again toward the balcony and saw a bit of curtain billow out from the exit doorway. He heard the falling of footsteps, at first loud and then quickly receding into silence. Poor man, he thought. He must be alone in the world. If he were part of a synagogue or a church, he’d be much better off.
The middle-aged gentleman who had introduced the oracles reappeared on center stage.
“Live performances,” he said as he looked out at the audience, “can be so interesting.” A few people chuckled, but not Isaac. “We cannot predict disturbances such as the one that just occurred. I apologize to those of you who found the previous interaction disturbing.” He motioned with his right hand to stage right. One usher came out and escorted the white-haired oracle off the stage. Three oracles remained on the stage and gathered behind the emcee. “These three oracles will take turns answering a single question. And, to show our true impartiality, we would like a member of the audience to choose that question. Please raise your right arm if you would like to do so.”
Several arms shot up and one or two came back down. The emcee pointed to a woman seated in the front row. She stood up and Isaac noted that it was Debbie Luster. An usher escorted Debbie up the stage stairs. She stood beside the emcee looking from left to right, and then straight ahead. With her long black hair and modest dress that reached to her ankles, she appeared to be a fourth oracle herself. The emcee picked up the Moorish box on the table nearest him, lifted the lid of the box, and held it in front of Debbie. She closed her eyes for several seconds. She then lifted her left hand and rummaged among the papers in the box before selecting one. She handed the folded piece of paper to the emcee.
“Thank you,” he said to Debbie. He placed the still folded piece of paper down on the surface of the table. The usher showed Debbie back to her front row seat. The emcee turned to the audience. “I will now leave you in the fine hands of our three oracles.” He left the stage.
The three oracles stood behind the table. The one in the center picked up the folded paper and unfolded it. “I am a religious leader,” she read aloud. Isaac leaned forward in his chair, and then quickly sat back. “I’ve tried many different activities at my institution to revitalize its members, but the size of the congregation continues to diminish. I wonder - what can I do? Is my faith too weak? Should I seek out another path? Or, can I transform my current situation?”
The oracle who had read the question placed the paper back down on the table. The three oracles moved to center stage, in front of the table. They joined hands to form a circle and began to move clockwise about a point on the stage. The house lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on them. They began to chant in unison. “Yood heeh vaav heeh, yood heeh vaav heeh.”
Isaac felt his heart beat faster. The oracles were chanting the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters representing the holy name of God. He watched the oracles in silence for half a minute and then began chanting “Yood heeh vaav heeh.” Soon, five or six more of the audience joined in. “Yood heeh vaav heeh.” More of the crowd added to the chanting until virtually the whole audience chanted with the oracles. “Yood heeh vaav heeh.”
After several minutes, the oracles stopped chanting, and then the audience stopped as well. The oracles ceased their circular motion, released their hands from one another and stood in a line stage center facing the audience. The one standing stage left spoke first. She was about forty years old with short blonde hair. “There are many futures,” she said in what seemed to be her normal voice. “Ask yourself what is it that you truly desire? A renewed congregation? Or a new path?” Isaac sat very still as he listened. “Until you know in your heart what your true goal is, you will not be able to manifest that goal.”
“I see an empty sanctuary.” The second oracle, the one in the middle spoke, a petite woman, about thirty. Her voice was feminine, but sounded as if it came from a woman of large stature. “Years have gone by. The members of your congregation have all drifted away. They have become entranced by the material trappings of their era. They have neither the time nor the inclination for worship.” Isaac saw Debbie Luster glance quickly back at him from her front row seat before she turned her head forward. His throat felt dry and he stroked his beard with his right hand for a few seconds before letting his arm slip back down to his chair’s armrest.
The third oracle walked a few steps so that she stood in front of the other two. She was a strikingly handsome woman, over six feet tall, perhaps forty years old. Her wavy red hair fell over her shoulders to just above her breasts. Her emerald eyes opened wide. “The future has not yet arrived. Your son, all your sons and daughters, and all their mothers and fathers, will be the creators of that future. There is yet room for hope.” Isaac gripped the armrests of his chair.
“Yet that hope will be vacant,” the oracle continued, “unless you renew your commitment to your faith.”
“How do I renew my commitment?” a man called out from the back row. Isaac recognized him. Scott Michaels, the town’s Unitarian minister.
“You must find that answer within yourself.”
“Could you be more specific?” asked Scott Michaels.
“That is your work, to examine your own faith, to return to the sources which inspire you.”
The oracle stepped back two steps while still facing the audience and grasped the hands of her sister oracles. The house lights brightened; the patrons applauded. The two other oracles joined the three already on stage and held hands with the one at each end. The elegant emcee strode in from stage left and took a bow. The red curtains closed and the lights over the audience came fully on.
Isaac left the theater and strode down Grant Avenue toward Temple Beth Israel. He was surprised to find himself so affected by the admittedly ambiguous sayings of the oracles. But he wondered if they weren’t right. He had become a rabbi because his father was a rabbi. He found comfort in the traditions of Judaism, but he questioned the depth of his own faith.
He turned down Canyon Street and walked to the back door of the synagogue. He unlocked the door and proceeded to the main sanctuary. He flipped on the lights and took a seat in the front row, looking up at the bimah. The cantor and any Friday night worshipers had probably left over an hour ago.
Isaac saw his father, Saul, reading from the Torah. His father appeared to be about forty years old; he hunched over the Torah and chanted the words. Isaac heard Saul read Bereshees, in the beginning, the first word in the first weekly Torah reading in the annual cycle of readings. Isaac saw several other men join Saul, all huddled in front of the Torah. The sanctuary overflowed with worshipers, with families and grandparents, with young men and women. Isaac stood up. He closed his eyes and began to chant from memory along with his father. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet; he kissed the fringes of his prayer shawl.
Isaac opened his eyes. There was no one in the synagogue other than himself. He walked out of the sanctuary, switching off the lights on his way out. He locked the back door and proceeded up Canyon to Grant. He walked past the New Oracle Theater and stopped in front of the entrance. The oracles had granted him a vision. The synagogue would fill with new families if he devoted himself to Judaism, to the traditions of his own faith.
Isaac did not return to partake of the performances of the oracles. He did note that the entry price went up after a short while, and that the lines grew smaller over time. One Saturday morning, as he walked toward his synagogue, he saw a new poster on the theater facade; the Oak Brook Theater Players would soon begin their season’s performances at the soon to be open Oak Brook Theater. He could take Sarah and the children to one of the performances, he thought. But that would have to wait as the High Holidays had commenced and today was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Day of Remembrance.
Isaac stopped for a moment. He looked up at the facade of the theater and studied the statues of the muses. He closed his eyes. He recalled the words of the oracle who had advised him to renew his own faith. He had looked within and discovered his connection to the Jewish people. The Jewish people who had survived centuries of oppression. The Jewish people who had made untold gifts to the world. The Jewish people united in their love of God and their love of one another. He saw the synagogue overflowing with Jewish families. He heard the blast of the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn, reminding all to reflect on their past deeds and hopes for the future. He tasted the apple dipped in honey and sensed the sweetness of the coming year. Rabbi Stein opened his eyes and walked briskly toward Temple Beth Israel.
Mitchell Near, after youthful sojourns in several west coast cities, now lives in San Francisco. His work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Idle Ink, Bewildering Stories, Fiction on the Web and Still Point Arts Quarterly. Along with his interests in writing and literature, he is a student of art, architecture, music and the psychology of dreams. He loves walking the paths of the great cities and gardens of the world. You can visit his website at mitchellnear.com.
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