High Holiday Parrot

Zoe MatthiessenIn my 12 years writing stories for the Independent, I’ve covered, no surprise, many issues dealing with parking, and parking lots. Too many.  Throw in a few more stories over the years about parakeets, and specifically little monk parrots, nesting in United Illuminating transformers at City Point and other locales that occasionally erupt into flames.

Add a note or two floating in via the remembered fictional voice of Bernard Malamud, a pinch of cranky musings about the Jewish High Holidays, upcoming, mix it all up, hope you’re lucky — and that’s how the following fiction story, “High Holiday Parrot,” emerged.

I hope you enjoy; if not, I repent.

A Tale of Avian Repentance

No matter how much I try, attending High Holiday services continues to be at best a chore for me, something I, well, just must do out of a kind of inertia of gratitude for my late parents and general affection for my people Israel. I confess I don’t really know enough to appreciate the significance of the holidays nor do I understand much Hebrew. In these regards I’m pretty much like many Jews today, I suppose.

Although I’ve heard lots of sermons over the years and even have done some reading about Rosh Hashanah being the birthday of the world and Yom Kippur being the holiest of them all, the Sabbath of Sabbaths or some such, still, as some Jewish comedian used to say, way back in the 1950s when I was growing up, in one era and out the other.

Still I can’t bring myself to declare atheism or to totally ignore the day and go to the beach. My brain is too inscribed with guilt and, frankly, even the term, The Days of Awe, that ten-day period flanked by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the holidays like twin lions bestriding the potentially doomsday gate to all that the future holds . . . life, death, illness, calamities caused by sword and famine, computer breakdown . . .  the whole thing hanging in the balance. All that, even without a jot of belief in it, is with me still; at my age I feel too weary to fight it or render it meaningful in any rational sort of way.

Which is why I decided this year to purchase for myself a parrot and to teach it to say “Shanah Tovah,” that is, “Have a good year,” to cover the obligatory Rosh Hashanah niceties; and for Yom Kippur “Tzom Kal,” Hebrew for “Have an easy fast;” and, if I got lucky with my bird even “G’mar chatima tovah,” or “May you be inscribed for a good one [in the ole book of life.]”

Such words should be full of pitch and moment, even dread. Yet repeated ad infinitum, they become utterly toothless so that of all the aspects of social life around the Days of Awe, it is the endless repletion of these greetings, especially to people I barely know or even like, that just bugs me the most.

And that’s why the Rabbi came into my life. Here’s how.

In June I went online, and chose my bird, a little green budgie, which was duly delivered two weeks later. I noticed that the parakeet was a male. I’m certainly advanced enough in my thinking that I would have called it “Rabbi” even if it were a female, but the title seemed to fit really well with this little fellow, who had a tiny black cap of a yarmulkah, and even a whisker or two of feathers beneath his chin. In the late afternoon light, as I examined him, the chin feathers reminded me of the goatee of one of my Hebrew teachers from many ago, a dyspeptic old man who used to squeeze my ear quite painfully between his thumb and index finger if I got the wrong answer, which I frequently did.

I know that African Congolese parrots and cockatiels and other such exotic creatures larger than the Rabbi are supposed to be better talkers, but I couldn’t afford them. I was on a budgie budget, and I was happy enough with my modest purchase and as I had nearly three months to work with the Rabbi, I didn’t anticipate any problems.

I found a quiet corner in my office for the Rabbi, away from his cage, which I had located in the kitchen. I set up a simple perch for him in front of the bookshelf that just happened to contain, on the section behind it, my copy of the 1917 Jewish Encyclopedia, a gift from my mother’s friend, Mrs. Axelrod, before she died.

The fact that dear Mrs. Axelrod had died of throat cancer caused by being a three-pack-a-day Camel smoker, and my mother had dragged me along on many visits to the poor woman, a malodorous cloth with pain-killing opiates always clutched to her throat in the months before she expired, and unable to speak a word except croak out sounds, well, all that wasn’t lost on me as the Rabbi began to respond to my teaching and make his first guttural utterances.

In fact as I repeated over and over again Shana Tovah, Shana Tova, and the budgie croaked back sounds that after days and days of sounding just like Mrs. Axelrod began to evolve into the shape of the Hebrew words Shanah Tovah, well, to say it was one of the most rewarding days of my life is pure understatement.

I’m not an overly excitable guy, but, man oh man, was I happy. As the training manual had instructed, I kept repeating “Good Rabbi, good Rabbi” and of course I generously rewarded the Rabbi with choice sweet gum seeds and grains of oatmeal.

I’d say by the second week of July we had Shana Tova totally down, and so I went to work on Tzom Kal, or “Have an easy fast.”

Here days went by without the previous rapid progress. No matter how many hours I put in, no matter how religiously I followed the various online tutorials I now researched on how to train your budgie—- be excited and enthusiastic—the Rabbi just hopped around on his perch, raised his wings for me to duly scratch him, and rejected even trying “Tzom Kal.”

I began to wonder if the budgie, an American-born bird after all, was rebelling against the Hebrew as I myself had been a Hebrew school drop-out. It occurred to me that maybe I’d better switch to English. So I canned the “Tzom Kal,” and tried to teach him instead “Have An Easy Fast;”  I realized that was perhaps too long a phrase , so I switched to the simpler “Happy Holiday.”

That would cover Yom Kippur as well as Rosh Hashanah, although as far as I could recall there was nothing much happy about Yom Kippur except getting it over with.

By now I’d gotten to know the bird pretty well. Which is to say that while I did drive him hard, still I was by no means a terrible taskmaster. On the contrary, I regularly petted the Rabbi’s beak, I combed his feathers, I scratched him, had him perch on my finger and I took him on walks about the apartment, to the window to look out on the garden and the street beyond, although I kept the window, of course, always closed, lest the Rabbi fly away.

As July turned to August, and the beginnings of September and the cooler weather signaled the arrival of the holidays, it began to be apparent that all the great hopes that I had lucked out with a kind of genius budgie at a discount price, a bird that was going to be a marvelously quick learner, an Einstein of a parakeet, were all just wishful thinking.

I began to come to terms with the bird being, well, a bit like me, a lazy, one-note Rabbi.

Not that I gave up trying to teach him the other phrases, but I was now clearly adjusting my expectations. When I had just about solaced myself that he would say only one phrase, he surprised me: The Rabbi got the little trick I’d taught him: To say his croaky, high-pitched Shanah Tovah when I pulled on the little leash that I’d attached to his left leg.

I’d sit in the big easy chair under the Rabbi’s perch and try to get him to repeat “Tzom Kal” and “Gmar Chatima Tovah,” and Happy Holidays all of which he declined to even begin to mimic. Now whenever I yanked on his leash, he always obliged with a chirpy “Shanah Tovah, Shanah Tovah,” that to my ear grew more, well, heart-felt.

I knew that I well might have confused the creature with this on-again-off-again teaching, and I pretty much resigned myself, that is, just accepted my parroted Shana Tovah, and, especially with the leg-pull prompt, as no mean achievement, and I was okay with it.

I checked the temple’s newsletter to be sure about the dates for the upcoming services and I found myself counting the days, with real anticipation, like tearing off sheets of a calendar to mark the passage of time in an old movie.

I began taking longer and longer breaks from the teaching and instead I began to grow curious about old Mrs. Axelrod’s encyclopedia, which I never would have paid any attention to, let alone opened up, had I not had to find a quiet place to locate the Rabbi’s perch.

Maybe it was my largely solitary life and the presence of the Rabbi, but soon there I was thumbing through the old tomes with their tri-partite black and white lithographs of Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, and then in volume “JA to KR”, old Jerusalem herself.

In the long breaks between our training sessions, I read whatever randomly came to my fingertips: archaic biographies of the Chassidic rabbis of dwindling lineages from no longer existent academies in no longer surviving communities; I read about the Pale of Settlement, Poland and other countries with now gone Jewish communities, I read about Lillith and angels in the Jewish tradition, including someone named Sandalphon, who bestrided rivers in Eden.

I read between dozing and training, and I began to read out loud to the Rabbi. I read him about places where the borders had changed a dozen times, about massacres in forests, about what kinds of wood were required for arks and holy booths. I thought items dealing with trees would interest a parrot.

I’ve always liked reading encyclopedias, not from A to Z or end to end as some poor obsessive souls do, but randomly turning the pages until something catches my eye. All I did that was different now that I had the Rabbi sitting on my shoulder or atop my head, where he had a bad habit of scrunching his sharp-toed feet into my bald spot, was to read out loud, and perhaps in a more sing-song voice than usual, that might appeal to a budgie.

Here, for example, was Theodore Herzl’s childhood, and then, when I picked up another volume, I read aloud of the horned headed beast as described in the Book of Daniel, an apocalyptic symbol as well as an image of the Greek oppressor of the Jews, King Antiochus of Syria, according to the subject’s greatest scholar, back in 1917 or whenever the tome was published, which in this instance was Prof. R.M. Ginsberg. I read the entry about the flood, Noah and the ark, because its hero, of course, was the bird, the raven that brought back a twig, a sign of land and salvation.

I read aloud, nodded off, awoke, fed the Rabbi his dinner, and I of course continued to run the Rabbi through his Shana Tovah paces. I practiced with the Rabbi as if I were speaking to a bright two-year-old in what was for me a relatively high pitched voice –  and he repeated Shanah Tovah and then ate and repeated, and ate again.

Have I mentioned that Rabbi was always hungry, and that in the course of our learning together, his lime-green breast fattened visibly, as if he were as proud of his achievement as I was. And so the days passed and the holidays neared.

I now had to think about just what the Rabbi and I were going to do. That is, would I perch him on my shoulder, as some of the manuals suggest, or on the index finger, which gives more control? More to the point, was I going to take the Rabbi physically into services within the sanctuary for him to offer greetings on my behalf, or rather do the greetings deed in the parking lot?

I’m sure some scholar will be able to find references in one of our many revered books and their commentaries written perhaps by a ninth century bird-watching Talmudist pertaining to whether avians are allowed in the synagogue, and, if so, on all or only some holidays? And how might their behavior in the synagogue be regulated?

Yet to find such items or argue such a point was not in my portfolio.

I simply wanted the Rabbi to say Shanah Tovah for me, and so the key question now became where at the synagogue or in its purlieus to attain that achievement?

My synagogue, temple really, is one of those big affairs built in the early 1960s when I was just coming of age, and Judaism, having survived World War Two, was flexing its newly secure muscles in suburban America.

It features an immense parking lot, distinguished by lane dividers that were always, always so well painted and regularly touched up a bright canary yellow, that, I maintained, astronauts, who had recently circled the earth, might see them from their orbits. They were especially cheery at high holiday time when they were far brighter, to my eye, than even the ner tamid, the allegedly ever-burning candle, on the temple dais inside.

And what a huge parking lot, an institution in and of itself.

It was as if our community had been on the verge of losing its collective mind contemplating creating the country’s first drive-in synagogue. I kid you not. Such has been tried in other communities, in the Midwest, I think, where there is more real estate.

But fortunately, at the last minute, after space for the 500th vehicle had been slotted in and painted yellow, our congregational leaders voted that erecting the various kiosks and even an outdoor ark the size of a movie screen and an outdoor platform or bimah appropriate for a Super Bowl halftime, might all just be going a tad too far.

Still the facility today is well maintained and well painted, although the lot still dwarfs the squat steel and glass layer-cake of a temple building that sits on its far western edge.

Apart from the worship of Parking, theologically the temple floats somewhere between Reform and Reconstructionist and Name Your Own Form of Judaism, which maybe is why I thought to bring a parakeet to services this year would be no big deal, would even amuse my fellow shilly-shally co-religionists.

So it began to occur to me that the most appropriate place for the greetings to be delivered and, along with them – it will not surprise you to hear – the implicit criticism of the lot and other such symbols onto which our faith seems to have landed, I began to think it most appropriate to have the Rabbi do his trick outside in the lot area near the synagogue, but before people enter. 

And yet the parking lot was so vast, as I raced from one car to the next, would I not miss a lot of friends for whom I really did want, well, I admit it, to show off my Hebrew-speaking bird.

Then again, my mind see-sawed in this argument: Wasn’t the point really to bring the bird into the synagogue? And yet as birds have no sphincters, did I want to risk an “accident”, especially on the high holidays? For what if the Rabbi flew to the holy ark and let loose there?
So perhaps I should split the difference between the parking lot, where there was of course serious danger the Rabbi could fly away, and the safer, yet potentially more transgressive precinct of the sanctuary itself?

I settled on bringing the Rabbi in, but I would go no farther than our sanctuary lobby. There, as people entered, we could Shanah Tovah to my heart’s content, maximize my point while minimizing the danger of the Rabbi taking off or committing other offenses.

So, having trained The Rabbi to sit patiently on the dashboard of my Volvo and receive seeds and broken up shards of Saltines as his reward, on erev Rosh Hashanah, I drove over, parked quite close to the main door of the temple with its shining wooden reliefs of Moses leading our people through the Red Sea – no petrels, albatrosses, gulls, or other sea birds, I must point out,  are part of that composition.

Rows upon rows of cars were already in place, and so, having found a spot in the third row from the temple entrance, I attached the leash I had fashioned to the Rabbi’s right leg, wrapped the other end around my index finger, placed The Rabbi on my shoulder, and made for the lobby.

Before we had loped half way across, I spied Mort and Sally Resnick, the nice folks who own the hardware store. They were angling, as I was, toward the main entrance. We met near the steps, when Mort, after giving me a pleasant greeting of hello suddenly shifted his gaze.

“You have a bird on your shoulder.”

“Don’t you want to wish me something?”

“Yeah, I wish to know why the hell you have a bird on your shoulder.”

“His name is Rabbi.”

“Hello, Rabbi,” said Sally.

Sally Resnick has a twinkle in her blue eyes, and I’ve always liked dealing with her more than Mort, who always struck me as having an imagination limited to wishing he were anywhere else but behind his counter, so it’s with Sally I’ve dealt when I go in to buy duct tape and various other items that I’d used to fix up the Rabbi’s cage and perch.

“Cute Rabbi.”

“The real rabbi’s not going to like this.’

“Oh, I’m not going in, Mort. I mean the bird isn’t.”


“Just hanging with the bird?”

“He’s not an ordinary bird.”

“Of course not,” said Sally. “He’s a rabbi.”

“He’s a high holiday parrot. Wish him a happy new year.”

“Okay, happy new year,” said Mort. I pulled the rabbi’s leg, but he did not respond.

“Maybe he doesn’t like me.”

“No, he likes you fine. You just have to say it with more meaning, and in Hebrew. Try Hebrew.”

“He knows Hebrew?

“Of course.”

“Okay then.”

“Shanah Tovah,” said Mort.

Still the Rabbi didn’t respond.

“Maybe you’ve got a deaf parrot there.”

“Maybe you try,” I said to Sally.

Sally offered her greeting, I pulled the Rabbi’s leg again, yet the Rabbi didn’t respond.

“He’s a little nervous, I guess.”

“Seems to be,” said Mort.

“His first time at shul,” I said, and I gave the Rabbi an encouraging tug crossed with the evil eye.

“Come on, honey,” said Sally sweetly. “Shanah tovah. Shanah tovah.”

“I was nervous the first time too,” said Mort, with a wink to his wife.

“He does just fine wishing me a Shanah Tovah,” and I proceeded to say it now using a little kid’s lilt, in the high pitch that I used in the training.

“Shanah Tovah, Shanah Tovah, Shanah Tovah,” I repeated.

Still the Rabbi only hopped around my shoulder, bobbed his head around, taking in the temple and the environs with evident interest and curiosity. I wondered if it was Sally’s verdant perfume. I loved it, and it was strong, but you never can tell with birds.

I took a slight step backwards to remove slightly from the influence of her scent. I repeated the command, and this time the Rabbi paused and seemed to look not at me but directly at Sally. Who could blame the Rabbi, but speak he did not. He did not utter a sound.

“Here, maybe give it something to eat,” said Mort, as he reached into his jacket pocket and came up with two red-and-white round peppermint candies. “I’m saving these here for Yom Kippur, but I’m happy to share with the bird.”

“Birds don’t eat candy.”

“Yeah, but if he’s a high holiday parrot like you say, maybe he’ll make an exception.” Mort quipped and extended his hand toward us. “Here, candy for birdie, birdie, nice birdie.”

I backed away from Mort whose little joke didn’t please Sally any more than it had me. She seemed to sense my upset. As she approached, I smelled her perfume again, and I wondered if the Rabbi, with his far more exquisite sense of smell, was finding it attractive or upsetting.

His nails dug into my finger; I could tell he was excited. I tightened my finger around his leash as Sally leaned close to me, just inches from my face, and took her shapely index finger, painted light blue at the nail, and stroked the Rabbi’s cap. “Nice, rabbi, nice rabbi,” she murmured.

“Wish him Shanah Tovah now, Sally,” I said and commenced to pull gently on the leash. “Now.”

“Shanah Tovah,” she said, “Shanah Tovah, little Rabbi” she cooed again in a voice so hushed and sexy it was if Marilyn Monroe, a brief convert to Judaism, if I remember correctly, were suddenly being channeled.

And yet the Rabbi said nothing at all.

All the while other people were entering the synagogue all around us. Several were curious, of course, especially the kids. They neared and checked out the Rabbi, who, despite the ruckus around him, remained impassive. Several wished each other Shanah Tovah’s, of course, as they passed us. As they were within earshot of my hearing, I knew the Rabbi heard them as well. Yet he no more responded to those passers-by than he did to Sally Resnick’s gentle ministrations.

“Bummer,” she said.

“The thing is,” said Mort, “either you haven’t trained him well enough, or he knows something you don’t.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, technically, it’s not the New Year until the sun sets, and you see there it hasn’t quite, and until after the services it doesn’t become the New Year, right?”

“You got a point there.”

“Bird’s too smart for you.”

“But he’s been saying Shanah Tovah to me for months now. At home.”

“Well, that’s all I’ve got to say on the matter. Good luck. Let’s go, honey.”

I wish I could say that Sally was reluctant to go into the sanctuary with her husband and wanted instead to linger with me and the Rabbi. Then through my bird, her affection for me grows, she divorces Mort, marries me and we live happily ever after running a pet store together.

Are such fantasies permitted on the high holidays? On their eve?

Alas, she did not linger. Nor did I.

Maybe there was something about the lobby that was disturbing Rabbi.

I thought the openness of the darkening sky might relax the budgie enough so he could speak to folks perhaps as they pulled into the lot. So, risking his flight, I did just that. I went out and circulated up and down the rows of the cars. I talked to several people, some I knew but most I did not, as they parked, extracted their talit bags, fetched out scarves against our sanctuary’s excessive air conditioning, and other paraphernalia from out the back seats.

Honesty compels me to report, however, that the Rabbi remained as mute with these folks as he had been with the Resnicks.

I went back to my Volvo, placed the Rabbi on the dash beneath the rear view mirror and balefully put a few seeds and shards of a Saltine on my finger tip.

He hopped toward me and then away and after giving me a strange look, he pecked at and then ate what I offered.

I couldn’t decide whether to drive home or leave the Rabbi in the car and go into services. I knew I’d be bored in the services, but I’d be bored at home as well, and wasn’t being bored among people a preferable condition? Jews don’t speak much about boredom. Nor do they speak much about despair, which is boredom’s dangerous dark cousin, as Christians do, but we suffer from it as much as other faiths, to be sure.

I think that’s another reason I had gotten the Rabbi, not just to prank my co-religionists but because I’m an isolated guy and I needed a friend, and an activity to focus on, and it seemed easiest to purchase one in this manner.

So, in the midst of such gloomy thoughts, as contemplating home or shul, both grievous alternatives, the Rabbi hopped up onto the steering wheel, cocked his head to the side so that he could look me, as it were, right in the eye.

“So what do you have to say for yourself? Shanah Tovah? Shanah Tovah?”

He was silent, but somehow his presence was there. He was not ignoring me.

I tried again. “Shanah Tovah. I know you’ll do it in private, right? Or maybe Mort’s right. You want me to go in, and pray, and come back out, and you’ll say it then? You’re an orthodox bird, maybe? Waiting to make it kosher?”

In the Rabbi’s silence, I realized that while I was disappointed, I was not sad. Not really. The bird had brought me to the synagogue, well, at least as far as the parking lot and lobby, and I knew that without him, I would not be even here; without the bird and my lessons for him, I would have definitely stayed away, completely.

And I told the bird. I expressed my appreciation. When I had finished, he hopped away, and seemed to find something interesting to peck at the far corner of the dash over the glove compartment.

I stared at his busyness for a few seconds and decided that as I had paid my membership this year, why not?

I rubbed my face with my hands, grabbed my comb and fussed a bit with my sparse, thinning hair, in a manner that, frankly, reminded me a little of how the Rabbi neatened his own feathers, often after he ate.

“I’ll see you a little later, “ I said to the bird, and then, sliding half way out the car door,  I added, “By the way, Shanah Tovah.”

“Tzom Kal,” he replied. “Tzom Kal. Tzom Tovah. Shanah Kal. Gmar Chatima Kal Tovah.”

Independent staff reporter Allan Appel has published nine novels, including the National Jewish Book Award nominated Rabbi of Casino Boulevard.. His 2010 novel The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air has been optioned for a TV series. The most recent, The Book of Norman, a send-up of Mormon-Jewish relations and a solution to problems of the afterlife, has just been published by MandelVilar Press.

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