by J L Higgs
As was customary, Rabbi Zeitel arrived at his office at precisely 9:00 am.
“Good Morning, Mrs. Lieberman,” he said to his assistant, who was seated at her desk in the outer office.
She returned his greeting. Then handing him a note, said,“You have a message.”
Having removed his hat and winter overcoat, Rabbi Zeitel adjusted his yarmulke and scanned the pink slip of paper.
“An emergency meeting of the council?” he said, massaging his beard and furrowing his bushy eyebrows. “He said nothing else?”
“What else should he say to me?” she responded. “The phone rings, I answer it. He asks, is Rabbi Zeitel in? I say no. He asks I give you a message.” She pointed at the note.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.”
“You are very welcome Rabbi Zeitel.” She smiled. “Would you like some coffee?”
“No thank you, Mrs. Lieberman.”
“Perhaps a bagel or a danish.”
“No, I am fine, Mrs. Lieberman. Thank you,” he said going into his office.
An emergency meeting of The Interfaith Community Council was unprecedented. The council promoted respect and tolerance for differing religious views and practices and its next scheduled meeting was only two days away. Its members were the ministers of the churches on the town’s aptly named Church Street. On one side of the street, within a few blocks of each other, were a Temple, a Catholic Church, and a Christian Evangelical Church. Across the street, splitting the distance between the Catholics and the Evangelicals were the Unitarian Universalists. The Lutherans were separate, about a mile further down the street.
The council had been founded following an act of vandalism to Temple Beth Israel. In a show of community solidarity, the other church congregations had appeared unannounced and helped remove anti-semitic graffiti defacing one of the temple’s walls.
With his colleagues gathered in a circle in the basement of Church St. Christian, Reverend Johnson, a bald, stout, black man with a bull neck, began speaking. “I’m sorry to call all of you here today,” he bellowed. “A serious matter has arisen that requires the council’s attention.”
“What’s happened?” asked Reverend Robyn, the height sensitive UU minister, a wearer of always sensible black shoes, flats.
“Well, I’m sure as each of you arrived here this morning, you probably noticed it,” said Reverend Johnson. “Our nativity scene?” he said to their blank expressions. “Baby Jesus? He’s gone from the manger?”
“That’s awful,” said Reverend Robyn, reaching out and touching Reverend Johnson’s hand. “What can we do to help?”
“I don’t mean to sound insensitive,” said Rabbi Zeitel, “but this is a crisis?”
“It’s probably a prank by one of those teenage juvenile delinquents we see around town,” said Father Omyzanski of the Polish Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Assumption, not to be confused with the Irish or Italian Catholic Churches in other sections of the town.
“We don’t know that, Vincent,” said Reverend Robyn.
“When we were young, something like this would never have happened,” replied Father Omyzanski. “And if it did? Sister Mary George would’ve gotten a confession in less than two minutes.”
“Well, that may be true, Oz,” replied Pastor Brown of the Lutherans, steepling his stork-like patrician fingers while Father Omyzanski’s face reddened. He hated the undignified image it conjured up of him amid a group of gaily attired munchkins. “But, the facts are the Baby Jesus figurine is missing,” continued Pastor Brown. “We need to focus on what can be done to find it. Do you have any leads, Julius?”
“Just this.” Reverend Johnson held up a jaggedly torn yellow paper. He slid his horn-rimmed glasses down from atop his head and read aloud, “My birthday is not for three more days. I should not be here. JC.”
“Well, he has a point. The 25th is three days from now.”
“That’s irrelevant. It’s a nativity display for God’s sake!” shouted Father Omyzanski. “Sorry,” he quickly added, seeing his colleagues shocked expressions. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”
“Did you notify the police?” asked Reverend Robyn.
“Yes, but it didn’t sound like they considered Baby Jesus’ disappearance a priority,” said Reverend Johnson.
Rabbi Zeitel, who had been sitting quietly, leaned forward in his metal folding chair. “If I may make a suggestion,” he said. “The solution to this problem seems rather straight forward to me. A plastic figurine molded in the image of an infant that has a light bulb above its tokus has disappeared. We buy a new one. Replace one tchotchke with another. Problem solved.”
“Well, it’s not as simple as all that.”
“Please. What is it I’m not understanding?” asked Rabbi Zeitel.
“We’re talking about something more than a piece of plastic. The infant Jesus is an important symbol of Christianity,” said Father Omyzanski.
“And Christianity is somehow injured if we replace this symbol with another copy?”
“It’s difficult to explain, Herman, you’re not being a Christian,” said Pastor Brown.
What chutzpah, thought Rabbi Zeitel. “Bob, Jesus was a Jew. I am a Jew. Please. Explain how not being a Christian is relevant in this instance?”
“Please everyone,” said Reverend Johnson, holding up his hands. “We need to work together. Church St Christian has displayed this nativity set every year since its founding.”
“So, you are saying its significance has to do with tradition. That I can understand. Tradition is important,” said Rabbi Zeitel. “Robyn, what do you propose we do?”
“Well, for starters, we could create posters and attach them to telephone poles. And I’m sure the local supermarkets will let us place notices on their entryway bulletin boards.”
Pastor Brown sighed, thinking – Lost Dog. Named Fido. If found please call… “Sounds reasonable,” he said, smiling at Reverend Robyn. “I suggest we email the members of our congregations and ask if anyone knows anything about the disappearance.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to search the neighborhood,” offered, Fr. Omyzanski.
“Herman?” asked Reverend Johnson, looking at Rabbi Zeitel.
“I am happy to do whatever I can to help.”
“Thank you, everyone,” said Reverend Johnson. “With all of us working together, I’m sure we’ll find Baby Jesus before our Sunday School’s Christmas pageant. For as in Matthew 7:7, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.”
The following morning, Reverend Robyn, a skilled organizer of things ranging from protests against social injustice to delivering meals to shut-ins, was in her element. The UU church basement was full of volunteers creating colorful posters.
At Oakgrove Lutheran, Pastor Brown and the Lutheran Church’s Secretary were reviewing membership lists and composing an email to be sent to the members of all the congregations.
In Our Lady’s parking lot, Reverend Johnson, Rabbi Zeitel, and Father Omyzanski were dividing the neighborhood search volunteers into groups. Before beginning their mission, Reverend Johnson had everyone join hands. Then he delivered a long prayer, ending with an emphatic Amen to rousing cheers.
On Thursday, when the council gathered for its scheduled meeting, all the attendees were feeling downcast.
“Are there any positive developments at all?” Reverend Robyn asked Reverend Johnson as he entered the basement meeting room.
“Here,” he said, taking a group of photos from his suit coat’s inside pocket and handing them to her.
Reverend Robyn, thumbed through the photos, confusion etched on her face. Then she handed them to Father Omyzanski.
“Disgraceful,” he said, handing the entire lot to Pastor Brown after reaching the final one.
Pastor Brown flipped through the photos, his facial expression altering from surprise to amusement. He then handed the photos to Rabbi Zeitel.
On top of the stack was a photo of the missing Baby Jesus figurine in front of the Eiffel Tower. Rabbi Zeitel turned the photo over and on the reverse side it said, “Having a great time!” Next was the Baby Jesus lying at the base of the Taj Mahal and on the back of that photo was the same message.
“Boy,” said Rabbi Zeitel, with a twinkle in his eyes, “that Baby Jesus, he sure gets around.”
Rabbi Zeitel continued through the stack. Baby Jesus standing alongside a bear skin helmeted guard at the Tower of London. Lying across the tips of the Pyramids in Giza. Leaning against the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And the last photo, Baby Jesus scaling the Empire State Building in New York City.
His head shaking, Rabbi Zeitel said, “Talk about a wandering Jew.”
Pastor Brown burst out laughing and Rabbi Zeitel joined in. Reverend Robyn, trying to contain herself, covered her mouth with her hand. After a few minutes, Pastor Brown and Rabbi Zeitel regained their composure. But, when their eyes made contact, they erupted in another round of tear producing laughter.
“Hunh,” grunted Reverend Johnson taking the photos from Rabbi Zeitel.
“C’mon guys,” said Reverend Robyn, her face deeply flushed.
“I am sorry,” said Rabbi Zeitel, wiping tears from his eyes and trying to catch his breath. “Please. My apologies. Let’s continue.”
“You must admit, that’s a great job of PhotoShopping,” said Pastor Brown, stifling a smile. “But seriously, does anyone have any thoughts on what we should do next?”
“Well,” said Father Oz. “Perhaps we’ve been overlooking the obvious.”
“Praying for the safe return of Baby Jesus.”
“That’s a fantastic idea, Vincent,” said Reverend Johnson. “After all, doesn’t The Bible say we should call upon God in the hour of need?”
“It couldn’t hurt,” said Reverend Robyn interrupting Rabbi Zeitel. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Fine,” said Pastor Brown. “We’re in agreement.”
Reverend Johnson immediately dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “Heavenly Father,” he began, “we come before you, your humble servants, asking for your help in our time of need. As you know Lord, Baby Jesus is missing. We’ve done our best to find him and bring him safely home. Psalm 55:22 says, cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you. That’s why we’re asking for your help. For The Bible says when the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. And whatever you ask in prayer you will receive if you have faith. So, Lord, we’re asking you to please restore Baby Jesus back to our loving arms. For this, we pray, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
As he got back to his feet with a big smile on his face, Reverend Johnson boomed, “I feel better already. How ’bout you, Robyn?”
“Well,” said Pastor Brown, standing up. “I am sorry my friends, but I must leave. I have promised to visit a member of my congregation who has been ill.”
“A good shepherd must attend to his flock,” said Reverend Johnson, patting Pastor Brown on the shoulder. “I think we can call today’s meeting to a close. We’ve done what we can. Now, it’s up to God.”
The following morning, being Christmas Day, Rabbi Zeitel arrived at his office well before his customary 9:00 am. He’d expected roadways clogged with holiday travelers.
“Good Morning, Rabbi Zeitel” called out Mrs. Lieberman as he unlocked the office door.
“Good Morning, Mrs. Lieberman,” he replied, bending down to remove his galoshes. “And how are you on this beautiful morning?”
“Why kvetch. I am wonderful. Thank you for asking, Rabbi Zeitel.”
“Would you like some coffee? It will warm you up.”
“No thank you, Mrs. Lieberman. I’m fine.”
“Perhaps a knish. I made them myself. A little nosh is always good to start the day.”
“Not right now, Mrs. Lieberman. Perhaps later,” replied Rabbi Zeitel as he hung his coat and hat on the hooks outside his office door.
“Rabbi Zeitel,” said Mrs. Lieberman, following him into his office. “I should tell you, Reverend Johnson called just before you arrived. He said something about a miracle. God being good. And answering prayers.”
“Yes. He said, when Rabbi Zeitel arrives, please tell him there has been a miracle. So, now I have delivered his message. There is a miracle.”
“And he said nothing about the nature of this miracle?”
“No, he did not. The only other thing he said was that he would appreciate it if you would come see him this morning if that is at all possible.”
“Well,” said Rabbi Zeitel snatching his hat and coat off the hooks. “We must go!”
“To see Reverend Johnson of course.”
“But Rabbi Zeitel. The goyim?” she said shaking her head no. “I cannot do that. Why… who will mind the office?”
“Mrs. Lieberman. No one person or group has a monopoly on God. Come. We go now,” he said, holding her coat for her. Mrs. Lieberman slipped into her coat while continuing to shake her head in bewilderment.
Rabbi Zeitel led the way, taking Mrs. Lieberman’s arm whenever they encountered a large pile of slush.
“Rabbi,” said Mrs. Lieberman. “You forgot your galoshes!”
“Eh, no matter,” he said, grasping the handles of Church St Christian and pulling the doors open.
As the doors swung closed behind him with a muted thud, Rabbi Zeitel saw that Mrs. Lieberman was not beside him. He pushed the doors open, took her by the arm, and steered Mrs. Lieberman inside.
“It’ll be fine, Mrs. Lieberman,” he whispered to her. “They’re all God’s houses.”
On the dais at the front of the church, Reverend Johnson stepped from behind the lectern. Spotting Rabbi Zeitel, he waved for him to come to the front of the church. Rabbi Zeitel reassured Mrs. Lieberman that she was safe among the goyim and that he was not meshuggener. Then he started down a side aisle. As he reached the front pew, he saw Reverend Robyn, Pastor Brown, and Father Omyzanski seated there. They each shook his hand as the congregation jumped to its feet, hooting and hollering.
Leaning over, Reverend Robyn shouted in Rabbi Zeitel’s ear, “He’s back. The Baby Jesus was back in the manger this morning!”
The congregation roared loudly, drawing Rabbi Zeitel’s attention back to the dais. There, Reverend Johnson, his entire face a smile, held the Baby Jesus out toward the congregation. Claps, cheers, and foot stomps erupted. Baby Jesus was back!
J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. The primary goal of his writings is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America.
He has been published in various magazines such as Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, and The Remembered Arts Journal.
He and his wife reside outside of Boston.
Drawings as well as URLs to published stories are located at: