Siobhan Rosenthal

There’s Nothing to Tell, Really

Thereʼs nothing to tell, really.

Nothing happened.

We were all in the synagogue sanctuary, about halfway through the service. The cantor had just finished his midrash. Well, now I think about it, we were two thirds of the way through. No one was even thinking about risk. Well, why would you? Thereʼs no anti-Semitism in New Zealand.

Oh, all right, I wouldnʼt say none. Thereʼs less than elsewhere, letʼs put it that way. We havenʼt had the bomb threats or worse, the machine guns in the kosher supermarket. None of that.

And you donʼt expect that, ever, not even in Paris and Brussels where it does happen. It doesnʼt happen here.

And thatʼs why it all felt so unreal when the shammas, the old guy who sets up the service and opens the door, came into the sanctuary.

“Iʼm just letting you know the police have put us on lockdown.”

We wait for more, but he doesnʼt say it. We finish the service, slowly. Erev Shabbat. This night is not like any other night. We wait as the Hebrews did in Exodus. The night of the tenth plague. Weʼre hoping that the angel of death will pass over our house.

We go out of the sanctuary, as we always do, for kiddush. Challah and wine, and long Hebrew prayers. We sing robustly, as if the tunes are a defence. But it doesnʼt help. The woman next to me is shaking.

“Iʼve never known anything like this,” she says. “Not all the time Iʼve been coming...”

We finish the prayers and gather round the shammas. He tells us what he knows, which isnʼt much. A man posted on Facebook that he was going to kill Jews tonight.

Then he showed up, and tried to force his way in to the synagogue. The shammas shut him out, locked all the doors and called the police.

They want us to stay inside for now. They will search the area.

“This isnʼt a good place to stand. Weʼre too exposed,” says the cantor, pointing at the open glass walls. He takes us back inside the sanctuary.

The children donʼt understand what is happening. They want to go back out to the play area. “Let me tell you a story,” says one father. He kneels on the floor and begins a long yarn. The children cluster around him. The story goes on, and on, and on. He stretches it out, determined not to finish before the police.

There must have been stories told whilst they huddled during pogroms. And in the cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz. Stories are so basic and comforting. They make sense of existence. A promise of a happy ending. So powerful. So real. Jews believe in stories even when we canʼt believe in God.

The dinosaur that ate the talking fish for dinner is still worrying about whether he will get a stomach ache when the police knock on the door. They cannot find the man. They want to escort us to our cars, one family at a time. They carry weapons, and I can no longer hide the truth from my son.

He walks bravely between the police officers, trying not to run. We are advised not to drive straight to the curry house down the road where we meet for dinner, but to take a detour. Just in case.

I unlock the car door. My fingers shake. Nothing happened, I tell myself.

Then I see them, the synagogue men, behind me. Usually everyone removes their yarmulke after the service. Not tonight. The Jewish kippah, the little round hat. There, and there, and there. All the men are wearing them, as they walk outside.

And that is the only sign that anything happened here tonight at all.

Siobhan Rosenthal

Siobhan Rosenthal is published amongst others in Jewish Fiction, Jewish Currents, The Times (London), New Zealand Poetry, the Fib Review and Internet Void. She has three children, and is very proud of them all. She was inspired to write this piece by the bravery shown by her eldest son that night. It is retrospectively dedicated to the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting, who were also not expecting trouble at shul.