People of the Book
Toni Kakeh, Ed Nassor and Josh Burrows struggled to find their spiritual way -- until three ancient characters emerged from their sacred texts to guide them

By Laura Blumenfeld
Sunday, September 28, 2008

THE STORY IS OVER, A MAN HAS DIED, AND IT IS UP TO ED NASSOR TO TOLL THE LAST NOTE. Ed is the bell ringer up in the church tower, but now he lies in his bed at sunrise. On his nightstand rests his red book of Psalms.

Notes steal into his sleep: re, do, ti, la, so ... The bells chime in Ed's mind, mingling with the urgent chirp of a cardinal at his window. It pecks Ed awake.

"How long do I have?" is Ed's first thought. How long until the funeral? In four hours, Ed will play the carillon at Washington National Cathedral to mark the death of a man he never met. Ed has sounded the death knell for senators and presidents. But today feels different, he will later recall, edgy and questioning, like the cardinal's song.

A carillonneur friend close to his age died recently, suddenly, "a shock." Ed's father died when Ed was 2. And, lately, Ed, 50, finds himself losing his breath when he climbs the church's spiral stairs, a lingering symptom two years after near-fatal pneumonia. On a whim last week, as worshipers strolled below, he pounded out "St. Patrick's Breastplate and Deirdre," the requiem he has chosen for himself.

Ed's instrument is 63 tons of bronze. The audience doesn't come to it; it comes to them. The bells mix and blend in the tower chamber and fly out to the street, unsettling the air with ancient, clanging questions, waking the neighboring houses of God.

The peals trail buses as they rumble half a mile up Massachusetts Avenue to the Washington Hebrew Congregation, the capital's first temple, where a Jewish man, Josh Burrows, unscrolls the Torah, and asks, Who am I?

The peals chase taxis as they drive a mile down Massachusetts Avenue to the Islamic Center, the capital's first mosque, where a Muslim woman, Toni Kakeh, bends over the Koran, and asks, How do I live?

And they resonate inside Ed, a Christian who plays hymns from the scriptures where the gargoyles and stone crosses crown the National Cathedral. Ed asks, How do I face death?

Ed, Josh and Toni tremble at these questions, unknown to each other and alone, until they find their answers in the pages of a sacred story. The characters they read about emerge from the text to show them the way. And so, the People of the Book are guided by the People in the Book. The chimes are destined to fade, but the characters live on.

"You can't keep it," Ed says of the bell tower's song. "It's just going to go."

Ed lies in his bed in the pale light that morning, his blue blanket pulled to his shoulders, his brown hair sticking up in cowlicks. Katherine, his wife, is downstairs brewing coffee. Resting on his right side -- the pulmonologist says it will help him breathe -- Ed imagines the steel clappers striking Bach's Sonatina. Perhaps he should perform it for the grieving family. Or perhaps for the dead man's soul, like a medieval bell-ringer banishing demons. Or perhaps, as he does when the streets below are empty, Ed will "play for the angels."

Ed flexes his fingers. Two tiny puncture marks swell on his neck, where a spider bit him while he was weeding. The death of Ed's friend presses on him. It adds urgency to his days. "I can't say I'll learn this hymn next year. Better start learning it now."

Ed looks at his pinkies, at the knuckles and the joints. Years of tapping the carillon's wooden levers have callused the edges of his palms. A tube of Nivea moisturizer rests on the bedside table, next to his book of Psalms. At night, Ed squirts the Nivea onto his hands and he ...


... RUBS THE CREAM into the calluses on her knees. Toni Kakeh keeps the Nivea on her bedside table, next to her green Koran. Kneeling five times a day to pray has reddened her fair-skinned knees. Toni applies the cream at night. It soothes the rough spots and the bruises.

"Open your Koran," Toni's teacher instructs the Islamic studies class, gathered on a Sunday morning in the basement of the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue. The teacher, Toni's husband, Amin, bearded and cloaked in a white tunic, says, "Our promise today: talk about family."

At the word "family," Toni shifts slightly in her seat in the back of the women's section. Her pale moon face floats in a pitch-dark scarf. Like the other women, Toni wears a long skirt and a long-sleeved blouse. Unlike the other women, she has blue eyes and speaks with a Mississippi twang. Beneath her black hijab, unseen, her blond hair glows.

"You could turn heads!" Toni's mother often says.

"I don't want to turn heads," Toni replies.

Every week, Toni, 50, drives to the Islamic Center from Springfield with her Syrian husband and their five children to study the Koran. A convert from Christianity, Toni has transformed her Sundays, from sizzling bacon to simmering fava beans, from the pine wood scent of her Methodist church to the incense that drenches the Persian rugs on the mosque floor. On hot days when Toni supplicates, pressing her forehead to the ground, her sweat trickles backward up her neck, and she feels closer than ever to heaven.

How do I live? "I am in a state of submission," Toni says. Her new creed helps her battle the demons. Toni's Koran flutters with Post-it notes. Scarves no longer give her headaches or bind (Post-it: "Hijab, sura 24:31"). Nor does she mind lowering her eyes when the grocery boy loads her bags (Post-it: "Lower Gaze, sura 24:30"). She sometimes cruises in her minivan, blasting rock music by Queen "to feel just human," but when she suggested taking her husband to a Tina Turner concert, they decided that "it looks bad for Muslims to go." Mostly though, Toni is content to recite the Koran while she makes her sons' beds, or to rise at 4 a.m. and wash three times ("Not easy, washing your feet up in a sink," she says, hunched and sloshing in the powder room) so she can pray. It surprised her, but didn't hurt, when a stranger yelled "sand-nigger!" Only one thing can hurt her, she says, "my family."

And so, as her husband, the Koran teacher, recounts the story of Abraham, Toni's eyes -- light, like her mother's -- waver.

The teacher says, "Abraham left his mother, his father, his family, his friends."

Abraham, the first monotheist, left his parents because they worshiped idols. Toni listens to Amin, taking notes in a composition book: "If you cannot practice your religion -- you have to leave the area. Started by prophet Abraham."

She pauses, clicking her pen.

"I miss my blood family," Toni says later, recalling her parents and four siblings back in Mississippi. "As time goes by, I grow further and further from my blood. There's no one in the world I love more than my mom. We were best friends; I could tell her anything. Mom used to look at me with approval; her eyes would be clear and wide. Now, every time, I see a little regret in her eyes."

Yet no regret accompanies Toni's account of her conversion. The day Amin drove her to the mosque to take the Shahada, a recitation of the Islamic creed, Toni felt like she "was coming home." Amin dictated the Arabic, which Toni jotted down in transliteration on a scrap of paper that she carried for years, folded and creased, to help her pray.

After the Shahada, Toni recalls, she went home and undressed to purify herself, taking a special, cleansing shower. The steam blurred Toni's image in the mirror; finally, her life's path seemed clear. She stepped into the spray, surrounded by white tile. Warm water drenched her head, and her blond hair darkened. The former Christian inhaled and said to herself: "I'm a Muslim, I'm a believer ..."


"... I'M A JEW. I'M JEWISH. IT'S NOW OFFICIAL," the young Chinese American woman says, inhaling. "The water is warm." And then she submerges. For a moment, the only sound is the splash of the Jewish ritual bath. Surrounded by white tile, naked and breathing steam, the former Daoist recites the Hebrew blessings of conversion. Her laughter echoes off the walls.

"Mazel tov!" shouts the rabbi, Josh Burrows, hovering behind the closed door at the synagogue mikvah. He stands 6-foot-6 and pillar-thick. Josh had explained to her, "When you immerse yourself in the water, you're transforming yourself."

Then, before Josh ducks out, he tips his large head and said: "Any questions?"

Josh often ends like this -- "Any questions?" -- because secretly he worries he hasn't explained things well. Josh became a rabbi, in part, to look for answers. Instead, the questions begat questions.

Who am I? "To this day, I'm not sure what I want to do," Josh says later. He is the junior rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation. He guides his congregants through hospice visits, miscarriages, Alzheimer's, abuse. "I've got a project for you," a beaming, 78-year-old woman wearing thick magenta lipstick says to Josh, after he concludes a lecture on theology. She clutches his wrist: "I want you to conduct my funeral."

Three years of this have made Josh so anxious that, without telling anyone, even his wife, Gabi, he picked up a two-dollar lucky coin from an airport floor and keeps it deep in his wallet, to ward off demons.

"I'm a 32-year-old man forced to contemplate things I'm not emotionally ready to deal with," Josh says. "I'm not a man; I'm a rabbi, an ageless creature that represents the voice of a 5,000-year-old tradition." He's developed a blind spot in his right eye, "from stress," Josh says; when he reads the Torah, a gray glob sits on the Hebrew script.

At the end of the month, he is quitting his job, and he is quitting the rabbinate. But first, Josh has to officiate at one last bar mitzvah.

"Come on over here, little buddy," Josh says, waving a 13-year-old boy in flip-flops up to the podium to see the parchment scroll. "It's a very cool Torah. Check this out."

They are alone, practicing in the temple sanctuary.

The bar mitzvah is in three weeks. "Show me what you got, man," Josh says, with his do-right smile.

The boy begins to chant in Hebrew the portion of the Bible that has been allotted for the calendar week of his bar mitzvah, a story in Numbers 13:1-15:41: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying, 'Send thou men that they may,' um, uh ..." The boy's voice falters. He scratches his head. "I don't know the rest."

Josh has helped more than 20 adolescents through this rite of passage. Last time, his biggest challenge was whether the hyper-prepared girl could sing the holy text while wearing sexy spaghetti straps. Now Josh has to train a lacrosse player who doesn't like Hebrew school, hasn't learned his assigned Torah story and says, with a laid-back shake of his curls, that he isn't sure he can do it.

And his parents have decided to get a divorce.

"Any questions?" Josh says.

The boy yawns.

"There's lots of cool stuff" in that portion of the Bible, Josh tries. The Hebrew slaves have escaped from Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai. God commands Moses to send 12 men to scout out the Holy Land. "There's spies. There's bravery. There's knowing what you're capable of. I have a really cool thing to tell you about this Torah portion. I'll save it for later."

The boy's father, a hedge fund manager, walks in: "Sorry I'm late. Work call."

"No problem," says Josh, with an affable nod. He knows he was asked to officiate, in part, because the bar mitzvah boy's mother is a Christian, as was Josh's father. Josh's mother comes from Russian Jewish stock.

"Pig farmers, moonshiners and hillbillies" is how the young rabbi describes hisfather's Irish Methodist family, who live in the Missouri Ozarks. When Josh visited Uncle Butch and his Christian grandparents as a child for Christmas, the neighbors got excited: "Fay's little Jew-baby is here!"

But, looking at Josh, it is hard to see the Jew. "People say, 'Wow, they build Jews that tall?' " His manner is mountain boy. His face is so neatly geometric, it could fit on a grid. His nose suggests Midwestern Christian, "I don't have that bump, whatever that bump is," Josh says. When people meet him ...


... THEY ASSUME ED IS A MUSLIM. Which is funny for Ed, a Christian, who has dedicated his musical life to Christ. At the National Cathedral, where he has been the carillonneur since 1990, visitors from Muslim countries, dressed in shifts and headdresses, come over to Ed and ask for directions in Arabic.

"It's the big, thick eyebrows," Ed says, arching a dark eyebrow. His paternal grandparents, Antioch Orthodox Christians, moved to the United States from Lebanon after World War I. Ed's Semitic genes crushed his mother's Danish-Irish. His dimpled chin and desert-well eyes are Egyptian cinema star.

"Habibi," my beloved, his grandmother would say to him, enveloping young Ed in the scent of mint and lamb. "Habibi, your father could play every instrument he touched."

Ed's memories of his father are a "dreamlike sequence, a man in a red-check shirt playing upsy-daisy with me." He died of Hodgkin's disease at age 34, when Ed was 2. Shortly after that, all sounds -- Grandma's laugh, the neighbor's kids playing, the talcum-scented melody of Mommy's lullaby -- also died. Ed went deaf. The only noise he could hear was the drumming of his pulse: two notes, da-dum, one high, one low. He liked the steady rhythm. He didn't realize that the song was his own heart.

Eventually, surgery corrected the toddler's swollen adenoids, which had blocked his eustachian tubes. Ed could hear again, and he sat at his father's piano. A lonesome only child on a street of large families, he spent his afternoons tinkering with chords and keys. In his solitude, he imagined that someone was with him, a secret spectator who is still in his audience today.

"It's my own private joke: When it's cold outside, sleet or a storm, people say, 'Why bother? No one's listening.' I say, 'I'll play for the angels.' "

On this morning though, as Ed chooses funeral music for a man he's never met, the audience he hopes to reach is the grieving family. He hums Bach's Sonatina, driving on Interstate 395 toward the cathedral.

"Is this the version I want, or the one with the little fugue ending?" he asks himself. His collar rubs the spider bite on his neck, raising tiny fang marks.

"Oh! Dear," Ed says, as he approaches the red flares of an accident. Traffic slows. Drivers scan the wrecks for bodies. "Gosh, it makes me wonder," Ed says, turning away. Two years ago, when Ed was hospitalized for pleurisy, the staff asked if he wanted to sign a "do not resuscitate" order.

"I said, 'No, I'm not done yet,' " Ed recalls. He thought of his wife, an administrator at the cathedral. On a foggy day, when Katherine first came to the church, she lost her way on the grounds. The sound of Ed's bells guided her. That's how they met. Years later, as Ed lay in his hospital bed, in a semi-delirium, he read from his Psalter -- the existential poems, which, tradition says, were written by the biblical King David and set to his harp. Ed strained to breathe, repeating David's yearning words from Psalm 18:2, again and again, "The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer." Ed still reads five Psalms a day and uses an inhaler.

How do I face death? "I ask myself, what's the proper response? What's my legacy? Am I doing all I can?"

Half an hour before the funeral service, at 10 a.m., Ed pulls into the cathedral garage. The Gothic-style church, which took 83 years to construct and was conceived of in George Washington's time, rises spectral white behind Ed. He walks to the northwest corner.

"I love the whimsy of the gargoyles, how they scare away the demons," Ed says. One protruding block remains uncarved. In 1955, Joseph Ratti, the master stone carver, slipped from the scaffolding next to the block and plunged to his death. In Ratti, an artist like Ed who worked up high, unseen, in freezing and steamy weather, Ed finds camaraderie. And, like Ed -- like King David -- Ratti was inspired by the divine. Sometimes, when Ed is alone in the tower, he looks out at a gargoyle that Ratti chiseled and prays for him.

"Poor guy," Ed says. "We're all at the same purpose."

Ed walks inside and crosses the sanctuary. Blue light seeps through thestained-glass windows, calming him. He doesn't drink coffee on the mornings he performs. "You don't want to be jittery playing."

As Ed enters the elevator, he thinks of the deceased man's relatives below, arriving for the funeral. Ed didn't know the man -- that he died at age 58, that he fought liver cancer for four years, that he was married three decades ago in the cathedral's Bethlehem Crypt to the notes of "Jerusalem, My Happy Home," and that today his friends will hear the same song in the same crypt, with his widow. Ed doesn't know that the man's two college- age sons are now preparing to carry his casket.

All Ed knows, rising 150 feet above the ground to the bell tower, he gleans from the memorial program that he is holding in his hand. "I see the 23rd Psalm," he says, reading the text of the hymn. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."

Ed arrives at the playing cabin, a small chamber helmeted by 53 bells. He tightens and loosens the tracker wires. He wants the chimes to have an even sound. He tests the C note, then F sharp. Each tin and copper bell is embossed with a phrase of King David's Psalms. The words from Psalm 100 are cast in relief on E flat, the funeral bell: "THE LORD HE IS GOD."

"The body comes now," Ed says, as a digital clock clicks, 10:26 a.m. "The minister blesses it when it enters the cathedral."

He wheels around, throws down his keys, cellphone and glasses on the oak bench. He squints at the light pen strokes of the musical notes and whispers, "I'm out of breath."

Sometimes Ed has to remind himself to breathe slowly; otherwise he'll pant. At the funeral for Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, Ed had to hammer the giant, 12-ton funeral bell exactly 40 times. Every six seconds, he marked the score, taking a sharp breath.

"I made four strokes down and one across on a piece of paper," Ed recalls. "All I could see was the sky. But I knew TV cameras were down there. I figured the bell would be heard ...


"... I HEARD THE CHURCH BELLS. I THOUGHT ABOUT DEATH," TONI SAYS. "I watched President Reagan's funeral on TV. If I die a Muslim, I'm trying to do all I can to prepare for the next life: prayer, fasting, reading the Koran, control my desires."

Toni grew up in Mississippi going to summer Bible school. Now she sends her kids to Koran camp in Virginia. On this afternoon, Toni and her 8-year-old son, Mustafa, are at home in Springfield, eating pita bread and garlicky beans for lunch. There are rose petal sweets for dessert, from Amin's family in Damascus. Toni is drinking Lipton iced tea, a relic from her Southern upbringing. Even though the shades are down, the lights are off as well, so that a male passerby won't see the silhouette of Toni's uncovered head. The Fed Ex man has learned to be patient at this door; it takes a few minutes for Toni to hide her hair.

"Do you know why I converted?" Toni asks her youngest child.

"Because Baba is a Muslim?" Mustafa says, using the Arabic for Daddy.

"No," Toni says, with a gap-toothed smile. Toni had been her school valedictorian, a shy teenager who spent summer evenings reading the New Testament over a racket of crickets, stumped by the notion that Jesus was literally the son of God.

"I didn't just follow your father blindly," Toni says.

"Well, your sister said you're going to, like, die," says Mustafa.

Toni's sister is a born-again Christian. "My sister said I was going to Hell," Toni says. She gulps her iced tea.

She was born Toni Marie Lyle, and at one point, she considered becoming a nun. Toni's father, a Presbyterian, was a disabled Navy vet. Her mother, a Catholic, who worked in a poultry factory to support five children, was too tired to go out on Sundays. Toni went to the rural church with her sister, singing "Amazing Grace" and waving paper fans.

But in church, Toni recalls, "there were rumors about what we wore, how we acted. We never did anything; my father was verystrict. But we would hear that our dress was too short, we were not proper young ladies."

As the pastor sermonized, "Wash away your troubles," Toni listened, eager and needy, but it wasn't until she was 20 that she found a way to feel clean. Toni met a foreign-born man who was visiting a neighbor, who said, "Hi, y'all" in the driveway with an Arabic accent. They became friends, nothing improper, Toni says, when one day, abruptly, charming in its innocence over cups of tea -- Amin proposed. "No" melted into maybe and, after months, to yes. Toni married Amin, a financial controller, and converted later, after studying the Koran. With Islam, she felt, "the guilt" would wash away.

The guilt, "it's a killer," Toni says, turning her back to load the dirty lunch dishes. "When I say, 'Allahu akbar,' Satan is there, trying to take me on a ride."

Unwilling, or perhaps unable, to name her temptation, Toni's language grows vague: "The desire is a bad one. The demon, it's me. But it's me being bad. It hits like lightning; it's that hard and that hot. Sadly, it's a little thrilling. It takes my breath. 'You again? I thought you were gone.' Do I want it? Oh, yeah. Is it worth it? No. Because the price is an eternity of torment."

To avoid damnation, Amin tells Toni and the other students who gather in the Islamic Center basement each week, their daily lives must incorporate Islam.

"Brother, sit on this side, please," Amin says pointing to the left, when a new male student tries to sit on the right with the women. During one lesson, the teacher condemns secularizing Turkish law: "If Allah ays in court you should cut off his hand, some people say it's too extreme. Why? Are you saying Allah is too harsh?"

Another time, the teacher criticizes airport security for searching Muslim women: "They want to see Victoria's Secret products. That's the reason they are running after the female Muslim. They want to see their underwear."

Toni listens as Amin digresses, as he talks about Palestinians in Gaza who blasted open a border fence. "When the gate opened to Egypt for Palestinians, Condoleezza Rice picked up the phone and said: 'Close the gate. We want them to die!' The entire Palestine is holy for Muslims. When we negotiate, that's the mistake. There is no negotiation." But when the teacher turns back to the story of Abraham in the Koran, Toni picks up her pen.

"If you are confused about religions, which one is right?" Amin asks, explicating a passage about Abraham. Abraham was raised by idol-worshipers. When he realized the stone deities were false, he left his home, his birthplace and his family.

"Come the way of Abraham," the teacher says. "Abraham was 16 years old, facing a nation, starting with his father. When you're right about religion, all relationships stop."

Toni keeps her eyes down, taking notes about Abraham. How do I live? When Toni's father died, her brother told her not to wear her hijab to the funeral. "My brother said, 'Daddy wants you to take that off. He was ashamed of it.' " Her brother's words hit so hard that she doubled over. "I cried in the innermost parts of my heart. I never expected it from my own family." At the funeral, Toni wore a large straw hat to conceal the scarf. In her home town, she slept at a hotel.

"Even though I love them so much, we're on different paths," Toni says.

At the Islamic Center, though, in the tiled porch roofs and in the symmetrical columns, Toni found someone who has chosen her path. Mario Rossi, the noted Italian architect who designed the building, had converted, like her, from Christianity to Islam. And like her -- like the patriarch Abraham -- Rossi left his home and his religion. The limestone and turquoise structure was conceived during World War II and dedicated in 1957. When Toni heard about Rossi, she walked around the prayer hall and looked up at the earthen colors and calligraphy that swirl the octagonal dome.

"He sees the beauty I see in Islam," Toni says of Rossi, long deceased. "It gives humanity the dignity we deserve. I don't see it as an ugly, harsh religion."

And if her siblings do, Toni says, she will act as a shield between them and her children.

"My daughter said, 'Oh, Mommy, I could cuss your brother out,' " for being hurtful, Toni says. While Toni's three sons "like cheeseburgers and football," Toni's two daughters "embrace their Arabic heritage."

"To them, I'm not Arab," Toni says of her girls, with a mother's resigned, compliant laugh. "They pick at me and pick at me." Her Arabic sometimes embarrasses them. "There's one word that means 'ceiling,' and one that means a woman's private parts. I'm not sure of the difference, so I stay away from those words." When Nabeelah, 18, was born, Toni whispered the traditional call to prayer in her ear in a Southern drawl. "She swears I ruined her Arabic. Nabeelah says: 'You're so American and so white. I hate you.' What am I supposed to be -- black?"

The call -- "Allahu akbar!" -- breaks into the Islamic lesson, the words looping and gliding around and down to the basement from the minaret above. It is 1 p.m., time to pray.

Toni walks with the other women upstairs to the prayer hall, removes her shoes and steps behind a screen. Shoulder to shoulder, they line up tight, no room for demons to slide between them. Amber light from eight-pointed stained-glass stars speckle their faces. The only sound is a baby with a stuffy nose breathing. Toni stands next to Nabeelah. She tries to square her shoulders, but in the row of straight-backed, shrouded women, Toni looks stooped. Her husband sometimes tells her this, "You're stooping; stand up."

But the sheer weight of her days accumulate. Toni collapses her arms over her heart. And her shoulders ...


... SAG WITH INVISIBLE WEIGHT. At night, Josh's wife massages his shoulders, but the tension never lifts. Josh thinks it may be because he's too empathetic, that he carries too much of his congregation's pain.

"At least I do funerals and weddings," Josh jokes. When the burden breaks him, as it did last Friday night, Josh says, he drops onto the living room couch, rests his head on his wife's thighs and weeps in a highpitched squeak. His wife's tears fall onto his cheek. He feels like a child.

"What are you going to be?" The mother of the bar mitzvah boy says to Josh, standing in the temple lobby, asking about Josh's future plans.

Who am I? Josh has struggled as far back as second grade in Missouri, when his father was fresh out of the Air Force and his classmates, all Christians, called Josh "G.I. Jew." When he grew up, Josh served a stint in the military as a Navy chaplain. His camouflage prayer shawl hangs on his office wall. But the Navy was just one stop on an "aimless" identity search that included camp director and keeper at a petting zoo.

"I have a general doubt in my life," Josh says later. It is the Jewish condition, he says, mystifying symptoms, no easy relief. "It's chronic. Jewish theology is not all that different from Crohn's disease: There's no moment of enlightenment or answer."

In the lobby, near the entrance to the temple, Josh often passes an old, sober portrait of Capt. Jonas P. Levy, the man who gave the initial donation in 1852 to establish Washington's first Jewish house of prayer. Like Josh, Levy had been in the Navy, commander of the USS America during the Mexican War. Like Josh, Levy had been a peripatetic soul. And like Josh -- like the Hebrews in the wilderness -- Levy had wandered.

As Josh's days in the pulpit dwindle, he says: "What am I meant to think of this? Where am I heading?" The lucky coin that he keeps in his pocket to drive away demons feels essential, like a compass. Looking at the portrait of the restless Levy, Josh says, "I feel a connection with him, as one sailor feels to another."

And so, when the bar mitzvah boy's mother asks Josh about his next job, Josh fixes his eyes on an imperceptible horizon and says, "I'm going to be a dad and husband."

"Good for you!" the woman says. She looks at her son, less approvingly, and tells him, "You've got a lot of work to do."

The boy's Hebrew chanting of the Torah portion has not improved.

"I want you to be working every day on this," Josh says. "At least 35 minutes. Give me a sitcom a night, and you'll be good." Josh hands him his lacrosse bag. "Any questions?"

"I had one, but I forgot."

Two weeks pass. Both parents show up for rehearsal, stiff and estranged. In the sanctuary, the once laid-back boy fidgets.

"Go for it, pal," Josh says. The boy leans forward into the Torah scroll, as if he's trying to get close to the story but doesn't know how. In the desert, Moses sends 12 spies to the Holy Land; 10 bring back dire reports, panicking the recently freed Hebrews. Only two of the spies choose to see goodness in the strange, new land. The boy opens his mouth to recite it, "Um, uh --"

"Atta boy! Keep it up, man!" Josh says.

"These are the names of the people Moses sent, um, to spy the land, um, wait, um, uh ¿"

The bar mitzvah is 10 days away. Josh starts to sweat. "Is it hot in here, or is it me?"

The next week, at the dress rehearsal, the boy stumbles through his opening lines, while his father scrolls through his BlackBerry.

"Keep going, man!" Josh cheers.

Afterward, Josh says: "Okay, you can do better. Your homework assignment is to sit down with --" Josh glances at the separated parents, "Where is he sleeping tonight?"

"He's with me," the father says.

Josh's own home is in turmoil. His wife, a cantor and a rabbi, got a position in New York, where Josh will be a homemaker. His wife and toddler daughter are leaving Washington tomorrow, three days ahead of him. He hasn't started packing. Josh knows he won't be sleeping well, because with his wife gone, he tosses all night, listening to the old kitchen cabinets creak.

His shoulders droop.

"You're almost there, man. Look at me," Josh says. The boy is squirming. He hasn't finalized his bar mitzvah speech. When they first discussed it, Josh had explained its purpose:

"The Torah requires interpretation. There are messages between the lines. How the stories relate to your life. The rabbis thought that by asking questions and finding answers, we could bring ourselves closer to who we are, to our best selves, bring our world that much closer to -- "

" -- paradise," the boy had offered.

Now, with the bar mitzvah a day and a half away, Josh asks, "Do you have any questions?"

"I still can't remember." The boy wrinkles his forehead. "I know it's important."

"Okay, now remember," Josh says. "I have a surprise about this portion. A secret. I'll tell you on ..."


... SATURDAY, 8:20 AM. Josh is gazing at himself in his bedroom mirror, slipping a pair of miniature scissors up his nose.

"Spirituality is so fragile, it's important to cut your nose hair," he says. Snip, snip, snip. Josh will stand next to the bar mitzvah boy on the podium. "You don't want the kid to be distracted by nose hairs."

Little else about this Saturday is routine. Josh's family has moved, except for the cat, Schmulik Pupik, who's disoriented and meowing. Josh hasn't slept. His stomach is so jumpy that he skips his Cheerios because he's afraid that while he's leading services, he'll have to run to the bathroom.

Two hours later at the temple, as guests arrive, three pubescent girls dash to the ladies room squealing, "Hair emergency!" The middle-school lacrosse team tumbles into the sanctuary. The bar mitzvah boy's grandfather, aided by a cane, eases into a front-row seat.

Outside the chapel, Josh steps into his blue rabbinical robe. He feels his throat constricting.

"Okay, take a nice deep breath," Josh says to the family. "Even though this is your first time and my last time, we know exactly what to do." Earlier, in the parking lot, the boy had assessed the challenge of singing a story in biblical Hebrew and interpreting it in a speech: "I don't see anything else that could be harder."

"No cellphones," the boy's mother says. "Turn it off."

"Got it," the father says, holding the phone in front of his face. "Off already."

The service begins. Josh feels heat gather in the folds of his robe. He places the Torah on the podium and unrolls the handwritten parchment.

The boy starts too fast, reading the wrong section: "Wait, sorry -- "

"It's okay." Josh plants a giant hand on his shoulder. "You can do this."

The boy begins again, in respectable adolescent singsong. He recites the story. Josh follows along, mouthing each word. Nervous heat rolls up Josh's robe, escaping through the neck line. The lenses on his glasses fog over.

When it's done, Josh smiles and points to the man with the cane: "Your grandpa wants to kiss you."

Then comes the boy's bar mitzvah speech: "This day is about what I have become -- "

"Slow!" Josh whispers.

" -- in the eyes of my community."

"Slower!" Josh whispers. This is the big moment, when the boy Josh has sweated over for months will finally pose a question.

"It stumped me," the boy tells the congregation. "Why would God need to send spies to the promised land? He is God. And He promised them the land. So, why?"

Josh watches the boy. He watches him knowing that, in a sense, he is watching himself.

"I believe God was trying to test them, to see if they had faith," the boy continues his speech. "This portion teaches me to stay motivated. And no matter what obstacles stand in my way, I will not be afraid."

Now it is Josh's turn to speak: "This is the last Saturday morning I'll be leading services at Washington Hebrew."

Some 200 worshipers stare at the rabbi expectantly, but Josh is looking across the platform at the bar mitzvah boy.

"This week's Torah reading is very special because your bar mitzvah portion ... " Josh bites his lip. " ... is also mine." His face flushes. Josh had stammered through the identical Bible story in front of his own seventh-grade classmates and his own interfaith family. Now, 20 years later, a younger version of himself helped Josh to grasp the story's message as if he'd heard it for the first time.

"It's telling us to have faith in ourselves," Josh says. To have faith, like the two spies at a crossroads in the desert, who were brave enough to embrace the unknown.

Josh had doubted his ability to function as a clergyman. But in pulling this struggling kid across the line, he realizes that, yes, he is meant to be a rabbi. Yes, like the lonely slaves floating in an ocean of sand, Josh is being tested. Who am I?

"Turn around," Josh tells the boy, gesturing toward the ark, which stores the Torahs. "Behind you, every step of the way, is this tradition. You are not alone," he says, as much to himself as to the boy. "And you have never been alone and never will be alone. Our ancient partners walked before us." Josh swallows. He wipes his eyes. It feels like steam is leaking out from his collar. He can't help it; he starts to cry.

In Springfield, it is just past noon, and Toni's husband touches her cheek. They are in bed, Toni recalls later.

"You know, it's after 12; we need to get up," Amin says. Islamic texts line the bookshelves next to the bed. A miniature Mecca replica sits on the dresser.

"We need to call Damascus," Amin says, to talk to his family.

Toni's eyes are closed. Her red prayer rug is rolled up. Her hair is uncovered, no hijab, strawberry blond against the pillowcase. On a nearby shelf rests the black straw hat she wore to her father's funeral to hide her hijab. Toni calls it "my hat of sadness."

"We're tired," Amin says, his head aching. Night prayers, the fifth session of the day, end so late that they lie down at 12:30 a.m. By 4 a.m., they are up again, saying fajr, dawn prayers. On this Saturday morning, they had gone back to sleep.

"We're like dead people," Toni murmurs sleepily. The blinds are drawn. The window muffles the sounds of their children playing in the yard. Toni can hear the voice of her youngest, Mustafa, above the others. This weekend she woke him for dawn prayers for the first time. She put a cold washcloth on his cheeks. "Mustafa! It's time for fajr." The boy peeked out from his Spider-Man sheets, ready to learn what it means to be a Muslim man.

With her blue eyes half-open, Toni quietly recites the Shahada, "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger."

Toni's vision is blurry without her glasses, but she can see the fuzzy outlines of her husband's beard. Every week at the Islamic Center, Toni sets up a recorder in front of her husband and tapes his lectures while she sits in the back taking notes. Sometimes afterward, she'll replay his words. Here is how Amin introduced the story of Abraham:

"We are not telling a story as a tale. We are learning stories to apply these things to our lives. To become a better person."

Amin had taught: "This is the lesson of Abraham. You do not have to feel alone. Because our father stood that way. It is an honor for you to be alone."

When Toni feels lonely for the bond with her mother, when she aches for the days when she and her sister would pick a watermelon, hack it in two and dig it out with a spoon, she thinks now of Abraham: "He had faith and kept going. He took the first step; then Allah helped him. He wasn't alone."

Lying in bed at midday on this Saturday, Toni looks at Amin. How do I live? "I've found peace," she recalls thinking. As Abraham had found, in a strange, new land. Her husband's head is throbbing. Toni reaches over and strokes his temples gently.

At 12:15 p.m. at Washington Hebrew Congregation, Josh is high-fiving the bar mitzvah boy. "That was the secret: We share the same Torah portion, man!" Josh says, as the crowd spills out of the chapel. "You see what you can do! You see how great you can be!"

The temple empties. Josh -- his voice drained, his hair matted -- prepares to return the Torah to the ark. He fits two ornamental silver crowns on its handles. He lifts the storied scroll and rests his head against its cover, intimate, cheek to cheek. As he walks toward the ark, the crowns shake, jingling tiny silver bells.

Half a mile away, the bells begin to peal in the tower of the National Cathedral. Ed is playing "Seek Ye First" on the carillon to mark the confirmation of the adolescent boys and girls in the diocese. The bar mitzvah boy is leaving Washington Hebrew, as the Muslim children wash for midday prayers and the Christian youths are exiting the cathedral.

"Five, six, seven, eight," Ed counts out loud as he plays. He's engaged in a kind of a seated dance, his legs pumping the foot pedals, his fists pressing the wooden batons, reaching, tilting to the right, then slanting to the left. The C-major chord alone weighs seven tons. Ed's blue oxfordcloth shirt turns wet with effort.

On this warm day, the scent of roses blows in from the Bishop's Garden. In the winter, snowdrifts pile up to the lips of the bells. It is, Ed says, "a lonesome profession." The lightning storms are the hardest. A few days go, while he was playing the carillon, Ed could see the flashes of light on the horizon. Thunderheads gathered in the north. Ed closed the windows; the distant rumbling interrupted the rhythm of the bells. He had 10 minutes left to the recital.

"Should I keep going?" he had asked himself, frightened. The playing chamber sits inside a mountain of metal. "Should I really keep going? No one's listening."

At such lonely moments, Ed says, "I take comfort in the book of Psalms. I'm not the first person to confront these things. I have the very pain King David was expressing."

When Ed lay ailing in his hospital bed with pneumonia, King David's words imprinted on a carillon bell from Psalm 100, "AND COME BEFORE HIS PRESENCE WITH A SONG," stirred him.

"It amazes me to have a bond with someone who lived so far away, so long ago," Ed says. "Then I don't feel alone."

The lightning came closer. The storm broke around him, but Ed finished playing his recital. He's been in the tower when lightning struck it, trembling his bench. How do I face death? He thought of King David and his harp.

"I said to myself: 'You're up here for a reason. To play music. Not to be afraid.' " The chimes, inscribed with phrases from the Psalms, struck back at the thunder. "I could feel the tones going right through my gut, the bass, massive and heavy, moving through me."

And if no one was listening, Ed's secret spectator was. The angel, his father.

"Christians aren't alone in this journey of life," Ed says.

Now on this sunny, confirmation day, as young worshipers are exiting the church, Ed's lips are parted, his dark eyebrows raised, scanning the festive notes of music, as if he were witnessing a miracle. Three days ago, he played for the funeral of a stranger. Today he is performing for young Christians celebrating "the beginning of spiritual adulthood."

Ed follows the words to the hymn: "Seek and ye shall find; knock and the door shall be opened unto you." The metallic melody flies out over Massachusetts Avenue. The demons flee. "Al-le-lu, al-le-lu-ia!"

The peals travel up toward Washington Hebrew, where Josh -- Who am I? -- found the answer to his question in a story about freed Hebrew slaves.

The peals travel down toward the Islamic Center, where Toni -- How do I live? -- found her answer in the story of Abraham.

They travel through the playing chamber, where Ed -- How do I face death? -- found his answer in the story of King David.

Three days ago, at the funeral, it seemed to Ed that the story -- life's story -- could end. Now he believes that he had been wrong. That he, that everyone, is part of an ancient narrative that scrolls round and round.

The bells' vibrations shiver through Ed's collarbone, where the spider bite is healing. They shake the chamber's windows, which are speckled from yesterday's storm. They reverberate, perhaps down through the pillars, beneath the cathedral, into the crypt, driving into the building's cornerstone: a chunk of rock from a field near Bethlehem, holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Ed strikes the E note, a bell inscribed in block letters from the Psalms, "AND HIS TRUTH ENDURETH." He strikes G sharp, a 17-pound bell, five octaves higher than the heavy funeral bell.

"The story goes on," Ed says, taking a breath.

Tiny G sharp rings. The sound disappears quickly. But after the sound is gone, the eternal word from the Psalms written in the metal of the bell is still vibrating: "AMEN, AMEN."


Laura Blumenfeld is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at

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