“How long will you sleep, O Lazybones?”
I woke up with a start; it was five in the morning and my cousin Levi was practicing Perek Shira, The Song of the Universe, with the rooster and the dog in our backyard. From the sound of it, Levi had the song all memorized, but the animals still didn’t get it.
I could hear the roll of the newspaper, the smack and the yelp.
“Say Bo-oo, Lucky.”
“Baaooo!” Lucky howled.
This was not a game; Yom Kippur would be in two days, and I hadn’t laughed since the 9th of Av, same day the Temple fell. But that’s irrelevant. The Tribunal will ask in Heaven: ‘Kalman Cohen! Have you served the Creator with joy?’ and on that the next year is decided. Still! To save my life I couldn’t laugh.
Levi’s side of the family sings in the Temple; when it’s rebuilt I mean, and my side of the family specializes in animal sacrifices. Well, sort of. We are Cohens. I was trained as a ritual slaughterer and we raise chickens in our backyard, in case someone needs one. We own a dog, a cat, and a guinea pig. We have of course many ants, who also figure into The Song of the Universe though they are hard to hear, and some snails and songbirds that are hard to direct and control when you’re trying to get everyone to sing together. But that’s not my job; it’s Levi’s. That’s what Levis do.
The Perek Shira idea popped into my head one morning when I felt, what’s the use and why should G-d care? The animals made their usual noises: Kookoo and Rico, the twin roosters, crowed; Shorty the guinea pig whistled; Lucky barked and Catso meowed. And I thought, that’s nice, but how GREAT, how hysterical, if the animals lined up and sang praises to me, since I’m their master.
Then I prayed with zest, imagining G-d got a chuckle by watching me and my fellow creatures line up in the minyan, singing to Him.
I remembered how my neighbor got the rooster to sing his part, but it still didn’t work for me. I laid Kookoo on my lap at the same angle, but he wouldn’t relax. He flapped away, bored and annoyed, and ran back to peck his bread crumbs.
I started to panic; I still couldn’t laugh. So, not sure we could pull off The Song of the Universe extravaganza with almost zero time to rehearse, I wrote out a few billboard signs in Hebrew, advertising the grand opening of Kalman Cohen’s Animal Sacrifice Center.
Levi gave me one of his quizzical looks. “You’re posting those around the neighborhood?”
“Yep,” I said.
“Aren’t we trying to get you to forget the sacrifices in the Holy Temple?”
Levi was on to something: I just couldn’t forget, like the rest of us, that we had no Temple and no sacrifices.
I debated with myself a few minutes, and then went ahead and taped up the signs. People arrived, money in hand, to pick out a hen or rooster to slaughter instead of a person, who might have had it coming.
Of course I had taped up those signs to cheer myself up with plenty of work, but I was shocked to see that my plan had backfired. This was nothing like the sacrifices in the Temple; it was a joke. One neighbor brought his chicken and laid it on my lap. I shut my eyes to block out the chaos and sang a lullaby, rocking the rooster in my arms until it warbled in the throes of elevation. Then I drew the knife.
Levi shot me a grim look: I wasn’t laughing; I wasn’t even smiling; I still looked like the 9th of Av and there wasn’t much time to try out the next idea.
Levi’s plan had been to stay up the entire last night before Yom Kippur, just for rehearsals, to make sure each animal sang on cue. Levi had worked out the harmony in his head but the animals weren’t used to singing together.
As it worked out, there was no time for that. I was worn out from the day-long slaughtering, and needed the whole night to clean up, pluck the feathers, salt and soak the chickens, broil the livers, and boil the chicken soup in time for the poor people to come and eat their soup before the fast.
I set the table with rolls and cucumbers. I sat down, bleary-eyed, at the head of the table and ladled soup, one bowl at a time. Levi set the guinea pig on the floor, since it was the closest thing to a mouse we could find. Levi ran outside again and brought Catso; the snails and the ants arrived next in a box. Catso began prowling the kitchen. The animals wandered off in different directions.
I set down a bowl of soup for Dudu, one of the hungry orphan people. Levi crouched next to the cat.
“Meow!” Catso recited on cue.
“The mouse’s part comes next,” said Levi. “Where’s the mouse?”
I stopped slurping my soup in mid-spoon and spotted Shorty, our closest thing to a mouse, on my white tablecloth, eating my cucumber salad. Kookoo jumped up and pecked at my roll.
My bowl of soup spilled on my shirt and crashed to the floor. Lucky licked it up. Trembling took hold of me, a byproduct of anger. Now how would I eat before Yom Kippur?
“Kalman!” cried Levi, who must have felt the vibrations, “I’m sorry!”
The orphans and widows, mortified, stopped eating. Another second and it seemed they would leave, or burst into tears, blaming themselves for the latest disaster.
I had no choice: I laughed. Yes, I laughed. Then I climbed on the table and did a little song and dance routine with Kookoo and Shorty. The guests returned to consuming their soup. I had tottered on the brink of Gehinom, and laughter pulled me back. It was laughter; it was Perek Shira. Happy is the eye that saw singers like these!