Play Hava Nagila For Me

It is Saturday afternoon, shortly after two o’clock, and Ethan is dressing for his son’s wedding. Formerly a creative director at a New York advertising agency, Ethan considers himself entitled to dress with more flair and less conservatism than, say, a lawyer. And so he has chosen to wear slacks, a sports jacket, and no tie rather than the dark suit favored by his wife.
What had started out as the standard Friday night rehearsal dinner/Saturday evening wedding/Sunday morning brunch has mushroomed into a five day extravaganza, starting with a Thursday night welcoming dinner hosted by Alex Posnick at his seventy-seven year old widowed girlfriend’s 18,000 square foot home atop Cochise Ridge, and concluding with a Monday morning brunch for those still in town, to be hosted by Posnick’s recently dumped wife Stella at her spectacular 7,000 square foot home in Palla Verde Forest. Elliot’s feeling has been – The Posnicks – who the fuck asked them?
Not quite prepared for the pre-ceremony effusiveness of relatives and friends, Ethan hides behind the door of the men’s locker room in the Hopi clubhouse, from where, through a tinted pane of bullet glass, he has an unimpeded view of the arriving guests – the Miesmer’s from Connecticut, Kip Schur and his new girlfriend from Boston, the Wertheimers, Levins and Draizin cousins from California. What has started as a trickle is soon an avalanche of gaily attired middle-class people.
Ethan is privately astonished at the turn out. He had assumed that the invitations going out to Florida and Pennsylvania, New York and Florida, Colorado and Illinois, would, for the most part, be declined. But the acceptance rate has been an astounding 94%. He suspects it is a case of I’ve-got-to-see-this syndrome, a forty-five year old woman marrying a twenty-seven year old man, the couple already parents of a thumb-sucking four year old named Riley who, at the very sight of Ethan, throws his arms in the air and whines to be picked up.
Hand in hand with Riley, Ethan stands with the rest of the wedding party at the very rear of the Sunset Room amidst a maze of maroon velvet drapery as the orchestra starts into Debussy’s “Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun,” the cello and violin hurrying to catch up with the rest of the instruments.
The senior wedding planner, a tightly-wound middle-aged woman with an ever present smile, motions the ushers and bridesmaids to be at the ready. The group mirrors Adam, the groom, and Meg, the bride. The ushers are skinny, poorly shaved, pale, bespectacled, post-adolescent computer geeks, the bridesmaids considerably older and, for the most part, stout and dowdy. On cue, they stride forward, heading toward a slit in the curtains now being held open by the wedding planner.
Next the wedding planner nods at Ethan’s mother-in-law, Johanna. A hale eighty-four year old with clear blue eyes and ramrod posture, she steps forward with chin held high. Now the wedding planner signals Ethan. “Take your thumb out of your mouth,” he hisses at his grandson. The child does as he is told, and he and his grandfather move through the opening in the curtains.
Hundreds of smiling, expectant faces are turned toward the rear of the room and, as they catch sight of little Riley, there is a communal Aww. Riley shoves his thumb back in his mouth. His step falters. The Aww intensifies, accompanied now by a sprinkling of sympathetic chuckles. Riley stops, unable or unwilling to go on. “Jesus Christ,” says Ethan, and whips the boy off the floor. Riley buries his face against his grandfather’s chest, breaking into tears and mewling for his mother. Ethan presses the boy’s face against his jacket, hoping to muffle the sobs.
At the end of the long red carpet, Ethan takes his seat on the aisle, still holding Riley to his chest. Now Sarah and Adam arrive. Always the boss, Sarah places her hands on Adam’s shoulders and positions him in front of family friend Jim Hoyer, a lawyer licensed to perform marriages in Arizona.
The crowd has stilled. The quintet leaves off playing the Debussy piece and, with its characteristic lack of precision, launches into the wedding march from Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Ethan turns all the way around in his seat, waiting for Meg and family to step into view. He anticipates their appearance with dread, certain that upon catching sight of the bride, there will arise from the guests an audible murmur of surprise, disappointment, perhaps even amusement. His son, admittedly no great catch, is not only marrying a woman damn near two decades his elder, but one who has neither the beauty of face nor exalted social or financial position to make up for it. To Ethan’s jaundiced eye, they look exactly like mother and son, sending an Oedipal chill through his bones every time he sees them together. Other males, he imagines, will have the same reaction.
The curtains part and through them step the bride’s mother, Emily Hanratty and Emily’s father, a very tiny old man. A few beats later Tim Hanratty and his daughter Meg stride through the curtains.
Ethan watches for a moment, then turns away and buries his face in the back of Riley’s head. The transformation he was hoping for – somehow every bride manages to look at least almost pretty on her wedding day – has not occurred. In fact, with one of her characteristic Navajo shawls over her shoulders, Meg looks downright grandmotherly.
Tim and Meg reach the end of the aisle. Ever so tenderly, father lifts daughter’s veil and leans forward to kiss her on either cheek. Neither can hold back their feelings for each other, and they surge forward into a long, tearful hug. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Ethan’s chest heaves. A great wave of self-revulsion washes over him. How can he be so monstrously superficial as to dislike this woman for not being pretty and young when her father, Ethan’s good and profoundly decent friend, has such powerful feelings for her?
Sensing a lapse in Ethan’s vigilance, Riley bursts from his grandfather’s arms and runs to his mother’s side, whereupon he immediately plugs his thumb in his mouth and begins tugging on her dress. Enraged, no, repulsed by the relentless symbiosis of mother and child, Ethan is about to spring after the boy when a wave of appreciative laughter erupts from the crowd. Meg turns and with a big smile at her audience stoops to lift her son into her arms.
And so Adam and Meg are married, perhaps as they should be, with Riley nestled between them. As soon as the ceremony is ended, Ethan streaks through the crowd, head lowered – he does not want to be told how beautiful the bride is – as if on some urgent wedding business. Which, in a way, he is: tracking down the country and western singer he has hired to entertain during the pre-dinner portion of the wedding.
“Mr. Lerner, is that you?”
Ethan looks around, and there, sitting on the slate platform surrounding the outdoor fireplace, is a slender man in cowboy garb. A cigarette dangles from his lower lip, a guitar case sits on his lap. Everything about him suggests that this is Skipper Haskew, except that he looks twice as old and half the breadth of the man Ethan saw singing down at Joe Steak just two short years ago.
“Yes, sir.”
Ethan strides toward him and shakes his hand. “Great. Glad you could make it. You look great. What’re you going to play?” Cancer!
“Like I told you on the phone, only the good stuff – Willie, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Merle, maybe even a little Dylan.”
“Great, great, they’ll love it.”
Ethan stands at the front of the Sunset Room and bangs his fork on his wine glass. He is sure the crowd is expecting some kind of toast, heartfelt sentimental slop laced with a tension-breaking joke. But he is not ready for that, not ready at all. “Listen up, everybody. We’re in for a real treat tonight.” He throws a smile at Skipper. “While we’re priming you with lamb chops and champagne, Skipper Haskew is going to entertain us with some real, authentic country and western music. So pay attention – this is the good stuff.”
The crowd bursts into applause, and well before the clapping stops Skipper is singing.
Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath's as hard as kerosene…
Ethan is stunned. Skipper’s voice, normally a whisky and Marlboro enriched bass, is hardly more than a whisper. He nods at the musician as if in a sort of trance-like ecstasy, but, in fact, he is heartbroken. He knows that within seconds the wedding guests will turn away from the lone figure in the ten gallon hat, and once again the Sunset Room will be abuzz with scores of animated conversations.
“I told you it wouldn’t work,” says Sarah, coming up behind him. “No one can hear him.”
“I’m loving it,” replies Ethan.
“Well, then good – your three thousand dollars hasn’t gone down the drain.”
“It was only twenty-five hundred.”
“I thought you said three thousand, which, by the way, could just as well have gone to the kids.”
“Uh uh, twenty-five hundred.”
As the conversation of the guests grows ever louder, Ethan tries to think of a diplomatic way to tell Skipper that he can take the rest of the evening off. He approaches the little stage at the front of the room and, most unexpectedly, finds Skipper in conversation with Raymond Phayer’s girlfriend.
“Hi,” he says. “Isn’t Skipper great.”
“Yeah, well, look, Dad’s not feeling so well. I think I’ve got to take him home.”
Ethan notices Skipper dabbing at his mouth with a handkerchief. “Skipper’s your dad?” he asks.
“Oh, I thought you knew that. I’m Lily Blechner – Raymond Phayer’s friend.”
“I think I overdid it a bit,” says Skipper.
“Listen, I understand,” says Ethan.
“If it’s okay,” says Lily, “I’m just going to take him home now.”
“Of course,” says Ethan. “Absolutely.”
“Everything’s fine. Just need to build my voice back up a little…been a while since I’ve sung.” Skipper looks ashen and shrunken. As Lily packs her father’s guitar in its case, he smiles sheepishly at Ethan. “We’re all getting so effing old,” he says.
“You got that right,” says Ethan, although what he feels like saying is, Speak for yourself, pal.
Skipper throws his arm over his daughter’s shoulder, and Ethan accompanies them to the door. He reaches into his pocket, unsnakes a hundred dollar bill from the three earmarked for Skipper’s tip, and, presses it into the man’s palm. “Here, a little gratuity.”
“No way – didn’t deliver the goods,” whispers Skipper.
“Are you sure?”
“Give it to the kids,” he says.

“I’m putting Raymond at our table,” says Sarah. “Now that Lily’s left, he’s all alone.” Thus their table now consists of Sarah, her mother Johanna, a well-preserved version of her daughter, Ethan, Raymond Phayer, a striking, silver-haired man well into his seventies, Tim and Emily Hanratty, and Emily’s father, Norman.
The band leader, mike in hand, walks to the center of the dance floor. “Alright,” he says with the forced gaiety that seems to go with the profession, “we all know who the first dance belongs to, so let’s give it up for Meg and Adam.” As Ethan is wondering whether the newly married couple will allow their thumb-sucking son to accompany them to the dance floor, Adam deposits a screaming Riley onto his lap. He clamps his arms around the child’s torso, resolved this time not to let him escape.
Meg and Adam have chosen Irving Berlin’s “Always,” and the band does a pretty good imitation of Stevie Wonder’s rollicking rendition of the song. Halfway through the tune, the band leader invites the newly married couple to pick new partners. Adam walks over and pulls his mother out onto the floor, Meg dances with her father.
Ethan watches with a mixture of jealousy and admiration as Sarah takes Adam’s face firmly between her hands and gives him a kiss. He lip-reads her declaring, “I am so proud of you,” and wishes for the life of him that he could agree. Proud? For marrying a woman no one else would have?
Once again, the em-cee invites the dancers to pick new partners. Sarah troops dutifully over to Ethan, but he shrugs – Riley. There are several forces at play here: Sarah loves to dance, Ethan does not. She says it’s romantic, he says, Why do people in love need romance. In truth, Ethan would like nothing more than for Sarah to pick Riley up, hand him off to a relative, and drag Ethan out to the dance floor.
Sarah simply nods her understanding and makes a bee line toward Raymond. Ethan watches the joy with which his wife leads the older man out among the other couples, and he can’t for the life of him picture her feeling that kind of elation if it were he that was accompanying her.
Ethan is reminded of the time he and Sarah first met the Phayers, some twenty years ago now. They had been paired together on one of the Desert Vistas golf courses, and the two couples from back east hit it off immediately. They spent the whole week together, golfing, hiking, cooking for each other, and heading out for dinners at Joe Steak, the most authentic of the many cowboy bars along the downtown strip of Cave Creek. The very same Skipper was playing smoky country and western songs in the front room.
On their first evening at the restaurant, they danced with their own spouses. On their last evening in Arizona before heading back east, Ethan danced with Miranda and Raymond danced with Sarah. Neither having a particularly good sense of rhythm, Ethan and Miranda quickly grew bored and retreated to their table. Not so Raymond and Sarah. They danced as if made for each other, Raymond executing little dips and sweeps, stutter steps and tango steps, with Sarah able to follow as if she were welded to his body.
Walking toward Ethan’s Jeep at the far end of the parking lot, Sarah and Raymond were actually holding hands, kind of like good friends. “I say,” said Raymond, “We rode Jewish here. ” Raymond had sat up front next to Ethan, Sarah and Miranda in the rear. “How ‘bout we ride Gentile on the way back.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, Ethan said, “Fine with me.” Raymond and Sarah got in the back seat, Miranda rode shotgun next to Ethan. An old Dylan tape was in the cassette slot, and “Lay, Lady, Lay” and “Girl of The North Country” were perfect accompaniment to the ride home through the cool desert air. No one spoke at all.
When they got home that night, he felt a powerful urge to quiz Sarah, to check her panties for signs of excessive arousal. But she had never been the kind of woman to countenance that kind of examination. And so Ethan has wondered to this day what, if anything, was going on under the cover of darkness in the back seat of his Jeep on the twenty minute ride home from Joe Steak.
A powerful surge of jealousy, rage, and self-pity bursts open in Ethan’s gut. During the past few years, particularly as Miranda lay dying, Ethan came to believe that the silver-haired man was losing his looks, finally getting too old to attract all the attention. But apparently this is not the case. For as Raymond and Sarah sit back down at the table, Emily declares, “Raymond, I won’t let you leave tonight without dancing at least one dance with me.”
And right after the main course, as the band launches into “My Girl,” Stella Posnick arrives at Raymond’s side and says, “Come on, Daddy-O, let’s dance.”
“Actually, I was going to sit this one out,” he says. “These old bones don’t work as well as they used to.”
“Nonsense. I saw you out there with Sarah. I’m not taking no for an answer.” She takes his hand and pulls him to his feet.
“Sarah,” Johanna shouts above the now staggering volume of the band, “Who is that nice-looking man with the silver hair?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“A friend – a widower, actually.”
“He’s very good-looking.”
“You should have seen him twenty years ago.”
“How old do you think he is?”
“O ho! Somebody’s got a little crush.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He just seems very nice.”
“He’ll be seventy-six in July.”
“That’s just a few years younger than I am.”
“Mom, did you see who he came with – she’s the same age as Allie.”
“Just the same, you might say something to him. It’s no fun sitting here watching everyone else dance.”
Sarah turns all the way around in her seat and addresses Ethan, “Would you dance with my mother, please.”
Ethan stands. “Come on, Johanna, let’s cut a rug.”
“No, thanks,” says the older woman, “I’ve seen you dance.”
What is it, Ethan wonders. Are we no different from parakeets? Opossums? Opaka-paka? Is it simply the color of Raymond’s hair? The cut of his nose? A certain attitude. Ethan is slimmer, has no belly hanging over his belt. Does this count for nothing? Perhaps, like the robin’s song, Raymond’s voice has something to do with it, its mellifluous timbre, so soothing and self-assured, not at all like Ethan’s high-pitched whine. “Sarah please pass the salt,” he intones, trying to sound like NPR announcer Carl Castle.
Will this jealousy go on until he is dead? Will it, in fact, hasten his death? Is there no respite? Sexual jealousy is an issue he visited time and again in analysis, dredging up the most embarrassing and self-lacerating imagery. He thought he’d dug deep, felt everything, explored fearlessly. He even thought for a time that he’d actually exorcised these feelings.
The band segues from Motown to slower, more romantic songs. Dancing couples close the space between them. Ethan gets up and wanders among the guests until he finds Sarah giving forth at a table of relatives from her side of the family. He hovers at a slight distance, feeling dark, full-featured, curly-haired, Middle Eastern. He waits until Sarah finishes her anecdote, draws a hearty laugh, and heads off to complete her table rounds. He steps directly in her path. “Let’s dance.”
She looks at him curiously. “You hate to dance.”
“Not to this song, I don’t.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” They walk to the middle of the dance floor and turn to face each other. There is an odd formality to the situation. Ethan takes his wife in his arms, tentatively, like a young boy in dance class.
“Come on, Ethan, hold me like you mean it.” Sarah pulls him close. She is warm and damp. She smells of wine, and cigarette smoke, and perspiration. Ethan feels himself getting an erection and is excited at the idea that they may have sex tonight. What with the wedding preparations and all the relatives in town, it has now been well over a week.
“In The Still Of The Night” ends, and the band launches into “The Great Pretender.” Ethan keeps hold of his wife. “Two in a row,” Sarah says. “This is not like you.”
“You excite me.”
“I like to excite you.” Just as Sarah presses her pelvis into him, Ethan is shocked by a tap on his shoulder. He looks around to find Raymond smiling at him.
“Mind if I cut in?”
Ethan feels an impulse to say, Yes, yes, I do – very much. He looks toward Sarah, hoping for some kind of support. She smiles at him and shrugs. Ethan wants much more than that. “No, not at all,” he says and gestures with a sort of mock gallantry for Raymond to step into his place.
The band continues with its repertoire of slow songs from earlier decades. It is that time of night, getting close to midnight. Ethan hides among a scrum of plants, specially brought in for the wedding, and watches as Raymond and his wife dance through song after song. He contemplates cutting in, as Raymond did to him, but is embarrassed at the thought of seeming jealous or angry.
He checks his watch. It is twenty after twelve. The crowd has thinned. Sarah’s face seems buried ever deeper in the crook of Raymond’s neck. Ethan is panicked at the thought of being publicly cuckolded at his own son’s wedding. He wanders over to the foot of the stage and, summoning his courage, shouts through the music to the guitarist who leads the band. “Do you know ‘Hava Nagila?’ ”
“Hava what?”
“’Hava Nagila.’”
The man stops playing and addresses the band. “Any of you guys know something called ‘Hava Nagila?’”
Ethan says, “You know, the thing they play at Jewish weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.”
“Oh, yeah,” says the black bass guitarist. “We used to play that back east all the time.” He strums a few bars, which seems to jog the memories of other members of the band.
“Yeah,” says the bandleader. “We can play it.”
Ethan reaches up and hands the man the three hundred dollars he had earmarked for Skipper. “Well, then do it, man! And don’t stop till I tell you.”
The band breaks into “Hava Nagila,” slowly at first, a bit off key, but gaining speed and melody as they go. Within half a minute, they are going full blast. And within seconds of that, a full two thirds of the people still left in the Sunset Room have joined hands and formed a dancing, whirling hora.
Ethan smiles to himself as Raymond and Sarah, realizing they are the only ones still locked in dancers’ embrace, drop their arms from around each other and join the circle. Ethan watches for another minute, then boldly breaks in between his wife and Phayer.
And that is how this wedding day ends for Ethan, hand in hand with both the man he can’t stand and the woman he will somehow always be trying to hold onto, spinning ‘round and around in circles.


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