On the first night of Passover, the Prophet Elijah came to the house of Mr and Mrs Rosenbaum in Finchley Lane, Hendon.
Mrs Rosenbaum had opened the door as usual, after supper, at the point in the evening when one is supposed to anticipate the arrival of the Prophet Elijah, whose appearance will herald the beginning of the Messianic Age. Mr Rosenbaum, standing at the long dining table, began to recite the verses that accompany this moment: ‘Pour out thy wrath upon the nations who know you not,’ he declared.
The young Rosenbaums – ten-year-old Gerda, the teenagers Saul and Simon – sat, bored and moody, around the table. The magical Seder, with its many quaint rituals and little games, its traditional holiday cheer and special foods and gifts, no longer held for them the charm with which it had brimmed when they were small children. Even Gerda, this year, did not run to the door with their mother, eagerly looking out for Elijah. Thus it was that Mrs Rosenbaum alone, opening her door onto the cool night air of Hendon, witnessed the miracle of the prophet’s arrival.
When Mrs Rosenbaum was a girl, her older cousins had sometimes played tricks on the women of the house when they opened the door for the prophet, sneaking around the side door to shout ‘Boo!’ in their faces, or even wearing a mask or a sheet to frighten them. So when she heard the windy clattering of hooves, and saw a fiery missile speeding towards her from the heavens, she wondered at first whether her sons had rigged up some elaborate prank.
‘For they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his habitation,’ her husband intoned in the dining room – he did have a good speaking voice; it was one of the things she’d noticed when they first met. The fiery object grew closer and began to resolve itself into moving shapes. She stood, mouth open, eyes wide, watching the thing draw nearer. It is not often, even in Hendon, that one witnesses a miracle.
‘Pour out thy rage upon them,’ read Mr Rosenbaum, with passion and gusto. Mrs Rosenbaum could see it quite clearly now. It was a chariot, just like the Roman chariots she’d seen in pictures at school or in Ben-Hur. It was pulled by four horses made of fire, the edges of their bodies dissolving and coalescing like swift clouds, as they galloped across the sodium-tinged sky. In the chariot was a man, sitting serenely in the heart of the fire.
‘. . . from the Heavens of the Lord,’ concluded Mr Rosenbaum in excellent declamatory style. Then, hearing that his wife had not yet closed the front door, he shouted more loudly, ‘It’s finished, Netta! Come back inside!’
Mrs Rosenbaum heard him but did not answer. She was looking at the burning chariot parked on the front driveway next to her Renault Espace. She was looking at the four fiery horses shaking their bridles and whinnying out small breaths of flame. She could not cease staring at the bearded man in the long robes who was stepping from the carriage and whose clothing, miraculously, was not even scorched.
‘Happy Passover to you,’ said Elijah. ‘Have I missed much?’
Elijah was a gracious dinner guest. He appeared overjoyed to find that the Rosenbaum family had poured out a cup of wine in expectation of his arrival. He did not complain in the least that he had missed the meal, declaring that he was not hungry. When Mrs Rosenbaum insisted on placing before him a bowl of kneidlach soup, some chicken, roast potatoes, salad and a slice of her excellent apricot cake, he was voluble in his praise.
After Elijah had eaten, and the family was ready to begin the Seder again, Mr Rosenbaum asked, tentatively:
‘Rabbi,’ (he felt it was proper to address the prophet with some honorific, but ‘Prophet’ sat oddly in his mouth) ‘does your arrival mean that the Messiah has arisen from the House of David? Is the world-to-come upon us?’
Elijah, pressing crumbs of cake into the plate with his index finger and then raising the digit to his mouth to lick it, blinked. He looked around the table at the expectant faces.
‘Oh!’ he said. ‘Sorry. How silly of me. No. I didn’t mean to get your hopes up. I just thought, you know, for a change it might be nice to come down. For Passover. To see how things are. It’s been, literally, ages.’
The family stared at him. Even Old Mrs Rosenbaum, Mr Rosenbaum’s mother, stopped stirring her tea and just looked at him.
‘I thought maybe I could stay in the spare room,’ said Elijah brightly. ‘If it’s not too much trouble.’
Mr and Mrs Rosenbaum made up the spare bed together.
‘It’s your fault,’ Mrs Rosenbaum said, plumping a pillow viciously. ‘You and your learning and constant praying. That’s what’s caused this. Does it happen to the Krantzs? Does it happen to the Mulavnas?’
‘I don’t think,’ said Mr Rosenbaum, shaking out a duvet, ‘that we should be looking for reasons here. It’s a miracle, a holy event. We should feel blessed. And besides’ – he popped the poppers – ‘you were the one who opened the door.’
‘I opened the door,’ whispered Mrs Rosenbaum, ‘because you told me it was your family tradition when we were married. The man sits at the table and reads, the woman opens the door, that’s what you said. I would have quite liked to be more modern, but you said no.’
They tucked the fresh sheet in together, making sure to keep it very tight at the corners.
‘That’s how we’ve always done it, Netta. I don’t think I can be blamed for a family tradition. And it is a miracle, after all.’
‘People will notice, that’s all I’m saying,’ she said. ‘You can’t expect a fiery chariot in the front garden to pass everyone by.’
Downstairs in the lounge, Elijah had found an old Argos catalogue and leafed through it, making astonished faces at the huge variety of goods therein. Gerda, Saul and Simon were exchanging furtive glances, giggling and whispering behind their hands.
‘The bed’s ready,’ Mrs Rosenbaum called down the stairs, ‘if you’re tired. Long journey!’
The Prophet Elijah got up. He almost took the Argos catalogue upstairs with him, but after an inward tussle left it, with evident regret, on the nested tables next to his half-drunk lemon tea.
There was the matter, the next morning, of what to feed the fiery horses drawing the fiery chariot. Mrs Rosenbaum was relieved to find that they hadn’t scorched the Renault Espace, which, after all, she and Mr Rosenbaum had only just finished paying off. The horses weren’t the slightest bit interested in the bucket of water she put down gingerly in front of them, stepping outside in the early morning in her dressing gown and slippers.
The children were fascinated by the animals and it was Simon who discovered, after some experimentation with roast potatoes and broccoli kugel, that they would deign to eat a matza cracker. They wolfed down a box each, in fact, and set fire to the cardboard as they did so, letting the wind carry a trail of sooty Rakusen’s embers down the road. It wasn’t clear that they needed to eat, but finding something to feed her guests made Mrs Rosenbaum feel more comfortable.
The Prophet Elijah slept late – it had been a long Seder and none of them had got to bed before 2 a.m.
At 10 a.m., Mrs Rosenbaum thought it would be right to wake him with a cup of tea. She opened the door and was surprised to find him fully dressed in his robes – the pyjamas Mr Rosenbaum had lent him were neatly folded at the end of the bed – and examining her bookshelves.
‘No works of Torah?’ He turned round with a quizzical air. ‘No holy writings of the rabbis?’
Mrs Rosenbaum shrugged awkwardly.
‘We . . . the holy books are downstairs?’ She hoped he wouldn’t look at the two meagre shelves of presentation prayer books the boys had received for their bar mitzvahs and barely looked at since.
‘And what is “Yogacizing”? And “The 30-day Body Cleanse”? Some sort of ritual bath?’
After a whispered conversation between Mr and Mrs Rosenbaum, centring on the phrases ‘You brought him here’ and ‘He’s your friend’, Mr Rosenbaum agreed to take him to synagogue.
There was, it must be admitted, a certain amount of surprise that the Prophet Elijah had come to synagogue with Mr Rosenbaum.
‘Why the Rosenbaums?’ muttered Levitt under his breath. ‘We all know they eat vegetarian cheese.’
‘If it were anyone, it should have been the Krantz family. With all they’ve been through,’ rumbled Moskovitch, whose fridge had never been tarnished by a vegetarian cheese from a supermarket, and indeed only ever housed dairy products labelled with conspicuous emblems advertising the various rabbis who had pronounced them kosher.
‘No, no, Moskovitch,’ said Gold. ‘We all know it should have been you. You’ve been a rock to this synagogue.’ He nodded for emphasis. ‘A rock.’
Moskovitch shrugged magnanimously. ‘Maybe he chose a home where he could do some good. You know,’ he mouthed, ‘not very kosher.’
And the men agreed that this must be the answer.
After the service was over, the rabbi hurried over to welcome the Prophet Elijah officially to the neighbourhood.
‘I hope . . . ahahah . . .’ said the rabbi, ‘that you haven’t come to warn us that the Lord will smite our vineyards and our fields. Aha. Ha.’
Elijah smiled warmly. ‘Not unless you’ve turned your faces from the Lord and started to worship false gods – but everything looks very much in order.’
‘Good, good,’ said the rabbi, only slightly alarmed that smiting was not, apparently, entirely ruled out. ‘Good,’ he said again. And then, finding that he had nothing else to say, ‘Good.’
‘How is Ba’al getting along these days?’ asked Elijah, in an apparent attempt to help. ‘Get much trouble with Ba’al round these parts?’
‘Oh, no,’ said the rabbi. ‘No, there hasn’t been any . . . well, apart from that unfortunate business with Mr Bloom . . . No. We haven’t had any Ba’al worship for quite some time.’
Elijah looked crestfallen.
‘Not even a little bit? Ba’al’s a tricky customer, you know, just when you think he’s been rooted out, then he comes back –’ he made a wiggly motion with his hand – ‘worming his way back in. I could certainly sort out any Ba’al issues for you right away.’
‘I think we’d have noticed is the thing,’ said the rabbi, ‘if there were any devotion to Ba’al still lingering. Although I do often say to the congregants that money is the modern Ba’al, since people devote so much attention to business . . . ?’ He raised his eyebrows hopefully. ‘Or computer games? Xbox, PlayStation, iPhones? It sometimes seems that our young people are worshipping those things instead of paying attention to God.’ He frowned, still trying to raise the prophet’s interest. ‘Or . . . celebrity culture? Men and women worshipped as gods?’
‘That sounds quite promising,’ said Elijah, brightening considerably. ‘I’m sure I can help out. Do tell me more.’
And the rabbi and Elijah spent much of the afternoon deep in conversation.
The first Mr and Mrs Rosenbaum saw of the trouble was when they came home the next day and found that the Prophet Elijah had erected a small altar in their front garden. Some stones, wood laid on top of it, the makings of a fire underneath.
‘To contest with the idol-worshippers,’ said Elijah cheerfully. ‘See, what I do is, I have them come here and call on their god to send down fire from heaven upon their offerings . . . which they never do, obviously, and then I pour jugs and jugs of water on mine, and call on the Lord, who lights it for me, and clearly the Lord wins. It’s super. Just a bit of fun. Gets them every time.’
Mr Rosenbaum frowned at the altar.
‘You see,’ he said, ‘we don’t –’
‘Is that my coffee table?’ said Mrs Rosenbaum.
‘Perhaps I should make some sort of proclamation? That sort of thing? What do you think? I could go stand outside the ritual baths and tell people that I’m contesting the might of . . .’ he looked upwards, trying to remember, ‘Bee’Yon’Say? Or, the rabbi was telling me about a terrible cult of young women worshipping a Bee-Bear?’
Saul whispered something in Gerda’s ear and she burst out laughing. The Prophet Elijah looked hurt. Mr Rosenbaum distracted him by asking about the relative dangers and iniquities of Moloch and Ashera while Mrs Rosenbaum rescued her coffee table from the threat of the Lord’s holy fire and hid it in the garage.
Mr and Mrs Rosenbaum tried to entertain Elijah. They felt it was their duty – the Lord commands us to welcome wayfarers into our homes. During the middle days of Passover, when the children went to revise for exams or play at their friends’ houses, Mr Rosenbaum took Elijah on an open-topped bus tour around central London, but the prophet became distressed by the pictures of nearly naked men and women advertising yogurt and linoleum. Mrs Rosenbaum took him to a nice craft fair, but he wasn’t able to accustom himself to the idea that, yes, many of these embroidered pincushions had probably been made on the Sabbath. Mr Rosenbaum took him ice skating, but although he tried to get into it, Elijah kept mentioning that skating would be, and he didn’t mean to be rude, a totally useless skill when the Messiah called all the Jews home to the land of Israel.
To be honest, Mr Rosenbaum thought, it had got a bit much, having the Prophet Elijah around all the time. When he went to the bathroom, the Prophet Elijah would remind him to say the blessing on a speedy and painless defecation. When he read a novel, the Prophet Elijah would glance in his direction and shake his head ever so slightly, politely, as much as to say, ‘This is time you could be using to study the Holy Scripture.’
Mr Rosenbaum asked Elijah if he had any thoughts, just any vague ideas, of how long he would be blessing their home with his holy presence.
Elijah beamed and said, ‘Oh, I’m in no rush. Don’t you trouble yourself about it.’
At last, feeling that all forms of culture and entertainment would be abhorrent to him, Mr and Mrs Rosenbaum decided to take the Prophet Elijah on a nice walk by the Welsh Harp reservoir with the children. This, as it transpired, was the worst idea of all.
There were families picnicking at the reservoir. Happy young families with small children, blankets spread out with Thermos flasks and sandwiches.
Elijah eyed the sandwiches.
‘Those people are eating leavened bread,’ he said. ‘During Passover. Do you think they know that’s not allowed? We should probably go and tell them.’
‘I expect they’re not Jewish,’ said Mrs Rosenbaum. ‘You remember we told you that most people around here aren’t Jews?’
Simon whispered something to Saul, and Saul whispered something to Gerda.
‘Some of them are Jews,’ said Gerda loudly. ‘That’s Hannah Blatt, I know her from Brownies. But her family aren’t religious. And she’s gluten-intolerant, so she can’t eat matza anyway. I expect it’s her special bread.’
The children seemed to have tired of the Prophet Elijah.
Elijah looked at Gerda.
‘Are you sure?’ he said. ‘After all, she is a child. But the punishment for eating bread on Passover is rather serious, you know.’ He looked to Mr and Mrs Rosenbaum for support.
‘We try to . . . live and let . . .’
But Elijah was already striding over to the picnicking family, shouting, ‘Hello! Hello there! Just a quick word if I may?’
The Rosenbaums watched with alarm from a distance as Elijah spoke to the Blatts. He had a pleasant demeanour, open and apologetic, and yet, as he continued to speak, the father of the family grew increasingly tense, the mother upset, the child confused. The Prophet Elijah leaned forward, earnestly, to have a word with the child herself. She stared at her sandwich with dread, allowing the bite she’d just taken to fall from her mouth. Suddenly the father stood up and punched Elijah in the nose. It was a good solid blow. Elijah fell over.
‘Should I . . . go and help him?’ said Mr Rosenbaum.
Mrs Rosenbaum held tightly onto her husband’s arm.
Eventually the Prophet Elijah scrambled unsteadily to his feet and made his way back over to them.
‘Things with this generation,’ he said, ‘have reached a very serious level indeed.’
Elijah talked about it all that night, and all the next day. He had Mr Rosenbaum explain everything to him, from non-religious Jews to multi-faith or secular schools, to what went on in churches and how bacon wasn’t even sold with a ‘No Jews Allowed’ warning label. Every piece of news made his frown deepen and his expression become more grim.
‘Something must be done,’ he said at last, ‘regarding this generation.’
‘Something . . .’ Mr Rosenbaum was suddenly worried. ‘You don’t mean something apocalyptic? The end of days? Rains of fire and blood?’
‘Oh no, no. I’m not authorized to set anything like that in motion. But, Rosenbaum, you must see that this generation has come to a terrible place. You need a leader. Yes, that’s it. You called me here for a reason and the reason must be that I am needed to lead the people as once I did! Yes!’
‘I called you?’
‘Take me to the synagogue! I must speak to the people!’
It was, in fact, a little late when Elijah made this demand, but Mr Rosenbaum had no difficulty in arranging a gathering at the synagogue of the usual attendees the next day, to hear the Prophet Elijah speak. The crowd was not, perhaps, as large as Elijah might have wished but, after all, most of the synagogue-goers had already seen him before.
‘Even the Chief Rabbi,’ whispered the rabbi encouragingly, ‘wouldn’t get a big crowd if he’d been around all week.’
So Elijah spoke unto the people, saying: ‘Well. It has been a terribly interesting visit. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve got some thoughts on how we might like to proceed. Churches, for example. Are you all familiar with churches?’
The people nodded.
‘Well,’ said Elijah. ‘You know that officially we should be stoning those people to death. I mean, placing candles in front of statues? Praying to them? Now I know I’ve been away for a long time but . . . who’s with me? A little stoning?’
The rabbi frowned.
‘That’s not possible, I’m afraid. You see, this isn’t our country. We’re subject to the same laws as everyone else and stoning – even just a few warning stones – well, it’s just not allowed.’
There followed a brief conversation between Elijah and the rabbi.
‘Ah,’ said the Prophet Elijah, turning to the people. ‘I see the problem now. Yes, quite right, not your country, quite right, quite right. There’s only one solution.’ Elijah drew breath. ‘You all have to move. To the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
The people stared at him.
‘Er,’ said Simon Rosenbaum. ‘No. We don’t want to move. I’ve got GCSEs next year. Mum, we don’t have to move, do we?’
His mother tried to reassure him at the same moment that the Prophet Elijah said, ‘I’m afraid you do, yes. But do not fear. As the Lord said to Abraham: “Go to the land which I will show you and He will protect you and feed you with quails and fresh goat curds.”’
Gerda began to cry, because it was all quite intense and she didn’t understand most of it, and the one thing she did know was that she didn’t like goat’s cheese at all.
There was a muttering among the crowd, which grew louder and louder. And a great voice rose up from the people as if each were saying in their turn, ‘We can’t move, we’ve just put in a new kitchen and we’re in negative equity, and besides we’re in a good school district and we’re very convenient for Waitrose.’
And a cloud crossed the face of Elijah. One could see, suddenly, why the Bible puts such an emphasis on the prophet having had a bit of a temper.
‘The Lord speaks through me,’ he thundered. ‘Put your faith in the Lord and He will protect you! Come with me now to the Holy Land, and cast out foreign gods! We shall smite the idol-worshippers and the infidels! Leave your homes now, all you able-bodied men, and travel with me to the Holy Land, where we shall rejoice in the protection of the Lord God Almighty, the Lord of Hosts and we shall find a mighty victory!’
There was a long silence.
‘But . . .’ said the rabbi, in a small voice, ‘isn’t God the God of peace? Beating swords into ploughshares and, er, and so on?’
‘Mighty are those who are zealous in the word of the Lord! He will pour out His wrath on the nations that know Him not!’ shouted Elijah.
There was another long silence, and a sudden understanding slowly dawning. Mr Rosenbaum did always utter that particular passage at Seder night with uncommon conviction. He was a very good reader. So good, apparently, that he could pull down a prophet from the heavens.
‘So you want us,’ said Mr Rosenbaum quietly, ‘to leave our homes and our neighbours and our, not to boast, but our thriving accountancy practices, and go to Israel to make war on everyone there who isn’t Jewish?’
‘The holy places of the Lord must be cleansed!’
Mr Rosenbaum shifted uncomfortably. ‘Well. It’s been tried before, you know. I mean, people seem to keep trying it. It’s . . . it’s a sort of long-running tragedy.’
Eljiah’s vocal register was really very impressive. ‘DOES NOT THE LORD ENJOIN US TO DESTROY UTTERLY THE TRIBE OF AMALEK WHOSE HOME IS MECCA? WE MUST WIPE THEM FROM THE EARTH.’
At this there was a certain change in the people. A stiff, uncomfortable, English wind seemed to blow through Hendon in that moment. It was a breath of custard and boiled swede, and the sort of persistent grey drizzling rain which is very far from the longed-for blessing of a desert nation. Perhaps this is the breath of the Lord. In England.
‘No,’ said the rabbi. ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’
And the people spoke in one voice, saying, ‘Yeah, no.’
One by one the people began to walk away from the synagogue, towards their own homes, thanking Mrs Rosenbaum for providing the snacks on the side table, and shaking Mr Rosenbaum’s hand and nudging Simon and joking with Saul, and comforting Gerda that no one was going to make her eat goat’s cheese.
And when the people were all gone, Mr Rosenbaum let out a deep sigh and stretched his arms and said, ‘Well, Elijah, it’s been a lovely visit, but we really don’t want to keep you. I’m sure you have things to be getting on with. In heaven. I expect.’
The miracle of Elijah’s departure from Hendon in his fiery chariot was witnessed by a great many more people than his arrival. In fact, half of Hendon seemed to have turned out to make sure that the flaming steeds really had dragged him up towards the sky where he became merely a glowing speck, smaller and smaller until it disappeared completely.
He hadn’t made a speech, exactly. He’d looked at them. They’d looked at him. Each, it seemed clear, was equally disappointed in the other.
‘Look,’ said Elijah, ‘I really never meant to . . .’
‘We know,’ said Mrs Rosenbaum. ‘Here. I packed you a snack for the trip.’ She handed him a Sainsbury’s bag, which he received with gratitude.
‘Don’t forget,’ said Elijah, ‘the messages I’ve brought you.’
The people looked at each other awkwardly. And waited. And eventually he was gone.
‘Well,’ said Mr Rosenbaum to the rabbi, ‘I do think it’s probably for the best if we try to forget all of that, really, don’t you?’
And the rabbi agreed, with a sigh.
‘Do you . . .’ said Mr Rosenbaum, ‘feel we should alter the prayers at all? In light of . . .’
The rabbi looked at him.
‘Alter. The prayers?’
‘Well, you know, how we pray for the arrival of Elijah, the coming of the Messiah . . .’
The rabbi nodded piously. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘We long for them soon, and in our days. And let us hope we will continue to long for many years to come.’
Photograph © Nadav Kander