Monday, August 26, 2013

The Nachmanides Yeshiva Boy and the Girl from Allentown, PA: An Orthodox Romance-- A Bittersweet Work of Jewish Fiction

            By the time I reached my sophomore year in Nachmanides College, I was desperate for female companionship. Orthodox synagogues separate the sexes: a tall barrier known as a mechitza separates men from women; supposedly, seeing women during the davening (praying) distracts men; we are, allegedly, so inclined to illicit thoughts that we require tank-trap-sized barricades to wall off the womenfolk from our overactive libidos. The rabbinic authorities assumed, ironically, that women are free of such thoughts; they apparently had no bachelorette parties back in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the case of all-male Nachmanides University and its female counterpart, Ludomir College for Women, the rabbinic builders ordained that the former should be rooted in Cornwallis Heights, while the latter was planted in midtown Manhattan, a stone’s throw from the Empire State Building, that potent symbol of American self-assuredness. Fully half the isle of Manhattan became, in effect, the mechitza.
            Without women to distract us, therefore, we Nachmanides men channeled our energies into scholarship. Remembering that Orthodox boys and girls must meet to carry on the species, our student councils attempted to bring us together for wholesome cultural activities. One morning, before the self-appointed campus Taliban could tear them down, I was happy to see fliers advertising a joint Theatre Party, inviting both freshmen and sophomores to go down to Greenwich Village, that well-known den of hippie free love, to see the cabaret revue, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I immediately signed up: Nachmanides boys and Ludomir girls were to be paired off for the evening via a mass blind date mechanism—probably throwing all the names into a large yarmulkeh (skullcap)—and a splendid time would be guaranteed for all. We hoped.
            That was how I met Marcy Shostakovsky, the Belle of Allentown. She was a thin, pale-skinned beauty with red-gold hair and a healthy overlay of freckles; in the dim light of the Village Gate nightclub, listening to an earnest young cast sing “Timid Frieda” and “If We Only Have Love,” she appeared evanescent to the point of transparency; she hardly said a word, but that was all right: I always had enough conversation for the first three dates: after that, if the girl remained mute, the affair was over.
I had never met, let alone dated, a girl of her type. She was a Sociology major, a baalat teshuvah, or young Jewish woman who had not grown up Orthodox, but had discovered the beauties and mysteries of the faith as a senior at Allentown High, during a National Organization of Orthodox Youth Shabbos Weekend. I, on the other hand, had grown up Orthodox, and was—although I did not totally admit it to myself at the time—plotting my escape, not an easy thing to do when one is in the belly of an Orthodox university. Like the angels on Jacob’s ladder, one shift going up and the other down, in and out of Orthodoxy, we were, in some oddly fateful way, destined to meet.
            Marcy and I hit it off: she was a good listener, and I certainly had enough to say—mostly about myself, the Universe, Destiny, Love, Fate, and other overblown subject areas, as most bookish young men will. By Date Number Three, she allowed me to take her arm, but only when crossing wide New York City streets—more a gesture of safety than one of intimacy. We were inching toward that curious Orthodox social taboo known as negiah, or “touching”—a man does not touch a woman to whom he is not married; indeed, even a married man may not touch his wife during her Time of the Month, for fear of being rendered ritually impure or unclean, thereby necessitating a trip to the mikvah, or ritual bath. This prohibition creates a sexual yearning in both male and female, makes their subsequent coition even lustier, and explains the relative fertility and large number of offspring borne by the Orthodox. Don’t knock it: it works.
            Being new to Orthodox practice made Marcy more eager to embrace it in all of its ramifications; being held off by a young, Orthodox woman zealot made me burn all the more. It was not a happy experience.
            Once, on New Year’s Eve, with but a ten-dollar-bill remaining in my pocket, sitting in the darkness of a movie theatre on Broadway, watching an execrable movie musical called “A Song of Norway”—some desperate Hollywood studio’s knockoff of “The Sound of Music,” I left my errant right elbow resting on the wooden rest between our seats, my fingers dangling. Suddenly, I felt cool, slender fingers intertwining with mine—Were they Marcy’s? I did, indeed, hope so—and a warmth flooding my inner core, so long had I been denied any contact with a woman. Our relationship had moved to a Higher Level, there on Jacob’s ladder, somewhere ‘twixt heaven and earth. I hung there like one of Chagall’s dizzy rabbis, my body this way, my head on backwards.
            I had heard of those blessed, happy souls among my contemporaries, also Orthodox, who enjoyed what were called “tefillin dates” with their girlfriends—overnight liaisons involving dinner and sex, called so because the happy yeshiva boy could awaken the next morning in the arms of his lady love, after having enjoyed her premarital favors. He would then perform appropriate penance by davening with tefillin, thereby to curry favor with a beneficient Deity who might frown on his sexual activity, but excuse it for its having been followed by the morning prayers.
            This could not, alas, occur between Marcy and me: she was a dorm student, and Ludomir maidens were guarded by a phalanx of security that the President of the US might envy; I, living at home, had no privacy at all. Our intimate moments took place in deserted subway cars late at night, in the shadow of downtown office building, and sitting in darkened Greenwich Village coffeehouses, where we bent the laws of Kashrut sufficiently to allow us to drink bad espresso. Nor was I certain that I wanted to go All the Way, and I was positive that she didn’t, either.
            We did want to spend every available moment together—and Nachmanides University offered us the mitzvah (good deed, fulfillment of Torah commandment) opportunity to spend time together over Shabbos. Because Orthodox practice did not count women as part of the minyan, or prayer quorum, even a hundred, or thousand, women attending a service made no difference; ten men were necessary to “make the minyan.” It was customary for a group of us Nachmanidites to trek down to Ludomir on Friday afternoons to conduct services for the women students on Shabbos, with the schools putting us up at a local hotel.
            The school put us up at the oddly-named Latham Hotel, a fleabag off 28th St. and Madison Ave., with hot and cold running cockroaches. We were inured to such inconveniences; it was nice enough to be away from either our parents or the Nachmanides dorms for a Shabbos (where dorm counselors ran up and down the halls to ensure that errant students attended Shabbos services; to avoid them, one had to remain perfectly quiet and still in one’s dorm room), and the prospect of being the only Orthodox males amid an army of females “screwed our courage to the sticking-place,” in Shakespeare’s words.
Following a rousing dinner of overdone chicken, stony baked potato, and indifferent stringbeans in the Ludomir cafeteria, accompanied by Shabbos niggunim (Chasidic songs) sung lustily while beating on the tables, one of our number, Mutty Lovitz from Teaneck, NJ, feeling a great deal of Shabbos ruach (spirit) and not a little bit of Schapiro’s Extra-Heavy Malaga (“The Wine So Thick You Can Almost Cut It With a Knife”) was wearily climbing the stairs to his monk’s cell in the Latham Hotel, elevator travel being forbidden on the Sabbath.
            As he rounded the stairs to the second floor—the hotel management had, thoughtfully, put all of us Orthodox men and true on the third floor, making it easier to do without elevator service on Shabbos—the scent of Evening in Paris, or a knockoff thereof, assailed his chicken-laden nostrils.
            Mutty watched bemusedly as a thirtyish woman, dressed in an outfit which showed her clearly to be no Ludomir student—as he put it, “Billy, her tits were that big, I swear, and they practically touched me across the stairwell—“ sashayed across the dimly-lit stair platform, there between the fire hose case that said IN CASE OF FIRE BREAK GLASS and a window facing the airshaft.
            “Whereya goin’ Sugar?” asked the Houri of the Night.
            “Uh, back to my room,” said Mutty.
            “Wan’ some comp’ny?” asked the Houri, “My name’s Sooner—‘cuz y’all be callin’ me, sooner ‘r later.” She opened her lips into what was meant to be a smile, but which gleamed like a double-row of sharks’ teeth, causing a nervous Mutty to take a step backward.
            “Whereya goin’, Sugar?” Sooner continued, “Don’ be frightened. I’m good with you li’l Yash-EE-va boys. Onny twenty-fi’ dollahs fo’ round-the-world.”
            Mutty’s hand tightened on the pepper spray in his pocket; his groin tightened, as well.
            “Sorry, Sooner,” he said, “I, uh, I….”
            “Oh, OK,” said Sooner, “howzabou’ fifteen?”
            “You don’t understand,” said Mutty, back to the wall, moving slowly past her; the cheap perfume in his nostrils was so strong, he held his breath. “We’re not allowed—“
            “To have dates with girls like me?” asked Sooner, “Wel-ll—thass what makes it fun, ya see?”
            “No, no,” said Mutty, “we’re not allowed—to carry money. On our Sabbath. No money.”
            “Oh,” said Sooner, “Oh, OK.”
            “Sorry,” said Mutty.
            And she let him go.
            The next day, bright and early, after a quick nosh (snack) of cake and juice—bread was forbidden before praying the Morning Service on Shabbos—we boys entered the Shabtai Tsvi Memorial Auditorium of Ludomir College. The setup was ideal for our little group of ten yeshiva bochrim (scholars): a portable Holy Ark containing a Torah scroll, a reading desk, twelve chairs arranged in rows. Our island of service-leading was set off from the rest of the auditorium by incongruously white barricades at least eight feet tall, constructed of woven wood, impossible to see through, unless one had the X-Ray vision of Superman. We were to be the surrogate daveners for the Ludomir maidenly host.
            We began: it was customary for the congregation—in this case, young women all—to respond with Baruch Hoo oo’varuch Sh’mo—Blessed is He, and Blessed is His Name—when a service leader mentioned God’s Name, and add “Amen” at its end. There was also the Talmudic exhortation against women’s raising their voices too high in prayer, or singing too loudly. Accordingly, when I or another one of our little band ended a prayer, the women would respond, in a massive stage whisper—we could hear disembodied women’s voices, but the tank-trap mechitzah-barrier made it impossible to ken whence they came. Though we were the movers and shakers of the service, we were there for the express purpose of conveying the women’s prayers to the Almighty—that was the literal meaning of being a shaliach tsibur, or messenger of the congregation. I felt manipulated by unseen hands, as I opened and closed books, lifted, kissed, read and replaced the Torah, and all for the benefit of an unseen, female congregation. It was more unnerving than spiritual, as those women’s whispers floated through the air.
            As we ran the service, I mentally pictured my friends and myself as lab rats, scurrying about a gigantic Skinner Box, pressing the levers and gathering food pellets for scientists who could be heard, but not seen. I was the privileged gender in Orthodox Judaism, but my personal kavanah, or spiritual intention, mattered little; what was important was my being there as the conveyor of prayer for the dozens of young women whose voices I could make out, but not see. Even more sadly, if the fervor of those young women outdid mine, it did not matter, in the objective sense, for their spiritual qualifications were lacking: they were only women, and their overall importance in the system consisted of their ability to raise a family, bless the candles, bake a challah (or, more particularly, to separate the dough therefrom), and go to the mikvah, or ritual bath, when Jewish law required it.
            I did not ponder or bemoan my fate in those days: I was a good little Orthodox soldier, and carried out what was expected of me.
            As the weeks progressed, and Marcy and I continued to see—that was mostly what we did: see—one another, I took a major step forward in our relationship: I invited myself to her home to spend a weekend. Life was dull and predictable in New York City: we had been to all the museums, exhibitions, and Off-Off-Broadway plays our student IDs entitled us to. Perhaps I was testing the waters, and seeing how far the relationship might go. Physically, it had not gone very far, nor did I expect it to: a simple kiss on the lips was as much as I expected before dropping her off at the Ludomir dorm, after a night spent slogging from subway to subway, and through the streets of New York.
            And so it was that one Friday found the two of us on a Trailways bus, off to Allentown. I did not know what to expect; I was happy to be leaving the City, off on an adventure. I had never been to Pennsylvania before.
            Allentown was rough and gritty, but I did not mind. Marcy’s family greeted me enthusiastically; she had a younger sister; her parents, at first glance, appeared “normal,” which was my term for those who were not visibly religious. I had learned from Marcy that she had fallen in love with Orthodoxy in her senior year of high school, but that she had not succeeded in converting her family to her standard of practice; they kept a kosher home, but that was all. Mrs. Shostakovsky was a short, plump version of Marcy, and she still had some of the freckles and redgold hair that had won my heart. Mr. Shostakovsky made some sports-related jokes that I missed—I never followed sports, except for some sentimental attachment to Casey Stengel and the early years of the Mets, in particular the Old Perfessor’s lament, “Can’t anyone here play this game?” which I felt characterized a great deal of my life. I had done a bit of research, and discovered that Allentown had a Conservative shul, which was fine with me; it meant that Marcy and I could sit together during the services that we would certainly be attending that Shabbos. There was also Oscar, a cat, a fat Tabby which was very fond of Marcy.
            After settling into the basement where the family had a convertible couch, I flicked on an old radio in the corner, and heard, for the first time, Gordon Lightfoot playing “If You Could Read My Mind.” As I unpacked my Shabbos clothes, I listened to the lyrics; to this day, when I hear that song, it conjures up the experience of that weekend.
            Mrs. Shostakovsky was, luckily, a great cook. The fish course was first—the old, tried-and-true gefilte fish, which came from a jar; no surprises there. When the soup came out, I did not know what to expect: I came from a family where my Nana had a custom of boiling the chicken for soup, and afterwards plunking the same bird into the oven to roast it; by the time the carcass arrived on one’s plate, it seemed to be saying, silently, “Please eat me: I’m extremely dead.” It would be dried-out and tasteless, but, having been raised on this, I assumed that that was the way of the Jewish-chicken-cooking world.
            Mrs. Shostakovsky’s soup, on the other hand, was rich and full-bodied, and had no connection to the miserable broth both my Nana and mother used to serve to us. The only dinner item that took me aback was the vessel in which it was served. When she plunked my soup down in front of me, all I could do was stare:
            Mrs. S (defensively): Why are you staring? Haven’t you ever eaten chicken soup before?
            Me: Mrs. Shostakovsky, I’ve eaten chicken soup many times. I’ve just never eaten it out of an ashtray before.
            Mrs. S: Oh! Actually, it’s a candy dish.
            The dish in question was a beautiful piece of cut-glass crystal, certainly an odd item to be eating soup out of. What had happened during Marcy’s senior year of high school was that when Marcy had come home, full of the convert’s zeal, and announced that both she and her family must now keep kosher, Mrs. Shostakovsky had bent over backwards to fulfill her elder daughter’s wish. She had scrambled around in her cupboards, bought new plates, and consulted her rabbi to make her kitchen completely kosher. When Marcy further announced that she was bringing home a Nachmanides boy, one who also kept kosher, the poor woman was at her wit’s end to find more dishes: hence, the ashtray/candy dish. We all laughed, and enjoyed a wonderful meal.
            The next morning, I rose early, had a quick bite, and Marcy and I set out to walk to the Conservative temple. We were not surprised to be among the first ones there, and I noted the relative age of the congregants—about the same as those of my home shul. Young people do not naturally gravitate to temple attendance; it remains the province of the very young and the very old. The rabbi shook our hands gravely—Marcy managed a finger-touch before the rabbi divined her particular negiah status—and, noting that I had come into the shul already wearing a kipa (skullcap), and a knitted one at that, denoting my status as Modern Orthodox, asked me if I could prepare the haftorah, or reading from the Books of the Prophets for that service. This was not a problem for me, and I believed it would raise my status in the eyes of my girlfriend—was she my girlfriend, at this point? Which way was this relationship going? I breathed a silent prayer to the Almighty to try and help me with this one.
            The service began: it was not far different from those I had sat through in Orthodox practice, except that the rabbi prayed facing, or “at” the congregation, while in Orthodox practice, he would have faced the Ark. When my time came to chant the haftorah, I did not find it difficult; the rabbi seemed happy for the break, and congregants shook my hand. Marcy said nothing, but she cast down her eyes and smiled; that was reward enough for me.
            We returned home, chatting about the service; she touched my fingers at one point. My entire being, it seemed, was afire—was it holy fervor, or simply misplaced sexual tension? Alas, one cannot differentiate between the two, at that age. So we talked, and ate lunch, and separated to nap.
            When Shabbos ended that evening, we and the family faced the prospect of an evening in Allentown. Mr. Shostakovsky suggested that we visit the local Dairy Queen, but Marcy, uncertain as to the kashrut of its products, vetoed that idea. I myself, coming as I did from a more lax outlook regarding dairy products, was disappointed, and sided with the family; she gave me an angry look, and I relented. My relationship with the Girl of My Dreams was not worth a third-rate soft vanilla cone.
            So we sat, and looked at the TV—an old black-and-white model which flickered and was blurry. Mr. Shostakovsky began to pick idly at the recliner on which he sat; it was old, sagged, and many threads hung loosely down from it; the family cat, Oscar, was fond of using it as a scratching post. As I watched, Mr. S pulled at one thread; it unraveled until he tore it off. We all turned to watch: it was more interesting than the TV show.
            “I can take care of these threads….” Said Mr. S, and, before our eyes, took the recliner, flipped it over, and produced a disposable lighter from his pocket—he was fond of sneaking out to the back porch for a smoke. Using the lighter, he began to sear off the loose threads that dangled profusely from the bottom and sides of the chair. We all watched, bored, and yet fascinated, as the threads hissed and disappeared.
            Still, as Mr. S continued his odd, fixated search for loose threads, a little voice in the back of my head went, This isn’t right; this can’t be right… I remembered an episode in our apartment, when I was growing up—my sister, a budding scientist, had always been fond of fire. When our parents left us alone, one afternoon, she took a Chanukah menorah, despite its being March, placed it on one of the long, heavy glass trays that our mother used as a base, lit all nine candles, and marched solemnly through the living room, chanting a Funeral March. I, fearing the worst, had already loaded my water pistol at the bathroom sink. Sure enough, the glass tray splintered in half and broke from the heat; the candles and menorah crashed to the living room carpet, but a few well-placed squirts from my water pistol doused the flames.
            And now, years later, here I was again, in a similar situation, observing my girlfriend’s father, clearly a pyromaniac—only where was my water pistol? I had no water pistol.
            It was only a matter of time: one or two or a dozen loose threads spread the flame into the guts of the recliner, which began to smoke. Mrs. S, sighing over her husband’s peccadilloes—this was, apparently, not the first time that he had pulled a stunt of this nature—dialed 911. The Allentown Fire Department arrived in record time; they had no trouble finding the house; they had been there before. They dragged the old recliner onto the front porch, used their axes to cut the sad old chair to kindling and cloth, and hosed down the entire wreck thoroughly. They shook hands with all of us (except Marcy, of course), got onto the engine, and drove off in a cloud of diesel.
            It was late, and, after our misadventure, we all went to bed—but, unable to sleep, Marcy and I sat up and talked. She sat close—so close!—to me on the couch (her father had spared this piece of furniture, though it had at least as many dangling threads as had the recliner), smelling seductively of Dove Soap and Herbal Essence Shampoo, and driving me mad, as I sat there, my hand dangerously close to hers, my bitten fingernails twitching for lack of her long, cool digits—my own personal Belle Dame Sans Merci. She wore a quilted bathrobe that covered her from ankle to neck, but I could see, or, at least, imagine, that, underneath, she wore a pushup bra and silken babydoll panties—and what treasures lay beneath? I gave an inward groan: And this is why I sojourn here/ Alone and palely loitering, I thought, and my pulses beat.
            “I don’t know where we’re going,” she said to me, her redgold hair fluttering toward my nostrils as she looked at me out of those skyblue eyes.
            “What do you mean?” I asked, feeling as though I were falling down a well, and seeing only that face, all freckled cheeks, thin lips I yearned to kiss and kiss and kiss, and that body hidden within the quilted robe….
            “I don’t think you’re serious enough about your kavana (divine intent) and your chizuk emunah (grasp of faith) for me,” she said, turning sideways, so that her hand moved from the couchback to her lap.
            This was bad: this was as bad as it got. The wetburnt smell of the dead recliner blew gently through the window, open to an Allentown spring night. Somewhere in the dark, Oscar the cat burbled in his sleep. On the second floor, Marcy’s sister Penny dreamt her dreams of innocent youth. I sat in the living room, on a Thomasville knockoff sofa, in my own private Orthodox hell….
            “Will you do it?” she asked me.
            “Do what?” I asked.
            “Promise me that you’ll go back to laying tefillin. Every day. And read Tehillim, Psalms, and ask God if we should be together.” She narrowed her eyes, and smiled. Her teeth gleamed. I thought of Sooner in Mutty’s story. Sooner in the stairwell; Marcy on the couch. Tefillin, everyday for the rest of my life; except Shabbos, that is. I—I—I….
            “I’ll try,” I said.
            “Good,” she said, “That will help.”
            She did not smile; her jaw was set. Her little chin looked determined.
            “Do you love me?” I asked, “Will you call me, tomorrow night, after we get back to the City?”
            “I don’t know,” she said, “Maybe God knows. I have to ask God.”
            This was not going well. Maybe it was the Dairy Queen. Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed for it.
            “Call me,” I begged, “I’ll put on tefillin. I’ll pray hard for you, Marcy. I’ll make myself worthy of you.”
            In the corner, hanging on the wall, was one of those black-and-white cat-clocks, the kind with the goofy grin and the eyes that sway back-and-forth as the pendulum-tail swings. This one was looking at me: Can you do it, Billy? Really, really do it? You’re not fooling me, and I’m just a cat-clock. Maybe you’re fooling yourself.
            “Shut up,” I said.
            “What?” asked Marcy.
            “Nothing,” I said, “I love you.”
            “I love you,” said Marcy, but her voice sounded hollow.
            We went back to the city. I spent the next two nights staring at the big, ugly black phone that sat on my cubicle desk in my room in Jacob Frank Residence Hall. I even wrote a haiku about that damn phone:
                        Nasty one-eyed gnome
                        Humpbacked beast from hell
                        She never called back
            Not exactly a haiku.


Friday, August 16, 2013

Too Many Funerals: Jewish Fiction

            For the young rabbi in the little southern congregation, even one funeral was too many. But the last few weeks had been particularly awful, with one member dying after another: bing, bing, bing.
Like clay ducks, he thought. Within the space of two weeks, he had buried two prominent members.
            The first was a man who had never come to services. He hated his son, his son hated him back, and so, with no love lost, with both father and son working in the plant—which made—what? Fencing? Corrugated iron? The rabbi couldn’t remember, though he had mentioned it in the eulogy—the old man had lived to work, and had made a large pile of money in the process. The irony of it all was that, for a man who never came to services, even on the High Holy Days, he had left the temple one hundred thousand dollars.
            The second was a man who had been a pillar of the temple, and the general community as well. He had been fortunate: escaping from Nazi Germany just before the war, finding himself penniless in Paris with no one but the Quakers to help him—well, he never forgot that. When he came to America and did well for himself in business, he became the benefactor, not only of the temple, but of the Quakers, as well.
            Two funerals, but then, there were more. Lots more. The rabbi would just turn around, and there would be that phone call, saying that So-and-So had died. They had both, the manufacturer and the refugee, died in their sleep: one at home (a happy death), but totally unexpected, the other while in the hospital for tests, but, sadly, again unexpected. And more irony: yet another member (yes, the small Jewish community was, it appeared, filling the hospitals too) had been in the hospital (and a very fine hospital it was, too), for a long, long time, with large and small parts of him either not functioning, or, if they were, just barely. What a surprise when this man lived, and continued to do so, with machines beeping and booping and performing his vital functions for him, while the other man—just in for tests, you understand, just an overnight, and then home, all well again, that is, God willing—had up and passed on—in his sleep. The only way to pass away, people told one another, but (of course) so much harder on the family.
            The manufacturer’s funeral had been small—he had not had a large family, and fewer friends, so dedicated was he to his work—but there were a great many bank representatives. One member of the Chevra Kadisha, the temple’s burial society, pointed out to the rabbi that the six black-suited, uncomfortable-looking men in the back row of the sanctuary had been sent by Dixie Banking & Trust—whether out of professional gratitude for a longtime customer, or just keeping an eye on the estate, one couldn’t say, but there they were, in the back, six solemn bankers in pinstripe suits.
            The second funeral had been larger, with the temple’s sanctuary full to the brim, with more people there than even on the High Holies. There were employees, friends, relatives (in the front row; the rabbi had used masking tape and Magic Marker’d signs, taking construction paper from the Hebrew School supplies—to reserve the first three pews), and all the sundry humanity which Mr. Flax had befriended throughout his life. He was a good man—both the present rabbi and the rabbi emeritus said so—feisty, couldn’t be contradicted, stubborn as they came, but good-hearted, nevertheless. Not religious, though he liked to come to temple. He would hang his cane on the seat alongside his own, chat with his friends, and eventually fall asleep, unless the rabbi’s sermon was particularly good, or, at least, short. It was a supreme compliment when he stayed awake during the entire service. And he was a pillar of the temple.
            And then there were the shiva minyans, the daily memorial services in Mr. Flax’s house. The rabbi would get up early—the services had to accommodate people with “real jobs,” as the congregants kidded him—drive to pick up the rabbi emeritus, and then heigh-ho to the shiva house, where the two rabbis would don tallit and tefillin, prayer shawl and phylacteries. The other men would wear only tallitote. The service lasted a half-hour, and was dull as dishwater—it had to be quick and to the point, existing only to allow Mr. Flax’s family to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. The men went off to their jobs, and the rabbi went back home to his wife and baby daughter, until he taught Hebrew School in the afternoon or went back for the Evening Service—they had that, too. After the morning service, if the emeritus caught a ride home with someone else, the rabbi liked to open his car sunroof and both front windows in his little red sportster, turn up the radio volume, and floor the gas, tearing a little ass on the road on the way home. Yes.
A cleansing drive, he would think.
            The year was changing during the time of the second funeral. Days were getting longer, Shabbat lasted longer—he didn’t use the phone on Shabbat, which meant that people couldn’t phone him with their illnesses or deaths. He got one day off a week, Thursday, and he and his wife and baby daughter would pile into the car and drive to a different city—there weren’t too many within reach—and spend the day tramping around a shopping mall. Anything to forget the rabbinate for a while.
            He had had it with funerals. When he finished the service and was standing outside the temple waiting for the family to get into the limo, congregants would come up to him to compliment his eulogy—he did give a good eulogy.
He would quip, “I do weddings better.”
But people weren’t marrying, people were dying. It was a small Southern town, he had just signed a contract for two more years, he had a beautiful parsonage and the congregation paid for a late-model car, and he was doing all right for a rabbi.
            The days wore on: he was the entire Hebrew School faculty, teaching three classes of Hebrew, the weather was hot, and there were the kids whom he put through bar-bat mitzvah and who never returned. The funerals didn’t help his mood, though they made him feel needed. There was also the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, the congregants who prepared the body for burial by tenderly washing it, dressing it in shrouds, and placing it in the casket. It was just the overwhelming nature of the thing. Too many funerals.
            He began to dread the phone ringing. One night, he and his wife were eating dinner, frozen eggplant parmigiana (he wasn’t watching his weight, he was getting tubby, but it was a pleasure to eat) and the phone rang. The caller asked for the head of the house: he was selling some kind of long-lasting lightbulb made by handicapped people, but the rabbi hung up on them in mid-sentence. He promptly felt bad about it: handicapped people had to make a living, too.
            The next day, the rabbi wearily plodded toward the temple to teach Hebrew School. He had three bar mitzvahs coming up, and the boy who was soonest did not want to go on for confirmation. The kid was smart, but he was lazy, and his parents spoiled him. They had already decided that they weren’t going to schlep Johnny to confirmation classes if he wasn’t interested. The kid asked the rabbi if you had to go on for confirmation in order to be a Good Jew. And the rabbi answered that he had yet to meet a really Good Jew, but he had met plenty of ignorant Jews, and confirmation was one way to get more Jewish knowledge, and that was the reason for it. Not a convincing argument, but a sincere one.
            The kid didn’t seem to buy it.
            Well, there was only one more class session to go before summer vacation. The rabbi dismissed the class, who ran out, yelling like hoodlums, smarmy adolescents, every one of them, and this depressed him further: he had taught these kids from Day One, four years earlier, and had once been able to impress upon them the importance of bringing in their pencils and doing their homework, but it was too late for that now: they were too big and too clever. He sighed, picked up his books and his thermos, and went out the front door of the temple, stifling an impulse to sneak out the side door like a thief leaving Eden.
            “Rabbi, Rabbi, look! Come quick! Baby birds in the tree!”
The kids were calling him. He went over to look. And there, in a hole in a hollow tree, that had been cut down that afternoon, smelling like the fresh lumber he recalled from the Division Street Lumber Yard in his old neighborhood, were four tiny baby birds, newly hatched—the eggshells were still in the nest. The birds were helpless, blind, with scrawny necks and featherless bodies. They had been hatched by a woodpecker, probably, and their mother had flown off to get them food. Meanwhile, the yard man and his sons, after signing a contract to clean up the temple grounds, and then disappearing for a month to spend the money on whiskey, had come back and chopped down a perfectly respectable tree that had stood for years, or centuries, overlooking the main driveway to the temple. They had made a dreadful racket doing so, stomping back and forth in high boots and yellow helmets, arousing the children’s curiosity and distracting them from the alef-bet.
A small girl in the rabbi’s first class had asked, “Rabbi, why are you cutting down all the trees?”
And he had answered that he was not cutting them down, the temple was, they were not his trees, but it was necessary to thin them out so that the bigger ones could have light and air and soil for their roots, unencumbered by the older, dead trees.
So now we need a funeral for a tree, he thought.
            The birds were heart-rending—one had fallen onto the ground, and a little boy panicked, and stepped on the poor thing while bending over to pick it up. As he replaced it in the nest, the others stretched out their necks and peeped for the food they felt their mother was bringing them. It was agonizing to see the big black ants parading around the base of the stump—the tree’s downfall had disturbed their nest, too—licking their chops or mandibles and thinking of the baby-bird dinner they would enjoy. And there was nothing the rabbi could do, nor anyone else, while the children stood and asked him to help. His wife had come over with the baby, and she was fanning away the mosquitoes from the baby’s chubby and delectable legs and face. The birds peeped, more weakly now.
            The rabbi, his wife, and one of the parents went into his office to phone the Humane Society. They said that they would call back, but never did. The rabbi called a few congregants who were known for their compassion for animals. Everyone said that the birds were far too young to be fed with an eyedropper; it was best to leave them alone. A father who drove his Chevy truck around the temple corner at breakneck speed to pick up his twins made a remark about Nature’s inexorable law, survival of the fittest, and so forth. The tiny birds lay in a small pile in the hollow of the stump and peeped feebly. The rabbi and his wife and baby went home.
            After dinner, the rabbi and his wife watched a TV movie starring a young comic they had seen in Atlanta while on vacation. The rabbi laughed loudly at the gags, although he had seen the movie twice before. His wife was bored, but politely said nothing; she knew her husband’s moods. The baby cried a little, took a bottle, and was put to bed.
            The rabbi put on jeans and a sweatshirt and rolled the garbage can to the curb for the next day’s pickup. He thought of the birds. Taking a flashlight, he told his wife that he was going to take a walk.
            At the temple, he took a shovel and pick out of the storage closet. As he shone it on the stump, the birds peeped weakly. The smell from the stump, of fresh-cut wood, was cloying and sickening. The birds lay in a pile, not moving. The rabbi walked a little way into the woods and used the pick to dig a shallow hole. With a stick, he gently nudged the birds out of the stump, into a grocery bag he had found in the temple kitchen. He rolled the top of the bag tightly closed.
            As he dug the hole, he remembered the funerals: as the casket hung suspended on the trestle over the grave, he would take a shovel and scoop dirt into the grave three times:
                                                Dust thou art
                                                To dust thou must return
                                                Dust thou art
                                                To dust thou must return
                                                Dust thou art
                                                To dust thou must return
            The rabbi held the brown paper bag with the birds in it, close to his ear. He laid the bag on the ground and struck it once, hard, with the flat of the shovel. He stuffed the bag into the hole, and covered it with dirt. Looking up at the moon, he said the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer, bowing where God was supposed to be.
            He put the shovel and pick into the temple storeroom, and scrubbed his hands with the strong chemical-smelling liquid soap that the caretaker put into the bathrooms.

Too many funerals, he thought, as he walked slowly up the path to his house behind the temple, Too many.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Kibbutznik from Carolina: Jewish Fiction

            It was totally accidental that I became friends with Billy Mirsky at all. I had first met his roommate, Phil Krome, during our freshman year at Hirsch College, the stately Orthodox Jewish university in Belvedere Heights in upper Manhattan. Those were the halcyon days for Hirsch, when they had more applicants than they could accommodate; Vietnam was raging, and we boys didn’t want to end up in Danang dodging Viet Cong bullets. It was ironic, in the end, that Billy decided to make aliyah; that is, move to Israel permanently—because Israel’s frequent wars were a lot more dangerous than Vietnam ever could have been.
            Still, I get ahead of myself. It was Phil Krome who brought us together; Phil, the devil-may-care ladies’ man from Boston, Mass., whose “pahk the cah” accent couldn’t help but charm the New York Jewish college girls—sirens with long, curly brown-black hair and deep-dark eyes a guy like me could drown in, if he ever got the chance. The problem was, I never did. I had met Phil in English Comp class, and he was, by a simple twist of fate, assigned to be Billy Mirsky’s roommate. Phil was a handsome six-foot-one blond Jewish-Nordic type from Newton, Massachusetts, with a killer smile, who had fallen into Orthodoxy during his senior year in high school. Like everything else he tackled in life, he went into Orthodox Judaism “full-tilt boogie,” as he put it, forcing his quiet, unassuming Reform parents to make their house kosher, and nominally Sabbath observant—at least, when Phil came home to visit.
            When Phil wasn’t hitting the books—it was hard for him to make up all the years of not getting a proper Jewish education, with half the day spent studying Torah subjects, and the other half secular—he was taking the subway down to NYU, Columbia, and other girl-hunting grounds, and afterwards coming back to the dorm and bragging about his exploits to Billy and me. Then, we would all go out to Shabtai’s Kosher Pizza and split a mushroom pie three ways, listening to Phil’s advice on how to snag the ladies. I can still remember his “getting her undressed” mantra: “your shirt comes off, then her shirt; your pants, then her pants.” Not that I ever used it, but it did roll off the tongue.
            Sometimes he took us along, but we were only the cabooses on the Krome cherchez-les-femmes train. I can remember innumerable times when Phil ran off in pursuit of some tight-sweatered Naomi or Rebekah, leaving Billy and me sitting on some broken-down old vinyl couch in the NYU co-ed dorm lounge, with the sickly-sweet smell of pot in the air, and each of us holding a paper cup half-filled with Black Cat Chianti –chilled and distilled, as we used to say, for fifteen minutes on a subway platform, with Eric Clapton’s tinny voice wailing “Layla” on a crappy stereo. Billy was too thin, and I was too chubby to appeal to the ladies, so, eventually, we stopped going along with Phil on his weekend excursions. We only cramped his style.
And so, while Phil was off downtown, leaving us in Goldfisz Residence Hall, Room 575, Billy and I quietly got acquainted. He was Phil’s exact opposite: a soft-spoken, slightly built (but wiry; I once tried to armwrestle him, and lost) Southerner from Durham, North Carolina, who was majoring in Hebrew Literature. He spent most of his time reading obscure Hebrew novels—deadly-boring stuff by long-dead Zionist Socialists, mainly—and making long lists of nouns and verbs, which he was always asking me to quiz him on.
            “This is esoteric stuff, Mirsky,” I would say. “What do you need it for? Professor Malowitz isn’t going to put it on the final.” This was true; indeed, Malowitz, a bony fossil of a tenured Hebrew prof, who smelled like library stacks and chalk dust, had been giving the same final exams for so many years, that Xeroxes of all of his past tests were openly circulating among us students—a fact known to one and all, but blithely ignored by the Hebrew Department, which was hoping only that Malowitz would live to retire, rather than drop dead one day while teaching a class the fine distinction between the active and passive Hebrew sh’va. As though any of us cared, but it was mother’s milk to Malowitz.
            “I’m going to make aliyah, Teddy,” Billy would answer in a low but firm voice, squinting at me through his thick glasses, “And I’ll need it for Israel.”
            And so I would quiz him, verb after verb, noun after noun: reflexive, ablative, simple, and on and on, until we both got tired and dozed, when Phil would come crashing in, with his million-dollar grin of triumph, and the (imaginary) scalp of yet another downtown Jewish girl on his belt.
            “Scuba!” he called out, shocking Billy into grabbing for his glasses—Billy had a strange habit of lying on his back in bed fully dressed in shirt, jeans, belt and shoes, folding his arms like King Tut in his sarcophagus, and falling asleep while wearing his glasses. I had laid my head onto Phil’s desk, and nearly banged it on his bookshelf when he woke me up.
            “What are you talking about, Krome?” Billy asked, more used than I was to Phil’s strange habit of assigning sexual nicknames to his weekend conquests.
            “Scuba, my good friends,” began Phil, “is my name for this sweet little girl that I met tonight at Columbia. She is a junior….”
            “You’re playing with fire, Krome,” I interrupted, now fully awake. “Don’t forget that you’re just a freshman.”
            “A tall freshman, Schuster,” said Phil, “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We danced, we drank, we talked, we found a quiet spot—and then, she went down on me. That’s why I gave her that name. That, plus I understand she went to the Bahamas on last year’s spring break, and went scuba diving. That girl can certainly hold her breath!”
            How could we resist? Billy and I laid aside his lists of verbs and nouns, and sat back to hear Phil’s tale of romance—or, at least, sex, which means a lot more when you’re nineteen, and heterosexual, and attending an all-male college, where the testosterone level is strong enough to blow the roof off the place. And so passed freshman year at Hirsch University.
            The second year of school was tough for me: I had made Dean’s List the first year, but, halfway through my second, I was floundering, unsure what I should choose as a major. I had moved into the dorms at Hirsch, the better to get away from my parents’ apartment and their stifling rules and curfews, but my roommate, Zelig Hurwitz, was hardly a fun guy—his idea of an all-night orgy was sitting up with the Talmudic tractate on Divorce, and a bottle of Diet-Rite Cola. I would have hung out more with Billy, but he seemed more into his Hebrew word lists than ever before, and he was no longer rooming with Phil. Studying was breaking up our little trio: even Phil was spending more time on campus; having decided on a business major, he was buckling down to his books, and had less time for his nightly jaunts to downtown colleges. He came upon me one day in the Epstein Cafeteria. I was just sitting there, nursing a cardboard cup of that excrescence they called coffee.
“What’s the matter with you, Teddy?” he asked, after I snarled at his greeting.
“Life sucks, Phil,” I said. “I hate my classes, and my grades are in the toilet. I have no clue what I should major in, my parents are getting on my case, and Hirsch is a major bore. This place is a prison. Maybe New York is just one big amusement park to you, but I’ve lived here all of my life, and I’m going out of my mind.”
“What you need to do, Teddy,” said Phil, “is look into doing your junior year in Israel. Imagine: an Israeli university, with no parents to bother you, and loads of Israeli girls all around! That’s what I’m going to do.”
  One thing I always knew about Phil: he was a born salesman. As he continued describing school in Israel to me, it seemed more and more like the Promised Land, indeed. Besides, although I had gone to Jewish schools all of my life, my Zionist feeling began and ended on Israeli Independence Day—that is, once a year, during the parade down Fifth Avenue, carrying the blue-and-white Israeli flag, watching the Beth Jacob girls’ Orthodox behinds go wiggle-waggle in their long but tight dark-blue Zionistic skirts. I would just as happily have applied to go to school in Timbuctoo, just to get out of New York and away from my parents. With their permission—I believe that, in retrospect, they were just as happy to be rid of me for a year—I applied to Yemin Orde University, outside of Tel Aviv—Orthodox, but co-ed—a smaller school than Jerusalem U, to which everyone else seemed to be applying, except for Billy and me.
            “Yemin Orde is the place for me, too. It’s near a kibbutz that I’m interested in applying for,” he explained.
            “What would you do on kibbutz?” I asked, “Are you a farmer?”
            “Whatever they want me to do,” he answered, mildly.
            My year in Israel was wonderful. I took half the courseload I would have taken had I stayed at Hirsch, and I got to sit next to real, live women in class, unlike the segregated, more right-wing Orthodox atmosphere of Hirsch. Real women, who were worth looking at—even though I didn’t dare date them; the cultural divide was too great. There was, of course, the class on “Twentieth Century American Plays” I took in the spring, where everyone except me came in pregnant—in Israel, you see, young people don’t enter college until they’ve done their three-year army commitment, and a lot of them were eager to get married as soon as they were discharged. Yemin Orde was small enough so that most of us knew one another. The days flew by, and, before I knew it, I was on the El Al plane to go home.
As for Billy—or Zev, as he now called himself—he had applied to Kibbutz She’ar Yashuv (literally, “A Remnant Shall Return”), a new settlement near the Golan Heights, which had a large contingent of Western Jews—Americans, Brits, and a few Australians and South Africans. I had his address and phone number somewhere; we had hugged and promised to write one another, but, after my last few weeks in Israel, had fallen out of touch. Somehow, I didn’t feel the need to call him before I got on the plane to go home to my family—don’t ask me why. Something in my nature makes and casts off friends with little difficulty. Of course, I hoped that everything would go all right for him. Have a nice life, Zev, and all.
            Still, I thought about him, again, when war broke out between Israel and Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur in 1973. It was a great shock to all of us Diaspora Jews: the first war in its history that Israel came closest to losing, which would have meant, of course, a second Holocaust. I knew that Zev, as a young soldier, would be on the front lines in the army. I had no idea what sort of unit he was serving in—tanks? Infantry? Medevac? Air Force? I wondered about him and my other Israeli friends, including my rough-and-tough roommate from the Yemin Orde dorm, Moshe, a red-headed paratrooper who wolfed down avocado sandwiches and watery yogurt from the college cafeteria, took ice-cold showers, and laughed at my attempts to write Hebrew poetry. We American Jews prayed for Israel’s safety, and were amazed and thrilled when General Arik Sharon pulled off a brilliant counterattack that bottled up the entire Egyptian Sixth Army on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. Israel won, but it was a near miss. Otherwise, we couldn’t do anything except pray and send money. In the end, it paid off; later, in 1977, Anwar Sadat had the chutzpah to propose making peace with Israel, and Menachem Begin and he signed an accord. Those were heady times. As for me, I had fallen out of touch with Phil. I had heard through the Hirsch alumni grapevine that he had married an Israeli girl, of all people; she was supposedly the daughter of the assistant mayor of Kiryat Or—which meant that his main job was playing shesh-besh—backgammon—with the mayor. But where was Billy?
            I was plenty surprised about five years later when I got a letter from him. “Dear Teddy,” it read, “I am in charge of the lool—the chicken coop—on my kibbutz. Have you any idea how many eggs two hundred chickens lay, every day? Not to mention the other stuff they make. I’m also learning how to drive a tractor—that diesel smell is disgusting! My Hebrew is pretty good by now—all those night writing out lists of words really helped, and I thank you for testing me. I think Prof. Malowitz would be proud, too. I’m a newbie, not yet an official member of the kibbutz, but I still get some money from communal funds to visit the U.S. for two weeks. I should be arriving in early June. Can I stay with you for a bit? Regards, Zev Mirsky.”
            Of course, he could. By this time, I was living in a ratty apartment in lower Manhattan, and trying to find a job as a visiting lecturer in college English at some community college or other. Besides that, I was working as a substitute teacher in the New York City Board of Education, which was certainly combat duty, but it paid the rent for me and the eight-hundred-odd cockroaches I lived with: forty bucks a day. Still, there was enough room for Billy—I mean, Zev—to bunk down. He was used to roughing it.
            On the day Zev was to fly in, I borrowed my brother-in-law’s old, pea-soup-green Dodge Dart and went out to Kennedy to pick him up at the El Al terminal, which was bristling with security—this was the mid-1970’s, and the Black September terrorist gang had recently murdered the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Some Hebrew-accented guy with an enormous pistol on his hip asked me for ID, and I answered him in Hebrew. He still looked at me suspiciously, and searched the trunk of the car pretty thoroughly, before letting me into the airport parking garage.
            Zev and I hugged one another. He looked older, thinner, more angular and worldly-wise, somehow. And yet, when he smiled, he didn’t look any different from the guy I had known in school. Just a little more skeletal: his cheekbones showed out more. 
            As we drove back to my apartment, Zev lit up a cigarette and flicked the ashes out the car window. From the smell, I could tell it wasn’t an American blend, but one of the Israeli brands. The whole Jewish State was always on edge: Israelis smoked too much, and drank more coffee than was good for them.
            “When did you start smoking?” I asked.
            “Nasty habit I picked up in the army,” he said, taking a deep drag. “It helps my nerves.”
            “I can imagine,” I said, and the rest of the ride was spent in silence.
            As I shlepped his khaki duffel bag up the three flights of stairs to my apartment, I asked, huffing and puffing, “What are your plans?”
            “I’ll be with you for two nights, if it’s OK,” he replied, “And then I’m going to kind of work my way down the coast, visiting different relatives, until I get home to Durham.”
            “OK by me,” I said.
            That night, we went to a little Mexican place I knew around the corner, and I sprang for a big pitcher of sangria. Zev ate hungrily, but even after finishing the large vegetarian burrito plate, didn’t seem to put on any weight.
            “Don’t they feed you on kibbutz?” I asked.
            He only smiled.
            Back at my place, I put a record by Arik Einshtein on the turntable: “On Avigdor’s Lawn.”
            “Bring back any memories?” I asked.
            “Oh, yeah,” he said, as Arik’s gentle tenor sang, “You and I/ Will change the world/ They said that we couldn’t/ But they were wrong, so wrong….”
            “Want a drink?” I asked. My brother-in-law had given me a bottle of Chivas Regal that his boss had gifted him with last Christmas, and I had never touched the stuff. Jews don’t drink; Jews eat. Still, it seemed as though this was a state occasion.
            We clicked glasses, and said “Le-chaim”—To life, and tossed it back into our throats, Shabbat-kiddush-style, afterwards coughing. Neither of us were drinkers. As the warm scotch took effect, we leaned back on the pillows of my worn corduroy couch and listened to the music. When the Arik record was done, I put on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” that we used to listen to in school.
            “So, Zev, how have you been doing?” I asked.
            He seemed quieter than usual, and he had never been that much of a talker.
            “OK, I guess. How about another drink?”
            I was surprised, but filled his glass.
            “Don’t give me so much. Look at that moon!”
            A full moon was rising over the downtown office buildings on Lower Broadway. We sat back and watched it.
            “You got moons like that in the Holy Land?” I asked, hoping to prod my silent buddy into some of his old, college days behavior.
            “For sure, Schuster,” he smiled, “And we have to defend our right to look at it, every day.”
            “I can imagine. What did you do in the war, Zev?”
            I heard the clink as he put his glass down on my ancient coffee table.
            “In the army, they made me the driver of an Armored Personnel Carrier, an APC,” he said.
            I said nothing.
            “They call it a Zelda.” He lifted his glass, gazed at the moon through the dark, smoky liquid, and sipped at it, slowly. “We used to call it a Zippo, because if the Syrians hit it with a grenade, or an RPG, it went up, just like—Boom! All that crappy, thin armor, and the gas tanks too close to the surface.”
            It was dark; I could barely make out his face.
            “Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked.
            “It’s OK,” I said, and got him an ashtray, an old copper one in the shape of a map of Israel, a souvenir that I had brought back. He smiled when he saw what it was.
            “My best friend in the squad was named Shimon. He rode on top, manning the machine gun. I was the driver. We communicated by helmet radio. They sent us to the Golan.”
            Maybe it was the scotch, but he seemed to be choosing his words carefully, making sure that he got the story right. I listened without saying anything. The moon was getting higher and higher in the sky.
            “They had made me the driver because I was the littlest guy in the squad, and they figured that I could squeeze down into the compartment better. I was a little worried, because the thing could go up like a torch if it was hit in the fuel line. But Shimon said I shouldn’t worry. He had been through the 1967 Six-Day War, so I trusted him. And we had been through a lot of exercises and drills together. The APC was clumsy, but I thought I could drive it pretty well. Shimon gave me confidence in myself, which was important, because we knew we were supposed to go in first during an attack.”
            He pulled on the cigarette; it made a red circle in the dark.
            “Shimon knew that Zelda like the back of his hand. He used to call her ‘Zona’—‘whore’—because he said that if the Syrians touched her in the wrong spot, she would get all hot and bothered. Then he would laugh.”
            “Was Shimon your commander?” I asked, vaguely remembering an Israeli friend describing his own battle experience in tanks, and where the commander would customarily ride.
            With the lamplight behind him, it was hard to see Zev’s face, but I could sense the steel in his voice. He answered me sharply:
            “I never wanted to let Shimon down. We were all in it together. He was the lieutenant in charge of my APC squad, but he was a really laid-back guy. All of us Zelda guys wanted to do our best for him. And he was my friend. He used to call me ‘oleh amerikai katan’—the ‘Little American Immigrant.’ And once he heard the other ‘foreigners’ calling me ‘Billy,’ he started calling me that, too. ‘Bee-lee, Bee-lee,’ he would laugh….”
            He crushed out the butt of his cigarette, and immediately struck a wooden match from his pocket box and lit another.
            “Our Air Force had pretty much bombed the shit out of the Syrians by the later part of the war, and Assad, the Syrian president, was getting scared, because, by this time, Sharon had the Egyptians neutralized at the Canal. So, we figured that our taking back the Golan would be pretty easy, that the Syrians would be retreating back to Damascus, and that we would just be fighting a rear-guard action.”
            He paused, and flicked his cigarette onto the copper map of Israel.
            “We were wrong.”
            He stopped speaking, for a long time. Finally, I whispered, “What happened, Zev?”
            He looked out the window at the moon, and said, more quietly than before,
            “When we got over the crest of a low hill, a bunch of Syrian soldiers with shoulder-held RPGs started firing at us. Their missiles were wire-guided, so they had plenty of time after they fired to make sure that they hit us. The Zelda in front of mine was hit from two sides and blew up, blocking the road, and we had no place to move. I yanked the control wheel to the left, to try to get around the flaming wreck. Shimon yelled, and I realized that my quick move had caught him off guard and made him lose his balance on the turret ladder. He fell forward, and a Syrian bullet must have caught him in the neck. He fell down into the APC. He was gushing blood from a neck wound. Some of it got on my hands and boots. I couldn’t help him; I had to close the front view ports because of the Syrian machine guns, and was driving blind. It all happened so fast, but to me it was like in slow motion, like in a dream. I still dream about it, a lot. My radioman, Avi, was yelling for air support, but it didn’t come. I can still hear him yelling into the radio, our call number, ‘four:’ ‘Arba arba arba arba! Arba arba arba arba!’ The fighter jets were supposed to come and drop napalm on the Syrian positions. They never came.”
As he drew in deeply on his cigarette, I saw that his hands were trembling. Pink Floyd sang, “Us us us/ And them them them/ And after all/ We’re only ordinary men/ With with with/ Without out out out/ And who knows what/ All the fighting’s all about….” A few long minutes passed.
            “I would have liked to help him; I would have done anything for him; what could I do? He was dying—I—I—“
His voice died down to a terrified whisper. Suddenly, he stood, and ran his hands through his hair. Walking to the window, he looked down to the street.
“How high up are we?” he asked.
“Just three floors,” I said. “Going somewhere?”
He shook his head, so hard that his long brown hair flew in all directions, and sat down on the couch, again.
“Let me tell you about my great-grandfather.”
            “Your great-grandfather?” I asked, wondering at the sudden change of subject.
            “My great-grandfather—we called him ‘Opa’—had moved to Durham, North Carolina, after coming to this country from Bavaria after the First World War, and he had opened a little general store, mostly serving the local farmers. They would come in to town on market day, sell their produce and vegetables, and use the money to buy cloth, sugar, and other stuff—what they used to call “notions”—from him. Sometimes, they would trade what they had with him for what they needed.”
            His voice had taken on a wooden quality, as though he was reciting from a history book.
            I was puzzled. “What does this have to do with the battle?”
            “Let me finish!” his voice rose, slightly annoyed.
            “One day, a farmer came to town, ready to sell his tobacco in the market and buy goods from Mirsky’s General Store. Unfortunately, he had miscalculated the date, and found out that he had missed the tobacco auction day. A lot of those back-country farmers were barely literate, anyway; he probably couldn’t read a calendar, even if he had had one. But he had come a long way with his wife and children, and they couldn’t go home empty-handed. So, they went to Opa’s store, only to find it closed, with a sign in the window: ‘Closed for Jewish Holiday, Yom Kippur—Day of Atonement. Will Open After Dark.’”
            “What did they do?” I asked.
            “After puzzling out the sign, the farmer said to his family, ‘We are going to wait. If these Jewish folks’ holiday means so much to them that they close their store, then we are going to respect them and wait.’ And they did: they waited all day until nightfall, when the holiday ended. But, after Opa broke his fast and came to open the store, and he waited on them, he found that all they had was a wagonload of tobacco leaves, which he couldn’t use. But he couldn’t let the farm folks go without what they needed.
            ‘Do you have anything else to trade?’ Opa asked.
            “The farmer thought. ‘Only this,’ he said. He showed my father a Bowie knife. Now, Opa had no use for it; after all, we Jews don’t hunt, and have no use for a hunting knife. But he didn’t want to insult the farmer, and so took the knife from him in trade.”
            “What happened to it?” I asked.
            “We used to joke about it. After all, what Jewish family has any use for a huge knife like that? When I was born and the rabbi came to circumcise me, my father pulled it out to show the rabbi, just for a joke. I inherited it from my parents, and just casually packed it with my stuff when I moved to Israel. I figured I might need it on a nature hike, or something. When I went off to war, I strapped it onto my belt—though I wasn’t sure why.”
            He held out his glass.
            “One more drink,” he said. It was more a command than a request. I poured; he drained it dry, and continued:
            “After Shimon was killed, I felt another RPG hit the Zelda, and smelled the stink of burning fuel. I didn’t know how much time I had, but figured it was time for me and Avi, the radioman, to leave the APC or be burned alive. I unstrapped from my seat, dropped my helmet, and squeezed through a back window—it was pretty small, but then, so am I. And fear is a great motivator.”
            An ambulance suddenly went by in the street, its siren wailing. We both jumped.
            “I dropped to the ground from the Zelda, and ran away, keeping low. When I came to a shell crater, a big hole in the ground, I jumped in, and ducked down. I heard the explosions as the fuel went off. I don’t know what happened to Avi; I hope he got away OK.”
            “You were lucky,” I said.
            “Very lucky, yes,” he said.
            “When were you rescued?” I asked.
            He gave me a sharp look.
            “As I lay there, I realized that I had a sharp pain in my ankle. I had twisted my leg when I jumped into the hole. It didn’t really hurt all that much: I guess it was the adrenalin rush, or something. I lay low, as a few Syrian soldiers ran by. I heard a boom from the sky, and figured it was one of our jets, strafing. That was when he jumped into the hole, along with me.”
            “Who?” I asked.
            “One of the Syrians.”
            Again, he stubbed out the cigarette, and immediately struck a match to light another.
            “He seemed a little dazed—probably from all the concussion bombs that we were dropping over their lines. I was a little in shock, too. We stared at each other for a minute.”
            “My God, Zev! What did you do?”
             He gazed off into the distance, and his eyes had gotten a dreamlike quality.
“I remember exactly what he looked like. He was a young guy in his twenties, I figure; he had a mustache, and needed a shave. And he smelled—the same, funky, smell of sweat and piss and fear that I had on me. And the two of us just lay there, mostly in shock, not sure exactly what to do. I was breathing very hard.”
“Did he have a gun?” I asked.
“Not that I could see—but then, he moved his hands up, slowly—why? I don’t know; maybe he was going to surrender; maybe he had a pistol under his shirt; maybe it was just a reflex. There we were: two guys in a hole. I had seen those photos that came out in the first days of the war, of the Israeli soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Syrians.Their hands were tied behind them, and they were shot in the back of the head. I wanted to live, Teddy. I knew one thing. I had to kill this guy, or he was going to kill me.
            He rose suddenly, and stretched, and began to pace the floor. Then, he stopped abruptly, and turned to the wall, not to me, and began speaking, as if he were addressing a classroom of students.
            “I know poetry. I memorize poetry. I love Yehuda Amichai. Do you know Yehuda Amichai, Teddy?” His voice was rising, and getting more frantic.
“Yes, Zev, yes, of course, I know him. Don’t you remember, we took a course on him? Rabbi Bernstein taught it—what a goof that guy was! Remember his thermos full of hot tea, and how he would drink it out of a yahrzeit glass?” I said, desperately trying to lighten his mood.
He ignored me. “Amichai wrote a poem; shall I recite it for you? One of my favorites. It goes like this: ‘Half the people in the world/ Love the other half,/ Half the people in the world/ Hate the other half. Must I, because of this half and that half/ Go wandering and changing ceaselessly/ like rain in its cycle/ Must I sleep among rocks/ And not feel my cheek against the cheek of angels?’”
            “Sit down, Zev. Take it easy.”
            He was crying.
            “I took the knife…I took my knife…”
            I bent over the couch and moved to hug him. He moved away, pushing at my shoulders.
            “Let me finish; I have to finish. The knife was hanging on my belt. I slid it out. It felt long and cold and heavy in my hand. Do you know how long a Bowie knife is? It’s about a foot long, shiny and sharp. Before this guy—this man—this human being could make a move on me, to surrender, or whatever he was planning to do, I pushed the knife into his belly, as far as I could.”
            He fell backward on the couch, exhausted, and rubbed his eyes.
            “Blood began to bubble out of his mouth. His mouth opened and closed, like a fish. And then, he died. Do you understand? I was happy. I killed him. I lay there, in the hole, thanking God, and my Opa, and that old Carolina farmer with the tobacco.”
            “You had to do it, Zev. It was his life, or yours.”
            A minute or two passed. Zev stood up again.
            “I had to know more about him. I went through his pockets. I found a wallet. It had this photo in it.”
            He reached into his shirt pocket, and passed me a folded-over paper. I opened it, to see a stained, color photo of a young woman, olive-complected, chubby, smiling, holding a black-haired toddler.
            Zev smiled crookedly.
            “I didn’t kill a man; I killed a family.” A sob came from his throat.
            I swallowed, hard.
            “You had no choice, Zev. It was war. They started it; not us.”
            He stood, not responding.
            “I’m out of cigarettes.” His voice was flat and dull, almost mechanical. “I saw a shop on the corner. Need anything?”
            “No, I’m OK. Wait, I’ll go with you.”
            The phone rang, as Zev opened the door. I picked it up.
            “Teddy? It’s me, Phil! Actually, I’m Pinchas, now. How’ve you been, man? Long time, no hear! I had a hell of a time tracking you down, man. I finally got ahold of your parents, and they gave me your new number. You remember Meechal, the girl I married, from Kiryat Or? She and I moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, and we’ve got a baby—little Aminadav. We’re gonna move to Israel this summer—“
            “Great to hear from you, Phil—wait a minute—there’s someone here you might want to say hello to—hey, Zev! Where’d you go? Phil, can I call you back? Give me your number….”
            I jotted it down, hung up the phone, and looked in the hall for Zev, but he had gone downstairs more quickly than I had thought possible—and from three flights up, too.
            “Jeez, that Carolina farmboy can sure run fast,” I muttered to myself, running out the door. As I rounded the rail of the first stairway, I heard tires squeal in the street outside, a single scream, and then, silence. 
            “Zev? Zev? Where are you?” I called down the stairwell. He was gone; disappeared. As I yanked open the squeaky, rusting door to the street, I saw a crowd gathering near a stopped taxicab, parked at a crazy angle. A blue-and-white NYPD cruiser pulled up, its flashers blinking, and a cop got out, hurrying towards the gathering mob of people.
“Move along, folks!” he shouted, “An ambulance will be along in a minute.” I looked back and forth wildly: where was Zev? The mass of people parted for a second, and I saw a thin, crumpled form lying on the ground, arms and legs askew like a broken puppet, a gathering pool of blood around its head.

I elbowed my way through the murmuring crowd, feeling as though I were sleepwalking. There was a voice with an Indian accent saying, “I am just driving along, and he is suddenly running in front of my cab. You have got to be believing me, Mr. Officer. I am not hitting him on purpose—why is he running in front of my cab?” In the circle of light cast by headlights and the unforgiving moon Zev lay, a slight smile upon his face. His lifeless eyes looked upward. Following his gaze, I saw, in the shadow cast by the streetlamp, a single pigeon descend, downward to darkness, on extended wings.