Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Gersonides & Ecclesiastes on Free Will vs. Godly Omniscience: A Short Essay

I recall Gersonides, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344). He resolved the paradox between human free will and God's omniscience by stating that God knows generalities, not particulars. For example, I will go to teach college English during the week. God knows, and my income and profession require, that I wear chinos, long-sleeved dress shirt, and tie to my job.

But God does not know whether I will go with the blue ensemble, the tan/brown, the grey, the black, or some blend of the several. Hence, He has omniscience (to a degree), while I have free will (regarding the details).
Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, whom we read this weekend, adds a further element: that of Chance, Fate, Kismet, or the Universe. Will I arrive safely? Will another person's free will override mine? What about weather conditions, mechanical failure, floods, fire, or famine? The element of Happenstance adds a further layer of insecurity to my human existence, the fate of humanity, and the survival of both our planet and the universe.

There is a risk in existence, in Life, but I would not trade it for any alternative. "O LIfe, I cannot hold thee close enough!" sang Edna St. Vincent Millay.

She was right. 

Kohelet/Ecclesiastes: A Cynic Looks at Autumn

Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed Sukkot/Intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot

Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
And the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
To bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
To one’s own self, and find an exit
From the fallen self.

--D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), “The Ship of Death”

            In most ancient cultures, autumn was the season of death. The god or goddess of spring, Proserpine or Persephone for the Greeks, along with her mother, Ceres; Freya or Frey for the Norsemen, would either die or go to sleep for the winter, and all of nature would reflect the loss. Leaves would fall, cold winds would blow, and the snow would cloak all of nature in a mantle of white. (It is no accident that Jesus is born in the winter and “dies” in the spring; the early Christian evangelists were taking the spring-god myth and reversing it, thereby making it easier for the pagans they targeted for conversion to identify with the new faith they were publicizing.) Our Israelite ancestors’ pagan Canaanite neighbors were little different: for them, autumn was a time to gather in the harvest, drink deep of wine (or beer, which the Egyptians were the first to distill), and settle down to some serious orgies.
Israel was unique. As the world’s first ethical monotheists, our ancestors greeted seasonal change by thanking the One God who had blessed their crops. They would gladly close down their farms and vineyards and turn either to their local shrine, or, during Solomon’s reign (c. 970-931 BCE) the Holy Temple of Jerusalem (a minor Jebusite city which David chose, chiefly for its centralized, mid-tribal location, much as our Founders chose Washington, D.C.), there to present either their finest produce or the firstlings of their flocks to the kohanim, the priests, who would offer them to God in thanksgiving. It is highly significant that our American Pilgrim forefathers (despite being anti-semitic to the Jews of their day) identified closely with the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible, and took their Thanksgiving observance from the Sukkot festival.
And yet, surrounded as they were by the spectacle of withering grass and leaves falling from trees, our Israelite ancestors asked questions about the dicey nature of human existence: was all of their getting and spending but a “vanity of vanities, an emptiness of emptinesses”? And, in the final analysis, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they strive under the sun? A generation goes, and a new generation comes, but the earth remains forever….All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full….All things are wearisome, more than one can express; the eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. What has been will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun!” (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, 1:2-9, adapted).
Of all the books in the Hebrew Bible, Kohelet (the term means “Convoker,” as one who gathers crowds to teach them practical wisdom, i.e., how to live) stands out for its cynicism, its world-weariness, in the very absence of God as a speaking or acting character—a feature it shares, ironically, only with Esther, a far more imaginative and fanciful tale. Kohelet is realistic, true-to-life, and cynical in the extreme. A great deal of it is truly painful to read as the years go on: one person may be wise, and yet suffer in this life; another may be dishonest, and yet profit, scot-free, from his cheating.

Still, of all the biblical books I have read, this is the one to which I return most often: it is cynical, yes, but also hard-headed and honest in its appraisal of our human condition. Although it is attributed to a “son of David,” and tradition considers its author to be Solomon, modern scholarship denies this; many of its words derive from the Persian language, including pardes (“orchard,” but later to gain kabbalistic significance elsewhere), Eccles. 2:5, and pitgam (“a royal decree”), Eccles. 8:11 (Kugel, 2007, p. 513). Its cynicism and lack of “Trust in God and all will be well” also points to some Greek influences.
I always recommend Kohelet/Ecclesiastes to adult readers. Like all great literary works, one can return to it, year after year, and always profit greatly. Our attitudes and beliefs about Life may change, but Kohelet remains static, much like the Grecian Urn in John Keats’s celebrated Ode. As we enter our beloved, but short, cooler season of autumn here in South Florida, Kohelet is a fine book to curl up with.

Works Cited

Kugel, James. How to Read the Bible: a Guide to Scripture, Then & Now. NY: Free Press, 2007.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Isaac's Ram: A Spiritual Ballad-Monologue, in Verse

Isaac’s Ram; or, Whose Sacrifice was It, Really?
A Spiritual Ballad-Monologue, In Verse

By David Hartley Mark

I am Isaac’s Ram,
And Abraham’s,
Who saved a young boy’s life.
Moriah’s height
I climbed, that night,
And bared my throat to the knife.

My sacrifice, bring
The horn of my younger kin,
Who haplessly
Sets his life free
To free your soul of sin.

At service-end,
You may befriend
Your brothers, sisters, all:
My carcass lies
‘Neath Morian skies,
And you don’t care at all.

Humanity! Work your souls free
And pray to receive His nod:
My soul will plead
For your human seed
Before the Throne of God.

The Sacrifice
Is not Isaac’s; twice
He queried of his Pa—
“Here are the fire,
The knife, the gyre;
But where the lamb?”
Said Abraham, “Oh, ah—

“The Lord God will
Himself fulfill
That need, my only son—“
The Two walked on
And arm-in-arm
Submitted to their God.

But in the end
Both clomb and wend
Ascended, and went down;
And I alone
In ashes atoned
For the cruelest judgment-rod.

Remember me,
My piety,
O Son and Daughter-of-Man;
For you may pray
‘Til Judgment-Day:
Match my sacrifice,
If you can.

Mount Sinai Torah Giving Survey--Please Fill Out & Return

Mount Sinai Torah Giving Survey (c. 14th-12th Cent., BCE)

1. Thank you for participating in the recent Giving of the Torah and Decalogue (Ten Commandments) at Mount Sinai! Please rate your overall satisfaction with the Religious/Spiritual Experience.

--Thank you!

Your Ritual Committee,
The Seventy Elders

2. How accurately do each of these statements reflect your overall impression of the event, according to one of the following Categories?

---For Sure
---Maybe Perhaps
---Not Even Close

A. I had an out-of-body experience

B. I felt engaged on a metaphysical level

C. I felt a deeper connection to my Hebrew Destiny

D. I enjoyed the Orgy, and that Golden Calf Rocked!

E. Can I go back to Egyptian Slavery?

3. Please rate Rabbi Moses on the following (1= Poor, Even though Moses is the First Rabbi Ever, with The Lord God Almighty Advising him; 5= Superb Rabbinical Leadership, Like Gold, Even)

A. Overall Prophetic Perfection, Pulpit Presence, & Commandment Clarity

B. Delivered Torah Truths in Timely Tidbits

C. Made me think of My Hebrew Heritage in a Way I had never thought before

D. He really should do something about that Speech Impediment, and He’s So Thin—Now, How About that Studly Joshua Fellow, with That Deep Voice?

4. Please provide Meaningful Feedback on Moses’s Sermons, according to the Following Categories:
--Sermonic Perfection!
---Eh—He’s Too Nitpicky with the “Don’t’s”
---Feh—Not Detailed Enough; People will get away with All Kinds of Torah Violations
---Who Listened? I was busy Orgy’ing

A. Pre-Ascent of Mount:

Theme: Prepare for the Next Day:
Wash Your Clothes;
Go not near a Woman

B. Ascent of Mount:

Theme: When the Shofar Sounds,
Stand not near the Mount,
Or be Shot Through

C. Moses Descends with Torah:

Theme: When My Face is
Glowing, Come Forth,
And Learn Torah
5. Were you happy with the length of Services? Choose one Category:

A. Pre-Ascent of Mount:

---Just Long Enough
---So Go, Already
---What, He’s Gone? I Hadn’t Noticed

B. 40-Day Absentee Period:  

---Oy! Is Moishe Dead?
---Orgy Time!
---So, Nu, Aaron: DO Something.

C. Moses Returns:  

---We’re Sorry—Really!
---He’s Back? Uh-Oh.
---Sha! Time to Learn.

6. Were you happy with Foot-of-Mount Decorum? Choose one Category:

---It was Fine: Live and Let Live
---Hey, Baby: Want to Play my Tambourine?
---Levites! Take your Swords!
7. Please let us know if the following materials assisted in your Sinai Torah-Giving Experience, on a Scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “not helpful” and 10 being “extremely spiritual.”

A. Sound Amplification System

B. Visible Thunder & Heard Lightning (Synaesthesia)

C. Angel Blowing Shofar

D. Mountain Trembling

E. Clean Laundry

F. Lack of Cohabitation

G. Clearly Marked Boundaries Between Mountain and People, including Cattle

H. Presence of Non-Israelite Mixed Multitude

I. Golden Calf as Orgiastic Objective

J. Armed Anti-Orgiast Levite Vengeance Squad

K. Demanding Invisible Deity with Vengeful Streak

L. Poorly Equipped Substitute Class Monitor (Aaron)

M. Absence of Reliable Time-keeping Equipment: When Exactly did the 40 Days Begin and End?

8. Please provide any additional feedback about your Sinai Experience, including names of  relatives killed in vendettas, queries regarding Possible Punishment for Sins Retroactive to Giving of Commandments, Sabbath Violations, Missing Laundry and/or Cattle, and Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) in Promised Land.

9. If you have a concern you would like to discuss with Rabbi Moses directly, he sits adjudicating at the Tent of Meeting from Dawn to Dusk.

Or, for an Online Chat, you can contact his father-in-law, Jethro, at

Thank you! Rabbi Moses, Aaron the High Priest & the Entire Priestly Staff, Joshua, and the Seventy Elders wish you a Happy Sinai Sojourn & Eventual Arrival in the Holy Land. We deeply appreciate your participating in this survey, which you can either print out and deposit at the Tent of Meeting dropbox, or email online to

May we share many religious moments together in the future, aided by the Holy One in whom a ruling majority of us believe—Amen!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thoughts of an Abandoned Python on S. Florida Beach

Thoughts of an Abandoned Python on the Beach

By David Hartley Mark

“10-foot reptile suns on South Florida Beach. The large reptile was out of its element for sure.”—Sherri Lonon, Reporter for

            Irv, where are you, Irv?
I thought we were friends.
Didn’t you used to squint at me through those thick, Coke-bottle-bottomed glasses of yours, ‘way back when you had just snuck me into the country illegally and I was still little enough to occupy that monster-size terrarium of yours, and whisper, “Burmey, you and I—we’ll always be Forever Friends”?
I remember when you brought me home—I was just a little guy, then—all of five-six feet long, who knew exactly? I was always curled up in a tight little ball, when I wasn’t hanging in trees, back in my little Thai home rainforest. I was a shy little fella. And you, you were strange, too: living in that dark, stinky, little studio apartment in Sarasota, never doing the laundry, surviving on takeout Chinese, Domino’s, and Subway footlongs. It was a dump, even by my standards—and I’m a ground-feeder.
Still, it was as though we were made for each other. You would catch me field mice in traps, and an occasional innocent songbird from the yard. It seemed to make you so happy to watch me squeeze them to death, and swallow them slowly. The only thing that made you put down your game controller was watching me torture small creatures. Hey, I’m a serpent, not a moral decisor. That’s your job.
And it was always so dark in your apartment, Irv—nothing on but the TV—big TV, too—so you could watch those weird movies you liked—the “Saw” series, and all the movies you called classics, like “The Hills Have Eyes.” It got to me, even me, after a while: all those girls screaming, “No! Please!” and guys named Freddie and Jason and weirdos going “Nyahahaha!” while chopping people into hamburger with chainsaws.

I mean, really. You wouldn’t think that a snake had feelings, but I just wanted to curl up next to my heat lamp, and take a nice little snooze, especially after the white rats you bought me from the pet store were just a little bit too big for my snakey tummy. Hey, even a reptile has his limits.
Things got a little crowded after a while—I was getting bigger; could I help it? You kept bringing me goodies, and I kept eating them—I mean, I’m a carnivore. It’s all I know how to do, besides make snake poop and baby snakes. Snakes don’t play video games, and I missed out on the finer points of HALO and all those shooters you love so much. When you were sprawled all over the couch and wanted some company, I couldn’t help taking up a bit more pillow space than my share.
            But that night that your friend Ernie came over with the twelve-pack of Miller, the Colombian Marching Powder, the Hawaiian Hootenanny, and the two bottles of Mad Dog 20/20, and I turned out to be the Designated Driver between two stoners—well, Irv, that was the last straw. I hadn’t eaten a whisker since the hamster Ernie fed me the previous week, and my taste buds perked up when you got the munchies and he brought in the General Tso. I mean, I’m Asian, after all.
But when I crawled over to take a sniff and maybe dip my tongue into the Twice-Cooked Pork, Ernie shouldn’t’ve hit me on the nose. I’m sensitive—emotionally as well as physically. I turned on him, and, while you were outside looking for your wallet that he had thrown into the bushes while you were having that argument over who should tip the Delivery Guy, I squeezed him—well, maybe a mite too hard, but I was upset. Hey, I’m only reptile. Was I supposed to talk to him nicely? He was too far gone on white powder, wine, and beer to be reasonable.
So when you came back in, and saw nothing left of Ernie but his right sneaker and that smelly USF sweatshirt he used to wear, you kind of went ballistic. Next thing I know, you throw me into the Volvo, and we’re highballing it to the beach. You dumped my brown-and-tan butt into the dunes, and zoomed off with the lights dimmed.
Well, I may have the last snakey laugh, because I heard the young lady from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission telling the press guys that they were going to have to give me some kind of reptile Ex-Lax. The x-rays show some metal in my digestive tract—Shoot, we snakes are nothing but one long digestive tract! That metal must be Ol’ Ernie’s fake dog tags, that he used to try and convince dumb young ladies in bars that he was a Delta Force guy who served in Iraq.
Dumb Ernie…. Irv, come and get me. All is forgiven. I love you, Man.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Down to the (Fast) Wire: Last-Minute Yom Kippur Opening-Sermon-Sentences for Desperate Rabbis & Cantors

1. Our summer’s climb was nearly, successfully, completed. As we rounded the last peak and saw the apex of Mt. Everest, I turned to my lead Sherpa, whose name was Moishe Tenzing. “Up here, you can really see the Face of G-d,” he said.

2. Here is a story by Elie Weisel….

3. As my great-uncle accompanied Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel into Selma on that auspicious day, the grand old man said, “I feel as if I shouldn’t have had that last cup of coffee at the Holiday Inn.”

4. My having to deliver Domino’s Pizzas after a full day at my part-time pulpit to pay off my rabbinical school loans might seem degrading to some of you, but it has given me rare insights into the minds of humanity. Here is one such story….

5. Here is a story about Reb Shlomo Carlebach, who was riding the “D” train on the first night of Chanukah. There was a drunken man sleeping next to him, who kept slouching over on Reb Shlomo’s guitar. “Mamesh, Heiliger Brider!” cried out Reb Shlomo, and gently pushed him off, when the man awoke. All Reb Shlomo’s followers were amazed; why did it seem as though the Rebbe appeared to know this man, this common street-person? Was he perhaps the longed-for Messiah…?

6. This past summer, as I stood among my campers in the technology hut of Camp-Institute-Spiritual-Learning-Environment Irving & Bella Morningstar Memorial Foundation, little Ethan looked at me with those insightful, deep-blue eyes of his, and asked, “Is this the most-up-to-date Operating System you have?” I could not help relating it to the struggles of Rabbi Akiva and his beloved Rachel….

7. As my great-aunt accompanied Mother Theresa through the streets of Calcutta distributing matzote, Her Holiness looked her in the eye with that piercing gaze of hers, and said, with that charming Rumanian accent, “I’ll never understand how you people eat that stuff. Have a chapatti?”

8. After completing my study of the entire Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, there seemed nothing left to do but attempt a one-woman round-the-world voyage in the course of one year in my single-masted, solar-powered, biodegradable sloop, The Rosa Sonneschein.

…After This, You’re on Your Own; Good Luck!
Have an Easy Fast—G’mroo Tovim!

A Good Sealing in the Book of Life, Peace, Health, and Good Fortune for K’lal Yisrael & the Entire World

Sunday, September 20, 2015

You Can Take the "A" Train: New Jewish Horror Fiction

You Can Take the “A” Train

By David Hartley Mark

            “Nothing would ever have happened, I suppose,” said Mutty to me, “if I hadn’t decided to stay late at Hirsch Yeshiva to go to Rabbi Zelosowitz’s special shiurim, those classes he was offering on The Zohar, that main book of the Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism, all about the Coming of Messiah and the Rebuilding of the Holy Temple.”

            “Zohar?” I said, “I can’t believe it. All during my year abroad at a London yeshiva, and Hirsch goes off in some—some—Kabbalistic direction? That never would have happened during the reign of all Rabbi Weisbacher, the old Rosh Yeshiva, the Head of School.”

            “No, Weissy never would have stood for that stuff,” Mutty smiled, and I caught the sparkle of the gold tooth in the front of his mouth. He was from St. Petersburg, and the dentists there followed the old ways. He did the same, in his Yiddishkeit, his Judaism. Mutty was in America for about five years; he had come as a teenager, speaking decent English, which he learned from listening to Voice of America broadcasts, and Hebrew from Kol Yisrael, the overseas “Voice of Israel.”

            My neck ached from hours of leaning over holy books—Talmud, and now the Zohar, the supreme text of the Kabbalah—not unusual in many parts of the Jewish world, but an anomaly at Hirsch Yeshiva, where Mutty and I spent most of our time. We had been at school for hours, and during our scarce free time. Finally, it was late enough: the rabbis and we students had closed our books, and were all going home for the Sabbath.

`As the Local train roared through its tunnel alongside our Express, we both turned and watched it. There was a particular illusion caused by the two trains running side-by-side, where, except for a bit of sideways rocking, both appeared to be hovering in space—“like the Ouroboros,” Mutty had once remarked to me, the Eternal Serpents, male and female, undulating through Eternity. It was a phenomenological sensation, made all the remarkable for its lasting just a few seconds, ending with the Local stopping at one of the stations between 59th and 125th, while we hurtled on into the tunnel darkness.

That is, if one could accept an Ouroboros bearing such a motley assortment of late night New Yorkers as this one: right in the front of the car was some guzzled-out old drunken hooligan sleeping across a bench: a pile of smelly rags, really, as well as the usual bunch of Goths, nosepickers, waitresses leaving their shifts, too-young kids needing a place to crash, and other sad cases.

            When the noise of the open car-windows died down a bit—New York City subways were notorious for their lack of proper ventilation, and always smelled like a combination of sewage, stale downdrafts, and electric pee—Mutty explained his class schedule to me: “Ever since the 9/11 terrorist business, and all the threats made against Israel, the new Rosh Yeshiva—Zelosowitz is his name—seemed to believe that, if we yeshiva bochrim, we students, focused less on straight Talmud-study and more on the mystical stuff, we could maybe influence the Sefirote, the Kabbalistic Spheres between Earth and Heaven, and lift up more sparks of light from the husks of evil. Can you believe it?”

            “No! Really? I can’t believe that a mainstream, Modern-Orthodox Rosh Yeshiva would ever say such a thing,” I said, “I mean, in the Israeli town of  Tsfat, and certainly at the Yeshivote in Jerusalem and B’nai Brak, towns like that, the bochrim are studying Kabbalah—the Book of Clarity and earlier works—Rabbi Isaac the Blind, even. Early Provence stuff, 13th Century. Zohar is mother’s milk to them.”

            An old woman, a real Polish bubbeh-grandmother carrying two greasy shopping bags labeled SCHICK BROS KOSHER MART WE SELL GLATT CHEAP came waddling through the car. The wheels shrieked as the old, 1980s-era equipment went ‘round a curve; she stumbled, and Mutty and I leapt up to take her by the arms and guide her to a seat. She smiled her thanks, and we could see that she was missing several teeth.

            “Denken Gott, Boys; God bless you!” she said, and went on a bit, but we only smiled back; the noise made us miss a great deal of what she was saying. The roaring went on and on; we were both exhausted. It was going on 1 am, and we wondered what an old bubbeh like her was doing up at this hour.

            Sitting down, Mutty continued: “Zohar is brand-new to the Hirsch yungeleit, Chayim. Reb Zelosowitz started out teaching it himself—he had learned it years ago—can you believe he studied alongside Rabbi Isser Kaplan?”

            “Is that the Rav Kaplan who died in New York?” I asked.

            “Um, something like that,” Mutty said, and seemed to look at me funny. He went on, more hurriedly, “He was one of those hotheads from Brooklyn, originally; made a name for himself organizing neighborhood defense patrols against muggers and lowlifes, and then thought he could take his same Diaspora mentality to Israel. Well, it didn’t work.”

“What happened?” I asked, though I believed I knew. American and Israeli Judaism were two separate things entirely, and Israelis never appreciated smartmouthed Americans moving there and telling them how to live their lives. It was no coincidence that a large percentage of settlers on the West Bank “just happened” to be transplanted Westerners.

“Kaplan no sooner got his citizenship card in Israel than he ran for the Knesset, as a Party of One, pledging to deport all the Arab citizens of Israel, starting his political party, called ‘We Alone’—it wasn’t a party; it was a front for his extremist gang of yeshiva boys, all drunk on hatred and racism. At one point, they even plotted to blow up the Al-Qremsa Mosque, in order to build the Third Temple, but the Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Service, planted spies in their group—those yeshiva boys do nothing but brag and shoot their mouths off, anyway—and blew the whistle, deporting Kaplan to the US—he was wanted on gun-running charges for some fake summer camp he had been running, where his bullyboys did nothing but take potshots at old Coke bottles, pretending they were fighting Arabs. And his Israeli leadership mostly went to prison, although they’re out, now.”
            “What does this have to do with the Rosh Yeshiva’s decision to teach Zohar?” I interrupted.

            “Well, Kaplan was crazy, meshuga in gantzen, crazy in totality, you know? But he did light a fire—some sort of messianic fervor. I think they call it Jerusalem Fever, where everyone who visits that city, Jew, Christian, Muslim—they all go kind of nuts, trying to bring Messiah, rebuild their holy place, gather their chosen few—whatever. And enough of our homegrown zealots dropped hints so that the old Rosh Yeshiva—it was Weisbacher at the time—tried to stonewall. He was in love with the old ways, with Talmud; he didn’t want any Kabbalah taught in his school. The boys weren’t old enough to handle it, he said. You know the old tradition: before you study Kabbalah, you’ve got to be at least forty years old, and have a bellyful of Talmud.”

            I looked; the old Bubbeh, sitting just across from us now, was using a vegetable knife to cut up a radish and put thin slices into her mouth. She saw me watching, offered me a piece. I smiled and shook my head. She shrugged and went on eating, swaying back and forth, probably humming a Ukrainian folk tune, but I couldn’t hear it over the train’s roar.

            “Anyway, the powers-that-be saw that Weisbacher didn’t have a clue. And the Board of Hirsch had their eye on the bottom line, as usual, so they switched Roshei Yeshiva, and Zelosowitz took over. Everybody called him “Zealous”: he was a Hirsch graduate and musmach-ordainee, and he had studied Kabbalah with the legendary Even Choshen, the “Rock-Shield Rabbi” from that mystical Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. He had semicha from that yeshiva, too, did you know? And he had studied with Kaplan when they were both growing up in Brooklyn, so he had street cred, too, with the bochrim. It was a win-win all around: the Board doesn’t usually get it right the first time. Really, Chayim, it was like the ReBeSheh, the Lord God Himself, the Sovereign of the Universe, were in on the deal from the start. Mamesh, for real.

“Zelosowitz didn’t waste any time. He immediately instituted a program of studying Zohar, emphasizing the parts that speak of Shivat Tziyon, the Return of the Exiles to Zion, Beeaht Ha-Moshiach, the Coming of Messiah, may he come soon in our day, Amen!, and the Rebuilding of the Third Holy Temple.”

“That’s amazing. I can’t believe the Board did such a slam-dunk move. And you say it was all as smooth as that?” I said. The train hit a jounce, and everyone grabbed a pole or handle. The tracks went back to the early 1900s, and there was no telling where or when you might get thrown by a lump of metal.

“Just one glitch, Chayim—there was a small grassroots movement to install Kaplan, can you believe it?—as Rosh Yeshiva, but there was some doubt about the level of learning of his semicha, his ordination certificate—all the signatories were dead—and the Hirsch Board would never accept such a meshugenah-crazy firebrand as Kaplan as Rosh Yeshiva, so they threatened to cut off their fundraising. It got to be a real tumult up there in Benedict Arnold Heights, I can tell you. And you were off in a London yeshiva.”

            The train hit another curve, and all of us in the car—Bubbeh, the drunk lying on the bench near the front of the car who was probably clinging to his bottle of Mad Pug 20/20—he was all wrapped up in a ball; I couldn’t see—assorted late-night stevedores, truck drivers, punk kids, pickpockets, and waitresses—clung to poles and handles.

            Mutty leaned back on the hard gray plastic seat and stretched; I caught a whiff of his body odor. Apparently, men’s deodorant was not an American habit he had yet adopted since leaving his native Russia.

            “But then, Kaplan mysteriously disappeared—“
            “Disappeared?” I asked, “Where?”

            “Most people don’t know this,” he said, “But all I can say is, I believe I was one of the last people to see him alive.”

            “Tell me all, Mordechai,” I said, leaning forward, and tapping his knee. Suddenly, my neck-pain had disappeared, and Mutty’s bad breath had vanished. This had gone from being one of Mutty’s late-night megillote—a long-drawn-out-Dr. Zhivago-like-tale-of-too-many-details, to a story of interest.

            “Well, I was on my way home one evening, on the 181st Street subway platform, and I saw him standing there,” he said, looking hard at a subway ad that read, IF U CN RD THIS MSJ U CN GT A GD JB W HI PA   , “and he was surrounded by—well, not surrounded, but he had about three-four bochrim around him.”

            “So?” I asked, “he was probably pretty popular.”

            “Well, yeah,” he said, “but they were—close, you know? And not the regular kind of Hirsch bochrim, either. Not his usual fans. Two, maybe three of them were really built—I mean, muscled.”

            “Muscled?” I asked, “You mean, like bodybuilders?”

            “No, not exactly,” he said, “more like those—those Israeli ex-soldier guys, you know, the kind who practice that—that—kind of self-defense thing that they do?”

            “Krav Maga?” I asked, “Close-in self-defense moves?”

            “Yeah, that’s it,” he said, “I mean, these guys didn’t look like regular Hirsch guys.”

            “Did Kaplan know them?” I said.

            “He made like he knew them,” said Mutty, “but then, Kaplan made like he knew everybody. He was a politician, through and through. Everybody was his friend. And he probably believed, at this point, he had a shot at becoming the Rosh Yeshiva. He was just crazy enough to believe it, you know?”

            “Just crazy enough?” I said.

            “Yeah, I mean, think about it,” said Mutty, “it would have been a great stepping-stone for him, politically—even bigger than the Israeli Knesset. If he had become Rosh Yeshiva—I mean, spiritual head of Hirsch, the biggest name in North American Modern Orthodoxy, he would have been in a serious position to influence Israeli Orthodoxy. Which would have meant possibly increasing the study of Kabbalah all over Israel, and maybe the world. It would have been the biggest pulpit of all time. That way, he could’ve pushed for kicking out the Arabs from Israeli, building the Third Temple, all that apocalyptic stuff, you know?”

            “Politics, Religion, and Apocalypse,” I said, “Omigod. Third Temple, here we come.”

            “War, too, maybe,” said Mutty.

            “For sure,” I said.

            “So who would have wanted him dead?” I asked.

            Mutty peered straight at me, and I felt his Russian-Jewish brain gears clicking into place, around the same time as my American-Jewish brains did:

            “Nearly everyone,” we said, together.

The lights blinked once, twice, three times: we both instinctively held to the pole with one hand, the seat with the other, and our toes curled in our shoes. We leaned back in the darkness. As the lights went on, we looked at one another. I felt a line of sweat running down my back.

“So, what happened?” I said, slowly.

            “The ‘A’ train pulled in, and Kaplan was yelling, arguing, in that loud, self-righteous way of his,” said Mutty, “and, as the train came just close by—“

            “Oh, my God,” I said.

            Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the sleeping drunk quietly tumble off his seat, onto the floor of the car. The empty bottle rolled under a seat near him, a thin line of wine dribbling from its top. The bum’s hand—filthy-black, to the wrist, broken nails—went groping for it.

The other passengers, near him, watched him idly, a new source of amusement. A librarian-looking woman peered over her glasses and lowered her New York Times.

            “You got it,” said Mutty, “they pushed him.”

            “Right under the wheels?” I said.

            “Right under. Splat. No more Kaplan,” he said.

            “No more Kaplan.”

            “Were you the only one to see it? The Israelis, I mean?” I asked.

            “I think so,” whispered Mutty, just loud enough for me to hear over the shrieking of the wheels.

            “And you didn’t tell anyone else?” I said.

            “Why, what would I gain?” he asked, his gold tooth gleaming in the halflight of the subway car.

            We were going around another curve; the lights dimmed off, then on, then off again.

            As the lights went on, I saw that the others in the car were all in their places: stevedores, Bubbeh, waitresses.

The only one missing was The Drunken Bum.

            Where was the Bum?

            Suddenly, I heard a soft voice, whispering in my ear, coming from behind me, loud enough to hear over the roaring of the train:

            Shalom Aleichem, Reb Mordechai, Reb Chayim!
I understand you study Zohar.
I have studied it, as well.
Here, sadly, is something I did not learn therefrom.
As I watched, a filthy, blackened Arm came suddenly from behind my Left Arm, the arm on which I laid my Tefillin, the Phylacteries—
a long knife was in the hand; it sliced through the neck and head of my friend,

Mordechai Ivanovich Dimitriev, Mutty ben Yonatan v’Bella;

            Mutty’s Head went, bouncing, across the floor of the Subway-Car, like a Dreidel, a Chanukah-top;
Blood went spraying into the subway-air, from the neck and torso of my Late Friend, who had neglected to tell the Police of the Murder….

            “Why did you not tell the Authorities of my Death?” came the Voice,
            “As I fell, and died, on the tracks,
            “Beneath the Wheels of the Train;
            “Should we not be careful
            “Of Jews on Trains?”

            I turned and saw the Drunk. He was sitting right next to me: he leered and grinned—blood dripped from his hands, spittle from his mouth; his teeth were black; his breath reeked like
            The Grave of Rabbi Isser Kaplan,
            Firebrand, Would-be Rosh Yeshiva,
            Builder of the Third Temple,
            Political Rabble-Rouser,
            But for standing on the Wrong Platform….

The smell of wine was strong on his garments;
Strong as the grape-smell when my Beloved comes
From crushing the grapes of Rishon-LeTsiyon.

            His hands reached out,
            His nails were black from the grave;
            His shrouds were tangled and torn

…and his breath came forward, to choke me.
I felt his hands—black with filth—come around my neck—
He whipped my head back-and-forth
and, as I struggled to breathe;

            As I began to

            Choke and

            Die, I heard his words of Zohar:

            “Your head is upon you like Mount Carmel,
            The locks of your head are like purple;
A king is held captive in the tresses of your hair;
            The king is bound and held
Within the compartments of your tefillin,        
            Uniting fittingly with that Holy Name.
            Male and female created He them:
            Tefillin-Phylacteries of the Head,
            And Tefillah-Prayer of the hand;
            All is One.”

            Death. Blackness. The tracks of a train.