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,
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
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.