There was recently an article written about me in Mishpacha Magazine and, even more recently, in Mkor Rishon. I was waiting for a resulting attack of hubris, some dangerous challenge to the fine balance of my self-perception. Either I missed it and it is now embedded in my ego as a Trojan horse virus, or my ego shrugged this off as an unworthy challenger. I could be wrong, but I tend to feel that me ego is safe this time. I reviewed the article before it was published but never actually saw it in print. The author, a very enthusiastic woman by the name of Sara Fachter, seemed to think it was a good article. I'll be very pleased to take her word for it. The photographer, Miri, was amazing fun to work with and has a true artist's neshama. But I can't be motivated to read an article about me. If I have any trouble interpreting what I see in the mirror, my wife and children, my friends, my chevruta, and my rabbi, will set me straight.
Let me tell you (yet another) Purim story. Once, many years ago, Bat Ayin Yeshiva was in the midst of one of its epic Purim feasts, the kind that need to be cleaned up with a firehose and medium sized tractor. My dear friend Hillel grabbed me by the shirt and began to calmly explain to me who I was and what kind of person I am. I was speechless, open-mouth shocked. I don't remember what he said, though I am sure it was poignant and accurate. I was shocked that someone had noticed that underneath all my blustering and misguided attempts at acting like a person, there really was a me. I wasn't sure I existed and here was someone lecturing me on the finer details of who I was.
Part of my tshuva process was stripping away handy self-definitions meant to satisfy the masses. Every American knows that the second question a stranger will ask you is "What do you do?". The first question, asked out of politeness, is your name. If you are at a social gathering and someone asks those two questions, try checking if they remember the answers an hour later. Most people will have forgotten your name, but your occupation is probably embedded in their memory. I am afraid that society is pushing us into molds. It used to be that every person would carve out a unique path in their career. I was horrified to discover that there is now a college degree in medical billing. My brother is an engineer. I feel that his fixing engines when he was a teen has a lot more to do with that than his college degree. People cannot be quantified, but the "system" tries. I am a chef so I like to taste people. Each one tastes different, even if the titles are the same. I don't mean that I introduce myself by licking total strangers. That would be unhygienic, socially problematic and possibly illegal in many states. What I mean is that taste is unquantifiable, organic, and unique. It is also the sense that requires itnimate personal contact and involvement. You internalize the experience.
When I first moved to Israel, I arrived at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. I proudly anounced that I was a classically trained French chef to everyone who would listen. The only ones willing to listen were the dairy cows because a kibbutz needs a chef like a snake needs suspenders. My epiphany came from the mouth of Menachem Hess, a seventy year old German immigrant who could physically outwork me. One day, after making a total mess of the morning feeding of the baby calves, I went on a tirade, saying that I was a chef and not built for this. He turned to me and said "The cows don't care who you think you are. You have two arms and two legs and are a man and a Jew, like God created you. No more and no less. The cows are hungry, so feed them." That shattered me. It had been so comforting to always pigeon hole myself. I am a chef and I am pretty good at it. Anything I am bad at that doesn't include being a a chef is not my problem. Well, all of a sudden I was faced with a new problem. I was only a chef when making an ommellete. When the cows are hungry, I need to be a dairy farmer. I need to be a husband. More specifically, I need to be a husband to my wife. God gave me children so that I could be their father. And each one of them brings out a different father hidden inside of me.
Leaving the kitchen was a form of suicide, but at the same time it was a rebirth. I could no longer define myself as only a chef. But, to be honest, I feel that so many people hide behind their own self definitions. I have met so many people who try to pawn themselves off as average. They have quick and easily understood titles. And they try to limit it to one title, usually their job. But I love stories. Book titles don't satisfy me. Every person I meet is a new story waiting to be told, unique and impossible to plaigarize.
One of the first phrases I learned in my tshuva process that rang true was, "Many ships cross the ocean, but no one can follow the other because they don't leave trails." I don't know where youve been, and even if I did, I couldn't possibly know what that was for you. And the only reason we met was because I needed to know that.
I took the kids to the kotel and realized that the temple mount was also the site where Abraham offered up Isaac as a sacrifice, a flesh and blood father pressing the knife to his own son’s breast because God told him to. For so many generations, that is what Jewish parents, nameless myriads of less notorious faith, have done. We have chosen to allow our children to die or be killed rather than abandon the faith. And now it is my turn and and I reluctantly admitted that I have chosen that also. I take my son to the kotel and declare, “Behold, my son, the only thing greater than my love for you.”
I came to the desert with a pocket full of seeds
To live in the house of my father's best dreams
Promised to me before I was born
Taken away because of my sins
I came with a map painted on ancient hide
To find the city of gold stripped of its wealth
Its life giving springs poisoned or dry
My father's house burned to the ground
The first night I awoke with a knife at my throat
My grandfather's bones held for ransom
The gravestones are scattered and used to pave roads
By an unlettered cousin thirsty for blood
He came in the night to kill me and steal my inheritance
A grave stands now where my brother lies buried
But my dog of a cousin ran licking his wounds
And now I must mourn as I sharpen my sword
And yet I stay
And plant my seeds
And live in my father's dream
Where my cousin knew only to take from the land
Until it had no more left to give
Making a desert that mirrored his soul
The desert now blooms, my father
The wheat is now ripe
But I may not harvest
My cousin has come
He lives in the house my grandfather built
The house where my father was born
He claims to be the owner
Yet my father's mark is still upon the door
My grandfather bought a house
Paying a ransom for a gift from his god
The house where you live
Counting my money
Wiping your sword
There you worship the man
Whose children you kill
Tell me, dear cousin
How many times may a house be bought?
How many deaths can be forgotten?
Tell me, my cousin
How came you upon your inheritance?
Whose blood lies spilled upon the floor?
Now strangers have come
Selling swords and crying for peace
I still remember how they burned my father
When he could not fight back
I came with my seeds to a desert
Fleeing the fire
And now I am labeled the oppressor
In a stranger's court ruled by gold
And the thief wears a suit and tie
A smell of oil follows him wherever he goes
You don't like my poem?
Tell me, judge
What rhymes with tie?
You don't like this.
Are my words too simple?
Have I made history into a nursery rhyme?
Is truth too complex to be understood
By a man of simple belief in good and evil
And justice based on proof
Or did you expect me to dig my own grave and lie down to die
Pardon me for being uncultured
And recalling past sins
The truth isn't simple
They tell me
Justice must be served
They say the time has come
Now is the time for their kind of justice
And I must stand silent in the place of the guilty
Accused of murder
But if they speak the truth
Why am I the one burying my dead?
My dead brother lies forgotten
My murdered father lies in an unmarked grave
The dead cannot ask for this new wave of justice
And the killer claims an inheritance in this new style of court
The land lay empty and neglected
Yet you stake your claim from the beginning of time
So tell me, my cousin
Where are your trees?
I made the desert bloom from the wells you poisoned
So tell me, my cousin
Why don't you go to feast in you brother's courtyard?
Is that fear I see in your eyes?
I cry for justice
As I bury my dead
You cry for peace
As you wipe my blood from your blade
And your words are accepted
In the courts ruled by gold
Peace sounds so much nicer than justice
So your words must be true
I was reading something I wrote a while back and I didn’t like it. I read some other stories and realized that I always write in the past passive, third person. That’s probably a grammatical observation as well as a life statement. I live my life as a passive observer, rehashing past events, looking for myself somewhere between the letters, in the gaps between memories and never quite succeeding. I want to make this different. Usually I think of a plot line, starting from somewhere near the end, and work it over in my mind until it is complete. I begin writing at the beginning, because I am afraid of straying too from sanity, and when I finish, I go back and edit the whole mess. That’s also more of a life philosophy than literary strategy. I am terrified to put down words as they come. But isn’t that how we live our lives, laying down days like bricks, with a vague idea of what it will look like when its done. I have a shaky belief that I know the beginning of the story of my life. Most of what I know is third party retelling, witnessed from afar. Even if it is my own memories, it is suspect, worked over by ego, super-ego, and id, into a sanitized version that I can live with. We believe our stories and allow them to replace our memories, even when they leave us with a second-hand jigsaw puzzle, spread out on the kitchen table, with several pieces mysteriously missing, and several odd-shapes and colors that obviously don’t belong. It can’t be that I sit down with myself like a stranger, yet here I am. I don’t have a plot that knits together well. I can’t magically pull out answers from the exalted position of the invisible participant; the omniscient author. In the story of my life, I am the shlepper that has to toil through the mud without a map or storyline. It feels like the opposite of waking from a dream into a dream. I wake from one reality into another, disconnected, even more bizarre reality, gasp for breath while grabbing a cup of coffee, run out the door into a world that has no time for childish misfits. Left alone, I stop, breaking surface to gasp for air, content to tread water as my mind clears.
If anything, I feel like I am struggling to write an uber resume’, a gestaltic ‘who-am-I’. That’s comforting. I am great at job interviews. I’ve gone on hundreds of interviews. I love them. I always get offered the job before the interview is over. It’s easy for me. I am never intimidated at interviews. A long time ago I learned that I am an okay guy and that there are few jobs that are truly beyond me. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to hire me to command a manned mission to Mars, though I even have a few ideas about a better way to go around doing that. Interviews are the best part about n new job. I love meeting new people who need something and convincing them that they need me. I can present myself anyway they want. The problem is that today I am applying for the job of ‘me’ and I am not so sure I’m qualified. I am not so sure that if I get the job, I can handle it. Job interviews are comforting. You walk in with a past but no future. You walk out saying “I am now a (fill in the blank)” and suddenly the storyline seems to have a direction. The nicest thing about job interviews is that avoid asking the one question I can’t answer and it is probably the most important question for a person who is considering employing me. It’s the question that caused no end of grief for my father and shaped much of my life. At forty-six years old, I spend those precious pre-sleep moments lying in the dark asking myself in my father’s voice, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
In my finer moments, I dare to whisper the answer my father would never have accepted but might have understood. The teen-rebel remnants of my persona deny that my father ever understood me yet I am, after all, a product of his deeper dreams, a tiny remnant of his physicality, a dead man walking. I am sure that he would have understood but I don’t regret never having told him. He would have understood but he never would have allowed himself to accept. He would have been overcome with obligation and guilt, warning me of the danger and inconvenience of such a profession. And, of course, there is no demand for it these days. I would be a cooper, a candle-maker, a shoemaker, a shepherd. I would be a minstrel, a blacksmith, a bookbinder.
So today I sit down for a job interview and for the first time ever, I didn’t shower or tuck in my shirt. My socks don’t match and my hair is uncombed. I sit across the desk from myself and smile as I ask me the ultimate question. The re3flection on my computer monitor looks shocked and confused for a few seconds but manages to pull itself together. I am scared for a moment as I clear my throat, but I am ready to answer honestly for the first time in my life, clearly stating the words that have never been spoken to anyone but my wife as she slept by my side.
“I want to be the town wise man. I want to be the fool on the hill, shouting out the truth for all to hear whether they liked it or even wanted it. I want to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, night and day, until even my best friends tell me to shut up. That’s my idea of a job. Lousy pay but great benefits.”
I am shocked when I reach across the table and shake my hand. I have been offered the job. Part of me wants to flash a smug smile and politely reject the offer, as I have done so many times before. But I’m stuck. In the first few minutes of trying on the hat for size, I realize that I have spent my whole life doing the job and the interview was a sham. I think the only job requirement is learning how to laugh while you cry, and being very careful to turn down the ends of your mouth when you smile. If I ever have a totally good day, you’ll never hear about it and I probably wouldn’t survive it. The book of wisdom is written with a bone pen dipped in tears. Of course, it’s hard to read because the writer is shaking with laughter while he writes.
I work for a local newspaper based in a small town. It may not be as exciting as working for one of the big city newspapers but in one way it is more interesting. If I worked at one of those papers, I would be pigeonholed into reporting one type of news. Since there are only three reporters working for the Montclair Tribune, we are expected to cover whatever comes our way. This morning I showed up at the office and found a note from my editor telling me to go to Happy Hooves Dairy Farm. They had just won honors for being the most productive dairy farm in the state. Like I said, my job may not be exciting but it definitely is varied.
The note from my editor included vague directions for getting there but, knowing the county circuit pretty well, I thought I knew where it was. After almost an hour of driving, the last twenty minutes on a clean swept gravel country lane, I arrived at a pretty little farm in a scenic valley. The red barn was a short distance from a small cottage and the silo had a wind vane spinning high on top. The cows were beautiful black and white Holsteins, calmly grazing on the sweet summer grass in a pasture set back behind the farm buildings. I pulled out my camera and started snapping pictures. I could see the milking shed behind the barn and started towards it when the farmer came out from the milking shed headed towards the house. I called out and he caught sight of me as I turned into the driveway. He put down the pail he was carrying, wiped his hands on a bandana hanging from the back pocket of his overalls, and came over to greet me.
He shook my hand as I stepped from the car. His hand was calloused and his grip was strong. “Howdy. My name is Bob. What brings you to my farm?”
I showed him my press card with my name and picture. “I am here to do a story on your farm. It’s said that you know a thing or two about dairy farming. Our readers would love to hear about it.”
Farmer Bob smiled and slapped me on the back. “Well, I don’t mean to blow my own horn, but there aren’t many people who know modern intensive dairy farming as well as I do. Let me show you around.”
For the next two hours he led me around his farm. He showed me his silo, full to the brim with sweet smelling silage, fortified with commercial vitamin additives that are essential to top dairy production. Farmer Bob explained that these vitamins are lacking in the average farmer’s cow feed. He showed me his milking parlor and the computerized system he used to track individual dairy production. He showed me the printouts and I was amazed at the database required for what I thought of as simple farming. The milking machines had a brand new system for sterilizing in between milkings. He showed me a room where he kept frozen bull seed for artificial insemination. I asked him about that and he showed me a computerized leg bracelet that was actually a pedometer that was fitted on every cow so they could keep track of the cow’s heat cycle. We sat down in his office for a cup of tea when the tour was over. I took the tape out of my pocket recorder. The two-hour tape was full from the non-stop lecture Farmer Bob had given as we walked around his farm. I could fully understand how this man had become the top dairy farmer in the state. I had never met anyone who was as well versed in his field as this man. In addition, he spoke with a real passion that I found infectious. I was ready to give up reporting and buy a dairy farm. As I sipped my tea, I looked around his office. The shelves were lined with books about veterinary science, feeding techniques, and other cow related subjects. One wall was covered with pictures of champion bulls and cows. Farmer Bob sat across the desk from me, smiling as I jotted down a few notes.
He finally broke the silence. “Tell me, how did you find out about my operation?”
I looked up from my writing. “They called and told my editor about that award you won.”
He looked puzzled. “What award?”
He looked puzzled. “What award?”
“The award you got for the most productive dairy farm in the state.”
His face got red and Farmer Bob looked embarrassed. He coughed once before speaking. “I don’t remember ever getting such an award.”
I shook my head. “Maybe they just haven’t gotten around to notifying you yet.”
He shook his head and stood up, asking me to follow. We walked back out to the milking parlor. He led me to a back room where the enormous refrigerated milk tank stood. When we had been here before, he had explained that the thirty thousand liter tank was so well insulated that it could stand for two days in the summer without the refrigeration unit working, and it would only drop one degree Fahrenheit. On the side of the tank was a ladder leading up to a small platform. He climbed up and I followed. There was a small porthole in the top of the tank. Farmer Bob told me to look in. The tank was empty. I looked up at him, puzzled.
“Where’s the milk?”
He polished the glass where my face had pressed up against it. “Well, you see….I tried that kind of dairy farming for awhile but it got to be a real hassle. Do you realize that you have to wake up at six in the morning to milk cows? If that wasn’t bad enough, you have to milk them in the afternoon and at night? And it’s so messy! And the cows make a lot of noise. And the worst part about it was that the cows just wouldn’t cooperate. Look, you heard all the stuff I was telling you. No one knows more about dairy farming than me. I know what it takes to make great milk. It was those darn cows. I fretted about it for weeks until finally, one night while listening to them moo, I figured out the problem. I was doing everything right, so if the cows wouldn’t go along with it nicely, they would have to go. So I figured, the heck with it. Who needs them anyway? I don’t need cows to be the best dairy farmer around. So I got rid of them.”
I looked at him in shock. “But I saw the cows out in the fields.”
He laughed. “Oh, those! When I decided to close down the cow related part of the business, I had my favorite cows killed and skinned. I had them stuffed and coated with a special polymer that is guaranteed not to fade for twenty years. Each plastic cow has a little speaker with a recording of that cow’s moo, played over and over. It’s on a timer so they don’t bother my sleep, of course. The best cow in the world doesn’t last as long as mine do. I don’t have to bother taking them out in the morning and bringing them in at night. I just let them sit out there. Once in awhile I go out and rearrange them, just for kicks,”
I pulled my editor’s note out of my pocket. “Isn’t this Happy Hooves Dairy Farm?”
He shook his head. “Nope. This is Farmer Bob’s Cowless Milk Palace. Happy Hooves is five miles down the road but you don’t want to go there. It’s dirty and smelly and the farmer is always grumpy and tired from waking up to milk the cows. That’s not what real farming is about. If you go out there, you better take some boots because your shoes will get ruined. And the pictures will look awful. Who wants to look at some tired old farmer all covered in dirt and his dirty old cows.”
I thanked Bob and asked him if I could use his phone. He laughed and handed me his cellular phone. “Every modern farmer should have one of these so he can take calls out in the field. You won’t find that at Happy hooves.”
I called my editor. I explained that I had messed up and wasted my morning interviewing the wrong farmer. “I’ll head out right now and go to Happy Hooves. It’s right down the road.”
“Forget it”, he said. “I need you to go to this address on the other side of town. I heard about this guy who is supposed to be the newest thing in spirituality. Everyone who meets him is blown away by his aura. His brochure has the most amazing quotes and the pictures are awesome. This guy has the coolest clothes and the most far out hair. He talks like an absolute expert on spirituality. It’s something our readers really need to hear about. He says there is no god and everyone should be cool and far out for their own sakes. He says you can be greedy and nasty and step on people’s toes and there is no need for guilt because guilt gets in the way of being cool and far out. This guy could be hot, maybe even become famous. Spirituality is ‘in’ these days. Get on it.”
I hung up and grabbed my tape recorder. A story about spirituality is a hot item. Last week I did a piece on some housewife who cooked for her all of her sick neighbors. The week before I did story on a guy who never passes a beggar without giving him a quarter. No one read those articles. I almost got talked into writing an article about some lady who had never ever spoken a bad word about anyone. That would have been the ultimate snoozer. This story about the holy man was going to be hot. People love thirty-second lessons on how to be holy that have a great beat. I grabbed my camera and ran to my car. I was on it.
by Adam Eliyahu and Devora Gila Berkowitz
We’re neighbors, Naftali and I, but we have little in common. He’s already married off two children, my eldest is not quite in first grade. He’s a high-profile heavy-hitter, an aggressive businessman, and I’m a misanthropic hermit, happy to be left alone. But we do share two passions,—a good cup of coffee and an even better story.
Naftali’s son, an old friend of mine, owns a cafe that brews the best espresso in Israel. And so, after a long night at work, I decided to treat myself—or let him treat me with his usual offer of a free cup of coffee. Naftali happened to be there and waved to me from the corner where he sat out of the way, watching the waiters lift wooden chairs onto the tables as they prepared to tuck in the restaurant for the night.
“So, what’s the young man doing these days?” he said in his amusing, lilting manner.
“A little fundraising for a worthy cause,” I said simply. He smiled so wide I could see the dimples peeking through his graying beard. This was a sure sign that I had given him an opening for one of his celebrated tales. Settling back into my chair, I sipped the last drops of my espresso, knowing that I was in for a good one.
Naftali licked the whipped cream off his mustache, stroked his beard with one hand and began. “When I was in yeshiva, I had a problem with arrogance. My rabbi knew that the best way to break my pride was to send me out to collect charity, door to door. The cause was the best. A young couple, both orphans, were getting married. But he knew that it wouldn’t be enough for me just to ask for money. He wanted me to get some real-life experience, something that would strengthen my connection with Torah.
“So he sent me and my friend to the richest neighborhood, notoriously anti-religious. Walking the streets lined with luxury sedans, adorned with peyos and beard, kippah and knee-length tzitzit, we were as out of place as honey-dipped challah at the Pesach seder. The first door we knocked on was quickly slammed in our faces. At the second, a man peeked through the eye hole and asked us to wait for a minute. A moment later, he opened the door and yelled, “Get ‘em!” We heard the sound of claws clicking and sliding across marble as a Rotweiler ran right toward us. For out-of-shape yeshiva bochers, we made amazing time getting out of there.
“The next three hours were the same thing, over and over again. They threw insults at us, shouted names I cannot repeat, even spat in our faces. My friend and I were totally disheartened. We vowed that the next door would be our last.
“We knocked and an elderly woman opened the door a few inches. Looking over the chain, I noted that her dress was down-to-earth, simple clothing and unpretentious jewelry no doubt purchased at the most exclusive shops.
“‘Ye-e-esss?’ she chimed, peering down the length of her nose at us.
“I braced myself, saying the words without feeling, glad that one way or the other, our mission was almost at an end. ‘Excuse me, madam, but we’re collecting for, uh, a young couple that is getting married next week. They are both orphans and uh, have absolutely nothing.’”
“I’ll never forget how we stared at each other for a long minute over the taut chain that kept the door from opening fully. I waited for her to say something, hurl an insult or break into angry outburst. But she remained silent, her mind wandering far away. Finally she cleared her throat. ‘P-please wait here a moment,’ she said, removing the chain, she let the door float open as she stepped back into her luxury apartment. My friend and I shot glances at each other, ready to make another run for it. We were relieved when the lady came back alone, signaling for us to follow her into the kitchen.
“‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ she asked softly, her voice becoming warm.
“We hesitated. She sensed our apprehension. Our unspoken reluctance to eat or drink in her non-kosher house hung between us. Without waiting for our explanations or attempts at polite refusal, she poured hot water into two styrofoam cups.
“‘Do you have a car?’ she asked.
“I nodded, a bit confused. She disappeared back into the apartment, returning shortly with her arms full of packages. She set them down in piles near the front door; expensive linen sheets from the city’s finest stores. She went back and forth, stacking more bags and boxes in the hallway. You should have seen it—everything a new couple could possibly want: costly silverware, beautiful glassware, crystal serving dishes, fine curtains and tablecloths, silver candlesticks, all of the highest quality.
“Then she joined us at the table with her own cup of tea served in an elegant china cup. After her first sip, she put down her tea, the cup rattling slightly against the dish.
“‘What took you so long?’ she sighed, ‘I’ve been waiting quite a while to give these things to someone. They’ve been….in the way, taking up space. You see,’ she continued, ‘my only child—my daughter—’
“She cleared her throat. ‘My daughter was engaged to be married three years ago. She was on her way back from the engagement party when her little sports car was hit by a truck. I couldn’t bring myself to return all of the lovely things I had purchased. The money was irrelevant. I felt attached to the gifts and couldn’t just get rid of them. Please pass these things on. I’m sure it’s what my daughter would have wanted.’”
“It took us several trips to load the car and when we were finished there wasn’t an inch to spare. The older woman stood like a statue, her arms crossed over her chest, and watched us with a sad smile. The elegant packages seemed so out of place in my old junker, I was sure we looked like thieves and prayed we wouldn’t get pulled over by a cop. Without receipts for all the merchandise we would surely have been arrested. As we gathered the last of the packages, she stepped forward and nodded with satisfaction.
Naftali stopped in mid-sentence. I was eager to know how the story ended.
“Nu?” I nudged him.
“Well,” he said, stretching his long legs under the table, his hands clasped behind his head. “As we were about to pull away, she stopped us.”
“‘Come back in nine months,’ she called after us, ‘I know the perfect store for baby clothes.’”
And when the good lord comes to take me away
Wrapping me in his gentle white wings of holiness
And he leans close to whisper in my ear
Asking me if I drank of his goodness while on his blessed earth
I shall smile and whisper
I greeted every man as your son and messenger
Searching his face for the message he brought from the king
I gazed upon every child
Seeing the glow that surrounds one so recently in your presence
And when you painted the sky at sunset with the brush of creation
I stopped to praise your handiwork
Laughing as the clouds danced their shadows across the hills
Neither did I forget to treasure my tears
Sent to ease my pain and water my dreams
“Yes, my lord.”
I tipped back my cup and drank of every moment
Shouting out a toast to your greatness
Until the final sweet drop slid through my thirsty lips
I grimaced as I scanned the bulletin board, sipping my morning coffee while reading a note that caught my eye. The coffee was cheap and nasty, brown dust swept up from the floor of a factory that had once dreamed of making coffee, but I had made a lot of changes in my life that seriously compromised my physical comfort. The announcement was torn from a spiral notebook, ragged fringes left hanging, each ragged tag individually colored with watercolor. The one line message was surrounded by intricate symbols that had taken hours to draw, with more arcane meaning implied than the actual note contained. It stated simply “Story telling; ten o’clock”. By word of mouth I learned that the location was to be a nearby ruin of a stone house. My inquiries had caused a buzz. The other students considered me an outsider because of my age and because I had spent many years gainfully employed. I was viewed as an outsider, an impostor. The typical student was ten years younger than me and had avoided work in order to perfect the more necessary pursuits of meditation, drum circles, and other-worldliness. One of the students, probably the one organizing the get together, approached me with a stiff and uncomfortable expression on his face. He stood by my desk for a full minute before speaking.
“Wearing a robe is required. Bring a candle.”
I nodded, sensing that he had more to say, but he turned abruptly and left.
I asked around, trying to borrow a robe my size and was amused to discover that I was the only one who did not own a robe. Many of the other men had only one or two changes of clothes but a nice selection of robes. The other students had arrived after passing through a similar series of spiritual disciplines before arriving at the yeshiva with a guitar or drum, a backpack full of robes, candles, esoteric manuals, and one or two changes of underwear. Toothbrushes were an oddity, a luxury that took up too much space in the backpack. I had arrived at the same destination much later in life, following a map that should have ended somewhere else. I was of a different generation and had dabbled in a different set of pop-culture voodoos. My spiritual paraphernalia had long since been lost or left behind, lying by the side of the road next to my innocence and youth. I arrived at the ruins late, wearing a black wool robe that was too tight across the shoulders and too warm for the muggy summer night. The evening began with a candlelit procession to the spring. I stood reluctantly off to the side, watching as they took turns disappearing into the water, the pool a black circle in the ground, the stars reflected in its surface quivering every time a young man entered the water. Some managed to transcend the icy shock and meditate underwater but most slipped in and out as quickly as possible, shy in their nudity. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t participate in the foolishness but when my turn came, a sudden impulse caused me to laugh out loud. I surprised myself by pulling off the itchy wool robe and jumping in, bellowing as I surfaced. My shout had broken the silence of the starry night and whispered rebuke came at me from all sides as we shuffled towards the crumbling stone house. My antics were out of character with the solemn mood required for the evening. The stone house was abandoned but empty bottles and plastic bags bore witness to the house being used for less holy gatherings by the local teenagers. We sat in a circle, passing around a large goblet of syrupy red wine. The rules had been stated when we arrived. Only the person holding the chalice was permitted to speak. Each of us solemnly sipped from the cup before telling our story while the bottle surreptitiously got passed the other way, as each boy took his turn wincing at the nasty bite of the cheap wine. I tried to listen but the wine made my ears buzz and the mosquitoes had been drawn to the fruity smell. Half of the stories began with “ Once there was a wise and powerful king…” and quickly fell into intricate plots that trailed off, leaving the teller reaching for the bottle as he passed off the goblet in mid-sentence. One boy who had obviously been drinking before we left for the spring began a weepy monologue of first love gone bad and how true love was what we had here and how holy everyone was. The goblet was pulled from his hands and passed along. A small flask of my favorite whiskey was hidden in a deep pocket of my robe and I had finished it on the way back from the waterhole. The third gulp of whiskey had finished the flask and left my head buzzing, not enough to make me drunk but enough to make me want to get drunk. I grabbed the bottle of wine as it came my way and sucked down half of it. The boy next to me gave me a stern look as I handed him the almost empty bottle. I was gazing up at the stars, beginning to enjoy the cheap wine effect, the unique blend of Kool-Aid sugar rush and liquor, when a large cup was pushed into my hand. I forgot myself and thought to slug down the entire cup, but as the cup touched my lips, I remembered the ritual. I stopped myself in time and sipped a little before speaking.
“Once there was a king.” I smiled, hoping that my implied mockery had gone unnoticed. “He wasn’t so wise and he wasn’t so powerful. He was always sucking on mints because he had a problem with bad breath. He worked as an auto-mechanic because there weren’t any openings for kings in his town and he couldn’t afford to pick up and move to another town that might have had an opening for a part time king. And besides that, his wife had her bridge club and his kids were finally doing okay in school. Fred was cool with that. He had never actually worked as king but he had a feeling it was an awful lot of hard work and much more thinking than he generally liked to do. He wasn’t much for leading, preferring good friends to loyal subjects. But he did want the world to be a better place. So every morning on the way to the garage, he would stop and give the blind beggar a dollar. He didn’t tell anyone about it because they would have laughed at him, and his wife would have been angry. Giving away money was a silly thing to do and everyone suspected the beggar wasn’t really blind. Or so they said. But Fred did it anyway and he felt good about it.”
The boy sitting next to me cleared his throat sharply. I looked over at him and he gave me a nasty look. I lowered my eyes, feeling slightly embarrassed, and saw the stars reflected in the wine. I smiled as I imagined a group of tiny boys swimming around in the cup.
“And they all got free tune-ups for a year and lived happily after. The end.”
I looked down again when I realized that I was the only one smiling. I saw the circle of stars reflected in the cup, partially eclipsed by the image of my face. In the clarity of my drunkenness, I saw myself old and bloated, my beard knotted and skewed. I felt like my life, all my uncomfortable secrets and failures were written on my face for theses children to see. I had left many things behind half-completed and had begun a new path too late in life for it to be laughed off as an acceptable adolescent whim. I was at an age when I should be a leader in my chosen career instead of fumbling around on the beginnings of an impractical spiritual journey. I looked around and saw that I was the only one squirming around to find a comfortable spot on the rocky floor. This evening was for younger buttocks. The young man next in line reached over to take the cup. His fingers grazed mine and I instinctively pulled away, spilling wine onto my borrowed robe. Anger swelled up inside me and I heard the same old argument being worked out in my head. A voice buzzed in my right ear,” You always regret anger and you know it isn’t good.” A cynical voice answered from my left ear, “Yeah, but it’s honest and letting it out just might make someone listen to you who really needs it. Besides that, it feels better than eating your own guts out.”
I sipped from the cup. “My turn again.” I heard some murmurs but I kept going. “Once upon a time there was a place. It doesn’t matter where it was but let’s imagine it was here. There was a bunch of guys who lived there. Let’s pretend that they were a lot like you guys. They were the most amazing and holy guys and if it wasn’t for them, evil would have won the war and taken over the earth. If it wasn’t for these guys the entire world would be Central Park after midnight.” Someone grabbed for the cup but I managed to pull it away. “It wasn’t because of any stupid candles or because you sat in a corner and closed your eyes, pretending like you were meditating and creating worlds in your mind. It was because you believed that the world doesn’t have to be one enormous cesspool that revolves around the sun. And because you believed that you would only do good things. And because you try to be nice to each other, even to jerks like me.” I took another gulp of wine.
Another hand tried to grab the cup away but I swatted it, a growl growing in my throat. The growl trailed off into a gagging cough as the hand disappeared. “Let me tell you a real story. Once upon a time there was a war. It was the worst war you could imagine and everyone was fighting. There, in the very worst part of the war, was a big fortress and in this fortress were the very best soldiers. They were always training and every morning they would do lots of exercises. They were all young and handsome and their uniforms were crisp and had big brass buttons. Their guns were shiny with oil and so finely tuned that they had to be kept spotless for the tiniest grain of sand would make them jam. Each soldier was an expert in a different type of combat and they all knew the details and strategies of every great battle in history. The fort was known to be impenetrable but the soldiers remained vigilant in their watch. One day, an old soldier came to the fort, begging to be allowed in. He was badly wounded and his body was covered with ugly scars. His rifle was smashed and his pack was empty of ammunition and food. His uniform was tattered and patched, its color barely recognizable as being from their army. They offered him sanctuary and tended his wounds. He told stories of the battles he had been in, some won and some lost. His stories of victory were strange, told without enthusiasm, tinged with sadness bordering on regret. The soldiers wondered at this. What was there to regret in victory? He spoke openly of how he had fled when his company was being slaughtered, leaving companions to die alone on the battlefield. The soldiers winced when they heard these stories because battle was for glory and not for slinking away just to survive another day. But the old soldier didn’t seem to mind indignity. But once in a while, he would fall into a bitter silence that left the young soldiers confused. He didn’t know their battle songs and his routines were different so some began to suspect that he wasn’t even from their side, the side of good. They suspected he was a deserter or, even worse, a spy sent by the enemy. I wish I could say they lived happily ever after but I’m not really sure what happened in the end. I do know that the war will be won by the young and shiny soldiers, and rightfully so. The young soldiers were the finest and their intentions were impeccable. The young soldiers save the day and go on to great glory, parades and parties. That would be a good ending but that isn’t enough. I don’t know what happens to the old man. I know I shouldn’t care but I really need to know. It should be enough for me to know the war will be won. I want so badly to say I don’t care. After all I’ve seen….”
I closed my eyes, choking back the shameful tears. I opened them, seeing a circle of blurry faces. “ I need you guys, one of you, all of you, I don’t care. I need to know what happens to the old man.”
I sipped at the wine but realized that I had emptied the goblet, suddenly feeling the syrupy wine heavy in my stomach. I staggered to my feet and peeled off the robe, standing half-naked in front of the group. “I…I apologize for my indiscretions.”
I turned and ran, my heavy footfalls pounding my brain. Finally, when I could run no further, I stopped in the middle of the forest. Leaning my head against a tree, I welcomed the feeling of the rough wood biting into my forehead. I opened my mouth wide, gulping in air as if it were water, waiting to see if I could control the churning in my gut. The vomit came rolling out of me, the pain cleansing me of my sin.
I'm sitting here at 7:30 am, waiting for my coffee to cool off enough to drink. I woke up before dawn in a cold but artistically decorated caravan, walked up through town, nodding to the few other men I passed on the way. I recognize everyone, since the entire town has barely one hundred families and everyone here pretty much fits in. It’s hard to believe, since everyone here is a pretty strange fit. It’s cold this morning but I just got a comfortable pair of hiking boots and my socks are thick and fuzzy. I didn’t get the boots for the rough and rugged he-man urban commando look. One week old and they are already scuffed up and muddy. When I remember to look up from dodging mud puddles and rocks, the view is pretty spectacular. How did this boy from Jersey end up feeling at home in the Judean hills overlooking the Mediterranean? I have a second hand sweater whose sleeves get in the way when I forget to roll them up, and a baggy army coat that needed to be thrown in the wash last week. The coat is also not just for the image, since every year it becomes part of my uniform when I do my one-month stint in Tzahal. I just finished my morning prayers, feeling good that I did it, but knowing that I could have tried harder to really connect to God. I have a few minutes to write this all down, in the cold yeshiva office. It’s called an office but it’s actually an old and beat up caravan with broken windows, equipped with three old computers and a new Xerox machine. This particular computer has a sticky keyboard and makes strange wheezing noises even when turned off. I am about to go to the local store, a tiny mom and pop operation, to buy milk and eggs for the yeshiva boys and to maybe get a little something special for the lunch I am about to cook them. After that I am going to learn Talmud for a couple of hours and push my mind as a means of trying to follow in the footsteps (mindsteps/soulsteps) of some incredible sages whose words leave me breathless and invigorated. At the end of the day, my mind is fried and my mouth will taste like too much tea.
Just thought I'd let you know that I'm having one of those mornings where being real is sweet beyond words.