The Wonder Rabbi
Outside it was dusk, about eight o’clock Oklahoma time. But inside the tenement it was far into the night. I walked up the creaking stairs of the corridor. No candles illuminated the walls. My outstretched hands, gliding along the rough ancient wood, kept me from losing balance. I counted one hundred and seven steps before I reached the second floor, where there was a tiny glittering window looking out upon a tract of red, canyon-scarred rangeland. In the distance I could barely make out another towering tenement complex, just like the one I was in now.
On the fifth floor I came across a door that was not barred or nailed shut with boards. I could hear children yelling inside. I had to fight against the urge to leave, to head back to the road to civilization and forget this journey to discover the truth of my past for which there was no record, only rumor. A pale light crept towards me from underneath the threshold like spilled milk. I knocked.
A boy of perhaps twelve opened the door, laughing, his head turned away from me. He said a word in Czech to his interlocutor before he laid his black eyes on mine. I did my best to keep my gaze directed at his face since, to my embarrassment, he wore nothing but underpants. His bony legs looked like they couldn’t possibly support his large squarish torso smooth as fired clay.
“I’m here to see Rabbi Žižkov,” I said.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked with a strong Oklahoma accent. I expected him to speak differently.
“Yes,” I said. There was hesitation in my voice and he noticed it. After a pause he said: “Come in.”
I entered the apartment which was strangely designed, seeming to contain dozens of corners and alcoves. Half-naked children bent over washing tubs. A woman in a caftan presided over them.
“It’s washing night,” the boy said to me.
“You don’t do it during the day?” I asked.
“Never,” the boy said. “That’s not our custom.”
The atmosphere was humid. I felt as if I were wading through years of perspiration, as if sweating people were standing all around me in close quarters, though the woman and children were by now on the other side of the room. The boy led me to an ornately-carved door with an iron knocker. He had barely lifted the ring off the hinge when a gruff paternal voice boomed: “Dále!”
“A visitor,” the boy said in English.
“Ah,” the Rabbi said, “come in anyways.”
The boy opened the door and slipped away. A seated, shadowy figure gestured to close the door. I approached him. The first thing I noticed was his fur cap. The second was his beard which spread voluminously down to his waist as if a small black bear were sitting in his lap.
“Sit down, please,” he said, pointing to a chair.
Old leather-bound volumes, tipped this way and that on uneven shelves, flickered into view in the candlelight. Hebrew letters were carved into his desk but otherwise there was nothing on it except a white shawl and a miniature wooden cottage with blue eyes painted onto it instead of windows.
The Rabbi’s accent shifted between strong Oklahoman and an Eastern European accent, either Czech, Polish, Yiddish, or all three, for all I knew. Before him, I felt the full weight of my ignorance. When I opened my mouth to speak he said: “No need, friend. I know all about you and your question. Your father’s mother a Hasidim with a change of heart. A love affair. A conversion in Knoxville. I’m sorry to say that the answer is no. You can be a philo-Semite. A scholar of the Baal Shem Tov. But you can never be a Jew. Once the blood is impure, it can never be made pure.”
I let out a brief sob, but caught myself, forced a smile, and said thank you. I stood up to leave.
“No, no,” he said. “Not yet. You have come far, from the other end of the state by the look of it. I will do something for you. We may not be family, but we have—how do you say— certain historical ties. I will give you a small gift. I have been blessed with a memory second only to that of God.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said.
He exclaimed something like a prayer. He plucked a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose.
It was then that I noticed that one of his eyes was in fact a quartz crystal screwed into the hollow socket. His beard began to undulate, moving back and forth on his chest like a piece of wind materialized.
“Tell me what you desire to see,” he continued. “What from your past will give you peace? Or will help to answer those painful questions inside you? Speak and by the grace of God I will show.”
“My parents,” I said automatically.
“Watch my beard,” he said.
I watched the dark, thick, swirling strands, some of them peppered with grey. His beard divided, as if invisible hands were combing it apart. My parents appeared in the small dark hollow where his hairs had once been. They were miniature, as if on a tiny stage, but true in every detail.
My mother was frying green tomatoes in the kitchen of the old home, prodding the blackening corn-flour with a spatula. My father moped about the kitchen, shirtless, begging for attention.
“I may be old,” the Rabbi said, “but I have plenty of vigor left. The gifted, it is said, must earn their blessings. I’d consider it an offense if you didn’t tax my powers, if you didn’t request to see all you wish to see."
I nodded. I nearly said “show me my animals” or “show me Julia” but I said: “Show them again.”
“Your parents?” he said.
In the niche of the Rabbi’s beard my father and mother appeared in bed, reading books, a stack of pillows between them, guaranteeing that he couldn’t roll over into her space. “A family that reads together stays together,” he said. “You’ve lied to me since we got married,” she said.
They vanished. “Show me my friends” nearly fell from my lips but I said: “Them again.”
My mother’s red hair and intelligent brown eyes. Horse manure streaked across her face yet she’s smiling. My father’s nose and tuna-flecked goatee inclined towards a portrait of Robert E. Lee.
It would’ve been nice to see Sassafras Valley, the landscape of my youth. Its sandy golden rivers and thousands of mushrooms and wind-deformed pines. The Rabbi’s crystal eye began to emit a dull beam of light, like a Phantoscope projector, but I focused on his beard and said: “Again.”
“What happened to my sweet little boy?” my mother said. “You say such dark things.” “I’m relying on you—you’ve been putting this off for months,” my father said. “You’re not my son.”
My father hit my mother so hard that a bruise spread instantly across her face like ink spilled onto paper.
My mother on her deathbed. Her tongue slid out of her mouth like a toad slipping out of the mud. My father on the stretcher. Dirty straps squashing the flesh of his gigantic chest and belly.
My parents as they appeared to me in dreams. My father wore a black Quaker hat. Otherwise he was naked. My mother was also naked. Pubic hair rolled over her navel and crashed against her breasts like waves.
Every image, word, and gesture appeared as if behind glass, so close yet so distant, just as it had been in real life.
Soon I had lost the strength to go on. The Rabbi’s beard closed as palms do in prayer and the crystal light in his eye went dark. I was heaving and weeping like a little boy. The Rabbi reached across the table and gripped my hand. But it was not a hand that I felt I could hold for long.
He gave me a lantern and I made my way through the living room, now empty of children, down the mazy steps of the tower. Where was I to go now? What was I to do? No parents, no home, no people to call my own—only a succession of canyons without beauty and an America fragmented by vastness.
No person can survive on their own if the good life is a goal. The answers to my questions couldn’t be found inside myself. I needed to lean on more than the night. High above me the moon was like a hole sucking the stars into it. I couldn’t find a single constellation that I knew. If only there was someone whose mind was open to mine like the doors of a little town. If only there was someone to listen to the beatings of a cold heart. Because godless men, too, have songs.
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