Once upon a time, when I was younger and less wise, I spent a shabbos at a campus Chabad house in Manhattan. The rabbi seemed like a pretty cool guy, definitely on the wacky end of the spectrum, which is good I suppose. Anyway, I’m doing what any good Chabad bocher would do at the shabbos meal Friday night, shmoozing with tons of college kids, being charming, and representing Judaism.
This one guy ends up across from me sometime near the soup course and he’s super intense, super curious about Judaism. Over the course of the meal, I basically tell him my whole life story, plus a whole Purim maamar about randomness, rationality, G-d’s love of the Jewish people, etc. He seems very interested, which is unusual and has ME very interested. He says the maamar is beautiful, which I think is beautiful.
It’s one of those conversations where the whole room is a murmuring blur, through the courses, through bentsching. It’s me and him, a back and forth. We retire to the sitting room, where for the first time he tells me that he was once in Yeshiva.
“But the Yeshiva really disappointed me.” Interesting.
“Yeah, all the Rabbis there preached humility but were really egotistical.” INTERESTING.
“I just wanted a focus on G-d, but all they were interested in was Talmud.” AHHHHHHHHHH!
“You know,” I told him, the voice of suave confidence, “you should really try a Chabad yeshiva some time. Chassidus is all about G-d.” At this point we have been speaking for about two hours, and I feel like I’m in one of those stories that only happens to other people where you wrap tefillin on the guy and now he lives in Jerusalem with a long white beard and twelve beautiful children.
Then he says, “I don’t really believe in Judaism.”
We speak for another hour. I do the apologetics thing which I would never do nowadays. He keeps shaking his head. It’s not like he has counterarguments. I can tell his mind is simply made up. But why? Was his yeshiva experience really that bad?
At long last, when I am tired and spent and my initial enthusiasm for this guy is waning, he looks around conspiratorially and says, “Have you ever heard of psychadelic mushrooms?”
So it turns out that the one guy I ever met that I thought I might be able to turn on to chassidus once realized on a mushroom trip that G-d does not exist but that Moses and Jesus were both tuned in to the eternal brotherhood of mankind, and that’s why he would never be religious.
Beaten by mushrooms.
I collapse sadly into my bed.
The next morning, the Rebbetzin, who is quite wonderful, a very nice person, comes up to me and says, “Wow! What did you say to him? He has never stayed here longer than half an hour before. You must have really had a good impact on him.”
I don’t even really like my job. It’s tedious and annoying. I live and work in a Jewish academy in the middle of nowhere (it used to be a monastery), and my job is to record exactly who is in the study hall when learning is in session. The students range from seventeen to twenty and from immature to not-quite-mature.
So why am I in so much pain, leaving?
Life itself is the greatest of all pleasures. While it’s unchallenged, we don’t even realize we enjoy it. But try to take someone’s life away…
They’re sitting at a picnic table near the parking lot, this afternoon. One guy’s a free spirit, so free he resents the concept of punctuality and punctuality’s patron saint (at least in northern New Jersey), me. Another is quiet; we’ve probably shared three scattered words since the year began. One is studious, a perfect student, never late, too perfect for antics. There’s a guy who’s just “one of the guys,” the guys I was never part of.
I never disliked them, or liked them either. They were simply the faces (so many faces) who’d pass by in the hall, who’d eat in the lunch room, who’d play Frisbee or soccer during lunch breaks. We’d complain together constantly – there was a lot to complain about. Terrible school, badly run. The food – isn’t. Can you believe who’s in trouble? And for what? Why can’t they see what the problem actually is? We can’t wait to just get out of here…
I sit watching these guys at the table and, out of nowhere, I feel it. It’s the end of a good novel or TV show. It’s the open lockers and papers everywhere on a summer afternoon in high school. It’s the buses lined up faithfully on the last day of camp. And today, it’s the luggage rolling down the passage outside my room and the loaned books returned to my shelf by people who I realize I love, not because of anything they did but because they were there for a time, a part of my life, another long day washed under the bridge.
It’s not even the end of the year; they’re leaving for the holiday of Shavuos, the day we received G-d’s Torah on Mount Sinai. But after that it’s just two weeks, and then no matter what I do or where I go, it will be after, beyond, the rest.
I will not return to my home of three years. I’m not truly happy here, not anymore. I can accomplish things elsewhere and I need change and there’s a whole life to live outside these four walls, but this afternoon, when they were on those benches, I wanted to keep Shavuos in place and cling to this mediocrity with iron fingers, because it’s my mediocrity and I live here and not again, not again, not again. Not the parting, the endless beyond, the unbearable future without them and these hallways painted hospital white and the deer in the woods and late night 7-11 runs and the guy at the gas station whose stomach hangs out of his T-shirt and the boiled eggs and my mail in the back office and the long winters. Why must I do this again? Why do I have to taste the warming wind, watch these rooms drain of people, blood from a limb, and then gather my things and move once more?
I sometimes think that G-d is the pack you put on your shoulders as you must, again, walk down the road.
Van from my phone; Van Gogh from Wikipedia.
There was a Russian guy I knew in Tel Aviv who clearly lived with pain and depression. He hated everyone and everything, but not all on the same day. We got along. I once asked him if, when he went to sleep, he looked forward to the fresh start of the morning, whether he felt the potential of the new day when he woke up. He rolled his eyes and said, “What am I, twelve?” If I gave in to my own gnawing feelings of despair, I would’ve said fourteen, since G-d split my life open with an ice pick when I was fifteen.
Okay, there’s no way you’re not going to think that’s melodramatic after you hear the story. I wasn’t raped or abused, G-d forbid; I didn’t try to kill myself; I wasn’t forced to listen to Nickelback on infinite repeat. I just went to a party. Not even a real party; a nice-Jewish-kids-from-the-suburbs-try-to-party party.
It was a Saturday night in September of sophomore year. I remember because before my parents drove me there I showered and changed out of my Shabbos clothes into what I considered social clothes. It probably involved a T-Shirt and jeans. What did I know? I hadn’t been to a high school bash before, but my time had come; a guy in our class lived in a big house, and his folks were out of town for the weekend. I looked forward to it.
There was less Xbox than I expected.
I waved my parents off and went around the back entrance. Oh. Dude from school was hanging out in the Jacuzzi with some girls. Nice guy. Still like him to this day. Welcomed me and told me everyone was in the basement.
Through a beautiful, dramatic living room and down to the bottom. It was busy. A bunch of people were playing pool. Some were smoking hookah. On a side table, someone set up an electronic pocket scale exactly like the one my father uses to weigh gunpowder. Boys and girls cavorted (pardon my French) in the bedrooms. There was alcohol everywhere replenished from a bona fide wine cellar (never saw one of those before). It wasn’t really my thing. Or at least, I wasn’t interested in finding out if it was. Now, my father offered me beer and whiskey all the time and I had definitely noticed these girl things before. None of this should have been any kind of shock. Nevertheless… I retreated into myself, struck dumb. I sat on the side, fended off offers of fun & substances, and waited ‘till the morning for it to end.
It still hasn’t.
The sun came up and I went to school on Monday and after a week the head cold from sleeping for a couple of hours under an air vent in the home theater burned away, but I was different forever. From something I doubt ninety-five percent of the attendees remembered two months later.
Now, by the time you’re fifteen, you already know that you’re screwed up. Some of us know it when we’re very little, but the teen years really ram it in everyone’s face. More and more of your waking hours are occupied by Screw-up; the kid you once were has to fight an uphill battle for every moment of your attention. I knew of my own daily struggle with Screw-up, and since I was a smarty pants in Honors Algebra I made the connection and assumed everyone had their own issues, even though we didn’t speak of the issues, we didn’t live the issues, and we didn’t campaign for acceptance of our issues. Our school was a happy place of music, learning and sunshine (who am I kidding? It was a hippie commune with textbooks. We didn’t even have a building) in a non-ironic, non-creepy way.
Why didn’t anyone release or even talk about the Screw-up at school? It’s possible they did, and I just didn’t notice. I was several years and dozens of disillusions away from beginning to notice other people’s issues, and to this day I have friends who were raised by Chassidic wolves with iced vodka for blood that noticed Screw-up better when they played with their Aleph-Beis blocks than I do now. The subtle web of damaged human contact in which I bathe leaps out at me like the ninja in this picture:
I know for a fact, however, that my parents rarely released their Screw-ups, and from my early dealings with my own S.U., I grasped how difficult this was. I tried to live up to them. They were subtle, they were dignified (especially my mother, may she be well and not get too upset over anything I write), and I expected the same of everyone else.
That night, in my eyes, everyone’s worth took a dive.
Since that night, in some small way, people are animals.
You know what it’s like? Stand in front of a mirror, make sure no one’s around, and take the pointer and middle finger of each hand and insert them into your mouth (I’m going somewhere with this). Pull back and sideways at your mouth’s four corners so you reveal a good amount of tooth and gum. See how creepy that is? Aren’t your hyper aware of your skull right now? We love the sight of our own faces, normally. But that’s because we think of ourselves as ourselves, not as animated meat sacks. Like everything from umbrellas to ultrabooks, the sign of good craftsmanship is the sublimation of the atoms and the molecules and the wood and the plastic into something higher. Look just a little too much at the meat and it’s unsettling. The composite disintegrate into parts, matter disengages from form, we become aware of our bodies, and we don’t like it. I certainly didn’t like it that September night in sophomore year.
I want to go back. I want to be fourteen, when I was worried about my sanity but not about the world’s. I want days that end as optimistic and as integrated as they start. I want to greet the stars not with weariness and melancholy but with the wonder I felt as I gazed at the celestial and mortal glowings on the drives to grandma’s house and didn’t understand how the moon followed us home.
Most nights, I think it’s impossible, and sleep to forget.
When I don’t, it’s because an old Jew in Brooklyn who spoke English with an accent said that this world is not a jungle. This world is a garden, he said and says. He, whose sainted father wrote kabbalistic teachings that strike the mind like orchard-scented thunderbolts but died young surrounded by loincloth-wearing savages for insisting on Kosher matzah for his congregants. He, whose father-in-law had to send teenaged yeshiva students to their deaths to teach Jewish children about Moses. He, who from childhood struggled to understand how in Messianic times we will thank G-d for the tribulations of this longest exile, its inquisitions and its pogroms and its bookend holocausts.
He insisted and insists that the world is G-d’s garden.
Why do I believe him, when I do?
At fourteen I had high hopes for the world even though I’d met my own potential for ugliness, and I would have needed only the G-dliness within to right the sinking ship of my thought, words, and deeds. At fifteen, my eyes opened to a flawed reality, and I needed to hear a brave voice. I needed to hear that there was more at issue here than my feelings. I needed to hear someone deny, truth to power, that prayer was here to make us feel better about the messed up world and that the highest human achievement existed in the context of that mess. I needed someone to deny that everything good is only a metaphor for something evil. I needed to hear someone say that G-d is real, the most real, and that He runs the world, that it’s not a jungle and that so help us, warts and all, we will say it’s beautiful and we won’t be lying.
If I can trust that after plunging through layer upon layer of disillusionment and fear I will hit upon the solid ground of his conviction instead of some naïve dream, I’ll escape this place.
I really should call that Russian guy.
Rude, I think, as the guy next to me physically claims two-thirds of the bench, leaving me to squeeze my wide frame into one corner and struggle not to fall off or elbow the jerk in the face as I pull my oxfords on, right, then left, and lace them, left, right. My mother and I are sitting back-to-back on one of those wide benches they have in JFK so there’s plenty of room for everyone to sit and put their shoes on after passing through security, but the geniuses at the planning department didn’t account for this gigantic specimen of a Southern father trying and failing to get his kids to quiet down as he buckles his boots, three rugrats orbiting him as if caught in his gravity field.
“Where do these people come from?” I ask my mother as we stride through the Terminal, searching for our gate, which is inevitably as far away from the security checkpoint as possible. Wherever one my access through the first thirty gates, neither we nor anyone we know have ever gone there.
“Just forget about it,” she says up at me. We make quite a pair. I’m 6’5″, she’s 5’6″; in public, a suit jacket and a broad-brimmed fedora expand my silhouette to downright threatening dimensions, while her sweater and small purse somehow make her seem even smaller. I can be surly, especially when travelling and overwhelmed by crowds and loud noises; she’s quiet but a master of politeness, even friendliness, at least until we start getting the bureaucratic fake-smile-accompanying-bad-news stuff, in which case she introduces her wrath (which I know well) to new audiences. She walks at a quick pace, occasionally slipping through gaps in the foot traffic that would become tackle-takedowns if I attempted them; I have to swing wide for open waters and join her afterward.
We’re running late, and she’s secretly irritated about it. I’m always tardy, and she never is. I have tried to explain to her the joy of being late, the way in which G-d is open to those who themselves are open, and she always raises an eyebrow and tells me to save it for the other Rabbis. So when I went to sleep last night I wholly intended to submit to my mother’s preference: 5:30 reveille, 6:30 on the road, 7:00 at the airport, 8:30 flight. Due to the laws of physics pertaining only to alarm clocks we woke at 6:30 and now it’s 8:15 and I’m dodging one of those indoor cars they use to shuttle the elderly and the infirm around the terminal as my mother points at the square sign announcing Gate 2 as if it were the very stamp of imminent redemption. They’re already boarding, but the line is long, and we have never met anyone who is a medallion member or sits in zones one through seven; they must all fly to Walla Walla or something from those first thirty gates.
I need to use the restroom and I leave my heavy sandwich-laden backpack with my mother as I scramble back up the terminal. The sweat band of my hat is damp with nervous perspiration and I’m overheating in my four layers. I should have left my jacket with mom as well. The bathroom is closed for maintenance. Wonderful. I have no idea where to find another one until a kind elderly woman notes my distress and directs me to Sam’s Shoes, a large establishment right across the wide terminal hallway that has a restroom on premises. I make for the store, eyeing its dusty window display with anxiety. The interior is no better. It is a shoe store from a different country and a different age, recently deserted. Haphazard stacks of shoeboxes clutter the leather air. A counter messy with laces and rags sits in one corner next to a polishing chair whose back reaches the low ceiling. A door in the rear wall is labeled with the male and female bathroom symbols and I feel like a lummox as I drag through the skewed racks, nearly knocking something over at every corner.
Inching around the last bend, I almost walk straight into him. He is bent over, heaving boxes into place under a display of ghastly beige leather slip-ons festooned with maroon buckles. He wears a flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and his aged, pockmarked face and bloodshot eyes are framed by mutton chops and a feathery moustache, both greying. A worn flat cap tops his head. He stares at me, unmoving, and I get the absurd sense that I am for some reason unwelcome in his store. I move with all my grace to slip past him and the heel of my shoe nips his. “Sorry,” I mutter and open the door to the ancient bathroom whose light is turned on by (Lord help us) pulling a chain. Once I’m done I wash my hands and pull the door closed behind me. I say the words of the Asher Yatzar, all thoughts of my creator driven from my head by the words “New York” and “Singapore” clattering out of the airport P.A. The man is not where he was before and I glance up to find him by the counter. I nod in the friendly but reserved way known to all introverts and begin picking my way toward the store’s exit which I can detect by a slight waft of air and a few rays of white light that manage to diffract around a tower of wafer-soled fashionable sell-out Steve Maddens.
I feel someone stepping on the heel of my shoe. I jump, turn around, and find him staring me straight in the eye, unflinching. I am afraid. I turn back to the exit and begin walking faster, and I feel another tug at my heel. I am almost at the exit as he steps on me again and this time pulls my shoe clean off as I hop into the foot traffic of the terminal, glad to be among people once more. My shoe comes skidding across the white tile, kicked by the stumpy man, hands akimbo, indignation on his face. A name tag at his chest reads “Sam.” I stick my foot in my shoe and my face in his face. I can feel myself towering over him impressively and my expression reads “what in the world is wrong with you.” He shoves me in the chest with both hands. He is surprisingly strong. I lose my balance and step back. The woman’s voice on the P.A. sounds impatient as she announces final boarding for my flight. I can’t imagine what my mother is doing.
“You stepped on me,” Sam says. His eyes don’t leave mine for a second. He is unbearably ugly.
“I said I was sorry,” I say, and it somehow sounds lame, even to me.
“No, now you are sorry,” he says, but he doesn’t smile. He is not saying it as I would, with self-effacement and humor, a gesture of goodwill. He is pleased by my discomfort. I can’t handle it and turn to go, but he grabs my forearm with an iron grip and pulls me down close to his face. I smell garlic on his breath. I ball my fist. He smiles with horrible, ruined teeth and lets me go. He looks up at me, chin sticking out, full of pride. I am suddenly certain, for some reason, that he is Jewish. An inescapable urge to embrace him sweeps over me, but he is already stepping away. He shakes his head, as if I will never understand, and he returns to his store.
My mother ushers me onboard, embarrassed to have held up the flight. I fall into my seat in a daze. It is for some reason unbearable to adjust the air conditioning nozzle, or to slip my book into the seat-back pocket in front of me, or to hear the safety demonstration. I put in earplugs and close my eyes.
I think of him for thirty thousand feet, and beyond.
Featured Image from Flickr