Abraham, Isaac, and Pizza

This post is dedicated to my friend Mordechai/Max, who would not leave me alone until I wrote about kosher pizza and creativity.


Kosher Pizza Sucks

Abraham and Isaac recline at a low table, eating a new food prepared with ingredients and a recipe from the west. Around sit students and guests from far and wide, leaning forward to catch the diamonds that drip from the forefathers’ mouths.

Abraham chews thoughtfully, swallows, and turning to a mustachioed traveler says, “This isn’t very good, is it?” He hands a piece over by its crusted underside and Mario opens his mouth to eat. “Uh-uh,” Abraham says, wagging his finger and withdrawing the food. “The blessing.” Laughs all around at Mario’s astonishment. “Thank G-d for the bread he has brought forth from the earth.”

Mario haltingly gives his thanks to the Lord and chomps into the morsel. His grimace as he chews tells them all they need to know. “They make it better in Italy.”

“Is the recipe you gave me incorrect?” asks Abraham.

“It’s the same recipe as always.”

“Is my Jewish cheese or my Jewish dough inferior?”

“What’s Jewish?”

I’m Jewish. Comes from Jew, which comes from Judah, one of my great-grandsons. It also means the cheese has to be made with special milk supervised by someone from my family, and the wheat and vegetables follow certain harvesting laws.”

“That’s weird. But no, no reason why it should be worse. Your mozzarella is excellent.”

“And yet it is worse.”

“Who cooked it?” asks Isaac.

“I did,” says Ishmael, appearing at the tent entrance. He takes a seat next to his brother, across from his father. “And I think it’s a little odd that you forefathers should complain. What do you care what food tastes like?”

“You assume that the kosher community is not interested in craft and artistry in their diet, because honestly most of us just have like thirty kids and need somewhere that will deliver sustenance into their gaping maws?” asks the Father of Many Nations.

The crowd gasps. Things are heating up.

Mediocrity Isn’t Us

“Even if just the three of us were eating, father,” replies Ishmael civilly, “I don’t see why we need ‘craft and artistry.’ Food is fuel; it exists only to give us the strength to serve G-d.”

“Don’t you want to make great things, instead of mediocre things?” says Abraham, with a smile. “That is what G-d wants of us! To be great! If a Jew makes pizza, it should be the best pizza the world has ever seen. When the pizza is great, when you fill someone’s stomach in the most pleasant way through mastering your ingredients, your recipe, and your method, you make greatness G-dly. Or is it that you make G-dliness great? I always forget.”

Don’t Be “Nothing”

Ishmael turns to face his brother Isaac, who has been eating quietly. “What about you, O paragon of self-negation, offered up as a lamb of G-d, without any identity of your own. Surely you think it madness to want to do great things? Aren’t we meant to be nothing?”

Touche,” thinks the crowd as they hem and haw. They know Abraham and especially Isaac to be quite fond of self-negation. They invented it at the Akeida, after all.

Isaac swallows and says, “Look at us.” He holds his face next to Abraham’s. They are each other’s’ reflection. “We are of a mind, as we are of a face, even though my father is known as G-d’s salesman and I as a bound sacrifice. The entire goal of my self-negation is self-expression. How does nothing benefit anyone? Did the creator create us that we return ourselves to the void? No, we must be great. But to be great, we must be nothing.”

“What,” asks Ishmael, “are you saying, exactly?”

“Look, this strange tomato’d and cheese’d wafer of the sunset lands probably requires genuine artistry and craftsmanship. That means you have to put your back into it, and you have to put your soul into it. You must enslave your intelligence, talents, and heart to something else. Does that sound selfish or self-negating?”

Instead, Let Things Happen

“Aha! But you are still putting your soul into it. That is self-expression, and for self-expression you need an excuse. A reason. Random self-expression is klippah and sitra achara; it conceals G-d. You surely agree.”

“All of that’s true. Almost everything the average person does is klippah and sitra achara. Most of us don’t pray or speak G-dly wisdom all day long, and the motives behind our eating, business dealings, and personal interactions are rarely perfectly selfless. That doesn’t mean we should stop. All of our relationships take place through self-expression, especially the selfless ones. Our goal isn’t to be nothing, a vacuum. Our goal is to be open to higher things, even in areas of klippah and sitra achara. That’s what it means to be joyous, you dig? Don’t get stuck in your own conception of reality. Be nothing but the mission. In this case, don’t invest yourself in making food to earn money or impress others.”

“That’s enslaving the food to your motivations, instead of the other way around.”

“Correct! It is fake and inauthentic because it’s merely an expression of your invested effort. And that’s rarely worth much. No matter how tasty it is, the food will remain only an effort. But if you make the food into a truly noble goal, it will be excellent, because you will not be making it happen. You will be letting it happen. Counter-intuitively, you’ll both enjoy making that dish more, and G-d will enjoy it more, because you are no longer living within your own boundaries but have opened up to the beyond.”

The Slave Of A King Is A King

Ishmael digests this for a moment, then says, “We are animals. Our self-expression is an animal’s. Isn’t G-d here to help us control and limit ourselves?”

“On the contrary. We are great. Just not as an end unto ourselves. When we harness ourselves to greater ends, we become great. The slave of a king is a king. Like Alfred Pennyworth.”

“Who’s Alfred Pennyworth?”

“Is your prophesy on the fritz again? Nevermind.”

Not Anything Can Be Self-Expression

“I don’t get it. I want to eat meat with this eight-sliced cheesy pastry, yet G-d says that’s not allowed. Sounds like the rules are getting in the way of my self-expression.”

“Does having two hands get in the way of your self-expression?”

For a moment there is silence. Mario scratches his head. Ishmael decides to move on.

Why Now?

“If creativity is so special,” says Ishmael, “why does it only sometimes seem to be a thing? For most of your people’s history, they will not need great pizza chefs in their service of G-d. They will have great Rabbis and communal leaders, warriors and saints. To come at some point in history and say self-expression is G-dly seems to be too convenient. Are you not using religion to justify something you want to do anyway, for other reasons? Is there any internally consistent reason there should be such a creative/culinary explosion at certain points in history?”

“Why, Ishmael,” says wise old Abraham, taking over from his son,“they are reading this story in what one might call the postmodern, premessianic age.”


“You can’t see them?” asks Abraham. “Look at them there, staring at a piece of glowing plastic as these very words shoot through their optic nerves. They probably think I never even heard of an optic nerve.”

“Won’t they be uncomfortable if you talk about them?”

“Not particularly. It’s common to break the fourth wall in postmodern writing. It’s all about self-awareness and the alertness to subjectivity. It’s all just perspectives, different ways of looking at things. We are inside the story, but we also have an existence outside of it, to the reader. And that’s kind of the situation all of history builds toward, the time when we humans break the fourth wall and realize that our small universe is a substory of a greater divine whole.”

“But people have always known that! In fact, you were the first one to say it, father!”

“Too true, my son. But I and those like me, the Moses of every generation, are like the author’s representative in the story. We come from beyond the fourth wall. Sure, with our help everyone can break out of the story a bit. But that’s cheating. Why can’t the characters in the story go from a ‘no author’ perspective to an author perspective on their own?”

“But it’s very hard to see that the story has an author without someone constantly reminding you.”

“It’s not that hard, my dear Ishmael. After all, it is a story, and every story requires an author. This is why some thinkers in history will find the idea of a story to itself be appalling and will work to destroy it. But we’re getting too far afield.”

“Yes. What does all of this have to do with creativity?”

“Don’t you see? If that premessianic postmodern time is the one when they will break down the wall from the inside, then it will also be the time when the call of the hour is to serve G-d using the tools that are available, instead of stuff shoehorned into reality from beyond the veil like learning Torah or performing holy commandments and the like. In the past, the world wasn’t ready to try making its own garbage a vehicle for G-dliness. But one day, it will be.”

“I’m not sure I fully understand.”

“Yes, well, like I said, the world’s not ready. I think what’s best for now is to implore you to make better pizza next time, please. For goodness sake. That sauce could be Egyptian mortar. And never put corn on it again. What are we, Israeli?”

“Sorry, father.”

With a twinkle in his eye, Abraham turns to his manservant and student.

“Eliezer, the benchers, if you please.”


Originally posted on Hevria.

Kalman’s Heart

A sequel to “A Lesson for John on King George Street.” The most brilliant student in the Yeshiva considers leaving. But parting is never simple, especially after sacrifice…

The three of them walk to the yeshiva in the rain. “Will I ever look upon your fair face again, my lady?” John asks his girl. They walked without raincoats, holding hands. Despite her soaked socks, she giggles. “Give me something to remember you by,” he says. She raises her eyebrows. She is quite beautiful. Kalman goes inside.

Into the Beis Medrash, his domain. No matter how cold the world outside gets, it is always warm here. In the day, voices ring out in battle. It is night now, and instead a sleepy peace reigns. It is always so in the world of ideas. Here, even the worst fights never cause him to doubt his life, never bring him to question his choices, never leave him drying under his covers, face buried in his pillow, questions following him to yawning oblivion.



He grabs a cup of coffee and sits down to his Talmud, thoughts of flowing water and brushing fingers washed away like dust.

Too soon, he is interrupted by Rabbi Marmelstein sitting down across from him, bright gaze and short brown beard drawing his eyes from the page.

“Kalman, you’re what, twenty-two?”

“That’s right, Rabbi.”

Sigh. “I think it’s time for you to move on.”

Kyle, you’re twenty-two. Your whole life is in front of you. We’ve sacrificed so much for you. Please.

“Move on, Rabbi?”

“There’s an excellent place, a Yeshiva for gifted students like you.”

Just stay. Your father and I will help you find the right college. You can keep studying in your own time. We’ll find you Kosher food.

“I’m happy here.”

“You’re stuck. No one here can learn like you can. And between the two of us, our students don’t have the same priorities as you.”

Half the boys in your program are idiots. You said so yourself. Do you really want to be one of them?

“They’re my friends.”

“I’m worried that they’re holding you back. At this new place, if you work hard, you could become something great.”

You can’t tell your mother “they may be idiots but they’re my idiots” when she’s worried about you starving in the gutter.

“I’m not sure I want to be great.”

“There’s something else. We spoke to them about you, and they’re considering a full scholarship.”

You’re going to have the best life imaginable.

He takes off his glasses and says he’ll think about it.


He sits cross-legged on his bed, listening to G-d’s blessings pour through the gutters, banging his head back against the wall to the beat of What do I want? What do I want? What do I want?

He remembers the last days of December, Junior year of high school, at the ski cabin, drinking sweet cocoa on the couch with Hannah, muscles aching after a long day of chasing her down the mountain. He was always chasing her. What do I want? She’d gotten whipped cream on her nose, and he offered her the corner of the tablecloth with one of his wry smiles, and she laughed and laughed, a laugh soft like the evening snowfall. What do I want? 

I can have it again. Call mom, fly home, be happy.

He tries to remember why he shouldn’t, and all he hears is the sound of the rain.


“Don’t do it,” John says, and burps.


“Who’s gonna help me if I need a word translated?”

Mordechai slaps John on the back of the head, and the kid puts his head in his arms on the table’s edge and chuckles at the floor.

Yosef, who has been Kalman’s shadow for two years, says, “It’s free, and it’s a better Yeshiva. You should do it.”

“They have more guys who learn. That doesn’t mean it’s better.

“It’s free. Your parents won’t be paying anymore. You won’t be under their thumb. They won’t feel like they’re wasting money.”

“Damn,” says Shraga. “He’s right.”

“All my problems solved, just like that,” says Kalman with a wry smile, and drains his cup.

“It’s the next step,” rumbles Mordechai, their gigantic Russian sage. “Always forward, never back.”

“What about sideways?” says Kalman. “You guys aren’t helping.”

“Exactly,” says John, sneer muffled by his arms. “Go make some friends who can help.”

Kalman gets up, pays his part of the bill, and leaves.


“Why the hell are we friends?” slurs John, his hand on Kalman’s book, blocking his view. John shakes his head and droplets of rainwater fall on the page. Kalman winces. “We don’t have anything in common. Yosef is holy, Mordechai’s wise, Shraga’s nice. What do I have that the best bocher in Yeshiva wants to be friends with me?” His voice trembles. Kalman winces again.

“You should lie down.”

John said what he thought of that.

“You should scour your mouth out, then lie down.”

“Answer the question, dammit.” The elfin rabble-rouser throws his arms around Kalman’s neck and pulls the struggling scholar close, until their foreheads touch. “I love you, Kal.”

Kalman rolls his eyes. “You’re drunk.” A cloud of alcohol fumes escapes when John opens his mouth to object, Kalman cuts him off. “We’re friends because we’re meant to be friends. It just makes sense. Kalman and John, John and Kalman. Can you explain Yosef and me any better? Can you explain peanut butter and jelly?”

John snickers. “I’m sorry, that’s just so romantic.”

“Ugh.” He shoves the kid away.


He’s out alone on the slick sidewalks trying to get it all organized in his head. The rain drumming against his poncho acts as a floor for his thoughts; his mind is unreachable in company and shy in silence but with the patter in his ears and the sheet of water enshrouding his body the ideas whirl unbidden. They are, to his dismay, disjointed, chaotic.

There is no problem in the world, he reckons, that can’t be divided into smaller parts and tackled piece by piece. But it takes wisdom to balance the parts, to glean the crucial from the superficial. It takes a higher, objective perspective. And Kalman can’t find it. There is something harassing him, a pattern in the leaves. Something he’s missing.

He reaches his favorite bookstore and steps inside. As he removes his plastic raincoat, a father and young son approach the counter. The boy clutches a slender red Chumash to his chest, and his father counts out coins like precious gems in his palm. They have holes in their beaten shoes, and Kalman realizes it might be collected charity they’re trading away for the book. It could be the boy’s first. Maybe he needs it for cheder, needs it more than shoes on a rainy day. The man hands over the coinage with one hand and caresses his son’s shoulder with the other.

And with no great drama, it clicks. They found love in this place, he thinks. If she’s here, I’m going to find her, too. 

Kalman pushes his glasses towards his eyes. It is time to chase once more. He can feel it. And since he is a scholar, he will start with holy books. He walks to the back corner of the store, dustier than the rest, and runs his fingers along new spines.


“I’ve decided to stay,” he tells Rabbi Marmelstein.

The man raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Are you sure?”

“No,” says Kalman freely. “But, Rabbi, there’s something you could do to add to my certainty.”


Kalman pulls the shopping bag onto his lap and holds it open, revealing its contents. The Rabbi shares a wistful grin. “Well, if that’s how it’s going to be,” he says, “let’s get to work.”

To be continued…


Image from Flickr.



Originally posted on Hevria.

Where We Wait

“G-d is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” – Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed  Boy Pt. 2”


If I hadn’t been half dead from heat stroke, I never would have stepped into the first hovel on the left looking for shade. Instead of a dusty convenience store with spindly-necked bottles of coke or a family common room with a homemade rug, I found a vast cavern dug into the ground, the dirty linoleum floor inside the entrance merely the landing of a staircase spiraling along the pit’s edge into the gloom of the deep.

Honestly, I didn’t notice the stairs, not at first anyway, because the Machine was everywhere, inert, the husk of a long-dead monster, gleaming in the light of the entrance. My eyes almost couldn’t bear its complexity. Tangled wires, some like trees trunks, some like hairs, connected innumerable components, most of them from scrap. In my first bewildered glance I spied thimbles and carburetors, girders and girdles, thousands of rivets and handfuls of nuts, twelve bicycles, and a cigarette lighter. Some of its parts seemed to grow like plants from the floor far below, while others were bound to the ceiling by thick cables, the likes of which I had only seen in the great harbors of the world, holding ships to the shore. It inspired in my addled brain an awe that edged on laughter; it was beyond ridiculous, not sane, a brick to the head.

Down below, I heard singing.

It was a man’s voice, worn with age, deep as the deep. With the regularity of a heartbeat it sang, “Twisting, twisting, twisting.”

I told myself as I descended the earthen steps that I only wanted to see if he had water for my parched lips. I knew I was lying. My curiosity urged me to delve.

I found the Machinist (I never did get a name out of him, before the end, though I do believe he had one) gloved and goggled, braiding threads of copper thin as gossamer. He had unruly white hair to the small of his back, knotted and pungent, and he moved with the certainty of an expert craftsman. The tiny pieces of metal couldn’t withstand the tension and they tore. He bent closer, took a new thread from his filthy apron, and tried again. “Twisting, twisting, twisting.”

“Sorry, do you have water?” I said, hands held up in peace. He tore the goggles off his face and squinted at me.

“Have you finally come?” he croaked, his English accented. “Is it finally time for me to die?”

At a loss, I gaped.

“But first, water, yes!” He grabbed my wrist and tugged me toward the Machine. I could see now, at the bottom, that there extended into the Machine itself several tunnels and caves, allowing the Machinist to tinker and to have a home, as I found out when we rounded a corner made of a lamppost and a boat engine to reveal a niche with a bed, a desk, a table, a grill. The area was lit by two small lanterns, and in one corner of the little cave stood an old camping tent, a curtain across its entrance. In the kitchen sat a five-gallon water cooler. He filled a bottle and brought it to me, and I drank thirstily. “Thank you,” I said. Refreshed, my mind cleared and a stream of questions surfaced. He stood to the side, at attention like a schoolboy beside his desk, waiting for something.

“I’m T.J. Beckett. I’m a reporter from New York. I came to Dehli looking for…” Something like this. “Looking for a story.”

“There’s no story here,” he said. “Not until my master returns.”

“What is this place? What is this…thing?” I swept my arm in a wide arc.

“This, boy, is the Machine.” He said. “My master told me how to build it, at least in principle, before he left. That was almost seventy years ago. I really wish he’d come back, so I can die.”

Seventy years? “Who are you? How did you get here? Who is your master?”

“I am a servant, and he is the master,” he said simply. “As for how we got here – why, I think I’ve forgot. It’s been so long. Of course, it was never important for me to remember. That’s the master’s job. And he’ll be back soon, you’ll see.”

“And then you’ll die?”

“Yes. I do love my life here, doing important work, but I wish he would come back and turn on the Machine. It’s been ready for decades, yes, though I have attempted some daring expansions since then.”

I was going to ask why he didn’t turn the Machine on himself, but it felt rude somehow, so instead I said, “And what will happen when it’s turned on?”

He looked at me as if I were the one building a gigantic subterranean monstrosity on the outskirts of New Dehli, that is, as if I were insane. “I have no idea.”

“So then how do you build it?”

“Oh, master taught me the rules of it. Taught me for years. That was when I was only a boy. It’s the only thing I really remember now.”

“Then he left you here.”

“Yes, well, he couldn’t live here anymore, you see. He’s a great man, more beautiful than me, more graceful, full of fire. He can sing and dance and love and write and drink and paint and cry. He can charm all manner of wild beasts; he has beaten men dueling with sword and pistol; he reads poetry to the stars and the stars themselves acquiesce.” As he spoke about that man, the Machinist’s wrinkled face seemed smoothed of its wrinkles, and his voice seemed alive. Then he slumped and staggered and fell into a chair. “But this quest proved too much for him, the country proved too broad.”

“What were you looking for?”

“We searched for the edge of things, for the place where nothing becomes something, for the exact moment of midnight and the precise point of the corner, where the parts join and all is one. But we did not find it, and my master’s affinity for the hunt began to sour, and his curiosity wilted, and the love of life that drove him to greatness festered, and one night when he couldn’t take it anymore he bid me farewell and took his leave.”

I felt myself pulled inexorably down this hole, as I had been pulled to the floor of the cavern. This time, the ground seemed to waver beneath my feet. Despite myself, I thought it a sad story. “You’ve been building a machine you don’t understand, just waiting for him to come back, for most of your life? Why? Why don’t you leave this place?” I thought of my contacts in the city, of how they might be able to help this old man.

“I could leave. I could. Any time. But it wouldn’t work. Defeats the whole goal. The master will come back, you see.”

I sighed and leaned back, and gasped as I realized the “roof” of his camp was made of motorcycles, two dozen at least, standing on their rear wheels in a circle. “This thing you’ve built is quite incredible,” I breathed.

He shot up ramrod straight. “It-It is?”

“You don’t see? Look what you did with all this junk.”

He slumped. “Yes, yes it’s junk. It’s not poetry. It’s not a dance. It’s not the moonrise over the dunes or the kiss of sunrise on dewed flowers.” I was taken aback by his sudden poetic turn. In the best tradition of my people, I pressed on.

“It’s great. Really. You poured your life into this. Your soul.” I pulled my phone from my pocket. “If you’ll let me take pictures, I can show it to the world. And the world will treasure it.”

“The world will treasure junk? That’s not how I remember the world.”

“Things are different now. People appreciate anything, as long as it has some soul.” The old man smiled for the first time, and looked to the little tent in the corner. “Come on, I’ll take some pictures, and then I’ll take you to lunch,” I said, trying to sound kind.

“One moment!” He stood up and dashed into the tent, pulling its flap closed behind him. I sat in my seat, not knowing what he might do or what he expected of me. I heard the sound of splashing water. A few minutes later, he stepped out of the tent as someone else. His hair was shorn and clean, his bearing regal, his soiled apron replaced with a fresh pressed suit. His eyes burned with intelligence and their edges crinkled with laughter as I stared.

“The servant is gone,” he said wistfully, in a voice smooth as olive oil. “Let us go to lunch.”

I stared.

“Ah, but first we must honor his memory,” said the Master, whose name turned out to be Salvestro King, a sailor and adventurer who came to Dehli between the wars and was never heard of again. “He kept me alive all these years. I must do the same for him.” And with steps unnaturally graceful and unaffected by age he approached the wall next to his bed where sat a common light switch, a small sky-blue wire trailing from it. He flipped the switch.

As we climbed into the daylight, the Machine thrummed with energy, various components coaxed alive by (I found out over curry) solar panels and a couple of gas-powered generators. As I again felt linoleum beneath my feet and looked out on the nondescript alley on the outskirts of Dehli, I heard from behind me an unbelievable music, an impossible harmony, a clanking, squeaking orchestra that sang the song of midnight, of the point where walls meet, the sound of a pervasive oneness.


Image from Flickr.

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Lesson For John On King George St.

John elbows through the flow of people. People everywhere, disgorged from the large stand-alone houses of Rechavia sheltered from the madness of Jerusalem by trees and hedges, from the one-room huts of Nachlaot piled to their arched ceilings with books and drug paraphernalia, from apartments, from dorms. Ben Yehuda Street! Chinese tourists photograph juggling Yeshiva bochrim, and Sem’ girls colonize the ice cream shop. An Arab vagrant drums a bongo on the stoop of a closed Judaica store that’s ostensibly in fierce competition with the dozen other stores selling well-polished rams’ horns and menorahs made of clay Chassidim, but in fact is owned by the same Jew as the other establishments.

John fits in as well as anyone. Any Jerusalemite seeing him would assume he just slunk out of one of the wilder side-alley bars, and they would be correct. He is five-foot five, with an angular, narrow face dwarfed by his bushy red curls. He wears fingerless gloves and walks with a closed, denying hunch. He scowls perpetually, and extra hard if someone looks his way.

Spring is in full attack, and as he walks uphill he breaks out in sweat. He is mildly drunk, and the night seems open, possibility hiding in every shadow. He scuffs at an orange cat, and it skitters off. It doesn’t make him feel any better about earlier. The boys and he got into a slight altercation over a nice kid, a golden-haired California boy named Shraga/Steven.


Shraga/Steven arrived at Yeshiva the day before, and they offered to show him a good time on the town. Shraga/Steven asked if they were going to the Kotel, and John had glanced exasperatedly at Mordechai, who grinned. Yosef explained that Shraga could go to pray at the wall if he wanted, but they were looking for a different kind of good time,  do you catch my drift. Shraga pretended to understand and nodded too enthusiastically.

They sat at a table waiting for beer, and when New Guy went to the bathroom, John said that the Yeshiva’s admissions director, Rabbi Marmelstein, ought to be throttled. “Where do they even find these guys?” he kept repeating. “He’s still all googly-eyed over Hebrew letters. He’s blond. He wears honest-to-G-d pink Polo shirts. Is there any hope? By the Yeshiva Importance Principle, I declare an end to the human race.”

The Yeshiva Importance Principle states that, for various logically tenuous reasons – i.e. Non-Yeshiva Bochrim are either children or too old and distracted to care about the important things; non-Jews, though numerous and powerful, need Jewish leadership (“the light unto the nations” and all that); girls are girls; no other Yeshivas in Yerushalayim are even halfway decent; outside of Yerushalayim, none could possible compare – the entire world depends on the forty-some-odd guys in their dormitory.

They couldn’t afford a Steven, John was saying. Mordechai rolled his eyes.

“I’m serious, Maxim,” said John, calling Mordechai by his Russian name. “He shouldn’t be here.”

Mordechai grinned and twisted one of his long peyos. John was all of sixteen, tiny and angry. Maxim was twenty-five and a giant, stocky with round hills for shoulders and a face like slabs of meat sewn together, with non-dimensional black points for eyes.

“Yoezer,” he addressed John with Russian solemnity, Slavic tone warming the word like alcohol in the stomach.

John balled his fists and let out a battle cry as he stood on his chair and made to leap across the table. Yosef and Kalman knew from long experience what he was about to do and shot up from their places, arms outstretched. The erstwhile warrior flailed and kicked as they interrupted his flight with firm grips on his chest and stomach. He was so light it took almost no effort to shove him slumping back into his seat. He felt the stare of all the bargoers on his face, which reddened to match his hair. Yogi, the bartender, American and friendly, shook his head. “Who called him by his name this time?” he called to the bochrim.

Conversations started up again.

John’s chest still heaved with excitement, and he gasped, “It’s not my name.”

Yogi held up his thumb and first two fingers pinched together, Israeli for “just a second,” as he poured schnapps with his other hand.

“Here we go again,” says Kalman.

The next round of drinks arrived and John drank like a dying man. Cheap Israeli beer frothed down his face to water the dozen peach-colored hairs that sprouted from his chin. He smacked his empty glass down on the table. “It’s not my name,” he repeated. “my name is John. I get to choose my name.”

Yogi put a hairy hand on either side of his rotund stomach and threw his head back and roared with laughter. John looked to his friends for support and found Yosef studying his glass intensely, Kalman smirking at the green-white glow of a Heineken sign on the wall, and Mordechai drinking, stoic as a glacier. “Wish I had some friends,” John said to himself, feeling the beer soften his head. “If I had friends they’d call me by any damn name I choose.”

“You started it,” said Yosef.

“Besides, friends give each other nicknames all the time,” said Kalman.

“No need to smash up a bar over it,” Mordechai sailed in.

John was aware of his second attempted leap and of strong hands grabbing him under each armpit, halting his motion. He was escorted to the exit and chucked into the alley. As he turned to walk away he heard Yogi yelling something about boys who shouldn’t mix beer with mother’s milk. He convinced himself his reddening face was attributable solely to his inebriation.


John weaves past the famed harp lady near the top of Ben Yehuda and turns down a side street. He crosses between busses on King George, and passes through a courtyard with small recessed amphitheaters that echo your voice if you stand in just the right spot. A small group of freaks, three boys and a girl, sit in torn denim and piercings and terrible odor and whisper to each other. They don’t even glance at John, which annoys him.

“Shalom,” he announces, hands on his hips.

“Shaloooom,” mocks one of the boys, hair in long dreadlocks and some kind of dream catcher hanging around his neck.

“Salaam,” says another in Arabic, sunglasses glinting in the streetlamp light. They stand, towering over him on an amphitheater’s middle step. John doesn’t think he’s actually an Arab. Just abrasive as hell.

“What’s up, brothers?” musters John in his best Hebrew.

Dream Catcher erupts in a monologue too guttural and fast for the American to parse precisely, angry in tone. John thinks he catches achim near the end of it; presumably DC doesn’t appreciate the offer of fraternity. As the rant peters out, John looks, by some instinct, to the female, assuming she might defuse the situation. He isn’t comforted by the jagged crescent moon and star slashing in glow-in-the-dark green across her shirt, or by her two-dozen facial piercings.

DC wraps up his diatribe, sees John glancing edgily at Moonshirt, and yells so hard his mouth reduces to teeth and palate and spit flying everywhere. He doesn’t think I actually find her attractive, does he? wonders John, astounded.

Sunglasses pulls a knife out of his back pocket. John thinks various things, not all of them as worried as is appropriate: Is it dangerous to keep a knife in the back pocket? I wonder if he bought his in the shuk on special, like I bought mine. If he did, it’ll probably shatter before it stabs anyone, and you try getting money back from that place. Like squeezing water from a stone. Too bad I didn’t bring my knife with me tonight.

DC takes out some kind of weapon as well. It’s hard to tell in the dark – it could be curved brass knuckles, but it could just as easily be a wallet stuffed with expired plastic mikve cards, like the one John clutches in his pocket, ready to jab in someone’s eye. He kind of hopes it’s the latter. It glints in the lamplight. It’s not a wallet.


Third male freak (he’s in a black T-shirt and jeans, the dangerous strain of freak who doesn’t look off and is only a freak because he hangs out with freaks) stands and steps down to ground level, hand in his hip pocket. The rest fan out to either side until John is caught in a tight circle, Lady Moonshirt staring at him from the side like a dog waiting for table scraps.

DC’s weight shifts and he holds his knife at shoulder level. John, wondering why he didn’t just pass them by, wondering why he didn’t run when DC started yelling, wondering why he had to get stupid at the bar, pulls his wallet out of his pocket, ready to defend himself.

His assailants snicker. “Who is this Jew?” says DC.

John can’t help a twisting grin from taking hold of his features. “I am Yoezer, son of Nathan, and in the name of all that is holy, prepare to die!” is what John feels like yelling, but instead he just kept smiling, waiting for something to happen. If I throw my wallet at the closest one, he thinks, maybe I can make a run for it.

Then, several things happen at once: DC takes a step toward John with the knife. John throws his wallet and misses. John hears a bunch of sounds from behind him; one is a voice shouting “Hey!” and another is simply a shout and a third is hollering that sounds like an angry chicken.

John is slammed into the pavement by what feels like a tree falling onto the small of his back, but it’s only Mordechai, who has tripped on a protruding cobble and falls on top of John. DC is closer now, recovered from the shock of the Russian mammoth’s charge, and still holds his knife. John can see it but can’t move much beyond his eyeballs. Then, the angry bird, a blur of pink, charges past and tackles DC in the legs. He goes down, hard. The knife skitters off to the side. The hollering force of nature stands up and turns back into tow-haired Shraga/Steven, who quickly steps away from the downed freak. The other freaks spook just as Yosef and Kalman charge in, and scatter down an alley, pulling Moonshirt behind them.

Mordechai lifts his own enormous weight off of John’s chest and stands. John can’t move yet; he feels at one with the cobblestones. “You guys ruined my attack plan.”

Guffaws all around.

“What? I had it.”

“Good thing you’re still in Yeshiva, little John,” says Mordechai as he walks off. “You’re not ready for the world yet.”

Shraga/Steven extends a hand to John, and pulls him up with surprising strength.

“That was a pretty good tackle,” mutters John as he picks up his wallet.

“Thanks. I was on the football team in high school.”

“Of course you were.” John throws his arm over Shraga’s shoulder, grasps Shraga’s arm with his gloved hand, and says, “The best bars within a mile radius of Yeshiva, in descending order, are as follows.”

A puzzled blond and a talkative ginger stagger off. The same moon that lit King David’s nights follows them all the way home.


Image from Wikimedia Commons.



Originally posted on Hevria.

The Orthodox Hebrew Guild of Daguerreotypers

The young man brooded in his darkroom, pursued by dark thoughts. His yarmulke felt like lead; his head sagged to his knees. People hung all around him, smiling. His cell phone rang.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Appelbaum,” he yelled, concrete walls ringing in echo. She was eighty. “Yes, yes – Baruch Hashem. Yes, I heard. Mazel Tov.” Her prayer group’s twentieth anniversary. He told his mother he’d do it for free. He sighed and ran a hand through his unruly red hair. “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.” Why do they never hear the worst part the first time you say it? he wondered. “I can’t do it. My camera broke,” he lied. “I’m sorry. I know it’s tomorrow. I know it’s expensive. I-I’m so sorry. I know. Mazel Tov. I’m sorry. Bye.”

He pushed his plastic glasses up on his brow and put his face in his hands for a few moments. Then he grabbed his camera and stepped into the street.


Standing in the alley’s aperture, Zalmy craned his neck, already strained by his dangling warship of a camera, to read faded house numbers. Seems to be the right place, he thought, and felt his stomach jolt. After months of quiet conversations near the tables of the homeless at various wedding halls and weeks of handwritten petitions stuffed between the third and fourth beams of a certain bench on Eastern Parkway (“Not the second and third,” Charlie had roared, drunk. “The Slaughterers’ Society!”) he finally secured an audience before a group that wasn’t supposed to exist. He walked past a hill of foul trash bags and came to a corroded metal door set in a stone archway. On the door, in printed black letters in the shadow of the arch, invisible unless you were loading it into your eyeballs directly, was:

Orthodox Hebrew Guild of Daguerreotypers (Est. 1840)

The wedding photographer’s club, profaned Zalmy. Holding his camera as a shield, he knocked on the door.

A slim young man in a purple shirt and a cloak of indifference opened the door with one hand, blinked in the sunlight and stepped aside to allow Zalmy’s passage. Zalmy hesitated. Slim took a sip of coffee from a plastic cup and raised an eyebrow. Zalmy came to a spontaneous, illogical, but utterly certain understanding of his own inferiority. He bent his head in shame and shuffled past the gatekeeper, pressing against the wall so as not to impale himself on the gelled prow of Slim’s haircut.

He beheld a cavern so like his own rattrap basement he almost thought he was in the wrong place. Charlie was absent, but his seat at the round metal table was unmistakable, festooned with the stickers the old eccentric loved so much. Charlie wasn’t even a photographer; he was a member of every secret Jewish society in Brooklyn by force of a treaty signed two decades earlier between the Freemasons, the Pew Nailers, and the Bad Pastry Catering League after a fatal accident at a highly public yet exclusive circumcision ceremony. Manny sat to Charlie’s left, a cave troll in suspenders. In front of him on the table a pack of Pall Malls rested next to his legendary beat-up old Pentax. Manny had been in this business longer than anyone alive, and Zalmy was certain he held the answers. To Manny’s left sat a Bar-Mitzvah boy, not a hair on his lip, pressing buttons on a gleaming Canon more expensive than a thousand of Slim’s coffees. Zalmy knew that despite his age, the Lifschitz kid was a major up-and-comer on the scene with extraordinary talent for photography and for using his age to leverage others out of jobs. His face was innocent but his eyes were sharp and his blood a cool mixed drink. Next to him sat a Chassid Zalmy didn’t recognize. He wore wire-rim glasses and a guarded expression and rocked back and forth in his seat as he watched Zalmy, weighing and measuring. Slim had the final spot. Zalmy stood near the entrance.

Manny rumbled like the subway. “We hereby gather for this the two-thousand-and-eighty-fifth convocation of our cabal to discuss matters photographical. All present assent to prevent exposure of all shared words, pictures, prayers, runes, scribal etchings, cookery, archaeological inscriptions, mythological subscriptions, apothecarial prescriptions, new technologies…speaking of food, it’s your turn, Yitzchak. Nu?”

“Five minutes, my wife is bringing, G-d willing,” said the Chassid quietly and respectfully. He launched into a monologue in brassy Hungarian Yiddish (its quietude and respectfulness undiminished) that Zalmy couldn’t follow, except for the ‘Baruch Hashem’ at the end of every sentence.

Zalmy looked to the other two – perhaps he could sneak a conversation with one of them. But the kid still had his head in his machine and Slim had created a phone ex nihilo (his pants pockets certainly had no room for it) and was tapping away.

“Uh, excuse me?” Zalmy slipped in after a ‘Baruch Hashem.’

He thought no one had heard but Yitzchak was suddenly jabbing his hand quietly and respectfully toward him and the other three laughed.

“I need help with my photos,” said Zalmy, because what defense have newcomers outside the simple truth?

“Ugh!” shouted Manny as if poked in the rear by an unrepentant bramble.

Zalmy stepped back a pace.

“Don’t worry,” said Slim, eyes on his own lap. “It’s his planetoid arthritis flaring up.”

“Your father’s a leper and a thief,” said Manny in the tune of ‘kindly be quiet, good sir.’

Silence followed this exchange, so Zalmy pressed on, “I thought no one could help me with my problem better than the Club.”

“Should get one of these,” grunted Slim, waggling his phone. Manny gave him a warning glance.

“No one on the Internet,” said Zalmy, “appreciates the depth of the issue.”

He didn’t know of the group’s perceived irrelevance in the information age. He didn’t know of the plots to close the Guild’s doors permanently. For the first time, he held their focus.

He unhooked his camera from his neck and turned it on. Its screen showed a picture he snapped at a wedding the week before. He handed it to Slim, who looked at it as if it was partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. “It’s a picture of men dancing at a chassunah. Am I missing something?”

“Yes,” said Zalmy.

Slim shrugged and handed it to Manny. The photographic sage, famous in the neighborhood and hired throughout the country, pursed his lips and looked the picture over, the SLR a toy in his slab hands.

“I don’t see it,” fell the decree from on high. “Seems normal to me.” He passed the camera to Yitzchak, who barely glanced at it before handing it to the kid.

Maybe I’m completely crazy, thought Zalmy. The idea was not a stranger to him. He had almost despaired when he heard, “That’s weird.” His head snapped up.

“What is, nu?” said Yitzchak.

“The people in the picture. They look sad.”

Zalmy exhaled. “Look through the rest,” he said.

“They’re all sad,” said the kid, thumbing the controls.

“That’s right. Since last year –”

(“Look close,” the kid was saying to Yitzchak, who peered at the screen with quiet and respectful interest.)

“– my pictures are sad. It doesn’t matter if they’re dancing, it doesn’t matter if they’re smiling. The pictures are just miserable.” They passed it back around. “It started with commissioned portraits,” Zalmy said. “Sometimes they’d be normal. Sometimes I could fix them, touch them up. Eventually I had to start making excuses and returning money. It spread to all my photos. Did you get to the one of the bridge yet?”

Slim nodded, hunched over the screen, face inscrutable. Zalmy knew what he saw, a standard shot of the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge bracketing clear blue sky. Pixel for pixel, it was entirely normal. Yet somehow the mind was helplessly drawn to the height, and the drop, and the consequences. Every time. Like a curse.

“Ah,” said Manny, the way one charitably says ‘ah’ if someone until that point had been miscommunicating and in spite of their incompetence one pierced the veil of obfuscation and could now be of assistance. “Well, if experienced photographers weren’t able to tell at first glance, your clients’ll probably miss it.”

“But it’s,” said Zalmy, “a problem.”

“What, you don’t like your photos? What difference does that make?”

“Well –”

“Do you know why a group of competing businessmen form a guild?” said Manny. He rested his hand inside his shirt and Zalmy had a crazy notion that a weapon hid there. The others bowed their head respectfully. “To conspire against the public. To agree on fixed prices. To decide what others need to pay for an inferior service they don’t need. You think your photographs are photographs? I studied under Bentzy Ehrlich!”

“I’m sure he was a great photographer.”

“No, he was just a photographer. You’re not a photographer. No one nowadays is a photographer. Just get the job done, kid. Your photos are means to an end.”

“I just want happy pictures.”

“And I want Bentzy Ehrlich to play dominoes with me down at the docks.”

“So you can’t help me?”

“Tsk,” said Yitzchak.

As this profundity penetrated reality and the following absolute silence extended ad absurdum, Zalmy was aware of life’s slow piecewise procession, clock tick by clock tick, and of how we all must one day grow old and wither, and how life is not a photograph.

Said Yitzchak in the quietest and most respectful way imaginable, “It’s probably just a phase. Take more pictures, keep doing what you’re doing, G-d, will help, and all will end in joy and happiness.”

“Keep doing?” repeated Zalmy.

“You know: follow the rule of thirds, frame your shots, and G-d will help.”

Your insistence on repetitively following a set of rules and hoping for success above all reason has got to be metaphorical, Zalmy wanted to say, but resisted for the fear of coming completely unglued.

“He’s telling you right,” said Manny. “Did you ever shoot at Ebbets Field, the air crisp like a pressed uniform? Did you put wealth on film at the Bossert Hotel? No? Stick to the rules, kid. They’ll fix you up.”

“But don’t you think there’s something wrong with my photos? Something extraordinary?”

“You think you’re special?” asked Slim in the exact flavor of sarcasm only available to religious Jews. “We all have our challenges. We all have to rise above them.”

“I’m just here to ask advice.”

“Listen, we look like we’re about the same age. Learn a lesson from a fellow student. When adults ask for advice, they ask like they know they’re the thousandth person asking, not like they’re G-d’s personal brainteaser.”

“Am I? The thousandth person asking, that is.”

Slim said (ostensibly to himself, because Zalmy couldn’t imagine he was expected to respond), “Where do you people come from? Be normal, for G-d’s sake.”

“Look at that picture! They’re smiling at their only daughter’s wedding. They look like they’re at her funeral.”

“G-d forbid,” said Yitzchak and Manny in high and low harmony.

“How did you develop that attitude?” said Slim.

“Be nice to him, Berel,” warned the kid, of all people.

“No, honestly. How are you gonna fit into adult life? You think you’re special. You think the world owes you respect.”

Kid smirked. “Who respects you?” he asked Slim.

“I sit on the council of the Orthodox Hebrew –”

“Because your father lets you,” said the kid gleefully.

The tiniest of glances between Manny and Slim.

The tiniest blink of Zalmy’s eyes.

The tiniest one in the room asked, “Have you tried changing cameras?”

Said Slim, “Yeah, maybe if you tried a mirrorless –”

“Shut up about the mirrorless,” suggested the others. Slim went back to nursing his drink.

“It was the first thing I tried. Doesn’t help.” Zalmy said.

The kid scrunched up his face and said, “They’re right, in the end. I think you’re in a slump. It’s the only explanation.”

“So the problem is –”

“With you,” said Manny. “Where is that food, Yitzchak?”

“Maybe you’re depressed,” said the kid.

I am now.

“Nu, If it’s really bothering you,” said Yitzchak, “maybe you should seek professional help. A therapist, or something.”

“There’s nothin’ that’d make me get a shrink, personally,” said Manny. “But that’s just personal. Everyone’s got their personal stuff, no? I think that’s really your best bet.” They looked at Zalmy expectantly. He realized with a start that they were ready for him to leave.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting help if you need it,” said Zalmy. “But, it’s just, my pictures are sad.”

“A sign of deeper issues, no?” said Yitzchak.

Zalmy thought of Mrs. Appelbaum and straightened his glasses, at a loss. He noticed for the first time the dandruff on Yitzchak’s shoulders, and the way the room’s bare squiggly bulbs cast small shadows where the paint was peeling off the walls. And clarity struck him. It struck him in his soul, at the inertial point within that refuses to annihilate itself. It filled him with fire, and his lips mouthed the flames. He said, “I think the people are sad.”


“The people. In the photos. I think they’re sad.”

“And the bridge? It wants to jump off of itself?” Manny asked.

Ever the realist, Manny, thought Zalmy, surprised at himself. “I don’t know. Maybe it had a sad architect. I’m just sure it’s not me. And if there’s no photographical explanation known to the wise men of this council, and there’s nothing wrong with the photographer, it must be the subjects.”

“You’re saying your pictures capture something ours don’t?” said Manny. Oh, Manny. I thought pictures were just means to an end.

“Ridiculous,” said Yitzchak. That something should change?

Text text, went Slim’s fingers. That’s right, savor your birthright, the right to apathy.

“It seems weird,” said the kid. So be it.

“I’m leaving,” said Zalmy, though he felt they suddenly had more they wished to say.

As he stepped into the sunlight, he saw motion down the alley. It was Charlie, wearing his iconic sticker-encrusted sweater (“I ♥ New York” and “Loshon Horah Kills” and everything in between), shuffling to the Guild’s door with a slight limp that had worsened in recent days. For some reason, he felt glad to see the wizened eccentric walking in broad daylight.

Charlie held out a scrap of cardboard, purple on one side, grey on the other. It looked for all the world like it was torn from a cereal box.

“I tore it from a cereal box,” said Charlie, and winked as he walked through the door.

Printed in a white businesslike sans serif on the purple field was:

Of all the things you bring to the table, YOU are the most important. YOU will never happen again. YOU are valuable. And no matter what YOU do, YOU are great!™

Zalmy walked to the end of the alley, dangling the cardboard with two fingers, unsure what dangers might lurk in the words. He heard laughing and saw the kids across the street playing under the blossoming tree. Some white petals dotted the sidewalk; some drifted in the breeze.

He drew his camera, cocked his lens, and shot.


Featured image from Flickr.


Originally posted on Hevria.

The Good – Chapter 2 – “Lessons”

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

The young graduate student stood in a ray of light at the front of the lecture hall, motes of dust eddying around him. He hadn’t said a word since he entered minutes earlier. Two dozen undergrads sat in a rough semicircle, some with pens poised over writing pads, others reviewing their reading assignment. The makeshift professor, about thirty years old, wore grey vest and trousers (not pants) somewhere between khaki and squash green. He was the only one  in the room with skin darker than paper. He had never taught a class before.

Malcolm Worthy took a plunging breath, looked up at the young, white faces, and began. “You have all at this point met Socrates, I trust. You have also met Euthyphro of Prospalta, a seer of ancient Athens. This brings us to the famous Dilemma. Who wants to summarize it for the class?” Several arms shot into the air. “Yes.” He nodded at a young man.

The student lowered his hand and said,  “The question is whether G-d loves piety because it’s pious, or whether piety is pious because G-d loves it.”

Professor Worthy stared at the student like he was a suspicious green fleck on a loaf of bread. “Where are you from?”

The blonde, square-jawed kid blinked in surprise. “Rhode Island, sir.”

“A veritable wasp hive,” boomed the professor as he rested his elbows on his lectern. “I assume that paganism is dead in Providence.”


“There aren’t many polytheists there. No druids or shamans?”


“No witches or gurus?”

“I don’t-”

“So I think that when you phrase a question shared by Socrates and Euthyphro, a prophet of the ancient Greek religion, as a question about G-d, you’re involving your own experience with priests and pews in Newport in a philosophical question that has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Am I correct, Chadwick?”

“My name is Lesley, sir,” said the student, his face drained of blood.

“Irrelevant,” said the professor. Lesley fell silent. “The original Dilemma involved what the gods, that’s gods plural, desired unanimously. But since you brought it up,” said Malcolm, eyeing the New Englander with kindness. “The Euthyphro Dilemma, in Lesley’s adapted form, is a fundamental issue for monotheists as well, and has earned the attention of some of history’s greatest minds. Now, let’s see if we can approach the underlying challenges…let’s split the room. Divide. Those who think piety is absolute, sit to my,” he thought for a moment, “left. Those who think G-d is absolute, to my right.” There was a general shuffling of papers and scraping of seats as the students rearranged themselves into two surprisingly equal groups.

“Let’s see who’s open to some edification,” said the professor. Pampered idiots, he thought.



“I hate heels,” said Natalie into the phone cradled against her shoulder as she pulled on leather pumps. She watched the store’s other patrons, a mother and daughter, pick through a kids’ sneakers section awash in pink plastic. Natalie’s own mother taught her early in life that style and comfort were not, in general, exclusive. Except in high heels.

“Must be tough being the female,” said the phone in Roger’s voice, sarcasm intact. “Paid to fly around the world, eat in the finest restaurants, and speak sweetly to powerful men.” As always, she could hear the clacking of a keyboard in the background.

“Not always sweetly,” she said absently and stood up. She grimaced in the precarious footwear but did not lose her balance.

“I yet again dive the dumpsters of humanity while you shop in boutiques,” complained the hacker, last syllables crackling with contempt.

“One hundred dollars’ worth of petty cash says you have never shopped a boutique in your life.”

“Nat’!” said Roger. “You ought to know it’s the principle of the thing!”

“‘Principle of the thing’ sets my ego detector on edge,” she offered. Should have taken up hacking, she thought. Roger gets to work barefoot.

“You don’t believe in principles now?” he asked. He loved to dance in for a conversational jab and pirouette to a new topic before she could pin him. “I thought you work for the Good of mankind-”

“Hey,” she hissed. “You shouldn’t say that, even on a secure line.”

“It’s way more suspicious than the angry whispering,” he said, punctuating with a vicious strike to his Enter key.

“If I had no principles, would I subject myself to ancient Chinese foot binding?”

“People torture themselves all the time, no principles required,” said Roger. “Or maybe you haven’t run into any self-loathing. Who could hate himself in a three-thousand-dollar suit?”

“You could have nice clothes, you know,” said Natalie. “All you have to do is ask.”

These people ask,” spat Roger. “You can’t spend five minutes in a hacker chat without twelve high-school kids asking how to steal. And when I ridicule them they try to cover up their fearful leeching with bad humor.”

Natalie rolled her eyes as she left the shoe department. “You know that you’re a high-school kid in a hacker chat room, right?”

“Yeah, but I’m not afraid.”

“He’d be happy to get you some nice clothes. You wouldn’t be stealing. A friend can still give a friend a gift, can’t they?” She rifled through power blouses. She needed something that said ‘I can destroy you.’ Classily.

“Friends don’t let friends take things for free.”

“Had a lot of friends, have you?”

All she heard was typing, a pleasant rhythm to her ears.



“You think,” said the professor, nose-to-nose with Lesley, eyes glinting, “that if I murdered you right now, it would be wrong only because an omnipotent being said so?”

Logically, the student knew that the proposed murder was merely a rhetorical device. Logically. “If that being created the world, He gets to make the rules, right?” said Lesley.

Malcolm rounded on the students behind his back. “Why is he wrong?”

“He’s wrong because if he’s right, there’s no such thing as objective morality,” drawled a woman with carrot-colored hair and angular glasses.

“No,” said the professor. “He’s saying that the desires of an absolute being determine absolute morality. It doesn’t get more absolute than that. Now, if-”

“It’s a self-contradictory position,” said the woman.

Malcolm took a breath to calm his nerves. “What’s your name?”


“From where?”

“Jackson, Mississippi, professor.” Malcolm heard some man snickering behind his back, and Amanda shot a look over his shoulder that could pierce bulkheads. “Is my birthplace relevant?” she asked.

He stared at her, face unreadable and heart soaring, and said, “No. I’m sorry. You were interrupting?”

“I was, before I was interrupted,” she said with a coy smirk. “His position is contradictory. If you don’t believe in a piety above G-d, then there’s no reason to serve Him in the first place.”

“Go on.”

“There can be no worth in choosing to obey G-d’s commands if the only possible motivations to do so aren’t pious. If you have righteousness and sin before you, there is no compelling reason to choose one over the other. You’d have to already have chosen righteousness to choose righteousness, and that’s impossible.”

“Lesley?” Malcolm called out. “Any thoughts?”

“No, sir,” he said, puzzled.

“Really? Well, how about we tell her this: If there is morality without G-d, then G-d is limited, beholden to a deity of his own, and isn’t G-d at all, is he?”

“Not a problem,” said Amanda. “I don’t believe in Him anyway.”

“But do you believe in man?” His eyes fixed on hers. Green, he thought.

“In woman, at least,” she said.

“Fair enough. So either you think that there is some kind of true morality divorced from a deity, or you think that there is no absolute morality and man – sorry, woman – must decide for herself what is right. If you claim the former, you have to explain how you are privy to this secret information; the latter, you don’t really believe in right and wrong at all.”

“What do you believe, professor?” asked Amanda.

“I believe that if you wanted easy answers, you should have stayed in Jackson,” he said as he stepped away from his students toward his desk, where his briefcase waited, lunch within. “Read the next hundred pages, for next time,” he said to the class as they began to filter out.

Amanda smiled to herself as she stepped into the California sunshine.



“Mister?” repeated the boy. He was about to punch his sister for his ball when the smelly old man said they shouldn’t fight with each other. Normally, an adult’s words wouldn’t earn Cody’s attention, but the man’s words reminded the eight-year-old of his father’s, kind and amused. Weird. Even weirder, he looked like a homeless guy, but he wasn’t on the street. He had a dirty plastic chair and sat next to an ATM in the little store and was, like, a million years old. When Cody asked why he shouldn’t fight with Dana, the old man got the same look in his eye Cody’s father got when he talked about the army, and didn’t say anything for a while. “Are you okay?” he asked. He took a cautious step closer to the ATM and tried not to breathe the miasmic hobo air.

The man jolted like he just woke up, and smiled. Cody stepped back. “Where are you parents?” he asked.

“My father’s next door,” said Cody.

“Would he want you to fight with your sister?”

“No, but she took my ball!”

“What’s more important? A happy dad or a ball?”

The kid stared.

“Your father loves you. You should try to make him happy.”

“He’s not here,” said Cody. Homeless and dumb? “And she took my ball. It’s mine.”

“Yeah, but she thinks-” he paused, and scratched at his ragged hair. “You know what? You shouldn’t punch your sister because it’s wrong to punch your sister.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that?” asked Cody. He wandered off to browse the toy section.

Malcolm shook his head, bemused.



“You’d hope congressmen would be smarter,” said Roger into his headset as he scanned stolen credit card offers online.

“He was just trying to help. We both know he’s not the problem. He’s-”

“The victim of a system?” asked Roger gaily. It was an invitation to reopen an old argument of theirs. If she picked up the gauntlet it was all over; a conversation of at least four hours terminated by mutual declarations of hatred and furious hanging up was sure to follow. Roger desperately wanted it.

He could practically hear her eyes lock with determination as she said, “Yes, he-”

The sound of a rude pipe bursting roared from her phone so loudly she had to hold it away from her ear. She brought it back in time to hear “-we don’t believe in systems!”

“Now, now,” she said, as she finally rang up her new purchases, “there are some types of what could be called systems that we certainly-”

“Nat’,” he said, quiet, deflated. “I can’t believe it…someone’s…”

“What?” she asked, as her chest dropped into her stomach. She never heard Roger sound so scared. “What’s happening? Are you alright?”

“Gotta go,” she heard, followed by the tone of an empty line.

Roger recoiled from his laptop screen, rolling halfway across the room on his chair as if a snake lay on his desk. His IRC window was open, and on its bottom line, the toxic words:

EvilHunter: Tell me about the Good, Roger.”



“You can trust me, Willie,” said Mr. Bell, school counselor, as he shut the door to his office. “Want to tell me what’s on your mind?”

“Am I in trouble?”

“No, but, honestly, that’s kind of why your teachers are worried about you. You’re not paying attention in class, but you’re not goofing around with your friends, either. They think you might have something on your mind. It’s my job to check that you’re okay, man.” Mr. Bell sat on the edge of his desk and fiddled with a Rubik’s cube. The teacher was in his early thirties and wore a bright purple shirt, dark tie, and black jeans. He and Willie had never spoken before.

“How does it work? I have confidentiality and stuff, right?”

“And stuff,” nodded the teacher. “As long as no one’s gonna get hurt, including you.”

“It’s nothing serious, Mr. Bell, it’s just-”


“Okay,” said Willie. “Have you ever met anyone who’s…different?”

“Different how?”

“See, that’s the thing. I don’t really know. He just was.”

“Well, tell me about it.”

“I was in a convenience store a couple of days ago, after school. Buyin’ Doritos.” Mr. Bell’s eyebrows rose infinitesimally, but he said nothing. “There’s this homeless guy who’s been staying there, and he…talked to me.” Willie had been about to say ‘knew my name,’ but an instinctive distrust of teachers from deep in his brain censored the detail. Mr. Bell waited. “He said that no one decides for me. That was the main thing, I think; I can’t remember all the parts. But he said that no one is responsible for me except for me. Not economics and not politics, he said, but I don’t know what he meant. He was so…different, somehow.”

Mr. Bell rested back on his palms and glanced at Willie’s file from the corner of his eye. “Is your mother okay?” asked the teacher.

“She’s alright,” said Willie.

“I’m glad to hear that,” said the teacher. Though he knew they would discuss all sorts of things over the next half hour, Joseph Bell already yearned for the moment when the student would leave his office and he could search online for a list of local convenience stores.

The Good – Chapter 1 – “Chats”

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

“As far as technically illegal deals with lobbyists go,” Martin Bridge’s staffer told him as he left the office, “this one’s a no-brainer.” Martin walked down the steps to the black Escalade that always awaited him. Jerry, his man from the Capitol Police, held the door open for him and waited for the representative from Nebraska to slide into the back before he took his own seat behind the wheel and asked, “Where to, sir?”

“The Lincoln Memorial, please, Jerry.” If the bodyguard chauffeur was surprised, he didn’t show it. The car rolled off.

Martin sat in silence and brooded the whole way there, fingers at his salt-and-pepper temples. As a rookie congressman he appreciated his experienced staff, but the word ‘illegal’ still sent a shiver down his neck. He had no personal knowledge of lobbying laws but from the number of times they reviewed the procedure with him he had an idea of the price of indiscretion. He needed some fresh air. And a hot dog.

The April day was breezy and the cherry blossoms were in bloom as he walked down one of the arcing boulevards near the memorial. Miguel’s stand wasn’t in its usual spot in the shadow of the columned temple. Why, he asked himself, did everything in Washington have to be so complicated? He came here to do some good for his fellow countrymen, but he found out quickly just how many twisted rings one had to leap through to walk in a straight line in Washington, DC. If anyone was to listen to his proposals, he needed leverage; leverage was a synonym for money, and for money, was to find out how he could help an American subsidiary of an international body representing Middle East oil interests. It’s just the way it works here, they told Martin over and over. And now even his favorite simple lunch spot had moved, as if some minor political deity decided he ought to eat like an elitist if he was to make a backroom deal that afternoon.

“Are you lookin‘ for Miguel, sir?” called a voice from behind. He turned to see a tall young woman in a confectioner’s uniform with her own hot dog stand identical to Miguel’s just a few feet away.

“I am, actually. Where is he?”

“He wasn’t feeling well. Food poisoning. Ain’t it ironic?” She flashed a thousand-watt smile.

“Well, maybe you can help me-

“You’re hungry,” said the woman. She spoke with a slight Southern twang.

“Ravenous.” He grinned. He described the type of dog he liked and she went to work preparing it. He was about to admonish her for adding too much mustard, but like Miguel her ratios were perfect. He pressed his lips together, impressed.

“I’m proud of bein’ good at what I do,” she offered when she saw his reaction.

“So am I.” She raised a questioning eyebrow. “Why, I’m actually,” he said, the words still novel, “I’m actually a congressman.”

“That’s amazin‘,” she said. “Where from?”


“Wow. I always wanted to live in the countryside. Did you grow up on a farm?”

“I grew up in New York, actually, before my parents moved out west. I was a Brooklyn boy.”

“Brooklyn?” she said, and handed over what to his astonishment was a perfect hot dog. Cherry trees billowed overhead against the clear blue sky. “One of my best friends is from Brooklyn.”



Roger sat in a dark room, drinking pop and waiting for the boss’s e-mail to slide onto his screen. He browsed as he waited, not in the Roman market of the new Internet, full of order and structure, a million cries for attention out on the cobblestones. No, his world was the catacombs, the mossy, dank underbelly of the ‘net, where people walk quickly, hooded and suspicious, one hand always on their knives, afraid to draw attention to themselves, each involved in his own important business.

He read the words of a thousand different types, of hackers and dissidents and madmen and people just looking for sick laughs. There were dwarves down in those tunnels, stout men of bold heart who chiseled works of stunning beauty from the foundations of the city; there were gnomes, slight and disfigured and afraid of every living thing; there were dark elves, fierce warriors who worshiped dark gods of violence; there were trolls who harried all travelers. The denizens of this dark realm were united only by a disdain for the world of sunlight; the surface dwellers had no inkling of who truly ruled the city.

Roger was raised in those hallowed halls, and he strode them with the confidence of a man at home. He loved the freedom, the wild creativity, the potential of the human mind set free in its beauty and its obscenity. By the time he was twelve, there was no depraved thing in the world he had not seen, and his school friends couldn’t hope to compete with the merry band with which he shared his nights, raiding and pillaging and laughing until sunrise. He was the youngest hacker activist, a squire of the night.

Until the boss found him.

He was herding back in those days, gathering hordes of computers into his employ, mostly for Denial of Service attacks but also for The Big One, the fruit of long hours’ toil. The idea came to him during one of his marathon all-nighters (many become hackers and end up staying awake through the night; he was an insomniac since toddlerhood and ended up hacking): a new method for brute-force attacks, to run on a distributed network of slave machines. A means to an electronic zombie apocalypse.  It was beautiful, it was powerful, it was secret.

He received an e-mail about it.

He didn’t realize the nature of the message at first; it was encrypted, a slice of random-looking information. He assumed it was some kind of error, a postage mix-up. It certainly wasn’t encrypted with his public key, which would allow Roger, and only Roger, to read the message. He forgot about it. It languished in his e-mail for weeks until, on a whim, he tried to decode it using his private key. The one nobody knew but him and that could only be pried from his dead, callused, fingers. It worked. The encryption unraveled. He tried to trace the e-mail, cold sweat dripping down his brow, but the address was utterly anonymous. It could be from some Chinese kid in an internet café, or a hacker collective in Belarus, or the old lady down the hall. His system had been violated by a stranger in the wind.

It made him shudder to think of the childish, violent e-mail he’d sent in return. If he had known the type of person he was insulting…

A metallic ping surfaced through the electric blare of his music to interrupt his thoughts. He switched to his inbox and found the message, terse as always:


He smiled a predator’s smile.



Willie Stewart flattened himself against the brick wall of the alley, cushioned by his empty backpack. The passerby on Fulton didn’t need to see the three of them huddled closely and speaking to each other’s shoes. “What about the homeless guy?” he asked.

“You’re kiddin‘ me,” spat Jamal, twice Willie’s size and almost twice his age. “He’ll be scared out of his mind. Don’t say you’re running home to your momma now.” He wasn’t Willie’s friendliest uncle.

Willie shook his head. “Just tell me again why I’m the one going in.”

Jamal swore. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re the youngest. You have a face that says you never committed no crime.”

“I really never did,” said Willie.

Jamal ignored him. “They’ll never see it coming. Now take this.” He produced a nice matte black .22 from his pocket, pulled up Willie’s t-shirt, and shoved the pistol into the teen’s waistband. Willie looked like he just swallowed something terrible that was about to come back up and tugged down on his shirt hem. “We’ll be right behind you,” said Jamal. He grinned. “A couple of hours from now you’ll be pickin‘ out new shoes.” Willie’s head bobbled in affirmation and he lurched out of the alley before he could think of everything that could go wrong with their plan.

He tied a black bandana over his mouth, pulled up his sagging jeans, and pulled open the drugstore door. Bells tinkled overhead. The small store was cluttered and stuffy. On the once-white tiled floor next to the door lay a coarse round red mat, on which a brown mutt awoke, raised an eyelid and twitched its nose, and went back to sleep. Willie approached the deserted counter with its grubby sign informing shoppers at what age they could buy tobacco; it showed a date three years before he was born. Where’s the storekeeper? he wondered. He must be in the back. The chair in the corner near the coffeemaker where the homeless man sat was also empty. His heart ratcheted in his chest.

“Good afternoon, Willie.”

He spun. His gun leapt into his hand. He pointed it into the face of Homeless Guy, who blinked in surprise and took a step back. “Down on the ground!” yelled Willie, voice breaking. The old hobo obeyed, sinking to his knees, hands behind his head. The young robber glanced at the man’s ruined teeth and gnarled dreadlocks and calm face before turning around and vaulting the store’s counter. Cash register: open; Money: into his pack; no sound but his own gasps. Dog: Still asleep; Homeless guy: still on the ground, staring at him. Bag: zipped; Gun: back in his pants. Over the counter. Three steps from freedom.

“Willie,” said the derelict. The teen took his hand off the door and let it swing shut. The bells jingled lightly. He knows my name. The thought caromed around his mind, looking for an emotion to incite. “I know about your uncle,” said the scruffy man, voice a rough slur. Willie’s first instinct was to yank the gun on him again. But then, what? Shoot him?

He knows my name.

“I’m not going to stop you walking out that door,” said the old man. “I’ll never tell anyone who robbed this store. I even sent Mr. Gupta out for a smoke so there’d be no other witnesses.”


“Not ‘how.’ Why. Why are you doing this?”

Something in the man’s voice compelled him to stay, though Willie’s every instinct screamed for him to run. The question wasn’t a demand or a rebuke; it was an honest inquiry, and dark patient eyes waited for his answer beneath a wrinkled brow.

“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling like an idiot. “We need this money.”

“I know,” said the hobo, voice thick. He seemed to Willie to visibly slump. “Your mother has cancer, and y’all can’t afford the medicine. Your younger brother goes to special private school. Jamal and his gang want to help, but they don’t have the cash.”

Willie gaped behind the bandana. Who is this guy?

“I wasn’t asking what your reasons are,” said the hobo. “They’re good reasons. I asked why you’re doing this. Do you see the difference?”

Willie was surprised he didn’t hate the question. Sweat dripped into his eyes. He shook his head.

“You have your reasons, but you’re not forced. You do as you please. This is your decision.”

“What choice do I have?” Willie croaked.

“You have all the choice in the world,” thundered the old rasping voice. “You are responsible for what you do today. Whichever way you decide, it is your decision, not your uncle’s or your mother’s. It will not be decided by economic or political forces; it will not be decided by what you watch on TV or who your friends are. Now, Willie Stewart, don’t tell me what you have to do; tell me what you will do, and own it.”

“We need the money.”

“Maybe you need a clear conscience.”

“I’m going.”

“I’ll be here.”

Willie turned and opened the door into the bright light and the fresh air. He ran across the street to Jamal’s waiting car, threw his pack in, and jumped into the back seat. The Pontiac squealed into the flow of traffic. “Any trouble?” asked his uncle, unzipping the pack and examining the cash.

“No. The owner wasn’t even inside. Just the dog and the homeless guy.”

“What’d he do?”

“It was like you said,” Willie lied. “He was scared.”

“Of course he was,” said Jamal. “Ain’t no messin’ with a man with a gun.”



When Roger peeled back Hellix’s security like a can’s lid and the user’s private information cascaded into his lap, he felt the thrill of finding a good friend in some marketplace halfway around the world. This is what he lived for, once; the hunt, the scam, the theft.

Getting into the machine was like saddling a wild horse: First, the adrenaline of exposure to danger, like a brass section playing high notes in his brain. Then tentative steps, weighing the creature’s intentions.  Next, unwavering, he imposes his will; sweet freedom only comes to those who aren’t afraid to be in control, who don’t mind swinging the saddle over that proud back. Slowly, in the face of his strong will and agile mind, the animal calms, its bucking wanes. It shudders and slumps and surrenders.  Because, deep down, the animal wants to succumb; it needs a master.  And Roger was a master.

His eyes saw Hellix’s real name, address, social security number, and location. His fingers, full of potential energy, waited to harness the data. This was his rebellion, when he took every feeling of alienation, every long, lonely, painful night, every inch of his angst, and shoved it back in the face of the world. It was a nearly unbearable, and when he couldn’t stand mocking his prey any longer, when he was ready to show them just how badly they’d messed up that night, he’d free their information in some nightmarish scheme straight from his imagination and watch their growing panic with satisfaction.

Yes, he lived to hack.

Hellix seemed to be a typical loser, a clone of a thousand other people he could attack, but then, Roger rarely understood the boss’s choices. He’d dig deeper and deeper, cycle through contacts, looking for something, anything that made his mark special. Then he’d give up and do his job.

“Hideous,” he typed into the chat screen as he idly rifled through Hellix’s hard drive. The man (though male was always a safe assumption, Roger had been surprised on that count before, and made sure, for curiosity’s sake, to glean the info from mark’s files) was a typical IRC troll, devoted to harassing anyone who’d lend him attention, more stupid than average for hanging out in a hacker’s chat room. Perhaps there was a mutual arrangement in which the hackers got entertainment and protection from prying eyes (no decent person could spend much time reading anything Hellix typed) while the troll didn’t need to fear the electronic attacks sometimes pressed against his ilk. The thought made Roger click through to his own status program, which monitored his stealth and defenses during jobs. It showed all clear and in the green.

Hellix responded with a volley of obscenities and a link that Roger recognized to a shock site full of terrible, unsettling images. The two of them were the only active chat users; it was the middle of the afternoon, when the unemployed hackers slept and the employed ones worked; their pet ogre watched over the chat room. Roger drew his blade.

“It’s fun to come online anonymously and pretend you’re fourteen years old and don’t care about anything,” he typed. “Let’s you rampage. Release your stress. Some people around these parts even say it’s the healthiest thing; they don’t know how their friends cope without the outlet.” His suddenly thoughtful tone and proper spelling would themselves put Hellix on the defensive. He’d be rushing to figure out how to turn this around and make fun of it, the troll’s only defense. His predictability rendered him harmless to Roger, a hulking video game boss who attacked and retreated in patterns.

“But you’re not anonymous, Eric. You’re a person, just like me. What would your daughter Kaylee say if she knew the things you said on here?” Roger could practically hear the tinkling sound of insurance salesman Eric Spellman’s (alias: Hellix) blood turning to ice.

A pregnant pause ensued, followed by swearing. “Wut r u, the morality police?” he tried to mock.

“I’m gonna have to put that on the list of your quotes I’ll mail to your wife and daughter in Scottsdale.”

“Please don’t do that,” said Hellix, politeness and grammar surfacing as one.

“Relax. I didn’t hack you so I can ruin your life. I hacked you to get your attention.”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to explain to me why Eric Spellman is the real you and deserves to live, and why Hellix deserves to die.”

Hellix swore again. “Is this a joke?”

“No. You don’t realize it, but this is as serious as it gets. Stop worrying about all the hackers in here reading the chat logs and finding out your name. Stop worrying about your wife and daughter. It’s time to make a decision.”

“And what’s that?”

“Who do you want to be?” asked Roger, shoving his sword into the belly of the beast.



Martin laughed as she nearly tripped up the steps of the Memorial, where he sat eating his third heavenly hot dog. “You sure are a hungry congressman,” she said, arranging herself a few feet away, allowing tourists to pass between them as they spoke.

He dabbed his lips with a napkin. “I had a busy morning and the afternoon’s shaping up to be a wallop as well,” said Martin.

“Tsk, I bet it is. I wish…” she trailed off, looking over the long reflecting pool, hair brushed by sunlight.

“What is it?” asked the congressman.

“I wish I had such an important job. Then I could make people’s lives better, you know?”

“Well, now, I don’t know how much better this’ll make you feel, but you fix up a mighty fine frankfurter.”

“Thank you. I just wish I was free to help people. I have to live paycheck to paycheck, and I have my little brother to worry about, and, well, I just don’t have time to think about too many people other than myself, I’m afraid. I probably shouldn’t even take breaks to speak to dashing politicians.” The smile again. Martin couldn’t help but grin in response.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” he asked.

Her back tightened and her head snapped around to face him. “No,” she said. She stood up, dusted herself off, and stepped down, back toward her abandoned snack cart.

“Hey, wait,” Martin called after her, confounded. “Is something wrong?”

She whirled. “You politicians are all alike. You think everythin’ can be bought. I don’t need your help, or anyone else’s. I’m not some animal to stable and feed.” She marched off, leaving the confused congressman to clutch at his hot dog wrapper and ruminate at Abraham Lincoln’s feet.



In a dark room in the Midwest, a cellphone buzzed. A hand crumpled an aluminum can, threw it in the trash, and answered the phone, pressing it to an ear. Thirty seconds later it grabbed a black coat, turned a doorknob, hailed a cab, and was gone.



In the nation’s capital, a cellphone buzzed. Red lips pursed as a message spoke through a curtain of red hair. She laid a small stack of cash inside the snack cart for Miguel, and a minute later evaporated into a crowded Metro station.



In a dusty New York drugstore, an ancient phone rang. Its shrill mechanical trill woke a dog, who shook herself off and went sniffing for treats. Mr. Gupta answered, and handed it over the counter to an old fellow he never expected to stay longer than a night. The recipient didn’t say anything the entire call, just listened, and slowly handed it back to the store owner, an indecipherable look on his face. Gupta placed the receiver on its cradle and asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Fine,” rumbled the old man. He sat down on his stool and rummaged in his pack for something. He produced an old, coverless paperback, and began to read.

“What do you have there?” asked Gupta.

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Ever heard of her?”


“Her endings are inevitable.”

“Sounds boring,” said the store owner, and began to wipe his counter.

“No,” he said, though he seemed to be speaking to himself. He turned the page and eyed the door. “You never see them coming, ‘till they do.”

The Good – Prologue – “Dredging Up a Derelict”


Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2


The damn kids have no respect, thought Malcolm Moses Worthy as he ladled rice into a bowl the color of a wet sidewalk. His granddaughter Marcy was always lecturing him on the alternatives. “What would you prefer, Grandpa?” she’d ask, chin thrust out, brown eyes protruding, muscled brown arms shooting out of her purple sun dress in frenzied indignation. “They could be out on the street. They could be in gangs. Instead they come and play Foosball and watch TV at the Y. Why you complainin‘?”

“I know, I know,” he always answered, and when she turned to go drag one of the hyperactive punks off a ceiling fixture or something he rolled his eyes. Marcy was his only granddaughter, and when she asked her grandfather to accompany her through the long days managing the Y he couldn’t say no. Those kids though! Nothing like when he was their age. They were loud, vulgar as anything, had no interest in the world past the end of their own noses. He would sit at one of the round tables in the cafeteria, eating and reading his books and occasionally casting a glance of death at boys who got too close. He would catch their eye and watch as their arrogance melted into confusion and then into the slightest glimmer of fear of the old man who they didn’t understand. Then he’d look back down at his plate and they would scamper off. He rarely said a word to any of the boys, though Marcy said they asked her about him constantly. The only time he opened his mouth was when he heard the way the older boys would talk about their girlfriends. Malcolm would shower the teens with invective like Philistine arrows until they’d run for cover into the gym or the pool room, swearing all the way. Marcy said it reminded her of the stories of her great-grandfather the minister rebuking his recalcitrant congregation, and Malcolm would grumble and ask for more chicken. It was tedious, day in, day out, but, though he’d never tell Marcy, it beat the hell out of sitting alone in his apartment.

He returned to his customary booth next to the window that looked in on the pool. He put a spoon full of rice in his mouth and picked up his worn paperback. Murder on the Orient Express. He’d read it dozens of times, and it never got old. The perfect murder, and Poirot right in the thick of the mystery. A battle of wits and logic on a train immobilized by snow. Finger-lickin‘ good. He was nearly at the end, where Poirot proposes two different scenarios for the murder. Malcolm always thought it bordered on impossible that someone from outside of the train did the crime, not just because the author set up the entire story as a closed-room mystery and it would violate the unspoken pact between reader and writer to allow an unforseeable, unmentioned character to be the murderer, but because if it were really an outside job, someone on the train nevertheless could have done it. The truth would be clumsier and less elegant that the possible truth. Reality would fail to live up to the detective’s mind. No, from the moment he ties the clues together, there is only one possible answer, one way it could really go.

It was a quiet afternoon, so it wasn’t hard for Malcolm to hear Marcy’s voice. He looked to the front desk on the other side of the atrium. Normally they sat in silence and simply enjoyed each other’s company, but she’d often call out things she read on the Internet or describe some scheduling issue and ask his thoughts. He would then, to her agitation, take out his cell phone, hit “2” on speed dial, and call her. She thought it was idiotic to speak on the phone to someone in the same room; he thought it was crass to shout across the hall at each other.

She wasn’t speaking to him, however, but to the strangest couple he had ever seen in his tenure at the Bed-Stuy YMCA. They were white, first of all, not so unusual after years of neighborhood gentrification. They didn’t look like the creative twenty-year olds he’d normally see on the sidewalks. The woman was much taller than the man and wore a grey cardigan over a black blouse with a polka-dot skirt that sent Malcolm back to the sunny Tennessee streets of his youth. Despite her unusual height she had a certain grace. Her shoulder-length straight hair was the color of fire. He placed her in her mid-thirties.

The man was her opposite in every way. If he could be called a man, that is. Malcolm estimated him to be about sixteen years old, and short. He wore an honest-to-goodness black trench coat. His face was incredibly pale and the black mop on his head completed the image of an intentional social outcast. Judging by the slender wrists resting next to the sign-in pad and the slim face, he was underweight.

What are they doing here? wondered Malcolm as Marcy’s face slanted from polite office bureaucrat to curious granddaughter as she lifted a pink-nailed finger and pointed it in his direction. The pair turned as one to face him, and he raised a hand in a cautious wave. The woman thanked Marcy and they walked toward Malcolm, pausing to wait for two boys to chase a basketball across their path.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. He flipped it open and read a message from Marcy: “They asked for Moses.” He shook his head at her across the room. The only people he ever met who knew his middle name were family members and private investigators. They weren’t the former, and they couldn’t be the latter. The teenager slouched even shorter and punier when he walked, while the woman floated with learned grace. A dancer, thought Malcolm. Or perhaps a gymnast.

They approached and the woman asked, “May we sit?”

Malcolm nodded and gestured to the opposite bench of the booth. The teen sat first, against the window. He peered through it as he extended his hand to Malcolm. “Roger,” he said. His voice was reedy and his grip was firm. “This is Natalie.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Worthy,” said Natalie as she sat and smoothed her skirt.

“Likewise,” he said. He watched them, full of patience, Roger studying the empty pool with untoward curiosity and Natalie looking at his bowl of rice and his paperback novel, an indecipherable smile on her lips.

“I didn’t actually believe you were eighty until now,” said Roger.

Until now? wondered Malcolm. “What gives it away?” he asked in his friendliest tone.

“Grey dreadlocks. Wrinkly face. Weird voice.” Malcolm suffered a severe bronchial infection a decade earlier that left his voice rough and raspy. “What the hell kind of eighty-year-old wears dreadlocks?”

“The kind you ought to respect, young man,” said Malcolm. He glared at Roger who continued to stare through the window with his brown eyes.

“Mr. Worthy,” said Natalie, “what Roger meant to say is that it’s hard to reconcile what we know of your achievements with your old age. We all imagine our heroes to be young, don’t we?” She spoke slowly, almost dreamily.

Malcolm dropped his friendly façade like a garbage bag. “Who are you? What do you want with me? If you’re private investigators you’re very bad ones.”

Roger began to snicker. Natalie said, “We’re not here to investigate you, Mr. Worthy. We’re here to make you an offer.”

“Since when do octogenarians have to suffer offers?”

“Not all eighty-year-olds have PhDs from Stanford they keep secret, Mr. Worthy; most weren’t professors, or activists, or soldiers. You’ve been all three.” Natalie smiled.

Malcolm took this revelation of knowledge in stride. “You want my advice or something?”

“We want to hire you.”

“To do what?”

“To do what you do best. Help us start a revolution.”

Malcolm burst with surprised laughter. “What are you, communists?” He laughed more.

“No. Materialist dialectics don’t interest us.”

“Well, Ms…What was your last name?”

“Natalie is just fine, Mr. Worthy.”

“Natalie, of course. What is it then? Are you environmentalists? Race warriors? Some kind of charity? Maybe you’re capitalists, lobbying for some big business?”

She shook her head. Roger said, “Do we look like morons to you?”

“Good-cop bad-cop?” Malcolm asked with a grin, as he looked between the two.

“We’re not cops, Mr. Worthy. Roger’s just expressing his adolescence.”

Roger frowned but said nothing.

“Is this going somewhere? I’m in the middle of a good book here.”

She thought for a moment and said, “Say we were communists. We came here to get your advice for fomenting a worker’s revolution here in New York. What would you say?”

“I’d say ‘get lost.'”

“Why would you say that? You were a commie in San Francisco, redder than Stalin if the stories have it right.”

“Who’s telling stories?”

“Apologies, Mr. Worthy, but I can’t say. Not yet. You used to be a communist,” she persisted. “Why wouldn’t you help a revolution now?”

“I don’t know you, Natalie, and I shouldn’t speak to you of personal opinions,” he said. “On the other hand, it has been such a long time since I was asked to lecture.” She leaned on the table and laced her fingers beneath her chin, watching him. He glanced at the front desk, where Marcy was trying to catch his eye. He smiled at her.

He cleared his throat and said, “Revolutions are for young fools, begging your pardon,” he said. “I used to not even care what the cause was, as long as it was revolutionary. Anything was better than the diseased status quo. Then I grew up and realized it’s not so simple. Human problems are resilient. They don’t disappear because a bunch of idealistic children think they should.”

“But you’re an African-American,” said Natalie, full of Socratic innocence. “Don’t you benefit from revolutionaries who came before you in this country? Civil rights activists, at least? We know you met Martin Luther King. And Malcolm X.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “They were special men, Natalie, but their revolution wasn’t a revolution in the truest sense of the word. They changed everything, but they changed nothing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Laws weren’t the problem. People were the problem. Those who were racists, true, unrepentant racists, I mean, of the type uncommon today, remained racist after everything. And my fellow African-Americans…” he trailed off.

“We know exactly what you mean, Mr. Worthy,” Natalie said. “People are the problem, and there is only one way to fix people.”

“Education,” he said instantly, playing his part in an old dialogue. “You’re education reformists?” his bushy eyebrows floated upward.

“Not exactly.”

“Good. I hate education reformists.”

“Our job is to give people choices, Mr. Worthy.”

“What kind of choices?” asked Malcolm.

“Imagine a black boy, a high school student here in Brooklyn, who is considering joining a gang. He should know that he has a choice in the matter.”

“So you offer some kind of after-school programming?” he asked, exasperation tinging his voice.

Roger loosed a tremendous sigh and turned to face him. “No. We show him that he is more than his choice, and set him free.”

“You’re a religious group?”

“G-d, no, I’m an atheist. Listen to what I’m saying,” said Roger. He continued evenly, “I did the same thing you did, you know. When they came for me. I tried to fit it into every box I knew. Eventually I ran out of boxes. This is something different. A real revolution.” For the first time since they’d sat down, Roger seemed to care about the conversation.

“I don’t understand.”

“Our boss can explain it to you better than we can,” said Natalie. “Come with us, and we’ll introduce you.”

“So it’s not just the two of you?”

“No, Mr. Worthy. There are many of us,” said Natalie.

“We are legion,” Roger said, and grinned, though Malcolm didn’t understand what was funny. Natalie rolled her eyes.

“Just come and hear us out. We’ll have you back before Marcy closes up shop.”

“Hmm,” grunted Malcolm. They know a lot about me, he thought. It could be a trap. And even if it’s not, I’m too old for all this. He glanced down at his book. If I don’t go, it might ruin the entire plot, he thought. His own imagination surprised him. Part of him felt that he was part of some grand plan, and that if he declined, it’d be summoning a murderer from outside the train. I’m not being logical, he thought, even as he said, “Alright. I’ll come. But if I miss Law and Order, I’m gonna be one grumpy old SOB.”

“I can’t even imagine what that’d be like,” said Roger, as Natalie stood and offered her hand. Malcolm refused it and grabbed his black cane from where it stood propped against the booth. He texted Marcy, “Be back soon.”

She texted him a question mark. He sent one back, and pocketed his phone.


From a Dream, Shabbos Night, 18 January, 2014

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

Since Wednesday

1. אנת הוא חד, ולא בחושבן

Goldberg sits in his bedroom with the curtains drawn and watches YouTube. When he woke up on Wednesday to find his life deserted, the window panes exposed the winter sun and a Brooklyn lane with dirty snow piled high along its sides. He remembers washing his hands at his bedside of the night’s impurity, padding to the bathroom, and splashing his face with the water that sat in outdoor pipes overnight and shocked him fully into reality every morning. It was when he sat down to dress that he noticed the empty street. He shudders to think of it now, and desperately clicks the red wedge on his screen. Light and sound pour into his mind. He chances a glance and sees that the floral drapes indeed completely cover the windows. They remind him of his mother, and he can’t help looking at his cell phone. It hasn’t trilled or brayed for two days. Its volume is on the highest setting.

He goes through every video he ever loved: singing auditions, soldiers returning home, comedians, University professors, wild animals, magicians, television actors, amateur talking heads, hypnotists, social activists, scientists, ageless political speeches, and even, to Goldberg’s surprise, talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which make him feel like crying. He recalls a powerful performance of Nessun Dorma and enqueues it. His browser has another tab open and even though the webcam feeds it contains are even more painful than opening his curtains, he can’t keep himself from checking them when the videos cannot soothe his nerves. An empty Times Square and an empty Champs-Élysées haunt him. When they begin to dominate his thoughts he opens Minesweeper and plays it while listening to the videos. The high-score list reads “DG” all the way down.

Clutter surrounds his laptop as if the computer is one of the heavy blocks dislodged from the temple mount by the Romans, his Tefilin, dirty dishes, and clock lining its impact crater. The clock is an old analog model whose battery he dug out the night before, his vision blurred by tears, when the ticking got on his nerves. He thought he was being melodramatic even as he did it, and he realized with a start that he may be the only remaining judge of character in the world, and could give himself a pass.

Everyone is gone. His parents, his siblings, his dozens of nieces and nephews. His wife. Every Facebook friend either went or is too busy to post. Twitter is a dead zone, the radio is static, and he can’t find a blog that has updated since Wednesday except for his own. He wrote a one-paragraph plea shortly after he woke up that day, and no one has viewed it.

Goldberg closes his eyes as Pavarotti hits the big final note. The video ends. He pauses the playlist and reaches for a squat sefer within the clutter crater, opens it at the bookmark, and reads:

“One must have trust even at such a time when within the laws of nature there is no visible justification for it.”

He sighs. It’s laid out so simply, black ink on white paper, as if it asks not too much. He never felt anything visceral or moving in those words. If the Hebrews stood once between Egypt and the water and turned every direction but forward, if they wanted to throw themselves to their deaths, or brave slavery once more, or risk battle with their masters, or raise their voices in prayer, but could not, on their own, fathom the sea, if they had no illusions after two centuries in Egypt that G-d would simply peel back the swelling waters from their path, who could blame them? Oceans don’t stand like walls. But then, he reflects, people don’t just disappear, either. Maybe He’ll give back what He’s taken.

Goldberg grabs a siddur to daven Mincha and realizes that it’s Erev Shabbos. He needs wine and bread. He creaks down the stairs to the kitchen. Blinds shut out the little window that gives a view of the narrow alley between his building and the next. He rummages through his bright white refrigerator. Leftover chicken from Tuesday zipped in plastic bags lies squarely on a foil-covered bowl of green salad in one corner. How can there be cooked chicken? It is a silent proof of Michal’s existence, arranged neatly under her orderly hand, delicious by dint of her skill with marinades and spices. She must exist, she must, she must.

There’s no wine, however, and the breadbox sits gaping on the countertop. I have to go to the store, he thinks, stomach turning. He shuts the fridge and sees a picture from their wedding stuck to its door. It was six months ago, but his chestnut beard was visibly shorter then. Michal hated being photographed and muttered to him the entire session, the cause of his broad grin and her slightly upturned lips. Despite his smile and the best efforts of the photographer he was as white as her dress (nerves; fast; exhaustion). She reminded him to pray for a certain friend of theirs under the chuppah. He did, and he asked, with his eyes screwed shut, for children G-d would be proud of, and a peaceful home, and health. He thanked G-d for his wife, and had done the same every morning, until Wednesday.



Since childhood he loved the crisp winter air, and even now he enjoys it as he bolts his front door (why, he doesn’t know).  Deep breaths, he reminds himself, his mother’s reassurances sounding in his head as he makes his way down the road watching the concrete beneath his feet.

At his Bar Mitzvah one of his uncles suggested he should try to say words of Torah when he walks in the street, and they come easily to his mouth after over a decade’s worth of soft mornings and tired nights. He passes the Yeshiva where the words buoyed him through his early teens, his anger at the rabbis and his parents. He turned out okay, he thinks, though he brought them all to an early old age. By the time he was eighteen, he’d learned to accept the wisdom they offered, and did anything he could to make them proud. He wore his hat and jacket when he bentsched, he learned his daily Torah with clockwork regularity, and by adulthood he was conversant with several masechtos of Shas and knew many maamarim of Chassidus by heart. He wrapped Tefilin with elderly Jews every Friday, he taught so many kids in summer camp that half the boys in the neighborhood greeted him in the street, and even did a tour of duty in Tibet for one Pesach. No, the Rabbis had nothing to complain about in the end, and the talks he’d have with his father walking to shul or with his mother in her kitchen bloomed and sweetened. His shidduch came quickly and painlessly, helped along by his friends’ recommendations.

Goldberg’s eyes sting and he wipes his nose on raggedy tissues from his pocket. He stares at the passing cracks of the sidewalk, and his ears hear a gaping nothingness. No birds? he wonders. Are there never any in winter, or did they vanish as well? Somehow not knowing made it worse, the same way forfeiting on a technicality is worse than losing.

He rounds a corner and hastens past the small shtibl he attended since his marriage, tries to ignore the memories of the coffee, the chazzan with his yellowed tallis and new phone holster, and the cheerful farewells as each man went on his way, ready for work or study. He figures the worst is over now; a couple of blocks to the grocery store that he knows like the words of Ashrei, a brief dash among the aisles, and the short walk home to his room and its curtains. The thought of Shnayim Mikra actually brings a wan smile to his face; in spite of everything, he still hopes it’s a short Parsha.



He has two shiny black plastic bags full of food and is about to leave the store when the sound of a car motor separates from the background silence. It is not close by, he thinks, though in the mute, eerie Brooklyn it’s hard to judge distance. His instinct is to run back home with the food and lock his door. No one would try every door in the neighborhood; if they were looters, they’d never find him. Then he realizes that he’s terribly curious to see who else was left and what brought them there.

Goldberg haltingly slaps a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. The car engine, which has grown closer but is still at least two long blocks away, cuts out. A car door opens, then crunches shut. No, Goldberg decides. I’m not curious at all. He is about to go step into the street when he hears a distant cry of “Hello?” followed soon after by “Shalom Aleichem? Anyone?” in the same man’s voice. Even a cynical New Yorker knows that Shalom Aleichem is rarely a prelude to violence or theft, and Goldberg sighs, leaves his bag on the floor next to the counter, and walks down the road in its direction.

Where Goldberg is certain the voice sounded, a police cruiser crouches, half on the road, half on the sidewalk. It’s empty, but he knows where the driver must have gone. It’s parked right outside the Main Synagogue, the largest in the neighborhood. He walks down the dozen steps to the basement entrance where a row of large double doors greet him. It is lonelier in the lobby than it has been in half a century, though the coat racks are still crowded and the enormous electric kettle is still hot. He steps through another door that swings softly on its hinges and he is in the cavernous sanctuary, still full of the glorious chaotic disarray that signifies life; books stacked haphazardly on metal trollies wait to be shelved, pamphlets stuffed to the edges with polemics and advertisements are scattered across every flat surface, and the tables and benches are comfortably misaligned, moved wherever one pleased and never moved back. The room has no symmetry and no natural light and is held up by painted I-beams that laser down from the ceiling at random. Dozens of pews, so layered with paint that it’s easy to imagine none of the original wood remains, face an exquisitely carved calico ark. A long dais runs along the south wall, and a near-lightless tunnel lines the sanctuary’s Western side, so packed with books it seems made of them, a resting place in the wee hours of the morning for the homeless and the devoted. In the center, a bimah that can hold a Minyan rises like an island.

Innumerable lives revolved around this room, an immutable stake driven into solid earth in a world awash with change, fear, and relativism. “If there is no house, there is no man,” Goldberg thinks, and wonders if the reverse is also true as he walks from under the overhanging women’s section toward the bimah.

He almost forgets that he is looking for someone, but the sound of weeping draws his glance. A man stands next to the ark, grasping the rightmost edge of its floor-to-ceiling curtain at shoulder height, his frame trembling as he sobs. He is facing away from Goldberg but his beard, black veined with silver, is visible, as is his dark velvet yarmulke.

Goldberg steps forward and says, “Sorry?”

The man whirls. His complexion is dark and his almond-shape brown eyes shine with intelligence. There is a certain stateliness about his face, a refinement, as if time (though he is middle-aged his face seems older somehow) melted its sharp, assertive edges away as water melts a rock. He sees that Goldberg is no danger and his posture relaxes as his surprise recedes. “Goldberg,” says Goldberg, and extends his hand.

“Rosen,” replies the other. He shakes Goldberg’s hand as he wipes his eyes with the sleeve of his worn but neat suit jacket. His voice is deep and he looks to be in his late forties, twice as old as Goldberg.

Realizing he has interrupted Rosen in the middle of something, Goldberg attempts to smooth things over and asks, “That your police car outside?”

Rosen eyes him evenly and says, “I stole it. Thought I might hear something on the police radio. My truck was out of gas anyway.” He is polite and guarded and the only sign he betrays of his earlier emotion is a quiet sniff.

His accent strikes Goldberg as good. “Are you from New York?” he asks.

“West Virginia,” says Rosen. He then suffers the unbearable double take, the scan of his body searching for weird suspenders or dirt under his fingernails or something. He can practically hear the cogs turning in the kid’s mind: Why would a Chassid live in West Virginia? How does he get kosher food? Does he ever daven with a Minyan or hear the Torah read? Which wife could he convince of moving there? Rosen doesn’t like that line of thought, and says, quiet but clipped, “I’m surprised anyone is here.”

Funny, thinks Goldberg. I was happy to see you. “Thank G-d, whatever…whatever happened didn’t happen to me. Have you run into anyone else?”

“No. It was empty all the way up here. All the cars are stopped on the highway. Some of them crashed. No people, though. Or bodies. You’re the first.”

Two out of seven billion are left and we’re both Chassidim? thinks Goldberg. I could just be going out of my mind; I could be sitting in an asylum right now, and my psychosis is so smart it’s invented a world where no psychologists exist to treat it. I’ll have to learn the textbooks myself. Would it allow me to identify and cure it within the world it itself has generated? If I’m smart enough to imagine all of this I’m probably smart enough to prevent my escape, which is discouraging, though not as bad as if it’s all real, in which case, what? Aliens? Oh, G-d…

“When is candle lighting?” asks Rosen, looking away from Goldberg, uncomfortable.

“Early,” says Goldberg, shaken from his uneasy thoughts by the most normal of questions. He has never been happier to hear the stressful question.

“Do you have Kiddush and food?”

Goldberg hesitates, but no, running home to eat alone is out of the question. “I’ll bring it. We can make the meal here.”

Rosen watches him go, and turns back to the ark’s curtain. He cannot fathom the way G-d chose to bring him back there, but it had been far too long. When he was Goldberg’s age he lived in Brooklyn, until everyone found out and it became unbearable, even dangerous, for him to walk the streets, to pray in that large shul. He is glad that no one is left, wherever they went; he’s glad that he can finally return. Thank G-d Goldberg is too young to recognize my face, he thinks. He erupts in low laughter. The pleasure of having that sacred place to himself is enough to make him dizzy, and he laughs until he is out of breath.



2. לכו נרננה

Goldberg welcomes Shabbos as if he’s sore. He wants to feel serenity or even good cheer as he sings L’cha Dodi but it’s like trying to light a match during the plague of darkness. So he watches Rosen instead. By silent agreement they sit ten rows apart, each in his long Shabbos coat, Rosen’s more worn and informed by a bit of belly. First the older man stares into the distance rather than his siddur, then slowly looks down and begins to recite the words with relish. It reminds Goldberg of the old Chassidim, before the war. They didn’t look like much, either, arriving from distant lands with muddy boots and shining faces. They were always misunderstood and mistreated until the Tzaddik would reprimand the villagers and explain the stranger’s great worth. Of course, he reflects, the war killed that world, as if Hitler’s evil was so great G-d couldn’t even bear to send heroes into the world anymore. Even on Tuesday, those true leaders left to the Jews were all born in the light as the day was dying, before Germany snuffed out the lamps. No, Rosen is no saint of the countryside; there is no use seeking redemption there, no matter how beautifully the man prays. He is as broken as anyone else.

“מעביר יום ומביא לילה,” says Goldberg. “You pass the day and bring the night.” The familiar words have new meaning. He, as every Jew, struggled, and would do well remembering that G-d rules over the night as well as the day. This strange nightmare cannot exist outside of His will. Whatever reason we’ve been spared, it’s for a purpose. But why? Why me? Where did they go? He can’t bear to think about it anymore, and he focuses on the sound of his own voice saying the Shma.

Rosen feels like a child coming to his father’s arms. For the first time in years he prays not to bolster failing defenses but to attack, to cover ground. G-d is the only one who ever understood Rosen, but the Chassid always felt that his easy hatred of the world tainted his love of the Most High . If one loves one’s father because one all men despise one and one despises them in turn, does one truly love one’s father? But now, the delight! There are no other men, no one to loathe him or demand that he loathe himself, only he and his Beloved in the huge shul in Brooklyn, like on the half-remembered trips here in his childhood when he played under the benches and knew that his G-d created heaven and earth and cake and candy and would never let anything bad happen. Everything since those young days passed like a fevered dream, disappointment chasing disappointment, heartbreak after heartbreak. G-d started it, he often thought to himself. G-d let him down, but he remained faithful, never stopped searching. Pain followed pain, and Rosen trudged on until, one regret-soaked day when he was twenty-five, he rebelled, and everything shattered and collapsed. People got involved; he went into exile; he lived quietly down south. It was just a nightmare, the whole thing! He wants to smother G-d with kisses. Together, they welcome the Shabbos queen.



They are halfway through the night’s supply of gefilte fish when Rosen asks what Goldberg has been up to since Wednesday. Goldberg’s answer is slow in coming, and his face is hot. “I’ve been indoors, mostly. Watching webcams on the Internet.”

Rosen’s bushy eyebrows pull toward his hairline, and Goldberg awaits a rebuke; many Chassidim of Rosen’s generation have little patience for technology except in the spreading of G-d’s word. They would agree there was nothing morally wrong with watching a webcam, but in the end, hands on keyboards are the devil’s playground. Goldberg half wishes he rejected computers so resolutely; at least he would have gone outside and done something, like Rosen did by coming to New York. To his surprise, the older Chassid shrugs, ambivalent, and merely tears some crust from the challah and eats it. He then wipes his hands together, reaches under the table, and produces a large bottle of vodka. Goldberg can’t help but grin.

“We should try to finish the bottle before Moshiach comes,” says Rosen, and measures three fingers into each of their white plastic cups, “so he’ll be jealous, and come sooner.” Though Goldberg never read anything about a mass disappearance before the Time to Come, he throws it all back and feels less cold even as he grimaces and coughs and splutters. It is terrible vodka.

“Reminds me of Thursday nights in yeshiva,” says Goldberg.

“Always hated those,” says Rosen. “They were too loud and everyone just spoke garbage.”

“Ah, a real Chassid,” says Goldberg. “You wanted meaning and not foolishness. People would drink too much and say stupid things. Much better to only speak words of Torah, I always thought.”

Rosen stares at Goldberg. Interesting, he thinks. He wasn’t thinking of those alcohol-fueled gatherings in a particularly religious way, though he agrees that Torah and garbage can never be the same. On those nights, he always ended up with the noise and the heat to his back, the cool night ahead, lit by G-d’s stars in the sky and the small stars of man on the horizon, comforted by them even as he felt dwarfed before them. He’d had no interest in peers, in equals. He’d wanted something more.

Goldberg salts his challah as Rosen snatches the liquor bottle by its neck and pours another round. “Are you married?” asks the former.

“Divorced,” offers the latter. Goldberg squirms and looks at his plate. Rosen can almost feel the grids of Goldberg’s mental register narrow, looking to bracket him in the corner of a vast spreadsheet, way down past the double letters, where “old” and “single” intersect, his only company pariahs and derelicts. In his youth he would scream at the thought of this, but it’s so inevitable and engrained that he cannot even rightly blame those who do it. It is only logical as Goldberg’s first assumption, and Rosen has nothing deeper he wishes to share. To the wind with it, he decides, and willfully launches himself into the wilds beyond the edge of the Chassidim catalog. “I live alone with my Plott, Palti.” Goldberg looks lost– “My dog.” –and winces ever so slightly. Religious Jews from Brooklyn hate dogs near universally, and Rosen sadly boxes Goldberg into that cell. “How about you?” Rosen asks. “Married?”

“Six months,” Goldberg says, and forces another bite of fish past the lump in his throat. “Her name is Michal.”

“At least you don’t have kids who disappeared.” Goldberg flinches. Could Rosen possibly know? No, it was just a natural reaction.

“Do you?”

Rosen shakes his head. “Soup?” Goldberg nods shakily, and Rosen heads off to ladle equal measures into Styrofoam bowls.



They sit on the pews again, Goldberg behind Rosen, recovering from the meal’s pained small talk. Goldberg reads the same paragraph for the third time without understanding a word and Rosen stares at the ark over the edge of his Chumash.

“Why us?” Goldberg calls out, surprising himself. The question gutters out into silence and the older Chassid doesn’t answer or even change his posture for so long that Goldberg wonders if he wasn’t heard. He can’t see Rosen’s brow furrowing, feel the sudden tensing of his shoulders, hear his molars grind, or know the violent thoughts that flare in his mind.

Rosen swivels and looks Goldberg in the eye. “Why are you asking?”

“Well, we’re here for a reason, aren’t we? If we’re the only Jews left on earth, we should figure out what our responsibilities are.”

Rosen laughs, a clatter from deep in his chest. “Torah doesn’t change. We must do exactly what we did before Wednesday.”

Ridiculous. “I have no job, no Yeshiva, no community, and no family. How can I possibly do what I did before?”

“G-d is still alive. Learn, daven. Love Him and fear Him,” says Rosen, face alight with feeling.

Goldberg is angry, suddenly. “What does that even mean? My wife and my unborn child and everyone I have ever known have been taken away and you want me to just carry on? We’re survivors of a holocaust and you think I should just keep trying to finish Shas?”

“Have you considered,” says Rosen, “that they are fine and we have been taken away?” Goldberg stands and begins the pace down the aisle of the shul, considering.

“Maybe that makes me feel a little better,” he admits, “but I still want to know why I’m here, and why you’re here, and no one else is.”

“Do we have anything in common?”

“I’m not related to a Rosen. I don’t think I’ve ever met one.”

“And I’m not related to a Goldberg, either. I grew up in Minnesota and only lived in New York once I got married. Where did you go to Yeshiva?”

“Here, my entire life. What was your wife’s family?”

“Berman. Yours?”


Rosen shakes his head. They don’t know any of the same people. He shrugs and looks back into his sefer. Goldberg tears it from his hands. The younger Chassid refuses to see the building animosity in Rosen’s dark eyes as he draws out more and more farfetched details from the older Chassid. At first Goldberg offers his own responses as well, but eventually he simply directs a stream of questions at Rosen with growing desperation. Rosen answers calmly, “’73. Yuma. Red. One. Crown. No. Many times. Nothing significant. Three letters. No. Not in particular. Kremenchug. The Tzemach Tzedek. When I was a child. No. Yerushalayim. Yes. A Ford F-150. Latkes. When people stop asking me stupid questions. Stop, okay?”

Goldberg grits his teeth. He is sweating and blood pounds in his neck. “How can we not know why we were chosen?”

Rosen sighs and against his better judgment says, “I don’t know why you’re here.” He stands and walks toward the door to the street, picking up his overcoat and shrugging it on.

“Who are you?” Goldberg asks in a small voice.

“I am the only man in the world who is happy to be alone,” says Rosen, and climbs the steps into the cool fresh air as Goldberg collapses onto a bench.



It is clear to Rosen as he strides down the sidewalk (for some reason even now he can’t bring himself to walk down the middle of the eight-lane thoroughfare) that to be alone is to be as close to G-dliness as is possible for flesh and blood. The One not only lacks but will not stand for another being; there can be no other, and no trillions upon trillions of atoms mean anything to the contrary in any way Rosen can understand. The thoughts of my mind and the work of my hand are lies, contrivances, while my solitude, perfect except for Goldberg, reaches beyond eternity to the time before He made an other, he thinks. He decided long ago that his loneliness, though painful, does not constrict his spirit but is its emancipation, the scrambling of a newborn calf finding its footing in a new reality.

He has been staring down at the sidewalk, and when he looks up he finds that, his feet, acting on their own accord, have brought him to a place he used to know, a certain house in a row of near-identical brownstones. He recognizes it by the metalwork of the door grate with its splayed arcs forming arrows and flowers in their intersection. It is rusty now, but its craftsmanship and staid elegance are clear in the streetlamp light.

An old pain bursts inside of him. In this house he betrayed his G-d in a foul mix of passion and premeditation that left him sick and happy and broken. On the day the evidence was found, his normal life, his Goldberg life, crashed around him there like a crumbling Soviet building, and that night rumors cohered over a thousand salt shakers. Then he felt only the crippling, sublime loneliness whose corpse now rises like the dry bones, like the man across the Yaavok, to conquer him. He doesn’t flinch or run but faces his enemy. I don’t believe in you, he tells it, and though it has no voice he hears its mocking reply.

Oh? it asks.

There is nothing other than G-d, says Rosen. You are His servant, sent so that I can discover the depth of my own G-dliness and put it into His service. It is the courage I’m using now. I am clean of my betrayal, it will never happen again, and you won’t convince me that I’m supposed to feel like a broken shard. Who needs you? Go away.

The specter curls away like smoke and melts into the air. There are tears running down his face and his fingers are numb on the door lattice. His mind turns to a delightful tangle of logic from a maamar he learned earlier and his body turns to the street. By the time he rounds the corner of the block he is humming a happy tune.



Goldberg decides he must follow Rosen nearly from the moment the latter makes his pronouncement and pushes out the door. He has no idea just how far back he ought to linger to prevent his detection, but Rosen’s path is predictable, following the sidewalk despite the empty street, and he seems lost in thought. Goldberg wants to say his words of Torah but is afraid that in the silence he will be heard, so he thinks the familiar letters instead, and avoids crunching in the ice-rimed snow.

He stops when Rosen does; he watches as the strange man looks at one of the row houses and slowly, shaking, approaches it. Rosen leans against the door, his fingers brushing its surface, and becomes still. Goldberg feels a heavy dread fill his stomach as Rosen straightens up, walks quickly back to the street, and nearly waltzes around a corner; he knows he must approach the door and inspect it for himself.

Up close he sees the door’s truly exquisite iron grate, aside from which it looks like every other house in the neighborhood. As he reaches out to inspect the doorknocker, he notices a glint on the door at chin level.

It is a plaque and it is partly frosted over. Goldberg bobs his head side to side, irritated, trying to find a position in which the door does not stand in his own shadow. Finally, at a shallow angle with his check nearly against the brick, he makes out the name “LERNER” and, for a moment, knows what it was like to see the writing on the wall.



3. מנסתרות נקני

When Goldberg arrives at shul on Shabbos morning he finds Rosen eating a piece of cake and learning Chassidus to a pleasant tune, his eyes red from a night on the hard benches but his expression at pleasant as Goldberg has seen. The younger chassid makes himself a coffee. Everything is better after coffee.

Lerner. The word ricochets around, giving him no peace. It cannot be that Rosen’s connection to that house has nothing to do with Michal, he thinks, but I don’t recognize the address. Why did Rosen lie about knowing a Lerner last night? Goldberg watches as Rosen switches to a siddur and begins to daven with measured bliss.

Goldberg steps out to use the washroom. As he washes his hands with frigid water and breathes the miasmic air of the subbasement devoted to individual lockers and the men’s room he notices a crumpled, soggy paper on the counter next to the sink. It is a printout of some sort and as he smoothens it out a bit the word “Afghanistan” catches his eye. It’s a copy of an article he read years ago, when he was still in Yeshiva, about the Jews of Kabul. Or the Jew, rather, since in a twisted parody of a parody the last two Jews in the country fought over its last synagogue until one managed to escape the endless politics by passing away. The remaining Jew’s name, and thus the name of Afghan Jewry, was Zevulun, and in this Goldberg senses a G-dly irony; the Jew who couldn’t stand another Jew with the same passport bore the name of a son of Jacob who was defective, half a man, without his brother Yissachar. How did this end up here? He thinks as he searches in vain for paper towel for his wet hands. He settles for wiping them on the wall like a boy spiting his school.

His Shacharis is hurried and troubled. He would die for a casual conversation, to hear what his friends spoke of at their meals the night before, but there are only the words of the siddur, ancient and unchanging, and Rosen, whose obvious enjoyment annoys him to no end. He recites Kiddush as Rosen sings Yishtabach, and sits as he sits. Goldberg feels an urge to storm home and crawl into bed for days; the thought of Rosen struggling to find him is satisfying. At least something would upset the older Chassid’s equilibrium. As he dips his bread into salt he realizes that the stranger probably wouldn’t come looking for him at all. Rosen would view his exit as a convenience. No, he thinks. I’m staying.

When Rosen bows in completion of his silent prayers and turns to sit, he finds Goldberg’s scouring gaze fixed on his face. Rosen smiles with how-do-you-do politeness, and Goldberg frowns.

“Why do you live in West Virginia?” asks Goldberg.

“Because it’s not too far, but it’s far enough.”

“From the people you’d rather live without.”

“I like people. I love people, even,” he says, sighing. Don’t do this.

“You were crying yesterday, when I first met you.”

“Yeah. I was happy. It’s been years since I saw this shul.”

“Don’t you miss people?” Goldberg explodes.

“In moments of weakness, yes. The Aibishter made us love many evil things.”

“Evil things,” croaks Goldberg.

Rosen pulls his tallis from his head, letting it bunch at his shoulders. There is fire in his eyes. “I never held their behavior against them. It was hard at first. I realize they only did what had to do.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was the most perfect thing that ever happened to me. Golus, exile. It’s true that in the end there’s only G-d, but there’s really nothing but G-d in West Virginia. If you choose, if you choose.” Rosen drops onto the pew next to Goldberg, looking into his eyes, unblinking. He feels good. No one ever heard his story, not before Wednesday, or after.

“What did you do that they sent you into exile?” Goldberg asks, the words seizing between his throat and his chest, his head throbbing, his guts pitching.

Rosen doesn’t look away, he doesn’t stutter. He sighs and tells him.

When he is done and the young Chassid sits silent, jaw agape like a peasant lost in Leipzig, Rosen gets up, throws his tallis over his head, and davens Mussaf.

Goldberg is shocked that he feels no horror. Rosen’s story is a simple one, not like a circles geometry is simple, rarefied and platonic, but like a satellite image of a jungle is simple, a smooth swath of green perched in Africa, a thing. The color doesn’t speak of beasts or barbarous sacrifices; it arouses no bad feelings. Divorced from any reality and simply is, until Goldberg hears Rosen whispering to G-d and realizes that the man and the story are one and should annihilate each other. Here stands this quiet figure of holiness sharing a soul and a past with the unspeakable. How can someone walk on two feet and dip apple in honey and cinch a silk coat and –

“You never went to prison?” asks Goldberg.

“I went to West Virginia.”

“You’re a criminal.”

Rosen nods and looks at his feet with patience and obedience. He was taught when to be ashamed. “I’m guilty,” he says.

“I can’t believe-”

“I’m guilty of davening, three times a day.”

Goldberg’s brow creases.

“I am guilty of loving Torah and the ways of truth and kindness. I am guilty of kosher Shchita. I am guilty of Ahavas Yisroel. I am guilty of knowing two Sdorim of mishnayos by heart. That’s what I’m responsible for.” He runs his hands over the worn tabletop.

“You can’t be serious. You think you’re innocent?”

“I did nothing wrong, except being created. I forgave G-d for that mistake on Yom Kippur when I was younger than you are now.” He taps his foot.

Goldberg feels as if he has entered some new, strange reality. “What about Lerner? You can’t honestly believe-”

Rosen’s head snaps up. “What about you?” he spits. “What is your name worth? G-d dealt me a bad chelek. I did what I could, a million times better than what you did with your community and your wife and your peace. How dare you look down at me? What choice did you ever have to make?” He looks at the curtain of the ark and adds, “What choice did any of you have to make?”

Goldberg shakes. “It sounds like you’ve come up with some great excuses in West Virginia.”

“If I cared for others’ opinions, I would have died years ago.”

“You’re a rasha.”

“Keep clinging to that, Goldberg. Hold it tight, because if you let go you’ll realize we’re not so different. I might even be better than you. Who knows what you’d become if G-d didn’t grant you your soul, your family, your upbringing. Who knows who’d get further if we started at the same place?”

“You’re a monster.”

“If I am,” says Rosen, “then this is my paradise. And you’re ruining it. Like I told you, I was made to be alone. Go yearn after your trifling life, and leave me to my purpose.” He looks into his siddur and prays.

Goldberg’s mind, jolted loose, wanders. He remembers reading as a boy on a long Shabbos afternoon, lying on his bed in a warm ray of sunlight, about Yisroel Ruzhiner’s prophecy. That king of the Jews who rode a golden carriage pulled by white horses spoke in a village in Hungary of the darkness that would precede the final redemption. It would be a time of divisiveness and Eliyahu would once again climb the mountain and face the priests of Baal. But in the future, the fire would descend from heaven and consume the offering of the idolaters; G-d would deny his own worship to all but the faithful and the foolish, would attest to His own falsehood – and the majority, the Tzaddik told his Chassidim, would do the only logical thing and abandon the path of G-d.

Rosen’s voice rises in the repetitious Ein K’Elokeinu.

Goldberg thinks of Kabul, and Zevulun. It seems so long ago that the loneliness was foreign. He imagines what his Shabbos could have been, alone in the ruins of New York, agonized without the sweet videos, the shining veils and the tin symphonies to dull his pain and let him forget. Instead, G-d sent Rosen.

“Who is the Lord other than G-d?” a keening voice proclaims in Hebrew.

Rosen is evil, Goldberg tells himself. But he couldn’t bring himself to push the older Chassid away, to declare himself free of Rosen. If Rosen could choose, and choose the difficult path, then I can do the same, he thinks.

“And who is my rock other than our Lord?” asks Rosen.

“We aren’t monsters,” Goldberg chooses. “We’re just trying to work with what we were given. All of us.”

I suppose that’s true, Rosen thinks, with resignation.

They feel themselves drift away from their deserted world. Goldberg ceases to be himself and becomes himself at the same time and Rosen, in himself, sees a nation. They float in nothingness and know everything; they see the elaborate underpinnings of creation, the infinite connections between all things. They see perfection itself in the mirror images their lives form, feel the glory in their exact reflection. They realize that they have sat in judgment of each other, that they have declared each other’s innocence. They see, from a distance, a well-lit grove, and Rosen can just make out the most beautiful hand he has ever seen clutching a clean, white, velvet curtain. Their joy as they go upward and upward echoes forever.



4. המלמד אדם דעת

“Dovid,” moans Michal. It is a quiet moan, lost in the chatter of the extended Lerner family who sit on low chairs in her tiny Brooklyn living room. It has been a week already, and the worst is long over. But the kicking in her womb brings her to inconsolable grief, and she excuses herself upstairs.

One of her aunts calls up after her, but her mother savves her from responding and says, “Let her be. It’s been so hard for her, since Wednesday.”



A cold, pointed snout nudges the still form of Nathan Rosen, but the master refuses to wake. The dog resigns itself to failure and merely presses its head against the blanket and whines. Its brown gaze catches beauty streaming through the naked windows, the glint of the sun on immaculate snow.



Image from Flickr.