The Gigul of Park Avenue

The rabbi's face looked long and soft: the rapture did not return. "No hope, Mr. Luger, I tell you this from one Jew to another. There is no hope for the pious"

(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.)

THE Jewish day begins in the calm of evening, when it won't shock the system with its arrival. That was when, three stars visible in the Manhattan sky and a new day fallen, Charles Morton Luger understood that he was the bearer of a Jewish soul.
Like that it came. Like a knife against a glass.

Charles Luger knew, if he knew anything at all, that a Yiddishe neshama was functioning inside him.

He was not one to engage taxicab drivers in conversation, but such a thing as this he felt obligated to share. A New York story of the first order, like a woman giving birth in an elevator, or a hot-dog vendor performing open-heart surgery with a pocketknife and a Bic pen. Was not this a rebirth in itself? It was something, he was sure. So he leaned forward in his seat, raised a fist, and knocked on the Plexiglas divider.

The driver looked into his rearview mirror.

"Jewish," Charles said. "Jewish, here in the back."

The driver reached up and slid the partition open so that it hit its groove loudly.

"Oddly, it seems that I'm Jewish. Jewish in your cab."

"No problem here. Meter ticks the same for all creeds." The driver pointed at the digital display.

Charles thought about it. A positive experience -- or at least benign. Yes, benign. What had he expected?

He looked out the window at Park Avenue, a Jew looking out at the world. Colors were no brighter or darker, though he was, he admitted, already searching for someone with a beanie, a landsman who might look his way, wink, confirm what he already knew.

The cab slowed to a halt outside his building, and Petey, the doorman, stepped toward the curb. Charles removed his money clip and peeled off a fifty. He reached over the seat, holding on to the bill.

"Jewish," Charles said, pressing the fifty into the driver's hand. "Jewish right here in your cab."

CHARLES hung his coat and placed his briefcase next to the stand filled with ornate canes and umbrellas that Sue -- who had carefully scouted them out around the city -- would not let him touch. Sue had redone the foyer, the living room, and the dining room all in chintz, an overwhelming number of flora-and-fauna patterns, creating a vast slippery-looking expanse. Charles rushed through it to the kitchen, where Sue was removing dinner from the refrigerator.

She read the note the maid had left, lighting burners and turning dials accordingly. Charles came up behind her. He inhaled the scent of perfume and the faint odor of cigarettes laced underneath. Sue turned, and they kissed, more passionate than friendly, which was neither an everyday occurrence nor altogether rare. She was still wearing her contacts; her eyes were a radiant blue.

"You won't believe it," Charles said, surprised to find himself elated. He was a level-headed man, not often victim to extremes of mood.

"What won't I believe?" Sue said. She separated herself from him and slipped a pan into the oven.

Sue was the art director of a glossy magazine, her professional life comparatively glamorous. The daily doings of a financial analyst, Charles felt, did not even merit polite attention. He never told her anything she wouldn't believe.

"Well, what is it, Charles?" She held a glass against the recessed ice machine in the refrigerator. "Damn," she said. Charles, at breakfast, had left it set on "crushed."

"You wouldn't believe my taxi ride," he said, suddenly aware that a person disappointed by ice chips wouldn't take well to his discovery.

"Your face," she said, noting his odd expression.

"Nothing -- just remembering. A heck of a ride. A maniac. Taxi driver running lights. Up on the sidewalk."

The maid had prepared creamed chicken. When they sat down to dinner, Charles stared at his plate. Half an hour Jewish and already he felt obliged. He knew there were dietary laws, milk and meat forbidden to touch, but he didn't know if chicken was considered meat and didn't dare ask Sue and chance a confrontation -- not until he'd formulated a plan. He would call Dr. Birnbaum, his psychologist, in the morning. Or maybe he'd find a rabbi. Who better to guide him in such matters?

And so, a marrano in modern times, Charles ate his chicken like a gentile -- all the while a Jew in his heart.

AT work the next morning Charles got right on it. He pulled out the Yellow Pages, referenced and cross-referenced, following the "see" list throughout the phone book. More than one listing under "Zion" put him in touch with a home for the aged. "Redemption" led him further off course. Finally he came upon an organization that seemed frighteningly appropriate. For one thing, it had a number in Royal Hills, a neighborhood thick with Jews. The listing was for the Royal Hills Mystical Jewish Reclamation Center, or, as the recorded voice said, "the R-HMJRC" -- just like that, with a pause after the first "R." It was a sort of clearinghouse for the Judeo-supernatural: "Press one for messianic time clock, two for dream interpretation and counseling, three for numerology, and four for a retreat schedule." The "and four" took the wind out of his sails. A bad sign. Recordings never said "and four" and then "and five." But the message went on. A small miracle. "For all gilgulim, cases of possible reincarnation, or recovered memory, please call Rabbi Zalman Meintz at the following number."

Charles took it down, elated. This was exactly why he had moved to New York from Idaho so many years before. Exactly the reason. Because you could find anything in the Manhattan Yellow Pages. Anything. A book as thick as a cinder block.

THE R-HMJRC was a beautifully renovated Gothic-looking brownstone in the heart of Royal Hills. The front steps had been widened to the width of the building, and the whole façade of the first two floors had been torn off and replaced by a stone arch with a glass wall behind it. The entry hall was marble, and Charles was impressed. There is money in the God business, he told himself, making a mental note.

This is how it went: Standing in the middle of the marble floor, feeling the cold space, the only thing familiar being his unfamiliar self. And then it was back. Ping! Once again, understanding.

Only yesterday his whole life had been his life -- familiar, totally his own. Something he lived in like an old wool sweater. Today: Brooklyn, an archway, white marble.

OVER here, over here. Follow my voice. Come to the light."

Charles had taken the stairs until they ended, and he entered what appeared to be an attic, slanted ceilings and dust, overflowing with attic stuff -- chairs and a rocking horse, a croquet set, and boxes, everywhere boxes -- as if all the remnants of the brownstone's former life had been driven upward.

"Take the path on your right. Make your way. It's possible; I got here." The speech was punctuated with something like laughter. It was vocalized joy, a happy stutter.

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