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M A R C H 1 9 9 9
by Nathan Englander
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Facts & Fiction: Worlds Apart (March 3, 1999)
An interview with Nathan Englander.
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Ping! 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."
HARLES 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.
T 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.
HE 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.
VER 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.
The path led to the front of the building and a clearing demarcated by an oriental screen. The rabbi sat in a leather armchair across from a battered couch -- both clearly salvaged from the spoils that cluttered the room.
"Zalman," the man said, jumping up and shaking Charles's hand. "Rabbi Zalman Meintz."
"Charles Luger," Charles said, taking off his coat.
The couch, though it had seen brighter days, was clean. Charles had expected dust to rise when he sat. As soon as he touched the fabric, he got depressed. More chintz. Sun-dulled flowers crawled all over it.
"Just moved in," Zalman said. "New space. Much bigger. But haven't organized, as you can see." He pointed at specific things: a mirror, a china hutch. "Please excuse, or forgive -- please excuse our appearance. More important matters come first. Very busy lately, very busy." As if to illustrate, a phone perched on a dollhouse set to ringing. "You see," Zalman said. He reached over and shut off the ringer. "Like that all day. At night, too. Busier even at night."
The surroundings didn't inspire confidence, but Zalman did. He couldn't have been much more than thirty, but he looked to Charles like a real Jew: long black beard, black suit, black hat at his side, and a nice big caricaturish nose, like Fagin's but friendlier.
"Well, then, Mr. Luger. What brings you to my lair?"
Charles was unready to talk. He turned his attention to a painted seascape on the wall. "That the Galilee?"
"Oh, no." Zalman laughed and, sitting back, crossed his legs. For the first time Charles noticed that he was sporting heavy wool socks and suede sandals. "That's Bolinas. My old stomping grounds."
"Bolinas?" Charles said. "California?"
"I see what's happening here. Very obvious." Zalman uncrossed his legs, reached out, and put a hand on Charles's knee. "Don't be shy," he said. "You've made it this far. Searched me out in a bright corner of a Brooklyn attic. If such a meeting has been ordained, which by its very nature it has been, then let's make the most of it."
"I'm Jewish," Charles said. He said it with all the force, the excitement, and the relief of any of life's great admissions. Zalman was silent. He was smiling, listening intently, and, apparently, waiting.
"Yes," he said, maintaining the smile. "And?"
"Since yesterday," Charles said. "In a cab."
"Oh," Zalman said. "Oh! Now I get it."
"It just came over me."
"Wild," Zalman said. He clapped his hands together, looked up at the ceiling, and laughed. "Miraculous."
"Unbelievable," Charles added.
"No!" Zalman said, his smile gone, a single finger held up in Charles's face. "No, it's not unbelievable. That it is not. I believe you. Knew before you said -- exactly why I didn't respond. A Jew sits in front of me and tells me he's Jewish. This is no surprise. To see a man so Jewish, a person who could be my brother, who is my brother, tell me he has only now discovered he's Jewish -- that, my friend, that is truly miraculous." During his speech he had slowly moved his finger back; now he thrust it into Charles's face anew. "But not unbelievable. I see cases of this all the time."
"Then it's possible? That it's true?"
"Already so Jewish," Zalman said with a laugh, "asking questions you've already answered. You know the truth better than I do. You're the one who came to the discovery. How do you feel?"
"Fine," Charles said. "Different but fine."
"Well, don't you think you'd be upset if it was wrong what you knew? Don't you think you'd be less than fine if this were a nightmare? Somehow suffering if you'd gone crazy?"
"Who said anything about crazy?" Charles asked. Crazy he was not.
"Did I?" Zalman said. He grabbed at his chest. "An accident, purely. Slip of the tongue. So many who come have trouble with the news at home. Their families doubt."
Charles shifted. "I haven't told her."
Zalman raised an eyebrow, turning his head to favor the accusing eye.
"A wife who doesn't know?"
"That's why I'm here. For guidance." Charles put his feet up on the couch and lay down, as at Dr. Birnbaum's. "I need to tell her, to figure out how. I need also to know what to do. I ate milk and meat last night."
"First, history," Zalman said. He slipped off a sandal. "Your mother's not Jewish?"
"No, no one. Ever. Not that I know."
"This is also possible," Zalman said. "It may be only that your soul was at Sinai. Maybe an Egyptian slave that came along. But once the soul witnessed the miracles at Sinai, accepted there the word, well, it became a Jewish soul. Do you believe in the soul, Mr. Luger?"
"I'm beginning to."
"All I'm saying is, the soul doesn't live or die. It's not an organic thing, like the body. It is there. And it has a history."
"And mine belonged to a Jew?"
"No, no. That's exactly the point. Jew, non-Jew, doesn't matter. The body doesn't matter. It is the soul itself that is Jewish."
HEY talked for more than an hour. Zalman gave him books: The Chosen, A Hedge of Roses, and The Code of Jewish Law. Charles agreed to cancel his shrink appointment for the next day; Zalman would come to his office to study with him. A payment would be required, of course: a minor fee, expenses, some for charity and to ensure good luck. The money was not the important thing, Zalman assured him. The crucial thing was having a guide to help him through his transformation. And who better than Zalman, a man who had come to Judaism the same way? Miserable in Bolinas, addicted to sorrow and drugs, he was on the brink when he discovered his Jewish soul.
"And you never needed a formal conversion?" Charles asked, astounded.
"No," Zalman said. "Such things are for others, for the litigious and stiff- minded. Such rituals are not needed for those who are called by their souls."
"Tell me, then," Charles said. He spoke out of the side of his mouth, feeling confident and chummy. "Where'd you get the shtick from? You look Jewish, you talk Jewish -- the authentic article. I turn Jewish and get nothing. You come from Bolinas and sound like you've never been out of Brooklyn."
"And if I had discovered I was Italian, I'd play bocce like a pro. Such is my nature, Mr. Luger. I am most open to letting take form that which is truly inside."
This was, of course, a matter of personal experience. Zalman's own. Charles's would inevitably be different. Unique. If the change was slower, then let it be so. After all, Zalman counseled, the laws were not to be devoured like bonbons but to be embraced as he was ready. Hadn't it taken him fifty-five years to learn he was Jewish? Yes, everything in good time.
"Except," Zalman said, standing up, "you must tell your wife first thing. Kosher can wait. Tefillin can wait. But there is one thing the tender soul can't bear -- the sacrifice of Jewish pride."
UE had a root canal after work. She came home late, carrying a pint of ice cream. Charles had already set the table and served dinner, on the off chance she might be able to eat.
"How was it?" he asked. He lit a candle and poured the wine. He did not tease her, did not say a word about her slurred speech or sagging face. He pretended it was a permanent injury, nerve damage, acted as if this were a business dinner and Sue a client with a crippled lip.
She approached the table and lifted the bottle. "Well, you're not leaving me, I can tell that much. You'd never have opened your precious Haut-Brion to tell me you were running off to Greece with your secretary."
"True," he said. "I'd have saved it to drink on our verandah in Mykonos."
"Glad to see," she said, standing on her toes and planting a wet and pitifully slack kiss on his cheek, "that the fantasy has already gotten that far."
"The wine's actually a feeble attempt at topic broaching."
Sue pried the top off her ice cream and placed the carton in the center of her plate. They both sat down.
"Do tell," she said.
"I'm Jewish." That easy. It was not, after all, the first time.
"Is there a punch line?" she asked. "Or am I supposed to supply one?"
He said nothing.
"Okay. Let's try it again. I'll play along. Go -- give me your line."
"In the cab yesterday. I just knew. I understood, felt it for real. And -- " He looked at her face, contorted, dead with anesthesia. A surreal expression in return for surreal news. "And it hasn't caused me any grief. Except for my fear of telling you. Otherwise, I actually feel sort of good about it. Different. But as if things, big things, were finally right."
"Let's get something out of the way first.'' She made a face, a horrible face. Charles thought maybe she was trying to bite her lip -- or scowl. "Okay?"
"What you're really trying to tell me is, Honey, I'm having a nervous breakdown, and this is the best way to tell you. Correct?" She plunged a spoon into the ice cream and came up with a heaping spoonful. "If it's not a nervous breakdown, I want to know if you feel like you're clinically insane."
"I didn't expect this to go smoothly," Charles said.
"You pretend that you knew I'd react badly." Sue spoke quickly and (Charles tried not to notice) drooled. "Really, though, with your tireless optimism, you thought I would smile and tell you to be Jewish. That's what you thought, Charles." She jammed her spoon back into the carton and left it buried. "Let me tell you, this time you were way off. Wrong in your heart and right in your head. It couldn't have gone smoothly. Do you know why? Do you know?"
"Why?" he asked.
"Because what you're telling me, out of the blue, out of nowhere -- because what you're telling me is, inherently, crazy."
Charles nodded his head repeatedly, as if a bitter truth was confirmed. "He said you would say that."
"Who said, Charles?"
"You've started with rabbis?" She pressed at her sleeping lip.
"Of course rabbis. Who else gives advice to a Jew?"
The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.
Nathan Englander lives in Jerusalem. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction and Story. His story in this issue will appear in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a collection of his fiction to be published by Knopf next month.
Illustration by Gürbüz D. Eksioglu
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; The Gilgul of Park Avenue; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 77 - 90.