Losers Weepers (from North Dakota Quarterly)

For Jason & Jayson

No matter how bad things get, you’ve got to go on living, even if it kills you.

—attributed to Sholem Aleichem

The rabbi sang.  Not for show, but as an act of devotion.  It wasn’t unusual – I’ve since been told – for a rabbi to sing in the Bet Midrash, the place for prayer.  It started long before we boys arrived at school; some said maybe even the night before.  We heard him as we filtered in from our various buses, carpools, and chilly hikes from the “Slope”—the half-Jewish / half-black section of town.

We were forced to pile in through the damp back corridor since a snow pile had collapsed the roof above the main entrance a year earlier.  Before the Old Rabbi bought the building, it had been a slaughterhouse—non-kosher, in fact.  It was only half-converted by the time I began attending in the seventh grade.  The back entrance was wide enough for a convoy of cows, but still we all bumped and shoved each other, stepped on each other’s toes.  It still reeked of cold blood.  Snails clung to the cinder block walls, even as we hung our coats there on pegs arranged in class-order.  We could see our breath there in the morning, and this made it obvious that I was inhaling the same air others had exhaled.

First the words rubbed the skin of our eardrums.  Quick and clear in ancient Hebrew.  Soon they spilled over each other as the Young Rabbi worked himself into a condition of pure pain.  Then the melody evolved into mourning, the words elongated, tones stretched.  The rabbi’s voice stuck to our bones and chilled them.  Walking while he sang was like moving underwater.

Janusch, the young Polish janitor and bus driver, supervised the morning routine.  With his one good hand, he helped us yank our shoes – wrapped by our mothers in Baggies – out of our snow boots.  We threw our lunch boxes on the floor, and some boys’ coats never made it to their pegs.  We jostled each other and told the younger boys to shush; the Young Rabbi was singing.  With cold toes we went to the Bet Midrash, the former meat storage locker, and pushed open the scratched plastic doors.

The Young Rabbi’s voice was the single thing on Earth or in heaven that could shut us up.  The dirge had somehow passed the risk of degenerating into sobs; it was all agony, yet he kept it up.  Even those of us with only rusty Hebrew understood in our marrow the ancient meaning.  We were Jews, and tears were said to flow through our veins.

As our eyes adjusted to the murky dark we saw Young Rabbi Roth hunkered at one of the sticky cafeteria tables, swaying with the words, as is the custom.  At some point, one brave older boy cast the fluorescent lights over the figure of the rabbi, yet it failed to rouse him from his reverie.  As the bulbs above him flickered, we saw his eyes wide open, but like a blind man’s, startled, resigned.

We filtered in, and Janusch, leaning away from his bad leg, handed each of us a prayer book from the ping pong tables that lined the room’s perimeter.  We made our way solemnly to the benches before the velvet-hooded Torah ark.  As he sang I felt disembodied as I did the day I was given codeine tablets after the dentist yanked a tooth.

The rabbi’s voice is how we measured time.  In school another day as friends; as study partners; as enemies, some, at our small yeshiva, Degel Hatorah, Flag of the Torah, on the distressed end of Pine Street just below the Slope, in the cold winter of 1980.  Experiencing the rabbi’s voice was the most religious experience I’d ever had, and remains so now, 16 years later.  Sometimes I lay awake in the early morning and remember how those prayers embraced me like a blanket, then never again.

 

***

I was at the yeshiva for only one reason, and not for an Orthodox Jewish education.  My parents simply didn’t want me in the public schools because I’d likely encounter the “wrong sort” there.  Although they never said it outright, they were afraid of the black kids who loomed below us in ranch houses on the low end of the Slope.  My mother politely smiled at the black boys who dared knock on a Jew’s door on behalf of the Urban League or St. Auggie’s School, though she forever declined to donate.  When we passed them playing ball in the park that crowns the Slope, my mother gripped her steering wheel and tsk-tsk’d.  She made the same tongue-clucking sound when a newscaster reported another teenager’s botched abortion in the city, or East African rebel boys marauding through the jungle with guns.  Somehow, little Israeli boys hurling stones at Arabs on Shabbos was justifiable defense.

Soon after we moved to the Slope, the subject of my schooling began to dominate.  It was decided (not by me) that the lesser of two evils was to surround me with “Super Jews,” as my mother called our more fervent neighbors.  My father struggled over the decision to let the zealots get a hold of my soul.

“Better he should get shivved by one of those monkeys after his lunch money?” my mother asked my father as they ate BLTs on the back patio.

My mother referred to that summer before my first year at the Flag as my “heathen season.”  I let my hair grow, and watched them discussing me at dusk on the patio from my bedroom window.

“Sandy, it’s the seventh grade.  No one gets iced until freshman year at the earliest.”  My father making light.  My mother used to say to me that he made a mess, he made us crazy, he made a terrible wage, and he made light.  Of course the one thing he didn’t make – in my mother’s eyes – was any kind of sense when it came to raising a child.

“Laugh, Morris.  Go ahead.  Our only son is all we’re talking about.”

“We’re not even religious!  The last time the kid saw a rabbi, he was getting a foreskin alteration.  And that supposedly ended our obligation to the man upstairs.”

My father always referred to HaShem, God, as “the man upstairs.” Until I was seven, I always assumed he was talking about Mr. Reebus, the old man on Canadian crutches who rented the attic in our first house.

My mother said, “He has no Yiddishkeit, that kid.  He doesn’t know where he comes from.”

“Long Island?”

“No, you putz—Mt. Sinai!  Noah’s Ark!  The twelve tribes, the forty days and nights, the Four Questions, yadda yadda.”

“Sandy, sweetheart.  You know they’ll teach him we’re sinners.”

She considered this, and wiped Hellmann’s mayonnaise from the corner of her mouth.  “Morris,” she said, “It’s either that or Happy God Damn Martin Luther King Day every week and a half.”

End of discussion.  With her pinky finger, my mother stirred the ice cubes in her lemonade, then lit a Kent 100.  I became a Jew.

 

***

As soon as my parents fell asleep after dinner that August evening, I went out into the cool air.  I wondered how I’d tell Adam that we wouldn’t be in the same class come September, not even the same school.  I could have taken the sleek BMX bike for which I’d saved three years of birthday and Chanukah gelt to buy, but instead I plodded up my road the two miles to the top of the Slope.  The ice cream truck didn’t stop for me, even though the schmuck inside (a black guy) saw me wave.

As usual, Adam was catching for the Black Boys, who were down by two to the Jew Boys.  Adam flipped up his mask when he saw me sulking by the park gate, and sent me a smile which nearly cost him all his teeth.  He signaled me to wait, and made sure to score a double as soon as the BBs were up.  He strutted from third to home – what my mother for some reason called “shuckin‘ and jivin‘” – knowing I watched his every move.

After the game, he came tear-assing toward me, and knocked me down before I could turn and run.  “Hey, hooknose.”

“Hey, jigaboo.”

The other guys knew that Adam and I were pals since the May we’d met on the BMX track.  But still, you had to be careful in our line of “bidnezz,” as Adam called it.  I was often afraid other kids could see my insides leaping like fish in a bucket whenever Adam touched me.  Or touched himself in front of me.  He had me pinned, hands clasped around my wrists, my legs immobilized, his nose to my nose.  He surveyed the gang in the dugout, but never found a moment to give me his tongue.  He managed to grind his hips enough to get me going, though.

He let me up, insisting we go to the woods.  Down the side of the hill opposite the Slope, the woods inclined steeply for nearly a mile, ending at a cliff high above the river.  A disused railroad bridge crossed the water far below, wind whistling through holes rusted into the steel.

Before you reached that bridge where drug addicted mothers and lonely widowers regularly leapt to their great reward, you could find our tree fort.  But you had to be looking up—way up.  The fort was so deep in the woods, so high above the canopy of Fraser firs and spruces that no one but some woodpeckers and us had ever seen it.

As soon as we were perched in the fort, Adam unlaced his high tops.  “Let’s do sumpin‘ sordid,” he said.

“Don’t feel like it much.”

“I’ll do the feeling around here,” he said.

I didn’t respond, and he kept staring.  “Well, I’m takin‘ my pants off.  Feels good in the breeze, if you please.”

For a second I felt I might cry.  The summer even smelled like it was dying.  The prospect of not seeing Adam every day, not breathing in his skin or tasting him all over was unbearable.  I scooted backward, settling my spine against the sappy trunk.  He didn’t say anything stupid then.  He didn’t make light as my father would have.  He didn’t have to ask me what was wrong.

Instead, he climbed over his rumpled jeans and crawled toward me like a wild cat.  Wearing nothing but a grass-stained jersey, which left a third of his ass exposed, he lay in my lap and hugged around me.  We stayed that way nearly an hour until dusk crept down the hill.  Then we got horny.

Afterward, Adam said, “Why you gotta go there, Man?”

“Eat lunch with you Alabama porch monkeys every day?  As if.  They don’t even want me down your side of the Slope.”

“Not to mention up my—”

“Nobody gets it, do they?” I said.

He squinted at me, and I saw his black pupils like the slits of some night creature from The Midnight Picture Show.  “Nope, nobody gets it.”

Licking my belly button, he paused to say, “Ever told them about me?  Even that you’re friends with a nigger at all?”

I nodded no, ashamed.  He laughed without making noise, then looked up at my face.  “My mom says you offed Jesus.”

“Me?”

Those people, she says.  You know.  ‘They live like animals.’  This morning she goes, ‘I swear I think those people are eating our garbage!’  I almost pissed in my pajamas.  Hey, maybe we oughta try that sometime.”

“Eating garbage?”

“Pissing.  Reminds me of being a little kid.”

“You are a little kid.”

“Bigger than you, ya‘ cracker.”

He cleaned me off with his underwear, then pulled his jeans on over bare skin.

“You liked that?  Swallowing?”

“Chocolately delicious,” I said.

“You racist kike.”

I followed him down the ladder of rotten planks.

“You coon.”

“Goldberg.”

“Darkie.”

At the bottom, he cupped my cheeks in his hands, as my grandfather always did, saying, “Such a punim!”  He looked very deeply into my eyes, studying.  It terrified me, melted me.  His hands were so warm.  It was as if I would never see him again, as he was trying to imprint himself on me before heading off to war.

“Hebe,” he said, and kissed me.  We were 12.

 

***

Now I’m 29 somehow.  The millennium’s about to change.  I’ve traveled, sometimes by choice, and often not.  And I’ve allegedly learned.  But still I don’t possess the language to talk about music or love.  I can’t explain how boys, when they are 12, 11, 10, are capable of what I’ve seen.  I can’t describe now how our lives were intertwined, as though we knotted our souls by swallowing each other’s essence over and over.  But I do know ties unbind.  The boy who was your twin becomes a stranger.  And even the boy you were slips his hand from yours when you’re looking ahead, and time abducts him.  You can never roll over in bed again and know his body, his grace, his hope.  It’s too late to be thankful for him, to love him.  It’s over.

Each morning, without a bell to warn us, we seated ourselves on the wooden benches in class order, youngest boys up front.  A thousand nights I’ve wondered since if it really could have happened this way.  The singing ceased, and miraculously, without precedent or antecedent in any school I’ve known since, silence of a monkish kind filled the room.  Every boy prepared for the morning prayers, as though physically unable then to chat, swat, sneeze, or pick at skin.

Perhaps to atone for such impossible precocity in the a.m., the very bowels of hell were vomited up each afternoon in the secular classrooms and on the concrete playground, once God broke for the day.  We drowned each poor teacher (bar the Young Rabbi) in chaos until their eye muscles twitched, the insides of their cheeks bled from chewing, and all their quaint notions toward corporal punishment were no match against the will to whack us in the ears.  It was, without a shred of the exaggeration of which boys are fond, entirely within our power to bring our afternoon teachers literally to their knees.  This still makes me proud, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why it should.

Those joys are over now, of course.  A week goes by now and “every morning’s waking up’s as bad as birth all over again,” as Adam once wrote me on an unsigned postcard from some Spanish-speaking island where he nearly died of something awful years ago.  Now coldly facing the facts – as my father would no doubt recommend when under duress – ain’t no comfort to me, kids.  The facts are rarely in my favor, Dad.  I’m not a good boy anymore.  So hints of long ago rapture in tiny things, like the memory of the rabbi’s voice, make matters even worse.

When I was a kid, I used to pull a shred of errant cuticle skin all the way down my finger.  It was agonizing, even before I squeezed all the blood from the digit until it was yellow and weak.  “You can’t leave well enough alone,” my father always said.  But finishing a job (the Young Rabbi’s credo)—I guess there’s a certain satisfaction in that.

So what did I get out of my yeshiva education?  What did I get for the thousands my parents shelled out?  Fucked up beyond recovery is what I got.  Since leaving that school, I’ve lost both my folks to organisms more ravenous to have them than I ever was.  I’ve been dumped by one great love and widowed by another.  I’ve gotten drunk and gotten sober, several times.  A college professor once masturbated on me when I passed out stoned awaiting him in his office, but that’s for another chapter.

During my brief stint as a commercial real estate appraiser (don’t ask!), I was even shot in the abdomen once by a teenager I startled in the laundry room of an abandoned motel in Houston.  He left me crying, to die, and I babbled, begging for him (Adam, I guess) to forgive me.  But I have never been hurt as bad as Young Rabbi Moshe Eliyahu Roth hurt me when I was just 13.  Not even Adam was able to break my heart and spirit both.

 

***

Young Rabbi Roth was the son of the school’s principal, Old Rabbi Roth.  He was not a run-of-the-mill yeshiva rabbi.  Except during his morning chants, he wasn’t pious like his father, a wizened, studious man.  He seemed young to us, even then.  Different.  And not just because he refused to don the standard white shirt, black coat, and rabbi(t) fur hat.  Something inside him seemed different, as though he were closer to who we were, able to understand what was happening inside us.  He could look right through you and even said, on rare occasions, “There’s nothing in your head, your heart, your soul, or your puny body I don’t know of first hand.  Believe me.”

Young Rabbi Roth had been to a regular ivy league college.  This was meant to be a secret, as higher education was not an option open to good yeshiva boys.  We were warned that college, with its co-ed living and liberal arts, represented everything dangerous and damnable about the secular world.  Hearing your kid wanted into Harvard was as feared by devout Jewish parents as hearing he wanted to pimp black junky whores in Times Square.

And travelling?  Forget it!

“Wanderlust,” as my mother and thousands of Jewish mothers beside her called it, was for the trumbaniks—the bums.  And for Christian missionaries.  Apparently no place besides the Holy Land was worth a Jew’s bus fare.

Yet Young Rabbi Roth had stomped on four continents since graduating college.  He’d once hunted a lion with the Masai tribe in Africa.  He’d parachuted from a balloon over Patagonia, and saw a killer whale fling sea lions high in the air before gulping them down like popovers.  He played jazz on the streets of New Orleans in the summer.  He kicked a soccer ball around with Chinese boys who wore only dirty cloths around their waists, and straw hats.  The rabbi had broken every rule and proved something – something – if only we could figure it out.

Needless to say, we hardly ever had to endure a boring American History lecture in the Young Rabbi’s class, so often were we able to coax him into reminiscing about one or another of his exploits.  And then we were like wheelchair-bound children hearing a mountaineer tell of conquering the K4—thrilled and heartsick.

He’d stalk around the room waving his arms, yanking loose his colorful ties as he told us truths to wake up and fibs to keep us dreaming.  Our ears leaned into his voice.  Our eyes remained alert.  If he suspected attention wandering, he’d grab a boy by his hair and pull hard, not just a tug.  He’d just as soon pelt you in the Adam’s apple with an eraser if you started to nod off, as throw candy corn across the room into your open mouth when you answered a deep question deeply.  On a roll, we would begin to clap and chant “orr orr orr” like trained seals while chewing the candy.

“Orenstien, you’re a genius!” he’d shout.  “Klener—genius!  You guys are about to make me weep openly at the depth of brilliance here, shimmering, living, get me a glass of water.”

The Young Rabbi always managed to sneak in a proper history lesson, of course.

“Slipped it in sideways,” he’d confess at the last bell, proudly—else his father would have fired him.  We’d been mesmerized by the raucous tale of his stint playing soprano sax in a street troupe in Baton Rouge—“with a bunch of mothers straight out of the state pen, some of them with eyes missing, but stand-up fellas in a pinch.”  Later, as Janusch drove us home on the rickety bus, we realized that somehow we knew all there was to know about the free slave movement, and the French and Spanish settling of the bayou.

Young Rabbi Roth was the best teacher I ever had.  And he was our hero to the last boy.

For the first time the other day, I looked at our class picture in the yearbook.  The picture’s too small to see what’s in his eyes, but now I know.  “Right back at you,” I said to him.  “There’s nothing in your head or heart or soul or grown man’s body I don’t know about firsthand.”  I realized I’m even older now than he was when he held my four-chambered heart with two strong hands that year.  I wish I could go back and hold him, too, beg his forgiveness, thank him.

 

***

One morning when the bus broke down, Janusch led us on a hike up the Slope toward school.  We all limped behind him the way he limped, with one lame hand in our pocket, and people in cars stared at the spectacle, bug-eyed.  Janusch thought it was funny.  He rarely spoke to us students – some said the Old Rabbi had forbidden it – but that morning he wouldn’t shut up.

He told us he’d hurt his leg and his hand when he was five, escaping with his parents from Poland after the War was supposed to be over.  He told us that Catholics were just as hated then as Jews, but we didn’t believe it.  His parents somehow wound up working for the Roths—his mother as a maid and his father as a custodian at the Old Rabbi’s first school.  The first Flag had burned down before we were born, killing Janusch’s father and a fireman.  Janusch told us the Old Rabbi was like a father to him since, still scolding him, in fact, although he wasn’t a kid anymore.  His mother died when he was a young teenager, and the Roths all but adopted him.

We pressed him the whole way for details of the Young Rabbi as a boy, but he wouldn’t budge.  “All I say is, you’re very lucky you’ve got him.”

The designation “rabbi” means teacher, and was used as a sign of respect before all our teachers’ names, even the goys who taught math and English.  Young Rabbi Roth was not ordained, and certainly no longer ­frum – Orthodox – though he had grown up that way.  We learned this by relentlessly testing his knowledge of simple Jewish law and custom.  To some extent he tried to avoid detection – probably at his father’s urging – by not answering on the grounds that he was not our Rebbe, our spiritual and Talmud teacher, or claiming the answers were “top secret.”  He never davened – prayed – with us, choosing instead to “prepare for class” during prayer times, although none of us had ever spied a lecture note or lesson plan anywhere near his person.  One of the boys had claimed to have seen a Taco Bell bag in his car—a beat up, convertible Mustang no real Jew would ever sit in, no less drive.

All of this made him even cooler in our eyes, unbelievably daring and different.  At the same time, most of us fretted over his soul.  Did he never pray like a regular Jew?  Did he never kiss the mezuzah when entering a room, or put on tefillin first thing in the morning?  Did he really, as one boy once reported, doff his size eight blue velveteen yarmulke and crank up his stereo as soon as his Mustang barreled out of our sight?

Yet all of these puzzles paled in contrast to the one great mystery surrounding Young Rabbi Roth.  Why was he at our school – why would he choose to spend his days with us when he could have been anywhere else in the world?  When he had been nearly everywhere else, why come back to the Slope?  Was it true his father had begged him to return because he’d gotten divorced from a shiksa?  Was it true he was in love with someone here in his hometown—someone who for some reason he couldn’t marry?  Gossiping over these juicy riddles filled many a rainy day’s recess period, playing table tennis and knock-hockey in the steamy Bet Midrash.

“I heard he was an assassin in the Israeli army and killed, like, a hundred Arabs.”

“I think he’s a spy for the meshugena Reform movement, to see what we’re up to.  He’s only pretending not to know his Aleph Beys.”

“Bull!”

However unorthodox his methods and behavior were in the afternoon, though, each morning over, they were annulled by the sheer devotion evinced in his ritual chanting.  It was not mere recitation – not rational, somehow – but rather intuitive, inspired.  I believe in God to this day because no man could sing such professions of Jewish faith were it not a gift from Him directly.  So said the great teachers, and so proclaimed one of the Young Rabbi’s favorite prayers.

 

Elohai n’shama

Shenata’ta bee t’hora hee.

My God, the soul that You have placed in me is pure.

You it was who created it.  You formed it.

You breathed it into me and You kept it within me.

You will take it from me, and give it back to me in time to be.

All that time the soul is within me, I’ll give thanks unto Thee,

Oh Lord, King of the Universe, Master of All the Souls.

 

Even the Old Rabbi closed his eyes and smiled, swaying, as his son intoned that prayer.  This mitigated the prior afternoon’s ranting in the Old Rabbi’s smoky office, when the father chewed out his son for “pushing the envelope too far, too far, Moshe.  They’re only boys.”

I overheard this conversation in the spring of that seventh grade year.

“There’s no such thing as ‘only boys,’ Abba,” the Young Rabbi said, “only great souls in boy’s bodies.”

Wow.  I pretended that the brand new copying contraption in the secretary’s cubby was jammed, so I could continue to eavesdrop through the closed door.  The Old Rabbi was furious with the Young Rabbi for reading us a newspaper clipping about an abused boy whose parents had denied him even a toothbrush.  The boy was our age and lived in our town, but in a different universe entirely.  That was the Young Rabbi’s lesson—even I got that.

“You wanted me here, Abba, you invited me.”

“Your own life you can toy with like a dreidel, Moshe, but not with my boys you don’t.”

Abba, they’re not babies.”

“They’re babies.”

“There’s a whole world out there—you can’t just—”

“I can!  That’s the whole idea, Moshe!  To keep them from all that dreck.”

“When I was thirteen I was already—”

Ach!  That’s exactly what I’m afraid of!”

Already what?  I was desperate to know.  What was the Young Rabbi up to at my age?  Was it possible that he knew even my most sacred of secrets firsthand?

“I’m just saying times have changed,” he suggested.  Oh, no.  I cringed.  Everyone knew you should never say that to the Old Rabbi.

First he banged a book on his desk again and again.  Then, “For us!” the Old Rabbi shouted, “never!  You talk like a goy.  Or worse—like the Reform.  Is the next thing we get a ‘lady rabbi’ or maybe we go straight to handing out communion wafers and drinking the blood of—”

I felt my lunch – tuna fish and potato chips – coming up, and swallowed acid.  I knew I should get back to my class with the dittos I was supposed to copy, but I was glued on the spot.

Janusch startled me with the broom he maneuvered with one hand and a bottle of Windex hooked on his belt.  “Little pictures have big ears,” he said, having misheard or misinterpreted the American idiom.  I couldn’t speak.  “We be nice to him later.  It’s a hard day, looks like.”  He smiled, and walked off.

Back in the office the biting tones made the skin on my neck creep.

“You can’t pick and choose the tenets you believe in.  Is that the line, Abba?”

“Sure you can, Moshe.  Go ahead if you want.  But you’re not a Jew anymore if you do.”

“So God hands Moshe the rules on the mountain, right?  We’ve proven they’ve been transmitted without a glitch through hundreds of generations since.”

“We have.”

“So how the hell can I argue with that?”

“I don’t know, Moshe, how can you?”

Abba.  You know, don’t you?  Why I came back?  So why make this so hard for me?”

A pause.

“This we don’t discuss.”

“But I need you to—I have to know you understand who I am.”

“We don’t discuss it.”

“This is the craziest place I could possibly be,” the Young Rabbi said.

“Out!  Out with this talk!”

Then the secretary sneaked up behind me and pressed the stop button on the Xerox machine.  To my left, we stared at a stack of a hundred copies of my open hand.

 

***

“Hey, shvartzer.”

“Hey, sheeny.  What up?”

In the back of his brother’s van, I told Adam the whole conversation I’d heard, and other hints I’d been reviewing all afternoon, such as the Young Rabbi wasn’t married, yet wore a silver ring on his pinky; he played an instrument; and he always talked about his best friend growing up, a boy named John.

The first revelation was that these feelings Adam and I shared could conceivably be carried past childhood without necessarily transforming us into the likes of the swishy, frock-wearing fairy that Benny Hill played on TV.  We had never thought about the prospect of not marrying, of loving men in adulthood, and frankly, it was as much a horror as a relief.

Once we started picking apart the Young Rabbi, our imaginations carried us away.

“You know he kicks serious ass on the diamond, though?  His fastball’s a wicked pisser?”

“What did you expect?” Adam said, in a mock-Yiddish accent.  “He should throw like a goil?”

We laughed.

The second surprise came when Adam started grilling me about the Young Rabbi’s looks.  Until then, I had never considered any grown up guy (or anyone besides Adam, in fact) a potential turn-on.  But as I catalogued my teacher’s every feature for Adam – his olive skin (no beard, thank God), his blue eyes, the way on the playground playing hoops you could see dark nipples under his T-shirt – my body formed its own opinion.  Adam was already working on me, and after I ruined a new shirt from Marshall’s with the Young Rabbi in my mind, I felt both frightened and strangely hopeful.  Adam slept like a baby in my lap, and I stared at his face, imagining what it would look like five, 10, 15, 50 years down the line.

When he awoke with a whimper, he said, “Had the dream again.”

I stroked his hair.  “Heaven’s gate?”

“Yeah.  This time Saint Pete says to me, looking down and nodding no, he says, ‘You’re kidding, right?’  Hey, you know, there’s only one way to prove it for sure.”

“What?”

“Mr. Mystery.  Rabbi Cocksucker Kike.  I got two words for you.”

He starting sucking me off again, so I smacked his ear and said, “What!?”

“The Garden Bar,” he mumbled with me in his mouth.

“Oh, shit.”

The Garden Bar was the only gay bar within 20 miles of the Slope, Adam said.  He’d been trying to get me to check it out with him for months.  He said his brother used to go there to make 10 or 20 bucks in the alley off some queer—and get his rocks off, to boot.  It was there Adam’s brother had learned the thing he taught Adam and Adam taught me—though I couldn’t imagine ever doing that in an alley.

“Spring Break we strike,” he said.  “Now let me finish.”

 

***

“My nose hit the steering wheel.  Whapp!  You know?  Which was the first I knew an accident was underway.  I was just sitting there waiting for the light at the turnoff for school.”

Young Rabbi Roth was recounting the accident, which had caused us to suffer a droning substitute with crusty eyelids for nearly a week while he recuperated.  The school fell to pieces because Janusch was employed by the Old Rabbi to stay at home and cook soup for the Young Rabbi, and help him to and from the bathroom.

We gathered around the Young Rabbi’s desk as he whispered conspiratorially:

“I wasn’t worried, you know, because I wasn’t prepared.  Which I guess is good on the one hand.  How do you prepare anyway?  This guy was going about forty—”

“A goy?”

“Yup.”

“Drunk?”

“Don’t know.  But you’ve all seen the shmata car I drive.  It’s held together with duct tape.  It dents in the rain.”

We nodded, but that was far from true.  We all loved his car. We craved a ride in that Mustang.

He always talked to us as though we were adults.  The subject matter, certainly, but more importantly, the casual tone, the expectation that we could schmooze just like grownups.  It made us feel special.

“You know that whole ‘You-don’t-feel-pain-when-you’re-in-shock contingent?  No?  All right, there are these people.  You always see them on Rescue 911.  Oops.  It’s a TV show, never mind.  They show real life emergencies.  Anyway, on this show these people relive whatever horrifying catastrophes they miraculously survived.  Teens trapped in icy floodwater.  Arms hacked off by farm implements, and so on.  And these slack-jawed yokels always say the same thing.  They didn’t feel any pain, you know, because of the shock.  Who are these people? I want to know.  ’Cause in a about a millisecond I was unconscious and I still had plenty of time to feel it hurt like … All right, show of hands:  broken nose?”

No one raised his hand.

The rabbi nodded.  “Good.  Let’s keep it that way.  You don’t want to know what it’s like to get your schnoz bashed in.  Once in Spokane or Seattle I was coming home from a gig and—nevermind.  I’ve been going to the railroad bridge lately, you know, like I did when I was your age.  You sit there, just you, but you don’t want to be alone.  You think about your life, the decisions you’ve made, secrets …”

He started drifting, looking off into space, which he did sometimes.

“Rabbi?” one boy asked, trying to get him back on track.

“Right.  Sorry.  So those guys.  They remind me of those even sillier guys.  Like my friend, John …”

Now, normally, we all groaned when the Young Rabbi brought up John, because it usually meant he was about to foist some moral on us.  But for some reason, we didn’t moan this time.  It was the look on the Young Rabbi’s face.  He seemed on the verge of revealing to us some great secret we weren’t slated to hear for many years, such as what the hell a G-spot was, or exactly what lobster tasted like.

“See, John and I are very different.  For example, he was always convinced that if you fell off a cliff, you’d die of shock before you ever hit the ground.  You know, if you go soaring off the Sears Tower, you wouldn’t even be scared because you’d die of a heart attack in mid-air.  You gotta wonder about guys who believe that.  You wonder whether they’re playing with a full deck, whether they’re dreamers.  I used to say to John, oh yeah, if it’s true, how come guys who jump out of airplanes don’t die of shock?  Aha!

“Then once, about ten years later, he read a Physics book.  John never went to college, but he read a lot.  Dreamers do that.  So he called me up in the middle of the night—he had to track me down, I wasn’t even in the country—to tell me his theory was right all along.”

The Young Rabbi leaned back in his chair and surveyed our faces.  He called this “pausing for effect.”  You could hear a yarmulke clip drop.

“It’s true, John told me, you shouldn’t be afraid because you’d definitely die before you hit the ground.  But it had something to do with your neck breaking from the pressure, not shock.  I still think it’s bunk, personally.  Again—skydivers.  Let’s take a vote …”

 

***

There was a boy in our class named Dovid, who pretended to have been born an old man long before, and to have lived and gotten progressively younger.  He was sad, mostly, knowing he had only 12 years left to live.  The Young Rabbi never tried to stop this foolishness.  Instead, he asked us to find what we could learn from Dovid’s plight.  After all, he was still in school, still 12 no matter which way he’d arrived there, still subject to the same rules we all were.

Funny thing.  Dovid’s eyes did seem the eyes of an old man.  The body was young, fast, fierce in a scuffle.  The eyes, though:  He was always removing his glasses, rubbing his gray eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers.  Dovid voted no.  It’s never shock that kills you, instantly, but exhaustion after a much-protracted misery.

There was a boy, Yosef, who was always blaming the world’s problems on the shvartzers.  When Young Rabbi Roth assigned an essay about time travel, this fine-looking, delicate, otherwise kindly boy named Yosef wrote a long, articulate treatise on why he’d go back in time to advise Lincoln not to free the slaves.  He got an ovation from most of the class.

The Young Rabbi gave him a C, and asked him whether he thought it might be possible that there was some similarity between the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt and the blacks’ enslavement in the New World.  “Nope,” said Yosef.

And the Old Rabbi agreed.  “It’s apples and oranges, Moshe.  And besides, the boy’s too young to understand.”

“He’s old enough to be intolerant,” said the Young Rabbi, right in front of everyone in the hallway, “so he’s old enough to be tolerant.”

Yosef voted yes, he hoped it was true that he wouldn’t have to hurt when he hit the ground.  I hope so, too, for Yosef’s sake.

There was a boy, Akiba – “a great, gurgling brain” the Old Rabbi called him – who’d taught us all a trick his parents, followers of the aging Schneerson, taught him.  Ask a question of any book you might be holding, in other words, not only the Torah.  Then ask any dire, consequential question and say, solemnly, “Book, please tell me the answer.  I place my trust in you to offer up the truth.”  Open the book.  Read the first thing you see.  Stop when you’re done.  That’s your answer, and it will be true:

I am staying at home for the time being.

Running a ranch is a man’s job.

Jews are news.

A child whose birth predicted a gloomy melon harvest.

10:00 p.m.:  Harts are targets for murder.

Akiba blindly grabbed a thin pamphlet from a shelf and asked for the answer to the Young Rabbi’s question.  “If I fell from a big height, would I die of shock before I hit the ground?”  He opened the pamphlet.

The answer:  “Please contact your local synagogue for more details.”

“Aha!” said the Young Rabbi, smiling.

It is in fact the case that after laughing, after learning how to really trust in the divination, that every single question can be answered by any single string of words from any source at any time by anyone.  Try it.  There’s comfort in the concept, and some trepidation, especially among the Orthodox.  The Young Rabbi, after watching Akiba work this oracle said, “A game not recommended to the clown, the cynic, the guilty, or the godless,” and answered a clicking at the door from Janusch, bearing a glass of water and some Tylenol for his step-brother.  How did he knock with that one hand in his pocket?

Now, of course, I know the reason this art, called “stichomancy,” works.  Adam told me after I taught him how to play.  “Ain’t nothin‘ nobody can ask you haven’t already answered in your own thick head,” he said.

“Sometimes you gotta ask though, ay?” I said.

“Oh, baby.  Yeah you do.”

 

***

It was a Sunday at the end of Pesach break.  The Young Rabbi spotted us crouched behind a Ford pickup truck, just as we spied him leaving the neon-lit Garden Bar with another man.  Within an hour, he would be gone from our lives.

These are the things I see now.  I see his face collapse from a beaming smile into a mask of death as we lock eyes across the gravel lot.  I see his hand slip from Janusch’s hand – it’s the hand he always keeps in his pocket – and the matching silver ring on his pinky glinting in the streetlight.  Janusch doesn’t see us, tries to hold on and fails as we all did.  The Young Rabbi turns to Janusch, says, “John—Oh, God,” and drops a bottle of Bud, which shatters.

I see me, too, somehow.  What I must have looked like to him crouched with Adam, mouths agape and eyes rolling over his face.  I see myself now most often this way, frozen as a child, doomed to live out eternity drowned in guilt and shame, sorry forever for asking such a question.  I try to apologize to him with my eyes, to explain how I never thought about what he’d go through, what it might mean to him to be caught.  How I’d thought for some reason it would be exciting, how I thought it would make us special to each other.  How I didn’t think.

I see the Old Rabbi hunched over the bima the morning after, a brave face in a room without a song.  With tears in his eyes, he never mentions his son, our beloved, but tells us for the first time about another son we never knew he had:

“On a cattle car, I squeezed him out between some slats.  He was five years old.  It cut him everywhere, stem to stern.  He was screaming at me to let him stay with me on the trip we were taking from our village.  Instead, I threw him from the death train going fast, into the grass of a field in Poland somewhere where I’d never been before, and of course I never saw him again.”

The Old Rabbi can talk of his father, too; his father who died nobly, praying in a queue of Jews, all shot in the head and heaped into a pit.  He has the choice to speak of his son, Moshe, who might or might not have died sinfully, maybe stumbled drunkenly off the edge or tested his lover’s theory.  The Old Rabbi goes to the place and wonders (I know; I see him from the tree fort) and still – for now – chooses not to mention his son’s great name.

I see the truth to wake me up and lies to keep me dreaming.  I see the Young Rabbi fly from the railroad bridge.  The truth.  Down below the spinning rocks of the gorge and the black water dizzies him.  I see me and Adam shivering in the tree fort, and the rabbi creeping past below in blue jeans and a polo shirt.  Lies.  It’s the Young Rabbi I wish we really saw that night, called out to him, asked him up and begged him for forgiveness, for assurances we’d survive and maybe find happiness one day.  Instead we cowered, pretended we could still be boys just a while longer.

I see the Young Rabbi at the Garden Bar, refusing a ride in Janusch’s pickup, Janusch crying as he must have the night his mother, the Old Rabbi’s maid, died of an aneurysm in the room they shared at the Roth’s house.  I see Janusch/John afraid.  I imagine a different night for them, when they go home and unbutton each other’s shirts in bluish light and, without talking, make love on a blanket on the hardwood floor of the Young Rabbi’s study with their Great Dane watching, his head cocked.  I wish for this night for all of us, just once, as a gift from a loving God.

I see a nerdy boy; a shy and awkward Polish boy named Janusch who only his best friend, Moshe, calls John.  He thinks about Moshe all the time, wishes and tells his mother his wishes, that he wants more than anything to be Jewish, to be like Moshe.  He wishes he could go to school with Moshe Eliyahu, not the public school where everyone makes fun of his accent, his limp, and his lame hand.  His worst fear, which sometimes even wakes him, is that Moshe will really see inside him one day, and hate him for the very thing Janusch prays to his God is lurking under Moshe’s skin, compliments of his God.

I try to see them giggling one afternoon ditching school, their bare feet dangling toward the river from where they sit nearly touching thighs on the railroad bridge.  I see Moshe swearing to John that a body dashed against the rocks below would writhe even after the skull and spine were snapped.  And John, with words in broken English, a smile, and an arm around his best friend’s shoulder, trying to transmit into Moshe the solace of believing that we will all die mercifully of shock before we ever hit the ground.

I see me in the old Bet Midrash.  A murderous mute, under the eye of the clock.  I see my former classmates, mouths open, screaming, Indian-dancing, pouncing through the chalk dust cloud in front of the board, through papers flying and the hot paint smell of that room.  But they’re silent.  Not a sound to caress an eardrum.  Not a palpable song such as the Young Rabbi’s lamentations to hug around me in the corner, to hold me through the mania of sucking cock and putting on tefillin in the same day, to stop my joints from buckling and my body from collapse.