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.
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?”
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.