The Search for Shmulie Shimmer

 

The Search for Shmulie Shimmer

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Phil Cohen

 

Who’d have thought I’d ever find myself at the center of a mess? I wasn’t tough, God knows. I had never shot a plastic laser pistol, much less ever held one in my hand. I wasn’t gifted with extraordinary strength, courage or nerve—no one would ever call me fearless. I was just a man whose past put him in the middle of the trouble. I neither desired it nor wished to accept it—but I did because history plays its quaint jokes.
 
History came my way one late afternoon. I was biking my seven laps around what remained of Prospect Park, Brooklyn. It was the middle of February, just shy of the second anniversary of the Great Calamity.
 
What was I doing in the park on a bike in the bloody middle of February? A reasonable question.
 
One fine day not long before New York City went to hell, I’d found myself on a table in St. Murray’s emergency room. Cardiologist Murray Levine that is, the doc who saved my life. I had collapsed in my classroom in the presence of half a dozen students still willing to leave the science building to study religion across campus.
 
I lay on the hard floor wondering if my life was coming to its uncelebrated end, and if so, if the heaven I’d all of a sudden wished existed awaited my immortal remains so I might visit with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Moses Maimonides, and my maternal grandmother. Unless for my great sin I was doomed to the other place, in which case I’d likely run into Richard Nixon and one of my paternal great-grandfathers, who in drunken anger shot a man in a brawl somewhere in Odessa. One of the audacious students in my History of the Faiths of Humankind class whipped out her phone and summoned the medics, who swiftly brought me to the attention of the aforementioned Dr. Levine, a nice-looking fellow as best as I could tell through his mask, though a bit on the young side for a cardiologist. I lay on his table connected to this and to that, the doctor’s healing ministrations having brought me well out of danger. I was not insensitive to the fact that I had just narrowly avoided my one meeting with the Angel of Death, who, upon learning I’d live to teach another day, took an abrupt u-turn, seeking more fecund ground elsewhere, his always being a packed day with no time to spare. In the quiet and, let’s be honest, the ecstasy only possible to someone who’d just escaped death, I took an oath. No more poisons masquerading as food. No more cigarettes. No more indolence. Daily will I sweat. And eat local. Vegetables mostly, and just enough of them.
 
Post-Great Calamity outdoor exercise in New York City had become a hazardous affair. There were continuing reports of bits of radiation and fallout, the gift of the Great Calamity. Then, too, the slimmed-down ozone layer generously invited all manner of space junk into the world. Let me not overlook the roving bands of thugs, whom the police lacked adequate resources to sufficiently control.
 
 To keep my pledge indoors, I purchased an elaborate electronic bike system that offered wind and noise, and included exquisitely detailed 3-D bike rides from all around the world, courtesy of Google Maps projected onto a seventy-two-inch television screen. But peddling in front of my giant Sim-Screen dressed only in boxers and sneakers, failed to engage my imagination with what appeared on the screen. The illusion, with sound, music, and high def real-time images, superior to anything I’d ever encountered at an amusement park, simply could not recreate the actuality and excitement of biking outdoors. You know, the polluted breezes, the ups and downs, the smells, the tank-sized potholes, encounters with unexpected people and things, the great unpredictability of it all. I bought a bike and brought my fitness obsessions outside.
 
Almost two years on, well post-GC, my near-death pledge had become an abiding feature of my life. Every day, and I mean every day, even in winter, I dragged myself out there to be among the decay, the debris and the poisons. As long as there was no snow on the road and the temperature remained above twenty degrees Fahrenheit, with filters thrust into my nose, helmeted, goggled, a wool scarf around my neck, swathed from head to toe in Gore-Tex, in short, looking like a fugitive from a ninja movie, I biked the park.
 
I met destiny that frigid day in February. The air came in at twenty-two degrees. Thick gray covered the earth like an unwelcome blanket. The rocks, trees—everything was colorless. Nevertheless, as always, I forced myself into that fog and remained stubbornly in it. Pure force of will kept me out there humping that icon of disrepair ringing the park, hoping, always hoping, that this religious exertion would minister to all my needs, helping me transcend my grim state.
 
From time to time the effort would ease the gloom and diminish my lethargy and I could look the world in the eye and get on with my day.
 
At the beginning of my second lap I observed an old man sitting on one of the remaining park benches. Half a bench, actually, the other portion of the overpainted wood and concrete structure having long ago fallen into the void, where such things go, unrecovered.
 
You couldn't miss him, really. Except for me, the odd jogger, a couple of dog-walkers, and two cops in an armored police car tooling the park, there were no other human beings in the place that afternoon. Except for this codger, erect as a yardstick, patiently anticipating spring when sitting on a park bench fragment might be a more rational activity.
 
There he sat, staring off into the cosmos, the cold and the toxins raining down upon him. Every time I passed by the guy he leaned ever so vaguely toward me, scrutinizing me. Or so it seemed. But why should I care about this wisp of a man swathed in a gray overcoat? My job was to pump away, doing my best to lose myself in my meditations, my daily moment of private worship, awaiting the emergence of endorphins that would, magically, push out the pain and chill.
 
Yes, my daily moment of private worship. Does that seem strange?
 
I confess I no longer engaged in the act of prayer. I hadn't for some time. In different parts of my life, prayer, both the act of it and contemplation about it, had consumed me. I retained striking memories of my teenage years of smooth-cheeked boys, and men wearing long, unruly beards in various stages of graying, all davening, that is, praying, with extraordinary vigor. Even now I see them clearly, bowing up and down rapidly, like human engines powering a divine machine, eyes closed with orgasmic power addressing their Father in Heaven with words such as, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One,” and “When everything comes to an end He alone will rule,” and “Every soul praises you, O Lord,” and so on and so forth, making these and so many more claims of equal or greater absurdity.
 
No. I didn't pray anymore. But I believed piously in my act of riding circles around the park, day in day out, complete with dressing rituals, breathing rituals, rituals of movement, rituals of sight and sound, leading to exertion and sweat, occasionally capped by a kind of meditative mood that, when I was lucky, would persist for hours after the activity had ceased. To my mind this formed a kind of religion, at least by a definition readily comprehensible to my colleagues over in Anthropology.
 
This was my own religion. A religion of one for one. In one bundled-up mass I was, collectively, the rabbi, the cantor, the congregation. I preached, I sang, I attended to the wisdom pouring from my mouth. The park was the synagogue and my bike was a highly mobile and exceedingly narrow pew, and I was a solitary multi-tasking worshipper and leader.
 
And where was God?
 
That is always the question, is it not?
 
Well. I finished the ride. I was hurrying home, walking the bike to cool down, enjoying the cardiovascular lift and exalted sense of self-righteousness this ritual bestowed upon me that morning. As I was congratulating myself on yet another excellent workout, I passed the old guy. Whether or not I had subliminally chosen this route home from among the two or three possible choices in order to meet him, I am not sufficiently the master of my unconscious to determine. If there are no coincidences, as some say, then my choice was, from a particular recess of my brain and, indeed, the entire subatomic structure of reality, deliberate.  
 
Who the hell knows?
 
The old man’s eyes rooted firmly on me. I figured perhaps he was observing me in all my sartorial strangeness. I attempted to walk by him to re-enter my own little world unbothered by elderly men seated on elderly benches.
 
But he smiled in a toothy and familiar way, catching me off guard. I slowed my pace. I expected him to cluck like a chicken, an affliction so common in New York City in those days. But he did not act like barnyard fowl.
 
No. Instead, he leaned toward me ever so slightly as during my ride. In a tone filled with familiarity, even intimacy, he said, “Well, hello there, Nickey.”
 
I stopped.
 
To say that I was merely startled is akin to saying being struck in the head by a brick is merely painful. Being hit in the head by a brick hurts like bloody hell. And a total stranger calling me “Nickey” caused my whole skin to jump slightly away from its fleshy moorings. Momentarily, I feared a new cardiac incident.
 
I halted and looked him over. Beyond his coat there was not much to see. His hat came down to just above his eyes. His nose had the cancerous scabs characteristic these days of men and women who had managed to live into their seventies. He was thin, nearly emaciated. Loose skin hung down around his chin as if it were attempting to drip off. He looked like a turkey that, having survived one Thanksgiving too many, had worn out its welcome at the chopping block. His face bore the pallor of an apparition. He was dwarfed by his ratty overcoat, which somewhere in the past might have fit him. Above the mouth, a patch consisting of several disparate white hairs masqueraded as a mustache.
 
No one's called me Nickey since I was seventeen. At seventeen on the nose I summarily decreed myself an adult and demanded to be called Nick or Nicholas, or St. Nicholas more than once when under the influence of one thing or another and in the company of one female or another. Nobody's called me Nickey since then, except relatives or old friends unable to break old habits, none of whom were lately in terribly large supply. In fact, there were no relatives or old friends left, no old friends at all.
 
I answered his query: “Yes?”
 
Boldly he pushed his hat back revealing a full, smiling, extraordinarily wrinkled face. His smile made it seem that he was about to shout to the world at large, “Aha, here I am. Come and get me!” But instead he paused a moment, perhaps awaiting my squeal of delight in recognition. But, alas, I could not accommodate this expectation.
 
After waiting a moment, he asked, “Don't recognize me, do you?” A look of amusement rippled quickly like a wave across the sea of wrinkles.
 
Something went bumpety-bump the way my head feels when my bike and I fail to miss a pothole. I considered this mass of lined and marked flesh peeking out from its clothing. The voice jogged my memory. I struggled to place it in the text of my life. But his words had squeaked out in the tones of old age and disease, masking the younger voice I might have once known, perhaps known well. There was something familiar in the face, but it was too . . . it was too old. Age had not been kind to this face or its voice and I couldn't morph either one back to the younger form I might have known.
 
If this living skeleton were from my childhood, there could have been as many as forty years since we’d last seen each other. He would have looked considerably less like poultry then.
 
Still, I was a detective, part-time anyway. I should have been clever enough to deduce something. I should have latched on to an obscure clue, maybe a crumb on his lapel, which would in a flash of intuition and mental acuity have revealed to me this man's identity, what he’d had for breakfast a week ago, the identity of the party responsible for the Great Calamity, and the party responsible for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and killing. But I've long known that my poor memory is matched only by rotten powers of deduction. Thank God for my day job.
 
 I said, “No, don't recognize you. Should I?”
 
He leaned toward me a bit more, and in a triumphant tone declared, “I'm Abe Shimmer, Shmulie's father. You remember me, no?”
 
I remembered him, yes.
 
I whispered those sacred words that come when I am truly surprised. “Holy shit,” I said.
 
 And the air between us for a moment was still as an old corpse.
 
“It's been a long time,” he said. Clichéd but true. It had been a long time, a very long time, at least one full lifetime.
 
“Yeah. We have been out of touch,” I answered. For thirty years.
 
“Yes, out of touch. I'd say.” He looked at the ground as if studying a blade of brown grass or the mud on his shoe. “You know about Shmulie, of course,” he said, a note of pain thinning his voice.
 
A middling-sized boulder took occupancy in the middle of my gut and I had to pull hard to breathe. “Who doesn't?” I said. “Your boy is more famous than Al Capone.”
 
He waited eight full beats and said, “Fame like that I can live without.”
 
A faux pas, I realized. “Sorry. You must feel terrible about Shmulie.”
 
“Terrible, yes. But terrible you kind of get used to. Not used to Shmulie. Him no one ever gets used to. How can anyone, even his father, especially his father, ever get used to him and what he did? Such a brilliant chemist and he made that terrible thing instead of helping people. Uch!”
 
I leaned my bike against a tree and pulled off my helmet.
 
He said, “All those poor people in those hospitals just lying there like meat in a case at the supermarket. They might as well be dead. I can’t tell you how many times have I thanked God his mother wasn't alive to see what finally became of her son. She knew about the drug and the victims, but not the end, not the trial and everything else. For those times she was, may she rest in peace, fortunate to no longer be among the living.”
 
Wincing at the effort, Abe slowly pushed himself up from the bench, his left arm pressing on the cement armrest. Unable to stand straight, he was, from the waist up bent at almost a forty-five-degree angle, leaning forward and slightly leftward. He conveyed a counterfeit sense of forward momentum, all that remained of a robust middle age. "Maybe we can walk over to your place and talk there?" he asked.
 
“Of course. Of course, Abe. I'm right off the park.”
 
“I know. You're in the book. I looked you up.” There was no book anymore, but old linguistic habits die hard. I still claim, for instance, to dial my telephone, even though rotary phones had long joined the void, and in any event my computer Maggie did it for me.
 
Thus we began an unhurried walk back to my apartment, Abe hobbling along, brought low by age and disease and grief.
 
I slowed my post-ride pace out of consideration for my visitor, by the memories his presence evoked, and by curiosity. Why today appear to me out of the mists of time?
 
This extraordinary moment awakened the past. I had never sought to escape it entirely, just enough to bury memories best left to the archeologists to uncover some eons beyond my time. But that old man on the half bench, without much digging through the layers, brought back my personal antiquity, and I was shaken.
 
Surely he did not set out to upset my equilibrium. He must have had his own personal reason for his appearance. Why come to see me now, after all these years?
 
*
 
Shmulie Shimmer was my childhood study partner, my chevrusa as they say in the yeshiva world, and my best friend for five critical years of my life. We hung together like a pair of argyle socks blowing on a backyard clothesline, in Midwood, Brooklyn.
 
Shmulie and I, we both abandoned the neighborhood immediately after high school. We believed our lives lay outside the confines of Orthodoxy and the interior of Brooklyn, and that we could make lives for ourselves in the world without encountering the spiritual death the rabbis at the yeshiva promised would be the fate of anyone who ditched the pristine world we had been privileged to occupy.          
 
We had similar reasons for leaving, Shmulie and I, but wildly different destinations. We both wished to escape a sexually repressive, narrow-minded world, a world that espoused a conservative, God-centered philosophy we no longer accepted. I am now considerably older and allegedly wiser. I recognize that my adolescent critique of Orthodox Judaism was not quite as, how shall I say, not quite as nuanced as it might have been. I was a high school kid. Still, any regrets I might have had, existential or intellectual, were long ago swallowed up in that space of college, graduate school, marriage, child, and the career I had built for myself in the secular world.
             
And face it. Back in the 40s Before the Great Calamity, the 1980’s, the secular world was a seductive place. What we only saw from a Brooklyn window was especially enticing to a couple of sex-starved and knowledge-starved yeshiva buchers. The temptation was all the greater since the Orthodox community of which we were a part kept telling us how talented we were. It wasn't difficult, really, to decide to apply those talents for wider purposes than our teachers would have preferred, if it meant excluding Jewish observance. Yeah, we were fucking geniuses Shmulie and I. And we knew we could handle what in Midwood they called our neshamas. You know, our spirit, our soul, our inner spiritual essence, as the Schmeltzerites, that new Hasidic sect, called it. Yeah sure, we could handle the outside world like a blindfolded child could handle a Mack Truck going downhill.
 
We both sought our measure of greatness in the secular world. I became an intellectual of sorts, and Shmulie a criminal of note.
 
Let's be honest: of great note. Of very great note. Of very, very great note. And since in this material world of ours fame is the sole criterion by which we judge greatness, and since fame is often measured in deeds of questionable repute, Shmulie had most certainly achieved the greater success.
 
As I said to Abe, Shmulie was more famous than Al Capone. If we ever catch the mastermind behind the Great Calamity, he will blow Shmulie out of the water. But even then, Shmulie will continue to occupy a position of great pride in the annals of American pharmacological crime. Both he and Esther Lacey, his partner, and, how do you say this? his fall guy. Shmulie and Esther will rule that dubious roost for a very long time.
 
Everyone in the City with his head above ground knew the name Shmulie Shimmer. Shmulie Shimmer, the Yiddish-speaking renegade Orthodox Jew. Shmulie Shimmer, the inventor of Lerbs, the most interesting and destructive designer drug ever to be ingested by modern woman and man.
 
For about six months running not too long ago, Shmulie had been a major news item, appearing regularly in every possible medium while going to and from his trial. He wore his notoriety with evident pleasure. Vicious pride filled his face, above all in his eyes. You could see him streaming every which way, walking in and out of the courthouse bearing a smirking arrogance that to me was pure evil.
 
And probably it was. Where evil approaching perfection originates is a mystery, but like art and pornography, once observed its quality is remarkably clear.
 
As Abe and I walked toward my apartment on Garfield Place, I stole a glance at the old man. His shrunken body was more of a shock to me now that I knew who he was. Thinking of him as aging fowl insulted the man I grew up with. I was rather inclined to attempt to transfer the man before me back into the man I once knew.
 
The Abe I of my youth was a robust barrel-chested man with an enormous bush of a mustache like a latter-day Josef Stalin, and who, like a European intellectual, always wore a navy blue suit, a vest and a striped tie. He was the son of a large Hungarian Jewish family and the only member of the family to survive Hitler.
 
The Abe from the old days was as strong and full of life as this incarnation was thin and frail. He was energetic and curious, a hardworking, loving family man who, though a bit of a noodge, didn't deserve the son Shmulie became.
 
Abe Shimmer was born in 1940. He was lucky sort of. His parents found an order of nuns willing to take him. Once things became toxic for the Jews of Hungary, the good sisters raised him as a Catholic, but kept him breathing. He may well have reached adulthood as a Catholic except that his Uncle Walter, his father’s brother who’d immigrated to the States well before the war, came looking for him at the end of 1946 and brought him to America.
 
His parents had given Walter’s address in America and Abe’s whereabouts to several friends. His parents pleaded with them that if they died and any of them survived, that they would seek Walter out. Two of their friends did make it out of Hell. Uncle Walter, living in Brooklyn, received two separate letters concerning the location of his nephew.
 
Walter managed to extricate the five-and-a-half-year-old boy from the abbey and bring him to America. He adopted him and raised him. Abe grew up American, generally able to leave Europe behind. He graduated from Midwood Science High, graduated from Brooklyn College certified to teach high school, met and married Minnie Brooks, and had their one child, Shmuel.
 
The man I knew as Shmulie’s father was a man of the City. He knew the neighborhood like I knew my fingers and toes. He was prominent on the Midwood Residents Association, and president of it more times than I could recall. He was always organizing something: meetings about the schools, about garbage collection, about political matters. He was at the center of the annual Midwood block party, involving not one but many blocks. He became the go-to guy for most any local political issue. Everybody knew him. On more than one occasion Ed Koch stopped in the Shimmer household on his way through campaigning for mayor.
 
He taught high school history in that same spirit. The great laboratory of New York City constituted his classroom. Students in Abe’s classes knew they would become familiar with the subways, the magic carpet to museums, historical neighborhoods, historical buildings, historical spots, the United Nations. Shimmer family lore had it that when, in June of 1967, the Israelis defeated three Arab countries in six days, he hauled his students several times to the U.N. General Assembly to listen to Abba Eban’s speeches and the Arab responses. When the school year ended, he offered a free seminar given at his home that continued following developments. This lasted well into July.
 
As much as he represented the potential for excellence in public schools, he wanted his son to receive a traditional Jewish education in a traditional Jewish school. He believed a Jewish education conveyed compelling values that created a rounded human being as well as a good Jew. To make his son a scholar, a humanist, and a Jew, Abe sent Shmulie not to Jacob Schiff High after junior high school, but to the Yeshiva of Midwood.
 
Which is where Shmulie and I met.
 
*
 
Our meeting occurred in the year all boys and most girls enter a period of extended lunacy relieved only by moments of occasional madness, namely, the eighth grade.
 
One day late in the summer before I entered eighth grade, my father came into my bedroom and unilaterally proclaimed that this fall I would be attending the yeshiva around the corner. This announcement came from well beyond left field, far out of the stadium. I was doing well in public school. I liked public school. I had friends. We weren’t religious, my mother, father and I. We didn’t belong to a synagogue. I hadn’t had a bar mitzvah. We ate bacon every Saturday morning. Attending Jewish parochial school was just not on my horizon.
 
“Why?” I asked my father, appalled enough to consider wetting my pants.
 
“The Rebbe told me I should send you to a Jewish school.”
 
“The Rebbe?” I mused. “What’s a rebbe?”
 
“The Kobliner Rebbe, Reb Dovid Schmeltzer. He’s the greatest spiritual leader of our generation. I’ve been attending his classes on Tuesday afternoons after I finish my route.”
 
“Oh. That’s why you’ve been coming home late on Tuesdays.” I would ordinarily not have noticed this absence save that, because of it, our weekly deli dinner at Jay’s on Avenue J had ceased.
 
“Yes. He teaches a class for Jewish mailmen. And he’s brilliant. He shows us light.”
 
“Light? What light?” Clearly this had nothing to do with AC and DC current or bulb wattage.
 
“The light, Nickey. God’s light.”
 
Now understand. My father practiced a trade, a quite respectable profession. His livelihood put food on the table and enabled much else. But there was nothing in his profession or background that suggested a reason for an interest in spiritual matters. Until this moment he had kept his visits with the Kobliner Rebbe a secret, at least to me, and I was stunned. My father, a man who spent his days walking the neighborhoods delivering bills, love letters, and unwanted adverts for everything from automobiles to bird food had become a religious fanatic, and I was to be the first victim of his fanaticism.
 
Two minutes before my father entered my room I was sitting at my desk meditating on my primary interest in life, a growing concern over whether girls liked me. I had my eye on Priscilla Liebowitz, on her wire-rimmed glasses and the new pair of breasts she had acquired sometime between June and August. Along with this came a growing interest in erections, one of which I had been entertaining the moment my father came to speak with me. Fortunately, he knocked before entering with his news.
 
“Dad,” I said. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
 
I would have seen Priscilla every day. Do they have girls in yeshiva? Do yeshiva girls have breasts?
 
“The Rebbe said you’d say that.”
 
The Rebbe had never seen Priscilla, with or without her breasts.
 
My father sat on my bed and leaned toward me, his elbows awkwardly resting on his thighs, his head cupped in his palms, looking straight at me. “He is a very insightful man, this Rebbe.”
 
Insightful as a stone buried ten feet underground.
 
With a keen look in his eye that I’d never before observed, he said, “You don’t know the half of it, Nickey.”
 
Neither do you, Dad, I thought, feeling the wilting beneath my boxers. I glanced toward my pants to make certain the zipper was in the up position. “But I sense before this is over, I’m going to know the whole of it.”
 
My libido and my mind both rebelled at this decision made on my behalf, and I began making plans to flee to my mother’s cousin in Philadelphia. Perhaps I could entice Priscilla to join me.
 
“The Rebbe told me you needed to study the Torah.”
 
The Torah? I’d heard of it.
 
“Okay then. Buy me a Torah and I’ll study it. Can’t be that hard.” After all, I’d read Huckleberry Finn from cover to cover.
 
“It’s not that easy. Believe me, I’ve seen how deep and wide the Torah is and I’ve learned how little I know.”
 
“So why don’t you go to yeshiva, and I’ll deliver the mail for you.”
 
Maybe Priscilla’s house is on the route.
 
“Nickey, I’ve made up my mind. You’re going.”
 
And so I went. As did my erection.
 
Midday on the first day of eighth grade, I went to lunch with all my classmates of the Yeshiva of Midwood. The room was alive with noise and commotion as friends who hadn't seen one another all summer had their first free moment together to catch up. This being eighth grade, the re-acquaintance chatter was replete with tales of discovered sexuality. At least they’re not abnormal, I found myself thinking.
 
 I was sitting alone, wretched. My parents had plucked me out of my old school and dropped me in here. Everyone else was in synch with the knowledge and rituals of Orthodox Judaism. The boys’ yarmulkes were knitted by their moms or grandmas with their names embroidered on them in Hebrew, and sat just right on their heads. My black cloth beanie, stolen years before from a synagogue, kept sliding down my head and into my eyes or off the back of my head and onto the floor. All the boys sported tsitsit, ritual fringes, emerging from a garment all boys wore. They knew the right Hebrew slang and jargon. I knew “shalom.”
 
I sat alone at a rectangular table that seated eight comfortably, staring at my peanut butter sandwich, feeling about as alienated as an adolescent could feel. I wished for invisibility, and straightaway realized that essentially I had it. I had no old friends with whom to discuss how I pawed this breast or touched that crotch at camp last summer. No one acknowledged my existence. I received not even a token nod of recognition that I, too, walked planet Earth.
 
I wished an alien from a very distant planet would pull me out of there through a magic white beam and take me far away for experimentation to learn about the life of an earthling teenager. In the midst of this dark fantasy, a tall, pudgy and clunky guy wearing an enormous bright blue yarmulke with a white Star of David on it dropped his ass next to me, bouncing the table. He clutched a green sack as big as a garbage bag, and wore a smile so bright you could have roasted a chicken on it.
 
“I bet you're new here, too, aren't you?” he asked.
 
“Yeah,” I answered. “How’d you know?”
 
“Jesus Christ man, it’s written all over your face like today’s headlines.”
 
I said, “I feel like crap. I don't know anyone here. Don't know a word of Hebrew. I don't know what the hell the rabbis are talking about in class. I don't know what I'm doing here. I'd rather be the only Jew in a Catholic school or on my way to Mars.”
 
He smiled that sunny smile again and said, “That's a lot of ‘don’ts’, man.” He paused, looked around the room. He pulled his chair closer to me and in a conspiratorial tone said something I have never forgotten. “Look,” he said. “I’m going to tell you something that’s going to change your life.” He paused, took a breath, leaned closer to my ear, and said, “Fuck it, man, just fuck it. That’s all. Just fuck it. It's all trash. All of it.”
 
“All of what?” I asked.
 
“It, man. All of it,” he replied.
 
As I was absorbing that scrap of wisdom, he reached into that huge lunch bag and withdrew a thick sandwich. He unwrapped it and gobbled each half down in a total of perhaps four mammoth bites. As he began stuffing himself, I looked closely at his lunch.
 
It was ham and cheese on rye.
 
The chutzpah, the astonishing nerve, he demonstrated by bringing that treyf, that unkosher, sandwich, within the walls of a yeshiva cafeteria, a room that had never before seen pork, and then to eat it right there in the presence of all the other students and our teachers—this was staggering. I nodded in shock and admiration at the nerve he had to do what he had just done. This was a gesture of rebellion against the heavens so powerful that even now when I think about it I gasp, as did the angels above, I’m sure.
 
He was my man.
 
I threw my peanut butter sandwich in the garbage pail sitting beside the table, and asked, “You got another one of those?” And damned if he didn't pull another ham and cheese out of his bag just as big and just as treyf as the other, and slid it my way.
 
“Go to town, man,” he said, and I devoured that sandwich like a starving man just rescued from a desert island.
 
He pulled out a third one, unwrapped it and took a bite in the middle, leaving bits of mustard on either side of his mouth, which stained his face yellow for the rest of the lunch period. In the midst of decimating this sandwich he ceased his chewing. With a mouth filled with food he said, “Oh yeah, name’s Shmulie Shimmer.” And he offered me a hand thick as a gorilla’s.
 
“Nickey,” I said, attempting to crush his hand in return.
 

Together we hung out for the rest of the day, the rest of the year, and the rest of our time at the Yeshiva of Midwood, five academic years. We were inseparable until just before graduation. Then our relationship ceased, and we parted company forever.

 
Copyright © Phil Cohen 2016
 

Phil Cohen is a Reform rabbi currently serving in West Lafayette, Indiana. His interests in Judaism, especially Jewish thought and ethics have combined with an interest in writing fiction. In addition to a Ph.D. from Brandeis University, he is currently finishing an MFA from Spalding University in Louisville, KY. It is his hope that a career of academic writing, sermons, and bulletin messages can be translated into writing fiction. The story published here is an excerpt from his first novel, a dystopic Jewish science fiction novel.



 

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