Menachem Mendel Loses His Faith
By Ellen Golub
When Menachem Mendel Weinfeld lost his faith, he also lost his job, his social standing, and several of the more irritating habits his wife Sheyne Sheyndel had found so vexing.
The pharmacist told him, “Not another milligram, you hear? You’ll be having seizures if you take any more.”
Menachem Mendel shrugged his shoulders. Let the doctor and the pharmacist work it out—who cares? Though he had recently begun to question even the most fundamental tenets of Judaism, he was not terribly perturbed. He had never felt better in his life! And he had Dr. Geller and Prozac to thank.
Earlier in the week, his son, Moishe-Hershel, was sent home from school with a note from his teacher. The child could barely look him in the eye, fearing his wrath. But Menachem Mendel surprised him. He lifted Moishe’s chin until he could see the anxious look in his son’s eyes. “Hollering during Hallel?” he asked him, and knipped his cheek.
The boy’s face, a loaded slingshot, lost all its tension as Weinfeld uncharacteristically joked on. “What—did your teacher grow up on an obedience farm?” The son laughed and blocked as Weinfeld fake punched him in the belly. “Just don’t make up any more new words for the Birkat, Moishele. It’s got plenty, already.”
Moishe ran off, relieved to escape punishment. And his father, Dr. Menachem Mendel Weinfeld, a Jew grateful for his new attitude, recounted this little anecdote with pride to Dr. Geller, his psychopharmacologist.
As the doctor was writing out the prescription for the quixotic inventor, he reassured him that one hundred twenty milligrams would absolutely not cause a seizure. He smiled wryly and acknowledged the pharmacological reality.
“Your pharmacist is correct, Menachem, that most Prozac users are not at such a high dose.” Then Geller removed his glasses and went eye to eye with him. “But Menachem, you have a very efficient liver—it processes the medication very quickly. And of course, when you’re dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder, one prescribes at a higher rate.”
Weinfeld didn’t want to seem critical of his physician. He enjoyed the easy rapport that he had developed with him and wanted to display his satisfaction. “Hey! Don’t worry about it.” He said, “Even if I had a seizure, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.” Geller acknowledged the statement and stood up, signaling the end of the session.
Weinfeld rose. He took the prescription with a wink and a smile. He was quite confident in Geller, quite confident in life, actually. When his wife, Sheyne Sheyndel, worried that his spiritual crisis was affecting his work, he pooh-poohed her. “Nonsense,Sheyne Sheyndel. I feel at the pinnacle of creativity.”
It was not the large family or lovely wife that most people spoke about when they mentioned Weinfeld. It was his amazing productivity and resourcefulness. When he passed by, Jewish matrons nodded with respect. “It’s the shabbes guy,” little kids pointed and said.
“The shabbes goy?” a child or newcomer might ask. “No! It’s the shabbes guy. . . . The mitzvah guy.”
Everyone knew the shabbes guy. In his Orthodox community, he was lauded as “the man who brought fire to the kitchen.” Weinfeld had invented the electronic blech, and the shabbes-free coffee maker. In a world of halakhic restrictions and prohibitions, Weinfeld had become a pioneer in eruv technology. Now Orthodox mothers could wheel their babies to shul—or rather, the carriages wheeled themselves—still diligently observing and preserving the laws of shabbes.
Weinfeld, quite simply, was the wizard of work. He transformed tasks forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath into electronic postulates and from there into simplified, permitted, and imaginative household gadgets. This was his occupation and his genius: to circumvent—legally and respectfully—the laws of shabbes.
In Weinfeld’s house, toilets intuitively flushed and coffee beans ground themselves to powder without one law of shabbes being breached. Every Saturday, TVs and VCRs, lights and appliances took on lives of their own; to the delight of the ten Weinfeld children and the community of observant Jews who bought these inventions faster than Weinfeld’s attorney could apply for patents.
Some in the community were suspicious. Of the thirty-nine activities prohibited to Jews on the Sabbath, perhaps Weinfeld had accidentally breached one or more in his zeal to create the ultimate shabbes convenience. “It’s all too good to be true,” some of his critics carped. Indeed, there were skeptics among this community of fans. But they were few.
Weinfeld, himself, was the soul of piety. He davened three times a day and studied tirelessly. He wrote scholarly articles about the fine points of kashrut and lectured nationally on the importance of shabbes for the modern world. He had even received a heksher from the rebbe for his “halakhic mindedness.” It seemed Weinfeld represented the best of two worlds: a God-fearing yeshiva education combined with the wisdom of an MIT degree. “Even if He had not given us Dr. Weinfeld, Dayenu,” his rabbi had once exclaimed from the bimah. And everyone had understood.
From his wife’s point of view, Weinfeld had a few rough—or perhaps hyper-refined-- edges. “You couldn’t want a more perfect husband,” her sister Leye reproached her. “He even mates the socks.”
But that was exactly the point. For Sheyne Sheyndel, the mother of ten and a bit less compulsive than her spouse, the perfect husband was not all metzia. Menachem Mendel was always the fussiest of eaters. His kashrut had to be beyond reproach, and thus their kitchen was a mirror image of itself: separate stoves, separate dishwashers, separate sinks, and refrigerators lest—God Forbid!—meat accidentally come into contact with milk. Scrupulous Menachem Mendel even insisted his wife talk on the fleishik phone within six hours of eating meat.
He had become a bit of a stickler about the details of observance, too. When they came home from anywhere, he had all the kids kiss the mezuzah twice, just in case they might forget to kiss it again upon leaving. Where Hillel left off, Shammai began and, as Sheyne Sheyndel used to say, “where Shammai left off, there is always Menachem to pick up the slack.” It was Sheyne Sheyndel who wanted to stop after nine children, but Menachem insisted on “evening it off” with ten.
At their first session together, Weinfeld confided to Geller that his wife thought him a little “high strung.” Sure he had a few anxieties about his kashrut—he never ate in a restaurant that he didn’t do his own inspection of the kitchen—and he felt a bit of a need to even things off—to always walk on the even side of the street, to count ceiling tiles, floor tiles and buttons. Still, Weinfeld was content with his life until he developed the tinnitus. That’s what drew him to Geller. And from Geller to the Prozac, and from Prozac to apostasy.
You see, when he first heard the ringing in his right ear, Weinfeld couldn’t decide if he actually heard something or if that was the way his ear had always sounded. Did he hear something in his right ear that his left ear did not? He stuffed his fingers in his ears to create silence in his head. Was one side audible and the other side not? He wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard something. And what could you say about what he heard? It was all so impalpable.
Weinfeld knew he was a worrier by nature, so he tried to let go of the sound before it took hold of him. He drowned out the noise—was it a noise?—with the radio and TV. But after a week of humming, buzzing, whistling, and ringing—whatever was going on in his head—Weinfeld’s condition worsened. In the middle of the night, after having a dream about his eldest son, Reuven, eating a hamburger and washing it down with a milkshake, he threw himself out of bed. “I lost all sense of gravity,” Weinfeld told the doctor. “I was trying to lie still, but the room was spinning and the next thing I knew I was thrown onto the floor.” Then classic Weinfeld, “Do you think I have a brain tumor?”
The one thing Weinfeld feared more than fear itself was a brain tumor. “Not only is it cancer,” he would explain to Sheindel, “but it destroys the main circuitry.” A sophisticate in the intricacies of electronics, Weinfeld was less than acute in his medical fabrications. The classic Weinfeld was an anxious sort responding to stress with the most unfortunate of postulates. If one of his children threw up, it was a brain tumor. If one had a headache or another forgot something, it was always the brain tumor. Indeed, his medical anxieties had become so ludicrously intense that Sheyne Sheyndel and the kids decided to conceal minor problems from him. “He is a great genius in halakhah and science, your father,” she told them, “but better not ask him for a diagnosis or you may end up with a terminal disease.”
O.K., Weinfeld was not what you’d call a finely balanced clock. He was given to anxiety, sensitive to minute changes, tightly strung and hyperchondriacal. Add vertigo to the mix, and he was quite a show. It made him nauseous and tipsy, completely off balance. When he turned his head to the right, he felt as if he were taking a wide turn, out the window, around the park, and back. “Gottenyu!” When he lay down flat, it was as if the western hemisphere made aliyah. “Oh, my God, it is a brain tumor,” he whispered miserably to himself.
After a week of imbalance (“a lifetime!” Sheyne Sheyndel told him, “You’ve been like this all your life! You should get some help, b’ezrat Hashem!”) he simply recovered. And by the time the doctors got back to him with the results of all the tests they had given him, even the weary inventor sensed he might survive. Weinfeld’s balance had been restored and the vertigo had all but disappeared.
Still, the tinnitus had lodged solidly in both ears. All night long, night after noisy night, Weinfeld heard a concert of tweets, beeps, whistles and rings. He grew sleepless and irritable, and slowly lost his grip on reality. That is what brought him under the care of Dr. Geller, a psychopharmacologist with an interest in Prozac research.
On twenty milligrams of Prozac, Weinfeld noticed no change in his tinnitus. At forty milligrams, he was equally untouched. But somewhere around sixty, as Geller jacked up the dose, Weinfeld was able to concentrate better, perchance to sleep. Thoughts of the brain tumor had disappeared. Was the tinnitus still there? He only thought about it, now, during his bi-weekly appointment.
Clocking Weinfeld at 120 milligrams, his family couldn’t believe the change that had swept over him. “I am the same man I always was,” he insisted. But increasingly he paused to play, to joke, or to shmooze. The children were perplexed, but happy. Sheyne Sheyndel fell in love with him all over again. And Weinfeld, the Wizard of Work, was as if born anew.
Of course, the change affected his work, too. Suddenly easing up on utilitarian inventions, Weinfeld cast an eye toward whimsy. For instance, his boys had always liked to play basketball on shabbes, but their rabbi prohibited it on the grounds that the footprints they made on the clay court down the street from their house became a violation of the Sabbath. Always on shabbes, particularly on those long summer days when sundown seemed a distant dream, Weinfeld would pat his boys on the back and say, “Too bad, fellows. But it’s just not shabbesdik.”
The new Weinfeld could not be stopped. He took five pairs of high-top sneakers down to his basement workshop. Days later, the shoes emerged with a strange coating on their soles. “Go ahead,” he told them gleefully, “The shoes won’t mark the court.” Each of the Weinfeld boys—there were five—could now dribble to the goal while their father took his shabbes nap.
Or rather, tried to. For though Weinfeld had always enjoyed the mitzvah of a little snooze after kiddush, he found himself suddenly sleepless and serenely alert. His body may have wanted to sleep, to catch a few zzzs on a bellyful of Sheyne Sheyndel’s cholent. But his eyes would not stay shut, neither in the day nor in the night.
“Menachem, try counting sheep,” Sheyne Sheyndel would suggest.
“Sheep?!” So Menachem tried sheep. After the sheep, he counted the 613 mitzvot, then the orders of the Mishna, and onto the repeating digits of pi. But sleep did not come easily to a man propped up by Prozac.
Rising, most mornings, for Weinfeld, had become difficult. The sleep that so eluded him at night now arrived with the dawn, just minutes before he was due at minyan. A weary Weinfeld dragged himself to daven, haphazardly roping his tefillin and his tallit on in time for the Shemonah esreh. But the sleep deprivation began to take its toll. In a few weeks, he was missing minyan, sleeping in until noon, and praying at home by himself.
Maybe Weinfeld was just tired. Maybe the sleepless nights were adding up. Those who knew him—and who didn’t?—began talking about the changes in their local celebrity. “He’s trying to reinvent Rosh Chodesh, suddenly,” his friend Hersh griped to a fellow congregant. “He said we read too many psalms.”
Could this be the Weinfeld who had a reputation for counting the Omer with energy and zeal? Could this be the Weinfeld who quizzed his children daily on the number of days remaining between Passover and Shavuot, on that number’s square root and its geometric progressions? “Me, he told that we should stop counting the Omer.” Leibl remarked with disbelief. He said it takes too much time. “It lost its meaning long ago,” he said. “Oy, what’s happening to him?!”
“Not so frum, this Weinfeld.” His neighbors whispered, “We knew it all along.”
Perhaps the only people in the community not baffled by the change in Dr. Weinfeld were himself and Dr. Geller. “You are a model of the effectiveness of this drug,” remarkedGeller at his now weekly appointment.
The happy inventor nodded in affirmation. “My wife says I should go on national television to advertise it.”
“But about the sleeplessness, Dr. Weinfeld. If you are having trouble sleeping, I can give you something to help.”
“Another medication? In addition to the Prozac?” Weinfeld’s curiosity was aroused.
“It’s not uncommon.” said his doctor, “It’s rather like making a cocktail, in fact.”
Weinfeld hadn’t much experience with cocktails. L’chayims, yes—in shul on shabbes and on special occasions. Alcohol he took like his Prozac. Throw the head back and down the hatch.
But Geller was good, very good, at what he did. And whether he was a bartender, a sorcerer, or a puppeteer, his Prozac poster boy was feeling no pain.
“Sure,” he told his physician. “Why not? Give me a cocktail, then.” He enjoyed watching as Geller scribbled the magical letters of some chemical compound and scrawled a flamboyant signature on his prescription pad.
“Dr. Weinfeld,” Geller said, handing him the small square of paper, “Fill this prescription and take it right away. It should help you sleep tonight.”
Weinfeld raised his palms in mock surrender. “Nu?” So in this imperfect world, if the Messiah should tarry another day, it wouldn’t be a problem.
But, that night, it seemed to Weinfeld as if the Messiah had indeed arrived. He fell asleep talking to Sheyne Sheyndel, sitting upright in his bed, and awoke almost twelve hours later, under a cloud of eiderdown. He had slept like a baby, like a fetus. Indeed, so soundly and deliciously did Menachem Mendel rest that he awakened with a boundless vigor and a resolve to celebrate the delectable morsel that is life.
“Baruch Hashem!” he exclaimed in response to his children’s queries. “I slept like a baby!” he told them, while knipping cheeks and making silly faces. But in his heart, Weinfeld had not really paused to thank God. Rather, from the depths of his soul he was praising Geller for his ineffable knowledge and the glorious cocktail he had delivered to him.
“If you feel so well,” Sheindel remarked, “maybe you’ll feel like going down to the workshop today.” It had been some time since he had even mentioned the shabbes shirt he had been constructing. The project was his most compelling to date, but it seemed to Sheyne Sheyndel that Menachem Mendel had lost all interest in it.
The children left for school: for Talmud Torah, for Beit Midrash, for yeshiva, ten young Weinfelds out the door of a pious, God-fearing, observant home. And one older Weinfeld, rested, alert, and pumped, davening alone and hurriedly in the corner of his dining room, so that he could get to his workshop while the miracle of the cocktail still lingered.
The chipper inventor slipped downstairs, where a strange white garment hung from a hanger in the crowded room. The Oxford collar and button cuffs were ordinary, but fiber optic cable curled out from the neck and sleeves, making the shirt seem otherworldly. At its four corners, delicately knotted white wire took the place of tzitzit. And if you looked closely, you could see small microphones and heat sensors sewn in at certain intervals.
Weinfeld hadn’t worked for a while. And now he struggled to remember the excitement he had brought to this enormous project. He had once promised to create a garment that would bring religious Jews into the twenty-first century, a “smart shirt” that would free the observant to live more fully, with the blessings of modernity, on the Sabbath. “Not only that,” he had promised his congregation from the bima of his shul, “but such a garment will hasten the coming of the Messiah by helping the unobservant who wear it to observe the laws of muktzeh.”
Weinfeld remembered the enthusiasm and the wild applause he heard that night, with the entire congregation on its feet and shouting encouragement. But he could not remember the motivation that had made this seem such a dazzling project only a few short months ago. Was it so important to God that the Jewish people kept the Sabbath, to every dot and tittle? Would a just God really withhold Mashiach from the faithful until every last Jew on earth kept the mitzvah of shabbes?
Weinfeld felt himself being slowly cut adrift into a sea of unfamiliar choices. Decades of religious training told him he was toying with apostasy, that if he stretched a hair further, or loosened just one knot in the prayer shawl, he could lose everything. He remembered the fate of Shelumiel Ben Zuri Shaddai, the hotshot in the Exodus generation who defied the laws of the Sabbath to carry a few sticks from here to there. God zapped Shlumiel for his disobedience, making him the first casualty of the Jewish obsession with rest.
But then Weinfeld remembered the words of his teacher, Rav Zachmann, that “the halakhah is tailored to observance like a fine suit to a man—not like some blanket, tossed at random.” But every time he imagined himself in the fine suit of halakhah, Weinfeld would begin to feel constricted and choked. A new convert to fluoxetine, which elevated the level of seratonin in his blood, he was beginning to feel more comfortable under the medicinal blanket prescribed by Geller.
Weinfeld pictured himself in the crosshairs of God’s zapper, like the original Shelumiel. Did this shlemiel know something the rest of B’nai Yisrael was afraid to think? Perhaps in carrying his sticks, he was announcing the randomness of the commandments, his disagreement with the tight, constricting shirt. But Shelumiel was God’s invention, a few sentences of Torah text set to frighten and mystify. Weinfeld—the new Weinfeld—was Geller’s invention, designed to exercise the free choices his own neurobiology had not offered him.
Weinfeld took inspiration from his now weekly appointments with Geller, as if he’d found himself a rav. What was tinkering with gadgets next to designing personality? Geller with the prescription pad was like God decreeing who should sleep and who should wake. He could control pain. He could reverse illness. If not the Master of the Universe, he was someone capable of delivering peace, relaxation and joy into the heart of man. With that curly signature on a square sheet of paper and the name of a chemical compound, Geller could restore people’s lives, change their ambitions and open their eyes to self-knowledge. “Know before whom you stand,” were the words on the aron kodesh in Weinfeld’s shul. Weinfeld stood before Geller, and the throne of neurology.
When Menachem received the invitation to attend his MIT reunion, Sheyne Sheyndel took it as an opportunity. Perhaps a weekend away in Cambridge would give them the time to talk, to share the intimacies and attentions that had recently gone absent in this busy home of a dozen souls. Maybe seeing friends and places from his college days would revive Menachem Mendel’s flagging interest in electronics, and in her, his wife of twenty-two years. “You could bring the shabbes shirt,” she suggested as her husband read the mail, “and show it to Morty.”
But Menachem Mendel was thinking beyond showing his old freshman roommate the shabbes shirt. He was contemplating the robotics lab at MIT where they were experimenting with simulating human intelligence in computers. He had read an article in The Gazette that explained the greatest barrier to developing artificial intelligence, that of programming personality into a chip. “A human being is unpredictable, the ongoing functioning of 100 trillion neurons making each person’s brain unique,” it said. And yet, they were making progress. The neurons, axons, dendrites, and synapses of the brain were coming into focus for researchers. As inscrutable as a human being might be, the code would soon be set down—and then reproduced and enhanced by science. Menachem Mendel’s heart turned eastward, if not toward Jerusalem, then to MIT.
Sheyne Sheyndel had made all the difficult arrangements that traveling to another city always engendered. They had a place to daven within a walkable distance of their hotel. She had planned kosher meals, and a few invitations to the friends of friends. They would miss the Saturday programming, in deference to shabbes, but stay an extra day so that they could be sure to catch all the major exhibits. Sheyne Sheyndel packed her travel candlesticks, a few benchers, and Menachem’s favorite sheitel.
All their married life, unless she was in niddah, Sheyne Sheyndel and Menachem Mendel had enjoyed the blessings of kiddushin on the Sabbath eve, sharing an intimacy only enhanced by the holiness of the occasion. In a voice half chanting, half whispering, Menachem Mendel would recite for her the opening lines of the Song of Songs, “Yeshakeni m’neshikot pihu, ki tovim dodecha meyayin.” The guttural sound of those phrases, their sensual, attenuated vowels up from her lover’s throat, always raised a hunger in Sheyne Sheyndel’s flesh, which Menachem sated like a joyful baker bringing bread to the needy. But since her husband began taking the Prozac—or so it seemed to this loving wife—Sheyne Sheyndel’s pomegranates failed to flower, her grapevines barely hinted at blossoming.
“There can be, of course, some sexual dysfunction associated with most of the SSRI category of drugs,” Geller had explained to Weinfeld. But Weinfeld failed to communicate the unfortunate news to Sheyne Sheyndel in so many words. His newly acquired optimism inclined him to believe that things would right themselves soon enough. He didn’t know that Sheyne Sheyndel felt herself like the woman in the Song who laments, “Night after night I sought him who my soul loveth. I sought him, but I found him not.” Perhaps, she reasoned, the trip to Boston would do the trick.
The winding road of the Saw Mill Parkway reminded Menachem of the canals in the brain through which his neurons could now travel without impediment. If, as Geller had explained in one of their sessions, his condition had once locked his neurons into tiny electromagnetic fields, forcing them to misfire and ultimately deprive him of important choices, then Prozac would be their personal Messiah. Prozac was liberating his neurons as emphatically as Moses had marched the Jews out of Egypt. With every bend in the road, Menachem Mendel experienced more control. With every turn of the wheel, he felt lighter, looser, freer to be himself.
Arriving in Boston, the Weinfelds were delighted to see the new suspension bridge that transformed the city’s skyline. The many arteries and feeder roads that had been added since Menachem’s student days were nearly as inscrutable as the Boston they had remembered. Signs appeared, but not before turns had been passed. Menachem was titillated by the challenge and the obscurity of Boston’s new traffic patterns. He navigated ably by the old landmarks, the Charles River and the MIT Dome; he and Sheyne Sheyndel shared nostalgic thoughts of bygone days.
Morty was not difficult to spot. He was the only other man in the hotel lobby wearing a knitted kippah. He hugged Menachem warmly, as old friends do, and nodded cordially to Sheyne Sheyndel, in accordance with their Orthodox piety.
“How long has it been, Menachem, since we’ve been in Cambridge together?” Morty mused.
“The last time I saw you in Cambridge? Let me see. . . .” Menachem Mendel stared into the past in search of the exact moment. Instead he produced another recollection. “You were such a worrier, Morty. I remember you were keeping your dissertation in the refrigerator and we were trying to read one of the pages that had gotten stuck, through condensation, to the vegetable tray.”
“Why in the refrigerator?” Sheyne Sheyndel asked.
“Because,” Morty volunteered excitedly, “if the house burned down, the refrigerator would be the safest place to leave it. In those days when we typed every page by hand and unless you used carbon paper, you wouldn’t even have a copy of your work. In the fridge at least it had a chance in case of a fire. It would be the last thing to go.”
Seeing the same tension in Morty, Menachem Mendel stared back over the bridge of time. “We were a bissel meshugeh in those days,” he summarized. In his Prozac-illuminated wisdom, he hypothesized that Morty’s neurons were a bit of the anxious sort, as his own had once been. He made a mental note to slip in a discussion of fluoxetene and electromagnetism before the weekend was over.
The two scientists spoke, at length, of the days before computers. They unfurled wallets full of family pictures. And they shared updates on their common friends and their lives since graduation. “Remember Feldman?” Morty asked.
Even Sheyne Sheyndel remembered the young graduate student whose obsession with comic books kept him from completing his degree. “He went to medical school instead,” said Morty. “And now he’s some big guru at Mass General in cancer research. Top of his field!”
Sheyne Sheyndel couldn’t believe it. “Feldman?!” she repeated. “The kid who loved Superman??!”
“That’s the one,” said Morty. He does work in broken DNA—something like that. Some people say he’s going to be the one to cure cancer.” Morty shrugged his shoulders. “The guys from our class have done very well for themselves. Remember Herman, Menachem? The physics grad student?”
“Yeah, the guy who was always stoned and listening to heavy metal.” Weinfeld remembered a pimply-faced geek with a love of the Rolling Stones and a roof garden filled with grow lights and marijuana plants.
“'Herman was the chief engineer on the Big Dig. He’s responsible for the bridge you just drove in on. I’m telling you, Menachem, people are kvelling over the job he’s done. Knocked at least twenty minutes off of everyone’s commute. Beat back traffic in the city like you can’t imagine.”
“Amazing,” said Sheyne Sheyndel, who had been stuck in her share of Boston traffic jams.
“Appreciated!” shot back Morty. “His company’s worth a gazillion dollars. He’ll either be knighted or receive the Nobel Prize.”
Sheyne Sheyndel had not a jealous bone. She clucked her approval. Menachem wasn’t the jealous sort, either. Still, he couldn’t help measuring himself against his former classmates.
And with a deep breath Morty recited the successes of their old friends. One guy was developing a musical program that would increase the intelligence of babies in the womb while their mothers slept. Another was at the epicenter of nanotech. Horenstein was just a math professor doing ring theory at Harvard. Kirschenbaum was pioneering astronomic calculations of the age of the universe. Shykoff, the Russian kid who was always borrowing money from them—Remember?—he was restructuring molecules in foods, bioengineering a future where no-one would go hungry.
Altogether, it was an impressive list. Though most of their buddies were Jews, few had been observant. Still, Weinfeld thought that their old friends might view his own work as creative, perhaps inventive, certainly novel. He edged toward the elevator, trying to say goodbye to Morty, but Sheyne Sheyndel was leaning out the door, not letting it close, shouting in a stage whisper. “Morty, hey, Morty—After shabbes, Menachem will show you the project he’s been working on. It’s very cutting edge.” Sheyne Sheyndel was nothing if not an ezer k’negdo—an enthusiastic and supportive mate. She truly believed in her husband and his shabbes shirt, which she just knew would be a revolution in Jewish religious observance.
Menachem, though, was less confident. What could his friends, the soon-to-be knighted and the gazillionaire, for example, think of a shabbes shirt? “Gentlemen,” he might explain to them, “it doesn’t cure cancer or calculate the age of the universe, but—if you can believe this!—it can tell you the date shabbes will fall on from now to infinity and it can work like a telephone—yet legal on shabbes—to connect Jews all over the world.” It was uncharacteristic of the accomplished inventor to devalue his work, but for the first time in many, many years he speculated to himself as to whether, in the grand scheme of things, his work—even his most ambitious and far-reaching invention—was nothing more than mere novelty—a tschatchke, chas ve’sholem.
In their room at last, Menachem threw himself on the bed and loosened his tie. So he had reinvented the telephone—big deal. He drew a 20 mg Prozac capsule from deep in his pocket. The shape of the green and beige shell—the capsule—was surely one of the most perfect forms in the universe, he mused. Had the original kellipah which broke when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge—had it once been as small and as perfect and as soluable as this little capsule? No wonder, in all of human history, the shards of this vessel could not be restored.
Sheyne Sheyndel’s hot shower sent a curtain of steam from the bathroom. There was a knock at the door and Menachem Mendel answered it.
“Dr. Weinfeld? Room service,” a bellhop announced, wheeling in a tray of plastic and plastic covered dishes. “Glatt kosher, as you requested. Enjoy,” he said, as Menachem Mendel slipped a few dollars into his hand.
Not having eaten since New York, Weinfeld was hungry, and excited to taste the kosher delicacies his wife had ordered for the occasion. Sheyne Sheyndel had promised a romantic evening. A bottle of wine, an elegant meal in the privacy of their room—no kids popping in on them or jumping on the bed—kiddush—followed by his winning rendition of The Song of Songs. Tomorrow would be time enough to weigh the meaningfulness of creative work, the value of religious observance.
Sheyne Sheyndel was in the shower, slathering body shampoo over her eager flesh and humming. “Menachem,” she called, upon hearing the door close behind the bellman. “Menachem, open the bottle of wine. I could go for a little wine.”
The erstwhile inventor was happy to oblige. The bottle was a product of Israel, a seemingly mellow wine with a stubborn cork. He labored over the. And when he finally got it open, he uttered a quick bracha and rolled it around on his palette. The sickening sweetness of seder wine blurted out its adolescent bouquet.
Sheyne Sheyndel reached an arm out from behind the shower curtain. He handed her a glass. She sipped and squealed, “Oy! That can’t have been a good year!”
Menachem Mendel was unruffled. He lifted the plastic lid on what Sheindel had promised him in the car would be succulent yellow fin tuna poached in an espresso glace, accompanied by a pistachio-encrusted risotto. But for the life of him, despite his thrashing, he could not find the food.
Sealed around his dinner, there were stickers and bands and tape conveying rabbinic certification. Multiple rabbis, it appeared, had staked their professional reputation that the contents buried therein were kosher. And Orthodox Jewry rested their trust on these hekshers, such that the tight plastic wrapping around the food—security far greater than what you could expect at a nuclear power plant—effectively insured that no eater would transgress Mosaic law or rabbinic standards if he ever could get to the food.
Sheyne Sheyndel emerged from the shower, a scented flower in a soft terrycloth robe, her hair wrapped in a towel turban. She was amused to find her husband wrestling with yards of plastic wrap. Hungry Menachem Mendel barely noticed her. He was literally biting and tearing at the food, his opposable thumbs working to gouge a hole in the depths of plastic wrap that tightly swaddled his dinner. “Open, Open up!” he shouted as he grabbed a fork and tried to tear away the wrapping. “ Sheyne Sheyndel, is there food in here or is this a cruel joke?”
With much cooperation fed by a mutual hunger, the couple succeeded in opening the long-awaited meal. “This is tuna?! Was it once alive?” the disappointed inventor asked rhetorically. “Ach—poached cardboard with an encrusted crustiness.”
Both Weinfelds were familiar with the disappointments of food in the larger world. Whenever either one ventured into it, whether on an airplane or at a public event, they noticed that everyone else was served steaming succulent morsels of treif—while those who labored in Hashem’s service, like the Weinfelds, were served often indiscernible victuals compromised by time. “I was learning alef-bais when this was a fish,” Menachem griped.
The Pre-Prozac Menahem Mendel was not much of an eater. But Sheyne Sheyndel couldn’t help but notice how much the new Menachem doted on his food. He virtually vacuumed it up at meals these days. His natural leanness was becoming supplanted by a bulging waistline. Was it since the Prozac that she was finding all these candy wrappers in the pockets of his pants?
Let down by the wine, disappointed by the food, with love handles drawing his pants toward his chest, the usually cheery inventor sang a terse kiddush. He said motzi over a brittle stump of challah and turned to his wife in the lush king-sized bed of the hotel. Kisses rained from Sheyne Sheyndel’s lips. She was, as always, deeply in love with this man, the father of her ten children. Though they had been together more than half her life, the touch of his hand could still move her, the sound of his voice could still embolden her.
Still, for Menachem, the duties of a Jewish husband were becoming irksome. He was well aware of his obligations but strangely disinterested in his role. He heard Sheyne Sheyndel whisper his name; he felt her kisses on his neck and his chest, the tracings of her fingernails on his thighs. Yet he remained unmoved. He might just as well be doing mathematical calculations.
“It’s called foreplay,” Sheyne Sheyndel said in frustration. “Sing Shir Hashirim and you’ll remember. ‘Yeshakeni m’neshikot pihu,’” she whispered in his ear, but her husband remained aloof.
“Not tonight, Sheyne Sheyndel!” was his response.
“Not tonight?—or not ever?” It was a firmer tone than Menachem Mendel had remembered her capable of.
“Do you remember,” reasoned her bashert, “why the Ein Sof created shabbes? Six days one works, and on the seventh he is granted menucha—rest!”
“Making love to me is work?!” Sheyne Sheyndel felt stung by his rebuff and drew away from him. She had spent too many recent evenings in this situation.
“Sheyne Sheyndel, you take everything so seriously. In life you got to relax a little,” her mate whispered, urging her to face him.
“Menachem! Menachem! What’s wrong?! How many times have we wanted to be together—to be able to sit in bed together naked—how many times have we fantasized an evening alone, without work, without children? And here it is! A shabbes! A big, soft bed. A gift from Hashem and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
“O.K., Sheyne Sheyndel. Calm down. We can play pinochle—naked even!”
“Pinochle!” Sheyne Sheyndel’s voice was a scream. Had she said “fire” instead of “pinochle,” they’d be evacuating the hotel.
“Who are you, Menachem Mendel? What planet have you come from?” Sheyne Sheyndel was still screaming. “Did you forget that I’m a woman and you’re a man, that kiddushin is a gift from the Kadoshborechu?Kiddushin! Kiddushin—Hello-oo?” She was knocking on his head with her knuckles, as if to find him home.
“Tell me, Sheyne Sheyndel,” he took her two hands, held them to his lips, and kissed them. “Do you ever grow weary of ascribing everything to Hashem?
“You think I’m ugly. It’s the stretch marks, Menachem, nu? It’s the stretch marks, isn’t it?” Sheyne Sheyndel sat bolt upright, the covers slipping to her waist, as she scrutinized her breasts, then her hips.
“You’re lovely, Sheyne Sheyndel, really,” her husband attempted to calm her down and bring her back to the pillow. “ Sheyne Sheyndel. Sheyne Sheyndel! Focus on what I am saying.” He cupped her face in his hands.
She lay down again and he gently covered her nakedness. “ Sheyne Sheyndel. You always phrase everything, 'B’ezrat Hashem.’”
“Nu? So who doesn’t? B’ezrat Hashem, With the help of God. It’s an idiom.—”
“Everything we say: God willing, Baruch Hashem, with the approval of the Ein Sof—They’re all ways we use to take ourselves out of the mix.”
“What mix? We’re making a mix? Menachem, what are you talking about?” Sheindel was wide-eyed and losing it.
“I am talking, sweet Sheyne Sheyndel, about a life that takes place in the brain. About a life set in motion by the Ein Sof, then left to develop on its own.”
“Free will? You’re talking about free will? You choose not to sleep with me and you’re citing free will? Hashem gave me the stretch marks—and you, damn you!” Sheyne Sheyndel was again shouting.
“Sheyne Sheyndel, think! It’s not about stretch marks. He ran his finger tips over the smooth skin of her cheek. “And its more than free will. It’s about—I don’t know what to call it—intervention!— it’s about intervention. Supposing man has the power to alter the universe by changing his brain. Just suppose, using chemicals, we could achieve greater comfort, greater independence, a better life. Maybe we don’t have to kiss the mezuzah each time we pass it. Maybe we don’t need a brocha for everything we do.”
“Are you insane, Menachem? You don’t want to bentsch?”
“I’m saying—this is what I’m saying. Don’t get crazy. Just listen. I’m saying that if a piece of cheese accidentally touches a piece of meat, it shouldn’t bother us. If I light a match on shabbes, or if I cut a piece of paper or take a shower with hot water. If I take in the mail—perhaps it just doesn’t matter.”
This was too much for Sheyne Sheyndel. She jumped out of the bed and reached wildly for her robe. Weinfeld stretched out his arm and grabbed her wrist. He wrestled his wife down to the carpet.
“Let me alone, Menachem, Let me go. You’re out of your mind.” Sheyne Sheyndel was a mix of tears and anger.
“For the first time,” he told her. “For the first time in my life, I am in my mind. I am in control of my own mind.”
“You’re in control of nothing. You’re a crazy meshumid,” she scolded him. “And you’re completely out of your mind.” Sheyne Sheyndel had been screaming again. But Menachem didn’t escalate with her. He looked serene, calm, a stable matzoh ball in a swirling pot of hot soup. Sheyne Sheyndel struggled to control her mood. She fought off anger, confusion, and tears. Then she said firmly, “B’ezrat Hashem, Menachem, we’ll go to the rabbi. You’ll tell him all these thoughts you’re having and he’ll talk with you. He’ll set you straight.”
“No, Sheindel. We’ll go to Geller and he’ll set you straight.”
“That’s what this is about—Geller?! You’ve got a new rav now, Menachem? You daven bei Geller?”
Weinfeld crossed his arms over his hairy chest. “It’s not like that, Sheyne Sheyndel.”
But what was it like? He could never explain it to her. He realized that his dear wife, the lovely Sheyne Sheyndel, would not ever understand what he meant. Actually, there was no explaining it. There was just the experience of life after the Prozac, something Sheyne Sheyndel would have to live, not hear.
More than anything, Weinfeld wanted his wife to join him. Bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, she must cleave to this new knowledge with him so that, together, they could escape the constrictions of their neurotically observant world. He was not Shelumiel, the screw-up of the Exodus generation. He was Menachem Mendel—better yet, the new and improved Menachem Mendel—a Jew made whole by the advance of science. Surely halakhah was only a temporary state, a way of life for people who could not see beyond it. Prozac was the Elijah of the Messianic age, a prescient indication that Redemption was at hand. Soon all people, Jew and Gentile alike, would think new, unfettered thoughts and free themselves of empty rituals and false pieties.
Weinfeld looked at his wife as if she were on the other side of the world. Without taking the Prozac, his Sheyne Sheyndel could not, would not, see this. Then, out of the blue, he was overcome with the simplicity of his idea. Life was so gloriously improbable! He jumped to his feet and ran, naked, to his suitcase, stumbling and tumbling over his shoes in the darkened room. Sheyne Sheyndel stared at him in disbelief as he struggled to his feet, frantically unzipped the bag, and began tossing out shirts, shoes, and ties. “It’s here. I know it’s here,” he repeated. “Aha!”
By the light of the shabbes candles she saw him pull an orange prescription bottle out of a small duffel bag. Never had Sheyne Sheyndel seen anything so large from the pharmacy. It looked like it contained hundreds of pills. He pressed in the childproof cap with one hand and twisted open the jar with the other. Menachem Mendel poured a handful of beige and green pods into his palm and slithered toward her on the rug.
“Sheyne Sheyndel, you must take this,” he said.
“You’re kidding, Menachem.” She wondered if he was coming totally unraveled.
“Seriously. Take some.” The quixotic inventor insisted that his wife join him in his state of mind. “Just swallow a few little tablets and you will know what I know. You’ll see what I see!”
It was, Sheyne Sheyndel knew, a ridiculous idea. Even in her youth, she had not been one to experiment with drugs. “Menachem, where are you going with this? Do you know what you’re saying? You shouldn’t be doing this!” Sheyne Sheyndel tried to sound firm.
“Shouldn’t be doing this?’ Sheyne Sheyndel, the world is not filled with ‘thou shalt nots’ and ‘shouldn’ts’. I can see beyond that now.” He looked calmly into her eyes and explained, “There are other, more subtle sources of kedusha than I once thought—other highways, other seforim, other rooms.”
She seemed not to comprehend, so he went on, “Why should we be yoked to empty rituals and foolish repetitions? Sheyne Sheyndel, how many times a day do you think the Ein Sof wants to hear the Shemonah Esreh? This is not the path to Mashiach. To arrive at Mashiach, we must liberate ourselves from our minds. Sheyne Sheyndel!” he shouted her name. “Look for the rav who will liberate you from your own brain.”
Weinfeld held the fistful of capsules and shook them near his ear as if they were dice. “Imagine,”—in this she knew he was trying to seduce her—“Imagine a shabbes that extends right through the week and transcends time. A shabbes for which you need no eruv, no smart shirt.”
Sheyne Sheyndel gasped. Though naturally modest, pious and chaste by nature, she was inordinately aroused by the idea.
Her hossen opened his clenched palm and rained the handful of capsules over her head, as if he were showering her with blessings. “Open your eyes, Sheyne Sheyndel. Welcome to my world!” Menachem Mendel was mesmerizing as he continued his plea in the words of the Song, “Come away with me, my sister, my bride.”
A true daughter of Israel, a devoted Jewish mother who had nursed all of her ten babies as if they were each her first, Sheyne Sheyndel was determined to resist him. She thought for a moment of calling for help from the hotel desk, or dialing 911. But it was shabbes and she found herself unable to lift the phone receiver from its cradle.
And there they were, the two of them, together and alone, on the carpeted floor of their hotel room, butt naked; she leaning against the mattress, he on his knees supplicating her. It was the husband of her youth, her bashert. And he was as attractive to her as he had ever been—without the counting rituals, cured of the brain tumor, passionate and happy as she had ever known him. This carefree, insightful, imaginative man whom she loved so deeply was beseeching her. And she saw that it was very good, what the Prozac had done.
Menachem Mendel commenced singing in the hypnotic chant of The Song of Songs, “Yeshakeni menshikot pihu,” he charmed her. His low voice made her bold, his spirit made her reckless. And his passion for the Prozac—she was no match for it. Her beloved gave her to drink from the kiddush wine and caused her to eat from the fruit of his tree. Head back, without a L’Chayim, Sheyne Sheyndel lustily consumed many milligrams of their new faith.
Days passed, weeks maybe, and the bond between Menachem Mendel and his wife grew not just strong, but beautiful. They lived immune to life’s daily woes, insulated from its petty disappointments, impervious to people and their loshen hora. “Not so frum, Weinfeld,” the tongues and fingers wagged. But the Weinfelds were happy with their portion. Even raising ten children, they were as carefree as the day they had met.
As the orange pharmacy bottle began to turn empty, it occurred to Menachem Mendel that it was time to see Geller again. Since returning from Cambridge, he had cancelled his weekly appointments. “Cured!” he pronounced himself. He thought Geller would be pleased. But with the diminution of his pill count, Weinfeld had to concede: perhaps not “cured,” but certainly “in remission.”
Weinfeld soon found himself sitting again in Geller’s office, eyeing Geller’s prescription pad with uncharacteristic longing. He knew that it was that square pad and the elaborate flourish of a signature that separated him from Geller. In all other ways, he reasoned, they were equals.
Geller noticed his fixed gaze upon the pad. “Something of interest, Dr. Weinfeld?” he asked, following with, “You’ve cancelled several appointments. Is there some problem?”
Problem? Problem? “If you call peace of mind a problem, perhaps.” He found himself showing off for Geller again, wanting to please, to demonstrate his successes as a model patient. Again he saw himself as the Prozac poster boy, launching a national ad campaign for the wonder drug. But in his heart, Weinfeld knew he was now more than just a happy face on a label. He had become like Geller. He, too, had reversed illness. He, too, had conquered disease. Sheindel was his patient just as he had been Geller’s. They were like succeeding generations of rabbis in the Talmud, the later generation in reverent appreciation of those who had come before.
With great excitement and pride, Weinfeld unfolded his story to Geller, about the trip to Cambridge, seeing his friends, the uneventful reunion. “Although the trip was routine,” he explained, “there was one highlight—when I convinced Sheyne Sheyndel to go on the Prozac.”
“What?!!” Geller’s voice was like a sonic boom.
Proudly, Menachem Mendel repeated his achievement. “Yes, I put Sheyne Sheyndel on Prozac—and she loves it!”
“You put Sheyne Sheyndel—you put your wife on Prozac?! You!? I see. Prozac. Mrs. Weinfeld is now on Prozac.” No matter how he said it, Geller sounded incredulous.
“Truly, I did!” Weinfeld squealed with delight. “I shared my prescription with her and we are—”
“You what?!” Weinfeld guessed that a few thousand of Geller’s neurons must be jammed between synapses. The good doctor seemed uncomprehending.
“I gave her some of my pills. We’re sharing them.” He was trying to be clear.
“You’re sharing your medication with your wife?!” It was a strange voice that came out of Geller, neither still, nor small, but excessively something. Weinfeld tried to remember whether apoplexy was a medical condition or a literary device. He wondered if Geller was all right, if he should be checking his vitals or doing something medically appropriate. Geller’s face looked pasty and streaked, followed by puffy and red. A plume of smoke surrounded his head—thank God it came from a cigar.
Geller was not amused. Indeed, he was incensed. His entire body rose from the chair and, towering over the wiry inventor, he shook a finger in his face.
“You gave this to your wife? Your own prescription? You gave it to her?”
At last, the synapses were working. A relieved Weinfeld said, “Yes! Yes! And as a result she, like me, is a changed person.”
“Are you serious, Weinfeld? You prescribed and dispensed a controlled substance without a license. You have done something that is absolutely forbidden. Do you realize that you have no license to dispense medication? You have no authority.”
Was Geller kidding? Where did he get off being so offended. “Don’t get so worked up, Dr. Geller. It’s not the worst thing in the world. Her neurons needed a break They…”
“Don’t you try to talk neurology with me. You are the patient. That medicine was for you alone. For you and no one else. You need a license to prescribe medicine, Weinfeld. A license!”
Geller was so angry that Weinfeld thought the good doctor might be a bit short on his own meds. “Have you been sleeping well, Dr. Geller?”
The psychopharmacologist bristled with anger. He had not meant to offend Geller or to do wrong, yet it was clear to Menachem Mendel that he had done both. He had neither license nor prescription pad—only the desire to be as God, to control pain, to mete out happiness, to shape the lives of loved ones in a positive way.
Slowly, painfully, with a sense of impending shame, Weinfeld realized that he was “not that kind of doctor,” as he had been telling people for years. Weinfeld was the D.P., the designated patient.
“Mr. Weinfeld, what you have done is beyond reckless and irresponsible. It is completely against the ethics of my profession. You leave me no choice but to terminate this treatment immediately.” Geller pulled at Weinfeld's arm and drew him to his feet.
The madcap adventures of Menachem Mendel were coming to an end. He sensed it. The cookie jar was closing. The gates of the garden were swinging shut. All the creativity, the contentment, the happiness—he could feel it draining out of him.
Weinfeld and Geller now stood face to face, so close that the inventor could count the polka dots on his physician’s tie. And with a brutality that seemed hardly conscionable, the psychopharmacologist physically pushed Menachem Mendel out the door of his office.
“Out!” he shouted. “Out. You are terminated from my care.” Geller slammed the door after him.
Weinfeld, now deeply ashamed, looked around the bland corridor. There were no angels with flaming swords, no punishments meeted out for the future. No one was telling him that he would hereafter walk on his belly or eat bread by the sweat of his brow. There was only a closed door, an empty pharmacy bottle, and a tremendous sense of humiliation.
A flash of anxiety hit Menachem Mendel so that he flinched. What would he tell Sheyne Sheyndel about this encounter? How could he return to her empty-handed? What would become of them now?
He walked back home on the even side of the street. He counted the pickets in the fences, the lines in the sidewalk. Passing his old shtiebel, he saw men gathering for mincha. He stopped. He kissed the mezuzah and went in. He took a tallit from the shelf and, for the first time in a very long time, swaddled himself in it from head to toe. Weinfeld covered his eyes with his hands and said Shema Yisrael. Desperately, he implored Hashem to help him find a home for the 300 million feet of wiring and the 100 billion nerve cells that now wiggled, anxiously and precipitously, between his neck and his kippa.
Copyright © Ellen Golub 2011
Ellen Golub attended Boston Hebrew College and received her Ph.D. in literature from SUNY Buffalo. She began her career teaching on the English and Jewish Studies faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where she published psychoanalytic literary criticism and, most afternoons, enjoyed a classical Freudian analysis. Later, staring down four Hebrew day school tuitions, she added a 17 year stint as a syndicated newspaper columnist to her repertoire.
Today, Ellen is Professor of Communications at Salem State University and a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where she created the ezine, 614. She spent her recent sabbatical at Brandeis, contemplating a multi-lingual future for a Jewish literature that will riff on the Talmudic page format and be written for delivery on the ipad. This story is her first published fiction and comes from her just completed collection of short stories, The Shabbes Dog. Her agent is Sam Fleischman (at LitArtists@aol.com). Ellen Golub lives in Marblehead, MA with her husband, Steve Sass, and gaggles of returning children.