The Marvelous Revival of Rabbi Barton
By Yaacov Dovid Shulman
Gaze at the lights, at what they contain.
Do not let the Names, phrases and letters swallow up your soul.
They have been given over to you.
You have not been given over to them.
Orot Hakodesh I, pp. 83-84
Rabbi Barton, walking down the tree-lined path to the yeshiva study hall, inclined his head and analyzed a subtle Talmud passage.
Suddenly, he tripped on a wooden slat jutting up to ankle height. He barely had time to note that it formed part of the rim of a great barrel lying at his feet and sinking beneath the ground. Then he plunged headfirst into the barrel, catching a momentary glimpse of an expanse of whiteness beneath him, and he broke through the surface and dove into a heavy sea of sour cream.
Lost in the thick whiteness, Rabbi Barton gesticulated frantically and attempted to cry out, but his mouth was filled with sour cream, and the desperate motions of his expressive hands could not redeem him. He realized suddenly that these were his last moments. Before he could arrange an appropriate frame of mind, he was asphyxiated.
A period of blank whiteness passed. And then, a sour cream-wrapped entity, Rabbi Barton rose from the great barrel and hovered above the yeshiva grounds. Through a window of the study hall that poured forth light, Rabbi Barton saw that he had been replaced by Rabbi Knaitch — the nerd! Flying cylindrically into the cobalt air, Rabbi Barton shed his skin of sour cream. Gleaming and translucent, he floated high above the town of Monsey, whose lights glowed beneath him like the hidden lights of redemption. Rabbi Barton swirled about and drove into the gentle air.
Passing the Palisades and the length of Manhattan, Rabbi Barton landed in a music club on Spring Street. The music was a barrage of noise, and he yelled to the greasy-haired bartender, “A beer, please.”
A white-faced woman with shocking-red lips and silver skull-earrings leaned toward him. Her lips moved in attractive contortions, but the drummer, his hands bleeding and his face contorted, was mauling the drums, and the guitar player was howling into a microphone.
“What?” yelled Rabbi Barton. He raised his glass of beer to his lips. His hand trembled, and the foam spilled onto his silken tie.
The woman yelled back at him, “Looking for someone?”
Rabbi Barton didn’t reply, and she pulled at his sleeve. “Come with me.”
Rabbi Barton followed her past tables of people shouting at each other, past a row of black, vibrating speakers, and through a narrow, graffiti-marked corridor, out a rusted door and into a small courtyard. The door swung shut behind them, and Rabbi Barton took a deep breath.
The woman smiled at him. She removed one of her earrings and flung it at the sky. It soared above the buildings that surrounded the courtyard, and glowed faintly like a moon above the city. The music pulsed from behind the black door, and she said, “Let’s dance!” Rabbi Barton yanked off her other earring, cast it to the courtyard floor and kicked dirt on it with his heavy, black leather shoe.
A willow tree grew swiftly from the spot and rose above their heads, its branches undulating across the courtyard. Rabbi Barton grabbed a bough and, monkey-like, swung up from branch to branch, until he reached the top of the five-story building across the courtyard. He swung by his arms and plunged, feet-first, through a double-sealed window. Amidst a crash of glass, he smashed into a small, pink bedroom, landing in a tangle of heart-shaped cushions on a pink bed, where three twelve-year-old girls intently watched a fourth girl undulate her prehensile toes, whose orange-tinted nails glowed faintly like featureless heads.
The girl with the prehensile toes looked up at Rabbi Barton and ethereally pronounced, “The Infinite Manifestation of Infinite Mind . . .” She dreamily repeated the hypnotic phrase, and Rabbi Barton saw with horror that the four girls’ heads had disconnected themselves and were hovering in the air.
Desperately, he unraveled a loose jacket thread and, using his pen as a needle, quickly stitched the girls’ heads back to their unsuspecting necks. When he finished, sweating and with his heart pounding, he realized that he had unstitched his jacket and was now reduced to shirt sleeves.
Rabbi Barton stepped back and took a deep breath. The wriggling toes floated up from the girl’s feet and grew to human size; ranging themselves like soldiers wearing faceless gas-masks, they blindly advanced upon him. He flailed at them and they ripped open, spilling valves clogged with motor oil. Rabbi Barton lunged at the bed and, scooping up an armful of the cushions, stuffed them into the chest cavities of the advancing robots, who immediately broke rank. “Let’s see if there’s any beer in this joint!” called one, and they jostled out of the bedroom to the kitchen.
Rabbi Barton sidled breathlessly to the window, climbed over the sill, and backed out, his dangling legs waving, feeling for a ledge, until they came down on a branch. He looked down, and saw that he was stepping into a smoke-covered field of brambles. He sank into the thorns that scratched at his face, legs and hands, until they reached over his head. He bent down laboriously and dug into the moist soil. About him cannons fired and smoke blew, making his eyes tear. For hours he dredged out a burrow, and then he climbed into it and curled up, closing his eyes. Only a distant circle of light at the entrance remained, and the sound of the cannon was peacefully muffled.
A giant hand grabbed Rabbi Barton’s ankle downwards, and he was shocked awake. His heart raced and he tried to pull himself up, free of the burrow, but the hand dragged his ankle down through the loam until he felt his leg break through to an empty cavity below. Swiftly and brutally, Rabbi Barton was yanked into the underground cave, and he tumbled to the dirt floor. Before him, in the blackness, two eyes shone.
“How do you do?” said Rabbi Barton.
The eyes advanced. Rabbi Barton felt two large hands grab him and stuff him into a great mouth. He struggled desperately, but his arms were pinned, and his swinging legs made no impression on the giant. Within minutes he had been crammed into the mouth and swallowed. After a long, battering passage through the clinging, squirming esophagus, he landed in the giant’s stomach, and rested there a moment on his hands and knees. A flood of a liquid with an overpowering odor cascaded down on him. The liquid was almost immediately at ankle level and continued rising. Rabbi Barton involuntarily tasted some of it as it streamed over his head and face — it was soda pop, and root beer, too: his favorite flavor! The viscid liquid poured incessantly until it lifted him and carried him away. Rabbi Barton bumped against a large, hard object. He reached up and grabbed it — it was metal, round but regularly indented, and its top was unpleasantly sharp. It felt like a boat. Rabbi Barton grabbed onto it with his other hand as well and, in the dark and rushing root beer, heaved himself over the edge, and landed on a cork-lined deck. He felt his way about the strange, small vessel, and realized that he had climbed to safety onto the root beer cap which the undiscriminating giant had prodigiously swallowed. Rabbi Barton lay low in the boat, terrified of capsize, and, as the headlong journey continued for long, dark hours, he succumbed to weariness and sleep.
When Rabbi Barton awoke, he saw that his little boat was rapidly approaching a dimly lit tunnel at the end of which shone a light. Suddenly, a rush of scalding water buffeted the vessel. The boat surged through the tunnel and then, too suddenly, reached an opening, through which the water gushed crazily, and made a sharp downward turn. Rabbi Barton held onto the edge of the root beer cap with both hands, and felt himself battered, falling terrifyingly in a flood of steaming water, until he and his boat dove into a vast lake of scummy water. Bobbing to the surface, Rabbi Barton looked around to find himself in a giant pot into which the great waterfall was still pouring.
A shadow passed over Rabbi Barton, and with a wrenching squeak, the waterfall ceased. He looked up and saw a hand turning a faucet handle high above him. He turned around, craning his neck. Two faces stared down at him: one seasoned, middle-aged and angry, and the other a frightened teenager. The middle-aged face moved its huge lips. The muscles of the mouth and face writhed hideously, and a cracked, angry voice boomed out: “You see that when you don’t wash the pot right away you get specks of dirt? You see?” A giant hand rushed down at him and splashed the water so hard that Rabbi Barton’s head snapped forward and his chin slapped against his collarbone. He was lifted vertiginously on a thick, greasy finger, and the finger snapped. Rabbi Barton, still clutching the root beer cap, was thrown across space onto a giant table, smashing against a salt shaker and flying over the lip of a plate onto a mass of soggy green beans.
Rabbi Barton’s resentment against this man grew like a terrible storm, and in his wrath he stuffed handfuls of the green beans into his mouth. As he ate the beans, he felt himself growing larger. He looked up and saw the two giants staring at him from across the room. Rabbi Barton picked up the bottle cap and hurled it at the older man’s body. But it merely glanced off his face and bounced to the other side of the sink where, Rabbi Barton saw, a haggard, old woman stood before the stove, lethargically picking with the fingers of one hand at the other. The bottle cap landed on the stove, and the woman picked it up and brought it to her mouth.
“Enough pep pills!” the middle-aged man shouted, and grabbed the woman’s hand.
“Pop!” shouted the boy as the bottle cap flew out of the woman’s hand and struck him hard in the chest. “I’ve got to get out of here!” he cried.
Rabbi Barton had continued growing, and, jumping off the table, had attained his normal height. He grabbed the boy’s hand and rushed with him out of the house. Behind them, they felt the earth shake tremendously, and they heard a momentous crash of cutlery and china.
“What’s your name?” asked Rabbi Barton, panting, as they ran down the street to a river several blocks away.
“Epstein!” gasped the boy.
“I mean your first name.”
A shower of china shards, splintered planks, ancient door jambs, dusty dresser drawers, scraps of telephone bills and bank statements, old, stained nightgowns and t-shirts distended at the biceps pelted them.
“I don’t know,” said the boy, stopping to scrabble through the wreckage that was piling up about their feet. “Wait a second; let me try to find the letters.”
“Come on.” Rabbi Barton pulled at his arm. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
The boy yanked his arm free. “Leave me alone!” He bent down and pushed over a rusty screen door. Underneath it lay a pale teenage girl. She stood up shakily and stepped from the wreckage, and Epstein stumbled after her.
There was another explosion, and Rabbi Barton was pelted by shreds of clothing, torn linoleum and fragments of old TV Guides.
Pummeled by the onslaught, Rabbi Barton fought his way to the riverside. When he reached it, he was surprised to see the girl already there, sitting calmly with her legs folded beneath her. Epstein ran toward her, threw himself face down on the grass and sobbed brokenly, his head pressed into old scraps of diaries and documents.
“Goodbye, Fred, or Ed, or Ned or Joe,” cried Rabbi Barton, and he flew into the air, over an island in the center of the river, where a miner’s lamp shone up at him from the head of an unmoving, prone man, whose unseeing eyes were opened to the sky, and from whose pocket protruded a copy of The Norton Anthology of American Fiction, which three rats were gnawing with voracious appetite.
Rabbi Barton soared higher. The island and the river grew smaller below him, and he seemed to be escaping the earth.
Rabbi Barton glanced up, and he was looking into dark brown, moist loam. Above the darkness were the roots of growing grass, and above that the green grass itself and the soles of two sneakers. And then the sneakers moved and a woman lay face down on the grass above him, and her face peered down at him through a hole in a stone plaque. The woman reached her hand through the grass and the moist, dark soil, and her hand touched his heart, which glowed like a hot, white sun.
Rabbi Barton came up easily through the soil, through the grass, and through the plaque that marked his gravestone.
“Hello, Grace,” he said.
“Hello, Dad,” the woman said. “You’ve been dead a long, long time.”
Rabbi Barton knew his name was Rabbi Barton, but it didn’t matter. He took his daughter’s hand, and they danced.
A young woman charged from the reception house. “I’m so, so, so sorry,” she said, “but you can’t go dancing on your father’s grave . . .”
They stepped away from her with slow, high steps, leaping over the graves and finally into Grace’s car. Grace roared out of the cemetery, accelerating to seventy miles an hour, rushing past her bewildered mother, past office buildings, art poster galleries, and her Chinese neighbors, and up the sweeping road, where she turned on the radio and the music blared, up to the crest, high, craggy, and thin-aired, of a mountain in Nepal, and she turned to Rabbi Barton and laughed and cried, “Like a bat out of hell!” and the car swooped vertiginously down, but Rabbi Barton could not stay with her. He sailed from the car and into the clear, cold air, hurtling above the clouds, above the deep valley, into the full evening, and then he was sailing above Monsey, and the lights below him shone like the lights of redemption in exile, in captivity, separate and burning.
Rabbi Barton splashed into a circle of air that smacked him like a cold, fresh pool, and he gasped with the shock. He lost his sense of direction in the turquoise water, and, panicking, fought his way to the surface. He was in a large, clear spring surrounded by a wall of wooden slats. His clothing soaked and heavy, Rabbi Barton laboriously swam to the wall surrounding the spring and pulled himself over it. He stood still, feeling the cold press of sodden clothing and the water streaming down his body to the ground. He took a deep breath, and with his fingers, combed his earlocks behind his ears. He heard footsteps behind him and turned around. It was Rabbi Afikim with a volume of the Talmud underneath his arm and, in his hand, a net filled with floating, glowing fireflies.
“Good evening,” said Rabbi Afikim.
“Good evening,” Rabbi Barton replied.
On a branch before them, a walking-stick insect stretched its leg. A clarity spread from its leg to the branch and to the leaves, through the dark blue air and to the two men looking at each other.
Rabbi Afikim took Rabbi Barton by the arm. “Come,” he said. “We have to harvest the fireflies.”
Rabbi Barton pulled the Talmud from under Rabbi Afikim’s arm and opened it. The letters lay on the sea of the page like the surface of an unspeakable depth, and as he chanted the words in a broken, resonant voice, black letters flickered in the air before his mouth like living flames.