Egypt and the Desert
By Aaron Kreuter
Every Thursday, Daniel walked the four blocks to Jacob’s narrow townhouse, crossing the small square of lawn in two steps. And every time, without fail, Jacob managed to open the front door seconds before Daniel knocked, as if he had been watching for him at the window. Once inside, Daniel would follow Jacob to the dining room table in the self-contained front of the house. There, under the light of two old brass lamps and the tutelage of the frustratingly focused Jacob, Daniel practiced the Hebrew alphabet, learned the musical notes of trope required to sing his Torah portion, and eventually learned the portion itself.
The fights with his mother before these lessons always ended the same way, with Daniel near tears, angry and embarrassed, his mother calmly listing off the reasons he had to go: “Not only is Jacob cheaper than the tutors at the shul, but he’s not an incorrigible gossip like those other men are! And tell me, if you don’t learn your Torah portion, who will? What kind of bar mitzvah would that be? May twenty-fifth is sooner than you think. Imagine it, standing in front of all those people, and not knowing what to do!”
And so, every Thursday, Daniel was forced to spend a slow half hour across the table from Jacob, who would very patiently and calmly have him repeat each line and each prayer until he got it perfect. By the time he was satisfied and they moved on, Daniel would be squirming against the hard wooden chair.
Jacob was somewhere in his thirties, and always wore the same salt-and-pepper sweat pants and jogging hoodie, a pink silk kipa plopped on his head. He spoke with unbearable carefulness, enunciating every syllable and seemed to be completely at peace in the dark, stuffy room. The opposite was true for Daniel, who found the dimly-lit lessons near tortuous, especially during those afternoons in April when outside the curtained windows and past the crummy lawn was a warm, fresh day, his friends playing street hockey and eating ice cream four blocks away. But if there was one thing Daniel had learned from two months of lessons, it was that Jacob never let their time together end until, according to the gold watch he kept on the table next to the siddurim, the full thirty minutes had elapsed. If they got through the prayers with three minutes to spare, they would unfailingly go back and start again.
So Daniel went week after week, because he had to, but also because of the small thrill he had started to get on the walk from his house to Jacob’s. The quickest route was to cut through the strip mall that acted as a natural barrier between the neighbourhoods, and to take the sidewalk path behind the Smart Choice supermarket. The path opened onto a little parkette that fronted on Arbutus Crescent, Jacob’s long, winding street. Along with the truck bay and dumpsters of the Smart Choice, the Arbutus Crescent Park was where the rougher kids from the neighborhood high school congregated. Living in the rent-subsidized townhouses of Arbutus Crescent, some Russian, black and brown high school kids owned this stretch of suburb, and along with nerve-tingling fear, Daniel felt elation every time he walked through their midst.
The third time Daniel went to his lesson, after a short but intense fight with his mother, one of these kids caught him looking at them as he hurried past. “Hey man,” he said.
Daniel stopped, his hands holding the straps of his knapsack, his eyes everywhere but straight ahead. The guy who had called out to him had on a black leather jacket, his hair brown and long. Daniel had seen him before, being escorted out of the mall by two police officers, his head held high, smiling wickedly at all the onlookers.
“You want some nice, clean weed?” he shouted from the gazebo, his friends looking on with either hard frowns or harder smiles.
“No, thanks,” Daniel said, pulling on his knapsack straps before walking away.
On the way home that night, he went the long way around the strip mall, but every week after that he went back to the path, psyching himself up as he approached, not knowing what he would say if one of the kids spoke to him again, but hoping it would be better than “No, thanks.” Mere blocks away, this was a whole other world than the detached houses and flowerbeds of the streets he and his friends belonged to.
As the spring wore on and his bar mitzvah drew closer, Jacob began discussing Daniel’s Torah portion with him to prepare him for his d’var Torah speech, which would be in English, thank God. Daniel was expected to relate the events of the portion to his own life, though what the rules about the proper way to make animal sacrifices had to do with his life he had no idea.
“Well, why do you think the Jewish people rebelled?” Jacob asked, his hands folded on the table.
Daniel shrugged, fidgeting in his seat. Because they were bored? he almost said.
Jacob intertwined his fingers so they were stacked with his thumbs on top. “You should at least be able to make a guess. Newly free, just beginning their wandering in the desert, the manna falling like beautiful feathers by their tents every night, why did the people become restless? Were they scared of the harsh conditions of the desert, the years of strife that were surely ahead of them? Or was it because they were full and bloated on manna that they rebelled? Did they mistrust Moses’ leadership? Or did they perhaps actually pine to be back under the whip of the Egyptians, ‘eating fish,’ as some of them claimed?”
Jacob droned on and Daniel half-listened, not really sure what he was talking about, though the idea of manna caught his interest. Imagine, an unlimited supply of flaky food that tasted like whatever you wanted. He pictured himself huddling with the Arbutus kids next to the dumpster behind the Smart Choice, passing around manna in a greasy paper bag, everyone taking small bites, looking nervously over their shoulders, patting him on the back, whooping with joy.
“Well, what do you think?” Jacob asked. His hands were flat against the table once more.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was . . . the heat.”
“An interesting idea, but that’s not enough to base a speech on, is it, Daniel?”
The following week, as the lesson was drawing to a close, Daniel imagining he could smell the hot sidewalks through the dust and closeness of the drawing room, they were both startled by the sound of Jacob’s mother calling from inside the house. Daniel had forgotten that there was more house, and had never seen the mother; he had begun to think that there was only the dark front room with its foreboding furniture and musty air. Jacob got up. “Sorry, I’ll be right back,” he said, not at all like he spoke during the lessons, but quickly, almost sheepishly. Daniel watched as Jacob straightened his books, pocketed his watch and left the room.
When Jacob opened the door to go answer his mother, light momentarily poured into the room, and the smells of brisket and kasha filled Daniel’s nostrils.
The door swung shut, and he was alone in the room for the first time. After a moment he pushed back his chair, got up and walked slowly around, running his hand along the armchairs, the sideboard, the couch that looked like it had never been sat on. He stopped at the glass display cabinet. Candlesticks, kiddush cups, menorahs, a pewter model of the Western Wall. A glass vase, eye-level, with raised Hebrew script along the base, caught his attention. With a rush of adrenaline, Daniel carefully unlatched the cabinet and picked up the vase. He turned it in his hands, sounding out the words, the vase catching the room’s thin light. He looked at the door; the kitchen smells he now knew were behind it. Imagine if his mother cooked like that every week, not just twice a year for the holidays! The sounds of Jacob’s mother speaking emphatically, in what he assumed was Yiddish, reached his ears, and, without thinking, he rushed back to his chair and slipped the vase into his open knapsack.
Jacob came back into the room, and Daniel had another chance to inhale the simmering meal. Jacob got himself settled, rearranged the books in front of him, laid out his watch and they took up where they had left off. For the rest of the lesson Daniel was obsessively aware of the knapsack, tight between his legs. What was he going to do? Maybe Jacob’s mother would call him again and Daniel’d be able to put the vase back. How long until they noticed it was missing? Maybe Jacob would blame one of his other students; not that Daniel had ever seen any, but as far as he knew, all Jacob did was sit at the opposite end of this table, in his salt-and-pepper sweats and ridiculous pink kipa, teaching reluctant thirteen-year-olds to chant Torah, as if nothing had changed in five thousand years. Oh no — what if he had left the cabinet door unlatched? He itched to steal a glance but didn’t want to give himself away. Why had he opened that dumb door in the first place?
“You’re coming along superbly,” Jacob said, startling him. “You’re going to do a great job on the bima next month.” Jacob pushed back from the chair, ending the lesson early.
Jacob walked him to the door, as always. Daniel was covered in sweat, his knapsack pulling him to the floor. “Don’t forget to have that rough draft of your speech ready for next week,” he said, and then Daniel found himself on the stoop, outside, the door shut, the lock clicking into place.
There was nothing else to do but head home. Walking along Arbutus Crescent, Daniel found himself thinking about his d’var Torah, about Egypt and the desert. It wasn’t boredom that had made the Jews rebel, it wasn’t the desire to eat fish; it was simply that they had wanted to rebel, and they could, so they did. Wasn't the whole reason for the existence of authority to have something to rebel against? How could God — how could anybody — be angry at them for that? Daniel’s eyes scanned the park as he passed, alighting on the guy with the leather jacket, leaning against an orange slide, talking with his friends. Daniel stopped, another burst of recklessness surging through him.
“Hey, do you have any, uh, weed for sale?” he called across the grass. He watched as they exchanged their unreadable smiles before the one in the leather jacket looked at him.
“Sure, buddy. How much were you looking for?”
Daniel stepped off the sidewalk and onto the grass.
The first thing he did when he got home was take out his books — which usually sat ignored until at least the following Wednesday — and read through his Torah portion twice, as his mother clapped with joy. Both times he made it through with few mistakes. He sat back in his chair, feeling ready, even excited, to stand in front of his family and show them what he could do.
Three months later Daniel would see Jacob. Daniel and his friends had spent the summer sneaking around at night and smoking up in the glassed-in porches of their neighbors, laughing as they tumbled out of the hot-boxed enclosures. They were huddled on the sidewalk, about to start looking for the next vestibule to get high in, when Daniel noticed Jacob walking on the other side of the street. He was walking with a girl and was wearing jeans and an orange windbreaker. No kipa. The girl had the thickest, most beautiful black hair Daniel had ever seen. Nothing was said, but Daniel’s old teacher nodded when he spotted him, and Daniel inadvertently averted his eyes.
A week later he would break the stolen vase trying to turn it into a bong. It happened at the bottom of the Smart Choice truck bay, an electric drill in his one hand, the vase shattering in the other.