Every Man a Lamb
By Judy Labensohn
On the Sabbath Ki Tisa when the Jewish People lose their patience, build a golden calf and murder 3,000 stiff-necked Jews, Dr. Michael Cohen, a newcomer to Bak'a, meets Abutbul as they reach for the same piece of rugelach.
"Please, you first," says Abutbul from the right side of the Kiddush table.
"No, no," says Cohen. "I just want something special for my kids." Amy and Joel cower behind their father, as they do every Sabbath when he drags them to one of the twenty-five neighborhood synagogues for Kiddush.
"You drink the Golden Calf?"
Cohen smiles. He has no idea what the man is talking about. He scoops a handful of chipsfor Joel and grabs an isolated rugelach for Amy, which she stuffs into her mouth whole.
"Moroccans," he whispers to the kids.
"Can we go home now," asks Joel.
Cohen feels a meaty tap on his shoulder. He turns around. The man is standing there, almost on top of him, his hand stretching towards Cohen's chest. His first reaction is to push him away.
"Abutbul," says the man.
"Cohen. Dr. Michael Cohen," he says, taking two steps back, nearly trampling his kids. "We live over there." He points to the three storey house on Bethlehem Road diagonally across the street from Tikvatenu Synagogue.
"You come visit?"
Michael doesn't know if Abutbul is asking about the past, inviting him for lunch now or for some future event.
"I slaughter morning of the Seder. Bring the kids. You surgeon, no?"
"Chiropractor," Cohen says, realizing as soon as he's finished pronouncing the four syllables, each with its own Hebrew lilt, that the guy probably doesn't know what that is.
"Good," says Abutbul.
Cohen takes a sip of wine from the flimsy paper cup he has been holding in his left hand. "You're going to kill an animal in your house?" He hopes he is not speaking too loudly. Maybe all Moroccans do this. On the day before Yom Kippur he took Joel to the shuk. As they walked past a butcher shop, Joel screamed. The butcher was swinging a live chicken over a man's head. The chicken screeched and wailed as the butcher pulled the chicken's neck back and slit its throat with a knife. Joel couldn't stop screaming. Michael had to carry his son out of the shuk, holding him close to his chest like a baby.
"On roof." Abutbul says, pointing to the roof of the house on the corner of Reuben Street and Bethlehem Road. "For Passover. You know, Passover sacrifice." Abutbul slaps the sides of both his thighs. "Our roots."
Roots. Isn't it enough that he followed Laurie to this place for that very reason? Roots. The longer he lives in Jerusalem—not even a year yet—the stronger he feels that he left his roots in Chicago.
"We slaughter. You watch," Abutbul says, chuckling. "Like in beit knesset. We pray. You eat."
Michael wonders if the man is brain-damaged. A scar on the lower left side of Abutbul's chin makes him think of the mafia. Michael squeezes the empty paper cup and drops of red wine spurt onto Joel's white shirt.
"Of course," says Michael to Abutbul. "We'd love to."
"That's disgusting," Laurie says when Michael tells her about the invitation. They're sitting around the table finishing their Sabbath lunch. "It’s not even Jewish."
"Of course it’s Jewish, Laur. It’s Moroccan Jewish. I looked it up." Michael leaves the table to take down their Koren Bible from the top of the TV. "Exodus, Chapter 12, says right here: On the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb blah blah blah and if the household be too little for the lamb – like us – let him and his neighbor next to his house—likeAbutbul—take it blah blah blah."
"His neighbor?" Laurie says.
"I’m reading what’s on the page, Laur. ‘Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month…"
"How should I know? The month of Passover, I guess'…and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it towards evening.' End of quote."
"That’s disgusting," says Joel. "I’m not going to any killing." He turns towards his mother. "Mom, don’t let him take me."
"Michael, nobody does the Passover sacrifice since the Temple was destroyed. Rabbi Benstock said so."
"What? Our temple was destroyed?"
"No, Joel, the Holy Temple, the one that stood in Jerusalem 2000 years ago,” says Laurie. “Fairmount is still there in Highland Park."
"Nobody from Chicago, Laurie. Abutbul and his clan from the Atlas Mountains they’ve been sacrificing lambs since, I don't know, since before Columbus. Now they do it right across the street, right here, on Bethlehem Road. I’m taking the kids to watch."
"I want to go to a Cubs game," Joel says. Ever since the Cohens' arrival in Israel, Joel has been scrounging the neighborhood candy stores for baseball cards. He can't understand how kids can grow up without them.
"I don't blame you, kid. So do I. But when in Rome …"
Amy jumps off her chair. "Yippee. We’re going to see the lamb!"
Michael looks at Laurie, notices her body contract as if she's been hit by a bat.
"Rabbi Benstock says only when the Temple gets rebuilt can we go back to sacrificing." She's talking into her plate of chicken and kugel. "That won't happen until the Messiah comes."
"You wait," Michael says. "On the morning of the Seder I'm taking the kids across the street."
"Yippee," Amy repeats.
"There's enough blood in the news, Michael. Don't spoil our first Passover here."
"You were the one dying to enter Jewish history, Laur. We have a front row seat. Christ, we're on the field."
Laurie insists on the family singing the grace after meals, but Michael doesn't have patience. She sits at the table by herself, mouthing the words to the short version. Michael coaxes Joel to help him clear the table, but not before Joel pushes Amy onto the stone floor. She cries. Michael raises his hand with an empty water glass into first position, the one that says, If you don't do as you're told, I will beat the shit out of you.
After Laurie finishes praying, she goes to the sink. "Don't touch the child," she calls out facing the dirty dishes.
Four days before the Seder, when Michael is sitting on the couch with Joel and Amy, looking out the living room window, enjoying the view of the new apartments rising in the Gilo neighborhood, a strange sound overpowers the loud horns and buses on Bethlehem Road.
"What’s that, Daddy?" Amy asks
"It’s your stomach," Joel says, inviting a dirty look from his father.
"That, my sweethearts, is the Passover sacrifice. Mr. Abutbul has brought home the baby without blemish. We can watch it run around his roof and listen to it meh for the next four days."
"I don’t want to go to any sacrifice," Joel says, turning away from the window. He plays with his Chicago Cubs baseball hat as if it were a roulette wheel.
"Don’t give me any lip, son. You’re going and that’s final."
"What’s a blemish?" Amy asks.
"It’s a scar or a cut, sweetheart, or a blind lamb or one with five legs. God only wants perfect specimens for his sacrifices. . . . like you."
"What’s a sacrifice, Daddy?" Amy asks. She cuddles into her father’s chest and Michael holds her there lovingly.
"That’s when you kill an animal and give it to God and then God forgives your sins and loves you again. Or when you give up something you love very much to show God you love him more."
"Do you love God, Daddy?"
Michael looks at his four-year-old creation. He remembers the miracle of her birth, her first two months, when it wasn’t clear she would make it. He loves the feel of her feathery hair under his palms.
"I love you, sweetheart."
"A sacrifice is when a guy bunts and there’s another guy on base," Joel says and covers his laughter with his baseball cap.
Michael cuffs him on the head with a full hand.
"That hurts," Joel whines.
Amy puts her thumb in her mouth and twirls her hair.
Five minutes later the lamb is tied to the chimney on the roof opposite the Cohen’s living room, mehhing its head off.
"We’re going to listen to this for four days?" Laurie calls from the kitchen.
On Friday morning Laurie is frantic because Rabbi Benstock has asked her to host three more students from Pardess for the Seder. "I wish you wouldn’t go over there, Michael. I need your help." She is cleaning the Seder plate, the one given to them by their friends from Fairmount Temple. "Besides, I’ve never invited the Abutbuls over here."
"So what?" Michael says.
"So, we have so much work to do for the Seder."
"Don’t worry, honey, we’ll have time."
"The way people drive here is inhumane." Michael kisses the back of her neck.
"Don’t bite me," she says, rubbing her neck.
"You can invite the Abutbuls for cake and coffee during Pesach." Michael looks at the Seder plate in Laurie’s hands. He thinks of his friends back home, the Seders they held together each year. Once they even rented the grill room at Belmont, so all the men could go straight to the Seder from the 18th hole. He wonders where his friends will be celebrating this year.
"Shouldn’t you at least take them something? A bottle of wine?"
"I’m taking the kids."
Downstairs on Bethlehem Road at eleven in the morning, everyone in Bak'a is doing last minute shopping before the Seder. Ezekiel’s butcher shop is packed. Shmulik’s laundry is probably doing more business in this one week than he does all winter. On both sides of Bethlehem Road, cars are parked with one front wheel and one back wheel on the sidewalk, the other two wheels in the street. Everyone is blocking everyone else. Drivers scream Watch out. Go to hell. Maniac! The entrance to Eliahu ben Eliahu’s corner grocery on the ground floor of Abutbul’s building is blocked by cars.
In the field on the corner of Reuben Street and Bethlehem Road, behind Yosef’s suitcase repair shack and Doda Rosa’s candy shop, fathers with their sons and daughters are bending over small fires. This must be the chametz shtick. Michael has never seen anything like it. Rabbi Diskin, the junior rabbi at Fairmount Temple, called this part of the holiday "outdated" and "inappropriate for 20th century Highland Park," but in the field across the street from Michael's own apartment at least seven fathers are burning bread crumbs and noodles swept up with feathers. Among the families and fires, an Arab shepherd from Zur Bachar is trying to control his small flock of straggly goats and sheep searching for fresh weeds.
The guys at Belmont wouldn’t believe this. I don’t believe it. For a few months Michael had shared Laurie’s desire to be a player on the stage of Jewish history and therefore moved to Israel, but now that he's lived in Jerusalem almost a year, he feels like he has fallen off the stage altogether, onto a foreign set from a distant past. He isn’t sure there is a role for him to play in the world of animal sacrifice and burning bread crumbs. For a second he feels like he might lose his balance, so he grabs Joel's hand and Amy's arm before they cross the street.
"You kids ever see a Passover like this in Chicago?"
"You’re hurting me, Daddy," says Amy. She lowers her foot into the street.
Michael pulls her back. "Do you want to get killed?"
"You’re squeezing my hand, Dad," Joel says. "I hate Passover."
"Hold on, son. Drivers here are crazy."
Michael leads his children across the street, stopping in the middle for the number six bus to skim by. He pulls his children towards him and they maneuver their way onto the opposite sidewalk. Amy turns around and looks up at their apartment. Laurie is at the window, watching.
"Look, Daddy. There’s Mommy."
Michael and Joel turn and look up. They wave and smile. Michael acknowledges Laurie's grimace with a fake smile.
He leads his kids to Abutbul’s building, the first entrance on Reuben Street.
"Carry me, Daddy," Amy whines. "I’m tired."
"You’re a big girl, Amy. What grade are you in now?" He feels embarrassed that he doesn’t know exactly where his daughter is in the educational system, but it is all so foreign to him, this Israeli system: kindergarten, pre-K, pre-pre-K. To think that you have to decide if a child is secular or religious at the age of four. If he had known more about the education his kids wouldn’t get, maybe he would have encouraged Laurie to wait with the aliyah thing until the kids were finished with high school. They could have studied their roots in Chicago, like thousands of other Jews.
Michael vows to spend more time with Amy during Passover vacation. He will take her to the Mederano Circus that has pitched its tent over on Hebron Road and to the Biblical Zoo. They will feed the monkeys, just the two of them.
"Pre-K, Daddy. "
"And I’m going to the army next week, Pop."
Michael gives Joel’s baseball cap a knock with his hand. Joel ducks this time.
"My hero," Michael says, trying to put a loving spin on it. He still wants to be a good father, especially to his son, his firstborn. When Joel was born, Michael felt more important and empowered than when he had earned his degree in chiropractory. He couldn’t explain it. Being a father gave him a sense of mission, purpose, like nothing else. In the beginning, all he cared about was that his son should grow up to be a mensch. It was hard to set limits for the boy, while at the same time showing how much he cared for him. In Israel, it proved impossible. What’s left is a goulash of limits Michael tries to set, flavored with Laurie’s over-protectiveness—Don't touch the child. Since they arrived in Israel, Michael has felt distanced from Joel, who speaks Hebrew fluently and understands soccer. Michael can barely understand his patients when he asks them What hurts?
Inside the stairwell leading up to Abutbul’s apartment, Michael tells Amy to hold onto the railing, walk slowly, and not let go until she reaches the top floor. High-pitched, piercing noises waft down from the open door to the roof.
"What’s that?" Amy asks.
"It’s your farts," Joel says and pushes her in the back.
"Cut the lip, buster," Michael says and gives Joel a swat on his neck.
The hallway is dark. After three floors, they reach the roof, where the sudden light blinds them. The mehhing is so loud Amy covers her ears. Joel puts on sunglasses that his mother told him to take at the last minute.
The lamb is on its back on a dirty, white canvas mat spread over most of the floor. Its two hind legs are tied with one rope and the front two legs with another. Amy twists her head to look at the lamb’s upside down face.
"He’s so itzy-bitzy," she says. "Can I call him Itzy, Daddy?"
"Call him whatever you want, sweetheart." Michael approaches Abutbul.
"Why is he tied up, Dad?" Joel asks.
Mr. Abutbul, wearing jeans and a magenta T-shirt that says ROMA in black capital letters, greets Michael and shakes his hand. It feels like sandpaper. "Glad you made it, Dr. Cohen."
"Call me Michael."
"For you this must be something. You don’t do this there. Do you?"
"No, but we’re all Jews."
"Right. Same father."
Michael doesn’t know if Abutbul is referring to Abraham, Moses or God, but doesn’t ask. Abutbul leans over and brushes his hand over Joel’s baseball cap. Then he gives a little pull to Amy’s ponytail.
"This is Joel," Michael says, "and Amy. Kids, this is Mr. Abutbul, our neighbor."
"Welcome," Abutbul says. "We celebrate Passover. Like our forefathers in Egypt."
Amy and Joel look at their father. Michael winks at them.
Abutbul points to the man standing next to the lamb.
"Dr. Cohen, meet Biton, the shochet. Biton," he shouts over the mehhing of the lamb, "my American neighbor, Dr. Cohen."
Biton extends a hand and Michael shakes it. He has never met a ritual slaughterer before. The shochet’s appearance repulses Michael. A stained white apron barely covers the man’s enormous belly. His shirt tails hang out one side of his pants, along with his ritual fringes. His pant cuffs are tucked into black rubber boots, making him look like a balloon. Stubble on his face reminds Michael of ashes and his kipa, a black satin number, tilts onto his forehead, which is full of sweat.
Michael looks towards his apartment and sees Laurie behind the closed kitchen window, watching.
"Wave to your Mom, kids," he says. They run to the low wall encircling the roof and wave.
Biton nods to the children. "Only two?" he says to Michael.
"Only two." The children return and cling to their father’s leg.
"Why’s it peeing, Daddy?" Amy hides her face in Michael’s thigh.
"He has to go to the bathroom. Animals are like people, kids."
"Why is he tied up, Dad?" Joel repeats. He glances at his mother in the window. She is waving and moving her lips. "What is she saying, Dad?"
Michael is busy watching the shochet check the lamb for blemishes.
"Looks good to me," he tells Abutbul.
"Strange God we have," Biton says to the visitors. "He wants animals without blemishes. Us, He forgives all our—How you say it?—comingshorts."
Michael has never thought of it that way and feels grateful that the shochet isn’t just a butcher, that he is a thinking person, a believer. Though he himself cannot believe, he admires those who do.
"Is this a kid, Daddy? " Amy asks. "We learned the song Had Gad Yah ha ha ha, Had Gad Yah in pre-K."
"A kid is a young goat," Joel declaims. "This is a lamb, a young sheep."
Michael notes his son’s I’m-smarter-than-you tone. "My chacham," he says, looking at Abutbul and Biton.
"Is it a boy lamb or a girl lamb, Daddy?" Amy asks.
"Only boys for Passover," says Abutbul. Michael marvels at his ability to express everything he needs to without complete sentences. He associates this ability with the scar on his chin, but can’t make any logical connection.
Biton walks over to a small wooden table next to the mehhing animal that is now struggling on his back to get free. On the table are a knife sharpener, scissors, a kitchen knife, a folded white towel package and a saw.
"Why does the floor need a tablecloth, Daddy? " asks Amy.
"Clean tiles for Mrs. Abutbul," says their host and chuckles.
Amy runs back to the low wall encircling the roof. In terra cotta colored plastic containers on the floor along the wall are fragrant plants with soft, green leaves and delicate white flowers.
"They’re like snowflakes," Amy says, pointing to the flowers. She rubs the leaves like she has seen her mother do at the neighborhood nursery down the street.
"Hyssop," replies Abutbul.
Joel walks over to stand next to his sister. He leans over the low wall and sees all the cars parked on the sidewalk below on Bethlehem Road. Amy starts to inch her way up the wall. Joel grabs her arm and pulls her down. She cries.
"Don’t touch her," Michael shouts. He goes to stand between them and holds their upper arms like chicken necks. “Wave to your mother,” he commands. He waves their arms, as if his children are his marionettes. The children don’t smile. Michael nods to Laurie, whose expression has turned somber. He turns to his kids and tells them he wants them to stand still, over there, far from the low wall, and just watch. This is a rare opportunity, he says. They are lucky. Not every child in Israel has seen the Passover sacrifice just like it was done in Egypt thousands of years ago. Now they should settle down and be grateful, keep quiet, save their questions for later, and just watch.
The three of them walk to the edge of the white canvas floor mat, while Biton the shochet picks up the scissors from the wooden table. Biton walks towards the lamb. He grabs its head and holds it between his legs. With the scissors, Biton cuts the hair on the lamb’s throat. The lamb tries to resist, but can’t. Amy tries to hide behind her father, but he pulls her out from behind his legs.
Abutbul turns on a faucet connected to a hose and takes the hose over to the lamb. He washes down the neck where Biton has cut the hair. The skin is soft and pink. Biton lets go of the sheep’s head and the animal mehhhs even louder now. Joel plays with his sunglasses. He tries to look out over the top rim. Michael tells him to stand still and stop fidgeting, to act like a nine-year-old, not a baby.
Biton lifts the clean, white, folded towel package from the table, as if it were an eight-day old baby. He unfolds the towel. Inside is a black leather case. He opens the case. Inside is a knife with a black handle and a silver blade the size of a twelve inch ruler. Joel straightens his glasses, so he won’t get blinded by the sheen of the blade.
"Look at that, kids. Will you just look at that," says Michael. "Isn’t that the biggest knife you’ve ever seen?"
Joel twists the visor of his Chicago Cubs cap and glances at his mother in the window across the street. She is waving.
Biton the shochet runs both edges of the knife against a fingernail on his left hand.
"Why’s he doing that, Dad?" Joel whispers to his father.
"I don’t know, son. Keep still and watch."
Biton walks over to the lamb’s head. He holds the lamb’s head back with his left hand and says some Hebrew words. Michael tries to decipher the words, but Biton says them so fast, and in such an unfamiliar accent, that he can’t make out what is being said. Then, like a magician, before Michael sees what happened, Biton has drawn the knife across the soft, pink skin. Blood bursts out like Joel’s nosebleeds when he was five. It gushes onto the white, canvas mat. Amy cries and hides her face in her father’s leg. Joel squeezes his eyes shut.
My Israeli heroes, Michael thinks. He puts more pressure on Joel’s arm. "Open your eyes, kid. Be a man."
Biton has let go of the lamb. It collapses on its side with a thump. Pools of deep magenta blood form around the lamb’s neck. Its eyes are still open. Michael sees a certain sweetness in them, as if nothing has happened. Itzy, he thinks. Now the lamb begins to convulse, little shivers, as if it’s trying to ward off flies. Amy peeks and when she sees this shaking, her crying increases. The lamb’s whole head is covered with blood. Where there are large clots of blood, the color is richer, deeper. Michael can’t take his eyes off the flow of the blood. The stains become puddles and the puddles rivulets. Michael releases his children so he can get closer to the lamb. Some of its blood spurts onto his hands.
Biton puts down the silver knife on the table and picks up the kitchen knife. He begins to skin the lamb, starting with the testicles. Blood covers his hands and his apron. His black boots are drenched in blood.
In between her sobs, Amy begs to go home.
"Yeah, Dad, let’s go," Joel adds. "I’m going to vomit."
"This is your heritage, kids. I want you to know where you come from."
Joel starts walking towards the door of the roof.
"Where are you going, young man?" Michael calls after him. "Get back here. We’re not done yet." He feels like he has entered another realm of being, that the Michael Cohen here on the roof is different from the Michael Cohen who lives across the street. He doesn’t understand what’s happening to him. He just knows he has to be here with his kids, as if he was destined to be here with them, as if it’s in his genetic make-up. Maybe, this is why he made aliyah.
Amy runs to the low wall encircling the roof and inches her way up. "Mommy, mommy," she yells, "they killed the lamb."
Laurie, from behind the closed window, motions her daughter to get down.
Michael runs towards Amy and grabs her from her waist. "Get down, you little…" he yells.
"Don’t hurt the child," Abutbul calls to him.
He pulls down his daughter with both hands and gets blood on her dress. She falls and starts to cry.
"Leave her alone, Dad, " Joel butts in. He runs from the door to his sister. "Don’t touch her."
Michael pushes him away, getting blood on Joel’s shirt, as well.
"My heroes, my big Israeli heroes," Michael says.
Biton and Abutbul are busy skinning the lamb and checking to see if all its organs are intact. Biton lifts up the lining holding the lamb’s balls away from its body. Then he cuts them off.
"Let’s get out of here," Joel yells.
"Joel, be a man," Michael shouts.
Joel pushes his sister and runs to the puddles of blood on the canvass. He bends down and puts both his hands into the blood. He washes his hands with the lamb’s blood, shouting, "Like this, Dad? Like this? Is this what you want? An Israeli man?" Then he gets up and goes over to the low wall. He shakes the blood from his hands over the ledge onto the people and the cars on the sidewalk below. They look up and laugh, thinking it is water from a hose. Then they yell. Amy throws her arms around Joel’s waist and pulls him away from the wall. "Don’t hurt anyone," Amy wails. "Stop it."
She runs to the door and cries, "I want to go home, Daddy. I want to go home."
Biton and Abutbul, busy skinning the lamb, give Michael a look: Can’t control the kids? Michael slaps his son’s face with his bloodied hand. He looks towards Laurie across the street. Now she is sitting at the window with both hands covering her mouth.
"I want to go home, Daddy," Amy moans.
"We’ll go when it’s over."
Biton has removed the small penis and slit open the belly. He is pushing his arm inside the cavity of the lamb to touch its lungs. “Only if its lungs are intact is it a kosher animal,” he says, looking at Michael.
After Biton confirms that it is kosher, he tells Abutbul that he and his family and their guests have to roast the meat and eat it by midnight to fulfill the biblical injunction. Abutbul walks to the planter. Joel runs to the closed door to stand next to Amy. Abutbul picks three sprigs of hyssop and walks back to the bloody carcass. He dips the hyssop into the pool of blood on the white canvas. Then he walks over to the door and paints the lintel and the doorposts with the blood of the lamb. Some of the blood drips onto Amy’s ponytail and Joel’s shirt.
"Daddy, Daddy," Amy calls.
"Dad," says Joel, "Let’s go home."
"No Egypt?" Abutbul looks at his new neighbor. Then he tells the children that the Israelites painted their doorposts with blood so the Angel of Death, who came to slaughter the first-born Egyptians, would pass over the homes of the Israelites. "The first Passover," he concludes, ecstatic.
"This hard for Americans, Dr. Cohen," Abutbul says and Michael isn’t sure if it’s a question or a statement. "My kids helped. Now they big. No patience now."
Michael is beginning to wonder how he will explain this to Laurie, how she will react when she sees the blood on their clothes and in their hair, why he became violent with them. He loves his children. He doesn’t want to hurt them. He doesn’t know what happened.
Michael heads for the hose to wash off his hands. "Come here," he calls to the kids. "I’ll wash your hands of all this blood." His voice is softer now, calmer. "Put your hands here under the hose." They obey. "We’ll go home now, I promise." His children’s hands are soft and pink like the lamb’s shorn neck.
As water washes away the blood from their hands, he thinks of Fairmont and Belmont and the lamb, especially his eyes. Something is different. Michael feels something new. For the time being, he names it contrition.
"Come here," he calls again to the kids, even though they are standing next to him. "We must wash our hands of all this blood."
He apologizes to Abutbul for their behavior.
"No problem. A Happy and Kosher Pesach," Abutbul says.
"To all the House of Israel," Michael adds. "Thank you, and thank you, Biton."
The shochet doesn’t look up. He is in a frenzy of skinning and cutting and checking, sweat dripping from his forehead into his eyes and onto the carcass of the lamb.
Michael stretches out his arm, pushes open the door, and leads his children out. He holds their hands in the dark stairwell, trying to be gentle as they walk down. Only Amy’s muffled sobs pierce the silence. Clutching their small hands, Michael feels a love for his children stronger and tenderer than ever before.
When they are downstairs on the sidewalk, Michael rubs his eyes. The air is full of smoke from the small fires across the street. He asks his children if they want a shwarma from Zachariah’s falafel shop. "The last chametz before Passover. Let’s go for it. "
Amy and Joel stand together, looking in silence at the fires across the street.
"Half pita or whole," Michael persists. He wants to give his children something good, a special treat.
"No," says Joel, as if the Cubs have lost a home game and always will.
"Me neither," says Amy, putting her thumb in her mouth.
"How can you eat meat now," Joel asks.
"Don’t move," Michael says. "I’ll go get us a whole pita. We’ll share." He runs over to Zachariah’s falafel stand on Bethlehem Road. It’s already closed for Passover. When he returns to Joel and Amy, they are standing exactly where he left them. He is taken aback by their submission.
"Come on," he says, feigning enthusiasm. "Let’s show these drivers who’s boss." He tells his children to latch onto his belt so they can cross the street together. “It’s a jungle out here,” he says. Amy reaches up and grabs his left side. Joel holds onto his right.
The three stand at the curb on the corner of Bethlehem Road and Reuben Street. Michael tells them to look to the left and then to the right. Their three heads move in unison.
Then Joel looks up towards their apartment across the street. "Where’s Mom?" he murmurs.
Michael looks up. Laurie is gone, the window a pane of scrubbed glass reflecting the noon sun. He feels a sudden weakness in his legs, as if his spine might surrender to Bethlehem Road. He shudders. The words "Jewish gravity" come to mind just as a loud horn uproots him from his sinking feeling. With his children linked to him as one body, Michael steps off the curb slowly, praying, for what feels like the first time, that nobody gets hurt.
Copyright © Judy Labensohn 2011
Judy Labensohn's stories and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre and Natural Bridge, among others in North America and Israel. For many years she wrote a personal essay column in The Jerusalem Post and The Nation (Israel). She has lived in Israel since 1967 and currently is the Coordinator of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. She teaches creative writing privately and at David Yellin College in Jerusalem. Labensohn holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College and an MA in English (fiction) from Bar-Ilan. "Every Man a Lamb" is one of eleven stories from Bethlehem Road, in which all stories transpire on Bethlehem Road in Jerusalem. See WriteInIsrael.com