Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.
Who can say when evil begins? Perhaps it starts with sibilant whispers, reptilian suggestion, something outside language. My brother Yossi always maintained that it appeared much later in history. That in fact God forgave his first children, their expulsion from Eden being not punishment but a gift: a way to understanding the mercurial surface of sin and its darkening mirror, atonement. Yossi also believed that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was not apple, but pomegranate. To me, the symbolism was this: although the flesh of the apple is eaten and its core discarded, it is the seeds of the pomegranate that are consumed while the inedible flesh is cast aside. According to my brother, the seeds of the pomegranate had even more significance; when crushed, he said, they exude a juice that is indistinguishable from the blood of newborn infants.
At the Yeshiva where we learned, our teachers told us that even the emptiest of Jews was filled with mitzvot, good deeds, like the 613 seeds that the pomegranate is believed to hold. Six-hundred and thirteen is also the traditional number of Commandments. When I repeated this to my brother, he smiled one of his bad smiles and quoted the vulture from the two-thousand-year-old Perek Shira, one of the earliest texts of Merkabah mysticism: ‘I will whistle to them and gather them, for I will redeem them, they shall increase and continue increasing.’
Yossi understood evil. He believed that it colonized a person from the inside, and was impossible to perceive using just your eyes. You could see its manifestation, he said, but since malevolence, a snake-eyed metallic essence, resides in the heart, burrowing deep beneath glistening layers of bone and tissue, the magnetic elements of your vis vitae were required to sense its presence in another.
He told me that Ribbono Shel-Olom, Master of the Universe, had created evil accidentally, like an industrial by-product that is suddenly found to have tremendous commercial (or destructive) potential. Ambivalent about His discovery, the Lord decided to leave its fate in the hands of man, so He bound it within the original set of Commandments dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. There it lay inert for 40 days, hidden from the world like the mysterious subatomic structures of quantum mechanics. Moses, arriving at the encampment of the Israelites with the freshly incised Law, discovered that in his absence they had shifted their allegiance away from the Lord, worshiping a graven image, a calf of gold. In a righteous rage, he smashed the tablets, unwittingly releasing the Sitra Achra, the Other Side, into the world. God forgave the Israelites, of course, as He had forgiven Man and Woman before them, so in the end, they got a new set of Commandments (which were later lost, or misplaced, or stolen), but the damage was done. Evil was loose in the world, unbound for all time. I had never heard this interpretation before, but Yossi said that in Gematria (a Numerology practiced by Jewish mystics), the number 40 corresponds to Samael, one of Satan’s Hebrew names, which means ‘blind god.’ Another of his names, Ashmodai, has a numerical value of 364, meaning that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (the 365th day), is the one day in the year that Satan (by any name) has no power. Adding 40 to 364 gives 404, and in the Mispar Ha-Gadol form of Gematria, the number 404 corresponds to the Sitra Achra. I think that God also has a bad smile sometimes.
There are 72 different kinds of Gematria. Seven, the number of Creation (and also death) added to two, which is the number for the Expanse, for the sky, gives nine. In Genesis, nine is the number for blood. Seventy-two is also the number for Chatat, ritual sacrifice. The sages say that there are as many ways to pray as there are stars in the sky, but the act of faith, of belief, is singular, tortuous, a narrow path.
Legends and myths, the cornerstones of faith, demand certain things of the faithful. Above all an abiding credulity, a willingness to suspend disbelief: a widening of the swath that dogma can traverse. At the far end of this trail lies skepticism, a vanishing point that oscillates like a mirage, a bleak oasis on the arid horizon of my brother’s faith, if faith is defined as fealty to a primarily doctrinal system of belief.
We were raised as Hasidic Jews, but in an unorthodox manner. My Amah (my mother), tended to our daily needs while my father, an Ilui, devoted himself completely to God through constant study, prayer, and contemplation, a life of almost total silence, like a medieval monk or Ezra Pound, who did not utter a single word in public for the last 15 years of his life. I can count on my hands the number of times my father addressed me directly. At times, I wondered: Was he even aware that he had sired two sons who lived under his roof? Frail and often ill, I remember him chiefly by the soft chuffing sound of his cough, which seemed more corporeal, more present in the world than the body from which it emanated. My mother’s relationship with my father seemed only slightly more intimate than my own, but the devastation she experienced upon his death at age 38, belied this impression. The province of love that parents inhabit remains, for their children, an undiscovered country, into adulthood and sometimes beyond.
I was eleven when my father died. The entire Okoper Hasidic community mourned well beyond the prescribed period that we sat shiva, the ritual mourning for the dead. I remember asking my brother in a hushed whisper what all the fuss was about, why this grieving black river of gabardine-clad strangers flowed through our house in Crown Heights, making such a fuss over his passing. My father, to me an almost inconsequential figure, had caused a furor in our community by doing nothing more than dying. It was a reaction disproportionate to my experience of him, one I have never forgotten. He was a righteous Jew, was all my brother would offer by way of explanation. He said this as though his mouth was full of nails. The truth was that my father was a ghost to me long before his death.
Yossi explained that through our father, we descended from a lineage of Hasidic Rabbis dating back almost three hundred years to the village of Okop, and before that directly from the Kohanim, high priests of Israel. Jews from all over the Pale of the Settlement (which defined the southeastern borders of the Hapsburg Empire as the 20th century dawned) came to consult with our Okoper ancestors, receive their interpretations of the Law and have disputes mediated. Ilui, my brother explained, was a term originally used to denote a Hasidic holy man, the charismatic leader of a community, also sometimes referred to as a Tzaddik. Over the centuries this definition evolved to include a category of somber, ascetic Talmudic geniuses who inhabited the rarified spheres of Jewish esotericism, men who spent their lives threading the looms of Gemara and Mishnah, rabbinic Torah commentary. Using skeins of Halakah, the ritual law, they weaved disparate strands of wisdom into quotidian patterns for devout everymen throughout the Diaspora. Our father, said my brother, was considered by many to have been one of the foremost Ilui of his generation.
I didn’t understand what all this had to do with me, an ordinary 11-year-old Hasidic boy uninterested in mysticism, who preferred playing handball to learning Torah. But I was also obedient, believed in God, observed the Commandments, and did as my Amah asked me to. My brother was another matter entirely.
Yossi was three years older than me, but the difference was mutable. One minute he seemed imbued with great wisdom, the next like a mischievous child remanded to my care. This constant role displacement, juxtaposed with our father’s wraithlike presence made the ground beneath me seem constantly on the verge of tectonic shift. My brother’s intelligence was surpassed only by his defiance; he was possessed of a molten contempt that seethed just beneath his skin. It was inevitable that the pressure building within from willful disregard of his gifts would erupt, cracking open an impassible chasm, fragmenting the tenuous connection between my brother and the rest of the world.
The rest of the world … we lived in it, but were not of it. I believe that we are all progeny of our respective landscapes, that our surroundings dictate behavior and even influence thought in the measure that we respond to them. We watched the goyim, the gentile world, filter through our own mutual incomprehension and the cracking, uneven city sidewalks our common ground. Snatches of their conversations that I overheard seemed filled with the debris of lives constructed without forethought, devoid of interior architecture. Our existence spooled out among these other denizens of late 20th century Brooklyn, but the shtetl mentality, the entire fabric and structure of the constricting lifestyle our families carried to America in the wake of the Second World War was pure 18th century Galicia. Our clothes: ritual linen tzizits, fringed undergarments worn beneath black gabardine caftans, yarmulkes under fur-trimmed black hats that were not removed even amid the searing heat of August. Our hair: cropped closely to the head, voluminous beards and long payos, sidelocks of hair that curled down over the ear to the base of the cheekbone. And that was just the men. The women in their shaidels, wigs worn over their own hair, and wool dresses that ended below their ankles, were monuments to modesty, a sacrifice of comfort and vanity to honor God as well as their men.
My mother’s brother, Mordecai Sharon was one of these men. He was not a scholar or a rabbi, but a businessman, a diamond merchant who owned a shop on West 47th Street in Manhattan. Early each morning after returning from synagogue, he would remove the gems from the safe in his study and arrange them in a large sample case, where a galaxy of luminous stones glowed amid folds of velvety black cloth, pulsing like stars in the dark, curving expanse of the firmament.
Before leaving his house for work, my uncle would take a pair of black metal leg irons and attach one end to a reinforced steel ring near the handle of his case, locking the other cuff around his meaty left wrist. There were only two keys: one in the safe at home and another in the vault at his store in the city. Yossi would joke that Mordecai might as well have “rob me” tattooed on his forehead. When I reminded him that tattoos were forbidden by the Talmud, he smirked. Each time my brother commented about this, his insinuations became more disturbing than before and I began to have the distinct feeling that he’d given it more thought than was prudent, that perhaps there was something else inside of Yossi yearning to break the surface of his black humor. I found myself shivering when I wondered about it.
Every weekday moming, my uncle rode the subway from Crown Heights to Manhattan (taking the A train to Borough Hall, changing there to the F, and from the F to the R at 42nd Street), reasoning that the presence of so many other souls would keep him safe. The short walk from the station at 50th Street and 6th Avenue to his store on 47th Street, among a crowd of greater density than even the subway provided, seemed to bolster his feeling of security. My uncle experienced the subway as a kind of sanctuary, one where the eyes of congregants, raised in weary supplication to the advertisements lining the walls of the car, rarely met. There, in the rolling temple beneath the city streets, with the industrial harmony of heat, friction, and steel wailing in his ears like a cantor’s ululating prayer, the pounding, rocking rhythm of the train became a syncopated psalmic chant and Mordecai felt closer to God than he did swaying in prayer in the synagogue, the Torah scrolls laid open on the Bima close enough to touch. In contrast to my mother, whose small, spare frame and quiet demeanor concealed steely strength, her brother was a great bear of a man, standing 6’ 4” and weighing close to three hundred pounds. But he moved like a smaller man, and had a small man’s fear running in his veins.
Fear is something that many Jews of my uncle’s generation experienced almost as a genetic predisposition, as though the DNA they’d inherited was damaged; sclerotic strands of matter mutated by centuries of pogrom, blood libel, Shoah. It was a marker missing entirely from my brother’s psychological makeup; a deficiency which I believe contributed greatly to the events which took place so many years ago, on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Tishri in the year 5758.
Once I might have had any number of stories about my brother. Now I know that this is the only one I will ever tell.
The High Holy Days, also known as the Days of Awe, are comprised of two major holidays observed during the first ten days of the month of Tishri. The Days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are punctuated by blasts sounded on the Shofar, the ritual ram’s horn. Commencing at sundown on the evening preceding Yom Kippur, Jews wear white garments, fast for 24 hours, and pray. The following day is devoted entirely to meditating on one’s comportment, the sins and transgressions committed during the past year, repentance, and resolving to be better in the year to come.
Nissan, the first month of the Jewish calendar, is in the spring when Passover falls. The Jewish New Year however, is celebrated in Tishri which is the seventh month. Tishri is when the year number is increased; corresponding to the number of years elapsed since Creation.
The translucency of time, the past, time not yet past, time to come. Ha-Olom Habah, the World to Come. These are significant leitmotifs in Judaism. At Yeshiva, we learned that the World to Come was comprised of Gan Eden (Paradise), and Gehenna (something like Hell). We were also told that the passing of the soul into Paradise is effortless, a process likened in the Talmud to plucking a hair from of a cup of milk. The passage through Gehenna is presumably something altogether different, but Talmudic voices are silent here. As my experience of the world pressed up against the borders of Crown Heights, of Yeshiva, of Judaism itself, my conception of the World to Come underwent a gradual transformation. I came to believe that Ha-Olom Habah was not some future reward bestowed for temporal goodness but the very next moment in our lives; that one should endeavor to live righteously while the soul, swaddled in flesh and bone, roamed the earth. It seemed to me that literal conceptions of the hereafter missed the point, that there likely was no actual Heaven or Hell, only closeness to or distance from God. My brother had different ideas.
When I was 14, Yossi befriended a boy named Yankel Horovitz, the son of a shochet, a ritual slaughterer. This was seen by many in the neighborhood as a mitzvah, a selfless good deed, but I had an uneasy feeling about their relationship. Yankel did not attend Yeshiva; he learned at home with his grandfather. He did not play handball with the other boys in the neighborhood. Shy and withdrawn, he was rarely seen on the street except when accompanied by his family, usually going to and from synagogue. So it was odd to say the least, when the slaughterer’s son, a loner, began appearing around the neighborhood in the company of my popular older brother. Their sudden pairing was a physical and temperamental chiaroscuro. The boy’s black clothing accentuated his bony frame and anemic pallor; enormous pupils floated like dark yolks in the whites of his eyes. Yossi was tall and muscular, with a flashing smile and an irreverent, joking manner that could lighten even the weighty moments.
What are the implications, the effects of a father’s profession upon a son? Was the boy’s pronounced otherness due in some measure to the purlieus of violent death or its mundanity? Shechitah, ritual slaughter, for all its Talmudic “humaneness” has always seemed to me the very essence of cruelty. The craft is rooted in the blood-soaked soil of ancient Israel, in the ritual sacrifices and burnt offerings that only Kohanim were permitted to make. Even today, to qualify as a shochet requires learning every facet and minutiae of Halakah, the religious laws that govern the ritual killing and preparation of kosher animals to render them fit for consumption. One of the most important aspects of shechitah is the instrument used for slaughter, a knife of exacting sharpness, free from nicks or imperfections. To minimize pain and facilitate virtually instantaneous death, the blade is drawn across the animal’s throat in one rapid, continuous motion, like a cellist bowing the final note of a late Beethoven quartet. As much blood as possible is drained from the carcass, which is then ‘kashered’: soaked in salted water to remove any hematic residue and examined with great care to check for defects or blemishes that would cause the meat to be ritually unfit for consumption.
Reb Horovitz, the shochet, was a gregarious man, the very image of a rotund Old World butcher, right down to his ruddy, red-cheeked face. In addition to his religious duties, he owned a butcher shop on Brooklyn Parkway where he sold kosher meats as well as a wonderful variety of unusual spices and preserves of his own devising. Many of his neighbors and customers found him a bit peculiar. As he sawed and sliced, he liked to quote Rashi, the Talmudic sage while advising customers on the best ways to cook the various cuts of meat they purchased. Unsurprisingly, his special spice mixtures and jars of preserves often figured in these recipes; the shochet could hold forth for hours, for example, on the miracles that fennel pollen or juniper glaze could perform on chicken. He had committed a number of Talmudic tractates to memory and enjoyed trying to match the wisdom of the Sages with the moment, to the amusement and (often) consternation of his clientele. Yossi and I did have one thing in common with Yankel; he was as different from his father as we were from ours.
As their friendship progressed, my brother’s behavior became increasingly strange; he began to miss classes at the Yeshiva, and was often late for dinner, even a few times on Shabbos, the Jewish Sabbath. And although my mother said not to worry, that God was watching over my brother, Yossi’s actions disturbed me. Concern and curiosity fizzed in my thoughts, rising inside me as if carbonated, like bubbles in a glass of seltzer. I decided that I needed to investigate.
I have to take care of some things, my brother said to me one Saturday morning. You mean you’re not going to Shul? I asked, incredulous. That’s right, and don’t tell Amah, he said pointedly. To allay suspicion we left together, walking toward the synagogue, separating when Yankel Horovitz stepped from around the corner of a newsstand kiosk and greeted my brother as if I wasn’t there. They headed toward the subway entrance half a block away, dematerializing into the dark maw of the entrance like a pair of collapsing stars. Instead of continuing on to the synagogue, I retraced my steps, slipping quietly back into the house. My mother had stopped going to Shabbos services after my father’s death but still insisted on our attendance. I knew that she would probably be taking a nap, but I took the precaution of slipping my shoes off before heading upstairs.
Entering my brother’s empty bedroom was like desecrating the Holy of Holies. I had never been alone in his room before. Although I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking for, I knew that I was about to find it before I even saw it. The entire room seemed charged with strange particles as I turned to the bookshelf. As if pulled by a string, my hand reached out and plucked a worn, tattered paperback book from among the 40 immaculate volumes of Talmud bound in red calfskin, their titles stamped in gilt; a Bar Mitzvah gift my brother had received from Uncle Mordecai.
I lay on my brother’s bed, holding the book in both hands. I closed my eyes and the room fell slowly away. Hovering on the threshold of a dream, I saw them.
Instead of praying the Shahrit service at synagogue, my brother and Yankel Horovitz stood on the corner of 43rd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, staring down the marble lions that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library. Okoper Hasidim do not frequent secular libraries, and never travel by means other than walking during Shabbos. They hurried up the steps and through the revolving doors into the cavernous reading room, awash in sunlight that flooded through enormous windows, illuminating schools of shimmering dust that swam in the air like plankton caught in nets of light. For an instant, the boys stood motionless, like the lions on their pedestals, as though the majestic proportions of the room had turned them momentarily to stone.
Watching my brother and his silent shadow, I felt that I was also breaking the prohibition on travel during Shabbos, even though I knew that I was only dreaming in his bedroom. Or was I? I also understood that my snooping violated an unspoken code that exists between brothers. But my fate, like that of Jonah, was beyond my control; a churning wave had cast me inside the belly of an enormous and unfathomable beast, terra incognita. The library was crowded, and though the two of them looked out of place wandering among the stacks and carrels, they received little in the way of stares. I suppose that New Yorkers are accustomed to stranger sights than two Hasidic boys roaming the aisles of a secular library, even on Shabbos.
Yossi bent over a water fountain near the central stairwell, his hand tipping his hat back on his head as he drank. Yankel stood close by, nervously eyeing the wall above the fountain, where I could see no cause for consternation, only peeling paint. For some reason, this scene caused my entire body to flinch as though I had suddenly been bitten. Yossi straightened, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, saying something to Yankel in a low voice. The boy nodded in response and they set off quickly up the stairwell.
On the second floor, they disappeared into one of the stacks, where my brother began running his index finger along the spines of books on the highest shelf. I knew without seeing his face that he was mouthing the titles of the books as he scanned them, a habit he had developed studying Talmud. Then his finger stopped. In one fluid motion, a book came off the shelf and vanished into his caftan. He turned to Yankel like a magician who has just performed an especially confounding trick, and I saw adoration in the boy’s face. There was something else there too, an expression that chilled my blood. Precisely what it was I cannot say, but it looked a lot like triumph. I could not imagine my brother stealing a book, but apparently that was what he intended to do. I had not seen the title spirited from the shelf, but staring at the gap that Yossi’s theft had created in an otherwise perfect orthodontia of volumes, I knew that it was the very one that I held in my hands. I don’t know whether I was more disturbed by what I was seeing or the manner in which I was seeing it. As I have said, I was not particularly spiritual nor was I mystically inclined, and I had never had anything even resembling a premonition, until then.
How often do we regret wishing to know a thing? The Torah relates how, after banishing Man and Woman from Eden, the Lord stationed cherubim at the crossroads of Nod, by the ever-turning sword of fire, eternal guardians of the Tree of Knowledge. For every instance where I have believed that I would have been better off remaining ignorant about something, there is another where enlightenment has been the way forward. Even today, as these events reach me with the quality of ancient light arcing across unfathomable distance, I cannot say whether I might have acted differently had I understood the lacerating trajectories of the stars under which my brother was born.
The title of the book was The Grifters. The author was somebody named Jim Thompson. I had never heard of the author or his book before, but that was not unusual. Like other bocherim, Yeshiva boys, I had dabbled in secular literature; some Dickens, a little Dostoevsky, a touch of Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Phillip Roth. Books by authors like these, along with some steamy Irving Stone novels, were passed furtively like pornography among the bocherim. But I had never read a book like this. The cover was lurid, a 1940s movie poster–style rendering of a femme fatale lying face-up on a couch, lips slightly parted, right arm slung across her forehead. The blood-red nails of her left hand trailed off the side of the couch grazing the floor. On the back cover, a sinister man, his face shadowed by the brim of his fedora, pointed a revolver at a shotgun-wielding woman in a beige trench coat, dark sunglasses, slit skirt, and stiletto heels that sparkled like diamonds. Leafing through The Grifters, scanning paragraphs laced with incest, betrayal, and murder, the uneasiness that had been budding inside me for weeks began to bloom. Dickens this definitely was not. It wasn’t even Irving Stone. I put the book back on the shelf with a hand that suddenly seemed unfamiliar. Why was Yossi reading a book like this? Why would he steal it? On an impulse, I reached for the book again and opened it to the back. There, pasted on the inside of the back cover was the check-out card in its manila sleeve, stamped with a series of due dates. The most recent was two years old.
Walking home from Yeshiva the following week, I passed by Horovitz’s Kosher Meats. There was a smaller line than usual, so I went in and sat on the wooden bench at the back of shop. Brushing my feet back and forth through sawdust strewn across the pattern of small black and white hexagonal tiles, I waited there until the schochet had served the last customer. Nu, he asked me in Yiddish, what can I do for a son of Aryeh Gorodetsky? Your mother perhaps is getting a head start on Shabbos this week?
I haven’ t come to buy anything today, Reb Horovitz, I said. He arched his eyebrows. Nu? he repeated, so what brings the son of Aryeh and Rachel to my shop if not to buy, hmm? I’m here about Yankel. I told hi m. My Yankeleh? he asked. Actually, about my brother and YankeI, I told him. The shochet came out from behind the counter, wiping his hands on his apron. Let’s go in the back, he said. We will sit together and have a glass of tea. I’m ready for a little rest anyway.
Light from the room’s single rectangular window brushed the rough wooden table and spare furnishings with a silvery glaze, like something Vermeer might have painted had he lived in Brooklyn. Or maybe Edward Hopper, if he’d been born in 16th-century Delft. The shochet filled two glasses with steaming, amber-colored tea from a tarnished samovar, offering me a sugar cube from a small enameled box on the table. I declined. Clamping two cubes between his front teeth, he sucked the tea from his glass and waited.
I’m worried, I told him. I’m worried about my brother. Why? he asked. I don’t know, I said, I know it sounds strange, but there is definitely something wrong. He took a long pull of tea and crunched the remains of his sugar cube. And you think that I should be worried about my son? I hesitated. Then I said, something is not right, Reb Horovitz. I can’t put my finger on it, but ever since Yankel and Yossi began spending time together, my brother has become distant, his attendance has fallen off at Yeshiva, he even skips synagogue sometimes. He looked at me for a long moment, pulling on his beard. Just then, the bell over the front door of the shop jingled, and the shochet got up to wait on a customer, asking me to stay where I was, that he wanted to hear the rest of what I had to say. When he returned, I told him about the day that I’d watched his son and my brother go into the subway station, of the book I’d found in my brother’s room, and what I had experienced as I held it. What do you think it all means? I asked him. He was silent for several minutes.
My poor father, he finally said. When I was Yankel’s age, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved animals, you see. I still do. But my father was a shochet, like his father, and his father’s father before him. It was expected, naturally, that I would follow in the family tradition, as I expect my son will follow me. But my brain was rebellious in those days, voracious, even. I went so far as to visit Cornell University, using the money that I made (helping my father in this very shop) to secretly purchase a ticket and travel (using the flimsiest of lies, which are the very worst kind) to the Cornell campus. It was strange and wonderful. You see, I had never been away from home by myself before. Although many students and faculty stared at my Okoper clothes (wondering no doubt what I was doing there), I was too young, too excited and full of plans to really care. I did apply for admission, and then slowly worked up the courage to tell my father of my plans, though before I could, something happened. It was one of those things that always seem to befall those who seek asylum in places beyond the borders of their fate. My father dropped dead while waiting on a customer, right here in this shop. They said it was an aneurysm, but I knew better. My father had made Chatat. Have you learned Chatat yet? No? Well, let us have a small shiur then, a little lesson. In the days of King Solomon, Chatat was a sin-offering which could be made only by Kohanim, the high priests of the Temple. It was unique to the priestly caste; if a Kohan sinned, he had to make Chatat. First he needed a bull. No other animal would do. The bull was led on a yoke into the Holy of Holies and slaughtered before the Ark of the Covenant. The manner of shechitah was crucial, not a drop of sacred blood could touch the ground. The animal’s throat was slit and the blood drained into a ritual chalice, a bowl of hammered gold. Using his index finger, the Kohan sprinkled seven drops of the sacrificial blood around the altar, and the carcass of the bull was incinerated before the prostrated congregants. Here he paused, switching from Yiddish to Hebrew, and quoted from the Torah, from Leviticus: ‘The priest shall offer up and turn the whole of it into smoke on the altar. It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord.’
Today, he said, only the most righteous can make Chatat. Although a bull is no longer strictly necessary, death is still required. Somehow, my father had seen through my subterfuge, into my heart as easily as I can see through this glass to the darkness of the tea within. What he observed there led him to conclude that he would need to make a sacrifice, an offering for the soul of his oldest son. This I know as surely as we are sitting here, taking tea together. So I had to take over the shop to provide for my younger brothers and my sisters. I had to abandon my dream of curing animals. Instead, by the will of the Ribbono Shel Olom, I slaughter and sell them. Strange, Nu? Now I must return to my work. It has been pleasant sharing a glass of tea with you. Remember that what is written cannot be changed, and you must not try. Your own father knew this, as did mine. What the Master of the Universe decrees, shall be. We must accept His will and strive to earn our place in the World to Come. Don’t worry about your brother. Don’t worry about my Yankel. It will change nothing. This is what I have learned. This is what I can tell you.
Rav Nachman, the ancient, grey-bearded Talmudist who taught Mishnah at the Yeshiva, once warned us that imagination, particularly in the guise of ‘Literature,’ was an evil device of the Sitra Achra, the other side. Beware Lashon Ha-Ra, he warned, the evil tongue. The Talmud and Torah, born of the oral tradition that originated with Moses taking dictation from God, were superior to every other kind of text. He insisted that they were all a Jew needed in the way of the written word. Of course, this was the same teacher who insisted Satan’s fall was not the result of rebellion against the Master of the Universe, but rather of too ardent a desire to be united with Him. Anything, taken to its extreme, intoned the aged rabbi, becomes a sin. Rav Nachman, it was later revealed, was a closet Kabbalist, a passionate reader of the Zohar, a Kabbalistic text forbidden to Okopers by their leader, Rebbe Menachem Shorenstein. That was my first experience with the sleight, the calculus of hypocrisy. It was also the moment that I knew I wanted to be a writer.
Several weeks after my visit with the shochet, my uncle Mordecai’s body was found near the Kingston Avenue subway station. He had been murdered, his left hand severed just above the radius, straight through the ligaments perpendicular to the cuneiform bone. His sample case was missing, as was his hand. He would have bled to death from the amputation alone, but the killer, taking no chances, had cut his throat clean through the neck to his spine. The surgical precision and skill employed caused speculation that someone with medical training was involved. It was a crime biblical in its savagery, occurring just days before Yom Kippur, and made all the more scandalous by the fact that the victim was a member of the Okoper Hasidic community, who are normally immune to the violence swirling in their midst. My uncle’s fear had finally found him.
My mother was inconsolable. Yossi displayed a weird air of indifference throughout the shiva period that others might have taken for quiet grief, although he was unfailingly attentive to my mother in her anguish. Indifference segued to a kind of depression once the mourning period ended. He no longer spent time with Yankel Horovitz. I figured this was because Yankel’s father kept him busy working; I would occasionally glimpse the slaughterer’s son as I passed by the display window of his father’s shop, knife in hand, garbed in a blood-streaked smock, apprenticed to destiny.
Early on the morning of Yom Kippur, when it was still dark, I was awakened by a noise in my room. I poked my head from beneath the covers, trying to focus. My brother was standing in the doorway to my bedroom, half in shadow and half in light that seeped from the hallway through the opened door, glowing around his silhouette like a fiery corona during an eclipse of the sun. He closed the door and came toward my bed in the darkness. What time is it? I asked him. Too early, he said, too early and very late. What are you …
… all too absurd, even for Yossi. So I rolled over, shrouding my head beneath the covers. As I began to drift back toward sleep, I felt his fingers graze my face. His hand came to rest on the top of my head for a moment, though it seems much longer now. I felt a gentle kiss on my cheek through the cotton sheet, and he was gone. Then it was morning, and I woke in the white light of October. Somewhere, in the depths of the house the phone began to ring.
That was the 10th of Tishr, in the year 5758. October 11, 1997 for the rest of the world.
Early that morning, while I slept, my brother had jumped from the edge of a crowded subway platform at Borough Hall, colliding with an oncoming Manhattan-bound number 4 train. The newspapers said that it had been an accident, that he had fallen, but I knew the truth. My mother did not cry during the week we sat Shiva. I have no more tears, no more memory, she said. Perhaps I have forgotten how to weep.
The murder of Mordecai Sharon remains unsolved.
In time, Yankel Horovitz took over his father’s business, and as far as I am aware (although I moved away from Crown Heights and the Okoper Hasidim many years ago), he is still running it to this day.
Though I have only one story to tell about my brother, I dream of him often. Of all these dreams, only one is recurring. In it, I am walking on a mountain road at night through the heart of winter. The entire landscape is blanketed in deep, rounded drifts of snow. The sky is full of stars, many more than can be seen on the clearest night in Brooklyn, even during a blackout. My brother stands at the top of a rise in the road, near what appears to be a huge boulder. It is the only thing in sight not covered with snow. Then I am next to him and we are both staring at the boulder’s smooth onyx surface. It’s a meteorite, he says to me. I look at his face, his hands, stained white as the moon against the darkness of his suit, a charcoal-grey double-breasted pinstripe with wide lapels that he never wore in life. On his head is a matching grey fedora identical to the one worn by the character on the back cover of The Grifters. You look like a mobster, Yossi, I tell him. He grins and says, Look at the stars, younger brother. I look up. They’re beautiful Yossi, I say. What do you see? he asks me. A beautiful sky, I tell him, the stars are magnificent, but it’s cold out here. What are we doing here? Where are we? We’re on the mountain, younger brother. On the mountain, I repeat. Yes, he says, we are on the mountain. But we are also someplace else, a place that is surrounded by the past. Don’t you see the stars? Don’t you realize what they mean?
I look up again for a few moments then turn back to my brother. I shrug.
All this light is dead, he says. It began its journey from the source to this moment eons, millions of years ago. We are looking at time. We are watching the past, do you understand? When these stars first cast their light, we did not exist. Life on this planet did not exist; this planet was not yet formed, our solar system had not been created. This light was thrown by stars long, long ago. We are surrounded by the past, and everything that no longer exists or lives on only in speculation or memory is contained in that light above us, shining down on the mountain, on the snow, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it.
A book is the past, too, I tell him. A book written and published in 1613 is the past. Its author no longer exists, nor does its printer, or those who first read it when it was published, but the book is still here, like the Pyramids or the Jews. I don’t care about books or the Pyramids, my brother says, and I certainly don’t give a shit about the Jews. But I understand starlight. I know its grief; I feel its sadness. Yossi’s eyes reflect the glittering surface of the snow. They burn with the flame of madness.
Let’s go, he says. I don’t bother to ask where as we start down the mountain, the entire history of the past, of the universe shining everywhere around us.
Then I am standing alone on an empty subway platform. The fluorescent lights at the far end of the platform, where it disappears into the tunnel, are out. The orange glow of a cigarette ash peers at me from the darkness, like a Cyclopic eye. It burns and fades, winking, but illuminates no face, just the faint contours of a figure standing in the darkness, smoking. Then I hear a rumbling from the depths of the blackness, and long fingers of light reach out slowly across the walls of the tunnel, elongating over the girders. Gradually, the station fills with sound, a squealing diminuendo of brakes heralding the train’s arrival. When I turn back, the entire platform is lit up as brightly as an operating room, but the far end is now deserted.
The train pulls in. The blur of doors and windows come slowly to a stop as I step up to the yellow safety line. A voice on the loudspeaker announces the station stop: 42nd Street, Bryant Park, and warns passengers to watch the closing doors. The doors open, but no riders exit. Instead, the platform fills with books of every size and subject, flowing from the subway cars by the thousands, by the millions, pooling at my feet like bleeding stars.