Issue 1 - Winter 2006 - Home and Away
MESSIAH IN A BOTTLE
The rabbi said that drinking on Purim was more than a right, it was a responsibility. Suddenly my father was very open to new ideas
BY JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN
Rabbi Nachman was a young, idealistic rabbi from Australia. A handsome man, he wore his black Stetson at a jaunty angle and combed his beard into a sharp point, making him look a bit like the evil rabbis of Jewish folktales. But Rabbi Nachman was not evil. He was pious, and his spade of a beard, rather than making him look satanic, made him look intelligent, as well as aerodynamic.
Nachman was stationed in Canada by the head rebbe, a man so holy that with a nod of his head he could command a thousand septuagenarian Orthodox Jews into a hora — and not one of those slouchy, lackadaisical horas, either, but the air-punching, beard-flying kind, the kind of hora that scares small children. So when the rebbe sent Nachman as an emissary to our neighborhood in the suburbs of Montreal to recruit lapsed Jews, he didn’t argue.
Nachman’s first move was getting to know the Jewish community, so he spent his early weeks in town going door to door inspecting mezuzahs, those little cases on a house’s door frame that allow the world to know there are Jews inside. I was fourteen that first time he showed up at our house, and when we opened the door, he was already examining our mezuzah. By way of introduction, he told us that the parchment inside the mezuzah had to be changed every few years, because if it was in any way torn or damaged, the whole thing was worthless. He said the outside of a mezuzah was like a person’s body: it was just a shell. The hand-written parchment inside was what really counted: it was the soul, and he wanted to see what shape ours was in.
My father was uncomfortable with the idea of a stranger messing around with our mezuzah. Just the same, Rabbi Nachman went to work taking it off the door frame with a screwdriver. Opening it up, he revealed our ornate, silver-plated mezuzah to be completely empty. No parchment, no nothing.
“It’s a good thing I came by when I did,” Nachman said.
“I think he’s full of crap with that parchment stuff,” said my father later that night over dinner. “And who goes looking into other people’s mezuzahs? It’s invasive. I tell you, if I see him here again, I’ll throw him out on his beard.”
My father was not one for synagogue. He complained about the hard wooden pews, the incomprehensibility of the Hebrew language, and the way that synagogue, rather than inspiring him, made him feel as if he were being suffocated in a claustrophobic coffin that reeked of old-man smell. But it wasn’t just that: my father also didn’t like being told what to do.
By anyone’s standard, our family was Jewish, but we played by our own rules. We did not eat ham, but we would eat bacon. Bacon was somehow the more Jewishy pig meat, while ham was just so Bing Crosby. While we did not keep the Sabbath, we did go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. We begged God to forgive our sins and inscribe us in the Book of Life. We did so while glancing at our watches every thirty seconds. We did not speak Hebrew, but we did bandy about Yiddish words, half of which were made up, such as my mother’s word for the TV remote, which she called “der pushkeh.” There were certain restaurants that we went to, not because they were kosher, but because they were “kosher-style,” which is sort of like the apartment across the hall from kosher. Whereas keeping kosher required rigorous observation of rules, keeping kosher-style required only a Jerusalem napkin holder on the table and the restaurant’s name written out front in large Hebraic calligraphy. We did not study Torah, but we did watch The Ten Commandments every year on TV. Even when the long journey through the desert became unendurable, we stuck it out. We believed enough for that.
A couple of days after that first meeting in the doorway of our house, Rabbi Nachman called up and invited me to a Purim party for kids at his house. I tried to back off — the idea of partying at a rabbi’s house smacked of paradox — but Nachman wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I agreed to go and celebrate with the rest of the young Montreal Jewry my people’s not being murdered by the evil courtier Haman, who set out to persecute the Semites in Persia with a gusto and verve that even the Philistines would have considered special.
Arriving at his house a couple of nights later, I found a group of perplexed-looking teens just like me, sitting in a circle on bridge chairs. Rabbi Nachman handed out Jewish loot bags. Each bag contained two nickels to give to charity, shards of stale Passover gum, and a hamantasch wrapped in plastic wrap. A hamantasch is a prune-filled triangular cookie made to symbolize, depending on whose version is to be believed, either Haman’s triangle-shaped hat or Haman’s triangle-shaped dirty ears. The idea of eating a pastry made to replicate the salient facial feature of a Jew-hating mass murderer struck me as absurd and wrong — something akin to eating a little licorice Hitler moustache. Just the same, I ate the hamantasch and then chewed my stick of Passover gum — which might have been spearmint, might have been cinnamon, who knew — and then, after the loot bags, the cherry cola, and the Jewish knock-knock jokes, we got on to more serious subjects.
It was that evening, at the Purim party, that I would learn of the Moshiach, the Jewish messiah. The Moshiach was a holy, humble, and wise man, and once he chose to reveal himself, said Nachman, there would be no more hardship and pain. God would be revealed. This is how it worked: first there would be a shofar blast that all the world would hear. Then the Moshiach would appear, riding a white horse. He would revive the dead. He would put an end to work. He would put an end to death. It would all be just like the days of Eden. He would show up just like that. He could show up at any second.
“Even now!” cried the rabbi, pounding the dining-room table with his fist. “He could show up this very second!”
The rabbi taught us to chant a song called, “We Want Moshiach Now.” He said the louder we sang it, the quicker the Moshiach would come. A Jew had to show moxie. He had to demand the coming of his messiah. The rabbi got us all really worked up, and we sang that song as loud as we could. We yelled our heads off. It felt as if the Moshiach would walk right through the front door any second and, just like someone’s angry dad, tell us to shut up already.
The idea of the Moshiach ushering in a new age of relaxation not only appealed to me, but also made immediate sense. After fourteen years of hard labor — going to school, putting up with my family — it was finally payday, and somehow, that just seemed right. Once the Moshiach came, everyone would get to lie around on the sidewalk all day, draped in wet sheets and eating mangoes, as if the whole world were one big Turkish bath. Trees would bear roast duck, and I’d get to see dead aunts and uncles. I’d probably also be a lot taller in the days of the Moshiach.
fter that first Purim party, the rabbi started calling my house on a regular basis, personally requesting my presence at synagogue, and so, reluctantly at first, I began attending almost every Friday. Overall, I found synagogue boring and impenetrable, but the Moshiach stuff — that, I could really sink my teeth into.
I would tell my father about the Moshiach and ask him if he had ever heard about this kind of thing. What did he make of it, I’d ask. Didn’t it sound wonderful? My father started treating me as if I were in the Moonies.
“What’re you a religious nut now?” he asked.
“The man who drives the cart knows why he makes the journey,” I said, quoting the rabbi. “The horse who pulls the cart knows only that he is being whipped.”
“Are you calling me a horse?” demanded my father.
I looked at him, shaking my head in pity. It was a move I had seen the rabbi do, and I liked it. I liked it a lot. I made it my own. It must have been hard for my father to watch his fourteen-year-old shake his head in pity at him. It must have been like being punched hard in the groin by a baby.
When I was a little kid talking with my father, God was my favorite subject. Sometimes my father would say that he believed there was something up there: “... a kindness ... a big face with a warm smile.” Other times when I asked him about God, he would say it was for suckers. Then he’d laugh, and my mother would tell him to shut up. Now, talking with my father about God was infuriating. That man refused to use common sense.
“When I went to synagogue as a kid,” he said, “we didn’t talk about the Second Coming. That stuff’s for the gentiles.”
“We never had a Coming!” I said. “This is our First Coming!”
As well as the look of pity, I had started to borrow Rabbi Nachman’s intonation when I spoke of matters religious. I would often pound the table, using my fist like a gavel, just as I had seen him do.
I smacked the table hard enough to make my father’s cup of instant coffee rattle in its saucer. Then I deployed Rabbi Nachman’s patented “I pity you” look. My father met my gaze with his patented “Pal, you’ve gone off the deep end this time” look.
I began to go to Rabbi Nachman’s almost every Friday night after synagogue for Sabbath dinner. At the kitchen table at home, all we talked about was where to get the cheapest melon and who made the moistest buckwheat cake. At Rabbi Nachman’s, we spoke of spiritual matters. We talked about God and angels. Golems and dibbuks. It made me feel deep.
One night, the conversation got around to how we could never really know whether we truly existed or not.
“How do you know you’re here right now and not dreaming?” the rabbi asked, smacking the table with his fist.
For a second, I thought of offering him proof in the form of a glass of seltzer water thrown in his face, but I just wasn’t the type. Instead, I said, “I think, therefore I am,” which I thought was a pretty smart thing for a fourteen-year-old to say.
“And what is thought?” shrieked the rabbi, a side-lock clamped in each of his fists.
Rabbi Nachman said that the only way you could know anything was through Torah. How do you know that you exist? Torah. How do you know God exists? Torah. I asked him how he knew Torah existed, and he smiled.
“When you eat of its eternal fruit,” he said, “you will know it exists more deeply than your very soul.” Then he shot me his patented “One day you’ll know” look.
When we were finished eating, we sang a rousing version of “We Want Moshiach Now.” This time, I thought, the Moshiach has got to be really, really close at hand, because I could feel it. He was just around the corner. He was pulling up to the curb on his white horse. The Moshiach was fumbling with the keys in the front lock. At this point in my life, I felt the imminence of the Moshiach so fully that I took to sleeping in my sweat pants, just in case I heard the shofar blast and had to run into the street at a moment’s notice.
“He could even come now,” Rabbi Nachman said. “Even now.”
It was like waiting for the phone to ring.
I walked home from the rabbi’s that night, looking up at the stars. Sometimes, when I was leaving Rabbi Nachman’s and when I was thinking about the Moshiach, I thought to myself that, like a crack baby born into the world addicted to something that it cannot yet define, I had been born with an addiction to the Moshiach. Thanks to Rabbi Nachman, I finally knew what I had been jonesing for. The Moshiach would end the mystery and the loneliness. There would be hugging in the streets, warmth — real warmth — between strangers. People would understand one another’s hearts. It made a sense to me that was more perfect than any sense I had ever known.
My mother started forcing my father to attend synagogue with me once in a while. Now, as I’ve said, my father was not one for synagogue, but Purim was once again upon us, and he agreed to attend a party at Rabbi Nachman’s. It had been a whole year since that first get-together at the rabbi’s, and I saw a lot of myself — the way I used to be — in my father. The unreasonableness. The bad attitude. Even though my mother had to practically shove him out the door, I knew that, given the chance, he could achieve enlightenment just the way I had. My mother told my father he was not allowed to return home for an hour.
When we got to the rabbi’s house, his wife led us downstairs to his little study. It was packed, standing room only: several dozen Jews shoulder to shoulder in a room filled with books. Books were the lifeblood of the Hebrew people, the rabbi was always saying. I guess he wanted us to feel inspired, and I did feel inspired. My father, he just looked like a sweaty, trapped animal.
Upon seeing my father and me enter, Rabbi Nachman called us over. He brought out two bridge chairs so we could sit beside him at the head of the table. When we sat down, he doffed his Stetson and put it on my head. I looked around. Alan Greenberg, the candy-store owner — a man I could hardly recognize when he was not standing behind a rack of candy bars — was there, and so was my old gym teacher, Ross Needleman. There were people in that study I didn’t even know were Jewish. The rabbi had really been working our neighborhood, squeezing the streets for every Jew he could find. An Israeli man beside me was wearing a cardboard yarmulke that made him look like a counterman at a kosher hot-dog restaurant. He handed me a plastic cup full of vodka. I leaned my elbows on the table the way I imagined Bogart would if he were celebrating Purim.
Ever since an incident at a Toronto bar mitzvah when my father drank four Tia Marias in a row and taught my teenage cousins some kind of kung fu dance in the entranceway of the synagogue bathroom, my mother had made liquor contraband in our house. So when Rabbi Nachman started pouring my father shot after shot of Crown Royal, the acceptance my father felt from his Jewish brethren was poignant. Rabbi Nachman said that on Purim you were to get so drunk that you could no longer tell the difference between the words “Praise be Mordechai” (the hero of Purim) and “Cursed be Haman” (the enemy). Rabbi Nachman said that drinking on Purim was more than a right, it was a responsibility, and as long as the drinks flowed, my father sang religious songs right along with everyone else.
That night was the first time I had ever drunk liquor, and I was very excited about it, because booze allowed you to see that the world was really all spirit, that the soul was always just about ready to peep out from behind everything. Booze was all about the truth, and it made you feel, just a little bit, as if the Moshiach had already arrived.
My father, sober, would have considered all that Moshiach talk to be stuff for the Hare Krishnas, but just then, the booze flowing like manna, he was very open to new ideas.
Since it was my first time drunk, it was as if that little study full of books were being hurled through space, passing planets and, in its way, defending the galaxy. I can remember the evening as only a series of fade-ins and fade-outs. First, we were singing songs and pounding the table; then, we were dancing a hora with our hands waving in the air like fun-loving flappers; then, someone was telling a very serious story about how Judaism had changed his life, and we all silently picked honey-cake crumbs off the tablecloth and drank solemnly from our plastic cups. When the story was done, everyone applauded, and the singing started up again, louder than ever. I remember telling the rabbi’s wife that she looked a lot like this girl I liked in school. I remember someone trying to shove a slice of honeydew into the smile on my face. I remember at one point being brought by two yeshiva boys to the bathroom to throw up, and then, once over the toilet, only spitting. I remember being told by the Israeli in the cardboard skullcap that getting bar mitzvahed didn’t make you a man, that it took more than that, that it took vodka. Lots and lots of vodka.
Then I remember singing “We Want Moshiach Now.” It was the craziest rendition of the song yet. It involved some of the men in the far corner doing a sort of impromptu slam dance that caused books to start falling from the shelves and onto our heads, but no one seemed to notice. We were singing so loud and pounding the table so hard that it felt as if something big were going to happen. We were demanding our messiah.
I looked over at my father to see if he could feel it, too, but he was just sitting there, staring into his cup of whiskey.
Then, in the middle of all the singing and the pounding, my father — who, more than being simply drunk, was what I like to call Toronto-bar-mitzvah-kung-fu-dance-drunk — stood up and told everyone he had an announcement to make.
Everyone kept singing and pounding, so my father repeated it again.
“I have something I’ve got to say,” he said, this time yelling it at the top of his lungs. The rabbi stood up and put his hands on my father’s shoulders, trying forcefully to push him down into his seat, where he could sit back and continue to enjoy the vibe, but my father was really set on making his announcement, so he waved his arms around and continued to shout the room down.
“I’ve got something I’ve got to say,” he said.
Finally, people began quieting down. My father drank the remaining whiskey in his cup, looked around the room and said, “All night Rabbi Nachman’s been saying that we have to demand our Moshiach. Well, here goes.”
My father stepped back and positioned himself right before the rabbi. He then extended his finger, right into the rabbi’s face, and said, “Reveal thyself. I command you to reveal thyself.”
There was stunned, drunken, Canadian silence. It was the kind of silence that pulsates and makes your Adam’s apple feel about to explode, the kind that makes the tips of your fingers hurt and the air feel thick and full of something like sinews and veins.
“I’d put you on the white horse myself,” my father said, reaching over for the bottle of rye.
The rabbi looked furious. Only wanting to express his gratitude for the fine liquor, my father had succeeded in turning the study into a den of sacrilege.
On the way home, I zigzagged down the street, shadow boxing and climbing trees, while my father stumbled along behind me. I would realize only later that my father was braver than anyone at the Purim party that night for saying what he did. We had all felt the same way, I’m sure, but we were just too afraid to express or even acknowledge it. The rabbi really was a great candidate for the messiah. He had all the messianic qualities, plus he was even photogenic, which can’t possibly hurt. I know I had, at various moments, envisioned a kind of Scooby-Doo–style de-masking, in which he admitted that he had just been waiting for the right moment to reveal himself, that being the messiah was all about timing.
The next morning, I would experience my first-ever hangover. I would wake up feeling sick and depressed in a way that would later become a cornerstone of certain times in my life, but right then it felt adult. It felt like the price one paid for a little bit of salvation. &