We all have our fantasy places - not the childhood fantasies of occupations in which each of us is a great rock star or conductor or garbageman - though I’d have been a damn good garbageman. We all have a place, whether in fantasy or history, which we go to when we’re alone and tell ourselves “This is where I really belong. I should have been born here and then.” For some people that place is Rivendell, for some people it’s at Yankee Stadium in ‘27, for some it’s Haight-Ashbury in ‘68, for some it’s the Rome of Augustus, for some it’s at the top of Mount Olympus. Each of us invents a world for ourselves that probably never existed anywhere but in our mind’s eye. And we imagine how much better, more glamorous, more suitable our lives would be for us.
Personally, I imagine myself Arthur Meister - born in 1877 and given the name Avraham Charlap to a family of kindly Jewish booksellers in a shtetl 40 kilometers outside Warsaw. I’m the youngest in our family of twelve children. My father quickly discovers my amazing precocity and brings me to the local rabbi. By the age of eight I have memorized the entire Talmud and can give Rabbinical interpretations which learned scholars travel a hundred miles from every direction to hear. In my spare time I practice the fiddle and play every week after Shabbos with my father’s Klezmerspiel. In secret, my sisters and I go every Tuesday to visit a band of gypsies who live down the road and play music with them. My rebellious older brother, Shaya, teaches me German in secret and brings me books of secular learning. I learn the work of Goethe, Heine, Lichtenberg and Herder in the original. I read idealists like Hegel and Schopenhauer too, but to Shaya's disappointment I don’t like them nearly as much. By the time I’m finished Cheder and have my bar-mitzvah, my parents are ready to give me up to the Rabbi’s care so that I might become the great scholar of the age. I live in the Rabbi’s house for a time, taking up with both his daughter and their Polish cook. But my rebellious older brother has gone to seek his fortunes in Warsaw, where he has left Orthodox Judaism to become a journalist for a local Yiddish paper. He writes me every week, telling me stories of his adventures in the big city. He tells me about an exciting new movement to grant Jews a state in the Holy Land, ‘Zionism’ he calls it. He tells me he has become a disciple of Herr Herzl, whom he assures me is greater than any Rabbi of whom I've ever heard.
I’m now so bored with life in our town - named Gizl - that I can no longer concentrate on my studies, but it’s just as well because the Rebbitzn (rabbi’s wife) catches me in bed with the cook, which of course causes the daughter to blurt out in desparation that she’s pregnant. I’m told by the Rabbi that it is my obligation as a righteous man to marry his daughter as soon as possible. That night, I abscond from my hometown, never to return.
I’m now sixteen years old, and I go to my brother in Warsaw. We live together in a 100 square meter apartment and I pay the bills by working in a local delicatessen. A bit more than a week after starting work, a wiry bespectacled gentleman with wavy hair and a bushy mustache comes in followed by a giant entourage. He greets the owner warmly and the owner orders me to bring them plates of herring on the house.
When I come to the table, the man grabs my arm and says ‘Nu? You’re Shaya’s brother. Je?’
‘There are stars who’s light only reaches the earth long after they have fallen apart. There are people who’s remembrance gives light in this world, long after they have passed away.’
He motions for me to finish...
‘This light shines in our darkest nights on the road we must follow.’
‘Have I done something wrong?’
‘Did he tell you or did he tell you? The boy’s an illui! Here boychik, sit down. Shaya will be here in a moment.’
‘But my job.’
‘Velvel will understand. My name is Solomon Rabinovich. But please, call me Shalom.’
So I sit at his side. Some conversations take place around the table but attention is fundamentally focused on us. He asks me about my feelings on Zionism, and I repeat a few stock phrases from Shaya’s letters. He then asks if I have read anything by Tolstoy. I reply that I haven’t. He asks if I’ve read any of the old pamphlets by Herzen, I have to reply that I’ve never heard of him. He then starts waxing eloquently on the glories a fantastic writer of our generation named Chekhov. I finally summon the courage tell him I’m unable to read or speak Russian.
‘Well, you must change that right away! Shaya’s obviously an excellent teacher.’
‘Yes he is. But he taught me German.’
‘Ach. Nothing but a bastardized form of Yiddish. (the table erupts with laughter) Do you speak Polish at least?’
‘Yaakov, give him a job in your paper reading the Polish wires. If he learns Russian as quickly as Talmud, this khokham will have a glorious career ahead of him.’
And thus ends my career as a delicatician. Finally, Shaya makes his appearance. The men at the table are on their fourth bottle of vodka and every one of them greets him as though it were they who were his long lost brothers. Somebody pulls out an accordion, there’s singing at the table and after midnight we leave the deli, stuffed and drunk.
After we get home, Shaya lies on his bed and says to me:
'You know, that was Shalom Aleichem who got you that job.'
'Shalom Aleichem. The writer.'
'Shalom Aleichem. The Yiddish Tolstoy. The greatest Jew of our age.'
'Yes, Shalom Aleichem.'
'I thought the greatest Jew was Herzl.'
'Herzl doesn’t get us jobs.'
'But Herzl believes in the Holy Land.'
'So does Shalom Aleichem.'
'Have you talked about it with him?'
'And wouldn’t it make more sense for it to be Sholem Asch? Shalom Aleichem’s from Odessa.'
'Avraham you’re questioning the believability of this fantasy.'
'Have a good night.'
'But does Shalom Aleichem or Asch or whoever believe in establishing a state in the Holy Land?'
'Who cares. Go to bed Avraham.'
'But I’m watching Jimmy Fallon.'
'What do I say to that?'
'Nothing. Good night Shaya.'