t's Friday morning. Bob works four days a week so that he can have three day weekends and be all ready and packed to take Mary and Bethany and the exchange student on overnight camping trips in the RV, and sleep in for the first time in his life. It's eight-thirty AM, and Bob is dreaming about Bubbie Spivak's chicken soup. He's six years old, Bubbie and Zaydie Spivak are sitting on either side of him, taking turns spooning mouthfuls of the world's most sodium-filled chicken soup into him.
In his dreams he hears the kind of singing he always knew Jews were alleged to sing, but never heard himself, halfway between a whine and an ululation. The nasal incantation, the three-quarter-tone melismas on any note longer than half a second, the vocal breaks into a split second of falsetto. It should be the ugliest thing on the planet, yet spectacular to him all the same. He realizes he's in his bedroom, the singing continues, fuck, I'm awake.
He hesitates to look outside the bedroom window for a second with trepidation of what he might find, and surely enough sees eighteen men in dancing in a circle in the back yard. It's a rare eighty November degree day in one of those glorious Indian summers of Northern Cali with no clouds or humidity, but the Frummies are in their usual full black suited garb. They haven't even taken their hats off.
No time to waste. We have to show these frummies the rules of the game as soon as possible so he calls the police. The police officer shows up and tells the frummies if they're gonna sing, they have to take it inside. The frummies invite the officer in with them. How often does he go out on a call like this? They quietly give him some vodka, drink to his good health, sing a few songs for him indoors. The singing's just as loud from inside the house and the dancing becomes clapping. It doesn't let up all day as Bob goes out for errands, comes home, packs the granola and and the ham sandwiches and the coffee and the wine.
The yinglach of both families come home from school at the exact same time. Neither acknowledges the other. The boychiks sit at the table on the grownups' laps, the maydlach go into the kitchen to help Mameh and Bubbeh with the cooking and setting out the silverware. Simcha limps up to his room, and Bethany stays downstairs in the nearest seat to the wall, as if in a dream. Bob is extra naggy to Mary today to get them on the road as quickly as possible.
It's thirteen days before Thanksgiving, Cheshvan, that long month between the High Holidays and Chanikeh when there are no holidays and Jews have to make their own parties. The Freyliks use whatever little money is their own to order hand-crafted Mezzuzahs and Shabbos candles with brass accents, etched Stars of David and Torah scrolls, and bedecked by safires. A few brothers and a lot of other Rabbis come to San Francisco. With them, they all bring bread that they never know hunger, salt that their lives shall always have flavor, and sugar that their lives always have sweetness. Two of them caused a scene on the way because the flight sat them next to a woman. Another five thought about making one.
This fictional family, the Freyliks, entirely the product of AC Charlap's subconscious, are Chabadniker royalty with the yichus that comes from tracing its roots past the entire lineage of all six Lubavitcher Rebbes to the very mouth of the Chasidisher river, the the Baal Shem Tov himself. The Baal Shem Tov, Besht for short, Yisroel ben Eliezer, Master of the Good Name, founder of Chasidic Judaism, the mystical mid-18th century counterenilightment of Jewish Russia pitted against the German Jewish Enlightenment, Haskalah, of Moses Mendelssohn. "Whosoever believes all the miracle stories of the Baal Shem Tov is a fool," so wrote the Rebbe Schlomo Rodomsk, "but whoever denies he could have done them is a heretic." Of him, Rebbe Mordachai of Neshimsk wrote "Even if a story about him never occurred, and there was no such miracle, it was in the power of the Baal Shem Tov. May his memory be a blessing in the life of the World-to-Come, to perform everything."
Moses Mendelssohn told rural Jews to move into cities, make money, learn the language and culture of the goyim, stay Jews but become citizens of the world. Nice idea, but who wants to stay Jewish when you can be a citizen of the world? The Baal Shem Tov saw that the urban Jews weren't making money, so he told them to get out of the city and become farmers. Live together in small communities, educate your children together. It's Kibbutz Zionism a hundred years before Zion was an option. He emerged like another beloved Holy Figure of Zion in the last third of his life: writing amulets, expelling shaydim and dybbuks, curing the incurable. He claimed to have reached Devekut: a state of soul so holy he could speak with the Messiah himself and intercede on our behalf with Yahweh. Orphaned at three, widowed at sixteen, emerging at forty from a quarter-century of living in the woods - teaching children their prayers, digging clay and lime for income, learning how to use herbal remedies, experiencing visions of Achiya HaShiloni, prophet of the Solomonic era.
It all sounds a bit familiar. Indeed, he taught that we have to pray for salvation, regarding the Torah as a sacred relic - the mere glance upon which elevates the soul. In place of Satan, the Baal Shem Tov has Amalek, a tribe so terrible that Hashem ordered its genocide down to the very last child. "Amalek is still alive today" he warned "Every time you experience a worry or doubt about how Hashem is running the world -- that's Amalek. Amalek launching an attack against your soul. We must wipe Amalek out of our hearts whenever--and wherever--he attacks so we can serve Hashem with complete joy."
This fictional family, the Freyliks, entirely the product of AC Charlap's subconscious, are Chabadniker royalty with the yichus that comes from tracing its roots past the entire lineage of all seven Lubavitcher Rebbes to the very mouth of the Chasidisher river, the the Baal Shem Tov himself. The Baal Shem Tov, Besht for short, Yisroel ben Eliezer, Master of the Good Name, founder of Chasidic Judaism, the mystical mid-18th century counterenilightment of Jewish Russia pitted against the German Jewish Enlightenment, Haskalah, of Moses Mendelssohn. "Whosoever believes all the miracle stories of the Baal Shem Tov is a fool," so wrote the Rebbe Schlomo Rodomsk, "but whoever denies he could have done them is a heretic." Of him, Rebbe Mordachai of Neshimsk wrote "Even if a story about him never occurred, and there was no such miracle, it was in the power of the Baal Shem Tov. May his memory be a blessing in the life of the World-to-Come, to perform everything."
What was his great contribution? It can be explained fairly simply: Ben Gurion wanted Jews to come home to Tzion, that place between Jordan and Egypt the size of New Jersey. The Rebbe wanted Jews to come home to the infinite Tzion of the neshama, the soul. Ben Gurion preached against Diaspora, where which he admonished that no Jew could be truly Jewish. Schneerson preached against Assimilation, which he called a 'spiritual Holocaust.'
Paul preached to the heathens, Schneerson apparently preached to those who might as well be heathens with satellite TV, toll free hotlines, and Talmudic faxes, funded by a war chest of $100 million a year in income. He set up 'Mitzvah Tanks' meant to make every Jewish male in the world do ten basic mitzvahs, and sent out an army of Yeshiva Bochers to fill the streets of every major city in the world to ask "Are you Jewish?" before propositioning them to lay tefilin. A new multi-million dollar Lubavich Yeshiva would open every other yea in cities where observant Jews are not nor no longer found.
In 1994, as the Rebbe lay close to death, it was heavily disputed whether or not the Rebbe was the Messiah, but not by Ori Freylik, who believed in Rebbe Moshiach with all his heart, soul, and might. And even if the Rebbe wasn't Moshiach, his picture adorned every room of Lubavicher houses like a Patron Saint. This was the Moshiach whose picture the Freylik family painted over the two Victorians they'd made into a duplex for a family of Jews who believed in a Messiah's second coming, living next to Mary Williams, minister in a Christianity which doesn't even believe the Messiah came once.
"But freilich does not mean happiness!"
"It means 'definitely', 'of course.' It means you are certain."
December 23rd. Bob is in the kitchen cooking the Christmas Lunch while Mary is at the Church setting up Christmas Dinner for the homeless. Dinner is over. Bethany does her customary moving of the the chair near the wall to hear the noises of next door. She'd just explained, yet again, the magic she felt from the proximity of these mysterious neighbors to Kristina. The constant singing, the loud commotion of ten children, the gale forces of laughter, even the screaming fights.
Kristina was not a sentimentalischer. She felt affection, grosse Zuneigung even, for Bethany and this very American family where everyone always smiles, talks about feelings, assumes the best motives, and insists it's fun to have fun. Bethany was a torichtschoener madchen, extraordinary in her solicitousness to points well beyond foolish. She'd come to feel protective of this girl whom she wished did not do so much to protect Kristina. Kristina did not want to trouble her with worry if she ever left home with some boser bob amerikanish so in the Katz household she simply lived like the guttes madschen her own parents never cared whether she was. What she'd really miss is the beauty of California. Germany still has plenty of forest, but nothing like the stille Wildheit of these open spaces. She'd wander around the forest alone for hours, sometimes sitting on the ground, while Bethany's parents and friends played the board games they'd always bring along. Perhaps these Americans are so noisy because if they saw the majesty so near to them they would go verruckt.
In any event, Kristina would return to Dresden in five months. Back to the life of clubs and twenty-something Jungen, and the occasional fraulein. In the evening, she'd have dinner or a drink sometimes with her parents, who'd talk to her about politics or art, and just assume she'd take care of anything that wasn't bildung. In a year, it would be time for die Technische Universitat. It's free, not too far from home, and life'll be as pleasant as it'll ever be; much more pleasant freilich than for her parents, and who's to complain if it continues like that ad infinitum? She'll get a job, plenty of vacation time, go abroad, meet all sorts more reizender Familien along the way like the Katzes. The Katzes are lovely, but she missed the quiet. How can a place as crowded and polluted and spoiled as Ost Deutschland be so quiet while a place as savagely open and clean and virgin as California be so noisy?
But there, from the upstairs window, was as every evening, that short and spindly, stooped over, limping Junge, utterly undistracted from whatever gigantic laminated tome was in front of him at the back yard's bench and table, swaying back and forth as he mumbled to himself. Faszinirend. He probably wouldn't talk to her if she tried. And even if she would break him like a twig, the contortions of his body were adorable. It goes without saying that she'd never seen a nose quite like that or those adorable earlocks which she's sure thousands of German women had fantasized about tugging at. Even her father made fun of her taste in men.
Every night, Bethany would sit near the living room wall, listening with the greatest interest to the heaving convulsions of Jewish family life as her father shook his head and mother maintained all was right with the world. Tonight was Hannukah, another group sing. It sounded like three dozen friends or relatives or rabbis were gathered for seemingly the eighteenth time since moving to San Francisco. First the talking and laughing, then, the davening - bouts of silence punctured by a chorus of mumbling zombies, then nasally intoning another Freygish-moded song, seemingly incorporating four thousand years of suffering into the happiest sounds in the universe. Bob couldn't stand it, and yet again was on the phone with the police, who explained to him as patiently as they could that he had no legal recourse for their noise until ten at night.
Yet Simcha was outside, again. The back yard light on at the beginning of sunset so he could dive into his book, shuckling up and down while all this happy singing was going on. Why did he possibly want to miss all this?
And then the singing moves outside to the backyard; dancing, clapping, stomping, drinking, eating, smiling. Bethany goes up to her room which Kristina dutifully obliged when Bethany insisted they share one rather than Kristina living in the guest room. They look out the window, but Simcha has to leave the back to stay focused on his books. As he leaves, one of these men yells something to him that, to Bethany's ear, clearly has the intonations of mockery, followed by laughter.
Kristina immediately understands what the man said.
"Deh Golem vilt tsu leynen."
"The Golem wants to read."
The Golem. The supernatural Jewish being made of clay, which the Maharal of Prague brought into the breath of life the way Hashem brought the breath of life into Adam himself. They might as well refer to this anti-Adonis as Frankenstein. Kristina's father's fondest wish for his daughter was a thorough knowledge of culture: philosophy, music, art, history, film, and showed her the nineteen fifteen classic: Der Golem, known in America as "The Monster of Horror" when she was still nine.
"Did you understand what they said?"
"No, I didn't... I'm going for a walk now."
"I'll come with you!" Kristina sighs to herself as silently as she can.
They step outside to immediately see Simcha still leyning on the front porch. Bethany didn't miss a beat.
"I don't speak Yiddish, but whatever those people said to you, it didn't look like it was very nice."
Simcha doesn't look up.
"Maybe it was nice, but I hope you're doing OK."
He continues his shuckling, his silent mumbling becomes verbal.
"If you ever want someone to talk to, I'm always next door."
And she went back inside the moment after she uttered that sentence. Determined with no thought for Kristina to make Simcha know she was there for him if she needed it. It was the least predictable thing Kristina ever saw her do.
On the first silent urban walk she'd had since February, Kristina determined a different way to worm herself around Simcha. When she saw him outside reading, she took the most difficult book her father had given her for her year abroad outside.
Herr Professor Axel Freiherr was very happy when he heard that his daughter would be living with a family named Katz. He didn't know much more about America than any other ex-Communist, but he did know that the country had many, many Jews in America, and he hoped Kristina would learn about Jews in a manner he only knew from a few weighted philosophy tomes he read while living on an East German stipend in West German Frankfurt, studying Marxism with Adorno and Marcuse and Horkheimer. He may well have known plenty of Jews in the East, but never in his life had met anyone who'd freely say they had Jewish parents but the avowedly atheist Marxists doing Social Reasearch at the Goethe Universitat Frankfurt.
When she came to America, he gave her a book he'd loved when he was a student and kept hidden beneath the floor of his bed along with fifty others for twenty-three years after his return to the East. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Scholem. Well-read as Kristina prematurely was, he knew she wouldn't understand the first thing about it, but as he said to her, 'it is very important at your age to begin reading, especially if it is too difficult for you to understand. Just absorb the text with your eyes, the meaning will come to you when you're older and read it again.'
Kristina did not take this economium seriously, yet there she was, at the top of the back steps of the Katz's townhouse, where she could see Simcha in the Freylik's back yard and Simcha could see her, letting her eyes glaze over the text of Die jüdische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen. Her eyes looking at the text, but truly reading Simcha, allowing the intimacy she denied herself this year to flow through her in distant and silent Verklarung between two cultures of scholars that go so far into the past together that it's impossible to know which first influenced the other.