Short story: The kabbalist's message

Short story The kabbali

Halfway down 47th Street in Boro Park, people were waiting in line. I hurried past them, anxious to get to my grandparents' apartment. Someone on the street had leaked the news of my grandfather's latest guest, resulting in this mob scene. Everyone in Brooklyn knew my Zaidy, and his hospitality was legendary. As a teenager in Auschwitz, he had been saved from death by the kindness of strangers and he was determined to repay that debt. Now, a gray-bearded hassid with big hands and a booming laugh, my grandfather made sure to welcome everyone he encountered into his home. Everyone. My grandmother, a survivor too, let him. He met the kabbalist on an airplane and, of course, invited him home. On his last plane trip my grandfather sat next to Stevie Wonder and they struck up a conversation. Stevie serenaded him and my grandfather told some long Yiddish jokes. Then he invited Stevie to spend a Shabbos in Boro Park. "How can he make a living just singing songs?" my grandfather wondered, shaking his head. "That's not a job for a grown man! And, on top of everything else, he can't see a thing!" Stevie shook Zaidy's hand and said he'd consider the invite but, unfortunately, he never showed. It was his loss, really. Being a guest in my grandparents' house was special. It meant smoked meats and Belgian cookies and garlicky eggplant salad. Over the years, there were unwashed beggars and millionaires, eccentrics and broken men at my grandfather's table. I watched and wondered about them all. But a real live kabbalist! Now this was big. Even at 14 I recognized that this was on a whole other level. He was staying for a week in my grandparents' two-bedroom apartment, together with his ever-present assistant, his shammes, to raise money for a struggling yeshiva in Israel. His reputation for saintliness and mysticism had followed him all the way across the ocean. Hundreds, even thousands, of people had benefited from his guidance. I viewed this as an opportunity. As the middle of three children, I was not the charming one or the cute one. I was the smart one. In fact, I was too smart for my own good. It made me funny and sarcastic but also painfully perceptive. Not a great combination for a teenager with braces and glasses and hard-to-manage hair. I knew things I would be better off not knowing. I knew who liked me and who didn't, and I always felt that there were more that didn't. Not that I blamed them. I wasn't lonely, really. I had plenty of friends in my 10th grade class. We walked in a group every morning, in uniform shirts and pleated plaid skirts. We looked exactly the same, but we weren't the same. I wasn't the same. I often felt that our teenage melodramas were shallow and unimportant. I yearned for something bigger, something special and real. I didn't want to be a part of a group. I wanted to be part of a pair, like my parents were. I wanted to find someone who would really know me and still want to be with me. I doubted this was possible. Sometimes, even I didn't want to be with me. I was very clear about all my shortcomings and reviewed them obsessively, at night in my bed. The list went on and on and this worried me. But now, I would have the chance to meet a spiritual leader, a wise and soulful man. Maybe he could change something for me, explain something, fix me somehow. After much squeezing and elbowing, I reached the front door and adjusted myself. I had dressed carefully in a black turtleneck and long flowing skirt, to make myself look older. I wished I could have worn some makeup but I knew better than to push my luck. Instead, I took extra time with my crazy curly hair, forcing it into a headband, so my face would show. After all, the eyes are the window to the soul, and this man's business was souls. Now, I pushed my way through the throng of hassidim in black gabardine suits and white shirts, top buttons buttoned, lining the narrow staircase. They stood cramped and sweaty, serious men with worried wives and sometimes a small child, clutching at their hands. The men glared at me as I squeezed by, brazenly cutting the line. "I'm the granddaughter," I offered weakly, by way of explanation. But really, why should they care? Inside, the apartment was unnaturally hushed, a strange and scary quiet. My father and older brother had come earlier and were waiting in the kitchen. My brother looked at my black outfit, appraisingly. "Who died?" he asked smirking. I pointedly ignored him and bent to kiss my father's cheek. He was strumming blunt fingers against the tabletop and biting his lip, so I knew he wasn't in the mood to talk. At the counter, my grandmother was quickly and efficiently cutting fruit. At least she was acting normal. "Sit down, Mamaleh," she said when she saw me, "Eat a little something." The kabbalist held court at the long dining-room table, covered with delicacies my grandmother had prepared, rogelach and dried fruit, chocolate-covered nuts, bottles of seltzer and plastic cups. Occasionally, I was called upon to replenish a tray or bowl. The heavy wooden door was closed for privacy and the thick wool carpet muffled all noise. I wasn't exactly trying to eavesdrop, so it wasn't my fault that I could hear his low murmurings and sometimes tearful voices, beseeching. He was a tall, gaunt man with a full brown beard and dark eyes that were constantly cast downward, as though to avoid the impurities of this world. He ate little and slept less. Supplicants staggered out of the dining room, white-faced and sweating, clutching the oranges he had blessed. "He said the mezuza on my garage is not kosher," one shaken man whispered. "He said I will have many children," my newlywed aunt purred. I looked to my mother, who did not always believe in these things, but she was silent. As usual, she would neither confirm nor deny, leaving me to reach my own conclusions. A middle-aged woman with a worn face sat on a chair in the corner, sobbing quietly with relief. She would not say who she was but she fervently blessed the kabbalist's name again and again in Yiddish. The great man spoke only Hebrew and French. For translation, people turned to his shammes, a small wiry individual with only one mission in life: to take care of the needs of this saint. The shammes prepared and served his food. When leaving the room, he would kiss the rabbi's fingers and bow, backing out slowly. I sat, entitled, at the kitchen table, chewing on honeyed almonds and apricots. The almonds were a little stale. Sometimes, my grandfather would motion to me with a brisk wave of his hand, to bring tissues, to show someone the way to the bathroom. I did this all quickly, and returned to the table to think. A strange idea was forming in my mind. "Maybe the loneliness I feel is proof that I'm special." It was a scary notion, and a thrilling one. I sat straight up in the chair, my eyes wide. "Maybe being different means I'm better, not worse." The more I thought about it the more it made sense. Secretly, I began to feel that there was a deep kinship between myself and the kabbalist. After all, I too felt things deeply. I was sensitive, and cried for hours while reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I was also very intuitive. That very morning I had intuited that my sister was wearing my sweater without asking, even though her jacket was buttoned up to her neck. I had varied and interesting tastes in food. I enjoyed watermelon with feta cheese and sour black olives. I didn't know if he did too, but it seemed likely. As for the language barrier, it didn't bother me at all. My Hebrew was pretty good and I'd always planned on learning French. Perhaps over the summer. While I sat musing, my uncle entered the dining room solemnly, holding a kvittel, a small piece of paper inscribed with the name of a sickly relative. Moments later he emerged, ashen. The kabbalist had refused to touch the paper. Who knew what this meant for the relative? That he would not recover, perhaps he would die? For a moment a chill went up my spine and I turned my eyes away from my uncle's stricken face. The people kept coming and coming. Twisting their hands and talking of finances, of health, of marriage and children. All very important things, but still. I wondered at these people, so willing to give their deepest secrets over to a complete stranger. I was alarmed and slightly repulsed by their lack of dignity, their sloppy tears. I would never let myself be so needy. I resolved that when my time came, I would not talk first, but would wait for him to open. It was getting late and the line still snaked through the hallway. I wished all these people would hurry up and go home. I was edgy and had already finished the almonds. After a time, the shammes came out to say that the kabbalist was growing tired and would soon go to his room, to think and to pray. My father and mother went into the dining room for a private audience, and after a few minutes called for my brother. My heart beat faster. I knew that my moment was coming soon. I waited in the darkening room, wondering what insight he would offer to change my life, to make me better. "We are very much the same, Yael," I imagined him saying. In French, of course. I would nod, gravely, urging him with my eyes to go on. I dreamed of the moment when he would look deeply into my soul and foretell a future of brilliance, and righteousness and everlasting glory. Then the heavy door opened and my parents came out, murmuring to each other. My brother's eyes were dark and unfocused. The kabbalist had touched him on the forehead and whispered in his ear. I stood up eagerly, ready to enter the room and hear my destiny. But it was not to be. It was too late, it was done. I watched, confused, as the shammes ushered the exhausted sage to his bedroom and closed the door. Wait, I wanted to call, What about me? As I stared at the receding figures my throat burned with my unanswered questions and my disgrace. Someone shut off the chandelier in the dining room and began to sweep the floor. The apartment quickly emptied of the needy people, their twisting hands and breaking voices. And as they streamed down the steps and out the door, my foolish expectations went with them. Twilight fell and the house was quiet again and empty. I sat at the table with the other discarded things, almond husks and used cups and crumpled napkins. I thought of my aunt and my brother and the woman in the chair. Bitterly, I mocked myself and lamented my unworthiness. Why had I been passed over? Why had I not merited the look or the prayer or the touch on my forehead? Why must I always be alone? In the silent kitchen I ached with loneliness and sorrow. My cheeks grew flushed and red, they burned with the shame of the overlooked and the unwanted. Soon, I became filled with a heavy emptiness. Then, in the absence of words I heard the kabbalist's message clearly and it rang with the sound of the truth. Foolish girl, he said silently, did you not know? That a glorious life must be earned and not foretold, that we are always alone with ourselves and that no one is ever really entitled. Not even the granddaughter.