Shabbat Goy: On notice?

We moved to Tel Aviv a year ago, around the time the nice rabbis were writing letters suggesting that leasing an apartment to goyim was a mortal sin.

neighbor 521 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
neighbor 521
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
I’ve never been a good neighbor. This failing, I suspect, comes from spending my formative years in boarding school – you know, competition for scarce resources, the ceaseless struggle for survival; the Hobbesian imperative that life is nasty, brutal and short so one might as well do the most one can to make one’s life as comfortable as possible.
In short, I’m pretty good at taking care of myself and to hell with everyone else.
We moved to Tel Aviv a year ago, round about the time that those nice rabbis were writing silly attention seeking letters suggesting that letting an apartment to goyim was a mortal sin, and so on and so forth. I can say that the letters were silly now; but at the time, I must admit, I was more than a little perturbed. Thus, when we went flat hunting – an activity fraught with angst at the best of times – I tried my level best to pretend that I was, you know, housebroken. No scratching, belching, profanities, stuff that might make me out to be anything less than the perfect neighbor.
We managed to get the apartment we wanted with pretty much no difficulty whatsoever. (This probably had a lot to do with us taking the Small Noisy One with us for the viewing. He can be remarkably charming when he puts his mind to it.) We settled in without incident. More importantly, no pashkevillim (defamatory posters) appeared on the walls in the weeks and months after our move. And naturally, I dropped my pretense at being part of the human race and reverted to a state of nature.
Actually, this isn’t, strictly speaking, the truth.
On the first day in our new home, I bumped into one of my new neighbors, a gruff-looking fellow, in the lift.
I greeted him cheerfully (“best behavior,” I whispered to myself. “Best behavior”), but he scarcely grunted in reply and stomped off without another word. Rather inauspicious beginnings, you’d agree.
Over the following weeks and months I ran into him quite a few more times. Like me, he seemed to work from home. Perhaps that contributed to his surly demeanor, I speculated. Either way, we treated each other to more of the same. I hailed him heartily, he grunted monosyllabically and went on his way. It was all very disconcerting. Worse yet, I couldn’t even test my perceptions against Mrs. Goy’s, since she never seemed to bump into him. So I couldn’t tell whether my fellow was of a naturally anti-social dispensation, or if perhaps...
Hang on a minute. So he doesn’t like me because...
I’m black? goyish? I wear glasses? I’m balding? (That enrages me too.) So what? I’m here, and there’s nothing much he can do about it. Why not take advantage of the circumstances? So now whenever I see him, I make a great show of greeting him with gusto. I inquire after his family. I even ask him about work. Let’s face it, he can only remain surly for so long without either giving way in the face of my relentless – and totally inauthentic – cheeriness or spontaneously combusting. But I haven’t broken him yet. Never mind, there’s nothing like occupying the moral high ground...
Of course, not all my neighborly relations are so straightforward...
The family on the floor below us moved in not long after we did. A wholesome, friendly bunch. When they had workmen around for renovations, they came up to apologize for the inconvenience. The older children have impeccable manners. One morning I bumped into the man of the house in the stairwell and he suggested that perhaps we could meet occasionally to improve his English and my Hebrew. They are perfect neighbors, in short.
Now, a confession. I smoke. Not heavily, but there you go. My only vice, I believe. Still, only vice or not, I’m not allowed to indulge indoors, because I apparently have to think about the well-being of the Small Noisy One. So a couple of times a day, I sneak out onto our little balcony for a quick puff or two.
One evening, I met with the neighbor for our regular language exchange session. In passing, he mentioned that they often shut their bedroom window at night because of the smell from the tree growing outside. I commiserate, complain about the incompetence of the municipality in sorting out things like this and so on.
I went back home, slipped out onto the balcony and lit up my last cigarette for the day. And as I took my first puff, the window beneath me shut decisively. The bedroom window of my neighbors on the floor below us.
And suddenly, I realized that the tree he had complained about grows right outside our bedroom window too. And I’d never noticed any smell from it.
Was our conversation about the smell a hint? I looked over the balcony. Smoke drifts upwards, of course. But even with a light evening breeze, it was being forced sideways. Conceivably, just conceivably, it could waft into their bedroom window.
I went back indoors and climbed into bed next to the sleeping Mrs. Goy. Typical, she never makes herself available when I need her. I started to replay previous conversations with the neighbor in my head. “Your son wakes up early.” Does that mean he noticed that we play soccer in the living room at 5:30 in the morning? “You went away last weekend?” could easily translate as “no loud music last weekend? Heaven!” There I was, thinking that I’d pulled the wool over my neighbors for the last year, had actually inhabited the moral high ground for once in my life, and then... busted.
Mrs. Goy turned in her sleep, but I was still wide awake. All my neighborly misdeeds of the last year flashed before my eyes in the still of the night. Perhaps there might yet be pashkevillim put out against me.
Only it’ll be all my fault...