Almost wasn’t. My mother, Leah, tried to kill me before I was born. That’s right. I was cooking contentedly in her womb when she took a drug or a combination of drugs or herbs or other concoctions, unripe pineapple, blue cohosh, tansy, maybe a boiling squaw-mint bath, I don’t know. Suddenly I was on a roller coaster, bucking and swaying and trying to hold on, although what was there to hold onto in that tsunami of amniotic fluid? And with what could I hold on? Itsy-bitsy webbed fingers?
The roller coaster: uterine contractions induced by whatever she took.
I live with the memory every day of my life. When I see my mother—more often than I like—I behold the woman who tried to kill me: failed murderer engraved on her pear-shaped face with its chipmunk cheeks, a glimpse of I failed then, and the way my son’s life has turned out, I failed raising him.
Did Leah try to kill me because she thought she couldn’t raise me properly? I doubt that. All the wives of the leaders, the gansa machers, of my father’s Yeshiva, the largest in the New World, would support her. She had the Rosh Yeshiva’s fame and fortune, so much cash IRS doesn’t know about. Perhaps I am a mamzer, the product of extra-curricular hanky-panky. R. Nathan Nehemiah Zilberglot Levy zt”l, who always seemed so paternal before he passed, could he be the one?
You say, Izzy, it’s impossible to remember before you were born, when you were in the womb. Izzy, you’re talking nonsense.
I say, if my pipsqueak brain was working, why wouldn’t it remember the scary ride on the roller coaster? Scientists claim that fetuses listen to classical music and emerge from the womb with new pathways opened in the brain, so I shouldn’t be able to remember? Besides, before I was in the womb, I was floating on a cloud, talking to other disembodied spirits, when someone, was it G-d? came along and said I would be returning to life, and I said no, I like it here. Didn’t matter. Didn’t matter. Poof! I was off my cloud and into the womb, where not such good things happened. The cloud was pillow-white; the sky was Honda-blue; the voices came from all around. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember a sun. Sunlight, no sun.
You say, Izzy, prove it. Did Leah admit she tried to kill you? Did your father, the esteemed Grand Rebbe Meir Avigdor Nachman, tell you? Some relative? One of your many cousins? Or did those who gave your mother the magic herbs confess? Or did you discover Leah’s secret diary? Handwritten pages of illicit rendezvous? Recipes for certain womb death?
I reply, I have a paralyzed eyeball. Hasn’t moved since birth. Sometimes scared women away, not you though. Once I was about to hit the apex of mattress gymnastics when this shiksa skittered from beneath me, saying it’s creepy looking you in the face. My beard, I can’t help my beard, I said. No, not your beard, your lame eye.
The paralyzed eyeball didn’t help me with my studies at the Beth Medrash Shedletzer, but I overcame that, and it didn’t help when I was a Blue Hen at the University of Delaware, breaking away from the Grand Rebbe, may his name be blessed (hah!). (How can you not attend the Yeshiva, which I founded, and which I have grown to nine thousand students? All in my lifetime? And you! What are you making of your life?)
I also have scoliosis. Not acute. I consciously keep my back as straight as possible. When standing, I push against a wall with my shoulder blades. I once caught Leah whispering to
her sister Beatrice when she saw me bent over, the slight hump in my back must have been more obvious, made her resurrect a memory.
So: put the scoliosis together with the paralyzed eyeball, and there is only one conclusion. I visited an eye surgeon, after reading on-line (don’t tell the Grand Rebbe) about new surgery to restore eye movement (the pompous call it motility). He was one of those who measures his life in fifteen-minute billable segments, four patients per hour, and shows stress at minute sixteen, knees bouncing with tension. He said no. Surgery was not possible. You were born with this.
I said, well, I don’t know anyone else born with a bum eye.
He said, “What you have is Duane’s Syndrome. It is usually the result of a failed abortion or other trauma while in the womb.” Message imparted, he rose abruptly. No time to answer more questions.
That’s how I decided Leah tried to kill me. Abortion was legal then, as it is now. But I can’t imagine that Leah would have chosen the legal route. Such a shame, such disrepute it would have brought to husband and wife. Jewish law, the halakha, has not such good things to say about abortion, and for a rabbi’s wife, the Grand Rebbe’s no less, what a shame, a shanda. To kill a fetus is to desecrate the gift of the Holy One.
Did the Grand Rebbe know about the abortion attempt? I don’t know. No children followed me. Whether the unripe pineapple or the tansy or the blue cohosh caused a breakdown in Leah’s baby-making machinery, I will never know.
Meir and Leah have always slept in the same bedroom in their three-story Art Deco extravaganza on Rockefeller Boulevard a block from the Yeshiva, a synagogue in a wing of the house so they pay no property taxes, the wing with stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Genesis. Even now Meir and Leah sleep together as they age and shrink, ungainly bodies diminishing and curving and bending, upper lips disappearing, eye pouches swelling, walking upright and balanced in a straight line from dining room table to living room couch becoming impossible. The hair on my father’s naked back hangs like Spanish moss. My mother’s neck is like the rutted dirt road leading to the old chicken farm my parents still own, and rent to some illegal immigrants. Rooster wattles on the necks of both.
I was born. I had eight days to wait for serious pain. I slept in swaddling clothes. On the eighth day, surprise, the penis chopping.
And such a chopping it was. I have the video. (The Grand Rebbe has never ruled on whether he would permit the taking of a video of a bris. He’s ruled on the internet, the Sodom and Gomorrah of our times. It’s forbidden to have a computer in your home with internet access. Nor a smartphone nor any gadget that could connect. You can have internet in your office if you use it for business purposes only, and have an approved filter to keep out all the Sodom and Gomorrah noise. You can buy the filter from a little business the Yeshiva has invested in. The same business that sells kosher smartphones, purged of internet connections.)
Negev Blicksilver took the video. He was a newcomer to the Shedletzers, the wayward offspring of a Bobover from Brooklyn, a follower of R. Halberstam, may he rest in peace. He came to study Torah at the Yeshiva, bringing his Irene and infant Robert. All of whom would vanish when Robert and I were in seventh grade. Our favorite pastime: waiting for the end of the Yeshiva school year, when the bruchas would drink and dance to celebrate the completion of the reading of the Torah, and we would chase the circling fools and tie their tzitzits together and they would trip and fall in a drunken frenzy.
The video was filled with color and sound. Color: so many beards, so many shades, the frazzled white of R. Hirsch, the obstinate black of R. Rosenberg, the bouffant gray of R. Mogilever, the poinsettia red of R. Frenkel, the ragged white and gray of R. Kolevzon, the intimidating black, white, and red of R. Kramer, the dignified auburn of R. Faktor, so many chins concealed from view. Doesn’t a man’s chin tell you who he really is? Firm chins and weak; thoughtful chins and dumb? You tell me, would you vote for a president whose chin you could not read? (Well, tell the truth, in our town, you vote for whom the Grand Rebbe ordains.)
So many sounds: the hundreds of bearded men shuckeling, swaying back and forth, side to side, reciting the prayers of the bris, my father, Meir, the champion shuckeler, as he is the champion chicken shluger, about this I will tell you later. Hundreds of swaying bearded chinless black men in their long black overcoats and furry black hats, some call them kosher sombreros, and worn black shoes (the camera ineptly caught more pictures of shoes than needed). The synagogue must not have been heated that December day. Was Meir too cheap to turn the heat on for my bris? Probably, hell, he never gave me more than a dreidl for Chanukah.
Such sounds: me screaming when the mohel moved in with the meat cleaver and took away the most sensitive part of my pecker. I watch myself crying with pain, and the mohel administering a bit of wine; this was supposed to calm me down? He took away what would have been most useful and deprived me. And he used his mouth. Oral sex at eight days old.
Did I have a choice? I watch the video once a year or so with the esteemed Rabbi Nahum Terplivy. He and I do business together. He is a sofer, a scribe for Torahs. He makes them look old and sorrowful. We sell them as Holocaust survivors found in a basement in the old country. We watch the video in my living room. G-d knows he shouldn’t have a television in his house.
I watch and I say, “No anesthetic. This is really a cruel practice.”
Nahum says, “The G-d of the Israelites is cruel. Welcome to Jewness, sonny boy.”
I say, “I was lucky. Somewhere along the way, the mohel picked up hepatitis, and gave it to his next five or ten screamers.”
Nahum says, “Think of Abraham, he, what it is, he had to perform the bris on himself. Think of that, sonny boy, slicing your manhood so you could have a covenant with G-d. You had it easy. You had someone do it for you.”
We have the same conversation each year, although one year I puzzled him with, “Ezekiel 23:20: ‘There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.’ I have been pondering those words. I have been wondering why such words appear in our holy Bible. I have been seeking an explanation.”
Nahum had no explanation. His chin wobbled beneath the blue-gray beard that reaches to the fourth button of his off-white shirt, my gift to him from Today’s Man’s closing sale, 75% off.
We watch the post-bris celebration at the Oak Knoll Country Club, kosher as the day is long, so kosher that the valets must check the cars for traife, for shatnez, so kosher that the parking lot is one-hundred-per-cent asphalt, certified by R. Mordechai Finkelshtein, not the loose concoction of seashells included in the composition of the roads of our town. Long before Oak Knoll became a home for Yidden, it was a resort for the robber barons, the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers and Goulds, the oligarchs of their times. They didn’t think about whether the roads they built would be kosher. They used oyster shells, clam shells, for the grand avenues and boulevards fronting their estates.
Traife in the cars? Yes, unthinkingly, crumbs from a dairy meal, milichig, perhaps an ice cream cone from Gilda’s, the kosher truck, might mix with remnants of a meat meal; fleishig, perhaps a homemade hamburger devoured on a drive to Brooklyn, weeks apart, but the crumbs are still there. Shatnez in the cars? The mixing of lamb’s wool and linen? You never know. Perhaps the seat belt. Perhaps the upholstery. Perhaps clothing carelessly tossed together.
We watch the men dancing with men. The camera focuses only on the men, one in a white tux with jerky movements like a puppet on a string. We know the women are dancing on the other side of an eight-foot-high partition running the width of the ballroom, an overindulgence in swaying chandeliers and dim wall sconces, so much crystal, I think of Kristallnacht, and wait for the glass to shatter. I wait for a lot more to shatter. Someone to burst through the partition seeking his spouse or hers. Someone to say, let’s stop this foolishness. A day of great celebration, and the genders must be each to itself. What nonsense! I am forgotten in a bassinet near the entrance. I am still crying. No one in this crowd of dancing men attends to me. My father, the Grand Rebbe, has held me, and now dances in circles with dozens of other men, all black-hatted, all black-uniformed. He only remembers me when it is time to say ritual prayers that the Shedletzers have concocted for the post-bris. There he goes. Watch. He drops me, but fortunately, I land on some ornamental pillows beneath the basinet.
You think I am making all this up? Honey, later I will show you the video. It’s a hoot. Robert Blicksilver? He’s Bobbie Blake now. A lawyer up in East Brunswick. He represents goyim. Yeah, I know, someone has to do it. They can’t represent themselves.
Bobbie Blake is a hater of black-hatters, no chum to the frum, beats no brass drum. He sued my father, the esteemed Grand Rabbi, on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bobbie Blake said that shluging the chicken was animal cruelty. Yom Kippur is a big day for the Grand Rebbe. He grabs the live chicken by the neck and the feet and swings it above his head and walks among the tables filled with the Yeshiva men, and chants the prayers so that the chicken will absorb all evil. Imagine that. The chicken is scared shitless. The chicken’s about to die. And it is going to take to its death all the evil that a roomful of bearded black-hatters have performed and thought and contemplated during the year. Poor chicken. It doesn’t even become chicken soup. Or cutlets.
* * *
Charles said, “Zeh chalifosi, zeh t’murosi. This rooster will go to its death. And I will go to a long life of peace.” Charles was one of those usually placid people who become overbearingly self-important when shown a drawing or essay or poem by its creator. He was a petroleum geologist, a prober of the continental shelf, and led a Technicolor life, Atlantic sunrises, Caribbean sunsets, the thousand colors of the ocean, its flora and fauna. Aboard the Exxon Trafalgar, he supervised a team drilling sediment cores. He had, not far offshore from Point Pleasant, discovered a projectile point carbon-tested 40,000 years old. The discovery upset conventional theories about when and how the Americas were settled, and led to a slew of newspaper articles and TV appearances. Truth to tell, he could be pretty patronizing on those TV shows. I loved him, nonetheless, more or less, and had written the story for him.
My life was black and white. The prison cell of Shedletzer rules and regulations. The narrow prism of viewing the world. The barely submerged priapism of the all-male Yeshiva, 9,000 students and teachers. Not a woman in sight. No women permitted in our libraries. No women permitted to walk on the Yeshiva side of Rockefeller Boulevard. The primordial soup of our existence: The letters of the Torah form the sacred names of G-d: black fire upon white fire. The Torah existed before the world. The world was created for the purposes of Torah.
“Enough,” Charles said. “I get the message. An abortion is child cruelty. A bris is child cruelty. Shluging the chicken is child cruelty because it teaches little ones that animals can be tortured. It’s all nonsense, Izzy.”
“Of course. You Shedletzers see yourselves as a special people and pariahs all at the same time. Your misery is self-inflicted.”
“It’s not that simple, Charles.”
“Of course it is. Freedom is just a razor blade away.”
To my beard or my wrists?