Issue 18, Spring 1958
“You’re a real one for opening your mouth in the first place,” Itzie said. “What do you open your mouth all the time for?”
“I didn’t bring it up, Itz, I didn’t,” Ozzie said.
“What do you care about Jesus Christ for anyway?”
“I didn’t bring up Jesus Christ. He did. I didn’t even know what he was talking about. Jesus is historical, he kept saying. Jesus is historical.” Ozzie mimicked the monumental voice of Rabbi Binder.
“Jesus was a person that lived like you and me,” Ozzie continued. “That’s what Binder said—”
“Yea? ... So what! What do I give two cents whether he lived or not. And what do you gotta open your mouth!” Itzie Lieberman favored closed-mouthedness, especially when it came to Ozzie Freedman’s questions. Mrs. Freedman had to see Rabbi Binder twice before about Ozzie’s questions and this Wednesday at four-thirty would be the third time. Itzie preferred to keep his mother in the kitchen; he settled for behind-the-back subtleties such as gestures, faces, snarls and other less delicate barnyard noises.
“He was a real person, Jesus, but he wasn’t like God, and we don’t believe he is God.” Slowly, Ozzie was explaining Rabbi Binder’s position to Itzie, who had been absent from Hebrew School the previous afternoon.
“The Catholics,” Itzie said helpfully, “they believe in Jesus Christ, that he’s God.” Itzie Lieberman used “the Catholics” in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants.
Ozzie received Itzie’s remark with a tiny head bob, as though it were a footnote, and went on. “His mother was Mary, and his father probably was Joseph,” Ozzie said. “But the New Testament says his real father was God.”
“His real father?”
“Yea,” Ozzie said, “that’s the big thing, his father’s supposed to be God.”
“That’s what Rabbi Binder says, that it’s impossible—”
“Sure it’s impossible. That stuff’s all bull. To have a baby you gotta get laid,” Itzie theologized. “Mary hadda get laid.”
“That’s what Binder says: ‘The only way a woman can have a baby is to have intercourse with a man.’ ”
“He said that, Ozz?” For a moment it appeared that Itzie had put the theological question aside. “He said that, intercourse?” A little curled smile shaped itself in the lower half of Itzie’s face like a pink mustache. “What you guys do, Ozz, you laugh or something?”
“I raised my hand.”
“Yea? Whatja say?”
“That’s when I asked the question.”
Itzie’s face lit up like a firefly’s behind. “Whatja ask about— intercourse?”
“No, I asked the question about God, how if He could create the heaven and earth in six days, and make all the animals and the fish and the light in six days—the light especially, that’s what always gets me, that He could make the light. Making fish and animals, that’s pretty good—”
“That’s damn good.” Itzie’s appreciation was honest but unimaginative: it was as though God had just pitched a one-hitter.
“But making light ... I mean when you think about it, it’s really something,” Ozzie said. “Anyway, I asked Binder if He could make all that in six days, and He could pick the six days He wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn’t He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse.”
“You said intercourse, Ozz, to Binder?”
“Right in class?”
Itzie smacked the side of his head.
“I mean, no kidding around,” Ozzie said, “that’d really be nothing. After all that other stuff, that’d practically be nothing.”
Itzie considered a moment. “What’d Binder say?”
“He started all over again explaining how Jesus was historical and how he lived like you and me but he wasn’t God. So I said I understood that. What I wanted to know was different.”
What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he insisted vehemently, was different. That was the first time his mother had to come.
Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been killed in a plane crash at La Guardia, and in studying a casualty list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of the eight she said the plane crash was “a tragedy.” During free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to Rabbi Binder’s attention this matter of “some of his relations” always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he wished all fifty-eight were Jews. That was the second time his mother came.
“And he kept explaining about Jesus being historical, and so I kept asking him. No kidding, Itz, he was trying to make me look stupid.”
“So what he finally do?”
“Finally he starts screaming that I was deliberately simple-minded and a wise-guy, and that my mother had to come, and this was the last time. And that I’d never get bar-mitzvahed if he could help it. Then, Itz, then he starts talking in that voice like a statue, real slow and deep, and he says that I better think over what I said about the Lord. He told me to go to his office and think it over.” Ozzie leaned his body towards Itzie. “Itz, I thought it over for a solid hour, and now I’m convinced God could do it.”
Ozzie bad planned to confess his latest transgression to his mother as soon as she came home from work. But it was a Friday night in November and already dark, and when Mrs. Freedman came through the door, she tossed off her coat, kissed Ozzie quickly on the face, and went to the kitchen table to light the three yellow candles, two for the Sabbath and one for Ozzie’s father.
When his mother lit candles she would move her arms slowly towards her, dragging them through the air, as though persuading people whose minds were half made up. And her eyes would get glassy with tears. Even when his father was alive Ozzie remembered that her eyes had gotten glassy, so it didn’t have anything to do with his dying. It had something to do with lighting the candles.
As she touched the flaming match to the unlit wick of a Sabbath candle, the phone rang, and Ozzie, standing only a foot from it, plucked it off the receiver and held it muffled to his chest, when his mother lit candles Ozzie felt there should be no noise; even breathing, if you could manage it, should be softened. Ozzie pressed the phone to his breast and watched his mother dragging whatever she was dragging, and he felt his own eyes get glassy. His mother was a round, tired, grayhaired penguin of a woman whose gray skin had begun to feel the tug of gravity and the weight of her own history. Even when she was dressed up she didn’t look like a chosen person. But when she lit candles she looked like something better; like a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything.
After a few mysterious minutes she was finished. Ozzie hung up the phone and walked to the kitchen table where she was beginning to lay the two places for the four-course Sabbath meal. He told her that she would have to see Rabbi Binder next Wednesday at four-thirty, and then he told her why. For the first time in their life together she hit Ozzie across the face with her hand.
All through the chopped liver and chicken soup part of the dinner Ozzie cried; he didn’t have any appetite for the rest.
On Wednesday in the largest of the three basement classrooms of the synagogue, Rabbi Marvin Binder, a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered man of thirty with thick strong-fibered black hair, removed his watch from his pocket and saw that it was four o’clock. At the rear of the room Yakov Blotnik, the seventy-one year old custodian, slowly polished the large window, mumbling to himself, unaware that it was four o’clock or six o’clock, Monday or Wednesday. To most of the students Yakov Blotnik’s mumbling, along with his brown curly beard, scythe-nose, and two heel-trailing black cats, made of him an object of wonder, a foreigner, a relic towards whom they were alternately fearful and disrespectful. To Ozzie the mumbling had always seemed a monotonous, curious prayer; what made it curious was that old Blotnik had been mumbling so steadily for so many years Ozzie suspected he had memorized the prayers and forgotten all about God.
“It is now free-discussion time,” Rabbi Binder said. “Feel free to talk about any Jewish matter at all—religion, family, politics, sports—”
There was silence. It was a gusty, clouded November afternoon and it did not seem as though there ever was or could be a thing called baseball. So nobody this week said a word about that hero from the past, Hank Greenberg—which limited free-discussion considerably.
And the soul-battering Ozzie Freedman had just received from Rabbi Binder had imposed its limitation. When it was Ozzie’s turn to read aloud from the Hebrew book the rabbi had asked him petulantly why he didn’t read more rapidly. He was showing no progress. Ozzie said he could read faster but that if he did he was sure not to understand what he was reading. Nevertheless, at the rabbi’s repeated suggestion Ozzie tried, and showed a great talent, but in the midst of a long passage he stopped short and said he didn’t understand a word he was reading, and started in again at a drag-footed pace. Then came the soul-battering.
Consequently when free-discussion time rolled around none of the students felt too free. The rabbi’s invitation was answered only by the mumbling of feeble old Blotnik.
“Isn’t there anything at all you would like to discuss?” Rabbi Binder asked again, looking at his watch. “No questions or comments?”
There was a small grumble from the third row. The rabbi requested that Ozzie rise and give the rest of the class the advantage of his thought.
Ozzie rose. “I forget it now,” he said and sat down in his place.
Rabbi Binder advanced a seat towards Ozzie and poised himself on the edge of the desk. It was Itzie’s desk and the rabbi’s frame only a dagger’s-length away from his face snapped him to sitting attention.
“Stand up again, Oscar,” Rabbi Binder said calmly, “and try to assemble your thoughts.”
Ozzie stood up. All his classmates turned in their seats and watched as he gave an unconvincing scratch to his forehead. “I can’t assemble any,” he announced, and plunked himself down.
“Stand up!” Rabbi Binder advanced from Itzie’s desk to the one directly in front of Ozzie; when the rabbinical back was turned Itzie gave it five-fingers off the tip of his nose, causing a small titter in the room. Rabbi Binder was too absorbed in squelching Ozzie’s nonsense once and for all to bother with titters. “Stand up, Oscar. What’s your question about?”
Ozzie pulled a word out of the air. It was the handiest word. “Religion.”
“Oh, now you remember?”
“What is it?”
Trapped, Ozzie blurted the first thing that came to him. “Why can’t He make anything He wants to make!”
As Rabbi Binder prepared an answer, a final answer, Itzie, ten feet behind him, raised one finger on his left hand, gestured it meaningfully towards the rabbi’s back, and brought the house down.
Binder twisted quickly to see what had happened and in the midst of the commotion Ozzie shouted into the rabbi’s back what he couldn’t have shouted to his face. It was a loud, toneless sound that had the timbre of something stored inside for about six days.
“You don’t know! You don’t know anything about God!”
The rabbi spun back towards Ozzie. “What?”
“You don’t know—you don’t—”
“Apologize, Oscar, apologize!” It was a threat.
Like a snake’s tongue. Rabbi Binder’s hand flicked out at Ozzie’s cheek. Perhaps it had only been meant to clamp the boy’s mouth shut, but Ozzie ducked and the palm caught him squarely on the nose.
The blood came in a short, red spurt on to Ozzie’s shirt front.
The next moment was all confusion. Ozzie screamed, “You bastard, you bastard!” and broke for the classroom door. Rabbi Binder lurched a step backwards, as though his own blood had started flowing, violently in the opposite direction, then gave a clumsy lurch forward and bolted out the door after Ozzie. The class followed after the rabbi’s huge blue-suited back, and before old Blotnik could turn from his window, the room was empty and everyone was headed full speed up the three flights leading to the roof.
If one should compare the light of day to the life of man: sunrise to birth; sunset—the dropping down over the edge— to death; then as Ozzie Freedman wiggled through the trapdoor of the synagogue roof—his feet kicking backwards bronco-style at Rabbi Binder’s outstretched arms—at that moment the day was fifty years old. As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away. In fact, as Ozzie locked shut the trapdoor in the rabbi’s face, the sharp click of the bolt into the lock might momentarily have been mistaken for the sound of the vast gray light that had just throbbed through the sky.
With all his weight Ozzie kneeled on the locked door; any instant he was certain that Rabbi Binder’s shoulder would fling it open, splintering the wood into shrapnel and catapulting his body into the sky. But the door did not move and below him he heard only the rumble of feet, first loud then dim, like thunder rolling away.