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.”