Malachi and His Mother: The Aftermath of the Altshul Incident

“Mel Rothstein called me this morning. He had such tight anger in his voice. Like he was trying to stuff it back down. Showing me how in-control he was.”

Malachi was sitting across from his mother at the kitchen table. She had spilled some sugar as she was adding more of it to her coffee. She pushed the crystals around on the slick tablecloth with her finger as she spoke.

“What did he say to you?”

“He said, ‘How could you?’ He said I had fomented an insurrection. An armed insurrection. At the temple. The ‘temple’ he called it. He said I had ruined the reputation of the whole congregation that he had worked so hard to make and that tweets or posts or whatever they call them had been posted across the internet. Pictures of me. Rage on my face. Leading a mob of radical Jews against the police. Calling them Nazis. Threatening them.”

“I saw the pictures.”

“He said that he expected more from me, which I know is a lie because he has never expected anything from me or any other woman beyond dull, mute, subservience and a look of thankful awe.”

She presses her finger into the mound of sugar she had created and picks up what has stuck to the finger into her mouth. Her lips curl, her chin wrinkling. She begins to cry. Malachi reaches across the table to toward her.

“I feel so terrible,” she says “I’m glad your father wasn’t there. I don’t know what he would have done.”

“Ma, I feel so bad for you. I know you meant well. In the most genuine, human sense, you saw a danger and you wanted to save everyone. You weren’t crying wolf, or ‘fire’ in a theater. You thought those cops were terrorists intent on shooting everyone in the room. The whole congregation was sitting like obedient sheep waiting for the doors to open and the shooting to start.”

“That’s what Rothstein called me. A terrorist. Worse than a terrorist, he said. He said I should be ashamed of myself for risking everyone’s lives for my own neurotic mishegas. He said I needed to get help.”

“Rothstein, ran out himself. He ran out without looking back, without offering to help anyone. He burst through the side door. He knocked down the officer there. He ran out of the building the second he heard you scream ‘get out!’ It’s only now that he feels embarrassed. He shouldn’t feel embarrassed. He did the right thing. You did the right thing. They had guns. They were acting like real active shooters. They meant to scare the shit out of you. Out of everyone. And, I may be wrong, but I think they got some sort of charge out of scaring the shit out a bunch of cornered Jews.’’

“Rothstein. I never liked him. But that is totally separate, Malachi. For the first time in my life, I feared for my own mortality. Not in the philosophical sense. Not just in conversation over cocktails. Not in that casual, intellectual, sense of ‘let’s all talk about death’ in some abstract, manageable, way. But in the real gripping fear of death in that very moment. Certain that you’d be shot and killed. Ripped through with bullets, and that my body, me, my mind, my thoughts, my very self, would be lost. Gone. Lost to consciousness. Lost to all reality, to all eternity. It is a fear unlike any other human feeling. That instant awareness of imminent death.”

“I can only begin to imagine how you felt, ma. When I was twelve or thirteen, at night, in bed, if I would think of the vastness of the universe or infinity. The blankness. The unending black void. I could feel my body exploding with fear. The fear of nothingness.”

“I don’t remember that. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to. I’d get out of bed in the middle of the night like I needed to escape my thoughts as though they were a physical being. As if death and nothingness were physical beings. Even though the total lack of physicality of them are really what is the most incomprehensible and frightening of all. I needed to get out. Just like you did. I left my room and I went to your bedroom door. It was closed and I didn’t want to knock. I didn’t.”

“You should have, Malachi, that’s what parents are for.”

“It’s not that I didn’t want to wake you. It’s that I didn’t want to frighten you.”

“Frighten me?”

“I thought talking to you about death with you older, closer to death, that it would bring up those morbid fears for you. So, I just sat there until I went back to bed.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“That’s when I started saying a prayer at night.”

“What kind of prayer? I never taught you prayers.”

“The one with, ‘Our father who art in heaven.’ The one with ‘give us our daily bread’ and ‘the valley of death’. ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ I didn’t know if it was a real prayer. It just made me feel better to say those things. And I’d say bless my mother and father and list of all the people who I wanted to protect, and say them in exactly the right order or I’d have to start all over again to say it right, no matter how many times. And then there was one night, when I was going to bed and I’d always say ‘good night’ and ‘see you in the morgen’ like ‘guten morgen’, but instead I said see you in the morgue.’ And my god, I apologized a hundred times and then I cried and cried and all I could think of was that what I said would really happen and that you’d die because I said that.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, ma. And don’t be sorry for doing what you thought was right and good, no matter how it turned out. And forget about Rothstein. He’s not thinking of you, only himself.”

They look at one another. Eye to eye.

“My coffee is cold and I spilled sugar all over the table. Sit, I’ll make us fresh. And let’s talk about something else.”

“Critical Race Theory?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. You should hear what your aunt Frieda has to say about that. Like she might know what it means.”

Malachi and His Mother at the Altshul on Garfield Place

Malachi helps his mother step into the side entrance of the shul. The tall mahogany front doors on 8th Avenue were closed. Locked tight. And so, the two of them walked around the corner and up Garfield and then up the stairs through the side entrance, down the hallway to the sanctuary.

They took seats in one of the rear pews, passing the Rothsteins, the Arbeiters, and the Edelmans seated in the front pews. The ones they paid good money for.

The room was near full. A mixed, arrhythmic, hum of voices. Air conditioners whirring. The smell of aftershave and leather shoes.

“Why didn’t dad come with you?”

“Your father? He says he doesn’t do gatherings anymore.”

“COVID?”

“No. C-R-A-B-B-Y. He says he likes people well enough but he likes them much better when he doesn’t have to be around them.”

“That’s Bukowski.”

“What?”

“Charles Bukowski, the poet, said that.”

“Don’t tell your father. He thinks he made it up.”

“It looks like the rabbi wants to start.”

“Welcome all, I am Rabbi Plosker. Let us begin. We are all aware of the alarming increase in hate crimes and mass shootings. The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, the Chabad of Poway, the AME in Charleston. And while we work against violence of all kinds, visited upon people of all faiths, we must also protect ourselves with guards, and vigilance, and yes, with preparedness.”

“I have to get up.”

“Ma, wait. It’s starting.”

“I have to leave.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, you stay. I thought I could do this but I can’t. I have to go. I cannot be here for this.

She gets up and, clutching her purse, walks toward the side door. The way they’d come in. A police officer is now there. She turns and walks back up the center aisle toward the main entrance.

“Ma’am,” the officer there tells her, “I’m sorry, but you can’t leave.”

“I have to. You can’t stop me.”

“Ma’am,” the officer extends his arm, takes a step to obstruct her way. “Please, ma’am. We have a protocol we need to follow and I ask you to cooperate, for the benefit of all.” 

“Malachi!”

“I’m sorry ma’am you have to go back to your seat.” He touches her elbow and points her back down the aisle.

She sits down. She’s shaking. “Malachi, please say something. Look what is happening here.”

“Ma, it will be okay. Nothing’s happening. Trust me. Look, the rabbi wants to begin.”

“The rabbi? She wants to begin? She wants to begin with the Gestapo barring the doors?”

“What are you saying? The police do these trainings all over the city. In mosques, churches, synagogues. It’s for our own safety. We need to know what to do if, God forbid, something happens, and a someone with a gun comes in.”

“Let me tell you, Malachi, open your eyes. The someone’s are already here. There are two someone’s with guns here, and one is at the front door and the other is at the side door, and the Plosker herself, invited them in. She invited them in, yet. With guns, yet. Tell me, who comes into synagogue with a gun? I’ll tell you who. My dead grandmother knows the answer in her grave. The SS, that’s who.”

“Everyone is watching us, Ma.”

“Yes, they’re watching. With their goddamn eyes closed. They’re watching but not seeing. This is the most farshtunkene idea I have ever heard in my life and, you, my own son, brings me here.”

“Shhh!”

The officer at the back of the sanctuary is holding an air horn, a large orange klaxon. He’s wearing sunglasses, dark uniform, a peaked cap, epaulets, and a COVID mask. He nods. Touches his visor with two easy fingers.

“Sergeant Petersen here,” the rabbi says, “will lead us through a training in an active shooter drill. He will show us what to do, if it should ever happen, God forbid, in the very, very remote possibility of an active shooter coming into the sanctuary. If we are prepared, and we act quickly and with intention and preparation, we can save our lives and the lives of all of us.”

“That’s right,” says Petersen. “We are here to help keep you as safe as possible. I promise you, no one will be hurt. We ask you first to turn your phones off.” He waits. Everyone fumbles with their phones. “In a few moments, when you hear the sound of the horn…”

“Malachi, take me out of here. I can’t do this. I will have a heart attack. I can’t. I can’t… I will die in this room.”

“…and as soon as you hear it, I want you to immediately do whatever you would do if an active shooter came into the room.”

Sgt. Petersen steps back out of the sanctuary and closes the doors behind him. The officer at the side entrance does the same.

A long moment of silence passes.

The doors open. Both police officers, wearing COVID masks, both with the Klaxon horns pointed at the pews, step in.

Blam! Blam! Blam! The horns crack open the air. Again, and again and again. Like a pair of monstrous screaming jackhammers. 

A woman in the rear screams. Three men in the front row stand up and look to the back, then the front. Toward the blaring sounds. The rest stand, look around, and then duck under the pews, covering their heads and pulling the others down with them. Some grab for their phones. Malachi pulls at his mother’s skirt. “Mama, get down here.”

The cracking, blasting, sounds stop. There are cries from all sides.

Petersen, holding the Klaxon in his hand like a hand gun, walks down the aisle, pointing with it from one side to the other, pointing at each one of the half-hidden, half-crouching, cowering, people.

“You’re dead! You’re dead, you’re dead,” he says to each of them.

The one at the side door explains, “The worst thing you can do is to stand up and look at the shooter, giving him a target. The next worst thing is to crouch under the pews. You make yourself a stationary target. A dead one.”

“You’re all dead. Every one of you. Figuratively,” says Petersen. Now let’s try it one more time.”

The two officers step behind the doors again.

“See, Ma?”

“See what, they told us nothing about how we should react.” she says. She stands up. “This is their new trick,” she yells to everyone.

“Please sit down,”

“Yes, please sit down,” the rabbi calls out.

“That was a sham! One crazy kid bursting through the door like Dylan Roof or Gregory Bowers doesn’t kill enough of us. That was just old-school anger. This is the new and improved U.S. version of mass killing.”

“Someone, take her out of here,” says Rothstein.

“They’re not going to let me out of here. Not you either, Rothstein. Not peacefully. They have us where they want us. They have us all trapped, totally lulled into fearful, willing, trusting fools, placated, convinced they mean no harm. Like how they convinced my grandparents to wait in line for the boxcars, carrying their suitcases and children, and then in line at the showers, for godsakes. I know what’s coming. Everyone get out. Now. All of us all at once. Make run for it. Rush them. I swear, our only hope, is to take them by surprise. Because the next time those two doors two open they’ll have AR-15s and…”

A Man’s Search for Meaning

Hello Malachi, it’s your mother. Don’t be worried.

I know it’s you Ma. My phone ringtone plays Ethel Merman singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses when you call. What should I not be worried about?

Oy! Your father is not doing well.

Not doing well? What do you mean?

I mean, I ask him, I say, Morris, what do you want for lunch? and he says, ‘lunch?’ Yes lunch. ‘I’m not hungry,’ he says. You want some herring? I say. ‘Herring, schmerring, whatever,’ he says. Come in, I tell him. And he comes and sits at the table like a cold noodle kugel. This is not like him, Malachi. First, he never used to miss a meal and second, he usually says ‘bring it in here’ so he can keep watching the television. He doesn’t watch any more. Only at night. I don’t know what to do. Morris, I say, what is wrong with you? ‘Nothing,’ he says. I tell him don’t tell me nothing. I know nothing when I see it and this is not nothing.

What do you want me to do?

Talk to him.

Ma, he doesn’t want to talk to me. I say, hi Dad, how are you doing? ‘How am I doing,’ he says to me. Yes, how are you doing? ‘How should I be doing?’ he says. I mean are you okay? ‘Okay? What is okay?’ he says. Then he says ‘I have to go, here talk to you mother’ and he hands you back the phone. That’s how our conversations go.

He used to yell at the TV. Scream, ‘Can you believe this crap?’ His face would get red. Turn it off I would say to him. ‘I can’t believe this is the country we are living in,’ he would say but he wouldn’t turn it off. Better you should have a stroke watching Wolf Blitzer? I told him. The Situation Room is not the situation room, Morris. You’re sitting in the Situation Room, I say, and you know what he says to me, ‘The situation sucks.’ My god, Malachi, I have never heard your father say that word in his entire life, not once, mind you. Not once.

Maybe he should see someone.

He should, but I don’t say anything about that. He wouldn’t do it. Men don’t go see someone, he says. They keep it in. They tough it out. He thinks he can take care of himself.

Ma, he must feel like he’s going through all of this alone. Living through every day in the same apartment. He doesn’t go out because he doesn’t want to get infected or infect you. He is losing his sense of connection with the city, his work, and his friends. He sees trouble in the streets, people being beaten, police beating others. When he was watching TV all day it was as if it would be him next being beaten, him next being gassed. Replay after replay of the same thing and seeing one man, night after night, calling for more of the same. He’s heard about this before. Hearing of his cousins, his grandparents, being rounded up and shot or shipped off in box cars to never come back. To be gassed and burned in an oven or kicked into a ditch. Viktor Frankl wrote, that when you live feeling that way, you’re shocked at first that this could be happening to you. You think it can’t continue, or it won’t be so bad, and then you wonder what will happen next and then you see that it keeps getting worse and that hoping for it to stop doesn’t make it stop. You scream at it. You’re powerless to make it stop.

Malachi, shouldn’t he be happy? We had an election. There’s an inauguration coming. There’s a vaccine. He’ll get it. He has underlying conditions.

We all have underlying conditions. Pelted each day with new miseries, new threats, new deaths, new things to fear. It wears you down. Nothing compared to what happened to his relatives, my relatives, but still, it wears you down. And what is going on now is not going to end anytime soon. It may even get worse.

I have never seen him so low.

With so many things to worry about, he’s apathetic. He’s past being shocked by what he sees and hears. The almost daily shocking atrocities have become for him, for most of us, the routine. So, you have to create a self-protective shell. You can watch police officers beat people protesting the killing of a black man for months, and bodies being piled in refrigerated trucks for more months, and then federal police get thrown down the capitol steps, hit with fire extinguishers and American flag poles, like a downward spiral that will last forever.

I know. It worries me in my heart. I want to help him.

Ma, please ask him if I can speak to him.

Hold on.

Hello.

Hello, Dad. Remember how you would always give me a book on my birthday and even on other days that were not my birthday and you’d say to me, ‘Malachi, this is a special book for a special boy on a special day.’

I do, Malachi.

Well, I am sending you a special book, because you are a special dad, and this is a special day. It will come in your email. It is an audiobook. It was written in the year you were born. And by a man whose name you might know, Viktor Frankl. I have listened to it and I thought of you all the way through, almost every line. Maybe you and Mom can listen to it together and maybe we can talk about it after. Will that be okay?

Of course, Malachi. Thank you. Here… your mother wants to talk to you. Bye.

Bye.

Bye, bye… here she is.

Sy Spiegelman Reading Proust on the F Train

It was hot. The sun, slow-walking toward the deep end of July. And Seymore Spiegelman was on the F train to work. Changing to the C at West 4th, he squeezed into the last empty seat in the car. The riders on either side were damp and overheated. He couldn’t concentrate. Opening and closing the book in his hand. Swann’s Way. Proust. Wrapped in brown paper. He thought it’d seem pretentious standing in the subway holding a worn copy of Proust. He would surely think that, if it were someone else doing that.

Proust is hard going. He’d started reading it many times before, only to nod off a few pages in and set it aside for another time. Maybe he just wasn’t up to the task. Maybe a new copy, a new translation, might give him a fresh start.

An article he’d read touted the brilliance of Proust, whose 149th birthday just passed, on July 10. One line he’d read wouldn’t leave him alone. “Even the dead,” it said, “when we least expect it, come back to remind us of their love and of our guilt.”

Death and July birthdays. His mother’s and his oldest daughter’s birthdays. One is on the twenty-first and the other on the twenty-second. It was his mother who had died, in years past.

On his run, the day before, he tried to remember which birthday was on which day, but he gave up. His wife, Bernie, would know, he thought.

So, he asked her when he got back.

“Sy,” she said, “here’s how I remember them. Your mother was born first, so her’s is on the twenty-first.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“But Dierdre is my first daughter, see. So, maybe she comes first.”

“You’re dripping. What happened to your knee?”

“I tripped on the hill down to Fifth. Cracks in the sidewalk, and it’s steep.”

“And you weren’t looking. Let me see that. Why didn’t you come right back? Look, the blood ran down into your shoe.”

“A guy on a motorcycle stopped. Asked me if I needed a ride home, but I said no. He had that solicitous look on his face. Like someone helping an old woman cross the street, leaning over, taking little baby steps, even with the ‘Don’t Walk’ light blinking and the drivers rolling their eyes as if they’re purposely walking slowly just to piss them off.”

“And so?”

“And so, I felt fine. I didn’t need any help. I just wanted to keep running. It was no big deal. He was like twenty-five and he was treating me like I was some old guy who should be home drinking tea, watching re-runs of Bonanza.”

“You’re not old. And maybe he did think that. Maybe he didn’t.”

“He seemed nice.”

“Regardless, Sy, now, when he tells the story, he’ll say, ‘there was this guy who fell on the sidewalk, who I helped get up, and then he’s like ‘I don’t need any help’ even though blood was gushing out of his knee like a faucet and he’s like some Usain Bolt has-been.’ Maybe you should’ve just let him drive you home and then he’d say what a nice old guy he helped out. The solicitous part is in your own head, not his. And, even if it was, who cares?”

“Anyway, I ran down to the Jackie Gleason building and then back up the hill by the Green-Wood cemetery. That’s like seven miles.”

“You ran into Sunset Park and didn’t bring back tacos.”

“I was bleeding.”

“I’m just kidding.”

“Remind me again, is tomorrow my mother’s birthday or Diedre’s.”

“It’s your mother’s.”

“I had a little trouble running back up the hill. Not because of my knee. I think my shoes are too heavy. Maybe I should get a lighter pair.”

“Maybe you should go see a doctor. Your shoes don’t all of a sudden get heavy.”

“I noticed it first last week when I was pushing the stroller with the kids up Second Street to the park. I had to stop a couple of times.”

“And you think it’s because your shoes got too heavy?”

“That’s how it felt.”

“You should drink more water and make an appointment with Edelman. Maybe you should go tomorrow.”

“I just ran seven miles. I really think I’m ok.”

“Your mother is dead now, what, four years?”

“Yes, I think so. I can never remember that one either.”

“At least you should remember her birthday.”

“What? Now you think I’m losing it?”

“Or, maybe it’s just your shoes.”

“Funny.”

“No, it’s just that you have trouble remembering it, not because you’re losing it, but because you have some issues there with your mother.”

“I do. That’s a different thing.”

On the train, he felt he should go home. Call in sick. He’d rarely done that. But he was sweating, feeling anxious. Proust was so hard to read. The run around the cemetery was hard. Harder than he’d said. His shoes were too old, too heavy.

He was beginning to panic. “My god,” he thought, “I feel like I am going to die.” At the 50th Street stop, he got up, took his things, left the train, and walked quickly across town to Saint Clare’s. He told the ER nurse he had chest pain. She asked him how severe. “A ten,” he said.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, and he sat down in the chair next to her desk, she checked his pressure, listened to his heart.  She picked up the phone. Held it to her ear. Punched in few numbers.

“What are you reading?“ she asked him.

“Swann’s Way.”

“Nice,” she said.

And that was the last he remembered until he opened his eyes to see Bernie standing by the bed, beside the IV pole. “What happened?” he said.

“Well, for starters, you had a coronary right there in the ER and they rushed you up, or down, or wherever it is, to the Cath lab. They put a stent in and you’re good to go.”

“My god. That’s so frightening.”

“Yeah, tell me about it!”

So, I guess it wasn’t my shoes.”

“You didn’t really think it was, did you?”

“I think I did. A little. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Likewise, Sy. Likewise.”

“So, what do you say, next year, we just pick up a garlic and onion pizza at Totonno’s and light a candle on my mother’s birthday.”

The End of the Roll

Bessie Levin waited to see the manager.

“How may I help you Ma’am,” he said. He was well-groomed, polite, and had Bernard Sopotnick stitched on the pocket of his red Costco vest.

There are nine Costco stores within a one-hundred-mile radius of Bessie’s apartment in Bensonhurst. She has spoken in-person, face-to-face, with the store manager of eight of them. She got nowhere with any of them. You name them: Sunset Park, Elmhurst, Staten Island, Bayonne. Nothing. Continue reading The End of the Roll

Malachi’s Mother, the Precipice, and the Wild Strawberry

“Ma, where’s Dad?

“I sent him to the market.”

“It’s ten o’clock. He shouldn’t be out this late. I would have gone for you. What did you need so late?”

“Strawberries.” Continue reading Malachi’s Mother, the Precipice, and the Wild Strawberry

The Golem on the X38 Bus

Simon Appelfeld was a good boy. He went to school each day. He obeyed the Sabbath. He did his homework. He brushed his teeth. He loved his parents and they loved him. He did not know how unusual he was.

One day on his way to school he saw that someone had left a book on the empty seat beside him on the bus. Continue reading The Golem on the X38 Bus

Chava Shapiro: The Fresh Air Interview

Welcome back. I’m Terry Gross and you are listening to Fresh Air. If you’re just joining us, we have been talking with the remarkable Chava Shapiro. She was recently featured in a series of short stories published on an online journal website. She is here to talk with us about those stories, writing, and being a lesser-known female author working on the edges of the publishing industry.

 For those of you unfamiliar with her most recent story, it is called The Good Life of Avrum and Chava.

Ms. Shapiro, let me ask you, in the story, the central character, Chava, is seen as sort of a ‘Good Wife.’ Why did you pick that kind of a character to write about and how close is it to your own life? And why do you call it the ‘good life?’ Continue reading Chava Shapiro: The Fresh Air Interview