The Rabbi’s only son, Yussel, sold insurance, mostly life. He made a fortune because everyone in the Hasidishe world knew that his father, the Rabbi, and his grandfather of blessed memory, and his grandfather’s grandfather of blessed memory, all of them stretching back unbroken in a golden chain from Far Rockaway to Horodenka, to Braslow, Chernobyl, Lublin, Tiberias, Jerusalem, to David, to Adam, all of them in the Fetner family, made prophecy.
“So, why are you here, Yussel?”
“To sell you some life insurance.”
“Oy. What do you know?”
“Today, this particular day, why are you here?”
“You’re on my list. I come every six months. Your premium’s due.”
“The truth, Yussel.”
“You’re on my list.”
“How will I go?”
“Bernie, Bernie, I’m just selling life insurance.”
“Believe me, Yussel, if a Fetner comes to my door selling life insurance, I’m buying.”
Behind his back his clients called him the Angel of Death. The Rabbi’s son made a lot of money selling insurance. From Williamsburg, from Borough Park, from the Five Towns, they came to him to buy. As soon as he picked up the phone and said, “Guess who?” they bought. Life, accident, doubled their umbrellas, upped their homeowner’s and liability. Everything.
Yussel married a beautiful sweet girl from Toronto, a rabbi’s daughter. Although she spoke perfect Poylishe Yiddish she also had a slight British accent and looked a little like Patty Duke. He had a Mercedes, a house near the beach with moss-brick on three walls in the leisure room, two ovens, the Patty Duke wife, four Donna Reed daughters, one son who looked like him, which wasn’t so bad but very Jewish.
“You know something I should know, Yussel?”
“Nothing, it’s just time to look over your policy, Berel.”
“Your father tell you something? Your uncles? Did you hear something? Maybe about the Almighty’s intentions?”
“Berel, I don’t know from HaShem’s intentions. I know only from accidents, from the tables.”
Yussel rolled his shirtsleeves up over hairy muscular arms—he played baseball with the Kneth Israel Cemetery Association, handball on Sunday mornings against the wall of the Yeshiva behind his house—took his pen from his vest, removed his Hasidishe beaver hat, filled out the insurance papers. His friend Berel watched Yussel shove his skullcap forward and backward, forward and backward. Everyone thought this was a sign he was doing prophecy. Berel began to sweat. His wife brought a silver tray of schnapps and kickel.
“How long does my Berel have, Yussel?”
“Your husband’s terrific. Look at his medical report.”
“How long do I have, Yussel?”
Yussel shrugged and took his hand from his skullcap. “As long as you have, you have.”
Such wisdom from the Fetners. The insured discussed every word Yussel spoke, watched everything he did, read everything he gave them to read. They discussed mortality tables and immortality. They discussed HaShem’s intentions versus random accidents. They discussed handball, baseball, miracles, how much chicken fat a man could eat in a lifetime, cholesterol levels, the possible sainthood of the Fetners, the Rabbi, his wife, this remarkable only son. They discussed prophecy. Everyone was waiting for Yussel to become a rabbi even though Yussel swore never on his life. Yussel showed his clients the Metropolitan Life Expectancy Charts, wouldn’t discuss prophecy. He offered variable rates, good returns on single-life premiums, no predictions. He wore his beaver hat over his skullcap, tried to keep his hand from pushing it backward, forward on his head. The Fetners don’t see everything and they can’t control what they do see, but they can turn it off if it starts coming in on the screen. Which is what Yussel did when he went to sell insurance. Yussel didn’t want to know from prophecy, from God’s intentions, from reward and punishment. Yussel knew from insurance tables: chance, probability, accident. One in 1,500 skiers at Aspen breaks a leg; one in 10,000 drivers breaks an axle; one in 200,000 planes is bombed. He knew the tables by heart. The average nonsmoker female lives to 72; smokers to 73. His father, on the other hand, lived in a universe in which absolutely everything is God’s intention, where there’s no coincidence, where an angel stands behind every blade of grass, singing, “Grow, darling, grow.” Yussel didn’t want to live in such a universe because if there’s an angel behind every blade of grass you have to watch every step you take. Yussel only wanted to be a wealthy Jew, sell insurance, live in his house by the ocean in Far Rockaway, be comfortable.
“For me, Yussel?”
Yussel found the line in the tables, the age, the life expectancy, showed Berel.
“For me? Here?”
“That I can’t guarantee.”
Yussel wasn’t stupid. Yussel, like everyone else in the family—the uncles, the mother, the father, even the sister—was brilliant. He soared through theological seminary like an eagle, his teachers reported, and then cursed him when he left the Talmud for actuary tables. Yussel wanted no part of the soul, the law, the rabbinate, the lineage, the blood. He was thirty-six years old. What he had, he wanted; what he wanted, he had.
Yussel sometimes walked on the boardwalk, sometimes on the beach, sometimes climbed out on the jetties, and sometimes, when the tide was out and the moon was shining on the wet sand and he could walk on the moon, through the moon, those times he wondered for just a moment if maybe he should be a rabbi and continue the dynasty. On Friday night, if a man goes to his wife with the correct sexual procedures in the creative act, if he pays attention to what it means, not how it feels, his child will come down from Heaven with a higher consciousness. His child will be delivered out of the waters of the evil inclination, out of Egypt, into Sinai. And when this child, with all these generations of consciousness behind him, when this child says, “To me it should be revealed,” to him it’s revealed. Each generation more than the one before. Yussel, although he insisted he didn’t make prophecy, was a generation holier than his father, the Rabbi. And to him, therefore, more should be revealed, which was what his clients were thinking. And his son, Schmulke, only six, was one more generation holier than Yussel. Already, Schmulke could tell Yussel how much change was in Yussel’s pockets, almost a year earlier than Yussel had been able to guess how much was in his father’s pockets.
Yussel used to pat his father’s pockets and know immediately how much. There was never much. His mother emptied his father’s pants every night so, she said, he wouldn’t give the house away. He had already given away almost everything else, which was one of the reasons Yussel was determined to sell insurance, provide abundance for his own wife and children, and stay far away from God’s great gift.
“I’m flying to Belgium to buy lace, Yussel. Do I need more insurance?”
“It’s a good idea, also to buy linings now.”
Once, just after he’d been hired out of Seminary, a full rabbi, by Metropolitan Life, he’d sold a policy to a cousin of his mother’s. The man dropped dead the next week. Yussel’s reputation was carved in bronze. Yussel read The Wall Street Journal, Women’s Wear Daily, knew a little here and there about cloth, lace, linings, packaging, gas and electric stocks, futures, electronics, hazardous wastes. So with his Talmudic mind, which was trained to see every alternative, every nuance of a situation, it didn’t take much effort on his part to say, for example, “Buy linings. Cut velvet.”
His father, the real Rabbi, did prophecy only when he was drinking. Except for Shabbas, Simchas Torah, and Purim, the Rabbi didn’t drink. But when he drank, he really drank, mostly vodka. On Simchas Torah and Purim only did he drink to get drunk because drunk he might see God. In the Rabbi’s house, no matter how little money there was, how many people had to be fed, on Shabbas the cup overflowed just as the mercy of HaShem overflowed. When the Rabbi poured wine it ran through his fingers onto the gabardine of his pants. When the Rabbi held the Shabbas cup, people said they saw the wine boiling in the cup as if it were on fire. When Shabbas came to an end, he wiped the wine on his eyelids and schmered it in his pockets to bring a good week.
And he made prophecy. For you, forget the film career. Get a job. For you, better not to marry her. For you, Yussel, don’t go back to New York. Stay here in Kansas. Buy some real estate. No one knew what else he told Yussel, but he must have told him plenty because everyone in the congregation was well covered. Widows were never left without, sons always had money for college, daughters for braces and weddings. The Rabbi didn’t make prophecy about his own death. Not because it was a bad thing, but because he had so many mishugge people hanging on him, they’d try to go with him before their time. Once when he was in the hospital, someone tried to trade his life for the Rabbi’s life by slamming a milk truck into a telephone pole. Nobody died. Yussel paid for a new milk truck.
* * * *
Yussel wanted to buy life insurance for his father, to provide for his mother after his father’s death. It was something Yussel fought with him about every time he called him on the phone, which was every day, and every time he visited him in Kansas, which was three times a year. “Yussele, when I go, I’ll go. I’m sick. You know I’m sick. HaShem knows I’m sick. That’s enough to know. Don’t push me.”
“You’re not covered, Totte.”
The truth was, in order to get a policy his father would have to go to a doctor and take a physical, and if he went to a doctor, then the doctor would know and somehow his wife and his congregation would find out. His father went therefore uncovered. It made Yussel crazy.
“You’re not covered.”
“I’m covered.” By the heat in his father’s eyes, Yussel knew he meant covered by HaShem. His father operated on many levels of reality. He also spoke four languages. Yiddish with the sweat and joy of the body, when he fought with his wife or his Creator. American English when he was fund-raising, sometimes with a Yiddish accent, sometimes without, depending who he was fund-raising. Harvard with the Queen’s English accent when he lectured on the finite and the infi- nite at Interfaith dinners. And Hebrew when he prayed. “You’re the one who’s not covered, Yussele. You’re the one with the uncircumcised heart.” That’s how they fought. Yussel would bring up insurance; his father would fight back with Yussel’s uncircumcised heart.
“You’re not covered, Totte. I’m talking about insurance on your life. About medical expenses.” When his father drove seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five miles per hour on the Kansas highways, with the ancient Honda rattling like a dreidl winding down at the end of its spin, about to quit, his father would yell over the roar through the rotted muffler, “Attached above, safe below.” This from a man with a degree in Analytical Philosophy from Amherst, this stupidity. “Totte … so Mom has some money. Do it for her.”
“Look, Yussel, let’s talk business. You and I, we’re here to kindle sparks. HaShem sends me the worst, the wet matches of the universe, shmegeggies, the lost of the lost. And asks me to light their fires. I do what He asks. I’m not so successful. He asks you also. You won’t. So don’t tell me what I should be doing until you begin to do what you should be doing. Until maybe you circumcise your heart.”
This was the problem: who had and who did not have a circumcised heart. Yussel’s uncles had uncircumcised hearts. Even though they were already rabbis, his uncles were also international world-class scholars—Jung, Law, Philosophy. They taught in the great Christian centers, paid their bills, made Who’s Who in American Universities, lived in big clean houses. His mother referred to his father’s brothers as the three little kings, said they should sell shoes. They were precise small men with long delicate hands and narrow feet, neat beards, hard eyes, had wives even smaller than themselves. When you offered them something to eat, they’d sit in front of it—say a square of noodle pudding—and go through some amazing intrigue in their heads about themselves and that kugel. Yussel’s father was the same size as his older brothers but he spilled over, filled rooms, lived such joy, agony, passion he was twice the size of anyone around him. He had a world-class circumcised heart. According to Yussel’s father, Yussel’s uncles did not; they weren’t attached to God. They hadn’t removed their spiritual foreskins. Which was what Yussel also refused to do. Which was the problem. His father was in love with HaShem and all of HaShem’s creation. Yussel wasn’t.
On his Bar Mitzvah, this furious, thirteen-year-old Yussy Fetner went through all the steps, but he wouldn’t reveal his heart, wouldn’t attach to HaShem, wouldn’t allow his heart to be circumcised, because he already knew one thing and he knew it well: once the word goes out that you have such a heart, you’re a victim. His father, with his world-class circumcised heart, was a world-class victim. Yussel wanted only to have a good job, live in a big house. He didn’t care about Who’s Who. What’s What was what he cared about. Which was why he hocked his father about his insurance, so at least his mother would have what’s what when his father died, which—the way he lived, the way he let people suck his blood—would be soon enough. His father was a world-class walking victim for every living thing except his wife, his daughter, his son.
* * * *
Not for Yussel the business of the zaddik, of signs, meanings, intentions, attachments, prophecy. Yussel had a telex in his basement, a fax next to it, a direct line to Salomon Brothers, thirty-thousand-buck-wholesale computer equipment from 47th Street Computer. He didn’t want to turn around from taking a trip or making an investment because at the moment he was making up his mind, he saw a black crow fly into his backyard and eat three olives from the Russian olive tree. That’s the way his father lived and his fathers before him, and Yussel wanted no part of such involvement.
* * * *
The best of rabbis are lamps to their generation. Yussel’s father was lightning. Some of his people were burned, some transformed. When Yussel’s father was a few years out of graduate school, he’d already offended everyone in the frum world with his radical shtick, his new ideas, his difficult questions, his willingness to apply Torah to life instead of life to Torah. But what scared them to death was that he might lead their children away from Yiddishkeit, into the world. They thought he might because after Yeshiva, the Rabbi broke the rules and went to a university—to a campus, listened to goyishe ideas and sat next to thousands of unmarried shicksas. On the same seats. He came out quoting Nietzsche, Carlyle, God knows who, saying things like: “You have to break the statue to find its heart.” Which everyone figured meant breaking the rules of the Torah. No one had to have prophecy to see trouble ahead. The Rabbi’s own father of blessed memory said to his son, Yussel’s father, “You’re going to think on the frontier, you better go live on the frontier. If I give you my pulpit, even my people will kill you. In Kansas there is a pocket of spirituality, families fresh from Europe. Go help them bring up Jewish children in such a wilderness.” So Yussel’s father took a big mortgage on a little split-level in a decent neighborhood on the South Side of Kansas City. By the time Yussel finished Yeshiva, got a job, got a territory, got married, bought a big house, had enough money to pay off the mortgage on his father’s split-level, you could smell bacon. The neighborhood had become a white-trash/Mexican neighborhood, with liquor stores, a drug-rehab center, six-pack trailer parks, water-bed motels, 7-Elevens. The children of the old Jewish families got rich, moved to the East Side, joined a fancy shul, even intermarried. His father held services in the basement of the split-level.
* * * *
Yussel and his father sat in the kitchen of the split-level. It was Yussel’s Hanukah visit. His father was wearing his silk pajamas. He had two luxuries: silk pajamas and Zabar’s French Roast. He had two pairs of maroon silk pajamas, walked around in them, looked more like a king in those pajamas than in his clothes, explained he should sleep in silk because if his soul were to travel at night, his soul should go up to the higher rungs clothed in silk. He did not consider his pajamas a luxury. His father had taken another loan out on the split-level to give money for somebody’s sister’s operation. He couldn’t remember who. Yussel wrote another check. It was the fourteenth time he’d paid off the mortgage. His father made coffee. The kitchen was filthy. His mother had a headache. Yussel was still arguing with his father that he should take out life insurance. His father was still refusing.
“If I tell my people I’m going to die, they’ll explode. They’ll start early with their craziness. And your mother, she’ll start early to sell my clothes to raise cash for the funeral. All that herring, all those hard-boiled eggs. Why should my last days be spent naked surrounded by shmegeggies already wearing my old clothes?”
Yussel laughed. “She’ll rent your room.”
His father nodded. “She’ll rent my room before I die. She’ll bake strudel for the shiva and not give me a bite.”
“She’ll fly everyone out from New York thirty days early on SuperSaver.”
The Rabbi and Yussel hugged each other, tears of laughter sparkled on their beards. “I’ll be naked, sitting on the sidewalk while the Salvation Army truck carries my bed from the house.”
They held each other, like bears, Yussel great and hairy, his father small and fiery, and danced with each other into the dining room, around the living room. In the living room, his father stopped, held Yussel at arm’s length, searched his face as if he were seeing it for the first time. “Yussele. Tottele.” His voice was low. “I know you won’t attach to HaShem. Believe me, I understand your reasons. But when you smile like this, Yussele, I see Him in your eyes. I see all the generations before you. You can’t hide your heart, Yussele. You can try but you can’t hide your heart. Deny it if you want, but someone will see it, someone will figure you out.
* * * *
He was not yet sixty. He had been ill for years and in pain and on drugs, and when he danced, maybe from the suffering, maybe from the drugs, maybe from the joy, they said his feet didn’t touch the floor. And when he sang, his voice, they said, rang with the voice of David, and when he made prophecy, his shmegeggies wept to be in his presence and brought at least four more nonbelievers to supper, and when his eyes went into melt, he looked on his shmegeggies and his eyes burned holes in their hearts and their hearts were opened forever to the sweet Creator above.
Yussel himself had seen this and often he too was swept away by his father’s passion. But there was a story in the family that always froze the passion in Yussel’s heart. When his father told the story, Yussel wanted to be a great zaddik, he wanted to “get bitten by the bug,” as his father would say. When his mother told the story, Yussel wanted to kill himself. Even when he was very young he wanted to kill himself when his mother told the story. This is how his mother told the story.
“Your great-great-great-grandfather of blessed memory on your holy father’s side was very poor. No food, no clothing, no shoes for the children, no wood for heat. Poor. His wife, your great-great-great-grandmother of blessed memory, wept through the bitter winters and fought with him through the summers to sell the one thing in the house that would take care of them all for the rest of their lives. Tefillin, so old, so treasured, that the richest Jew in town had offered my holy husband’s great-great-great-grandfather four hundred rubles. A fortune. Enough, believe me, Yussel, for food and coats and shoes and heat and a horse and a carriage and peace of mind for the rest of their lives.” Here, his mother would sigh. “So it’s Sukkos, and he needs, you know, a lulav, like from palm tree leaves, and an esrog, like a lemon. The lulav he has, but no esrog. Who knows why? The boat didn’t come from Palestine? It was a bad year in the esrog trees? Esrogs cost a fortune, so how could this holy man find one and how could he have one? And then one day, he’s walking, worrying about how he could have Sukkos without an esrog and there’s a man carrying a beautiful firm golden perfect esrog. ‘How much for your esrog?’
“The stranger looks him up and down, sees the poverty, laughs, walks away.
“‘How much?’ the zaddik shouts after him.
“‘Four hundred rubles,’ the stranger jokes.
“He runs home, gets the tefillin, takes them to the rich Jew, who is overjoyed, runs to the stranger, gives him the sack of coins, and goes home with his esrog and puts it on the table.
“His wife sees the esrog. ‘So, where did you get such a thing?’
“‘I got. I got.’
“‘You sold the tefillin for this esrog?’ And she picks up the esrog, throws it, smashes it against the wall, and it’s ruined. And my holy husband’s holy ancestor is so holy, he says, ‘Already the Yetzer Hara, the Evil One, follows me. He has taken my tefillin, he’s taken my esrog. But I will not allow him to take my Beis Shalom, the peace of my household. I will not invite him in this house by arguing with you, so,’ he says, this holy man whose memory lives with us, he says to his wife who has grown old trying to make ends meet, he says, ‘I forgive you.’”
Yussel had seen the tefillin in his uncle’s house. They were inscribed by a scribe in the time of the Baal Shem, the founder of Hasidism. The Baal Shem himself said this scribe was the equal of Ezra the Scribe. The writing, in four hundred years, hadn’t faded. No one remembered how the tefillin came back into the family. When Yussel’s mother told him the story, she would look him in the eye and watch him to see his reaction. His sister said there were lines missing from the story. When his father told it, there was something about holiness. When his mother told it, there was something about life and death. Something terrifyingly bitter.
Grisha, his father’s gabbai, Talmud expert, babysitter, maybe best friend, maybe worst enemy, often told Yussel another story at bedtime. When Grisha prayed or told holy stories about the dynasty, he held his father’s pocket watch, so in case he was transported to higher worlds, he’d be reminded to come back. The Rabbi insisted Grisha was a holy man. The Rebbitzen insisted Grisha was nuts from mercury vapors when he had been in the business of making felt hats. The story gave Yussel nightmares.
“One day in the Ukraine,” Grisha would begin, putting his watch to his ear to make sure it was ticking, “the Zaddik, Rabbi Elimelech, decided to go into exile for two years to elevate himself to a higher plane and clean up his sins. After two years of exile he came to the outskirts of his little village and heard that his son, Eliezer, had been very sick, near death. He rushed to his house and asked his wife, ‘How is my Eliezer?’ His wife said, ‘Your Eliezer is fine. He’s out playing.’ ‘But someone told me he was sick.’ His wife shook her head. Then she said, ‘There is an Eliezer who was sick, but your Eliezer, Baruch HaShem, is in good health.’ The Rabbi was overjoyed to hear his Eliezer was okay. Then he realized he had accomplished nothing with his exile, no higher rung on the ladder to HaShem, no elevated soul, because he should have felt about the other Eliezer who really was sick, near death, as he felt about his own son. So that same day he said good-bye and went into exile again for another year.”
The first time Grisha told the story, Yussel asked him if the Rabbi Elimelech said hello or good-bye to his own Eliezer before he left for another year. Grisha said probably not. Yussel had a dream about eating the wax from his own ears. The wax tasted in his dream like ginger. And then one more story. Who hadn’t heard that when Moses went to cross the Red Sea, the waters parted for the Israelites? Every Passover they heard it. In school, at home. Also they were told that every Passover the waters all over the world part at the same moment the Red Sea parted for Moses thousands of years before. And then a kid in Yeshiva, whose father hated Yussel’s father, leaned over Yussel’s desk, hissed, “The Red Sea was at low tide.” Yussel tried to beat the kid up that afternoon, but the kid gave Yussel a bloody nose for his defense of the Torah. That night when Grisha was putting him to bed, Yussel asked Grisha if the Red Sea had really parted or was it just low tide. Grisha shrugged and said, “Nu? HaShem doesn’t make the tides?” and turned off the lights.
Before Yussel had hair on his face, he’d learned that in the world of the zaddiks, husbands betray wives, fathers betray sons, and even the Torah betrays little boys. So why should he get involved? Still, they found him. They came like old gray gulls to pry open the shell of Yussel’s soft heart.
From GOD’S EAR. Copyright ©1989 by Rhoda Lerman. Published by arrangement with The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. Paperback on sale: April 4, 2017.