It’s been exactly one year since I published my first piece in this space. Since then, there have been 78 posts.
It’s time to pause. Time to stop taking notes while watching news and sports on TV, dissecting the coverage and the politics.
I’ll continue to start my day with the New York Times, and check out the Washington Post, CBC News, ESPN and other bookmarked sites.
In the coming weeks, I’m sure I’ll watch the Republican and Democratic conventions, as well as the Rio Olympics and my customary menu of baseball and golf.
I may post the occasional piece — if the subject is irresistible.
But I’m getting back to a novel I started in 1995 and thought I finished in 2010. Total rewrite. Could take awhile.
One scene, written with an assist from my cousin Brian, a rabbi, has survived in every previous draft.
I’m not certain it will make the cut this time. So, I offer it here:
On April 22, 1994, I went to synagogue for the first time since my bar mitzvah. I’d buried my father in West Palm Beach earlier in the day, flew home, and took a cab from the airport to Temple Aleph Gelt. Friday night services had just ended when I talked my way in to see the rabbi.
“I’m Rabbi Black,” he said. Sincere. Sweet. A kid. A mark. We were in a large boardroom. He motioned me into a chair. I looked him over. Dark curly hair, olive skin, full lips, puppy-dog brown eyes, a teen idol in a stylish pinstriped suit.
“Are you Jewish?” I asked.
“Of course, I’m Jewish,” he said with a wary smile.
“I don’t mean to be a wiseass. It’s just that I didn’t know Jews were called Black. Jews of color are usually Greene. Like Shecky Greene.”
“Well,” he said, “my father was Black. My grandfather was Black.”
“They were Negroes?”
“No, they were white.” He was playing along.
“I’m White,” I said.
“I can see that.”
“No, I mean my name is White. Charlie White. My father was White too. He’s dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear that – z ikrono l’bracha.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“My father died on Wednesday. On a golf course in Florida. He had a stroke hitting a five-wood on a par-three.”
My father’s funeral was in a tacky chapel that blended seamlessly into the abomination that is South Florida. My father loved it, of course, since everyone in the identical red-tiled houses of Shangri-La By the Sea – thirty miles from the ocean – came from the same Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods.
When I visited, which was as seldom as possible, I marveled at the goniffs who managed to drain the Everglades, cover it with concrete and Bermuda grass, fill the strip malls with kosher delis and Chinese restaurants, and entice millions of refugees from the Northeast to retire in the ideal habitat for alligators and other swamp creatures.
My father, who had owned a jewelry store in Flushing, moved a thousand miles to lose money at gin rummy and golf, complain about too much fat on the pastrami and too few pieces of barbecued pork in the pork fried rice. This went on for the ten years he lived in West Palm Beach, before he was struck dead on the twelfth hole at Royal Palms Golf and Country Club.
“I don’t believe I’m following you, Mr. White.” Rabbi Black said.
“Doesn’t matter. He’s still dead.” I paused and attempted to appear lost in thought, or grief.
The kid rabbi waited me out. When I didn’t say anything he offered, “Have you come here to seek counsel, or perhaps to say kaddish for your father.”
“No, that’s not it,” I replied. We were seated at one end of a long, well-polished table, fourteen high-backed chairs along either side.
“All right, Mr. White,” he started again, “what can I do for you?”
“I want to damn someone,” I said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Somebody just died and, before it’s too late, I want you to make sure he goes straight to hell.”
“You want your father …”
“Not my father.”
“A criminal who was never punished for his crimes. He died tonight. That’s what they say, anyway. Me, I’m not so sure. Could be a trick.”
“Yeah, to make sure he beats the rap.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Look, I came here tonight because I’m a Jew. I didn’t know where else to turn. I’m facing a crisis of faith and, although I haven’t been to synagogue in more than thirty years, since my bar mitzvah, I’m still a Jew and I need your help.”
“But we don’t do that, Mr. White,” the kid said.
“Do what? Help Jews in need?”
“No, we don’t damn people. We don’t conjure curses. We also don’t believe in hell.”
“What do you – we – believe in.”
“We believe in God. We believe in study, and good works, and good deeds, living a worthy life.”
“So what happens after you die?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think happens after you die?”
“What kind of man of faith are you?”
“An educated one.”
I smiled. He seemed to have won the argument, if you could call it an argument. I really liked this kid. I knew nothing of his – my – religion and wanted to hear more. He no longer seemed impatient with me. Maybe his rabbinical curiosity got the best of him. “Who is it you want to curse?”
“Richard Nixon,” I said, barreling ahead, “and there’s not much time. The son of a bitch just died.”
The rabbi chuckled. “A worthy endeavor,” he said, pausing as if to consider the challenge. “But since Tricky Dick wasn’t Jewish – at least I don’t believe he was …”
I shook my head.
“Well, then, I don’t see where he falls within our, er, jurisdiction – even if you and I had the power to curse him in death.”
I was running on instinct and adrenaline. This sounded like a technicality.
“Look,” I pleaded, “he was an off-the-wall anti-Semite – even if he did hold hands with Kissinger, who, as you know, is more German than Jewish – so he, Nixon, is – was – an enemy of the Jews. Don’t we have the right to curse our enemies?”
He appeared to politely consider this before saying: “I’m sorry, Mr. White, but I can’t help you. But your questions warrant study. That’s what we do, we rabbis, we study. And I will study your, er, dilemma.”
He stood. I stood. He extended his hand. I shook it.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “If you’d like to call me Monday, maybe I will have enlightened myself and can pass on to you what I have learned.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, suddenly exhausted and wanted to go home. “But I fear that by then the bastard may have slipped into heaven.”
He laughed. “Sorry, Mr. White, but you have a rather cartoonish Christian notion of life and death – the soul slipping out of the body, ascending to the clouds and beyond, St. Peter at the gate, admitting people as if he were a ticket-taker at Disneyland. We Jews believe in an all-powerful God. If He can create the world, and perform miracles, he can certainly schlep Richard Nixon out of heaven and deposit him in a more appropriate hereafter.”
He appeared pleased with himself and seemed to take genuine delight from our meeting. I gave high marks for his scholarly performance skills.
“Thanks, kid,” I said.
He shot me a stern grownup look. “You may call me rabbi, or Rabbi Black, or Mr. Black, or Ian.”
“Ian? Ian Black? Are you sure you’re Jewish?”
I never talked to the kid again. It was also the last time I set foot in a synagogue.
The novel was completed but I again put it aside to publish a memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada. It includes a version of this piece of fiction.