Tablet Original Fiction: Sent on a gruesome errand, a young man comes undone
Rather that’s all of it I was aware of, until he rattled his way into my apartment (must’ve copied my key), sat down on the futon all fevered pale and skeletal. A tremor at his mouth. Rashy apple straining prominent at throat. This was Friday, middle of Friday.
The problem—but the least immediate of his problems—was the presence of my roomies. To Sruly they were just—how do you say “homos,” or worse, the worst, in Yiddish? Feygetz?
Sruly said, “I wish you spoke at least a bisel Yiddish.”
His lenses were greasy, the nosepiece, the earpieces, smeared with a preservative or something exuded, some unctuous crust of wax or thickened hardened sebum. He smelled of menthol, pesachovka, gas. His suit like the uniform issued by whatever city agency was tasked with promoting stains. His shirt still bleachy in patches, but the rest the color of the dead leaf hankying a pocket.
The Jeffs might as well have been naked. They sat on the floor, barelegged in short shorts, arms and chests venous pumped in clinging beaters, playing their WWII sniper game until the heaviness—Sruly so light and spiny, but also so fashionwise and existentially heavy—weighed, caused them to pause their progress and go to their room, shut the door, lock, which was when he said, “I’ll tell you the difference between Israel and the Arabs.”
Apparently Israel—the state, the country, not the biblical or just poetic conceptions—maintained this special squad, “not police, not military, not the paramedics either, just special,” Sruly said, though when I asked, he couldn’t recall what they were called, he couldn’t even tell me whether it was a unit you volunteered for or were assigned.
Anyway, whenever there was terrorism—“a suicidebombing,” a term I’ve always understood as pertaining to both the suicide of the bomber, and the suicide of the victims through the politics that provoked the incident that the victims themselves voted into place—anyway, whenever there was a bombing, they were there.
Not immediately. Their work didn’t deal in immediacy.
Only after the medics had rushed in and saved lives, only after they’d administered emergency care like cannulating the hemorrhages and performing tourniquet triage, after they’d picked up the larger chunks still discernible as human, the hunky arms and legs elevated reaches beyond the longest strongest limb of any species but still salvageable for reattachment, the gutparts that might be sewn back in too with just a bit of expert plumbing and electrical advice—“after they’d evacuated all the big things and had sucked like how a vacuum sucks up all the blood,” but before the military or police had finished checking that no strange second van was rigged to blow, before the scene had finally been cleared for the press—“it’s a miracle they come in like this and never once they’ve been caught in a second explosion”—only then did this unit go to work.
They searched. Archaeologists in full bodyarmor.
“They got on their knees and ladders” and with razors and whisks and gnarly old girlfriend’s toothbrushes, hairbrushes and combs—no crazier than what Sruly mentioned: totally classified, totally proprietary, Semitically engineered genetically sensitive technologies—scraped up all the scraps, every last shred of every body.
Even the smallest frag of thumbnail (Sruly demonstrated his thumb, touched it a breath away from forefinger), even the tiniest gnaw of nail or inconsequentially loosened tooth—“the hair from the upsherin,” “the orlah from the bris”—was gathered up, bagged and tagged for proper burial. There were prayers for each, not prayers but mysterium, sackcloth keens and lamentations. To Jews, it seems, each and every phalange is holy. Every chip of bone is sacred “to us”—Sruly said “to us”—and so must be covered over as repentance.
But as repentance for what? for having once been alive?
“According to our tradition,” Sruly said “our tradition.”
“Even before Israel, even in exile—we Jews have always buried everything,” and though he almost certainly meant only physical interments—not any mental or emotional or psychological interment of “our” phobias, “our” pathologies—his trembling betrayed him, made me feel as if I were the uncle, the headshrinker, the reb.
He couldn’t be still. Tapped his feet between the tickings of his watch, a digital that ticked. He picked up the only book on the trestle—Sara’s debut collection, scattered with ground speed—cracked it as if to read. Told me that even books—“not secular dreck like this, of course,” but the holier scribing, the sacred texts, all Torah scrolls and Talmud volumes, all papers, parchments, and shards of clay that contain God’s name—have to be buried too. The words themselves become humanized by the burial—revealed as mere vehicle, as vessel—wound up in just a sheet. “Commandments”: “Mitzvot.”
The belief was that everything so hallowed had to be covered by the earth, only so that in the next world—which was neither heaven nor hell but disappointingly just this world once redeemed by the messiah—it might be perfectly returned. Stitched together, glued. Salvation was conditional, but strictly anatomically. Resurrection would be a bummer if you had to be a quadriplegic, again, eternally, only because your limbs had been junked and not inhumed.
This belief was connected to why, among the orthodox, even plastics, elective surgeries, were verboten, “ditto goes for tattoos like Hitler gave us,” “ditto for piercings as the lesbos.”
The body must not be altered by anything but death. This preserves the separateness, the rarefaction, of death.
“Many in this community have circulation troubles.” The blood, moving around since its eviction from Eden, was exhausted.
“Many diabetics too.” A lot of old people, in communities charged with honoring their old, with gangrene from infections. From being homebound, bedbound—neglect.
It followed, then, that amputations were common.
When these more observant Jews went to a small congregation of less observant doctors and had themselves dissevered, Sruly got the severances, the extremities, the limbs. He was charged with their interment. This hadn’t happened often.
“Maybe a dozen times.” “Maybe twenty.”
Patients paid extra for this service. Medicare/Medicaid didn’t cover. It wasn’t even covered by a regular cemetery purchase of a regular cemetery plot for when the rest of them expired. Rather the cemeteries charged an extortionate $4K, with the contracting rabbi free to lay his fee atop, like a pebble atop a grave.
What made this “criminal,” according to Sruly, was that according to Jewish law—always practically impractical—these limbs, along with all the other biowaste rejectamenta, didn’t have to be buried in the same grave as their people would be, and, indeed, due to hassles both legal and logistic, cemeteries didn’t even offer that option. Instead they kept a separate area, traditionally far in the back by the hearse traverse and toolsheds—a mass mound of septic appendage, osteomyelitic rupture, malignant resections of colon and lung, splenetic deficiency, traumafrosted schnozz, glossectomies.
“At least maintenance keeps it raked.”
Rachel Weisz’s happy life with Daniel Craig makes Jewish men wonder if they can ever be good enough