The story you are about to read was almost never written. By the early 1970s, one of America’s greatest science-fiction satirists had all but retired. After a celebrated literary career under the pen name of William Tenn, London-born Jewish author Philip Klass had hung up his pseudonym and settled in as a professor of English at Penn State University. That is, until he had a chance encounter with some young fans at a science-fiction convention in 1973.
“They asked me why I wasn’t still writing,” Klass recalled. He responded that teaching was its own satisfaction, and that “there was not much market for the fiction I wanted to write these days, especially for a specific story whose title was all I had but which had been on my mind for many months.” Klass told them the name, sure that it was a nonstarter. But as luck would have it, one of the fans was planning a collection of Jewish science fiction—and so “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi,” William Tenn’s final story, was commissioned.
“The story turned out to be a small monument to Sholem Aleichem, the nineteenth-century writer who was known as the Yiddish Mark Twain,” Klass later mused. “I asked myself what kind of science-fiction story might Sholem Aleichem have written if he were alive today?” The result: a magisterial meditation on Jewish identity, history, persecution, and pathologies that is both deeply thoughtful and utterly hilarious. Tablet is proud to present the 1974 story here for a new generation of readers, along with Klass’s own inimitable 2002 performance of the tale for WNYC.
So you’re looking at me, Mr. Important Journalist, as if you’re surprised to see a little, gray-haired, gray-bearded man. He meets you at the spaceport and he’s driving a piece of machinery that on Earth you wouldn’t even give to a dog’s grandmother, she should take it with her to the cemetery and be buried in it. This is the man—you’re saying to yourself—this nobody, this piece of nothing, who’s supposed to tell you about the biggest, strangest development in Judaism since Yohannan Ben Zakkai sat down with the Sanhedrin in Yavne and said, “The meeting will please come to order.”
Are you talking to the wrong man, you want to know? Did you come across space, 50, 60, I don’t know, maybe 70 million miles just to see a schlemiel in a cracked helmet with a second-hand oxygen canister on his back? The answer is this: you are not talking to the wrong man. Poor as he is, shabby as he is, unlucky as he is, you are talking to the one man who can tell you all you want to know about those troublemakers from the fourth planet of the star Rigel. You are talking to Milchik the TV repairman. Himself. In person.
All we do is put your belongings in the back of the module and then we get in the front. You have to slam the door—a little harder, please—and then, if this is still working and that is still working, and the poor old module feels like making another trip, we’ll be off. Luxury it definitely is not, a spaceport limousine you certainly could not call it, but—module, shmodule—it gets you there.
You like dust storms? That’s a dust storm. If you don’t like dust storms, you shouldn’t come to Venus. It’s all we got in the way of scenery. The beach at Tel Aviv we don’t got. Grossinger’s, from ancient times in the Catskills, we don’t got. Dust storms we got.
But you’re saying to yourself, I didn’t come for dust storms, I didn’t come for conversation. I came to find out what happened to the Jews of the galaxy when they all gathered on Venus. Why should this shmendrick, this Milchik the TV man, have anything special to tell me about such a big event? Is he a special wise man, is he a scholar, is he a prophet among his people?
So I’ll tell you. No, I’m not a wise man, I’m not a scholar, I’m certainly not a prophet. A living I barely make, going from level to level in the Darjeeling Burrow with a toolbox on my back, repairing the cheapest kind of closed-circuit sets. A scholar I’m not, but a human being I am. And that’s the first thing you ought to know. Listen, I say to Sylvia, my wife, don’t our Sages say that he who murders one man murders the entire human race? So doesn’t it follow then that he who listens to one man listens to the whole human race? And that he who listens to one Jew on Venus is listening to all the Jews on Venus, all the Jews in the universe, even, from one end to the other?
But Sylvia—go talk to a woman!—says, “Enough already with your Sages! We have three sons to marry. Who’s going to pay for their brides’ transportation to Venus? You think for nothing a nice Jewish girl will come here, from another planetary system maybe—she’ll come to this gehenna of a planet and go live in a hole in the ground, she’ll raise children, they won’t see the sun, they won’t see the stars, they’ll only see plastic walls and elevators and drunken cadmium miners coming in to spend their pay and have a goyische good time. You think just because a girl likes the stereo transcript of one of our sons and is willing to come here and marry him, we don’t have to pay her fare and maybe something a little extra she should enjoy herself on the way? Where do the Sages say the money comes from? Do they say maybe we should nail up a new collection box in the shul: ‘Help the Milchik boys find brides—their father is too busy with philosophy?’ ”
I don’t have to remind you—you’re a journalist, you’re an educated man—what Solomon says in Proverbs about women: A good one, he says, has got to cost you a lot more in the end than pearls. And still, someone in the family has to think about money and the boys getting brides. That’s the second point. The first point is that I’m a human being and a Jew, two different things maybe, and I’ve got the right to speak for all human beings and for all Jews.
On top of that, I’m a Jewish father with three full-grown sons here on Venus, and if you want to do an injury to your worst enemy, you say to him, “Listen. You’re Jewish? You got three sons? Go to Venus.”
And that’s the third point. Why I, Milchik the TV man, am telling you this, and why you came all the way from Earth just to listen to me. Because I’m not only a Jewish father, but I’m also— Listen. Could I ask you a question? You won’t be offended? You sure you won’t be offended?
You’re not Jewish, by any chance? I mean, do you have any Jewish ancestors, a grandfather, a great-grandmother maybe? Are you sure? Well, that’s what I mean. Maybe one of your ancestors changed his name back in 2533—2533 by your calendar, of course. It’s not exactly that you look Jewish or anything like that, it’s just that you’re such an intelligent man and you ask such intelligent questions. I couldn’t help wondering—
You like Jewish food? In 20, 25 minutes my poor old tired module will pull us out of this orange dust and into the Darjeeling air lock. Then you’ll sit down to a Jewish meal, believe me, you’ll kiss every one of your fingers. We get almost all of our Jewish food shipped here from Earth, special packaging and special arrangement. And, naturally, special cost. My wife Sylvia makes a dish, they come from all over our level just to taste: chopped reconstituted herring. It’s an appetizer and we like appetizers in our family. So what I’ve been telling you, after all, is only an appetizer. I have to get you in exactly the right mood for the main dish, the big story you came for.
Sylvia makes all the food we eat in the shul—our synagogue. You know, the hamantashen, all that. She even prepares the formal Saturday morning breakfast, the bagels and lox and cream cheese that all the men must eat before they say their Sabbath prayers. We’re all Orthodox here and we practice the Levittown rite. Our rabbi, Joseph Smallman, is superorthodox Levittown: He wears a yarmulke, and on top of the yarmulka a black homburg which has been passed down from father to son in his family for I don’t know how many centuries.
Oh, look how you’re smiling! You know I’ve moved from the appetizer to the main dish. Rabbi Joseph Smallman. It’s only Venus, and it’s maybe the seventh or eighth Darjeeling Burrow listed on the map, but have we got ourselves a rabbi! To us he’s an Akiba, a Rambam.
More than that. You know what we call him when we’re alone, among ourselves? We call him the Great Rabbi of Venus.
Now you’re laughing out loud. No, don’t apologize: I heard a chuckle come out of you like a belch, you should excuse the expression, after a big dinner.
This Milchik the TV man, you’re saying to yourself, he and his neighbors in the burrow they come to maybe 70 or 80 Jewish families, they’re making a living, with God’s help, out of the holes in each other’s pockets—and their rabbi is the Great Rabbi of Venus? The littlest hole in the ground claims the biggest fire?
It’s impossible, maybe? Is anything impossible to the Most High, blessed be His Name? After all, as the Sages tell us, “The last shall be first.” Just don’t ask me, please, which Sages.
Why is he the Great Rabbi? Well, first of all, why shouldn’t Rabbi Smallman be a Great Rabbi? He needs a certificate from the Great Rabbi Licensing Bureau? You have to graduate from the Great Rabbi Special Yeshiva to become a Great Rabbi? That’s first of all: You’re a Great Rabbi because you act like a Great Rabbi, you’re recognized like a Great Rabbi, you make decisions like a great Rabbi. And you must have heard something of how he acted and how he decided when all the Jews in the universe held a congress right here on Venus. If you hadn’t heard, you wouldn’t have come all the way from Earth for this interview.
Other people had heard, too. They’d heard of his piety, learning, and wisdom—of his modesty, of course, I say nothing—long before the first Interstellar Neozionist Conference on Venus. People heard and people talked, and they came from as far away as the Gus Grissom Burrow to ask him for rabbinical decisions.
You’ve got the time to listen to just one example? Sure you’ve got the time: you’re driving through a heavy dust storm in a module that’s coughing its guts out, a module that knows Milchik the TV man gives it the best of everything—charged-up power cells, a brand-new fan belt—even if it means that he can’t afford to put food on his own table. For Milchik, the module will keep going no matter what, when by itself it would ask for nothing better than to lie down and die in comfort. And the module also likes to listen to Milchik expounding Halacha, the holy rules and laws.
About five years ago, something terrible happened on the eve of Passover. There was an explosion aboard a cargo ship on its way to Venus. No one was hurt, but the cargo was damaged and the ship arrived very late, just a couple of hours before the first seder was to begin. Now on this ship was all the special Passover food that had been ordered from Earth by the 24 Jewish families of the Altoona Burrow, and the special food was in cans and airtight packages. When the delivery was made, the Altoona people noticed that the cans had been banged about and dented—but, worse than that, most of the cans had tiny holes all over them. Disaster! According to the Rabbinical Council of 2135 on Space Travel Kashruth, food which is in a punctured can is automatically unclean, unclean for daily use, unclean for Passover use. And here it is almost the seder and what can they do?
These are not rich people: they don’t have reserves, they don’t have alternatives, they don’t even have their own rabbi. If it’s a matter of life and death, all right, anything goes; but it isn’t life and death, all it means is that they’ll have to eat hametz, non-Passover food, they won’t be able to celebrate the seder. And a Jew who can’t celebrate the Deliverance from Egypt with matzo, with bitter herb, with charoseth, with Passover wine, such a Jew is like a bride without a wedding canopy, like a synagogue without a Torah scroll.
The Altoona Burrow is connected to the Darjeeling Burrow; it’s a suburb of ours. That’s what I said—a suburb. Listen, I know we’re a small place, but where is it written that small places, no matter how small, are not entitled to suburbs? If Grissom can have 14 suburbs, we can have two. So naturally the Altoona people, white-faced, worried, their mouths opening and closing with aggravation, brought the problem to our Rabbi Joseph Smallman. Nothing was leaking from the cans, they said, but the result of the one test they had conducted was bad: As recommended by the Rabbinical Council of 2135, they had taken a hair from somebody’s head and poked it into a hole in a can—and the hair had not visibly curled back out. Did that mean that all the expensive food shipped across space had to be condemned, no seders in the Altoona Burrow?
Well, of course, that’s what it meant—or would have meant to an ordinary rabbi. Rabbi Smallman looked at them and looked at them, and he scratched the pimple on the right side of his nose. He’s a pretty good-looking man, Rabbi Smallman, strong and chunky with a face like a young Ben-Gurion, but he does always seem to have a big red pimple on the side of his nose. Then he got up and went to his bookcase and took out half a dozen volumes of Talmud and the last three volumes of the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Council on Space Travel. And he looked in each book at least once, and he sat and thought for a long time after each passage. Finally, he asked a question: “Which hair did you use and from whose head?”
They showed him the hair, a fine, white hair from the head of the oldest great-grandfather in the Altoona Burrow, a hair as thin and as delicate as a baby’s first sigh. “So this hair did not curl back,” he said, “from a hole in that particular can. So much for your test with a hair of your selection. Now for my test with a hair of my selection.” And he called over my oldest boy, Aaron David, and told him to pluck out a hair.
You’re not blind, you can see my hair, even at my age, how heavy and coarse it is. And believe me, it’s thinning out, it’s nothing to what it was. My boy, Aaron David, he has the traditional hair of our family, each one twice, three times as thick as a normal hair, his head always going up into a black explosion. When he comes with me, as helper on a job, the customer usually says something like, “With a head of hair like that, what for do you need to carry around coaxial cable?” I say to them: “Bite your tongue. Maybe Haman or Hitler would have used his hair for coaxial cable, or that unholy pair, Sebastian Pombal and Juan Crevea, they also liked to take our heads as raw material in their terrible factories, but don’t you talk like that in the year 2859 to a Jewish father about his Jewish son.” The Eternal, blessed be He, may demand my son of me, but to nobody else will I be an Abraham who doesn’t defend his Isaac. You know what I mean?
So when Rabbi Smallman picks up a dented can and pokes Aaron David’s hair at a hole, the hair comes back right away like a piece of bent wire. What else? And when he tries it with another can, again the hair won’t go in. So Rabbi Smallman points to the first can they brought him, the one they tested with the old man’s hair, and he says, “I declare the food in this can unfit and unclean. But these others,” and he waved his hand at the rest of the shipment, “are perfectly acceptable. Carry them home and enjoy your seder.”
They crowd around him with tears in their eyes and they thank him and they thank him. Then they gather the cans together and they hurry back to their Burrow—it’s getting late and it’s time to begin the search for the last bits of hametz that you have to do before you can turn to the Pesadikeh food. The Altoona people rush out, in a few minutes, I tell you, it was as it says in the Second Book of the Holocaust: “There was none left, not one.”
You understand, I hope, wherein lies the greatness of this decision? Jews from all over Venus discussed it and everyone, everywhere, marveled. No. I’m sorry, you’re wrong: the greatness did not lie merely in a decision that made it possible for some poor Jews to enjoy their own Passover seders in their own homes. That’s based on a simple precept—that it’s better to have a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew. Try again. No, that’s not right either: Using a thick hair for my son’s head was not especially brilliant—under those particular circumstances, any really good rabbi would have done the same. For that you don’t have to be a Hillel already; you just have to avoid being a literal-minded Shammai. The point still eludes you, right? Goyische kop!
My apologies. I didn’t mean to speak in a language you don’t know. What did I say? It was just a simple comment about, well, how some people are intended to be students of Talmud, and other people are not intended to be students of Talmud. It’s kind of like an old saying amongst us.
Sure I’ll explain. Why great? In the first place. Almost any decent rabbi would have seen the importance of that food being found fit and clean. And in the second place. A good rabbi, a first-class rabbi, would have found a way to do it, a hair from my son, a this, a that, anything. But, in the third place, only a truly great rabbi would have examined that many books and thought that long and hard about the matter before he announced his decision. How could they really enjoy the seder unless they had perfect confidence in his decision? And how could they have perfect confidence unless they had seen him wrestle with it through nine separate volumes? Now do you see why we called him the Great Rabbi of Venus, even five years before the Neozionist Congress and the great Bulba scandal?
Now I didn’t go so far in Talmudic study myself—a man has a family to support, and closed-circuit TV repair on a planet like Venus doesn’t exactly help your mind in clearing up the problems of Gemara. But whenever I think of what our congregation here has in Rabbi Smallman, I think of how the Sages begin their argument: “A man finds a treasure…”
You shouldn’t get the impression, please, that a treasure is a treasure to everyone. Almost all the Jews on Venus are Ashkenazim—people whose ancestors emigrated from Eastern Europe to America before the Holocaust and who didn’t return to Israel after the Ingathering—but there are at least three kinds of Ashkenazim, and only our kind, the Levittown Ashkenazim, call Rabbi Smallman the Great Rabbi of Venus. The Williamsburg Ashkenazim, and there are a lot more of them than there are of us, the black-gabardined Ashkenazim who shake and pray and shake and pray, they call Rabbi Smallman the lox-and-bagels rabbi. And on the other hand, the Miami Ashkenazim, the rich all-rightniks who live in the big IBM Burrow, to them a rabbi is a girl who hasn’t yet gotten married and is trying to do something intellectual with herself. It’s said that the Williamsburg Ashkenazim believe in miracle-working, that the Levittown Ashkenazim believe it’s a miracle when they find work, and that the Miami Ashkenazim don’t believe in miracles and don’t believe in work, they only believe in the import-export business.
I can see you’re remembering I said before that I was through with the appetizer and ready to serve the main dish, the story you came for. And where, in all that I’ve just been telling you, is the main dish, you want to know? Listen, relax a little. Figure it this way: First I gave you an appetizer, then, after that, for the last few minutes, you’ve been having a soup course. You’re through with the soup? Fine. Now we bring out the main dish.
Only—just a second more. There’s something else you have to have first. Call it a salad. Look, it’s a very small piece of salad. You’ll be finished with it in no time. Now please. You’re not the cook; you’re only a customer. You want a story that’s like a sandwich? Go someplace else. Milchik serves only complete meals.
That night, after the seder, I’m sitting on a bench outside our apartment in the Darjeeling Burrow. To me, this is always the best time. It’s quiet, most people have gone to bed, and the corridor doesn’t smell from crowds. All through the corridors, the lights are being turned down to half their wattage. That’s to let us know it’s night on Earth. Exactly where it’s night on Earth, what part of Earth, I have no idea. Darjeeling, maybe.
As I sit thinking, Aaron David comes out of our apartment and sits down near me on the bench. “Papa,” he says after a while. “That was a great thing Rabbi Smallman did today.” I nod, sure, certainly, it was a great thing. Aaron David puts his hand up to the part of his head when he pulled the single hair out. He holds his hand tight against the spot and looks across the corridor. “Before this,” he says, “I just wanted, but now I more than want. I’m going to be a rabbi.”
“Congratulations,” I say. “Me, I’m going to be the Viceroy of Venus.”
“I’m serious, Papa. I’m really serious.”
“I’m joking? I don’t think there’s a chance I’ll one day be appointed by the Council of Eleven Nations Terrestrial, and the Presidents of Titan and Ganymede? I’d do a worse job than that hooligan we got right now, his heart should only explode inside his chest? All right,” I say to him, “all right,” because now he turns and looks at me, with his eyes that are Sylvia’s eyes, and eyes like that, let me tell you, can look. So you want to be a rabbi. What good is the wanting? Anything you want that I can give, I’ll give. You know I have that little insulated screwdriver, the blue one, that was made in Israel over 500 years ago, when Israel was still a Jewish state. That precious little screwdriver, it’s like the bones of my right hand, that I’ll give you if you ask for it. But I can’t give you tuition money for a yeshiva, and more important, I can’t even find the transportation money for a bride. Our tradition, now, it’s hundreds of years old, ever since the Jews began emigrating into space, that a Levittown bride must come from another planet—and it’s not only you, it’s also your two brothers. A rational creature, boychik, has to worry in an organized way. First the bride money, then we talk about yeshiva money.”
Aaron David is close to crying. “If only—if—” He bites his lip.
“If—,” I say. “If— You know what we say about if. If your grandmother would have had testicles, she would have been your grandfather. Consider the problem: If you want to be a rabbi, especially a Levittown rabbi, you have to know three ancient languages even before you begin; you have to know Hebrew, you have to know Aramaic, you have to know Yiddish. So I’ll tell you what. If. If you can learn enough beforehand, maybe if the miracle ever happens and we can send you to a yeshiva, you can go through faster than usual, rapid-advance, before the whole family goes bankrupt. If Rabbi Smallman, for example, gives you lessons.”
“He’ll do that,” he says excitedly. “He’s doing it already!”
“No, I’m not talking about just lessons. I’m talking about lessons. The kind you have to pay for. He’ll teach you one day after supper, and I’ll review with you the next day after supper. That way I’ll learn too, I won’t be such an ignoramus. You know what the Sages say about studying Talmud: ‘Get thee a comrade…’ You’ll be my comrade, and I’ll be your comrade, and Rabbi Smallman will be both our comrade. And we’ll explain to your mother, when she screams at us, then we’re getting a bargain, two for one, a special.”
So that’s what we did. To make the extra money, I started hauling cargo from the spaceport in my module—you notice it drives now as if it’s got a hernia? And I got Aaron David a part-time job down on the 18th level, in the boiler room. I figured if Hillel could almost freeze to death on that roof in order to become a scholar, it’s no tragedy if my son cooks himself a little bit for the same reason.
It works. My son learns and learns, he begins to have more the walk and talk of a scholar and less the walk and talk of a TV repairman. I learn too, not so much of course, but enough so that I can sweeten my conversation with lines from Ibn Ezra and Mendele Mocher Seforim. I’m not any richer, I’m still a kasrilik, a schlemiel, but at least now I’m a bit of an educated schlemiel. And it works also for Rabbi Smallman: He’s able to send his family once a year on a vacation to Earth, where they can sit around a piece of lake and see what real water is like in the natural state. I’m happy for him, me and my herniated module. The only thing I’m not happy about is that I still can’t see any hope for yeshiva tuition money. But, listen, learning is still learning. As Freud says, just to see from Warsaw to Minsk, even if you don’t see right and you don’t understand what you see, it’s still a great thing.
But who, I ask you, can see from here to Rigel? And on the fourth planet, yet, they’ll come here and create such a commotion?
From the Neozionist movement, of course, we had already heard a long time ago. Jews always hear when other Jews are getting together to make trouble for them. We heard about Dr. Glickman’s book, we heard about his being killed by Vegan Dayanists, we heard about his followers organizing all over the galaxy—listen, we even had a collection box installed in our synagogue by some of his party people here on Venus: “In memory of the heroic Dr. Glickman, and to raise funds to buy back the Holy Land from the Vegan aliens.”
With that I have no particular quarrel; I’ve even dropped a couple of coins myself in the pushke from time to time. After all, why shouldn’t Milchik the TV man, out of his great wealth, help to buy back the Holy Land?
But the Neozionist movement is another matter. I’m not a coward, and show me a real emergency, I’m ready to die for my people. Outside of an emergency—well, we Jews on Venus have learned to keep the tips of our noses carefully under the surface of our burrows. It’s not that there’s anti-Semitism on Venus—who would ever dream of saying such a thing? When the Viceroy announces five times a week that the reason Venus has an unfavorable balance of trade with other planets is that the Jews are importing too much kosher food: That’s not anti-Semitism, that’s pure economic analysis. And when his Minister of the Interior sets up a quota for the number of Jews in each burrow and says you can only move from one place to another if you have special permission: That also is not anti-Semitism, obviously, it’s efficient administration. What I say is, why upset a government so friendly to the Jews?
There’s another thing I don’t like about Neozionism; and it’s hard to say it out loud, especially to a stranger. This business about going back to Israel. Where else does a Jew belong but in that particular land? Right? Well, I don’t know, maybe. We started out there with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No good. So the first time we came back was with Moses, and that lasted for a while—until the Babylonians threw us out. Then we came back under Zerubbabel, and we stayed there for 500 years—until Titus burned the Temple and the Romans made us leave again. Two thousand years of wandering around the world with nothing more to show for it than Maimonides and Spinoza, Marx and Einstein, Freud and Chagall, and we said, enough is enough, back to Israel. So back we went with Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann and the rest of them. For a couple of centuries we did all right, we only had to worry about 40 million Arabs who wanted to kill us, but that’s not enough excitement for what God Himself, Blessed be His Name, called on Mount Sinai a “stiff-necked people.” We have to get into an argument—in the middle of the Interplanetary Crisis—with Brazil and Argentina.
My feeling, I don’t know about the rest of the Jews, but I’m getting tired. If no, is no. If out, is out. If goodbye, is goodbye.
That’s not the way the Neozionists see it. They feel we’ve had our rest. Time for another round. “Let the Third Exile end in our lifetimes. Let the Knesset be rebuilt in our age. Israel for the Jews!”
Good enough. Don’t we still say, after all the wine, “Next year in Jerusalem?” Who can argue? Except for the one small thing they overlooked, as you know: Israel and Jerusalem these days aren’t even for human beings. The Council of Eleven Nations Terrestrial wants no trouble with the Vegans over a sliver of land like Israel, not in these times with what’s going on in the galaxy: If both sides in the Vegan Civil War are going to claim the place as holy territory because the men they call the founders of their religions once walked in it, let the bivalves have it, says the Council, let them fight it out between themselves.
And I, Milchik the TV man, I for one see nothing strange in a bunch of Vegan bivalves basing their religion on the life and legend of a particular Jew like Moshe Dayan and wanting to chop up any other Jews who try to return to the land of their ancestors. In the first place, it’s happened to us before: To a Jew such an attitude should by now begin to make sense. Where is it written that a Dayanist should like Dayan’s relatives? In the second place, how many Jews protested 50 years ago when the other side, the Vegan Omayyads, claimed all human Mohammedans were guilty of sacrilege and expelled them from Jerusalem? Not, I’ll admit, that such a protest would have been as noticeable as a ripple in a saucer of tea…
Well, the first Interstellar Neozionist Conference is organized, and it’s supposed to meet in Basel, Switzerland, so that, I suppose, history can have a chance to repeat itself. And right away the Dayanist Vegans hear about it and they protest to the council. Are Vegans honored guests of Earth, or aren’t they? Their religion is being mocked, they claim, and they even kill a few Jews to show how aggravated they are. Of course, the Jews are accused of inciting a pogrom, and it’s announced that in the interests of law and order, not to mention peace and security, no Jewish entrance visas will be honored in spaceports anywhere on Earth. Fair is fair.
Meanwhile, delegates to the Conference are on their way from all over the galaxy. If they can’t land on Earth, where do they go? And to what site should the Conference be transferred by the authorities?
Where else but to Venus? It’s the perfect place for such a conference. The scenery is gorgeous—on the other side of the dust storms—and there’s a Viceroy whose administration loves the Jewish people most dearly. Besides, there’s a desperate housing shortage on Venus. That will create the kind of problem Jews love to solve: a game of musical burrows.
Listen, it could have been worse. As Esther said to Mordecai when he told her of Haman’s plans to massacre all the Jews of Persia—it could have been worse, but I don’t for the moment see exactly how.
So the delegates begin arriving in the Solar System, they’re shunted to Venus—and don’t ask. Life becomes full of love and bounce for us all. First, a decree comes down. The delegates can’t use hotel facilities on Venus, even if they’ve got the money: There are too many of them, they’ll put a strain on the hotel system or something. Next, the Jews of Venus are responsible for their co-religionists. In other words, not only is a Jew naturally a brother to every other Jew, he’s now also got to be either a boarder or a landlord.
Stop for a moment and reflect on how many are inflicted upon us. Each and every planet in the galaxy which has a human population has at least a breath, a kiss, of Jewish population. So from this planet comes two delegates, from that one fifteen delegates, from that other one—where there are plenty of Jews, they should live and be healthy, but they disagree with each other—comes a total of 63 delegates, organized in eight separate caucuses. It may not be nice to number Jews, even if they’re delegates, but you can figure for yourself that by the time the last one has landed at a Venusian spaceport, we’ve got more than enough to go around.
We’ve got plenty. And on Venus, you don’t go up on the surface and throw together a couple of shacks for the visitors.
The Williamsburg Ashkenazim object. To them, some of these Jews aren’t even Jews; they won’t let them into their burrows, let alone their homes. After all, Shomrim in khaki pants whose idea of religious services is to stand around singing Techezachna, Reconstructionists who pray from a siddur that is rewritten every Monday and Wednesday, Japanese Hasidim who put on tefillin once a year at sunset in memory of the Great Conversion of 2112—these are also Jews, say the Williamsburg Ashkenazim?
Exactly, these are also Jews, say the government officials of Venus. Brothers and boarders they are, and you will kindly make room for them. And they send in police, and they send in troops. Heads are cracked, beards are torn, life, as I said, is full of love and bounce.
And if you don’t object, you think it helps? Sure it helps—like a groan it helps. The Levittown Ashkenazim announce we’ll cooperate with the government, we’ll provide housing for the delegates to the limit—beyond the limit, even. So what happens? My brother and his family and all their neighbors get evicted from the Kwantung Burrow, it’s needed for delegate headquarters says the government.
An Interstellar Neozionist Congress we had to have?
I look around and I remember the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—“I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven”—and I think to myself, “A promise is a promise, but even a promise can go too far. The stars by themselves are more than enough, but when each star has maybe 10, 20 planets…”
By this time, me and my whole family, we’re living in what used to be the kitchen of our apartment. My brother and his family, it’s a big family, they should live and be well, they’re living in the dining room. In what my wife, Silvia, calls the parlor, there’s the wonder-working rabbi from Procyon XII and his entire court—plus, in one corner of the parlor, there’s the correspondent from the Jewish Sentinel of Melbourne, Australia, and his wife, and their dog, an Afghan. In the bedrooms—listen, why should I go on? In the bedrooms, there are crowds and arguments and cooking smells that I don’t even want to know about.
Enough already? No, I am sorry to tell you, not enough.
One day I go into the bathroom. A man is entitled once in a while to go into the bathroom of his own apartment? It’s nature, no? And there in the bathtub, I see three creatures, each as long as my arm and as thick as my head. They look like three brown pillows, all wrinkled and twisted, with some big gray spots on this side and on that side, and out of each gray spot is growing a short gray tentacle. I didn’t know what they were, giant cockroaches maybe, or some kind of plant that the delegates living with us brought along as food, but when they moved I let out a yell.
My son, Aaron David, came running into the bathroom. “What’s the matter, Papa?”
I point to the brown pillows. They had some sort of ladder arrangement set up in the bathtub with small shelves in different places and they were climbing up and down, up and down. “What’s the matter, you want to know, when I see things like that in my bathroom?”
“Oh, them. They’re the Bulbas.”
“Three of the delegates from the fourth planet of the star Rigel. The other three delegates are down the corridor in the Guttenplans’ bathroom.”
“Delegates? You mean they’re Jewish?” I stared at them. “They don’t look Jewish.”
Aaron David rolled his eyes up to the ceiling of the bathroom. “Papa, you’re so old-fashioned! You yourself told me that the blue Jews from Aldebaran show how adaptable our people are.”
“You should pardon me,” I said. “You and your adaptable. A Jew can be blue—I don’t say I like it, but who am I to argue with somebody else’s color scheme?—and a Jew can be tall or short. He can even be deaf from birth like those Jews from Canopus, Sirius, wherever they come from. But a Jew has to have arms and legs. He has to have a face with eyes, a nose, a mouth. It seems to me that’s not too much to ask.”
“So their mouths are not exactly like our mouths,” Aaron David said excitedly. “Is that a crime? Is that any reason to show prejudice?”
I left him and I went to the bathroom in the synagogue. Call me old-fashioned, all right, but there are still boundaries, there are certain places where I have to stop. Here, I have to say, Milchik cannot force himself to be modern.
Well. You know what happened. It turns out I’m not the only one.
I took the day off and went to the first session of the conference. “Rich man,” my Sylvia says to me. “My breadwinner. Family provider. From political conferences you’re going to get brides for your three sons?”
“Sylvia,” I say to her. “Once in a lifetime my customers can maybe not have clear reception of the news broadcasts and Captain Iliad. Once in a lifetime I can go see representatives from all of the Jews of the galaxy holding a meeting and getting along with each other.”
So I went. Only I can’t say they got along so good. First there was a demonstration by the Association of Latter-Day Mea Shearim (“If the Messiah appears and starts going from star to star, only to find that all Jews are already on Earth and in Israel…”). When that was quieted down, there was the usual Bronsteinite Trotskyist resolution aimed at the Union of Soviet Uganda and Rhodesia, followed by the usual attempt to excommunicate retroactively the authors of the Simplified Babylonian Talmud that had been published in 2685. Then we had to sit through an hour of discussion about how the very existence of a six-story-high statue of Juan Crevea in Buenos Aires was an affront and an insult and an agony to every Jew, and how we should all boycott Argentinian products until the statue was pulled down. I agreed with what the chairman said when he managed to rule the discussion out of order: “We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by such ancient agonies, such stale affronts. If we do, where do we begin and where do we stop? Let Argentina have its statue of Crevea, let Düsseldorf have its Adolf Hitler University, let Egypt and Libya continue to maintain the Torquemada Observatory on Pluto. This is not our business here today.”
At last, finally, after all the traditional Jewish preliminaries, they got down to the real problems of the opening session: the accreditation of delegates. And there, in no time at all, they got stuck. They got stuck and all mixed up, like bits of lox in a lox omelette.
The Bulbas. The three from my bathroom, the three from Max Guttenplan’s bathroom—the total delegation from Rigel IV.
No question about their credentials, said the Committee on Accreditation. Their credentials are in order, and they’re certainly delegates. The only thing is, they can’t be Jews.
And why can’t we be Jews, the six Bulbas wanted to know? And here I had to stand up to get a good look, I could hardly believe my eyes. Because guess who their interpreter was? No one else but my son, my kaddish, my Aaron David. Mr. Show-No-Prejudice in person.
“Why can’t you be Jews? Because,” says the Committee Chairman, stuttering with wet lips and plucking at the air with his right hand, “because Jews can be this, can be that. They can be a lot of things. But, first of all, they have to be human.”
“You will kindly point out to us,” the Bulbas say through my son, the interpreter, “where it says and in which book that Jews have to be human. Name an authority, provide a quotation.”
At this point the Deputy Chairman comes up and apologizes to the Chairman of the Committee. The Deputy Chairman is the kind who wins scholarships and fellowships. “You’ll pardon me,” he says, “but you’re not making it clear. It’s a very simple matter, really.” He turns to the Bulbas. “No one can be a Jew,” he explains to the six of them, “who is not the child of a Jewish mother. That’s the most ancient, most fundamental definition of a Jew.”
“Aha,” say the Bulbas. “And from what do you get the impression that we are not the children of Jewish mothers? Will you settle for the copies of our birth certificates that we brought along with us?”
That’s when the meeting falls apart. A bunch of delegates in khakis start cheering and stamping their feet. Another bunch with fur hats and long earlocks begins screaming that this whole colloquy is an abomination. All over the hall arguments break out, little clusters of argument between two and three people, big clusters of argument between 20 and 30 people, arguments on biology, on history, on the Baba M’tziya. The man sitting next to me, a fat, squinty-eyed man to whom I haven’t said a word, suddenly turns to me and pushes his forefinger into my chest and says: “But if you take that position, my dear fellow, how in the world can you make it compatible with the well-known decision, to mention just one example—” And up on the platform, Bronsteinite Trotskyists have seized control of the public-address system and are trying to reintroduce the resolution on Uganda and Rhodesia.
By the time some sort of order is restored, two blue Jews have been carried away to the hospital and a lawyer from Ganymede has been arrested for using a hearing aid as a deadly weapon.
Someone calls for a vote, by the entire Congress, on the accreditation of the Bulbas. Accreditation as what—someone else wants to know—as delegates or as Jews? They’ve been accepted as delegates, and who are we to pass upon them as Jews? I’ll accept them as Jews in the religious sense, someone else stands up to point out, but not in the biological sense. What kind of biological sense, he’s asked by a delegate from across the hall; you don’t mean biology, you mean race, you racist. All right, all right, cries out a little man who’s sitting in front of him, but would you want your sister to marry one?
It’s obvious that there are as many opinions as there are delegates. And the chairman, up there on the platform, he’s standing there and he doesn’t know what to do.
Suddenly I notice one of the Bulbas is climbing up on the platform. These little tentacles, they use them for everything, for walking, for eating, for talking, for I don’t know what. And this Bulba, he gets to the public-address system, and he vibrates one short tentacle for a while, and finally we hear what he says, faint and very soft. We hear that funny voice, like a piece of paper rustling, all through the hall:
“Modeh ani l’fonecha.”
The line, just translated by itself, may not mean so much—“Here I am standing before you” or “I present myself before you”—but what Jew, even with only a fingernail’s worth of religious background, could not be moved by it, delivered in such a way at such a time? Modeh ani l’fonecha, the Jew says in the prayer, when he is directly addressing God, blessed be His Name. And that’s what we all of us now hear in the hall.
Don’t talk to me about race, the Bulba is actually saying, don’t talk to me about religion, don’t talk to me about any legal or philosophical technicalities. I claim that I am a Jew, whatever a Jew is, essentially and spiritually. As Jews, do you accept me or reject me?
No one can answer.
Of course, all this is not getting the Congress any closer to Israel, to a return from the Third Exile. But it’s obvious on the one hand that the matter can’t be put on the table, and it’s obvious on the other hand that it can’t be taken off the table. This is not quite the kind of pilpul that our learned ancestors had to deal with. We have to find out: What is a Space Age Jew?
So, by general agreement it is decided that as Moses smote the rock to get water, we’re going to smite a High Rabbinical Court to get wisdom.
A High Rabbinical Court is appointed by the Accreditation Committee. It has the kind of membership that will satisfy everybody at least a little bit, even if it means that the members of the Court won’t want to talk to each other. You know, a kind of kosher smorgasbord. There’s the rabbi his followers call the Gaon of Tau Ceti. There’s the president of the Unitarian Jewish Theological Seminary. There’s the Borneo Mystic Rabbi. There’s a member of the chalutziot rabbinate, with his bare chest and rolled-up sleeves. And so on, and so on. There are two women rabbis, one to satisfy the majority Reconstructionist sect, and the other to keep the Miami Ashkenazim happy. And finally, because this is Venus, there’s a rabbi from Venus: Rabbi Joseph Smallman.
You want to know something? It’s not only because he’s from Venus, no matter what the Committee Chairman says. The Bulbas have been insisting that they’re entitled to a rabbi who in some way will represent them, and suddenly they want that to be Rabbi Smallman. I can tell what’s going on from where I sit, I can see my son with his big mop of black hair going from one Bulba to another, arguing, explaining, urging. He’s talking them into it, that Aaron David of mine. He’s become the floor manager at the nominating convention of a political party.
“We did it!” he says to me that night in the apartment. His eyes are dancing like meteors. “We got Rabbi Smallman on the Rabbinical Court.”
I try to calm him down. “That by itself is not yet the equivalent of crossing the Red Sea on dry land, or of the oil which renewed itself night after night. Just because Rabbi Smallman can push a black hair into a dent, you think he can push Jews into accepting six lumpy brown pillows as fellow Jews?”
“He can if anyone can.”
“And if anyone can, why should he? Why should he even try to do such a thing?”
My son gave me the kind of look you give a doctor who tells you he wants to spray disease germs at the electric fan. “Why, Papa! For the sake of justice.”
When a son makes a father feel ashamed of himself, the father has a right to feel proud too. I sat down in the corner of the kitchen while Aaron David went into the bathroom to hold a consultation with his brown Bulbas.
But let me tell you, I also felt sad. The wisdom of The Preacher I don’t quite have, but one thing I’ve learned. Whenever someone uses the word “justice,” sooner or later there’s going to be a split head or a broken heart.
From that day on, every free second I had, I rushed off to Decatur Burrow to attend the sessions of the High Rabbinical Court. Sylvia found out about it and my life was not easy. “While you’re studying this new trade, you and that son of yours,” she said, “someone’s got to work at the old one. You’ll be a judge, he’ll be a district attorney, so I’ll have to be the TV man. Give me a pair of pliers and the Index to the Printed Circuits, and I’ll go out and make a living.”
“Woman,” I told her, “I’m doing my work and my son’s work, and I’m keeping food on the table. If the customers don’t complain, why should you? I don’t get drunk, I don’t take drugs. I’m entitled to nourish my spirit at the feet of scholars and wise men.”
Sylvia looked up at the ceiling and clasped her hands together. “He can’t nourish first a couple of daughters-in-law into the house?” She asked the ceiling. “That’s a procedure that is specifically forbidden by the holy books?”
No, my life was not easy. Why should I tell you otherwise?
What was going on in the Decatur Burrow was so interesting I could hardly sit still while I listened to it. It was like a legend come to life, it was like watching the golem taking a stroll one day in downtown Prague, it was like coming across the River Sabbathion and seeing it boil and bubble and throw up stones every day in the week but Saturday. Such history as the Bulbas told the Rabbinical Court!
They’d come to the fourth planet of the star Rigel maybe seven, eight hundred years ago in one of the first star ships. Originally, they had been a small Orthodox community living in Paramus, New Jersey, and the whole community had been expelled to make way for a new approach to the George Washington Bridge. So they had to go somewhere, right? So why not Rigel? In those days a trip to another solar system took almost a whole lifetime, children were born on the way, people had to live, you know, close. The star ship foundations were advertising for people who already got along with each other, who were living in groups—political groups, religious groups, village groups. The Paramus, New Jersey, people weren’t the only ones who went out in a star ship looking for a quiet place where they’d be left alone. That’s how the galaxy came to be so full of Amish and Mennonites, Black Muslims and Bangladesh intellectuals, and those old-fashioned polygamist Mormons who spit three times when you mention Salt Lake City.
The only trouble was that the one halfway comfortable planet in the Rigel system already had an intelligent race living on it, a race of brown creatures with short gray tentacles who called themselves Bulbas. They were mostly peasants living off the land, and they’d just begun their industrial revolution. They had at most a small factory here, a mill or two, and a small smelting plant there. The Jews from Paramus, New Jersey, had been hoping for a planet all to themselves, but the Bulbas made them so welcome, the Bulbas wanted them so much to settle on their planet and bring in trade with the rest of the galaxy, that they looked at each other and they said, why not?
So the Jews settled there. They built a small commercial spaceport, and they built houses, and they fixed up a shul and a heder and a teenage recreation center. Nu, they called the place home.
At this point in the story, one of the rabbinical judges leaned forward and interrupted. “But while this was going on, you looked like Jews? I mean, the kind of Jews we’re familiar with?”
“Well, more or less. What we looked like particularly, we understand, was Jews from New Jersey.”
“That’s close enough. Continue.”
For a hundred, a hundred and fifty years, there was happiness and prosperity. The Jews thrived, the Bulbas thrived, and there was peace between them. But you know what Isaac Leib Peretz says about the town of Tzachnovka? “It hangs by nothing.” Every Jewish community, everywhere, hangs by nothing. And, unfortunately, nothing is not so strong. Sooner or later it gives way.
With the Jews to help them, the Bulbas began to become important. They built more factories, more smelting plants, they built banks and computer centers and automobile junkyards. They began to have big wars, big depressions, big political dictatorships. And they began to wonder why they were having them.
Is there any other answer to such a question? There’s only one answer. The Jews, naturally. Philosophers and rabble-rousers pointed out that before the Jews came there’d been no such trouble. The Jews were responsible for everything. So Rigel IV had its first pogrom.
And after the government had apologized, and helped the Jews to bury their dead, and even offered to pay for some repairs, 20 or 30 years later there was a second pogrom. And then there was a third pogrom, and a fourth pogrom. By this time, the government was no longer apologizing, and it was the Jews who were paying for repairs.
Now there came ghettos, there came barring from certain occupations, there even came, from time to time, concentration camps. Not that it was all terrible: There were pleasant interludes. A government of murderers would be followed by a halfway decent government, a government, say, of just maimers. The Jews sank into the position of the Jews who lived in Yemen and Morocco a thousand years ago, in the 18th and 19th centuries. They did the dirtiest, most poorly paid work of all. Everybody spit at them, and they spit at themselves.
But Jews they remained. They continued their religious studies, even though, on the whole planet by this time, there was not one set of the Talmud without missing books, there was not one Torah scroll without empty spaces. And the centuries went by, and they knew wars and tyrannies, devastations and exterminations. Until recently, when a new, enlightened government had come to power over all of Rigel IV. It had restored citizenship to the Jews and allowed them to send a delegation to the Neozionist Congress.
The only trouble was that by this time, after all they’d been through, they looked like just plain Bulbas. And they look like the weakest, poorest Bulbas of all, Bulbas of the very lowest class.
But in the past couple of months they’d learned that this sort of thing had happened to other Jews, in other places. Jews tended to blend into their environment. After all, hadn’t there been blonde Jews in Germany, redheaded Jews in Russia, black Jews—the Falashas—in Ethiopia, tall Mountain Jews in the Caucasus who had been as fine horsemen and marksmen as their neighbors? Hadn’t there been Jews who settled in China far back in the Han Dynasty and who were known in the land as the “T’ai Chin Chiao”? What about the blue Jews sitting in this very Congress? And for that matter—
Another interruption. “These are normal physiological changes that can be explained on a reasonable genetic basis.”
If it’s possible for a brown cushion with short gray tentacles to look shocked, this brown cushion with short gray tentacles looked shocked. “Are you suggesting that such Jews—the Chinese Jews, the Russian Jews—intermarried and were allowed to remain within the congregation?”
“No, but there are other possibilities. Rape, for example.”
“So much rape? Again and again?”
The judges muttered to each other uncomfortably. Then:
“In other words, despite your appearance, you’re asking us to believe that you are Jews, and not Bulbas?”
The brown cushion stretched forward with all of its tentacles. “No, we are asking you to believe that we are Bulbas. Jewish Bulbas.”
And it explained about the genealogical charts it was offering in evidence. The most prized possession of every Jewish family on Rigel IV was its genealogical chart. These records had been preserved intact through fires and wars and pogroms, no matter what else had been destroyed. No Jewish wedding ever took place on Rigel IV unless both parties could produce totally validated genealogical charts. Through them, each Jewish Bulba could trace his ancestry back to the very first settlers on the planet.
“I, for example,” the speaker said proudly, “I, Yitzhak ben Pinchas, am the direct descendant of Melvin Cohen, the assistant manager of a supermarket in Paramus, New Jersey.”
And the argument got thicker and thicker. How is it possible, the judges wanted to know, for such tremendous changes to take place? Isn’t it more likely that at some time or another all the Jews on Rigel IV were wiped out and that then there was a mass conversion of some sort, similar to the one experienced among the Khazars of the eighth century and the Japanese later? No, said the Bulbas, if you knew what conditions have been like for Jews on Rigel IV you wouldn’t talk about mass conversions to Judaism. That would have been mass insanity. All that happened is that we began as ordinary Jews, we had a lot of trouble, a lot of time went by, and when it was over this is what we looked like.
“But that denies the experimental facts of biology!”
The Bulbas were very reproachful. “Who are you going to believe, the experimental facts of biology—or your fellow Jews?”
And that was just the first day. I got back to my apartment and I told my brother all about it. We began discussing the case. He took one side and I took the other. In a few minutes, I was waving my fist in his face and he was screaming that I was “an idiot, an animal!” From the next room we heard the wonder-working rabbi from Procyon XII trying to quiet down a similar argument among the members of his court.
“They want to be Jews,” my brother yelled at me, “let them convert to Judaism. Then they’ll be Jews. Not before.”
“Murderer!” I said to him. “Dolt of dolts! How can they convert to Judaism when they’re already Jews? Such a conversion would be a filthy, shameful mockery!”
“Without a conversion I absolutely refuse to go up on the bimma and read a portion with one of them. Without a conversion they cannot join my minyan, even if no matter where I look I can’t come up with more than nine men. Without a conversion, even if I’m celebrating a circumcision ceremony for a son—” He broke off, his eyes got suddenly calmer, more thoughtful. “How do they circumcise, do you suppose, Milchik? Where and what do they circumcise?”
“They cut off a very little bit from the tip of their shortest tentacle, Uncle Fleishik,” said my Aaron David, who’d just walked in. “It’s a fold of flesh that looks a lot like a foreskin. Besides, you know, only one drop of blood is required by the Covenant. Blood they got.”
“A new specialty,” said Sylvia as she put out the supper. “Now, God be praised and thanked, my son is a mohel.”
Aaron David kissed her. “Put my supper aside until later, Mamma. Me and the Bulbas are going to meet with Rabbi Smallman in his study.”
Let me tell you, maybe my son was no longer the interpreter since the Bulbas had found voices, but he still was their floor manager. Every day I could see him jumping from one to the other while the case was being discussed. Something special has to be looked up? They need a copy of Rov Chaim Mordecai Brecher’s Commentary on the Book of Ruth? Who goes running out of the hall to get it but my Aaron David?
After all, that turns out to be a very important issue. Ruth was a Moabite, and from her came eventually King David. And how about Ezra and the problem of the Jewish men who took Canaanite wives? And where do you fit the Samaritans in all this? Jewish women, you’ll remember, were not allowed to marry Samaritans. And what does Maimonides have to say on the subject? Maimonides is always Maimonides.
I tell you, day after day, it was like the dream of my life to listen to all those masters and sages.
And then the Court comes through time to the formation of the Jewish state in the 20th century. All those problem cases when the Ingathering began. The Bene-Israel Jews, for example, of Bombay. The other Indians called them Shanwar Teles, “Saturday oilmen,” and they were supposed to have arrived in India as a result of the invasion of Palestine by Antiochus Epiphanes. Almost all they remembered of Judaism was the Shema, and there were two castes who didn’t intermarry, one white, one black. Were they really Jewish? Were both castes Jewish? And how do you prove it?
And more up-to-date, more complicated discussions. The Japanese and the conversion of 2112, and the results among Jews of the Ryo-Ritsu tractates. The Mars-Sirius controversy and the whole problem of the blue Jews. The attitude of the Lubavitchers towards Sebastian Pombal—let Pombal and Crevea, I say, lie deep, deep in the ground—and what that meant to Israel as an independent state.
It all comes down to: What is a Jew?
So one of the Bulbas can say, in that thin, rustling voice: “Do not put me in the position of the Wicked Son in the Haggadah. Do not put me in the state of yotzei min haklal, one who departs from the Congregation. I have said we to my people; I have not said you.” So he quotes from the Passover service, and all of us have a catch in our throat and tears on our face. But it still comes down to: What is a Jew? Wherefore is this people different from every other people?
And you know something? That’s not an easy question to answer. Not with all the different kinds of Jews you’ve got around today.
So the Court can move into other, even more tangled-up places. It can weigh the definition of a human being that was worked out by the Council of Eleven Nations Terrestrial, during the Sagittarian War. It can look at Napoleon’s questions on intermarriage and the answers of the Paris Sanhedrin of 1807. It can turn at last to Kabbalah, even if three of its members don’t want to, and ask about the problem of monster births that are brought on by cohabitation with the Children of Lilith. But in the end it has to decide what a Jew is, once and for all—or it has to find some kind of new way out.
Rabbi Smallman found some kind of new way out. On Venus, I’m telling you, have we got a rabbi!
Since this was a special court, set up under special circumstances, facing a question nobody had ever faced before, I expected more than one decision. I expected sweet and sour decisions, hot decisions and cold decisions, chopped decisions and marinated decisions. I was sure we’d see them “confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” But no. Rabbi Smallman argued with each and all, and he brought them around to one point of view, and he wrote most of what was the final judgment. To bring a bunch of Jews—and learned Jews!—to a single decision, that, my friend, is an achievement that can stand.
All through the case, whenever an argument broke out between the judges, and it looked like we were going to spend a couple of weeks on whether it was a black thread or a white thread, you’d see Rabbi Smallman scratch the red pimple on the side of his nose and say that maybe we could all agree on the fact that at least it was a piece of thread? And I got the impression—I admit it’s a father speaking—that he looked at my Aaron David, and that my Aaron David nodded. This was even before they came in with a judgment.
Of course, between us, they knew they had to come in with a something. The Congress was at a standstill, the delegates didn’t know how many delegates there were, and they were arguing the matter out every day along with the Court. There were fights over the Bulbas, there were factions over the Bulbas, and a lot of people had gone home already saying they were sick and tired of the Bulbas.
The decision reviewed all the evidence, all the commentaries, all the history, from Ezra and Nehemia on. It showed what was to be said for the conservative group in the Court, the group which began and ended with the traditional proposition that a Jew is someone who is provably the child of a Jewish mother. Then it went into what was to be said for the liberal-radical wing, the people who felt that a Jew is anyone who freely accepts the ol, the yolk, the burden, of Jewishness. And then the decision discussed a couple of positions in between, and it pointed out that there was no way to sew them all together.
But do they have to be sewn together? Is there any chance that a human being and a Bulba will mate? And what happens if we go deeper and deeper into space, to another galaxy even, and we find all kinds of strange creatures who want to become Jews? Suppose we find a thinking entity whose body is nothing but waves of energy, do we say, no, you’re entirely unacceptable? Do we know for sure that it is?
Look at it another way. Among human beings there are Jews and there are goyim, gentiles. Between Jews there are a lot of different types, Reformed, blue, Levittown, Williamsburg, and they don’t get along with each other so good, but measure them against goyim and they’re all Jews. Between Jew and goy there are a lot of differences, but measure them against any alien and they’re both human beings. The word goy does not apply to aliens. Up to recently.
We’ve all seen, in the last century or two, how some creatures from the star Vega have adopted an Earth-type religion, two different Earth-type religions, in fact. The Moshe Dayanists and the Ommayads. They won’t let us into the land of Israel, they maneuver against us, they persecute us. Are these ordinary aliens, then? Certainly not! They may look nonhuman, like crazy giant oysters, but they definitely have to be put into the category of goyische aliens. Aliens may be aliens, but the Vegans are quite different as far as Jews are concerned: The Vegans are alien goyim.
Well, if there are alien goyim, why can’t there be alien Jews? We don’t expect human goyim to marry alien goyim, and we don’t expect human Jews to marry alien Jews. But we can certainly face the fact that there are aliens who live as we do, who face problems as we do, and—if you don’t mind—who worship as we do. There are aliens who know what a pogrom tastes like, and who also know the sweetness of our Sabbath. Let’s put it this way: There are Jews—and there are Jews. The Bulbas belong in the second group.
These are not the exact words of the decision, you understand. It’s a kind of free translation, provided for you with no extra charge by Milchik the TV man. But it gives you enough to gnaw on.
Not everyone went along with the decision. Some of the Bulbas complained. And a whole bunch of Williamsburgniks walked out of the Congress saying, well, what could you expect? But the majority of the delegates were so happy to have the thing settled at last that they voted to let the decision stand and to accept the Bulbas. So the Bulbas were also happy: They were full Jewish delegates.
The only trouble was, just as they were finally getting down to the business of the Congress, an order came down from the Viceroy of Venus abolishing it. He said the Congress had gone on too long and it was stirring up bad feelings. All the delegates were sent packing.
Some excitement for a planet like this, no? Rabbi Smallman is still our rabbi, even though he’s famous now. He’s always going away on lecture tours, from one end of the galaxy to the other. But he always comes back to us, every year, for the High Holy Days. Well, not exactly, you know how it is, once in a while he can’t make it. A celebrity, after all. The Great Rabbi of Venus. He’s in demand.
And so’s my Aaron David, in a way. He finally made it to a yeshiva. The Bulbas are paying for it, they sent him to one on the other side of Venus, in the Yoruba Burrow. Once in a while I get a letter from him. What he plans to do, it’s the agreement he has with them, he’s going to go to Rigel IV and be their rabbi.
But of a possible bride he says nothing. Listen, maybe I’ll turn out to be the grandfather of a lumpy brown pillow with short gray tentacles? A grandchild, I guess, is still a grandchild.
I don’t know. Let’s talk about something cheerful. How many people would you say were killed in that earthquake on Callisto?
With thanks to Fruma Klass, Adina Klass, Andy Lanset of WNYC, and Walter Russell Mead.