Bernie was beside himself with relief at the rabbi’s homecoming, though the delinquent holy man scarcely acknowledged him, brushing past the open-mouthed boy in his haste to talk with Bernie’s father. It seemed that in his three days of wandering, the old man had seen a lot of life, and returning bug-eyed and bathed in sweat—the fedora battered, the sportcoat soiled, the loud parrot necktie hanging from his throat like a noose—Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr had reached a stunning conclusion about the world he’d recently awakened to.
“Shopping bazaars it’s got, and Dodge Barracudos and Gootchie bags made I think from the skin of Leviathan, churches from Yoyzel it’s got big as Herod’s Temple, but it ain’t got a soul.”
All this he communicated breathlessly—less judgmental than plainly impressed—to Mr. Karp, who, relaxing in his postprandial recliner, appeared confused at first as to just who the intruder was. He was doubly disturbed, once he’d recalled the prodigal’s identity, that the old man should have planted himself directly between his chair and the wide-screen television—on which he was viewing his favorite program, a comedy called Nobody Likes Larry about a harassed family man. When his wife, looking up from a novel whose cover featured a woman swooning into the arms of a grenadier, reminded him that this was the fugitive from the deep freeze, Julius Karp snapped that he knew perfectly well who it was. On that note Mrs. Karp popped a Spansule from her heart-shaped pillbox and rose to tiptoe exaggeratedly out of the room. Meanwhile the bedraggled rabbi kept on reporting his reconnoitering of latter-day America, or at least the representative slice of it he’d seen.
“The people, they are such chazzers, all the time gobbling: gobble gobble; they feast on everything that it’s in their sight. They eat till their bellies swell by them like Goliath his hernia, and shop till their houses bulge from the electronic Nike and the Frederick of Hollywood balconette brassiere, but they ain’t satisfied.”
Jerking a lever as if shifting a gear, Mr. Karp brought his Stratalounger to an upright position. He was mightily irked at the way the old freeloader added insult to injury, compounding the crime of his return with an uninvited lecture on ethics. A firm believer in free-market economy, Mr. Karp resented the notion, tired as it was, that there was any higher principle on earth than goods and services. How dare this phantom of the ice box presume to instruct him, Julius Karp, citizen merchant—and in his own borrowed finery yet.
“Riches they got would make a Rothschild blush,” continued the rabbi, who seemed more gleeful than provoked; in fact, he seemed intoxicated, “but they ain’t got what makes them happy.”
“So?” said Mr. Karp, trying to keep a lid on his impatience. He’d heard the same commonplaces from Rabbi Birnbaum in his High Holiday sermons, though Birnbaum had the discretion to qualify his assaults on mammon so as not to offend the comfortable congregation who paid his salary. But from the perspective of his thronelike recliner, in front of which the wizened petitioner stood hat in hand, Mr. Karp (subvocally groaning) felt obligated to hear the old man out. “What exactly are you getting at?”
“I’m proposing,” the rabbi humbly submitted, “to restore to the people their soul.”
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