Illustration by Paul Rogers

But having admitted that televised fare fell short of the spiritual reaches of his once glorious meditative flights, of the life of the spirit he claimed now to have had his fill. Just then there came on the screen a commercial in which a man in a sharkskin suit, eyeglasses sliding down the slope of his needle nose, earnestly promised not to be undersold. Opening the doors of refrigerators and ovens to display their spacious interiors, he intoned, “Don’t be square; be sharp, shop at Karp’s . . .”

The rabbi groaned oy and switched channels with the remote, in the use of which he’d become quite adept.

Surprised at his own unwillingness to let the matter go, Bernie pressed the old man for details of his visionary experiences. Without deigning to look at his questioner, Eliezer answered in due course, “Maybe on TV you don’t see them, the Merkabah or the Throne of Glory; you don’t see the divine ponim—which it is the face of God—but I seen already the face of God, and I can tell you it ain’t that pretty.”

A little chilled by the old man’s disparagement, Bernie nevertheless remained single-minded. He persisted in his haphazard reading exclusive of the rabbi’s supervision, feeling that, in his sallies into the world the rabbi came from, Eliezer ben Zephyr was still his mentor and guide.

From the well-endowed library in the prairie-style synagogue a shady half mile walk from his home, Bernie checked out the standard Weinreich Yiddish grammar. The volunteer from the Temple Sisterhood, a maiden lady whose helmet of hair was riveted to her skull by plastic barrettes, seeing that the book had not been checked out in living memory, gave him a regular third degree.

“It’s not for me,” Bernie assured her, concocting a story about his father’s wanting to get back to his Jewish roots—getting back to one’s roots being a fashion frequently touted in celebrity interviews. Why he didn’t confess his own desire to decipher what his dead grandfather had scribbled in his ledger book, he couldn’t exactly have said, though his instinct was not to arouse suspicions. Besides, embroidering the truth was a talent for which Bernie had only just discovered he had a knack, and it was bracing to realize more of his hidden potential. His answer had merely elevated the inchworm of the librarian’s brow. Once home he was frustrated by the grammar’s initial inscrutability and thought he would never get past the alef-bais, but with dogged perseverance he eventually began to make some progress. While he still got nowhere with the spiky cursive in Grandpa Ruby’s age-yellowed ledger, Bernie was at least able to reconstruct in his mind the night the rabbi had tumbled forth from the freezer—when the old gent wondered aloud, on looking about at the beaverboard paneling, the beanbag pouffes, and the bowling-pin lamps, whether he was dead and the insulated cabinet was his casket. Had he arrived at last body and soul in gan eydn, in paradise?

And was Bernie, he had inquired, a zaftige malech?

“Nisht kayn malech, Rabbi,” Bernie would have apprised him if the scene were repeated. “I’m no angel. Ich bin a yiddisher kind, a Jewish kid.”

Now he was a little sorry that the old man had been disabused of his original illusions. He almost wished he could take back the information that, rather than paradise, Rabbi Eliezer was in Tennessee.

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