Illustration by Paul Rogers

Never more than a mediocre student, unmotivated and lazy, Bernie was becoming daily more driven in his pursuit of the knowledge that would help him understand old Eliezer’s provenance. Seated beside the rabbi on the harvest plaid sofa adjacent to the squawking TV, he read his parents’ copies of The Joys of Yiddish and The World of Our Fathers, books that were standard issue in Jewish households but appeared never to have been opened in this one. He read their coffee-table edition of Abba Eban’s Heritage, a profusely illustrated history of the Jews that was a companion book to a TV series, videos of which were available in the Temple library. But Bernie never bothered viewing them: there would have been little opportunity to watch them on the downstairs VCR without interrupting the rabbi’s programs, and besides, he was coming to prefer the printed word to the video image. Unsatisfied by the generic texts on his parents’ sparsely populated shelves, however, he lugged home from the Temple library (to the librarian’s tacit disapproval) several moldy volumes of Heinrich Graetz’s comprehensive history of the Jews. These Bernie entered gingerly at first, feeling like an interloper in their forensic pages, then impressed himself by devouring the books as greedily as the doughnuts he’d habitually bolted in the days before the rabbi’s defrosting. In fact, his desire for physical nourishment seemed to have been deposed by his burgeoning intellectual appetite.

In the Graetz history there were references to other books of dubious repute, with bizarre titles such as The Cockscomb of Rabbi Yahyah or The Book of the Face that gave Bernie a peculiar itch. They were books the author of the magisterial history derided as hokum, though the boy, whose association with the wayward rabbi had given him a taste for maverick perspectives, couldn’t help but be curious. They were books of hermetic mysteries and forbidden knowledge, some of which—The Book Bahir, The Sefer Yetzirah—Bernie was astonished to find in abridged translations in the Temple library. Only, this time when he tried to check them out, the librarian sniffed her displeasure and told him to wait, then marched out of the glaringly lit room and returned after some minutes with Rabbi Birnbaum himself. He was a man in his middle years with a hairpiece and an artificial tan, his heliotrope shirt open at his slightly crepey throat to reveal a gold mezuzah.

“So . . . Bernie, is it?” placing a ring-laden hand on Bernie’s shoulder. The boy nodded. “What seems to be the problem?”

“There’s a problem?” asked Bernie, somewhat disingenuously.

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