Illustration by Paul Rogers

“Miss Ribalow here says you want to check out the Zohar?”

Bernie repeated his refrain, “It’s not for me,” resisting an urge to pry the rabbi’s jeweled fingers from his shoulder. Again he explained that his father wanted to “get in touch”—that was the phrase he’d heard bruited about—with his Jewish heritage.

The rabbi exchanged meaningful glances with Miss Ribalow, both of them familiar (as was the entire congregation) with Julius Karp’s aggressive TV marketing campaign, which seemed incompatible with the notion of a spiritual quest. But in the end the rabbi delivered some sanctimonious banality about the function of a lending library in a free society, and issuing a transparently breezy caveat—“Tell your daddy not to conjure up any whatchamacallem, any golems, heh heh”—permitted Bernie to check out his heretical volumes. Back in the basement the boy opened them with the same palpitating excitement he’d felt when opening Madeline’s underwear drawer, but even in their abbreviated English editions, the books were impenetrable, full of sphinxlike symbols and cryptic diagrams. Bernie assumed that the books contained recipes for spells and incantations meant to result in supernatural effects; and though he’d never been especially superstitious, he wondered whether, if you followed the recipes, it might be possible for a person to enter a trance that would allow him to, say, survive a hundred years undisturbed in a block of ice. But his ignorance of mystical discipline prevented him from exploring further, and Bernie was mortally frustrated at having arrived at such an impasse. The keenness of his frustration amazed him, and he could scarcely believe that his desire for the flesh (and intimate garments) of young girls had been so readily replaced by a hunger for obscure learning.

He appealed again to Rabbi Eliezer. There was a joke among the congregants of the Reform synagogue the Karps annually attended that their temple was so progressive it closed its doors on Jewish holidays. While an exaggeration, it was true that the time-honored traditions of the Jewish people, largely expunged from the synagogue liturgy, had scarcely left a dent in Bernie’s consciousness. But the unlighted past, as represented by the fusty rabbi, now consumed the boy’s waking hours, and though most of Eliezer’s tutelage consisted of unhelpful remarks made during the less sensational TV ads, Bernie credited the rabbi with the responsibility for all his new knowledge, and thought of himself as the holy man’s protégé.

When the preoccupied Rabbi ben Zephyr waved away his solicitations, however, Bernie made a deliberate pest of himself. While the old man was absorbed in watching Your Money or Your Life or The Killing Machine or the yeasty sitcom Menage à Melvin, Bernie would station himself next to the sofa and practice religion. Experimentally, he donned the accessories he’d obtained for Eliezer, who seemed to have no use for the stuff. These included a silk kippah, a striped prayer shawl, and a set of leather phylacteries with whose complicated straps Bernie wrestled as with serpents—all items purchased with several installments of his allowance from the gift shop at the Orthodox shul in its crumbling downtown quarters, to which Bernie had made a Saturday-morning sojourn by bus. Thus attired, the boy would take up a borrowed hymnal and, nodding as he’d seen the men nod (like bobble-headed dashboard figurines) in the shopworn shul, recite the phonetically transcribed Shmoneh Esreh, a prayer intended to be said silently. The rabbi managed for the most part to ignore him, so long as he stayed out of his direct line of vision, but when Bernie began showily attempting to read in their original the Hebrew books that had already defeated him in English, an irked Eliezer was finally distracted. Provoked by the kid’s clumsy progress, the old man reluctantly disengaged himself from Love Bytes, a soap opera he followed religiously, and condescended to advise Bernie regarding a few shortcuts to enlightenment.

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