Illustration by Paul Rogers

Came the evening meal when Mr. Karp asked his son if he knew anything about certain books that had been checked out of the library at Congregation Felix Frankfurter. It seemed he had had a phone call from Rabbi Tommy Birnbaum expressing concern about some volumes of “mysticalism” (the rabbi could scarcely contain his distaste at pronouncing the word) that Miss Ribalow had brought to his attention, which had yet to be returned.

“He wanted me to know I should always feel free to talk to him, called me Julius, this Rabbi Whosits who don’t know me from Adam. Then he asks me do I think it’s appropriate that I should send a boy to fetch such books. Son, you got something to say to me?”

There had, of course, been other clues to the effect that all was not as it had been in the Karp household. For one thing, while Bernie continued to clean his plate each night and ask for more, the kid had begun to lose weight, his amorphous body assuming a more recognizably human form. Moreover, his pimples had started to retreat like a defeated army from his forehead and cheeks, leaving behind a pitted visage revealing rudimentary traces of character. But Julius Karp and his wife, otherwise engaged, had never been especially sensitive to changes in their son’s physiognomy. What Mr. Karp was aware of, however, was that certain items of his own sartorial wardrobe—a bathrobe, a shirt, a houndstooth jacket, a pair of Dacron slacks—had gone missing, an absence he attributed to the newly hired schwartze’s presumed kleptomania; and he had duly ordered his wife (who ignored him) to confront Cleopatra, the maid.

“Well, young man,” pressed Mr. Karp, slightly uncomfortable in the role of interrogator, “I’m all ears.” Which he flapped Dumbo fashion to ease the tension. “So what’s the story?”

Bernie assured him there was no story, then muttered some excuse about researching a social studies paper on the Jews.

“Jews?” Mr. Karp made a face as if sampling some foreign dish. Bernie’s school, whose season had recommenced, was in any case largely run by Southern Baptists who gave short shrift to the very idea of Jews, let alone inviting papers on their habits and mores. “Isn’t that an awfully broad topic?”

“Yessir,” said Bernie, which was a bit of a give-away, since nowhere in memory had he ever said “sir” to his father. “But I only have to name the main attractions,” digging himself a deeper hole. To try and climb out of it, he began to cite highlights from the Judaic tradition in both its normative and antinomian aspects, remarking upon the influence of various saints and religious geniuses. In the midst of a discourse that threatened to run away with him, he realized that his parents’ mouths were hanging open in response to their son’s unnatural erudition, so Bernie shut up. Still the jaws of Mr. and Mrs. Karp remained mutually agape, though their eyes had shifted from the boy to the middle distance beyond Bernie’s left shoulder. Bernie swiveled in his seat to follow their gaze, which lit upon Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr himself, standing squarely beneath the dining room’s proscenium arch. He was wearing a felt fedora and a houndstooth jacket several sizes large, a burgundy shirt with a parrot necktie fastened about his wattled throat (visible now beneath his unevenly trimmed beard) in a combination of a Windsor and a Gordian knot.

“I think,” announced the old man, his flesh as translucent as beeswax, marsupial pouches beneath his rheumy eyes, “I will like now to see for mayn self the Golden Land.”

Oscillating between horror and disbelief, Mr. Karp turned again to his son. “You knew all the time he was still around?”

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