Illustration by Paul Rogers

Bernie, too, was greatly relieved, feeling that he now had a license to continue his sub rosa relationship with the defrosted old gentleman he was harboring in the guest-house apartment behind the family domicile.

Bernie himself would have been hard pressed to explain why the secret had to be so diligently guarded, but aware that one person could not technically belong to another, he nevertheless felt that the rabbi belonged to him. It was an attitude he’d conceived almost from the instant the old man had emerged from the freezer, when Bernie had overcome his initial repugnance to swaddle the rabbi’s frail bones in bath towels. Then he’d outfitted the creaky old party in a pair of his father’s flannel pajamas before installing him in the guest house out back. This was the independent efficiency unit that had remained unoccupied (excluding Nettie’s periodic dustings and Madeline’s romantic rendezvous) since the death of his Grandpa Ruby soon after Bernie was born.

During his first few days in the world the hand-me-down holy man had remained in a relatively stuporous condition, stunned and cranky after his sudden awakening, while his convalescence stirred the boy to action as nothing in his experience ever had. At first he’d brought the rabbi table scraps, which were meager during the period between Nettie’s departure and the hiring of a new maid-of-all-work. Later, squirreling away portions of his own meals in napkins, Bernie was able to smuggle the old man more substantial fare: a sparerib, some boiled shrimps in cocktail sauce, a nibbled ham and cheese omelet, cookies rich in butter and animal fat. Weak from having fasted for over a century, the rabbi could at first only manage to pick at the food, but soon his appetite returned with a healthy gusto and he began to gobble up everything the kid set before him. Bernie, whose religious education was limited to a few Bible verses from his forgotten Sunday school days, nevertheless sensed that these offerings might be in violation of some primitive dietary code. Feeling he ought perhaps to research the rabbi’s care and feeding, he made an unprecedented excursion to the library at the suburban temple his family attended on high holidays, where he checked out an illustrated volume entitled To Be a Jew. Perusing its pages, the boy came to understand that he’d been sustaining the old man on filth. Though his vocabulary even in his native English was not extensive—conversation was never his forte—Bernie made an effort to apologize to the rabbi for his trespass in the droll language he had begun to pick up snatches of.

“Ich bin nebechdik, rabbi,” he offered in an unusual foray into humility, and further testing the water, “Hab rachmones?”

“Moychl,” responded the rabbi dismissively, slouched in a morris chair examining the piping on the lapel of Mr. Karp’s cotton batik bathrobe. “A deigah hob ich.” And as he was himself a quick study: “Takhe, think of it nothing.”

After that Bernie tried assiduously to separate meat from dairy in the dishes he smuggled to the old man. Viewed suspiciously by the lady volunteer at the temple library, who was unaccustomed to borrowers of any age, least of all adolescents, Bernie checked out several kosher cookbooks and, despite having never made anything more ambitious than toast, expressed his readiness to attempt broiled udder, stuffed spleen, tripe, liver, lungs, and pupiklekh. The recovering rabbi suffered the kid’s good intentions with a minimum of irritation but asked when he might have the opportunity to taste again “the insects from the sea.”

These were the great days for Bernie Karp.

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