Illustration by Paul Rogers

Such questions and a score of others Bernie was hard put to answer; the permissiveness of his culture, from which he felt himself unfairly excluded, was something he and everyone else took for granted. But what struck him most about the rabbi’s inquiries was that, prickly as the old man could be, he seemed more interested in than outraged by what he witnessed on television. In fact, there was an empirical tone to Eliezer’s interrogations, as if he already acknowledged the old judgments to be obsolete and was anxious to learn the nature of the new in a depraved western world.

After several weeks of this routine it was clear to Bernie that the rabbi had recovered sufficient strength to leave his confinement and walk abroad. But despite an intermittent restlessness, the old man showed no inclination to travel farther from his bed than the paneled basement across the way, and the boy, happy to prolong their present circumstances, did not encourage him to do more. Meanwhile Rabbi ben Zephyr continued his acculturation on the sofa in the rumpus room (where Bernie’s parents never ventured), absorbed by the parade of assumed infidelities that turned out to be misperceptions; the heated embraces in which the lovers were most certainly not thinking of Torah; the ads for depilatories, male enhancement, and bladder control. Mostly the old man watched with an owlish objectivity, though once there came a moment when something in the hysterical nature of the canned laughter, provoked by a German coinage, clearly disturbed him. This was when the Jew who fornicated with shikses made a joke about his girlfriend’s gaudy earrings, which clattered like a Kristallnacht.

“Vos iz Kristallnacht?” the rabbi asked Bernie a bit rhetorically, since he was unaccustomed to receiving satisfactory information from that quarter.

And it was true that only a few weeks earlier the blockish Bernie Karp would not have been able to provide an adequate answer; but owing to the Judaica that the rabbi’s venerable presence had prompted him to bring home from the Temple library, the boy was now prepared to marshal a response. In fact, he had a large book with shadowy black-and-white images, which he showed the old man. Eliezer studied the book as intently as he might once have pored over holy texts, and Bernie thought that here was the rabbi in a posture that bespoke his authentic past. Of course, the rabbi was unable to interpret the English captions, but while he seemed enthralled by the documentary photographs, he declined with a firm shake of his head Bernie’s offer to read to him. Then, without a word, he closed the book and shoved it aside, turning back to the TV, which he gazed at as one might look toward a sunrise from the prow of a ship. It was at this juncture that Bernie chose to ask once again how the rabbi had survived so long in a block of ice.

Appearing at first to ignore the question, Eliezer scratched a cheek whose skin flaked into his beard like blistered paint, then said, “I was fed on visions that even The X-Files and Extreme Makeover, l’havdil, couldn’t touch them.”

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