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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 10, Part 1

Abandoned by his mentor, Bernie falls back on old habits

Steve Stern
May 03, 2010

You couldn’t have called it eavesdropping, since Bernie was standing by the open French doors in full view of his father and the rabbi in their parallel chairs. Still, he felt as if he were listening to things not meant for his ears. The experience revived the sense of being invisible that had plagued him for much of his life, though the self-inflicted curse seemed lately to have been lifted. Now, however, ignored by both father and mentor, he was hurt, resentful at being excluded from a project concerning which the two of them appeared to be suddenly as thick as thieves. How had this happened? And for that matter, how could Rabbi Eliezer plan to give away (for a price) the secrets that Bernie had struggled so hard to learn? He realized he was being selfish: The old holy man was a resource whose wisdom should be available to all. Certainly Bernie appreciated that the tzaddik was a repository of worldly as well as sacred learning, his knowledge recently expanded to include a lively critique of the modern age. Still, he couldn’t shake his attitude that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr belonged to Bernie Karp alone and that the worshipful spiritual program he’d imparted to the boy should stay in the family. Moreover, though he couldn’t put his finger on it, Bernie felt there was something unkosher about marketing enlightenment in the same way a person might trade in used automobiles.

Days passed, and in the face of the frosty treatment by his mentor, Bernie fell back on old habits. Slothful again, he took to the rumpus room sofa; he abandoned his reading and thought often of abusing himself, though the admonition against Onan, who had “threshed on the inside and cast his seed without,” stayed his hand for the time being. But now that school had resumed, he was eyeing the girls with a fish-eyed yearning, as fearful of them as ever. He was more fearful, in fact, since, now that he’d lost his flab and his acne had subsided, his face had taken on a little definition, and the girls for whom he’d been beneath contempt now looked at him with only mild disfavor. Now, when he stared at their blue-marble thighs beneath the hems of kicky skirts, their midriffs and jeweled navels, the butterfly tattoos fluttering out of low-slung waists, they might look back with a measure of curiosity. They noticed him in a way that caused Bernie to feel he’d finally shed his mantle of nonentity, which made his condition all the more disquieting and aggravated the desire, which in turn increased the ache.

Though Bernie’s high school was situated in a tree-lined suburban neighborhood, its population comprised mostly of white kids from affluent families, it was nonetheless a purgatorial place. Neanderthal bullies built like brick incinerators body-checked you into lockers without warning, while preppies sporting the heraldic insignia of fraternal orders skewered you with a look. There were golden girls with their coteries of drab hangers-on; hipsters with dreadlocks and tie-dyed accessories reeking of weed, with spiked hair in primary colors, hardware piercing nostrils and lips like fish who’ve been caught and thrown back again. Young seductresses lured willing boys into the stalls of lavatories whose mounted cameras were rendered sightless by chewing gum; fledgling satyrs, their mouths shredded from entanglements with orthodontia, dragged dewy girls into the office of the guidance counselor, she herself having been sacked for inappropriate behavior with students. Having sleepwalked those chlorotic corridors from his tenderest years, Bernie, now in the eleventh grade, was alert to menace everywhere.

He no longer sought the company of those sad cases who fastened their belts just beneath their armpits and, belonging nowhere, belonged by default to each other; there was no refuge for an unaffiliated type such as Bernie Karp—not in homeroom, where the frazzled teacher’s imminent breakdown was the subject of wagers, nor in the library study hall, where monitors patrolled the aisles like prison guards. On this particular afternoon in the library not long after the rabbi’s return, Bernie was browsing—for want of Mosaic texts—aboriginal photos in a National Geographic magazine to avoid his Household Mechanics homework. (Tracked as a dullard on account of his feckless academic performance, he’d been sentenced to the gulag of vocational training.) As he glanced about in his boredom, careful not to make eye contact, Bernie’s gaze lit on the notorious Patsy Bobo, seated at an adjacent table chewing the segmented tail of her peroxide braid. Her legs were slightly splayed under the table’s surface to accommodate the spidery fingers of Scutter Eubanks, which were inching up her tender thigh beneath her skirt toward the juncture that was mystery incarnate.

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Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book award, teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.

Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book award, teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.