My favorite page of Talmud (it also happens to be the only page I know) teaches me that Gehenna, the Jewish version of hell, differs from Dante’s: It does not condemn us to abandon hope. We may, it seems, in some non-specific manner, come back from down there unless we’ve made ourselves guilty of one very particular sin. No, it’s not taking of the Lord’s name in vain. It has nothing to do with sex. And it isn’t the spilling of blood in the ordinary sense. It’s making someone blush or, as the Talmud has it, making someone blanch. The Talmud gives examples of what to not do: Don’t make a fool of the shopkeeper by asking him for the price of an item you have no intention of buying. Don’t speak about hanging up the fish (or, let’s say, your coat) in the house where someone has been hanged. In other words, we’re doomed to eternity in Gehenna unless we make ourselves responsible not only for the words we speak but how these words are heard and experienced by the person to whom we speak them.
I think the witty Talmud is having us on: You mean we must, all of us, abandon hope? Who hasn’t even once, even just since last Yom Kippur, mortified a neighbor with a careless act, a thoughtless word, or, as in the small event I want to talk about, harmed another person with an unjust thought?
Here is the story of a wrong I did a person to whom I can’t apologize because I don’t remember—may never have known—his name, for something that he never knew anything about since it happened entirely inside my own head.
When I first arrived in New York, someone found me a job at the Jewish Agency for Palestine. It was 1951. I had a degree in English Literature from the University of London, but I had no typing and was hired as a file clerk. I spent my mornings hand-copying lists of manufacturers and the dates, locations from and to, and means by which they were scheduled to transfer quantities of items with abstract and curious names of what might, so far as I knew, have been spare parts for plowshares, or armored tanks.
Midday, I would take the elevator to the ground floor where the clever and delightful Miriam H.—sad that we lost contact—operated the switchboard. We’d carry our presumably kosher brown-bags across Fifth Avenue and eat our lunches in the Central Park Zoo.
Why does the mise-en-scene of an elegant interior converted into office space keep turning up in my stories? During London’s postwar years, bomb-damaged Bedford College for Women had to rent a Regent’s Park mansion for additional space. Our Shakespeare lectures were held in a ballroom with pale, scalloped walls, an Adams fireplace, and fitted with industrial overhead lighting. The Jewish Agency in New York was located near the corner of the avenue in a lovely townhouse. From outside its size seemed modest; one was surprised at the several floors of rooms that were grand on a human scale, with handsome doors and windows. Its old bird-cage elevator with the open ironwork is the locus of my nano story:
The elevator’s doors open and outside, in the foyer, stands one of the agency’s rabbis. I may, or may not, as I’ve said, have known his name. If he and I had exchanged words socially or in the course of agency business, I don’t remember it, nor could I pick out his face from a police line-up; it was markedly unremarkable except for the narrow nose not unlike my own.
I had noted, passing him in the hall or on the stairways, that the era’s exaggerated shoulder pads looked silly on a man of little stature; his suits, I thought, were too light. And so this rabbi and I stand face to face, he waiting to get on the elevator, I wanting to get off to find Miriam and go and eat our lunch in the park. For me to step out of the elevator would be to walk over or through the rabbi who is not moving out of my way. By preventing me from getting off, he is necessarily preventing himself from getting on to go wherever he is going.
So, what happened? Nothing happened. From my early 20s to my 80s, the rabbi in the too-light suit and shoulder pads has recurred in my memory—is it once or twice a year, or only once, maybe, in five years? He irritates me. I think ill of a person—a rabbi!—whose sense of self leaves zero awareness of another person and of that person’s probable wants and needs. Max Frisch, the Swiss novelist and playwright, speaks of the phenomenon of people entering a bus and remaining congregated at the entrance, preventing those coming behind them from getting aboard. On our irritable days, says Frisch (he means the days he hasn’t written one good paragraph), we despair of mankind.
But why, for more than half a century, does this slightest of events continue to come into consciousness? Is it that my conscience suspects there is something wrong with this picture? Look again: Why am I not carrying the brown-paper lunch bag? Because I’m not on my way down to find Miriam to go to—I am returning from the park! The picture has flipped: It’s me waiting in the foyer to get on the elevator. I have been so preoccupied with despairing of mankind and being irritated with the innocent rabbi and his shoulder pads that I have not moved out of his way to let him get off the elevator so I can get on and return up to the floor on which I work.
Well, that took 60-plus years to put right. And don’t we know that the next and every future Yom Kippur we’ll need to knock on our breasts with our clenched fists and name the regular, the ancient list of our misjudgments and our misbehaviors?
Lore Segal’s most recent books are Lucinella, and Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.