Commentary Magazine


Eulogy for an American Boy

The Rabbi, a large moon-faced man with bifocals and only the smallest of beards, announced, “Please rise, the entire congregation.” While he prayed in swift sonorous Hebrew, ushers passed bunches of booklets from pew to pew. Presently the rabbi made a sign to sit. “Open to page four,” he instructed, “where the print is big.”

He read, “Extolled and hallowed be the name of God throughout the world which He has created according to His will. And may He speedily establish His kingdom of righteousness on earth. Amen.”

He was answered, “Praised be His glorious name unto all eternity.”

The rabbi now took a step away from his lectern and looked intently at the coffin, as though seeking a cue. He nodded vigorously four or five times, after which he said, “Bereaved family and friends, we live in a time, a generation, a society when it’s supposed to be not nice to bellyache over the pain and trouble of living. Feel, but don’t cry, take punishment, but don’t show. Keep everything nice, neat, under control. And no details. ‘How was the day?’ says the wife when you get home. ‘A day like a day,’ you tell her. Never mind that where you buy the paper every morning you got shortchanged. Never mind that you had a little bit of nastiness with this one or that one in the office which gave you a terrible sour stomach, or on the elevator going down the boss said such a cold goodnight. Nobody is interested in the routine and the petty. Like in the movies or the television a person might say, ‘I feel hungry, I think I’ll go eat,’ and the next thing you see him smile and take a cigar and say, ‘Oh, what a good meal I had.’ Who cares in case he had to wait ten minutes for a table, and who wants to know that he found dirt in the napkin? Or if he’s supposed to die, how does he die? I assure you, dear friends, he won’t be in a hospital with tubes sticking up his nose and getting needles and painful tests and doctors coming back and forth for consultations. He cracks a little joke, he closes his eyes, and goodbye and good luck. Better than that, how many times—how many, many times—you’re walking where there are children and one falls down and with tears runs to the mother. ‘Momma, momma, I hurt myself.’ Poor thing, what it gets is not a kiss and a cuddle, but a sock across the face. All right, you have to teach not to be a wild Indian and to cross a street looking on both sides. The Talmud says, ‘Blessed is the hand, no matter how hard and heavy, which instructs in a good thing.’ Except here, what is the mother’s purpose and principle? Only to show the kid it should keep everything inside. It should have one tough face for everything. That’s today’s living, and everybody is a Humphrey Bogart.”

“The rabbi coughed, and in the cough his next few words were swallowed. “. . . life and death. . . .” He hacked and rasped and then, finding breath, continued in a louder voice. “Life and death no one cares about like they used to. I remember once upon a time you celebrated a birth and you mourned a death, and in between you recognized, clear-cut and simple, you were growing older, you were aging and dying every minute. A religious Jew would have his burial cloth, his shroud right next to where he kept his tallis. This way he was reminded that he had no written agreement with God, that he couldn’t guarantee today what he would be tomorrow. And when he went people would carry on, the oldest and the youngest, and no one was ashamed to make a scene and no one withheld himself. Nowadays—nowadays they can’t wait to bury and forget. You dassn’t spend an extra second, you dassn’t say an extra word. ‘Rabbi, please go easy, my wife has sick nerves. . . . Rabbi, you shouldn’t be insulted, but do everybody a favor, make it quick, simple and quick. . . .’”

Humbling his back and deeply bowing his head, the rabbi let all present understand that for any small pleasure a top price must be paid.

“The body is telling you every second how you have it too good. Did you look a little too long and with too much satisfaction at the grandchildren? Take a few palpitations. Did the wife pick up a nice bedspread and covers for the couch? Let her have a low back pain. Did you get a particularly first-class haircut from the barber? Here, here’s a cavity, or a little piece off the bridgework. Did you get a perfect fit in a cheap suit right off the rack? Pay for it with acid in the stomach and a trifle too much albumen and sugar in the blood. Did the father-in-law send a postal from Miami and a box of mixed fruits? Give him a dizziness when bending, a stone in the kidney, a swelling in the prostate.”

Saying this, the rabbi meditated silently for a while, pressing and grinding against the lectern in a way that must have been brutal against his bones.

He pulled a handful of tissues from somewhere in his sagging jacket, patted his mouth and said further, “Talk to the body and you talk to an enemy. Argue and back-talk sooner with the cop on the beat and the good God in heaven, with the hoodlum who wants your money and the murderer who wants your life. Kid it along a little. Promise how you’ll take better care of it, staying out of drafts, no lifting and bending, avoiding spicy foods. You’ll cut down and you’ll build up. You won’t go in on Saturdays, you’ll ride on the local to get a seat, you’ll think a hundred times before you raise your voice or climb a little flight of stairs. Plead with it. Tell how you’re special and unique, a person who likes one soap and not another, who has to get into a certain posture before you fall asleep and can’t bear if the newspaper isn’t folded your particular way. Never mind, says the body, never mind. I’m not interested. With me you cut no ice, with me you’re only a bad blood vessel, a deficiency in the heart, a spot on the lung, a swelling on a gland, an abscess they can’t heal. When I get impatient, when I get irritated and give the say-so, you’ll be only a thing. I’ll push, you’ll fall. And where you fall you’ll lie. . . .”

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His voice waning, his intonation altered, the rabbi said, “In the commentary of Rabbi Menahem ben Solomon Ha-Meiri he tells us that even though—even though punishment full and final is handed out in the world to come, still in all every person and individual gets a taste and sniff of his punishment in this world, in this life. Why does he say punishment and not say reward? He says punishment because all who are born are born to die and all who die are called up to a judgment. Whether you like it or not, nobody asks. For every little action and every little thought, also for what you didn’t do and didn’t think, the Almighty will weigh and measure. In this world, in this life, you have to expect it, you have to live with it, on top of your other troubles. That on the Day of Judgment in the Valley of Jehoshaphat you’ll be called up. Either to everlasting life or to such a shaming there’s no imagining how terrible.”

Item by item, the rabbi listed the punishments of the sinner. The long dead and the unborn would shun him. He would seek to confess his wickedness, but he would grow dumb. At the gates of Gehenna imps would afflict him, as well as vast armies of demons, who would pull him from the right and from the left. They would turn him into a snake and cause him to shed his skin. He would become as a leaf, shivering in the wind. In his heart would be unbridled desire, but no way to appease it. Thirty times thirty times would his seed be cursed. By kin and next of kin unto thirty times thirty generations, who would chant the Chapter of Curses. He would be sent forth as a Dybbuk, and his name added to the Book of Evil. All this through eternity, till the end of days, and only after the battle of Armageddon, when the ram’s horn would blow and there would be drums and dancing in the street for the Messiah.

“For such reasons and others which this is not the place to go into it’s common sense that a man ought to do whatever he can to get everlasting life. He has to please God, and there’s not one way of pleasing God—because what kind of God would it be that you pleased in only one way? Some do it by teaching, some do it by learning, another by fasting and still another by eating. Which is why the Tsaddik of Lublin used to say, ‘Everyone should see what way his heart draws him to, and then he should choose this way with all his might.’ Bereaved family and friends, in my opinion—and I don’t say it just because it’s the occasion—the too-recently departed was such a person.”

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And the rabbi continued, “He had very high moral and intellectual qualities which gave him an interest in everything and in everything a desire to ex-cel. Where there was a subject he came across he would read up—this I myself testify. About certain parts of Jewish custom and history he forgot more than I’ll ever know. In any argument he could hold his own. His father tells me he used to write away to all the Congressmen for pamphlets and little packages of seeds, and that once he got a personal letter signed by Senator La Follette and a special pass he could use when he wanted to come to Washington. From nothing he made little airplanes. Before Bar Mitzvah he went into a newspaper contest on why we need the League of Nations and he won one of the top prizes. There was even a scandal; they found out his age, that he was such a kid, and they didn’t believe. His parents had to make a special trip with him down to the office and sign statements he was the author and he got absolutely no help. In the libraries he became a terrible nuisance. They kept him in the children’s section and he would pester grown-ups they should get him books he wasn’t permitted. From what I understand he also had an interest in chess, a high talent, and if he had developed it he might have made a name.

“We shouldn’t think of him as only a book reader. He was a New York boy, an American boy, a boy from our century, and being such means Babe Ruth and the Katzenjammer Kids and Tar-zan of the Apes and chewing gum and bad marks in conduct and talking fresh and not paying attention. When he wanted, he had a marvelous head for Talmud Torah, except that he seldom wanted and gave the rebbe trouble. He would get moods and not want to dress up, though his parents provided him the finest clothes. Instead of carrying a brief case he would tie around his books with an old belt, he absolutely refused to put on any kind of hat, and he lost expensive fountain pens, special compasses for arithmetic, mufflers and gloves. Things like that. He reached a time when nothing his parents did pleased. Particularly the father, whose feelings he hurt by his criticism of everything. They would have fights because his father got enjoyment from reading the News and the Mirror and wasn’t happy that the unions got into his shop. Bear in mind that he was in knickers yet. One time his father told him, ‘Boychick, if I’m an exploiter then what are you since you eat and drink from my exploiting?’ The result—the result was for two days he took in his mouth nothing but pretzel sticks and water. Till the father, being a father, naturally couldn’t bear it and went and brought him home records and a really expensive set of. . . .”

“Murderers!” From up front there was commotion and a shrill rising pitch. “He’s breathing! What are you doing to him, murderers!”

“No, no, no,” the rabbi said, rapping lightly on the lectern a few times. “You mustn’t, you dassn’t. You wet his grave, you don’t let him rest easy.” Even so, a sob cracked his next sentence. “He had . . .” He took time to blow his nose and fiddle with his yarmelke. “He had a clear mind, and maybe too clear. There was nothing he would let pass, nothing he would be deceived by. In a minute he could make people think that they didn’t know who they were, what they wanted or where they stood in relation to the world, that they didn’t tell the truth or show their true feelings or try to live in a worthwhile way. He wanted they should be critical, they should look to see from where their feet grow. He was an underminer. It’s a special power which in a way he would have been better off not having. Because it’s not appreciated and can do harm. ‘Hey, hey,’ people would tell him. ‘What do you want from us, what do you expect from us? Leave us alone. We can barely lift our feet and you’re telling us to be Nijinskys. We’re grateful they don’t throw stones at us and you want us to start revolutions. We whisper shah and you bellow gevald. We say yes and you say no. Leave us alone. Go away. Realize who you’re dealing with. Bear in mind that we’re Kleiner menshen who have nerve only to ask for small things. Our God is the God of kleiner menshen, a civil service God, a God of professionals. Our concerns are his concerns. That the apartment should be painted every few years. That the slip covers should fit. That we should be able to furnish homes for our daughters and offices for the sons. That when we cut velvets they shouldn’t order cottons. Leave us alone. We don’t want trouble, we don’t want to know too much. . . .’”

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The rabbi rumbled on, saying, “The average individual doesn’t learn how to see or to be curious. Things go into his mind just so far, just to such and such a point and place, and there it finishes. He doesn’t like to be surprised by life or have his habits upset. Tell him you’re Jack the Ripper, show him your big knife with blood on it and he’ll answer, ‘Mister, pardon me, I get off the next stop.’ However, with the departed who we now remember you had a great, a remarkable interest in people and phenomenon. I recall very fondly how some years ago I met him by the library when we both had a little time to spare and how we walked around and then went for a bite. What a delight it was, what a pleasure! The way he saw the city, the streets, the way he was open to the least little thing! Here he saw a tree, he knew it by name. There he noticed a woman walking with a funny dog and he pats and plays with the animal and before we walk away finds out whatever there is to find out about the breed, how smart they are, what they like to eat. In no time he was her best friend. And that wasn’t all. I’m with him maybe two hours, and what we didn’t talk about, what ground we didn’t cover! The different type elevators they have. The way big buildings are made so they can take the shocks from subway trains. Where you go if you want to get books rebound at a reasonable price. How you should break in a pipe. What to look for in a pair of new shoes. The swollen profits in drug supplies. Also the way Jews lived under the Romans. Also the inventing of clocks. Also the greatness of Winston Churchill, and his feelings about Jews. Also Joe Louis, Fatty Arbuckle, Bertrand Russell, and I think the future of Israel. We went in then to eat. A place I never noticed though I used to be in the neighborhood three times a week. Everyone—everyone there knew him and he knew everyone. The counterman, when he saw him walk over, must have gained ten pounds. We, we wanted to order the corned beef, but he gives us a wink and makes a motion toward the brisket. And he put together a pair of healthy sandwiches that if the boss saw him he could have been fired then and there. With potato salad I don’t think he punched out on the check, plus sour pickles. . . .

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“Was he doing it for show?” The rabbi made the words softly. “I would personally doubt it. I would say he had a temperament that was a giving temperament and believed that giving returns giving and love returns love. Like for no reason at all he starts a conversation with the cashier. He was buying a pack of cigarettes and when she hands him the matches he says to her, ‘Isn’t it strange—isn’t it strange how I buy a pack of cigarettes in New York, in Manhattan, and I get with it a matchbook from a bank in Chicago?’ Now, whether because there was a line of customers, or whether because she thought he was getting fresh she didn’t answer and I felt hurt for him. Because here also he was trying to give, and like with so many things in his life he didn’t know where or when. He, he wanted to be part of her existence, to leave her with a deep idea, but probably he only upset her and threw off her figuring.”

The rabbi thereupon turned the pages of a large pad, moistening two fingers on his tongue. After a long instant of thought, he said, “I have already talked more than I wanted to and maybe more than I should. But I notice here how I had a few important, significant points to bring out which would give us a better understanding of this fine person to who we pay homage. Children and family I have written down. An item I should cover. All right. In my profession I go into a lot of houses and I can’t get used to what I see. Parents have children and expect the children to fail and disappoint them. Parent doesn’t know child, child doesn’t want to know parent. Whatever you do for them is wrong. If you blew on their baby cereal, that was no good. You gave them too much protection. If you held back and didn’t blow they also blame you. Because they’d burn a tongue. What you want from them is never what you get from them. You’re afraid to command and they don’t want to obey. You ask from them everything and nothing, and what you ask for is never what you want. You put on them the necessary oil and talcum, you train them to habits of personal cleanliness. . . .

“His wife, his good wife told me something which sheds very nice light on the man and father he was. When his older girl was three or four she got into rages for almost no reason. You couldn’t stop her, you couldn’t control or discipline her, and they were afraid she would do herself harm. One day—one day she carried on worse than ever. For no reason. He tells his wife to go bring blankets. ‘What for?’ ‘Go bring.’ Then he takes the maidele in his arms and carries her up to the roof. He puts the blanket around them both, he cuddles, he caresses, he says, ‘You’ll make a yell, and I’ll make a yell. Let’s see. Let’s see who can do louder.’ So the maidele starts in and he starts in. She makes a yell, he makes a worse yell. She kicks and slaps, he pretends to kick and slap. She runs wild around the roof, he runs wild after her. She begins to sniffle, he sniffles. She makes a funny face, he makes a funnier one. And ut-ut-ut, she laughs. A little bit of a laugh. He hears, but he pretends he doesn’t hear. The maidele gives him a little hit, as if to say, ‘Notice me, pay attention!’ So he hugs her. He gives her love bites while she laughs and cries, although more laughs. They climb under the blanket and they make believe it’s a tent, a castle, an automobile, a magic airplane. ‘Look, look,’ he says to the maidele, ‘see the sun, see how nice. Let’s both together breathe the sun down into our tummies.’ How is that possible? How do you breathe the sun down? She wants to know, the maidele. By throwing out the chest, he instructs. By closing the eyes. By saying sun come into me, sun let me swallow you. By pretending you never knew before what it is to breathe, that now is the first time. She obeys, she enjoys. Next he and the maidele breathe down a cloud, and another cloud, and a wind that’s blowing. Then he tells a story and she tells a story. He makes up a sun song, she makes up a sun song. She wants a kiss, he wants a kiss. She says, ‘I love you,’ he says, ‘I love you.’ She goes to sleep and he goes to sleep, together on the roof, under one blanket. This was the kind of man and father he was.”

Once more the rabbi searched his pad. Telling the people this: “I had written down here a certain quotation with a very important point which I can’t seem to locate. How he for who we hold such high regard was like in a certain story where the hero is walking and he sees that a little animal is hurt and being mistreated and he stops off to give a hand. It turns out, of course, that the creature is what you call a genie, and this genie rewards him—a ring, a locket, a charm—making him free from what you and I are not free from. That is, cash, the getting of cash, and the hardness of the getting. Also material things, property, strict obedience to the authorities and satisfaction with what life is supposed to provide, even when it is not enough. Like I mentioned before, this made him a special case and didn’t necessarily endear him to one and all. But if we have no room in the world or in our hearts for special cases, then whose fault is it? And does that mean there shouldn’t be special cases? That’s all I think I’m going to say.”

He next instructed all present to rise, and he recited: “Praised and glorified be the name of the Holy One, though He be above all the praises which we can utter. Our guide is He in life and our redeemer through all eternity.”

He was answered: “Our help cometh from Him, the creator of heaven and earth.”

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