The Prophets of 1st Avenue
©2004-2007 Scott David Rosenberg
Moses Kalb sat on the train. The city was an inferno, its air hot, thick and dirty. The train’s air conditioning was insufficient for the job at hand, and Kalb -- dressed in a long black caftan and round black fur-felt hat -- was suffering more than most. Sweat ran in rivulets down his forehead, drops staining the already-damp newspaper folded in his hands. It was rare for him to be returning to Brooklyn so early in the day. Indeed, at this time he usually left his cutting table and went to the lunch counter on the mezzanine for a plate of blintzes or a chopped egg sandwich, but today was his grandmother's eightieth birthday and Mr. Schmerling, always kind, told Kalb to take the afternoon off.
Kalb looked around. He spotted two other hasids on the train. Both were too far away to see what he was reading. He opened the newspaper. It wasn’t that he was in the habit of reading secular things; in fact, quite the contrary was true. But he had forgotten to bring a book and the newsstand on the platform was out of the Brooklyn hasidic weeklies. The choice was between the Times, the tabloids or the Forward, the most secular of all the Jewish papers. After not a little bit of hesitation and much subsequent guilt, Kalb chose the Forward. The train had gone no more than two stops when he noticed the story. The hair on Kalb’s neck seemed to stand up. He felt a sudden chill down his spine as if an ice cube were sliding down his back. He shuddered. He read the story again and again, thinking he must have misunderstood. But he had not. And then the newspaper was wet with both sweat and tears.
Kalb exited the train into the sweltering heat of the platform, the damp newspaper folded and hidden away in an inside pocket of his caftan. He strode through the crowd of sweaty hasids, damp side curls bouncing wildly. He fought his way up the stairs from the gloom and paused, disoriented, immobilized momentarily by the glare of the sun. Kalb rubbed his eyes, sweat biting, burning them.When his vision cleared, Kalb crossed the street and ran toward Piekarz.
By the time Kalb reached the synagogue and yeshiva complex he looked as if he had showered with his clothes on. But Moses Kalb did not notice the heat or the sweat that made his shoes squeak, just as they squeaked after walking in the rain. He darted through the study hall, oblivious to the scholars’ disapproving glances and bounded up the stairs to the Rebbe’s court. Before the sexton had the chance to say no, Kalb dashed passed him and knocked on the door. He heard the Rebbe say “enter.” Kalb was seated in the room with the damp newspaper spread open on the Rebbe's desk before the astonished sexton could move to stop him.
“So, Moysha Kalb, what brings you here today?” The Rebbe pointed disdainfully at the wet newspaper. “This fish wrapping? This Yiddishe schmutz?”
“Rebbe, look here, please, and see what they say. Like they did to us in Ungaria they do to them there. They are burning men alive. Shooting and killing. And, Rebbe,” Kalb’s voice broke and he began to cry, “they are raping little girls like Dinah. Little girls, Rebbe. Hundreds of them.”
The Rebbe took a moment and scanned the article. He raised his head, a look of sadness on his wrinkled face. “It is terrible, Moysha. The world is full of sadness. The nations are cruel.”
The Rebbe paused. Kalb waited. The Rebbe remained silent. After a few moments Kalb spoke. “The Rebbe knows we must not be cruel. The Rebbe knows we must help.”
The Rebbe stroked his wispy gray beard for a moment before answering. “Many people need help, Moysha. We may want to, but we can not help them all.”
“But, Rebbe, we must help!”
“If I spent my time helping everyone who needs help – and I mean here Jews as well – I’d have no time at all. I would run around to this one and to that, and in the end, what? No one would get help and I would be wasting my time and energy.”
Kalb’s body began to shake. “This is not normal help, Rebbe – it is pekuakh nefesh, actual lifesaving!”
“We have our own pekuakh nefesh to deal with, Moysha. How many of our community can not pay their school tuitions? Many! And what will become of those precious children if they can’t go to religious schools? What will they do? They will be lost to us. Soon it will be Succos. How many succahs do you think we need? Lulavs? Esrogs? It is not that I do not feel for these poor people but, I have to have priorities. The Africans’ suffering is a horrible thing – I will not make light of that. And I will certainly pray for them. Maybe if they were here in Brooklyn, then we would help. Even in Chicago, maybe, or even California. But they are far away and there are closer needs. I believe, Moysha Kalb, you will realize the wisdom of what I am telling you, if you think about it. Understand?”
Kalb did not understand. “But Rebbe, we can not just sit while they die! It is what the world did to us!” We must be as a witness!”
The Rebbe looked sternly at Kalb. “Perhaps the nations should be their own witnesses. This is their problem, not ours. If they did not behave like beasts this would not happen.” The Rebbe saw that Kalb was unconvinced. He sat down at his desk and began studying Talmud. Kalb stood in silence for a couple of minutes. When the Rebbe did not look up from his book, Kalb turned and left Piekarz.
Kalb walked in a daze, arms hugging himself, soggy newspaper smearing black ink on his white shirt under the caftan. No one was starving to death in Brooklyn. No one was being burned alive. Women were not being raped by the dozens. Let people wear old clothes this holiday, Kalb thought. Old clothes are better than the rags those people wear. They sleep naked on the dirt. They do not even have a flimsy booth to keep them warm at night and the sun off their heads by day. How bizarre, Kalb thought, next month the Rebbe and all of Peikerz will build extravagant temporary shelters, festival booths, succahs, to recall our wandering in the desert more than thirty-three hundred years ago. We will spend thousands of dollars to make booths. We will eat and sleep in them. We will pretend to be refugees, except we will wear new clothes, eat expensive foods, drink wine and schnapps, because God delivered us and cared for us then when we had no one else. We will wave lulavs, palm fronds and esrogs, the fruit of citron trees. We will pray and offer thanks. And when the week is over, we will take down the booths and return to our homes, no worse for the experience. These people are alone and afraid, Kalb thought, and they have no one else. Our festival booths would be palaces to them. This is what our holiday is for? To live it up while others suffer? Are we not supposed to be like God? Just as God cared for us, should we not care for them?
Kalb walked aimlessly for blocks, head down, speaking to no one. Eventually he found himself at his apartment. He entered and looked around. The tiny room seemed to Kalb suddenly extravagant. The hot plate in the kitchen. The microwave and kettle. The small ice box. A bed. A table. It was too comfortable. More than he deserved.
Kalb went to the bed and laid down on his side, fully clothed. He drew his knees to his chest and hugged himself. I am twenty-three years old, Kalb thought, rocking slowly, back and forth, and in all my life I have never been as alone as I am this day.
Kalb awoke with a start. It was three-thirty in the morning, the air conditioner was on, the room was cool, yet he was drenched with sweat. He got up and made his way to the kitchen. His gait was unsteady. He drank a glass of water, spilling some down the front of his pajamas. He sat at the table and took a pen and paper from the drawer. A note his parents in Israel. He would tell them the news, this horror. Kalb started to write, but his hands were shaking so hard he couldn’t read his own script. Kalb dropped the pen and clasped his head in his hands. “God in heaven!” he cried, “what is happening to me?”
Schmerling, a genial man whose suits seemed always wrinkled and whose wispy gray hair protruded at strange angles from beneath his rumpled black skullcap, sat in his office, brooding. Kalb hadn’t made a good cut in two weeks, since the grandmother’s birthday. Cutters have streaks, but this -- two whole weeks of crap. He picked up a diamond from his desk. In Bildshtein’s hands, even in Klein’s, this would have sold for two maybe two-and-a-half thousand. Kalb had turned it back into a lump of coal. A few tennis bracelets, maybe. A reverse alchemist, this guy. He’d talked to the kid, but it hadn’t helped. And now, Rosh HaShana, the New Year. Should he wait until after? No, thought Schmerling, I’ll tell him now. It will give him time to pull himself together. If he can’t do that by October, well, he will just have to find another job. An unpaid leave, we will call it. If the boy can’t fix himself up in a month then he’s through. There is the holiday rush to think about, after all.
Schmerling picked up the phone and dialed the lunch counter on the mezzanine. “Mendel, Mr. Schmerling here. Today you got maybe blintzes? Soup? Good. I’ll be right down. Hold for me two chairs, okay?” Schmerling hung up the phone. Better Kalb should make a scene downstairs where it would not disturb the other cutters. He went out to Kalb’s table and tapped him on the shoulder. No reason to be gentle, Schmerling thought, absentmindedly fingering the diamond in his pocket. Ain’t no way he can do worse than this.
The address was in the East Sixties. Kalb had never seen Manhattan above Fiftieth Street. It was a different world from the gritty, brash, earthy Manhattan he knew. The buildings here were stately, the people well-heeled. Beautiful cars, beautiful clothes, beautiful people were everywhere. He felt very out of place, but something had to be done, that was clear. He could not go on like this. Kalb found the correct brownstone and pushed the buzzer. The speaker crackled.
“May I help you?”
“Please, yes, I . . . I have an appointment.”
“Surely. Your name?”
“I am Moses Kalb.”
The door made a clicking sound.
“Turn the knob, Mr. Kalb, the door is open. We’ve been expecting you.”
The room was dark and cool. Kalb was lying on the sofa, shoes off, an airline sleep mask over his eyes. A middle aged man wearing Hugo Boss sat in a leather armchair, adjacent to and slightly behind the arm of the sofa where Kalb rested his head. He had a note pad on his lap, and toyed absentmindedly with a pen, rolling it between his fingers.
“So tell me again, Mr. Kalb. Why is it that you came to see me? You seem to be at peace with leaving your community. You cannot be among those who once suffered but now, in safety, forgot those who still suffer. You are making, I think, a principled decision – a good decision. I do not think you need a psychiatrist for that.”
“I … I am not here because of Piekarz, Doctor. I … You see, it is a problem of courage … I was told you have cured others with my problem …that you are a specialist in courage.”
“I work to help people overcome their fears, that is true. What are you fearful of, Mr. Kalb?”
Kalb did not answer.
“Take your time, Mr. Kalb.”
Several minutes passed in silence. Then Kalb spoke, his voice a barely audible whisper. “To refuse.”
Hochstein leaned forward and peered at Kalb through the gloom.
“Why? What are you afraid to refuse, Mr. Kalb?”
“I am not the man for the job. He will have to find someone else. I can not do it, that is all.”
Hochstein sat at the very edge of his chair. His eyes narrowed. His words cut like scalpels, hissing through the air. “Who, Mr. Kalb? Who is it that you will refuse?”
Kalb twirled a side curl between his thumb and forefinger. He sighed. “May God forgive me.”
“I’m sure He will, Mr. Kalb.”
“Doctor, it says in our holy books, “Where there is no man, you be a man.” I must be that man – but I do not want to do it.”
Hochstein sucked his pen like a ten dollar cigar. “I’d like to know, Mr. Kalb, exactly what it is you do not want to do and who it is who is trying to make you do it.”
“It is a sin to refuse. I am sinning by that.”
“Sin is beyond my normal area of expertise, Mr. Kalb, but I feel safe in saying that, unless this request being made of you is very banal – very normal – your God will certainly forgive you.”
“Do not be so sure.” Kalb sat up, took off the mask and leaned forward toward Hochstein, his eyes wide, his face suddenly beading sweat. “Doctor, I must ask you – have you ever refused God?”
Schmerling wandered the cutting floor, stopping here and there to inspect a cutter’s work. He looked like somebody’s kindly grandfather – which, in truth, he was – and not like the dean of New York’s diamond cutters, which he was, too. Diamonds are like children, he was fond of saying. The more you put in, the more you get out. Seven men working, two empty tables. Bildshtein was in the mountains with his family, Kalb out saving the world. He’d go next door and get Leyzer and Velvel, that’s what he’d do, and then they’d have ten. Schmerling spoke gently, announcing his plan so as not to startle the cutters. After all, God wants to hear our prayers, but he doesn’t want us to make a bum cut – it’s bad for the bottom line.
Schmerling led the prayers. Not too fast, not too slow. Nothing uneven or rushed. He finished with the Kaddish. It was, as near as he could determine, the anniversary of his father’s death. The train had pulled into the camp. Many did not get off. They were too weak or they were dead. Papa did get off, but his leg, crippled from polio, was too weak to support him. He laid on the platform until the Germans dragged him to the wrong line, the one that led to the choking black smoke. Papa never got a number. A number meant you had a chance, not a good chance, mind you, but a chance nonetheless. Schmerling had a number.
He motioned to the cutters along with Leyzer and Velvel to follow him to his office. A bottle of Crown Royal and a sponge cake sat on the side table. The men ate slices of cake and sipped the whiskey straight from small plastic shot glasses. As Schmerling ate he thought of his father on the platform, the separation, the fear, the last look at his father’s eyes.
Calmanowitz broke the silence. “A wonderful cake, Mr. Schmerling.” Schmerling nodded, his thoughts distant, his mouth filled with ashes.
Kalb paced up and down in front of the United Nations. First Avenue had seen its share of sights over the years, but the sight of Kalb, black caftan, round black fur-felt hat, side curls dripping sweat, with a placard over his body like a tent was something entirely new.
He worked hard on the placards. It was necessary to get the message just right, something clear and to the point. And brief, it had to be brief. Who had the time to read a megillah while they were rushing around Manhattan? Then Kalb hit on it. The placards would have two words, one word in front, one word in back. And so it was. He spent almost two hours drawing the letters. Then he used string to connect the two pieces of sign board, one piece for each shoulder, and it was done.
Kalb paced steadily, stopping only for a moment to buy a bottle of water and an apple for lunch. At five-thirty he removed the placards and went home. In nine-and-a-half hours no one had spoken to him.
He was walking down Thirteenth Avenue past the Piekarz yeshiva with the placards under his arm. His feet hurt. He was tired. Mendy Kilfstein, thirteen, and Shaya Feldman, fourteen, were leaning against the building, smoking.
“Hey Kalb,” Kilfstein called out, “what you got under your arm?”
Kalb stopped. Nobody spoke to him anymore, except his grandmother. He was startled. “It is a sign.”
“What does it say?”
Kalb showed the boys the placards. The boys struggled with the English. Kalb helped them. “This side says ‘HOLOCAUST.’” He turned the placard over. “And this one says ‘DARFUR.’”
“What’s a Darfur?” Kilfstein asked.
“It’s a place in Africa. They’re burning people alive there.”
The boys were stunned. Shaya Feldman spoke. “For this you lost your job and left Piekarz? For Africans?”
Kalb put the placard under his arm. “Yes, that’s right. For Africans.” The boys stared at Kalb, mouths agape. Kalb turned and walked away.
It was day four. Kalb paced up and down First Avenue, placard in place. He was about to stop for lunch when he saw Mr. Schmerling get out of a cab and start coming his way, tan straw hat shielding his bare face from the glaring sun. Kalb walked over to greet him.
“Nu? I heard that you are here. How goes your campaign, Kalb?”
“People talk about me?”
“Not good talk,” Kalb said matter-of-factly. Schmerling didn’t answer. There was no reason to. “A photographer came yesterday and took my picture. He said it would be in a magazine in a few months.”
“Nothing else? Did one of those big shots from the United Nations talk to you?”
“No. They did not answer my letters, either. Except for you and that photographer, no one talks to me. Gournisht.”
Schmerling spat in disgust. “Nobody talked to Ezekiel, either, you know. It is a rough job being a prophet. We forget that. People do not like bad news. It is easier to ignore it. I think they call it cognitive dissonance.”
The two men stood in silence. Schmerling smiled. “You look hungry. Did you eat?”
“No. I was about to stop for lunch. The deli across the street has apples.”Kalb pointed past the corner.
“What do you do with your sign?”
“I wear it. They do not mind. They are already used to me.”
Schmerling reached out his hand. “Give it to me. I will walk. I will be your Elisha.”
Kalb looked at the older man for a moment and then handed him the placards. Schmerling put them on.
“Thank you. Mr. Schmerling.”
“Do not thank me.” He took a ten dollar bill out of his pocket and handed it to Kalb. “Go eat. Even prophets need food in their stomachs.”
Kalb went across the street to the deli. Schmerling put on the placards and walked. Up and down, up and down. No one spoke to him. People wouldn’t look him in the eye. Schmerling kept walking. It is true what Kalb said, Schmerling thought. They do not care and they do not want to care, either. They are afraid to care like caring is some disease. They are like the ones who did not see the roundups, the cattle cars, the smoke from the crematoria. Just like them, Schmerling thought, they glued their eyes shut, and he wanted to reach out and slap them, to knock some sense into them, to get them to see.
The sun beat down and Schmerling began to sweat. Soon it was rolling in rivulets down his face. Schmerling licked his salty lips. People continued to pass him by without notice. Things began to blur. Then suddenly he saw the lines before him, sharp and clear, one to the right, one to the left. The women, the babies, the old, the young, his father, himself, to life, to death. “Papa,” Schmerling said softly, then louder, “Papa!,” startling himself. Schmerling stopped for a moment and rubbed his eyes with trembling hands. His legs were weak and his feet felt like they each weighed a hundred pounds. Schmerling took the sign off and fanned himself with his hat. He wiped his face with a handkerchief. Then suddenly he heard his father’s voice amid the shouting and chaos, words fighting to reach him through the soot-choked air. “Live for me, Duvidl. Walk! Go, walk with the men. Survive my son! Live for me.” Schmerling shook. He replaced his hat and put the sign back on with trembling hands. Then he walked, shaky at first but he steadied, head held high, face streaked with tears, tongue tasting ashes.
©2004-2007 Scott David Rosenberg