by Eric Maroney
The Chabadnik would not let Serino alone.
When Serino woke up in the morning and walked down to the café for his coffee and brioche, there he was in his dirty black jacket and scuffed and dented hat. He walked a few paces behind Serino like a bashful bride. The Chabadnik followed stooped and pale, his brown tangled beard and side locks no more than buds sprouting from his cherubic face. But when Serino sat down to eat, the young man gave up all pretense of space, and sat close beside him.
“You can’t eat that, Jake,” the Chabadnik scolded. He removed his hat. The Palermo heat was cruel. His kippah was ragged, gray and moist. “It’s treyf!”
“Morty,” Serino answered slowly, trying to muster his patience and be kind to Morty for once. It was something about the deep blue tint of the water and the greater black shadow of Mount Pellegrino that gave Serino hope that life was getting better. His opposite conclusion, reached just yesterday, was a dim memory. “We’ve been down this road before. I’m not Jewish. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“Even though it is coffee, milk and bakery dough, you have no idea who has handled them and how. What if the board was used, God forbid, to chop up pork? You know these Sicilians have pastries filled with pork? Then you would be committing a grave sin.”
“What is your suggestion, then? I don’t eat in Palermo? This isn’t Crown Heights, Morty. Where do I get kosher coffee?”
“I told you, down at the Chabad House.”
Serino stared at the man’s willful face. He was younger than Serino and not healthy. The hot, humid climate of Palermo trapped him in a physiological dead end; the air rubbed his body against the grain of its natural inclinations. He snorted into a handkerchief. Serino could not tell if it was a cough or a sneeze.
“You’re sick, Morty,” Serino explained. “You should be in bed. You shouldn’t be walking around in this heat. The pavement is buckling it’s so hot.”
“What can I do?” the young man asked, raising a weary hand. “I have work to do.”
“How did you get such a crappy assignment?” Serino asked, lowering his coffee. “Jewish outreach in Palermo? A Jew hasn’t lived here since 1495.”
“There are people here who are descended from Jews,” the Chasid answered, squinting stiffly at Serino. “They still have the spark of Jewish souls in them. If I can bring them back, it is a mitzvah for me. But there will be far greater rewards for the people of Israel, and the universe itself.”
“How do you know who is a Jew? Everyone here is a Matteo or Luca or Paulo.”
“Last names,” the man sniffled into his handkerchief and pulled out a small book. “Like your name. Look, according to this book, Serino is a Sephardic name. The Jews were forced to flee from Spain, and some came to Italy. Over the course of the years, your ancestors lost their Judaism, or they were forced to become Christians.”
“How do you know that? From that Chabad book? Where is the source? My ancestors are 100 percent Sicilian, whatever that means. If Serino is a Spanish name, it’s because some Spaniard fled here to escape a debt, or because he murdered a man.”
Serino then begged the Chasid to drink some water.
“I can’t…” the Chasid croaked.
“But why? This is water!”
“The glass,” the man answered weakly.
“Oh, for shit sake, take me back to your Chabad House. I don’t want to be part of a death investigation. In Sicily they take weeks, and I haven’t the money to stay here much longer.”
The Chabad House was in a dilapidated building near the port. Serino and Morty had to walk past the Cuba and the Zisa, monuments to Palermo’s Muslim past, down a steep hill, and around a lane strewn with trash. A small tattered sign on the door read “Chabad House” in Hebrew, English and Italian. Morty pushed open the door. The room was so dim that Serino could not see. Morty switched on the lights, but there was a sudden short. So for a moment the cluttered room was illuminated by an ailing, yellow light, then it was plunged once again in to sickly darkness.
“Morty, aren’t there any windows?”
“They don’t open,” he said, sitting heavily on something. “And the landlady won’t open them. She hates Jews.”
“She probably doesn’t. She’s never met a Jew. You just don’t speak any Italian. She has no idea what you are talking about.”
“I do my best,” the man panted. “I have a phrase book…”
Serino opened the door. A great wave of heat and a blinding white light stabbed the darkness. He walked over to a sink, found a glass, and handed it to the young Chasid.
“Ah, thank you, thank you. A real mensch, a good guy, I knew it.”
“I have to go,” Serino said.
“No, please don’t leave me Jake, I beg you.”
“I have to. Stop begging me. I’m not your mother.”
“No, but you’re a Jew. Jews need to help Jews. Especially in a land like this…”
“Listen, Morty. I was raised a Catholic. I was baptized. I used to kneel before the cross. I went to Confession. I’m serious. I don’t feel Jewish.”
“You can’t leave me,” Morty pleaded. I’ll die a terrible death alone.”
“You won’t,” Serino scolded. “You’re being a baby. Drink the water. You’re dehydrated. You’re sloughing your skin like a snake.”
The Chasidnik gulped down the water. The Chasid was seated on a little cot. Morty fell backward with his eyes clamped tightly closed.
Serino placed a hand on his forehead. He was burning with a fever. He placed two fingers on his neck. His heartbeat was fast and irregular, and then it was gone.
“Crap!" Serino hissed, and rushed out the door, down the street, and up toward his flat where the office of Doctor Busso was on the ground floor. When they returned to the Chabad House, Morty Gruss was gone.
“You need to pay 10,000 lire for entrance,” the man spoke in dialect. Serino had difficulty.
“What did you say? 1,000? That’s cheap. Here you go…”
“No, you imbecile, 10,000!” the man spat. Over his bristly black and white stubbly beard, his eyes bulged from the sockets like two raw eggs. He guarded the entrance to the church like an ogre.
“Screw it, then,” Serino tossed the bill at the man. “Keep your Rococo mess and your 1,000 lire.”
The man muttered something, and stooped to pick up the bill. Serino recognized he was not being thrifty with his diminishing funds, but he wouldn’t take the scorn of these Sicilians just because his ancestors had the good sense to leave. They listened to his polished Italian; they gazed at his threadbare clothes and reached all sorts of conclusions about the kind of American he was; that it was true, in part, only made Serino angrier.
“You see, that is how the goyim treat a Jew!”
Serino turned around. Morty Gruss was standing behind him. He looked slightly less pale than the last time, but no less unhealthy. In fact, in the intense glare of the piazza, with his sooty shirt and pants, Serino thought he resembled a black hole: light swirled around him and did not escape.
“What the hell, Morty?” Serino took a step toward the Chasid. “What happened to you last week? I left you unconscious, and then when I came back with a doctor, you were gone. Did you know I had to pay his fee just because his feet left his door?”
“I’m sorry,” the Chasid answered, abashed. “I can call the office in Rome and get you a refund, if you kept a receipt.”
“No I didn’t keep a receipt! Who do you think I am? Some traveling salesman that keeps receipts? I was trying to help you, and you pull some sort of a stunt!”
“I’m, I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I really am. I looked for you, to explain, but you changed your room.”
“Goddamn right I did. I needed a cheaper place because I’m paying medical bills for people who vanish! Come on Morty. Stop with these dumb games.”
“They’re not games. Jake,” he whispered. “And please don’t take HaShem’s name in vain.”
“I’ll take any name in vain that I want to! Don’t preach to me. I told you, I’ve prayed to a bloody Jesus nailed to a cross. It is all crap, but it’s no more crap than your Jewish bilge. So do me a favor Morty. Stay away from me. Stop following me around Palermo. This is my trip. I may not be able to come back here ever again. I’ll sit behind a desk in Manhattan for forty-five years like everyone else, and hopefully, I’ll retire before I croak. You have to understand that for years and years I hated being Sicilian — the crassness, the loudness, the ignorance. Now I have a chance to make it right — to see the real Sicily — to figure out what I am and where I came from and where I am going…”
“You never felt at home, Jake, because you’re a Jew. The souls of your Jewish ancestors, forced to convert against their will, are crying out to you to return.”
“Listen, I’ve had it with you! You are ruining this trip. Do you hear me? You are following me around, with your New York accent and mincing steps, making a nuisance of yourself. I just want to be left alone, do you hear me? Leave me be!”
“I can’t,” Morty whimpered. “I’m charged with returning you to Judaism.”
“You simple bastard,” Serino spat as he turned and walked briskly down to the piazza. Soon he began to run, and Morty followed him, his pace surprisingly swift for a sick man. Serino knew that carabinieri were positioned outside the Pension Bureau. He ran to them, and in his best, florid Italian, he began to create a story about the foreigner who was following him. Serino wove a roll call of crimes on the spot.
The carabinieri asked Serino to wait. Then they ran to Morty, who stopped on seeing goyish police rushing him. They placed cuffs on the Chasid, and when the three turned around, Serino was gone.
“I’m sorry, I really am.” Serino was sitting on a wooden stool. Two days after he ran from Morty, Serino made some inquiries and was surprised to find the Chasid still in custody. Morty, behind the bars, was looked green and gray in nauseating shades. They had taken his shoe laces, belt, and tallit katan.
“The worst is I can’t pray. They won’t get my tefillin.”
“I can try,” Serino answered. “I can speak to the captain.”
“Thanks Jake, but it’s no good. I didn’t realize that my papers weren’t in proper order. In Rome, the Chabad people said I was ready to go. But they screwed up the visa. I’m here illegally.”
“Can’t Chabad in Rome help you?”
“They’re trying, but it’s taking time. Things move slowly down here.”
“At least let me get your stuff,” he said. “What does it look like?”
“You don’t know what tefillin look like?” Morty asked.
“Don’t be difficult, Morty,” Serino answered, shaking his head. “I’m trying to help you.”
So the Chasid explained. Serino asked if he had eaten or drank.
“Of course not,” the Chasid scoffed. “This prison isn’t kosher!”
“Let me bring some back, then…”
“No,” Morty interrupted. “I’m fasting for my sin.”
“The sin of failing you.”
“How did you fail me?”
“Because I could not reach you,” Morty explained. “I was charged to expose your hidden Jewish soul, and I failed. That is why I am here. HaShem sent me to this place just to turn you back to Judaism and I failed. I accept the punishment with joy.”
“God didn’t send you here, Morty,” Serino answered. “I did. This is my fault for playing games. This isn’t America. You aren’t innocent here until proven guilty. They let you stew in jail in Italy and they don’t know habeas corpus from orecchiette. You don’t want to get mixed up in the Italian legal system. Let me get you out of here. Give me names and numbers to call. And in the meantime, at least let me bring back your stuff and food and water.”
“No thank you,” the Chasid answered firmly. “Just the tefillin. I won’t eat or drink. They’re in a bag on my bed. Bring them back, if they let you.”
Serino went out and spoke to the captain.
“Captain, he needs the things to pray. He has an obligation to God.”
“What kind of things?” the Captain asked. Serino didn’t know what a tefillin was with precision, but when he said a box with leather straps, the captain shook his head.
“No, no,” the Captain answered emphatically. “The man is suicidal. He won’t eat or drink. If he kills himself, I will be held responsible. He is an American national.”
Serino tried to explain, as best he could, why the Chasid would not eat and drink. Serino gave his assurances that he would give the object with the boxes and the straps to the Chasid, and then take them back. He would return with them when the Chasid needed them. The Captain gave his grudging permission.
Serino stood in front of the Chasid with the bag. He tried to give it to him through the bars.
“I don’t want it,” the Chasid said flatly.
“What the hell do you mean, you don’t want it? I had to negotiate with Il Duce out there for an hour to get you this stuff. You have to take it. Stop with your games, Morty!”
“This is not a game. This is life or death. Please open the bag, Jacob,” the Chasid asked.
“Morty, stop screwing with me!”
“Jake, you said you wanted to help me. This will help me. Please open the bag.”
Serino exhaled deeply. He opened the bag.
“Take out the tefillin, please. Are you right handed, Jacob?”
“What difference does that make, Morty?” Serino cried.
“Please Jake. You said you’d help me. Just help.”
“I’m right handed.”
The Chasid told him to roll the box with the loop up his bare left arm, halfway between the shoulder and the elbow and across from the heart.
“Now repeat this: Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to put on tefillin.”
So Serino repeated. The Chasid then showed him how to bind the rest of the strap seven times around the left arm and once around the palm, leaving the rest to dangle.
“Now take out the other box. See how it has looped strap? Put it on your head so the box is in the middle just between your eyes.”
Serino, exhaling again, did as he was told.
“Now back to your hand. Wrap the rest of the strap three times around your middle finger: once around the base, then once just above the first joint, then one more time around the base. You've got some strap left over, so wrap it around your palm and tuck in the tail end.”
“Ok. It’s on, are we done now?”
“Just one more part. And you have to promise me Jacob, you must say it with meaning. You don’t have to say it in Hebrew, because you won’t understand, but you must mean what you say. Particularly when you say the HaShem, Blessed Be His Name, is One.”
“Fine, Morty. But if I do this, will we be done? Will we be squared away? Your sin is gone and my debt to you is wiped clean and you’ll eat and drink?”
“I suppose so,” the Chasid answered. “But I think when you are done with the Shema, you’ll feel differently about things.”
“OK Morty, give me the lines already!”
“Hear, O Israel, HaShem is our God, HaShem is One. Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever. You shall love HaShem your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”
Serino repeated the words. Then it was suddenly done.
“I don’t feel different at all,” Serino explained. The Chasid smiled.
“Jake,” the Chasid said and beamed. You’ve performed a mitzvah. You put on tefillin. You lifted a fallen spark. You’ve helped heal the world.” Then the little Chasid started to cry.
When Serino emerged from the jail, the blinding light of the noon day Palermo sun momentarily stunned him, and he didn’t know quite where he was standing or what he was doing, or why he was here in the first place, and he had to guess which way to walk.