My father had a friend named Bert Bell, a fellow doctor who he met while working at a hospital in the Bronx. Significantly older than my dad and a veteran of many a struggle with the city hospital bureaucracy, Bert took him under his wing and tried to coach him through the treacherous world of New York City health and hospital politics. They remained friends even as my father, always more physician than political scrapper, gave up and took his current position at a private hospital. Bert and my father would have lunch most months, and then seamlessly made the transition from friends to patient-doctor as Bert fought, survived, and then succumbed to progressive bouts of lung cancer.
I loved Bert Bell like a grandfather. Everything about him childishly delighted me, though I met him as a teenager and knew him well into my 20s. Underneath his thick black eyebrows, he had mischievously sparkling eyes, separated by a classic Ashkenazi schnozz, which rosacea enhanced to epic proportions and bumpiness. His mouth would twist wryly in self-amusement as he gravelled out in a thick Bronx accent, “Mo, darling, did you know I built the Brooklyn bridge? All my idea. Why not a bridge, I said?” It is from Bert that I picked up my possibly regrettable habit of calling people “darling” and “gorgeous”.
Most important of all, he made my father, who could at times, especially in the office, be overly somber, smile and laugh at work. It always gives me a chuckle to think of the time when my father’s baffled secretary buzzed his intercom to announce that Messiah was outside and wanted to see him. Evidently Bert had promoted himself from Brooklyn Bridge innovator.
The thing was though, while Bert was too young to build the Brooklyn Bridge, he was indeed an authentic piece of New York City history. Specifically, he played a large advocate role in getting legislation passed to put bars on windows above ground floor. As a young doctor he’d seen too many kids in the ER who had just fallen out of their apartments. Then years later, he chaired the Bell commission which made the recommendations, later built into a much copied New York State law, that young doctors on their residency shouldn’t have to be on call for 24 hours straight, exhausting them and lowering standards of care. While not Messiah, Bert was undoubtedly a heavy hitter in New York health policy.
That’s the funny thing about life. Sometimes you meet someone important.
Messiah and Me
Of all the things I worried about when I moved from New York to Philadelphia, I never concerned myself much about friends. I’m not a particularly shy person, and find it relatively easy to face the possible rejection that can come from putting yourself out on a social limb. As such, friends come to me quite easily. A party here, go to synagogue, go to a poetry reading, add someone on Facebook, chat online a few times and boom, you’ve got yourself a circle of acquaintances.
Such being the case, I can’t tell you precisely how I met Immanuel, though I will say that I think he sought me out a bit more than I did him. Not that I didn’t like him or anything. Quite the contrary. I was convinced that he didn’t like me, mostly because I could never seem to get a real laugh out of him. A polite smile, a nod of acknowledgement that a joke had been told, perhaps a chuckle; not what I’d call a real connection over sense of humor.
But there’s more to life than exchanging witticisms, and as we spent time together, I came to really appreciate Immanuel’s gentleness, his careful wording of questions, his openness to share his life and struggles with mental health problems and hear about mine, while always respecting boundaries. A fellow Jew, we began studying together, and while I have the greater experience with the texts, Immanuel’s curiosity and willingness to learn with me were a valuable and fun part of our chevrusa.
Recently, my friend called me with a purpose. He asked me to schedule some time in particular to talk to him, and only mildly curious I put it aside. I assumed he wanted to study more. When he called, he asked me how I was, we exchanged pleasantries. And then Immanuel began a strange set of inquiries. He asked me if I thought that God talks to us, do I think that God wants things from us, as humans, as Jews. I said I surely do. I even shared that in my youth I had a series of moments that at the time-and still-I took for personal revelations, and that I sometimes wonder if God will speak to me again, now that I am older and I am not so fiery a believer.
Immanuel began prefacing a thought. He added a lot of caveats, he assured me he’s stable on his medications and he’s cleared the subject with his therapist. He said he hasn’t had a manic episode in months. He said these had been a series of revelatory experiences, not dissimilar to mine, that is, not auditory or visual apparitions, but rather moments of deep connection with the Divine where a sense of clarity pervaded.
In short, my new friend Immanuel told me he was the Messiah.
The conversation continued, I thanked Immanuel for trusting me, I expressed support, I asked clarifying questions, I agreed that it sounds like a genuine religious experience, I left room for myself to be convinced of whether or not he’s the messiah, he thanked me for my support and making a space for him to say these things, and then we hung up. I hung up on my friend, the Messiah.
That’s the funny thing about life. Sometimes you meet someone important.
I’m not a patient person. Maybe it’s the ADHD, maybe it’s the instant gratification ethic of the early 21st century United States, I don’t know. The idea of my ancestors’ restrained, bottomless spiritual commitment to waiting for Moshiach-I can’t fathom it, it slips my grasp. I like the idea of waiting for Messiah-love it, even-precisely because I am not constituted for it. The idea that the centuries could end here, that a new era begins now . . . Well, it appeals. For all the old reasons and some new ones.
I’m not callous or careless. To the best of my ability, I am sure that Immanuel is taking care of his mental health, that he is not in the middle of some manic episode, that he’s not about to wander the streets naked demanding worshippers, God forbid, or, God forbid, do anything violent in the name of God.
I really do believe God talks to some of us, possibly all of us. Not a voice but a feeling, not a command but a sense of certainty and calm. I have no way of calling into doubt Immanuel’s convictions of the work that lies ahead of him, or of the success that he says God has promised him.
Do I believe him? Do I think that my friend is Messiah?
I have always thought that Messiah is a contraction of time. Certain things will be true and will seem as though they’ve always been true. The dead will rise in the sense that we will be perfectly in communion with the past and the future. We will know where we’re from and where we’re going. Messiah is David’s son in the sense that David was the beginning of something.
Messiah is a hope and a whisper, Messiah is a trumpet blast, messiah is a miracle, messiah is a great deal of things, but is he the shy, self-effacing young man I’ve been studying with in Philly? I have no answers. I know only this. I believe I have work to do. I believe Immanuel, who’s real name I have withheld from you, has work to do. I believe you reading this have work to do. And if we all do the work in front of us, and it turns out Messiah is here? Then we will finish our work, and then go welcome him.