Our Plague Year: Spots of color

I exclusively wore yellow shirts between the ages of 15 and 27. It was a desperate adolescent affectation, a hail-mary pass attempt at a personality, that simply continued way, way too long due to depression and stubbornness. Despite that, there are bright spots. Many friends who I made in that era fondly associate me with bright colors, and I learned a handful of semi-interesting facts about yellow: that butterflies raised away from other input will associate it with food more readily than other colors; that schizophrenics find it soothing; that it represents faith in european heraldry, and the Orisha Oshun in Ifá.

Yellow is a Spring color, and Spring is much on my mind. Of course, seasons haven’t existed since I was a child. We wake up now expecting any number of a possible set of weathers and temperatures, but never what is “supposed” to happen. Still, no one has told the plants, and they still generally agree on a time of year to emerge, to revive.

In my neighborhood come the white crocuses that my mother always called “snow-drops”, drooping over with the effort of pushing through the still semi-frozen ground. Then the decorative cherry trees turn their lurid pink. This week, we are up to the daffodils, with their faintly ridiculous bell looming nose-like out of a carefully fanned out pinwheel of petals.

These flowers are asserting themselves in emptying streets. I have cut my walks to once every three days, in order to avoid my fellow citizens who seem totally unconcerned with the 6 feet of distance we are supposed to be taking from each other. The flowers are matched on these walks by a plethora of brightly colored chalked messages from children. “We’re all in this together.” reads one. “Stay 6 Feet Away But SMILE” says another.

Tomorrow, my city begins a policy of Shelter in Place. We will be confined to our homes most hours of the day and we do not know yet how the policy will be enforced, whether police will exert their increasingly militarized authority to make sure that “social distancing” is defended. It is a strong possibility that the cheerful public health reminders from children will be replaced with a bullhorn and a tear gas canister if they are not observed.

But we ARE all in this together, and it becomes clearer every day, the fragile networks that keep us all alive. I have to believe that despite the fear, despite the dying and the dystopia, we are reaching each other, that we are growing stronger, that we are finding how badly we need one another. We will emerge from our houses and revive our struggle against the drabness and dreariness of fascism. Our roots grow deeper, and we grow brighter, more beautiful. We shine.

Father Demo Square At Night

I have Brooklyn blood, but due to the great peregrinations of my family through the wider metropolitan area, I was raised in Westchester, so I always approached New York City from the north. I would eventually cement this orientation by moving into Washington Heights along with my sisters, we all became uptowners. But there was a time when I knew Downtown Manhattan well, and visited Greenwich Village often.

These were my days of listless, aimless madness, when I was living with my folks in between attempts at doing farmwork, which I only did because I thought it was the only way to soothe the rough scraping at myself my mind otherwise insisted on. Heading from a therapy appointment, or a visit at a museum, or a date, I’d take the A down to West 4th, pop my head out of ground at 6th Avenue, and wander Washington Square before heading over to where two good friends were living unhappily together in an oven-like little apartment on Bleecker Street, just where it meets Sixth Avenue and both are intersected by Carmine street. There’s a little triangle of pavement there, that the city has condescended to green, and a fountain. The triangle is surrounded by shops. It’s called Father Demo Square.

The story of my friends’ unhappiness together is each of theirs to tell, not mine, and anyway, it ends in Texas, placing it entirely out of the scope of this investigation, but I’ll just say we were all young and miserable and poisoning ourselves and each other one way or another. We’d meet and laugh at our own sour misery and poor coping skills, over a board game or a pizza. The apartment was right in between two of the finest pizzas in the city, Joe’s on Carmine’s and John’s on Bleecker, and those days, possibly more than any other point in a lifetime of Pizza eating, has led to the great unhappy snobbishness with which I regard the cheesy flatbreads of this country.

The apartment was hot to the touch in all seasons. In the summer, the air conditioner couldn’t defeat the constantly open sultry window, as my friends ducked out to the fire escape for their cigarettes; In the winter, the landlord left the thermostat on a feverish 80. I’d burst in like a bear around 6 or 7, we’d order dinner as I shed layers, I’d ignore the numb sadness in my friends and myself while they played video games, and then I’d notice that it was too late to catch a train back to Westchester and we’d cheerfully agree I had to spend the night. Waking up at 4 or 5 AM, I’d silently dress in my winter apparel, and then make my way out, to an abandoned Father Demo Square, to the A, back uptown, back to my parents’ house, where I no longer felt at home.

Time moved on, as it does, and space stayed still, as it does. My friends and I left for treatment facilities and other opportunities, I found farm work and lost it, fell in love, came back to the city and moved Uptown. My girlfriend, a smarter, stabler student than I, got herself enrolled at the New School while I began a fitful career at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. We’d meet for dinner downtown, and her favorite place was Trattoria Spaghetto, on Father Demo Square.

Spaghetto was a little time capsule, a chip of cheap Little Italy sentiment that somehow got knocked a few blocks north and west. It had red checkered tablecloths, of all the disneyfied, Bella-Notte cliches, and truly delicious pasta. We’d sit there and watch the summer evening end and the night begin, cool air coming off the traffic on Sixth Avenue. Trattoria Spaghetto’s gone now, just like the Italians who used to overflow Little Italy and attend Our Lady of Pompeii just across the street, where Father Demo tended to their pastoral needs. Just like Father Demo himself. Just like the romance between me and the girlfriend I used to take there.

When she left, I had far fewer reasons to go all the way downtown. The A shuttled me between the Upper West Side and Washington Heights, and I viewed my hereditary Brooklyn as distant as the surface of the moon. But one night, the night after the first Women’s March in January of 2017, I found I couldn’t sleep. I had a powerful craving for spaghetti and meatballs, and naturally my thoughts found their way back downtown. My legs were sore and chafed from the long day’s march, but I said, to hell with it, this is New York, I can definitely get spaghetti and meatballs somewhere in this town at 2 AM. So I got on the A.

It wasn’t a cold January night. It was quite warm on my busy little island at the center of this grievously wounded world. I wandered from supposedly open place to supposedly open place, eventually settling for a mediocre spaghetti in bolognese at the 24/7 diner on West 4th. After eating it, I went and sat in the square. I thought about the vile presidency in front of us, and the encouragement of the street rising up, as I thought it had earlier that day. I thought about long nights, and short days. I thought about heating planets. I thought about all those nights, in Father Demo Square. Then I hopped on the A, and went home, where I wouldn’t be much longer.

Our Plague Year: In the beginning. . .

A friend last night suggested that we have no way of knowing how big this will grow in our minds, how monstrous will the disease’s impact be on the imagination. Will we look back ruefully at a disaster that never came? “Remember social distancing, you guys? Remember coronavirus? What was the deal there?” the comedians might quip.

Or we might never forget, we might curse the illness daily, or bless it, or simply always recall it. Another friend suggests that there will be a baby boom in 40 weeks, as we withdraw into our homes. I joke that Corona is a nice name for a girl. Covid for boys. It might be gallows humor. Or I might just be an insensitive prick. It depends not on some character inherent in me or the joke, but on the virus, and what it does.

I grew up in Westchester county, the notoriously condemned hotspot of COVID-19. My parents still live in my hometown of New Rochelle, a mere ten minutes outside of the dystopian “Containment Zone,” where the national guard has been called in to guard a perimeter and nominally aid the affected. I get calls most days from distant friends and acquaintances who have just remembered that. They ask me if my family is all right. I tell them my parents are in remarkably high spirits, that they joke and laugh. My mother lightly refers to the zone as the Zona Corona. My mother, who obsesses over every cough, every sneeze of her loved ones, is cool as a cucumber in light of a global pandemic.

Likewise, though my friends are fretting away, stockpiling groceries and cancelling events, I find myself oddly unaffected by the thought of the disease coming for me. Oh, I take precautions, I limit my contact with crowds, I protect people around me, I wash my hands for the requisite time while singing verses of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” But I’m not afraid. Everyone around me is afraid, and I’m not, and I don’t know why.

My wife thinks it has something to do with my long life as a fearful and anxious person, the time I spent in therapists’ offices and in-patient treatment facilities talking about my irrational fears of failure and disappointment. She means that I’ve spent a long time learning how to handle and manage my and others’ anxieties, but I like to imagine she means that there is some sort of economy of fright. In this view, I am as much a spendthrift of fear as I am of money, throwing it away on friends, on small matters, never saving up for an emergency that might truly warrant its expenditure.

If there is a psychological explanation, I don’t think it lies in my history of anxiety, but in my history of opposition to all that is good for me. I have always screamed “No” in the face of my best interests. As I said, I don’t know why I’m not afraid, but I do know I’m angry. I’m angry at all my friends’ careful preparations and timidities. I’m angry at each verse of Dylan’s song as it comes and goes above my soapy hands. I am angry at the governments and their various responses to people in sickness and need. I’m angry at the Virus. I’m angry at the Fear.

I have been feared. When I had my first struggles with depression and psychosis, I was living overseas, and my sister was the closest family member. She’d hear my litany of miserable ramblings and her eyes would go wide and she’d say, “You sound crazy.” I’d sob. Later, as I went through treatments and communities of the mentally ill, as I came to think of the Mad as my people and my comrades, I came to see the demonization of illness as a great evil. We can not help the moments when we are weak and frightened. We can not help the moments when we are miserable and screaming. We can not help the moments when our body breaks away from us, and pursues some other program, of coughing and vomiting and bleeding. And yet we are vilified in those moments, as irresponsible, as foolish, as a danger to others.

And while we must, yes, wash our hands and not touch our faces and socially distance and buy groceries in bulk, I think we must also say no. We have forgotten that an appropriate response to crisis is to pray, and we have forgotten that prayer can be an anguished refusal, an enormous screaming “No!”

No, I refuse to fear my own hands and their desire for my face.
No, I refuse to view my neighbor as a vector of infection.
No, I refuse to let the realm of the microbe rob me of my humanity.
No, I refuse to abandon the weak and the dying to their fate.
No, I refuse to care for my body before I care for yours.

One day this will all be over. One day all will be well. One day all who have survived will gather together, and lovingly raise our hands to each other’s faces and wipe away the tears.

Messiah and Me

Prelude

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.

Coda

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.

The Mirage: An Elegy

I do not perfectly remember the Mirage Diner, the restaurant I ate at throughout my childhood. Despite the neon signage and the chrome accents mirroring and amplifying the 24/7 fluorescent lighting, it is still possible-in many respects, uniquely possible-to find darkness in my Mirage; I fail to see each detail, I forget certain corners. Was the lunch-counter curved or did it come to an angle? Was the accessibility ramp on the side of the parking lot or the street side? What cakes were always in the dessert display? I could run around and collect as much information as I could find; Old blue-prints, photos, menus, track down old employees and ask them questions. But what would be the point? It was just a diner.

Oh but you should have seen it. All formica and chrome, all teal and green neon. It looked better than a 1950s Googie vision of a sci-fi future, because it was a 1990s retro call back to that aesthetic, and it had removed all the Cold War paranoia and uncertainty. And the menu! Abundant as freedom, plentiful as fear. It was in the Mirage I learned the fundamental freedom of America, the freedom of the rich man’s son in America, the freedom to buy whatever you want and shove it down your throat.

We are a ravenous nation, an endless maw, and in front of the Mirage’s sticky, over-laminated menus, between the ages of 8 and 25, I was the very image of the empire that bore me. Platters were massive, and I would polish off cheeseburgers, cups of chilli, omelettes, pancakes. My go to order, the order I ate an average of once a week for the last 8 years of the Mirage’s existence, was a tuna melt on rye toast with a grilled tomato under the cheese, please, and a side of onion rings instead of french fries, and instead of coleslaw, could I get potato salad? Thanks. It is etched by muscle memory into my tongue and throat.

I needed to repeat it for a variety of reasons. Mary, the creaky, nonagenarian Irish waitress who worked the right side of the restaurant could never hold onto it, and who could blame her? How many decades of regulars had she seen come and go, expecting their order to make an impression? But Edie, the butch mother of three with the chinese dragon neck tattoo who worked the left side sometimes recalled it. But Edie became manager and was always busy fighting with Chris, the effusively warm Greek owner, and so she never had time to go back to tables. So a variety of waiters over the year had to be told about my tuna melt, and then brought it to me with a sharp bend of the wrist underneath its weight, gestures calculated to convey the proper mix of servility and cheerfulness as if to say “Well sir, you’re the boss but it’s not so bad, we like working for you.”

Somedays, I’d think for a while about Mary creaking away at 90 to pay for god knows what medication. About Edie’s constant battles with Chris, her actual boss, about hours and wages. I’d think about those carefully performed gestures of class and servitude. I’d look down at the glowing yellow of the american cheese and the hyperviolent red of the edges of the tomato, garish against the subtle pastel beige of the rye toast. And then I’d stop thinking, and start eating.

I was a fearful child, raised by a fearful mother, and although the diner was just 6 blocks from our house, I wasn’t allowed to walk there, or anywhere, on my own until my tween years, which is also when my parents started giving me money if I asked nicely, and also when they started getting fed up at my frequent panic attacks about food. I do not recall my first solo walk to the Mirage. Eventually I would take the walk in all weather, at all times of day and night, in all seasons. In the fondness of memory, I can recall the cool slate sidewalks that passed by the local private catholic college, the shady green of the maple lined streets, the golden suburban sunlight. I recall freedom, not just the greasy capitalist freedom of devouring a sandwich the size of my head. I recall the sour-sweet pleasure of knowing time was moving on, that I was growing older and stronger and more independent.

When I found myself living at home in my early 20s, trips to the Mirage gave me time to ruefully dwell on my mental health difficulties, my personal setbacks, all the time I was losing. As I passed my cash over the counter to Chris, I would think guiltily about how my father had to support me. This is the tuna melt of a failure, I’d morosely think, as I shoved it down. Then, my mood already improving as my blood sugar rose, I’d laugh bitterly at the ridiculousness of that sentiment.

The diner was not only an experience I had alone; I would often meet friends there, have family dinners, I brought my ex there so many times that when she found out it closed a year after our break up she called me to offer her condolences. But in my memory of it, I am alone, a precocious tween, a moody teenager, a depressed young man, pounding down onion rings and glugging fountain coke. Just me on a busy Sunday lunch hour, squeezing between the post-church brunch attendees. Just me on a lazy Wednesday afternoon, sprawled out in a booth. Just me at 3 in the morning, huddled up at the lunch counter, back to the dark, thinking about how I must look like Edward Hopper’s nighthawks.

Eventually Chris made a deal with the private catholic college, which was and is expanding. They tore it down and built dorms above it, but there’s still a restaurant space below, recently renamed the Mirage, after its 5 year absence. I don’t know if Chris still owns it. I could go back, order a tuna melt. I tried to, once. It came out different. I briefly thought, maybe I could order it better, or even make it myself. But then I thought, what would be the point? It was just the Mirage.

New York City, Some Suggestions in the Form of Questions, From Your Departed Son

What if instead of advertisements, digital billboards in Manhattan showed pictures of the people who most recently left the city for good, never to return? An endless scroll of strangers who gave up on the dream of New York City? What then?

What if instead of CATS or Lion King running forever on Broadway, it was that one punk show you went to where you felt so very alive, ever so briefly?

What if we had a queen instead of a mayor? Exact same city government, we just call the office the Queen of New York.

What if we insisted that anyone entering the city had to swear , against all reason and measurements, that the Empire State building is the tallest building in the world?

What if, as a city, we took a vow of silence that we only broke on the Subway?

What if the libraries of Manhattan organized all the books by color, so that Red was up in Inwood and Dark Purple in the Financial District? What if Brooklyn followed suit?

What if there was a distinct melody for each neighborhood? What would Redhook’s be?

What if we stopped regulating buildings except that there must be a depiction of the zodiac prominently featured somewhere public facing?

What if NYPD had to tell you what they dreamed the night before before they were allowed to search, question or arrest you?

What if the roaches were all those big hissing motherfuckers, you know the ones?

What if FDNY trucks were a vivid and slightly repulsive chartreuse?

What if we designed the whole city to match that statue Dali built for St. John the Divine?

What if only the Bronx Zoo animals were allowed to vote?

What if we still had wards and Times Square’s western edge was still called Verdant Lane and what if the subway was pneumatic like Alfred Beach planned and what if I had never left?

What if New York City cared about Beauty half as much, no, a third, as it cared about money? What then?

The Revolution’s Jew, and the Jew’s Revolution

What is a Jew’s role in a revolution? I can only answer in Jewish fashion, with more questions. Specifically I have to work in the vein of the Talmud, and bypass certain questions that appear to me inane or uninteresting: The lexicographer or taxonomist’s questions, what is a Jew, what is a revolution; The historian’s questions, how have Jews behaved in past revolutions, how are Jews positioned before and after revolutionary events. Even the revolutionary’s questions, how best can Jews serve the revolution, what is this revolution for, I would like to pass over. Instead, I would like to ask the Jewish poet’s questions. What is the revolutionary value of Jewish blood? What color is the sky in the eye of a Jew who is surviving the birth pangs of Messiah? How do flames spread from Shabbos candles to the world? How do Jews live, and love, and die in revolutionary times? These are the questions that I believe Isaac Babel has answers to.

Soviet Yiddish Literacy Propaganda

There is an ache that comes from reading Isaac Babel that I have found in no other writer. It begins in my chest, dull and cold, yet by the time it spreads to behind my eyes, it is quite the burning sensation. It is the opposite of the warmth I feel reading Moby Dick, where everything is the excitement and possibility of the boundless horizon, even as the narrative draws to an inevitable conclusion. Babel has no excitement, no possibility. There is only life, perfectly observed, thrilling and terrible, and life’s suffering. There is only the ache.

I am thinking of Babel tonight because I’ve just seen Rajiv Joseph’s taut and entertaining drama, Describe The Night, in which an imagined love triangle between Isaac Babel, an NKVD officer and the officer’s wife winds its way through history, eventually conspiring to torture a fictionalized Putin. Superbly acted by the Wilma Theater’s HotHouse company, the play is emotionally complex, erotic and deeply funny. My only complaint is not the fault of the actors or the play. It is a risk that Rajiv Joseph invited, and failed to avoid. He has, in writing a play about Isaac Babel, invited comparison. And he comes up short of Babel. The play, in its cyclical conspiracy thinking, is too neat, too wrapped up to be a Babel story. Not a great sin, to fall short of the master. But noticeable.

I’ve also thinking of Babel because I’ve been writing about revolution again. A sympathetic friend wrote me to ask how I respond to accusations of Utopian thinking. I gave it some thought, and discussed how I didn’t know all the answers of how to create the world I want to see, or even what that world might look like. I posted my answer publicly and a less sympathetic friend accused me of Utopian thinking. Which goes to show something, but I know not what.

Adrift in the fires and madness of revolutionary Russia, Babel’s Jews struggle to live in a world turned upside down. Many of them don’t. They die. In the Odessa Stories, the gangster Froim Grach looms large, a mastermind of crime. But once his lawlessness becomes the law, and the former enemies of the state are now in power, Grach cannot cope. When the Red Army discipline his men, he goes to the local office of the Cheka, the early revolutionary police, and tries to strike a deal. Only one man, Borovoi, has enough local knowledge to respect Grach. When Borovoi comes back from a minor errand, he finds the giant of his youth has been taken out back and shot. The following is the conversation between Borovoi and Simen, his superior.


“I know you’re angry at me, Sasha,” Simen said to him, “but you mustn’t forget that now we are the power, the state power! You must remember that!”
“I’m not angry at you,” Borovoi said, turning away. “It’s just that you’re not an Odessan, you can’t understand what the old man represented.”
They sat side by side, the chairman of the Cheka, who had just turned twenty-three, and his subordinate. Simen was holding Borovoi’s hand in his and pressing it.
“Tell me one thing as a Chekist, as a revolutionary,” Simen said to him after a moment of silence. “What use would that man have been to the society we are building?”
“I don’t know,” Borovoi said, staring motionlessly in front of him. “I suppose no use at all.”

Similarly, in the Red Calvary stories, Babel writes of a glowering youth in the court of the Rabbi of Zhitomir, the Rabbi’s son. That is early in the war, when the campaign to bring the revolution to the Poles is going well. Babel, or perhaps his narrator, sees the glowering youth one more time, when the war has turned against the Red Army, and they are on the retreat. He and his comrades in their journalist car of the train retreating back to Russia reach out and grab the hands of the lone soldier who grabbed the Trotsky leaflets they are tossing away. It is Ilya Bratslavsky, the Zhitomir rabbi’s son, and he is dying. The narrator tells him that he knows him, but he wasn’t a communist then!

“I was in the Party back then,” the young man answered, scratching his chest and twisting in his fever. “But I couldn’t leave my mother behind.”
“What about now, Ilya?”
“My mother is just an episode of the Revolution,” he whispered, his voice becoming fainter. “Then my letter came up, the letter B, and the organization sent me off to the front. …”
“So you ended up in Kovel?”
“I ended up in Kovel!” he shouted in despair. “The damn kulaks opened the front. I took over a mixed regiment, but it was too late. I didn’t have enough artillery.”
He died before we reached Kovno.


Is that the fate of the Jew in revolution? To be outpaced, outmoded, eaten like the rest of the Children? To die on the frontlines, to be cannon fodder?

I have to believe that we have more of a role to play than that. In another Red Calvary story, Babel’s narrator meets the Jew Gedali. They discuss the fate of the Jew in Poland, now that the Revolution is here. Gedali is cautiously optimistic, but he doesn’t like all the shooting. “Let’s say we say yes to the revolution, does that mean we’re supposed to say no to the Sabbath?” he asks. He begs the narrator and the Russians, bring good people to Zhitomir, and form the fourth international. This time, he says, make it the International of Good People.

This is the role of the Jew in the revolution as I see it, as I have carved it out for myself, as I hope you will join me. Demand better. Always demand more and better. Demand a real revolution, a real change, demand something new, such as Peace, Justice, and Happiness. Demand Moshiach, and be damn disappointed when he doesn’t show.

Walt in the City

I thought, at a young age, that I knew what Disneyfication meant. A precocious reader, I early on learned the words “abridged” and “adapted for young readers” and decided I wanted none of it. I would take on the original text or nothing at all. My mother said, that was fine, I should just count how many words I didn’t understand per page, and if it was more than ten, I should try something easier. As it was, I didn’t get very far, and eventually sulked back to my children’s classics.

But I still held a certain literary snobbishness in my child’s heart, and I learned to despise the faithlessness of Disney to the original fairy tales. Happy endings! Even at 8 I was able to see that stories were, by rights, more complex and darker than what Disney offered me. So as a teenager when I heard the term Disneyfication applied to Times Square, I thought I knew what New York was in for. A happy face on everything, no more dark corners, clean streets for tourists. Hell, hadn’t they even built a literal Disney store? Yeah, that was Disneyfication, a sucker’s New York! In my deeply felt teenaged cynicism, I added, And wasn’t it a world of suckers?

It was years later, when childhood snobbishness and teenaged cynicism had given way to the sheer, gut-wrenching misery of young adulthood, that I learned what Disneyfication meant when applied to cities. To understand what is happening to New York, you must understand what Walt Disney achieved in his theme parks. Disney World and Disneyland are marvels of historical revisionism, children’s entertainment, ride design, intellectual property enforcement, and yes, urban planning. Never was a space so meticulously planned; from the sights and sounds on display, to the perfectly spaced garbage cans from the snack vendors, Disney attempted to predict every eventuality, every interpretation of his parks.

This is what is happening to New York. It’s not just a sanitation campaign, a crusade against crime, an increase in property values and rents, although in a way, it is motivated by all that while also using all those as tools. Rather, New York is being Disneyfied. It is being meticulously reworked to provide only certain experiences, only certain freedoms, for only certain people.

This is not just the ultimate logic of Giuliani and Bloomberg, the mayors of the tough on crime era. It is not even simply the logic of Walt Disney, a showman who decided to make appearances tangible. It is the logic of the settler colonial and white supremacist project of the United States. What is the difference between a law protecting a slave-owner’s rights and a rule making sure we all have fun here? What is an overseer with his whip but a security guard, genially beaming at you as you enter the ride? What is a slave plantation for the white planters but Disney World, where every need is met, the Happiest Place on Earth?

Grieving and Nostalgia

What is the difference between nostalgia and a real grief for a loss of a time or place? (We may find it necessary to collapse space and time here, because what is a place you miss if not a specific time at a place?) Nostalgia was originally an illness that affected French soldiers stationed in the colonial possessions of France, a sort of deep homesickness. In this sense, its affiliations are with the Powerful, longing for . . . what, exactly? A more innocent time, when they didn’t have to kill brown people? Let’s leave the Powerful to their nostalgia. A real grief for a time may look something more like the perennial Jewish longing for a destroyed Jerusalem, or the deep cultural memories indigenous peoples of America hold for their world before the arrival of the whites. A construction of Utopia, not in the distant future, but in the past. Where then to place our own personal longings for distant times, of childhood, of safety and joy? This is a feeling that we must own, alone and vulnerable, and know that it is the desire for Home. For Home is nothing more than an instance, a remote series of events in our personal mythologies. This is what Wolfe meant by, “You can’t go home again,” the very same wisdom as the expression, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

Yamadeva and Ling Look

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There are two graves in the Happy Valley of Hong Kong. They belong to the Gueter brothers of Buda Pesht, who came to that land swallowing fire, in the act of the great pre-Houdini magician, Dean Harry Kellar. Houdini himself relates their deaths in the Miracle Mongers, his vast exposé on all those who would make magic seem magic, and not science, as Houdini himself believed. The Gueter Bros., David and Louis, performed under racist pseudonyms, in yellowface make-up, as Ling Look and Yamadeva, respectively. Ling Look was the more impressive of the two, having combined his appetites for swords and fire into a startling display of swallowing a flaming blade. But the brother’s loved each other equally, communicating in a trademark whistle. When Yamadeva died of a rupture on the boat from Shanghai to Hong Kong, it was this whistle that was eerily heard by all on the ship. As the whistle faded, Ling Look turned with misery to Harry Kellar, (who years later related the story to a dispassionate Houdini) and said his brother was calling to him. Sure enough, David Gueter died in Hong Kong and was buried next to his brother, Louis. Houdini records a strange coda to this ghost story. In London, two years after his death, Ling Look reappeared, swallowing swords and fire and caustics as gaily as he ever had. Kellar investigated, and told Houdini he found a third Gueter brother, carrying on the family legacy, in his deceased brother’s make up. 

This explanation satisfies Houdini the rationalist, but did it disturb the soul of Houdini the Rabbi’s son? For surely Houdini knew of the Eternal Flame that burns, yet does not consume. Did he know that that Fire has its own priests, its own worship, that apes its own harmless flames? Does Ling Look not still live, whistling for his brother through scorched lips that have known the caress of swords?