the tzaddik and the negotiator — a mother’s day meditation

Malkah was in such awe of the tzaddik that she spent most of her time with him asking questions, and nodding at the wisdom of his responses.  Of course, his responses generally started with the need to do more research.  Look things up.  Even go to the library, when he was stumped.  But most of his real sources were at his fingertips.

His own library consisted of wall to wall volumes and treasured manuscripts.  The paintings, he kept in the closet on the floor, inserted in rows exactly like the books.  If he wanted to look at a painting, he’d slide it out from the row and lean it up against the bookcase for a month or two or three.  And then he’d slip it back into place, and pull out another for contemplation.

Nothing was new.  He never bought a new book in his life.  Not even as a gift.  Treasures were either old, vintage, or ancient.  They were in dreadful, poor, or fragile condition.  Some pieces required temperature control.  Those documents he made sure were in the museum’s library’s rare book room.  We were very proud when the climate control was installed, feeling the treasures were safe at last.

The textiles should have been there as well.  Ach!  What a mess.  They’d be rolled up carefully — but textiles really need more care than cardboard boxes and rollers.  … They belong in a museum.  I think Indiana Jones said that.

Every gift Malkah ever received from the tzaddik first belonged to someone else.  Usually, a lot of someone else’s.  There was that stamp collection from the 1930’s from the flea market.  With strange-shaped stamps from all over the world.  Malkah was expected to get interested in stamps and keep on collecting the ones that hadn’t been included in the volume the tzaddik had given her.

Wow.  Someone else’s stamp collection!  File under vintage, for it had been under 50 years old.

Then there was the gift, actually from Mrs Tzaddik, that took forever to receive.

“It’s coming!” Mrs Tzaddik would announce.  “Your birthday’s only three months from now — it’ll be ready by then!” she said excitedly.

Only it wasn’t ready.  And not three months after Malkah’s birthday either.  But at last the day came.  The present, not quite a year later from the first tease — and there it was.  A smallish object that fit in the palm of your hand, all wrapped in wrinkled white tissue/liner paper.  You know, that paper they use on the inside of gift boxes.  That stuff.

It was lumpy. And almost jingled.  But didn’t quite.

Malkah tore off the tissue paper.

“What is it?” she asked.  It looked like — well, she didn’t know what.

Mrs Tzaddik gave her a look of both expectancy and exasperation.  She hadn’t expected such a lukewarm response.  But ingratitude was Malkah’s default setting.  What had she been thinking?

“A bracelet made of civil war buttons!” Mrs Tzaddik said excitedly.  “Put it on!”

Malkah obeyed.  The thing was enormous.  About four inches wide and sewn together on some stretchy gold band.  It felt like a hundred bulbous brass military buttons.  It felt like a thousand.  And it was too big for her.  And it was heavy.  And probably breakable.  And the ‘buttons’ could fall off.  And it was a ‘treasure’ — Malkah thought in dismay.  Oh.  And it was hideous — but you figured that one out already, right?  Malkah was twelve.  Where would she wear such a treasure?

“Thanks,” she said.  What else could she say?

When she grew up, Malkah had a child.  Actually, she had two.  But this story concerns the first and not the second.  The second was too young to notice.  Malkah’s eldest must have been about four at the time.

It was Chanukkah.

The tzaddik had brought the little one a Chanukkah present.

“What is it?” said the Malkah’s firstborn son.

“It’s a — ” to tell the truth, I don’t remember at all what it was.  But it was a great find at the flea market.

“How does it work?” the brilliant boy asked.

“Well it would go like this, but it doesn’t work —” replied the tzaddik.

“You mean you got me something used and it’s broken?”

And Malkah’s brilliant firstborn took the tzaddik by the hand and went upstairs to his room.  They came back down about 20 minutes later.  Both with grins on their faces.

Malkah’s firstborn had negotiated something Malkah would never have dreamed possible.  The tzaddik was allowed to give his grandson something used — as long as it wasn’t broken.  Or something new.  That also wasn’t broken.  Or a used book — but it couldn’t be missing pages, especially the last page of a story.  They had shaken hands on it.  Deal.

Firstborn son went to the brass tray and picked up a tiny gift-wrapped something and handed it to Mrs Tzaddik.

“Here, noni, this is for you,” he said.

She tore open the little wrapping with ‘nona’ crayoned on it.

“I don’t want this,” she said.  “It’s a Christmas tree ornament!”

Unnegotiable.  She was already out the door.

Malkah’s firstborn grew up to be a lawyer anyway.  You just don’t win every case.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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