a tzaddik walks into a bar…

There was beer at Beit Malkhut the other night. Two very large bottles.  WTF, was Malkah’s response.  Worse than that, the two very large bottles were done in in two days flat.  Okay, maybe three.  I’m not sure.  Point is, there was actual drinking going on at Beit Malkhut, and Malkah wasn’t happy about it.

She wasn’t sad about it either. Nor was she angry. She decided to play it as interested. As curious.  As downright anthropological. As I-can-handle-this. Fucking alcohol. That’s the trouble with being an anthropologist.  Just when you want to be really pig-headed about something — no — you’ve got to take into consideration cultural relativism. Or something like that. You’ve got to realize that your own truth isn’t the truth. That other folkways have relevance, and even merit. Even if you can’t figure out what they are.

There’s a good reason that I’ve done fieldwork primarily in Islamic countries and communities: no alcohol. Sometimes I think I’d make a great Muslim. Everything works for me. Except the god stuff.  And I’m pretty okay, actually, with the nature of Allah, as gods go — Allah makes a lot of sense to me. I’m just not a believer type. Islamic modesty, I have no problem with. Hjab is just fine by me. And the treif and alcohol prohibitions work for me as well. We call it haram. Oh my. I just said we.  I suppose if I end up a Muslim someday, nobody will be surprised.

Rh asked me when we were in North Africa why on earth I didn’t just stay there.  She said I was a completely different person there. Happy. And settled. At home. Comfortable. Congruent. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. But there’s also plenty that doesn’t work. Parts of myself that I can’t be when I’m there.

But we were speaking about the alcohol thing.

Malkah asked the tzaddik one time. They were in the car. Mrs Tzaddik was in the car as well. Malkah was driving.

“Did you ever go to a bar, papa?” she said.

Mrs Tzaddik almost flew threw the windshield. And she was in the backseat behind the tzaddik.

“How could you ask such a thing?” she said. Alarm was in her voice. She was shocked. Malkah’s question had actually shocked her.

Malkah was still waiting for a response. They were stopped at a red light.

The tzaddik shook his head. He didn’t think so. But wait—

He looked up. His eyes got bright.

“Yes!” he said. “Yes.” He’d come up with an instance.

He had been with his favorite boys.

They were driving between X and Y — who knows where they’d been.  Maybe checking out Jewish cemeteries in the Motherlode. They were rushing.  Last game of the World Series was about to start, and they weren’t anywhere near getting back on time to watch the game.

Yes. The tzaddik loved baseball. He was a Yankees fan, having grown up spitting distance from the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.  The one they took down in 1973. I’m not sure he ever played baseball, but surely he must have. I just can’t imagine it. Can’t imagine him doing something physical besides eat.

So. Last game of the World Series. I have no idea who was playing. Maybe I’ll ask one of his favorite boys — and learn more about this anomalous moment.

There was nothing else they could do. The tzaddik and his two favorite boys pulled off the road in front of one of those places they tend to call a ‘Sports Bar.’

I believe they each even ordered a beer. But maybe I’m making this up. And maybe, who knows, just maybe when he was with his two favorite boys, maybe the tzaddik drank beer? I promise I’ll check this out. All I know is that I never saw him drink the stuff, not even once. Not ever.

Mrs Tzaddik is tsking and shaking her head from side to side, hearing that the man she thought she knew so well — had done this drastic deed.

But there it is. The tzaddik walked into the bar. And he stayed there for the duration of the game. And (most likely) he had a beer. Or two. Or, god forbid — no, it couldn’t have been more.

What makes Malkah so prudish about alcohol?  And is that a bad thing? Malkah, I believe, is prudish about everything come to think about it.  She’s outrageously conservative in dress. Always covered up from top to bottom — arms never seen, no flashy colors. No color or design at all, come to think of it.  And she’s not one of those folks who walks around the house comfortable only in her skin. Her language is conservative too.  She doesn’t say things like ‘fuckin’ horror show’ or ‘vanilla-ass-lookey-loo‘ like those around her do.  Such language fucking horrifies her. She’s excellent at abstinence — abstinence with regard to just about anything, not just alcohol.  Sex. Music. Dance. Joy. Bowling. Humans. Chocolate. You name it — she’ll abstain. Just say no bla bla bla.

What formed this withholding nature, I’m not quite sure.

The tzaddik was exactly the same, it seems, with that one single exception.  He stepped out of his comfort zone and into a bar for the World Series one year.

I myself have been in a bar at least three times.

Once in Dubai, of all places, while on a faculty fellowship. We’d been dropped off at this English pub because our hosts thought that that’s where Brits and Americans go to ‘relax’ after a long day of meetings.  I stood around watching. Anthropologist mode. Put people into a bar and it’s weird. They drink.

Second and third time were for fieldwork.  Second time was at the Lexington after a night in the women’s dungeon. Third time was at the Eagle, I think, after some Leather competition.  I took notes.

The tzaddik never judged the indulgences of others. Nor their ways of abstaining. I think he was just plain comfortable doing whatever he did (or did not do), and that was that. He simply was disembodied for the most part. That’s not quite the same as abstaining.  Malkah’s more judgmental. She doesn’t want this stuff around her at all.  She doesn’t worry about her own behavior, really.  I think she doesn’t want anyone out of control anywhere near her. Maybe abstinence is a good way to try to guarantee that. Maybe not.  It’s not a moral thing for her at all. She’s just a saintly being by nature. I mean that in the old sense. She may well be a tzaddik.

Or a Muslim, after all. Maybe, when push comes to shove that’s what it’s about. On va voir.

I, on the other hand, still need to collect more data.

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.

This entry was posted in essays, kaddish in two-part harmony, Seymour Fromer z"l, tzaddik stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to a tzaddik walks into a bar…

  1. Reb Deb says:

    That “not wanting people to be out of control around one” thing is huge. Drinking used to freak me out for the same reason. It can be hard to tell the difference between someone drunk and someone mentally ill walking down the street (remembering a moment in NYC). In either case, they are quite likely to be unpredictable. That’s scary.

  2. mira says:

    Oh, Deb, yes — huge issue and scary. And yet I have no experience of it, so I wonder why I find it so frightening. And how can we tell what’s ‘normal’ drinking or aberrant? So. Yah. The idea of being out of control. Being near someone out of control. Well, yikes. And yet this practice is so normative. As for me — I’m okay with shabbes and pesach. One sip for shabbes, and four for pesach.

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