essays kaddish in two-part harmony tzaddik stories

the bookstore

So.  The bookstore the other day —

One of Malkah’s favorite things to do on planet Earth was to go with the tzaddik on his frequent forays into the dark and gloomy bowels of used bookstores.   Holmes Books, in San Francisco, was one of their favorites together.  The tzaddik would give Malkah a whole dollar — and tell her she could buy any book in the store that she wanted!

Anything!  Thought Malkah.  She was rich indeed.

The tzaddik was a firm believer in the maxim (which I’m pretty sure he made up himself) that ‘anybody could do it with money — let’s see you do it without.’  This principle he later also applied to Malkah’s college and grad school applications and tuition.  And — look — a miracle!  Malkah had managed just fine, as he knew she would.  And had never borrowed a penny in student loans.  She taught Hebrew School instead.

But that was later on.

The children’s section of Holmes Books was upstairs, behind the metaphysical section, and two aisles down from Greek tragedies.  The bookstore had that musty dusty smell — that almost but not quite made you think that the books were in danger of catching some dread disease if you didn’t rescue them and get them out of there quick.  Malkah was pretty sure the illness that the books would catch was tuberculosis.  Like Raskolnikov.  Only I’m not quite sure Raskolnikov’s garret teemed with the TB she imagined, or if he was just completely depressed because he didn’t have money to go back to school; there weren’t any student loans, and he couldn’t teach Hebrew School.

We should appreciate, too, the experience of Mohammad Bouazzi here, whose predicament parallels Raskolnikov.  Same problem, but his solution differs radically.  Raskolnikov  sets out to murder in order to finance his ‘better’ existence.  Bouazizi sets himself afire, and thereby ignites revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.  He doesn’t seek anything more than venting his own frustration and protest — but that protest is heard around the globe.

Bouazizi (unwittingly) inspired.  Raskolnikov does not, despite his high intentions.

Mrs Tzaddik once asked Malkah who she wanted to be like when she grew up.

It’s not like Malkah had a lot of options.

One dollar could buy you one Nancy Drew book.  I mean the problem was that a lot of the other books were just too expensive.  Nancy Drew was pretty cool.  She had an insatiable curiosity that just didn’t quit.  She seemed to always ask the right questions.  First of all, questions that uncovered that there was a mystery to begin with.  And second, questions that eventually led to the solving of the major crime as presented in the book.

Nancy Drew, in other words, was a lot like the tzaddik.

Malkah was in awe of that ability, but didn’t aspire to it.  There was no way she could ever be that inquisitive, resourceful or (most of all) so consistently successful.

So. Scratch Nancy Drew.

Who else did she read who might be a good role model?

There were the books at home to model oneself after.

Malkah loved Mrs Tzaddik’s book on Picasso, that took his work from stage to stage.  Surely, that was a good model.  But Malkah wasn’t quite sure she understood his intent when his figures started to bend in on themselves.  What was that about?  Her favorites were his pen and ink drawings — so simple and evocative that just one line could make you cry.  Too daunting a role model, for a 10 year old, Malkah decided, although I’m not quite sure why.

Kafka—well, was that too obvious?  But it was the same problem all over again.  These were all characters way above Malkah’s pay grade.  Even as a child, she was more modest than that.

Curiously, there weren’t any girls to aspire to.  In the 1950s, people still said, ‘girls.’  Julie Andrews, whom Malkah had seen in My Fair Lady.  But she was a soprano.

So all that was left was —

“Raskolnikov!” Malkah blurted out, as if no time had elapsed.  To tell the truth, he was the only one in her storybooks who seemed at once perfectly familiar and utterly achievable.  Malkah was proud that she’d come up with somebody after all.  Raskolnikov was really real.  Not like Gregor, the oversized spider.  Of course, what she really wanted to ‘be’ when she grew up was a beatnik.  But the names of beatniks were just slipping her mind at the moment.  At any rate, this was a victorious moment for Malkah — actually managing to answer such a large question.

Mrs Tzaddik started to cry.  She sobbed.  “That’s the saddest thing I ever heard,” she said and walked away shaking her head from side to side in large despair.

Of course, she’d had exactly the same reaction when a few weeks before she’s asked a similar question. Clearly she wanted some kind of answer that Malkah didn’t comprehend.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she had asked.

Malkah had brightened instantly.

“I want to be the keeper of the woods,” she said.  “I’d live in a cottage in the woods with a broom.  And I’d sweep.  And where I swept, there would be trails that would appear.  And people could find their way.”  She had it all worked out.

Mrs Tzaddik shook her head from side to side in perfect simulation of someone saying ‘woe, woe.’

A thousand decades later, Malkah turned the tables.

“What did you want me to be when I grew up?” she asked, knowing that she was now a full professor with tenure with a Ph.D. under her belt.

“How could I want anything for you?” Mrs Tzaddik hissed at her.  “You took drugs!   You played hooky. You weren’t a serious student like I was!”

It’s true.  All true.  Malkah used to cut school and run off to the University.  And climb up onto the sofas in the Student Union.  And pretend she was a college student.  And she snuck off carrying her favorite books from home, and curling up reading there for hours.  And then she’d fail her classes at school.




She had read the Oresteia about a million times. And cried her eyes out every single time.  That was always her favorite.  The Oresteia.  But Aeschylus always cost more than a dollar.  So she’d sit on the floor upstairs at Holmes Bookstore. Cry her eyes out to the brown and tan Penguin editions of Greek tragedies.  And come home with Nancy Drew.  Could Malkah have told the truth?  I want the courage of Elektra, mama.  How would that have gone over?

So.  The bookstore, the other day.

Those bloody books still get to her.  Some like very old friends, and potential new lovers.  Others like enemies that make her scowl.  The bookstore brings her great solace.  A big laugh.  Heartbreak and terrible tears.  She can fight with them.  Learn from them.  Take them home and sleep with them.  They are her only sisters, her only brothers.  Plain cover secret handsome lovers.

The other day in the bookstore.

It’s the smells of the books, I think, that bring the memories flooding back.  Of Holmes Books, with the tzaddik.  And a thousand other bookstores from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Rabat. Paris to New York City to City Lights, in San Francisco…

Being in a bookstore with someone you love.

I think that was why I was crying.


By 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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