essays tzaddik stories


I was sitting with Mrs Tzaddik this afternoon, in the glorious sunshine.  Light breeze.  Not too hot.  One of those rare perfect moments.  There too, was one of the caregivers, and my friend T, a large white male akin to a polar bear.  I was trying to convince her to record her tales so that they would be preserved.  I think I used the word posterity.

“You just want me to tell the real stories of Seymour,” she said.  Well, sure, that’s part of it.  But I wanted her own tales — so very different from his own.   These were two powerhouses, after all, not one.  I said something like that.  It didn’t take.

“What about you,” she accused.  “Why don’t you tell your stories?”  She gave me a knowing look.

The polar bear intervened.

“She is writing her stories,” he said. “Her own daughter insisted.”  Something like that.  And very true.  Mrs Tzaddik shooed his explanation away like he was a butterfly not a large white bear.

“What about all the drugs,” she said pointedly, ” did you tell her about the drugs?”  She even remembered the drug dealer’s name, which I promptly forgot again right after she mentioned him.  She remembered because of the —  but don’t let me get ahead of myself.

“Of course I’ve talked to her about drugs,” I said, “and that was very long ago.”

She grunted.  And then looked up with victory in her eyes.

“Gypsy!”  she said.  “Did you tell her about Gypsy?”

Well, no.  I’ve never told anyone about Gypsy.  Not even my precious daughter.  Not even as a cautionary tale.  Not even to my brilliant firstborn son.  Not a word about Gypsy.

“The FBI was looking for her,” she told the large white bear.  “The CIA.”  The this.  The that.

“And what about that Jewish boy?” she said.  “He was terrified when he came to us.  They were going to put him in prison.”

I remembered that.  They were looking for Gypsy.

“He wasn’t Jewish,” I said lamely.

She wins, of course.  She always does.  She deflected the whole Oral History issue onto one Gypsy.

Gypsy thought she was so smart.  There she was, 18 years old, and living in Jerusalem and it was the ’60s outside — even there.  And the sights of Jerusalem were overwhelming.  But one of the biggest sights she fell into seeing were bricks of hashish as big as large loaves of bread.

She had turned into the wrong alley.  Or maybe someone led her there.  An Arab part of Jerusalem, even when the city was divided.  And she was used to pebble-sized bits of hashish.  That’s all she’d seen at home.  But a brick — a solid brick!  Oh my.  The Arab held a big long knife over a candle.  Heated it up really really well, and began to slice a thin slice.  About a 1/4″ thick, not more.  Again and again he’d dip the knife into the fire.  Until at last — a slice of bread.  And then he’d weigh it.  And then he’d sell it.

And so Gypsy sent some home.  To the boy.  Who wasn’t Jewish.  Who, it turned out, was on probation.  He was, what was called in those days, a ‘meth freak.’  And in Gypsy’s magnanimity, she thought perhaps to send him in a different direction.  But hash is just no substitute, is it?  He taught her that before she’d left the country.  One shot.  And 13 seconds later —well, I’m sure you know.  And he brought her back down safely after letting her see what the crash was like.  And she learned with just one hit:  meth is really really really bad stuff.  And she never did it again.

She’d have liked to have seen him ‘clean’ as it was called.  And so she sent him presents.  The boy was doomed really.  His mother had hooked him.  “It’s gonna happen sooner or later,” she had told him.  “You might as well learn at home.”

I always took that tale for granted.  Until I had kids of my own.  The thing I warned them about the most — was meth.  But you know how kids are.

So.  Gypsy.  Came upon this other stuff.  And thought maybe this might work for him if hashish didn’t.

Do you see what a nice moral tale this is?

It was a light green powder she’d never seen before.  But what the hell.  Anything’s better than meth.

She stuck it in an envelope in a little baggy.  Made sure there were no fingerprints.  Return name: Gypsy. And mailed it off.

This is when the FBI came to his door. Or something like that.  Who was Gypsy, they wanted to know.  Hours of interrogation!

He ran to the tzaddik, of course, and confessed.  And the tzaddik fixes everything.  He called Jerusalem and gave her the name of a well-connected lawyer.  Mrs Tzaddik told her not to write to anyone or send a single package of anything ever again to anyone on planet earth.

Gypsy shrugged.  No problem.

So.  Here’s the problem.

It’s not a very good story.  Gypsy waited and waited for men in dark suits to break down her door and haul her off someplace nasty, like they thought she was some kind of criminal.  It’s not a good story, because the only thing that happened was that suddenly — there was talk of war.  And war trumps everything.

Wars are the events that mark a person’s life, not bits of green powder leaking out of envelopes.

What happened was that the Civil Defense came to their Institute.  They taught Gypsy and the South Americans how to load and aim and shoot an Uzi.  How to take it apart.  Put it back together again.  How to clean it.  Big warning not to lose it.  How, when someone comes to your gate, you’re never alone.  One person aims the Uzi.  The other, a high power flashlight in the intruder’s eyes.  If they can’t identify themselves satisfactorily — well, blow them away.  Gypsy decided to specialize in the flashlight part, if she could get away with it.  She was from Berkeley.

She learned to tape up windows so they wouldn’t shatter when the bombs began to fall.  How to build a bomb shelter, with mattresses wall to wall down in the cave.  How to do blackout.  How to recognize the difference between a MIG and a Mirage.  Signals of when it was safe to climb the stairs and get more water. Med kit stuff, and what to do about the poisoned water supply.

The neighbors joined their shelter — and cried and wailed in fear.   Their house had been bombed to smithereens, but here they might be safe.  Once, in the middle of the night — the telephone rang.  Outrageous, really, for all the phone lines were down.  Someone risked his life to sneak upstairs.  The ringing phone made them all feel visible.  Vulnerable.

Back down to the cave, he came perplexed.

“Malkah,” he said, “your mother’s on the phone.”

No fucking way.

Who knows how she got through, but there she was.  How are you, she wanted to know.

“Um, mum, there’s a war going on.  I can’t talk right now —”

After three days in the bomb shelter, Civil Defense said it was okay to come out now.  All but one other rushed up for fresh air.  But Gypsy’s lover had the key, and they locked themselves in.  Bumper to bumper mattresses were worth exploring.  And there were three more days of war.

And when it was done, she helped clean up the rubble.  And the road was cleared that led up to the Kotel.  The first gathering for prayers at the Western Wall since before Independence.  They all marched the path together.  And Gypsy turned her head.

Terrified eyes were looking out from behind the stone-walled hovels.  White flags were waving, inside and out.  She caught some pleading eyes and they caught hers, and held her.  And then she passed.

The only story here are in those eyes’ first meeting.  One set with fear.  One set with childlike wonder. Gypsy disappeared that day forever. And that was the short life of Gypsy Gypsum.   Malkah returned that very same day. That very moment.

She was staring into eyes which were staring into hers, and she felt heartsick.  All history changed that day.  the map redrawn.  Temporarily, they said.  Peace for land, they said.  Negotiation they said.  We’ll give it back, they said.  Make a deal, they said.

Eighteen years of only one clear way of thinking — or taking things for granted, not thinking anything at all. Eighteen years of nothing matters. Eighteen years of it’s a playground.  But now the questions flooded in; she was awake.   There was only one thing for her to do, she thought, though it sounded drastic.  Balance out her education and study Arabic.

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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