Epitome of Mensch – Benjamin Sonnenberg

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“David Katz, you are the epitome of a mensch.”

“Well thank you,” was the reply, said through a mouthful of syrup.

“I mean it!” Alex Rory said. He stuffed a chunk of waffle into his mouth and forced it down with cranberry juice. “Sst a grrnt iddr!”

David laughed. “Come again?”

Alex swallowed. “It’s a great idea! I’ll take Hallie to a museum.”

“You’ve got it made, if you can get her to agree.”

“That’s no problem. Once I have my mind focused on something, I get it done, David.”

“That you do. Just don’t stress yourself out like last time.”

Alex shook his head. “Last time I was but a mere freshman! A little fish in a big state school pond. Now we’re juniors, my friend. Big, hairy upperclassmen! I wasn’t sure of myself then but times have changed.”

“Well, you certainly are hairy.”

Alex got off the stool he was sitting on. He looked around to make sure no one was looking. Not a soul; the university dining hall was always empty this early. Confident now, Alex stamped his foot down on the ground and raised his left fist, along with his voice: “Why, my dear friend, I now feel like I positively exude confidence!”

David laughed and devoured the rest of his breakfast. Not wanting his friend to play the role alone, he promptly got off his stool, too. David came around to Alex and clasped him on the shoulders. They looked at each other for a brief moment, mock-serious, and burst into hard laughter. After a minute, a sour look from a custodian quieted them.

“Good,” David snorted. “But I still don’t get why you feel the need to chase these girls.” 

Alex’s smile faded. “I’m taking myself too seriously.”

“How do you mean?”

“I spend too much of my time alone, Dave. It causes me to be overly introspective. It’s not good. God doesn’t want it.”

“Ah, the Talmud classes have had their intended effect.”

Alex nodded. “It is not good that a man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

“Genesis,” David grinned. “You’re becoming learned.”

Alex smiled. “I’m trying. I didn’t get Hebrew school like you, but I’m learning.”

“What other quotes do you have for me?”

“Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison… by widening our circle of compassion….”

“Wow.”

“Einstein said that. I don’t remember it all, though”

They were quiet for a moment. After a pause, they cleaned their trays and left the dining hall for the warm outside air. It was November now, deep into the first semester. Maryland falls and winters could get very cold and the days were becoming shorter. Soon there would be almost no light at all for a museum trip.

They walked around the campus for an hour before going their separate ways. Two friends, they’d known each other for exactly two years. Alex sometimes thought about how their personalities worked in tandem. He fancied himself the emotional genius of the two (though this self-description clashed with the realities of his GPA and resume). David, to Alex, was the rock: steady, reliable, but also deep. A rare find on a university campus, he thought to himself on many occasions.

They enjoyed their morning walk before classes and talked about matters of great importance: the recent offensive against ISIS, Trump’s electoral victory, the merits of white chocolate versus dark. This question, he assured David, held relevance in his quest for Hallie. Their conversation ended when it was time for David to head to organic chemistry.

“I wish I could stay, but…”

“I don’t want you to at the cost of a 4.0.”

David laughed and turned away. Over his shoulder he said, “A little late for that!”

“It’s never too late!”

“3.56!”

“It’s too late!” Alex said and walked on. At one point, he looked back at David, who was still heading down toward the center of campus. It was warm out, but Alex felt a chill all the same. He thought: There goes my one friend.

****

He had transferred in second semester of freshman year, which had put him at a disadvantage in making friends. Most of the other students had either been in freshman living-learning communities or had met up with high school companions. Regardless, they had a ready-made circle of friends. But transfer students had the worst lot: if they came from out-of-state (as Alex had), there was neither a living-learning arrangement nor a cadre of high school chums. Worse yet, as Alex had begun to realize, there was no incentive for anyone to open their circle to him. They had already settled down with their groups and were not about to accept a new arrival.

So Alex had spent the better half of his college career trying to poke holes in other peoples’ defenses, seeing if they would give way to his attempts at friendship. He found very quickly, however, that there was one major problem that made his previous disadvantages so much worse: he was a tad bit odd, or at least others thought so. It was hard for him (indeed, for anyone) to pin-point what was strange about him, but the informal consensus seemed to be that Alex was, indeed, a “goober.” He liked to stand at the end of long hallways and pretend he was one of The Shining twins. He very much enjoyed Soviet marches and the “Bydlo” movement of Pictures at an Exhibition. He was also adept at humming the national anthems of obscure nations, countries which always seemed to produce the best pieces of national music, or so Alex would always say when given the chance.

“But if I get a girlfriend,” he told his mother later in the afternoon, “I’m in.”

“Well, who’s the girl for you?”

“Hallie Goldstein.”

“And she’s the one in your Jewish learning group?”

“Right. That’s how I know she’s an intellectual. And you should see what she says in Maimonides!” Maimonides was the name of the group Alex had joined earlier in the semester.

“Very learned, huh?” his mother laughed.

“A sagacious, perspicacious, erudite gal for me, Mother. I’ve looked over her LinkedIn page, too. Very impressive.”

“Then go for it. When’s the next session?”

“Tomorrow. I plan to spring into action then. We’re hopefully going to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. They’re having an exhibit of Native American artwork and she’s very into that kind of stuff.”

 “I’m sure it’ll be lovely, hon.”

“That assumes she says yes,” Alex sighed.

“Well, you’ll ask her and see what she says. It doesn’t hurt to try, right?

“Right,” he said. They discussed a few matters of salience, he kissed her cheek over the phone, and they parted lines.

It was going to hurt to try, and he knew it. He had done it only once before, and it didn’t end well. He had either peed himself or had sneezed into her face; either way, her answer had been a definite negative. Aside from mishaps, it was also dangerous for his ego. He was essentially opening his secret heart to her, exactly where he was most vulnerable. And Alex really didn’t know much about Hallie, aside from the fact that she had a 4.0 in the Honors College, along with numerous fancy accolades. Still, he knew a no from her would hurt him for at least two weeks.

He decided to do it anyway.

****

That week’s Maimonides session had been the best yet. Rabbi Klatzer discussed the Jewish view of selfishness, specifically “positive” and “negative” selfishness. Positive selfishness, he said, provides us with the impetus to action. It makes us look inward and work for our own success and betterment. By doing so, we can position ourselves in a way that enables us to help one another. Negative selfishness, however, was a dark place, born from “gratuitous introspection,” as he put it. By giving, the Rabbi explained, and expanding the concept of self, one can avoid this kind of trap.

By the end of the lesson, Alex was nearly in tears. He watched the far end of the table, where Hallie sat, equally mesmerized. When the lesson was over, and after the deli rolls had been eaten, Hallie got up with her friends and left. Alex followed her and when he felt he could vacillate no longer, he tapped her on the shoulder and asked her what she thought of the Rabbi’s words.

“It was…” her eyes grew wide and she grinned. Perfect teeth, sent to the best orthodontist in the state. “Wow. Awesome.”

“So it spoke to you?” he asked.

“Yeah, it was very moving. What did you think?”

“I loved it. I felt like he was talking to me, you know?”

“That’s interesting,” she said. Her friends, watching, nodded. “So you grapple with what he was talking about?”

“Definitely!” he burst.

Scale it back, be normal. Don’t scare her off.

“Definitely,” he said, subdued. Then, unable to help himself: “I’ve been trying to open my concept of self, like he said. I think it’s good for a person to do that in college.”

“I do, too,” she laughed.

“Do you like Native Americans?” he asked.

She blinked and her head shook a little. “Um, sure, I guess they’re fine. Haha, why?”

“I mean, do you find them interesting?”

 Her friends started to giggle a little, and so did Hallie. She held her hand to her mouth and said, “Very interesting, I love observing them!”

Well, better go for it now.

“I would be honored if you would come with me to the American Art Museum. They’re having an exhibit on Native Americans in art and they have that one famous painting of the buffalo hunt. And after the museum, I’d love to buy you some sushi.”

Her grin closed a little, but a strong smile shone through her red cheeks. Her friends walked off.

“Sure,” she said, and they exchanged numbers. When they settled on a date and time, Saturday afternoon, Alex felt his insides grow hot and he lost control over his smile. He started to laugh very hard, but managed to thank her and tell her that he looked forward to the outing. She said that the feeling was mutual. They parted, and he ran all the way back to his dorm, humming the most upbeat military marches he could think of.

****

He eventually picked out the right clothes, with David’s help and approval, of course.

“If it’s not too weird to say, I’m very proud of you,” he told Alex.

“Thanks, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ve still got to land this thing.”

“You’ll do it, Sully.”

“Not the kind of landing I was thinking of, but no problem!”

When he was ready, Alex took his wallet, his phone, his metro card, and a backpack. He left his dorm for the metro station where they’d agreed to meet. He was humming “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

Alex met her about fifteen minutes late; he’d overestimated the punctuality of the campus bus service. Alex had sent a text message apologizing, to which he received a “lol” followed by a “:P” He spent a few minutes trying to analyzing that and concluded that she’d forgiven him.

And there she was at the metro bus stop, waiting for him, immaculately dressed in dirty Converse sneakers and a paisley dress. She had on a backpack, coated with Pokémon stickers.

“You’re a fan of the pocket monsters, I see,” he said as he got off the bus. It was the best he could do with ten seconds of preparation.

“Actually, this was my sister’s backpack and I never bothered to take these things off. I’m more of a Magic kind of gal.”

They got on the metro with only a little trouble. She passed the turnstiles easily, but Alex, to his embarrassment, was not so lucky.

“I have to add some cash!” he said. “I’m so sorry!”

She waved a hand. “Don’t sweat it!”

He couldn’t help to, however, and he fumbled through the process of adding money to his card. He’d never done it before and could feel Hallie watching him, judging him harshly for his ineptitude. Alex focused on his task and conquered it. He added $5 and passed the turnstile.

They boarded the Green Line and were soon on their way to the Capital. Alex settled down into his seat adjacent to Hallie and began to relax. He sighed and rubbed his temples but soon recognized that it was much too early to settle down: he had a 40-minute ride alone with her.

“So what’s your major, Hallie?”

“I’m a triple in journalism, philosophy, and English.”

“How many years will that take?”

“Only four.”

His mouth fell open. “Damn, I can’t even do one major.”

She laughed a little. “College is hard, no cabe duda. What’s your major?”

“History,” he said. “But I think I’m going to add secondary education.”

“You like kids?”

“Absolutely!” He had never thought about it.

“That’s good,” she said. “We need more teachers in the world.”

“We definitely do,” he said. “But I also really like telling people what I know.”

She looked at him blankly, and then burst into laughter. People on the train looked back at her but she continued, to Alex’s chagrin. When she was finished, she smiled and said, “Well, at least you’re honest! We need honest teachers, too.”

“Well, I’m definitely honest!” he said. “Brusque, one might say.”

“Tell me what you know.”

“What?”

“Tell me a funny fact.”

He answered immediately.

“Did you know that female bats are the only non-primates to engage in fellatio?”

“Nope. But that is a funny fact, so thank you for sharing.”

They continued talking until the train broke down ten minutes later. After an additional ten minutes, the intercom thundered: “We apologize for this inconvenience. The train up ahead is experiencing malfunctions. I repeat, we apologize for this inconvenience.”

“Shit,” Alex said and checked his watch.

“We’ve got plenty of time. The museum doesn’t close until 7.”

“I know, but I just want the trains to run on time.”

“Dark humor?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Nice.”

 

The metro started again and dropped them off at the National Mall more than an hour later. Horrific lateness and awkwardness aside, everything was going smoothly. Alex withdrew the paper on which he had written walking directions, but Hallie dismissed them.

“I know exactly where to go,” she said. “I’ve been to this museum plenty of times.”

They walked on through Washington, although they made sure to stop frequently. Hallie couldn’t help but take him into every dimly-lit coffee or milkshake house she saw. He returned the favor, stopping the walk every now and again to point out interesting looking people or a dirty plaque commemorating a historical event.

“Hallie,” he said, reading one such marker, “did you know the Ottoman Ambassador Horshet Tugay Anil stayed at this inn?”

“You mean the horse-shit too-gay anal?”

“Hallie, please be serious. This is the Sultan’s representative we’re talking about.”

“My apologies.”

They made many twists and turns throughout the city and it only took them two hours to realize that they were lost. Hallie brought him inside yet another dark café to ask for directions. She flew in and gasped when she saw the bookshelf: a thing of mahogany, 10 feet tall, studded with James Joyce and Balzac.

“Alex, ask the nice man for directions.”

And before he could quarrel, she was reading.

As he thought, the gentleman behind the counter had no idea where the American Art Museum was. He did, however, know several vape shops nearby. Alex thanked him for his no-help and gathered Hallie.

“Hallie,” he said to her back. “Turn around and let’s go.”

“This bookshelf doesn’t even have Ulysses. It’s a terrible book, but no self-respecting indie coffee shop should be without it.”

“Hallie, we need to ask a policeman or somebody for help.”

She quickly withdrew her iPhone and spoke into it: “Siri, how do we get to American Art Museum.”

The robot prattled and walking directions filled the screen.

“Modern technology,” Alex said, shaking his head. “In my day, we had to walk aimlessly and ask random people for help.”

“Now, now. Trust in Siri.”

He did, and she led them to the promised museum. It was a big place and they had about two and a half hours to see the Native American exhibit. Walking in, Alex dropped his backpack at the reception area.

“No problem,” she said and her confidence comforted him.

The first painting they came to was by George Catlin. It was The Buffalo Hunt. A Sioux in fantastic white feathers and hides, mounted upon a white horse, a single spear in hand. Behind him, another Indian with a bow, the pointed arrow feet from the flanks of a charging buffalo. After taking the proper amount of time to look at the painting, and having been sure to inject a “Hmmm” and a “Oh, wow” every now and again, they continued.

“Alex,” Hallie said, pointing to a painting of an old woman, “look at what she’s holding.”

A Kiowa woman with a black squirrel on her shoulder, a leash attached to its neck.

“Hmmm. Oh wow,” Alex said.

“Indeed! Pets used for the transmission of social values!”

“What kinds of social values do you think a squirrel can provide?”

“Hard work,” she said instantly. “Foresight. Affability. A lack of fear regarding things many times your size.”

“I suddenly have a keen desire to be a squirrel.”

They found an enormous painting at the end of the hall. Twenty people were surrounding it, taking pictures and laughing. Hallie raced to it and began to laugh with them. Needless to say, Alex was intrigued, but when he came to the painting of Yoda in an Indian headdress, he felt only confusion. It was a painting by Bunky Echo-Hawk, titled If Yoda Was an Indian, He’d Be Chief Weapons of Mass Media.

“What.”

“Isn’t is fantastic?”

“Yes!” he said. “Out of curiosity, what do you think it means?”

“Hmmm.” She drew her hand to her chin and began to stroke. She closed her eyes and when she reopened them, she grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Yoda represents popular culture’s view of Native Americans as noble savages.” She pointed at the painting. “You see how Yoda looks into space with kind of a wistful, waiting gaze?”

“I was actually just thinking about that.”

“He’s wise. He has a spiritual connection with all life: the Force. Likewise, he represents the Native American medicine man, or at least pop culture’s perception of said medicine man.”

He got brave. “Orientalism at its finest, eh?”

Her eyes shone. “That’s right! Yeah!”

A gentleman from behind, in a green Ralph Lauren and Ray-Bans, spoke up. “Actually, Orientalism is confined to Middle Eastern scholarship.”

“He’s close enough!” she said.      

 

By the time they reached the last piece on display in the exhibit, the museum was ten minutes to closing. Everyone had left and one lone guard stood in the room, staring them down. Alex suggested they leave, but Hallie remained firm.

“We paid good money to finish this thing.”

“Hallie, it was free.”

She shook her head and they came upon a small photograph behind glass in the very back of the room. It was a black and white photo that rested upon a little plastic stand. Alex knew exactly what it was; he had seen it a thousand times in his textbooks.

“Look at all those skulls.” Hallie said, breathlessly. 
            “Unbelievable, huh? I think this is the original print.”

Thousands of bleached buffalo skulls, and two men standing by them, grinning. The caption read: The End of the Buffalo.

“A very different kind of buffalo hunt,” she said to herself.

Alex took advantage of the moment; he knew a little about this artifact. “The buffalo were in the way. They killed them for the sake of expansion.”

“And to weaken the natives. No more buffalo, no more food.”

“Right.”

Hallie looked more deeply. “Do you think those two guys knew what they were taking part in?”

Alex thought for a while. Eventually, the guard came over and they were forced to leave. He picked up his backpack at the reception area and they went outside. It was dark and had gotten a lot colder. Taxis and limousines rolled by, sporadically shining them in light. The smell of overpriced food lingered around them. Hallie asked if they could go back to the University; she had work that needed finishing. He nodded, still thinking. Finally, as they went back to the subway, he answered.

“I think the world’s greatest problems come from selfishness.”

She looked at him and nodded. “You think those two buffalo guys were selfish?”

“Without a doubt, but it’s even more than that. Maimonides taught us that the greatest kindness can be born from selfishness, but so can the greatest cruelty.”

“Are you selfish?” she asked him.

He breathed out through his teeth. “Yes, very. But I think a lot of young people are. College can do that.”

“What do you mean?” Hallie asked.

Now it was his turn. “You spend all your time thinking about your tests, your homework, your teachers, what you need to get done. It’s crazy. That’s why I needed this. Anything that can get me away from all that for a day is good for the world.”

“Expansion of the self,” she said, summarizing Maimonides. “The creation of inter-personal bonds.”

 “I need a friend,” he said. “A friend is better than a lover, I think.” He tore off his backpack and unzipped it. Alex withdrew a box of chocolates, purchased online for no small sum.

“I hope you like this,” he said, offering the box. “Thank you for being my friend and helping me.”

“Oh my.” She took the chocolates and her face turned so red he was afraid she would begin to leak blood.

“They’re the special holiday assortment. Do you want to hang out again sometime?”

She smiled. “Are you using chocolates as leverage?”

“I may be,” he said, shrugging. “So would you be open to another outing?”

She began to scratch the nape of her neck. “Sure. I’m pretty busy, though, so no promises. But I did really have a good time today.”

He’d heard that tacit rejection before. Making it known you were busy in order to prepare future excuses. He held firm.

“I almost forgot!” he said. “I promised you sushi after this.”

She shook her head. “I really don’t have time, Alex.”

“Okay. Maybe lunch on-campus at some point?”

“Maybe,” she said and he knew that was the end of it. They began to walk back toward the subway, quiet this time. He poured through the whole day, wondering where he had gone wrong. It was remarkable to him how many variables there were: a facial expression here, a stutter there, a poor joke that fails to land. Anything could make an irreparably bad impression.

But he thought of Maimonides and Einstein and friendship and David and decided on one more try.

“Do you have Facebook?”

She smiled again and he knew that he would at least be getting a notification that night.

“Yeah, though I really should deactivate it.”

 “Please don’t. Can I friend you?”

She looked at the chocolates in her hand. Then she looked back at him, hesitating.

“Sure,” Hallie said. Alex jumped and was sure she saw.

****

He didn’t sleep well that night. The wind was tearing at his dorm-room window and a single stubborn branch refused to quit its scraping. Alex’s roommate seemed to be managing all right: his snoring was especially loud and frequent. Eventually, Alex threw off the covers, took his laptop, and went downstairs to the student lounge. He didn’t mind; he wasn’t tired yet anyway.

He couldn’t stop thinking of the skulls, and Hallie’s reaction to them. Had she really never seen them before? He couldn’t help but think of several photographs that would shock her even worse, images of corpses piled up in ditches, blue-uniformed men standing guard.         

He went online to find release, but as usual, the Internet only angered him further. Pipelines and protests seemed to be the most recent events, arrests and oil spills the norm. He looked deeper. An hour passed this way, then two, and then three, all spent on research. Pictures, interviews, newspaper articles, a thousand Wikipedia tabs, and by the end of it, he had formulated a magnificent idea that would finally bring Maimonides’ and the Rabbi’s lecture to his college: the university’s own American Indian cultural and art appreciation organization.

He checked Facebook. A single red notification detailing how a friend request of his had been accepted. Alex sent her a message, detailing his plan. He had a good feeling she would agree to help him, to use her intelligence to expand their selves as he knew they must do. If she did, a new organization would be coming to the university very soon. He would perform student outreach and, if such a thing appealed to her, Hallie could put her mind to work by formulating some events. It would be hard, no question; too many new organizations lasted only a few months. But it could work, and he envisioned his cultural organization mingling with other groups, perhaps the established American Indian Student Union. They would work together for the betterment of the university, he told himself. Slowly, he began to form his vision: demonstrations, protests, lobbying, a heritage month, lectures, an art exhibition, and by the end of it, his sought-after circle, his elusive group.

He now remembered the quote, almost in full: A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe,” limited in time and space. He experiences himself as something separate from the rest, an optical delusion. This delusion imprisons us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few. Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.

A new FaceBook notification sprang into life. He checked it, and smiled. Maimonides himself would be proud.

 

Benjamin Sonnenberg is a junior at the University of Maryland. His work has appeared in Pseudopod, The Telling Room, Meizius Publishing, Canvas Literary Magazine, Janus, Unbound Literary Magazine, and Heater Magazine. He is currently writing for Phi Beta Kappa’s newsletter, “The Key Reporter.”

 

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