Joel had been talking to his girlfriend Emily when, overwhelmed with love, he found himself whirling in the air. There was no doubt that he was up there. The mailman, two neighbors and Emily can confirm this. Joel certainly knew it. Hovering in the air in his T-shirt and blue jeans, he saw the ground below, the lawn, the round bed of pink and purple impatiens. Emily was thrilled at first, as well she should have been. No other date had expressed his feelings in quite that way. On the other hand, her parents, when told of the event were unimpressed. They pointed out that a boyfriend who does break-dancing in the sky isn’t much of a catch.
Be that as it may he was up there long enough for the residents of Bayshore, Connecticut to be aware of the event and to react each in his own way. Joel Schecter, for that was the flyer’s name, was completely flummoxed. He was also exhilarated, awed, embarrassed and bruised. (He had fallen to earth with a thump). Why then did he fly? Joel could offer no explanation.
It was then that Rabbi Marcus rode to the rescue. He appeared in a blue Chevrolet, map-quest printout in hand, and ready to explain Joel’s mother seated him in the brocade wing chair by the window and fed him tea and danish. A confused Joel sat across from him looking at a business card: Rabbi David J. Marcus, Tzaddik.
“It means righteous,” he said, in answer to Joel’s questioning glance.
Of course, this wasn’t clarification enough. David, who with his round build and face, black mustache and wavy black beard looked like a Jewish Santa Claus, went further. “I’m the Chief Lamed Vov,” he said and sat back waiting for his words to take effect. Joel was confused.
David sighed, “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
Joel shook his head, “No.”
David smiled sadly. Another innocent. Obviously he had his work cut out for him. Slowly, enunciating carefully he said, “The Lamed Vov are hidden saints, indistinguishable from ordinary mortals. These men are the receptacles into which mankind pours its sorrows. There are only thirty-six such saints and it is believed that if one of them were missing, the sufferings of humanity would be beyond bearing.” He added, “Lamed Vov do not customarily approach the heavens as you have, but we think that such activity is a sign that you may be one of us.”
Opening a worn attaché case he took out several certificates testifying to his credentials and containing a full account of his position, replete with Biblical references.
Joel remained silent. It must be noted that he was dismissive of the concept that he had special powers and was not at all interested in the shiny blue and white brochure.
Rabbi Marcus appeared to be a pleasant man but what was he doing in Joel’s living room? The Rabbi shifted in his seat. He looked at Joel with pity.
“Word of your airborne exploit has reached our organization, Just Men United. We all agree that you may be one of us.” He proceeded to inform Joel of the death of Jake Schwartzenkopf at the age of ninety-three. Jake had cared for the eastern seaboard of the United States for seventy-two years. He was felled by a stroke and was sorely missed. “We must fill the opening as quickly as possible.” The Rabbi explained. “The people of Connecticut, Bayshore in particular, are suffering and need help.”
Joel was aghast. “You want me to take over?”
“Rabbi, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“We believe in you.”
“But I don’t believe in you. Rabbi, you know nothing about me. I’m no sanctified man. My folks call me a late-blooming flower child. I run a coffee shop, Caffe Latte. I wear T-shirts and jeans. I play protest songs on the guitar.”
David’s smile shone through beard and mustache. “I’m told that you help out at the soup kitchen.”
“I’m not the only one. There are plenty of others, Dan Chernoff, Ben Sukoenig, Alan Fisher…”
“Did they also teach a handicapped boy to swim?”
“They did other things, I’m sure.”
David rummaged in his attaché case, pulling out a thick packet of documents. He flipped rapidly through them until he found what he was after.
“Here,” he said, handing Joel a sheaf of papers. “We know all about you. We’ve kept track for years. Remember when you tied your best friend’s shoe laces in first grade because he couldn’t make a bow? It’s here. That time you brought water for the opposing high school basketball team? It’s recorded here. All those moments when you felt pain for others: the kids who didn’t get chosen for teams, the boys without lunchtime sandwiches, the girls who didn’t get asked to the dance, all the way up to your current concerns about hunger and war. And of course, your flight. Joel, you’re a Lamed Vov.”
Joel scratched his head. “OK, OK, so I did those things. It still doesn’t make me a whatever. I also got drunk on Saturday nights, fought with my folks about helping out with the store, dropped out of college to trot around Europe. I’m not the nicest guy in the world. You’re making a big mistake. You don’t want to choose me.”
Rabbi Marcus was unperturbed, “We’re not choosing you.”
“Then, who is?”
“God? I’m not even a believer.”
“Doesn’t matter. He believes in you.”
As Joel was receiving accolades from the tsaddik, a cauldron of troubles was stirring in Bayshore. The neighbors who witnessed Joel in flight were not pleased. Several sotto voices blamed the Jews. “No sense of understatement,” said one. “Those people always make a loud splash,” complained another.
At the same time “those people” voiced their own anger at Joel’s flight. It was, they claimed, a blatant attempt at assimilation. Joel was flirting with other faiths. After all, “Jews believe miracles cannot be performed by people. Only God has that power.”
Supporters agreed with Abe Gittleman, the eighty-two year-old self-appointed sage of Temple Shalom, who declared that as long as Joel was “one of us,” they had no choice. They were required to give him moral backing.
All agreed that his act was “bad for the Jews.”
No one was happy, least of all Joel. His dance in the sky had brought him Rabbi Marcus, the Tzaddik who wanted him to be principal speaker at the annual meeting of Just Men United. “It’s held in the Catskills at Monticello. All expenses paid.” Joel was more concerned that his flying might lose him Emily, the girl of his dreams whose parents considered him “off his rocker.”
The pitch grew hotter the August day on which the BayShore Courant ran the following:
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane Department
Joel Schecter, Bayshore High School, class of ’78, has been
elevated to new heights. Last Tuesday, Joel was observed
flying without an airplane. Yup, you read this right, flew right
over Ms. Emily Bergman’s front lawn. Way to go, Joel.
The Board of Temple Shalom sent a letter to the editor proclaiming loyalty to town values. The Conservative congregation, whose application to build a new synagogue was currently before the Commission on Planning and Zoning, was in a precarious position. Potential neighbors were voicing concern over possible lowered house values in the immediate area. As a precaution, the board decided to field a series of letters denouncing any unscheduled flights and pointing out that as Bayshore residents they favored Metro North. All letters avoided mention of Joel’s exploit. Apparently, simple town loyalty stirred the letters that appeared in the next issue of The Courant.
Readers who missed the original notice awoke to the fact that an unusual feat had been performed by a member of the town’s Jewish community. What’s this about a guy flying? Did I read that correctly? Is it a Jewish custom? They wanted to know more. The Courant obliged. The New York Times sent a stringer. Within a day a national wire service picked it up. The seed of fear, “it is bad for the Jews,” was bearing fruit.
Rabbi Marcus drove off, trusting Joel’s ability to absorb the scene and understand. Although intrigued by the possibility of being a Lamed Vov, Joel decided against joining Just Men United. Instead, he concentrated on his problem with Emily. Joel held long mental dialogues in which he convinced Emily that he flew out of love. And in his dreams he heard her admit that “When you flew, I understood love.”
In reality, this is how it went:
Emily: “What are you going to do now? Is this Lamed Vov business a full-time job?”
Joel: “It’s not a job, it’s a way of living.”
Emily: Well, get a living and we’ll talk.”
Joel wasn’t able to overcome the rising acrimony in Bayshore either. Nasty letters filled the pages of The Courant. Four used the phrase “you people” and blamed Joel for “stirring things up.” Three came from outraged ministers who considered any Jew enacting miracles to be poaching on their territory.
Emily’s parents became increasingly nervous. She told Joel, “My mother thinks that I shouldn’t go out with you. She’s afraid that I’ll lose my job if my boss finds out I know you.”
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I’m afraid. Your emotions seem out of control.”
“I wish yours were too,” he said sadly.
Joel was desperate. How to calm the temper of the town? He reasoned that he could either deny everything, which wasn’t possible, or he could prove that he was a Lamed Vov by flying again (which Joel thought equally impossible but worth a try). “Nothing succeeds like success,” he told himself, “which means I have to try to take to the air.” Joel trembled at the thought. He decided, “I’ll do it for Emily. And for God.”
This time Joel required an audience. Armed with permission to stage the event on the hill behind Temple Shalom’s parking lot, Joel took an ad in The Courant.
At 2PM on Thursday, October 17th,
Joel Schecter will attempt to fly.
Please join him at Temple Shalom for this event.
All are welcome
The press was invited, along with radio and TV reporters. His family and Emily corralled friends and foe to witness the event.
The uproar in Bayshore continued unabated. On the day of flight, various religious protesters, members of the local Committee of the Environmentally Concerned and the newly-formed BFP (Bayshore-ites for Privacy) arrived bearing angry signs. Supporters arrived with rival placards, Joel’s family and friends, the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, members of Temple Shalom among them. The parking lot was crammed with anxious citizens. Children pranced about. People with cameras pushed to the front and a scattering of locals from neighboring towns showed up, expecting to be entertained. A very wary Emily stood apart from the others.
There was a collective sigh when Joel appeared. The crowd was disappointed. He looked too ordinary. No flowing rabbinic robes draped his slender frame; no fur- brimmed shtreimel graced his head. He had grown neither beard nor curly payes. Rather, he stood before them, a clean-shaven young man in a blue suit, holding a small blue velvet pouch embroidered with a silver star. They watched in silence as he unzipped the bag, taking out a black yarmulka and a fringed prayer shawl he hadn’t worn since his bar mitzvah. The tallit had belonged to Joel’s grandfather, who had given it to his son. Joel’s father passed it on to him, his only son, in turn. Draping himself in its folds Joel felt the linkage of generations, the thin thread of faith that wound itself from a small Polish village to this moment in Bayshore, Connecticut.
Standing before the hushed crowd, Joel bent his head in silent prayer. He then lifted his head and praying aloud, “O Lord, let me sing unto Thee a new song and may my love for You raise me to new heights.” And a congregation of fellow townspeople, those who believed and those who did not, all said, “Amen.”
Then, slowly, Joel stretched out his arms and proceeded to move in response to some inner music. The rhymes and rhythms could not be heard, although their effect upon Joel was visible to all. Movement rippled through his shawl-robed body which swayed like an aspen in a Colorado wind. Bobbing, weaving, bending and dipping he
circled around. He leaped with passion. He went faster and faster, the ends of his tallit flaring out like wings. Sparks seemed to shoot from the asphalt beneath his feet. But, no matter the moment’s magic, the earth stayed firm beneath him. The sky, an unsullied robin’s-egg blue, remained in place above him. There was no hiding the fact. Joel didn’t fly.
Little was said as people dragged themselves away. No one looked back. The dull heat of afternoon filled the emptying space. Joel bent to pick up the yarmulka which had spun off during his dance. Slowly, he dusted it with the back of his hand. That’s where he was standing when Emily kissed him. Savoring her breath, Joel slowly rose in the air, looked down at the abandoned parking lot and knew it to be a garden of earthly delight. But his heart hurt for those he had disappointed.
It’s not easy to weave opposing forces such as an ancient faith’s sacred tradition with the passion of a young man who, despite his flight is, firmly grounded in the here and now into such an entertaining, wise story. Ms. Nad could have given us a happy ending, with all concerned being better off at the end, but instead she does what life does: she leaves us with at least as many questions as answers!