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Prophets of Assimilation

By Tzvi Fishman
5/28/2007, 12:00 AM

The reunion engagement of Simon and Garfunkel, 2 lost brothers who sold their souls to the goddess of American success, reminded me of one of my short stories...

Prophets of Assimilation

THE ENGAGEMENT
Gazing out the bus window at the Biblical hillsides of Judea, he had realized that to be true to himself, he had to make Israel his home.

Listening to the lecture in the Yeshiva University classroom, Johnny's gaze was drawn almost mystically eastward. Across the street, a police car was stationed by the pizza parlor that anti-Semites had shot up two weeks before, slightly wounding two students. Over the drab brick buildings of Amsterdam Avenue, Johnny pictured the busy expressway leading out to Long Island where his engagement party was to be held that evening. As usual in his afternoon classes, the lecturer's voice grew dim in his ears. Magically, the New York cityscape vanished like a movie set that workers disassemble the day after filming is finished. Call it a daydream or a spark of something Divine, Johnny was back in the land of his forefathers, riding in an Egged bus on the road to Hevron. There, gazing out the bus window at the Biblical hillsides of Judea, he had realized that to be true to himself, he had to make Israel his home.

Remembering those two months in the Holy Land, Johnny felt the same shiver of love he had experienced on the bus. It was a shiver he had never felt with Linda, his fiance, the girl he was going to marry. What was it about vineyards and terraced hillsides that could affect someone in such a powerful way? It was something that words couldn't capture – the feeling that he had been there before, in a different lifetime, the feeling that he had found his way home. The land seemed to whisper, to call out, to sing with a voice of its own. Branches of olive trees seemed to be raised upward in prayer. Over these hillsides and down these same valleys, King David had strolled as a youth. Gazing out the bus window, Johnny felt that time had stood still. As if David was still grazing his sheep beyond the next orchard, around the next bend. The love that Johnny felt toward this land was beyond any doubt. Beyond any question. Not like his feelings towards Linda. Or towards New York. Or towards getting a Masters in Business. On that bus ride to Hevron, an unmistakable feeling of love had illuminated his being, creating him anew.

"More visions of King David today, Johnny?" the instructor of Talmud inquired. "Or perhaps I've interrupted you from building a new yishuv in Samaria?"

At first, Johnny didn't notice that the rabbi-professor was speaking to him. But then the laughter of fellow students shattered his revery, yanking him two-thousand years forward through time. With a cry of silent protest, his soul shrunk back into the oppressive four walls of a classroom in New York and his final month at Y.U.

"I'm sorry, sir," he said.

"Would you like to share your tiyul with us?" the teacher asked.

"No, sir," Johnny answered.

"Then would you care to summarize the argument that we have been discussing?"

Johnny looked around the room for the answer, as if it were scribbled on the forehead of one of his friends.

"I'm sorry, sir," he repeated.

"So am I," the instructor replied. "If you make a concerted effort to join us back here in America, you may still be able to pass this course and continue on toward a Masters Degree next year. Otherwise, you may find yourself in Tzahal faster than you think."

Once again, his classmates shared a good chuckle. A friend summarized the argument between Hillel and Shammai, two of the great rabbis of the Mishnaic era, even though neither had graduated from Y.U. The respected institution had been his home for four years – a place where a young Orthodox student could enjoy the best of both worlds, Judaism and America; Shabbos in shul and Motzei Shabbos on Broadway. Throughout his four years, Johnny had loved it. And Part II was just beginning – Columbia Business School, just a couple subway stops away. What he would lose in Gemara, he would gain in a leap up the ladder of corporate success.

"It isn't the end of the world," his realistic grandmother had noted. "Going to a goyisha school isn't such a terrible thing. After all, studying in Yeshiva doesn't put bread on the table."

When the afternoon class finally ended, Johnny hurried back to his dorm room and changed into his best Sabbath suit. Posters of Israel were scotchtaped to all of the walls. The engagement party was scheduled for eight o'clock that evening. Since his younger brother had smashed up his car, he had to catch a train out to Long Island. He had known his fiance, Linda, for years. They had practically grown up together in the same Great Neck community, attending the same shul, going to the same parties. Their parents were good friends. Johnny had never felt a great flame for the girl, but everyone said it was birshert, "a heavenly match." True, she was pretty, and her family was loaded, and she was crazy about him. But for his part, for someone who was getting married, he felt strangely unmoved.

"Love isn't like in the movies," his father said. "You have to work at it."

"If you don't love her now, you'll love her in time," his mother assured him.

As for his grandmother, she had a way with words that couldn't be beat. "Love, shmov," she said with a shrug. "Love doesn't put bread on the table."

Before he hopped into the subway heading downtown, he stopped into the now-famous pizza parlor to wolf down a slice.

"With olives, nachon?" the Israeli who owned the place asked.

"Nachon," Johnny answered.

Ever since he noticed that the owner used olives from Israel, Johnny had become hooked on pizza with olives.

"Going to a wedding?" the owner asked, commenting on Johnny's attire.

"I'm getting engaged," Johnny told him.

"Mazel tov!" the man said. "In that case, the olives are on the house!"

Sitting in the subway car, dressed in his Sabbath suit, Johnny started to squirm. Across the aisle, a row of Blacks, Hispanics, and Poles from the Bronx were all staring at him with cold looks of hate in their eyes. Ever since returning from Israel, Johnny made it a point to wear his kippah wherever he went, even on late-night subway rides back to Y.U. after seeing a film with Linda in the city. Opposite him, the train's passengers glared at him like attack dogs ready to pounce. The word "JEW!" seemed to flash in their pupils. Johnny realized that G-d, for the moment, had switched their kill buttons to off. If not for that Heavenly Kindness, they surely would have torn him apart to the bones.

That was one of the reasons why Johnny wanted to go live in Israel. Intifada or not, that was the home of the Jews. At least there, the Jews had an army. Johnny had spent a month on an army base in the Negev cleaning warehouses and washing down tanks. Wearing a Tzahal uniform had done more for his Yiddishkeit than all of his years at Y.U. After his summer in Israel, the difference was clear. America was great for Americans. Israel was the land of the Jews.

The problem was Linda. She wanted to live near her parents.

Johnny agreed that her parents were nice people. They were wealthy, they lived in a beautiful house, they gave Linda everything she wanted. After the wedding, they would buy them a house and set Johnny up with a job in a top Wall Street firm when he finished his Masters in Business.

"Our children can be bar-mitzvahed in Israel," Linda agreed.

"I want my children to grow up in Israel," he said.

"Then find them some other mother, not me."

For months, he had dropped the issue completely. But now, as the train stopped at 72nd Street, and a man stepped into the crowded subway car holding a copy of the Hebrew newspaper, Israel Shelanu, Johnny was reminded of the sensitive subject again. For a split moment, their eyes connected in recognition, fellow travelers in a foreign land. Across the ocean, a car bomb had exploded in Tel Aviv, leaving three people dead.

"Is that the future you want for your children?" Linda would say. "Car bombs and wars?"

Johnny knew she meant well. Perhaps she was right. Maybe when things settled down, when peace came, or when Israel defeated the Arabs in an all-out encounter, maybe then his wife would consider making the move. Not that New York was a haven for Jews. The drive-by shooting at the pizza parlor on Amsterdam Avenue proved that a Jew wasn't safe anywhere. But attacks like that didn't take place every day. Linda's fears weren't groundless. He couldn't fault her for that.

At 34th Street, posters of Simon and Garfunkel were plastered all over Penn Station. In another week, they would appear at the Garden for a historic reunion. Sure, they had married shicksas, but man could they sing!

As usual, the train to Long Island was packed with an army of laptop and newspaper Jews. They were an army of lawyers, accountants, brokers, and businessmen flocking back to their suburban fortresses after a pressured day of work in the city. It wouldn't be long until Johnny joined their ranks. He could picture himself now, riding on the train with his Toshiba, Bloomingdale sport jacket, and button-down shirt, heading home to Linda, a hevruta, and a flick. It certainly wasn't the worse fate in the world. And if he hit the jackpot on Wall Street, like Linda's father assured that he would, Johnny could drive home in luxury, listening to Torah tapes in his Jaguar after rush-hour traffic had ended.

A taxi took him the rest of the way to Linda's. The three-story mansion was lit up like a cruise boat. There were spotlights all over the lawn. Lively, Hasidic pop music filled the air. A fleet of expensive, sleek cars lined the block. Johnny recognized his parents' modest Buick sticking out amongst the Cadillacs and Lincolns. Linda promised it would be a small affair, just for relatives and their families' very best friends. Next week, they would be having a separate party in the city for their classmates. But from the line-up of cars on the street, it seemed like Linda's father had invited all of his Nasdaq and Dow Jones accounts.

Johnny paused outside on the street, feeling butterflies swirl in his stomach. No doubt, the glass table in the foyer had turned into a Mount Sinai of presents – silverware, candlesticks, kiddush cups, mezuza cases, lithographs, Smith Barney checks, and everything a young couple needed to set up a frum Jewish house.

"Johnny's getting his Masters in Business at Columbia," Linda's father would say a dozen times, introducing him to each new account.

"Communication hardware," one guest would tell him. "Internet is a thing of the past."

"Keep your portfolio mixed," another CEO would advise. "Never put all of your eggs into one basket."

"My present to you, boy, is two words. Zenith Optics. Its a sure-fire winner," a big smile would say, handing over an envelope with stocks.

Johnny would nod his head and answer with his best Columbia Business School smile, "Yes, sir, thank you, sir, that's really good advice."

And of course, Linda would look beautiful. And his parents would be so proud. And his young brother would make faces while he recited the short Dvar Torah that he had prepared.

And all of the while, Johnny would be thinking of the car bomb in Israel and the fate of the wounded.

"Is something the matter?" Linda would ask.

"No, of course not," he'd answer. "Everything's great."

They would be happy. They would be rich. He would donate lots of money to Israel. When their son grew up, if things were quiet, they would make a big bar-mitzvah party at the King David Hotel.

As his future spread out before him, a bus rounded the corner and came down the street. When he saw it, the words of a Paul Simon song rang in his ears....

"Just get on the bus, Gus. No need to discuss much. Just get yourself free."

The bus stopped in front of him and the bus driver opened the door.

"Where to?" Johnny asked.

"Kennedy Airport," the bus driver replied.

Johnny turned back for one last look at the house. Linda stood in the brightly lit doorway, as if searching for a boat lost at sea. In her engagement gown, she looked like a queen.

"I ain't got all night, pal?" the impatient bus driver prodded.

Quickly, before Linda could spot him, Johnny climbed on the bus.

"Coming from a wedding?" the driver inquired.

"I'm getting engaged tonight," Johnny answered.

"Congratulations!" the bus driver said. "In that case, the bus ride is free."

Back down the street, the band continued to play... "Once again will be heard on the mountains of Judea and the streets of Jerusalem, the song of joy and happiness, the song of the hatan and the kallah."

Excited, a happy Johnny sat down on a seat. Outside the bus window, the hills of Judea rose up to greet him.