This story is the first-place winner of the 2008 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2008 stories were judged by Anita Diamant, bestselling author of The Red Tent. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Diamant and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
There are 72 disturbing images on the way to my school. Saw I, Saw II, Two and Half Men. There is a billboard for jeans in which no one is wearing clothes. I don’t know why there isn’t a law about this. In another billboard there was a picture of a woman with a plastic tube up her nose. Her eyes were red and bruised underneath. My mother gasped and called the billboard company, CBS Outdoor, right from her car. My friend Gabriel’s mother called, too, and I guess about a hundred or so other mothers, because the next day in the LA Times there was an article saying the billboards were coming down. On Highland, they had the tube-in-the-nose billboard three times, so that even if I were very fast and looked down at my shoes, when I looked up again it was there three more times and another hundred or so times in my mind the rest of the day. Good morning tube-in-her-nose take out your pencils tube-in-her-nose today we’re going to learn tube-in-her-nose, tube-in-her-nose, tube-in-her-nose. Underneath the picture was the word torture, like what they did at Abu Ghraib, the prison in Iraq, because George Bush told them to. I hate George Bush most of all. My doctor, who is a cognitive therapist, who is six feet six inches tall and looks like Jon Heder, but more handsome (my mother says), told me to use thought-stopping techniques when this happens. He told me to imagine a stop sign crashing down into my brain, which is a disturbing image all by itself. I am identified highly gifted. My mother says that being gifted doesn’t mean that the gift is yours, it means that the gift is for the world and it is given through you, that you are chosen to carry the gift. Sometimes I feel like I have a giant chicken on my back.
My name is Levi. I can play any music that I want. My mother bought our piano with the residuals from the TV show she worked on, and even though I wasn’t born yet, she said that she bought it for me. She said that if she put it in the living room and I walked by it every day, that one day I would sit down and play it, and that’s what happened. I was meant to have an older brother, but he was too gentle for the world, and on the day he was supposed to be born, he died instead and went back to heaven. I have been to his grave. It says, “Hello, I must be going,” from Groucho Marx, a famous Jewish comedian. When you go to the place where my brother is buried, you can see the big hat at the Disney Animation building. Walt Disney did not like Jews. My brother’s name is Natan, which means a gift, so I guess I carry him, too.
My school is actually my temple. We have three security guards: Troy, Ray and Gus. They are there because not everybody likes Jews. It is for the same reason we take off our shoes at the airport, because if they mean to, my mom says, people will do harm. She says we have to live our life anyway, that in the spring, we have to go to Israel on a plane. She took a bowl of sugar and put a tiny fleck of pepper in it. “This is the whole sweet world,” she said, “and this,” she points to the tiny fleck of pepper, “is the danger.” She let me taste the sugar on the end of my finger. In Israel, people get onto buses with bombs taped to themselves and blow up everyone. There are special religious people who gather up the parts of the people to put back together so they can bury them. This is the job of someone. When my brother died, a person sat next to him and said prayers all night and day. That is someone’s job, too. My parents are television writers. They do not let me see the news or read the paper but you can find things out. Once, at Kennedy Airport, I was so scared they wouldn’t let me on the plane until my mother gave me half her Ativan and I calmed down.
Every day, when my mother walks me into school, she stops for a minute and says hello to the guards. She looks them in the eye and smiles at them and reminds me to, also. Troy is African-American, like my favorite person, Martin Luther King. Ray is from Ethiopia and eats his lunch with a pancake, which is also a plate. Gus is Latino and has a wife and a new baby named Ariela. None of them are Jewish. On Purim, my mother brings them hamantashen. Before 9/11, there weren’t any guards and they used to keep the door open with a wooden wedge and when my mom would drop me off and pick me up she would steal the wedge and put it in her purse so that the door would close tight behind her. That’s what you call situational ethics, like a white lie, like a bad thing you do for a reason that’s good. When I grow up I want to be a judge or a lawyer. I’m a Democrat. The first law I will make is that food is free.
Someone else who is not Jewish that I like is the Dalai Lama. There is a book about him in the library at school. When he was three, monks came to his farm and showed him things belonging to the Dalai Lama before him and he kept taking them and saying “Mine, mine.” That’s how they knew it was really him. Before they knew, when he was just a baby, he would play a game where he would pack a suitcase like he was going on a long journey. And before that he would gently gather eggs from the hen house with his mother, never dropping them even though his hands were still very small. You can find out more about him at www.dalailama.com. He has a blog, and in it he wrote that most everyone needs more affection and compassion and that not having enough of that is why many people are depressed. He says that if we have sympathy for the suffering of others, we will help remove their pain, and our own serenity and inner strength will increase. These aren’t my words, they are actually his, and I cut and pasted them from his site. At the end of his blog he always says, “Do you understand?” which I think is very nice and patient and it makes you feel like he is talking straight to you. I’m not allowed on the computer at home, but I can use the one in the media lab at school. On Thursdays, after school, I go to yoga on Larchmont with my mom and do downward dog and child’s pose. Afterward, Mom gets a dry nonfat caf and I get Pinkberry. When they first took the Dalai Lama from his home and he had to sleep all alone, he would make friends with the mice so he wouldn’t feel scared.
My favorite Torah portion is the binding of Isaac. It is easy to imagine and very dramatic. G-d tells Jacob…I write G-d with a dash in case you decide to throw this paper away. You’re not supposed to say G-d’s actual name. There are lots of code names for G-d where you put the letter next to the letter in the Hebrew alphabet in the place of the letter you want. Like in the song Kol Dodi you can switch the letters that are daled for the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet, which is hay, and you get the name of G-d. But if you do that, don’t say it out loud, because you’re not supposed to. The same way you are not supposed to look straight at the sun in an eclipse, so instead you hold a piece of white cardboard out and look at the reflection of the eclipse. That is the best way to say G-d’s name, by saying it at an angle, like a code you could read if you held up something in the mirror.
So G dash D says to Abraham that he has to take his son and make a sacrifice of him. It is a test. Abraham binds Isaac and raises a knife to him. He holds it up in the air and there is a lot of suspense. Just then, an angel comes and tells Abraham to stop. The whole time Isaac’s eyes are big as saucers, like anime, because he has so much trust for his father. I think that Abraham knew that G-d would interrupt him the whole time. I think Abraham knew it was a test and he was just going along with it. That’s how sure he was about G-d. At that very instant, there is a rustling in the brush, and there is a ram tangled in the thicket, and Abraham sacrifices the ram instead, which made me very sad when I heard it. This is one of the reasons I am a vegetarian. My favorite thing is when my father takes me to Joshua Tree and we lie on our backs on a boulder and look up at stars.
I am not always sure about G-d. Sometimes I worry that he is made up by people. There is a boy in my school and he cannot speak. It is hard for him even to look at another person. When I tell you this I feel like crying. He makes a singing sound, like a song you might make up if you had to wait a long time or if you were trying to make yourself calm when you couldn’t sleep. The song sounds like when we come into the sanctuary on Yom Kippur, like the sounds of all the people praying to themselves. He has a person who is with him all the time and sometimes when he sees you in the hall, he touches the side of your face and you try to hold very still so that he can. Without talking you know that he is kind. His name is Tal, which is the Hebrew word for dew. And he is like that, like a secret drop of water in the cup of a leaf. The reason I am not sure about G-d is that there have always been wars. Los Alamos, New Mexico, has the highest mean IQ of any city in the country. That is because the atom bomb was invented there and those are the kids and grandchildren of the scientists who made the bomb. The person who came up with the bomb was Oppenheimer. He was a non-practicing Jew. After he finished making the atomic bomb he said, “I am become death.” Every person matters, like Rosa Parks, and the man who stepped in front of the tank in Tienanmen Square, and my brother Natan, and Tal, and also J. Robert Oppenheimer. His wife was named Kitty. There is a lot about him on Wikipedia, but some of it you should not read, because it is very upsetting.
Sometimes when I have a disturbing image that will not go away, I climb into the letters of the Sh’ma. The Sh’ma is the supreme watchword of our faith. That is what the Rabbi says before we say it. Everyone stands up and you cover your eyes with your hand. These are the words: Shma Yisroel Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad. Here is what they mean: “Hear O’ Israel the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one.” This is what I do. When I close my eyes, I picture the letters of the words. The first Hebrew letter is shin, which looks like a sailboat with three sails. In my mind the letter is red, which comes from having synesthesia, which means that your senses cross over each other so that numbers have colors and you can taste sound. When the Jews received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they had synestheia, too, because they saw voices. In my mind, the red sailboat shin is tall. I am little when I stand next to it, and I have to reach up to climb it, but I can do it. I sit in the first curve of it and look up at the sail. When I feel like it, I move on to the mem, which actually looks like a little cave or a shelter. I sit inside it and go into Anajali Mudra pose, which I learned from Kara at Larchmont Yoga. After mem is ayin and yud and so on ’til the end. My very favorite letter is lamed which looks like a horse that you ride with your hands around its neck. Sometimes, when tefillah is over, the teacher leans over and gives my shoulder a shake to get my attention. Once she had to call my name three times. Levi, Levi, Levi.
In P.E. one day, we had to stand on one foot like Hillel. Here is the story. Someone wants to convert to Judaism and he is not that serious, he is kind of a troublemaker really. He is only saying it to make trouble. He first goes to Shammai and says, “Teach me everything I need to know about Judaism while you stand on one foot.” So Shammai chases him away with a stick that he was using to measure something. Next, he goes to Hillel, and Hillel takes him up on it and says, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto thy fellow.” Then he says, “Now go and study.” I like the feeling of that story. It is like another story where the Pope sends a message to Michelangelo and asks for a sample of work for a commission (hint: it is for the Sistine Chapel, so you know already that it works out.) Michelangelo doesn’t want to bother, but the Pope sends message after message like a stalker. Finally, Michelangelo says enough already, and he draws a circle by hand on a piece of paper. That’s how he gets the job. Because drawing a perfect circle on a piece of paper is practically impossible, but Michelangelo could do it. I like that both stories have the most simple answer ever. If everyone did A: Treated others the way they would want to be treated, then B: The world would be a perfect circle. It is like a very orderly math equation.
If I told you all the terrible things people have done to each other you would not go out of your house. You would cover your head with your hands and you would pray even if you weren’t sure about G-d. If, in the morning, I see The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times on the table where my dad has his coffee, if I see upside down that a very shocking and terrible thing has happened to a gay person, or to students at a school, or in Darfur or in a library to a little boy while his mother was nearby, I have to save it up like holding a sip of air until I let it out during tefillah at school. I pray it out and send it as fast as I can to G-d like smoke up a chimney. I pour the bad feelings into the letters, as if they are little cups, and I sing them out and up. When they open the ark, it is like my chest opening, like a book opening on your lap, like the beginning of a story and you know that you will start to feel better soon. The Torah scrolls are like four kings with velvet covers and crowns. The case they are in is white, white marble and has lions to protect it. Once, they rolled the whole scroll down the long aisle of the sanctuary and all of the children from the day school stood on either side and very delicately held it up. It was as long as a road. A scribe came to visit us and used a quill to make the letters. No one took a single breath as he dipped the white quill into the wet black ink and made an aleph. The top of the letter started to dry even before he had even finished the bottom. It is like a when a mother kisses you on the head and for a minute, your skin feels wet and then it doesn’t. If a scribe makes a mistake on a scroll, they have to bury it entirely.
There are some people in each generation who protect us. There are thirty-six of them and they are called Lamed Vavnecks. The letters in Hebrew also stand for numbers and lamed stands for thirty and vav stands for six. Their prayers go very swiftly up to G-d because they are entirely righteous. You can never know who they are. They could be the person whom you would least expect. In the story they read us at school, they are usually a peddler or a shoemaker. If they are a shoemaker, they forget to take your money. They are the people that are in the world but you don’t notice them. You are sure they will be there, like the sun or the sky, like grass. If there are not 36, then the world will be in peril. Usually there is something that everyone is praying for as hard as they can. Almost always a very wealthy person sits up at the front of the temple and everyone is surprised that it doesn’t work. Then a simple quiet person comes and the skies open up, and the rain comes, and everything is all right. The next day, the person is gone. The shop where the shoemaker was is wide open and he is missing. Everyone goes and collects their shoes and walks around in circles in their new soles going “Who knew?”
I think that when you die, it is the same as before you were born. I think that heaven is the feeling you have when the room is sunny and you are awake but your eyes are not open. I think that my brother is in heaven. Even though he is older than I am, he is a baby. I think that if G-d called him back just at the last second, he must have had a very gentle heart. That if he were here, and knew what I knew, the things I have told you, that his heart would be broken, and that he would have walked around from person to person with his hand out, like waiting for a coin, asking people to help him repair the world. Or that he would have prayed with so much sadness that the sanctuary would have filled with his tears and the chairs and even the Torahs would have been lost in the torrent. He was all love and no bone and his lungs were never even filled with air. It was like two strong angels took him by each arm and rushed him back to heaven. And he only had a minute to look behind him and see my mother holding the baby he was. And he played at the feet of G-d’s throne, and that is where he met me and said, “I’ll stay here—you go,” and the feeling I have in my chest when my heart pounds and my arms feel empty is from the falling, falling down to earth.