Nothing in Little Aleppo had ever been built in the proper amount of time. Structures went up overnight–“Helen, has there always been a dry-dock across the street?”–or they lingered in half-finished interregnumicity, pieces attached now and then like those French cathedrals that took nine generations to stand on their own. Torah, Torah, Torah was looking to be of the latter category.
The new synagogue lay in the outline of the old one, shared the previous foundation. The fire had not cracked the cement, and the inspectors found no fault, so the new could be set atop the dead. Rabbi Levy liked that, and alluded to the fact in his sermons most every Saturday morning in the Jews’ temporary home in the First Church of the Infinite Christ. His congregation nodded along in agreement and approval when he made the comparisons. Lately, though, he had begun detailing his encounters with the contractors in a manner that was less rabbinical than it was “Lenny Bruce at the end.” His congregation did not enjoy this at all, and was on the verge of making Shushy Greenbaum say something.
It was the stopwatch that drew the Reverend Arcade Jones’ attention.
“There’s nothing going on over there. No work.”
Torah, Torah, Torah was next door to the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and there was no fence. There was a long tradition on Rose Street, where Little Aleppo kept all the religion penned up, of not erecting fences between the properties. Symbolically, it was poetic; practically, it caused feuds over property lines and errant frisbees that lasted decades. There was about twenty feet of church grass, and then the Jewish parking lot which now contained some of the least Jewish machinery ever made.
The men were just outside the church’s side door, and Rabbi Levy had not even flinched when the Reverend joined him. Stopwatch. Parking lot. Stop watch. Parking lot.
“Nine minutes and–”
Rabbi Levy paused for four seconds, then continued,
“–thirty seconds. Not one piece of equipment has moved. No one’s so much as picked up a shovel.”
“Nothing they’re doing over there needs a shovel.”
“An expression. Just an expression. There’s bupkis going on is what I mean.”
“Yeah, all right.”
There was a crane with an enclosed cab that swiveled and lifted, and lifts of both the platform and forked varieties. The beater imports belonging to the workmen; the gleaming gargantuan pickups of the contractors. Port-o-potty.
“Nine minutes and 45 seconds.”
“No, I can’t allow this,” the Reverend said, and he put one mammoth hand on the Rabbi’s shoulder and the other around the stopwatch, and propelled him lovingly yet firmly towards the sidewalk. The Rabbi made a half-hearted stutter-step, but Arcade Jones was the size of a small grizzly bear and Lenny Levy was the size of a small rabbi, so the walk was a foregone conclusion. He removed the timepiece from the Rabbi’s hand and placed it in the pant pocket of his suit, which was the same shade of blue as an impressively blue bluejay, The rabbi’s suit was black.
“Why is this? I have to stay here and supervise.”
“We’re gonna take a little walk, because you’re on some crazy shit, Rabbi. Over-the-line, crazy shit. And I love you. You know this. You are my brother in faith, but you’re my boy, too. I feel the Lord’s love in our friendship.”
“That’s very sweet of you.”
“And you are my guest. Which means I have a responsibility to protect you, and if it’s gotta be from yourself, then so be it. How long you been at it with the watch?”
“What’s with the watch? You’re obsessed with the watch.”
“It’s a red flag. It’s like watching someone through binoculars. It’s a physical manifestation of the emotional crazy. Gamblers call it a ‘tell.'”
“You make up scenarios in your head sometimes,” the Rabbi said.
“We’re gonna take a walk around the Verdance. Gonna look at the lake. Maybe we’ll sit on a bench like old men.
“You just wanna go to the food carts.”
“Not ‘just.’ Also. I’m looking forward to all the stuff I mentioned. And, yes, also the food carts. Everything’s on the menu today, Rabbi. We’re making the rounds!”
It was the Upside of Little Aleppo, and so it was quiet and there was no drag racing at all. They walked west on Rose towards the Main Drag, past St. Martin’s and St. Clement’s, which were the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches, but maybe not in that order. They were the kind of churches in which Jesus’ return was not rejoiced in, but murmured about. Real nice carpets. Their front yards were immaculate.
“I need to be where I was,” Rabbi Levy said upwards. The Reverend was precisely one foot taller than he was, and approximately twice again wider.
“You were in Crazy Town. Heading there, at least.”
“The synagogue is not progressing. There’s no effort being put forth. If I knew what to do, I’d pick up a shovel.”
“No shovels. Rabbi.”
“You know what I mean.”
“There’s trowels. They’re laying brick, so they need trowels.”
“I would pitch in. I’ll rephrase myself so as to not confuse you.”
“I would pitch in.”
Across the Main Drag, which is sunny and broad and into the Verdance, where everything grows. The park is shaped like a dumpy egg and three paths cut through it in a ≠ configuration; the two men of the Lord entered at the southeast curve where the Pulaski once grew beans and peas and now lay under the soil massed upon one another, under the layer of nameless whites, under the burned whores, under the slaughtered Chinese. There was a boy with a kite, couple on a blanket.
“A walk in the park,” Rabbi Levy said.
“Nu? What could be so wrong?” the Reverend Arcade Jones answered, curling the end of the sentence up towards Jerusalem, or at least Brooklyn. The Reverend had always been good at voices and accents, and he found the Rabbi’s backwards-phrased melodicism very fun. The only drawback, he had found, was that there was a 50/50 chance the Rabbi would start listing African-American Jews once again.
“Nowadays? Nisht. Used to be you’d get mugged. Noon, you’d get mugged. This is back in the 70’s and 80’s.”
“Funny, everybody’s always telling me that those were the good old days.”
“My friend, these people are assholes.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones threw back his enormous head and laughed.
“I’m not lying to you,” the Rabbi continued. “Noon! Broad daylight! Take ten steps into the park and there’s a kid with a knife. And then another kid would spring out of the bushes with a crowbar and beat the first kid up for your wallet. Complete free-for-all.”
“This is better.”
“Not even a question. Especially for us.”
They crossed the lower horizontal path and passed Cowboy Alvin, who was at his easel and in his buckskins. Having him draw your children was such a strongly-held tradition in the neighborhood that his sketches had been accepted in lieu of birth certificates on occasion.
“Us? Us us?”
“Blacks and Jews.”
“The best time is right now. The American Black? The American Jew? Right now, this is the best. And it’s not so hot. But it’s better than ten, fifty, and hundred years ago.”
“Long ways to go.”
“I agree entirely. I’m saying better. A park you can walk around in without getting stabbed is better. Better is good. Pile ’em on top of each other and pretty soon you’re very comfortable.”
Now they walked over the upper horizontal footpath and there was the softball field, and the fountain with all the pissing plaster babies, and the Rosen Bridge, which always took forever to get over, and the Second Avenue Subway Tunnel, which had been stolen from Manhattan in ’75. There is regular rain in Little Aleppo, which never sizzles nor frosts, and so the landscapers’ main task in the Verdance was not encouraging growth, but holding back vegetative chaos. Renegade ivies and kudzus broached firewalls, probed for weakness; machetes had been issued to the grounds crew to deal with the bamboo. No mowing schedule could keep the lawns bald of daffodils and dandelions.
Silence for a few hundred feet, and then the Rabbi said,
“The stopwatch may have been a bit much.”
“53 years, that synagogue stood. 53 years, the Jews of Little Aleppo had a safe place to go, a safe place to keep the Torah. And that’s gone.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones stopped, and then so did Rabbi Levy.
“There were no Jews in Little Aleppo 54 years ago?”
“Of course there were. There’s been Jews in Little Aleppo since 1863.”
“And none of ’em had a temple?”
“Of course they did. A bunch of them,” the Rabbi said.
He put his hands in his pocket and started off again past the Reverend.
“They all burned down,” he continued, and when the Reverend caught him up again in three massive strides, they were both laughing.
“Is there anything,” the Reverend asked, “in this neighborhood that hasn’t burned down a bunch of times?”
“Sure. Lots of places have only burned down once.”
The men turned southward at the apex of the park’s egg shape, and they were on the edge of Shrieker’s Corner. God-shouters and flat-earthers and bearded men who knew the truth about flouride, about a dozen all caterwauling and ataxiated and sure. There was also one member of the LAPD (No, Not That One) who was on the Chief’s shit list; the shouting wackadoos would regularly abrogate the ban on amplification, and it was the cop’s job to confiscate the bullhorn/megaphone/PA system, and it invariably turned into a wrestling match. Other cops would drop by just to watch and laugh.
“It’s my fault.”
“What a ridiculous thing to say,” the Reverend said, and waved the statement away.
“I think of this guy that did this and I wanna wring his neck. Last fight I was in was with Teddy Berlin. This was in sixth grade. But I dream about finding the guy that did this and hurting him. Actively dream about it.”
Little Aleppo’s fire department’s chief, Flower Childs, had left the bit about the Jack of Instance being an animistic being composed of fire and intent out of her final report. Hell, she was planning on taking that shit to the grave. So the neighborhood still thinks some dude set the fires.
“Those feelings are natural. But vengeance is reserved.”
“I’ve heard this.”
“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”
“Yes, I’ve heard He said that.”
“And this is a blessing, Rabbi. This is another gift from Him. It is not that God claims petty ownership over revenge, but that He removes from us the burden. You don’t gotta do that. It’s not your duty. Let Christ carry that.”
“He was good at carrying things.”
“Jesus had a broad back.”
And now back down cross the upper horizontal lane and past the Pasture where the Pulaski would celebrate Midsummer, and where KHAY holds its annual summer concert.
“I wanna let it go.”
“I know I should.”
“I know I should.”
They walked over the lower horizontal path with its painted bike lanes and sporadic chalked artworks and through the oaks surrounding Bell Lake. They passed a sign that that read, simply, THE SWANS ARE HATEFUL BIRDS. The warning was locally famous, and bootleg tee-shirts containing the phrase could be purchased at any of the food stands lining the lake’s southern shore. The admonition was neither ironic, nor understated: the three pairs of Bell swans were theatrically vicious. You sensed that the birds knew that they were the bad guys, and that they were getting off on their villainy. Just as everyone who grew up in the neighborhood has a sketch by Cowboy Alvin, so too do they have a story about getting the shit kicked out of them by the swans.
“What do you want?”
“Good health for my family.”
“From the food carts,” the Reverend said.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Hunger has nothing to do with it. You eat dinner because you’re hungry. You eat park food because you’re in a park. You’re in a theater, you eat popcorn. Go to a ballgame, you eat a hot dog. Park? Park food.”
“What is this ‘park food?’ That’s not a category.”
“Oh, yeah. Park food is designed to be eaten while strolling gently, or sitting on a bench thinking about stuff. You want a good handle. Can’t need any utensils. Not too messy, either. Gotta be able to wipe your hands and mouth with one napkin. Ribs won’t work. You could cook the finest ribs in the state, but no one’s buying them in the park.”
The free market backed up the Reverend’s assertion: you could buy churros, pretzels, popsicles, and cotton candy in the Verdance, along with a sweet, baguette-shaped pastry sold by a woman named Sonya that she called a Bohdo and said was from Gabon, unless the person buying it was from Gabon, in which case she said it was from Suriname. The Reverend bought two, asked politely for extra napkins, joined the Rabbi on a bench–green, slatted–facing the lake, where the swans were lazily figure-eighting around.
The Reverend Arcade Jones watched the white birds and thought of the Infinite Christ, of Christ Iterated and Immortal and Irreducible. Christ was the brick, the mortar, the layer. He was the plans for the building, and He was the ruins. He was the arsonist. He was the fireman. A diamond tumbling through a house of mirrors: that was the Reverend’s Christ. Omnifaceted. Rabbi Lenny Levy was raised in Little Aleppo, so he just kept an eye on the mean fucks.
“You ever hear the story of the golem?”
“The little demon with the ring and whatever?”
“No. That was Gollum. Tolkein probably stole the word.”
“What’s a golem?”
“It’s like Frankenstein, but way before that. And Frankenstein came to life through science. Golem is pure magick. This was back in the Old Country, don’t worry about which one. For the Jews, all the old countries were the same Old Country. Every once in a while, a mob of goyim would ride into the neighborhood and beat everyone to death with sticks.”
“The good old days,” the Reverend said with a mouthful of Bohdo, then felt bad about it. Park food didn’t mean park manners.
“Exactly. So this was in the town of Chelm. I’ve told you about Chelm.”
“Chelm reminds me of Little Aleppo.”
“Me, too. Many learned rabbis and gifted mystics lived in Chelm. There was Rabbi Schooly Ben Benjamin, who could recite the Talmud backwards, but only at parties when everyone begged him to. The Rebbe Bam Yosel, who discerned the secret geometry underlying the Torah. Turns out if you draw lines connecting the right letters, it forms a shape with an inside and two outsides. And Rabbi Potchen Tuchus invented cottage cheese.”
“You don’t think of cottage cheese as something that gets invented.”
“And yet the fact stands. But the most brilliant of all the rabbis in Chelm was Avram Ben Momo. Reb Momo, he was called. He had libraries in his head, the saying goes. Torah, Talmud, Zohar, the commentaries, all memorized and at the fingertips of his mind. And not just them. The other Holy Books, and volumes on medicine and history in language after language. And maybe even, it was whispered in the shul, some books that he shouldn’t have in there.”
The Reverend tried once more to hand the second snack to the Rabbi, who waved it off again and continued,
“So one day becomes once in a while, and the goyim ride into the neighborhood and start beating everyone to death with sticks. They ride in, whack whack whack, ride out, couple days go by, do it again. You get sick of it real quick.”
“I would imagine.”
“Avram Ben Momo goes down to the river and gathers clay in great big buckets. Hauls it back to the temple and sculpts a man. Big guy, your size. But crude. No fingers. Mitten hands. Eyes and ears were poked holes, and no mouth. While he was laying the clay in place, Reb Momo sang a song that contained all the names of God.”
“How many names does the Jewish God have?”
“Zero. Or twelve or sixteen. Maybe 108.”
“Reb Momo knew how many. Not so important that I know it. As the Lord spoke man into existence, a man spoke the golem into existence. And as it is God’s will that drives man, so it was man’s will that controlled the golem. The Reb wrote one word on a piece of parchment and slid the note into the great, empty skull. It said אָגֵן.”
“Ah-gehn. It means I will protect. And it did, too. Swords couldn’t hurt it, arrows, knives, whatever they had back then. Couldn’t even burn it. Scared the hell out of the horses. Moved faster than you think it would. Mob of goyim stormed onto the block, and the golem tore through ’em. Chased ’em all home. He protected.”
The small flock of Mallards that shared the lake with the swans were waddling about on the far grass, as the swans were swimming. When the swans took to land, the ducks would get in the water. It was a tenuous relationship at best–the larger waterfowl chased the smaller off every few days–but the only semi-civil one the swans had with the rest of the animal kingdom. In particular, they did not like dogs, but they also despised the feral cats that stalked the Verdance’s underbrush and loathed the raccoons and straight-up murdered squirrels if they got hold of one.
“The golem versus the goyim,” the Reverend said.
“For the title. And the golem won. Chased ’em all home. And followed ’em. The golem knew to protect, but it didn’t know when to stop. Mercy, compassion, kindness: these come from the Word of God, but in its head was only a word of man. It was a massacre. The golem went house-to-house ripping people apart, picking ’em up and bashing their heads into the ground. Didn’t discriminate. Anyone who wasn’t a Jew.”
“Sounds like it. Eventually, the Reb Momo regained control of the creature. He said he brought it back to the river and that it was washed away in the current. But there were whispers in the shul.”
“Aren’t there always?”
“People said that the Reb sent the golem into hiding. but not before inserting a new parchment into its head that read הישאר קרוב.”
The Reverend finished the second Bohdo and brushed his mouth off. The swans, all six, had gone to speed across the lake towards an unattended schnauzer; they were flapping furiously as their feet slapped at the water beneath them, and the Rabbi called out to the dog to run, and advised it not to be a schmuck, and asked if it had read the sign, but the schnauzer paid him no mind next to Bell Lake in the Verdance, where everything grows, which is the park in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.