The Holy Hunchback
Wasserman sat in his double-parked Pathfinder in front of the synagogue, engine off, waiting for his son’s Hebrew school class to let out. A cold December rain fell, puddles reflected the streetlights. He was early. By design. He usually raced to pick up Sammy, cursing traffic, a borderline road-rage-death-grip on the steering wheel, and a keen eye out for seizing even the tiniest of advantages that less harried or more prudent drivers left him.
Wasserman’s wife worked longer hours, and had a higher-paying job and a longer commute, so it seemed only natural that he be in charge of Hebrew school pick-up. Today, as he reached a saturation point at work, inspiration struck: He feigned a coughing fit during yet another pointless staff meeting, ducked out of the conference room, and was on his bumper-to-bumper way to Kol Emet within five minutes. How much longer until retirement? he thought, knowing full well that this countdown, measured as it was in decades, was not healthy for someone sick unto death of his work.
Once safely (albeit semi-legally) parked, Wasserman’s heart rate slowed. His mind, however, accelerated, then shifted into neutral, foot stomping on the cerebral gas pedal without proceeding an inch in any direction. He unsuccessfully sought purchase on a thought, any thought, that would distract him from thinking about work, about the world and its many, many woes. Sweat, rapid heartbeat, eyes nervously casting about for relief. Fortunately or unfortunately, he carried the means of distraction in the form of the cell phone in his front pocket, gently sauteeing his genitals. Solitaire? Grand Mayhem Auto? Really Pissed Off Birds? Facebook? Yes, all of them! he thought savagely. Bring me the fire hose that I might drink of it--
A frantic knocking on the passenger side window brought him out of his frenzied state. Nadelman’s bespectacled, beard-rimmed face popped into view. His breath fogged the window.
Wasserman unlocked the door. “For crissakes, Nadelman, what are you doing out there without an umbrella?”
Nadelman tumbled into the passenger seat, smelling like a wet dog and grinning like a fool. “It matters not where I’m coming but where I’m going.”
Wasserman ignored the non sequitur. “You’re soaked, man.”
“’Mashiv ha-ruach u’morid ha-gashem,’” Nadelman chanted the verse in the Standing Prayer praising God “Who makes the wind blow and causes the rain to fall.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Wasserman said, “But not inside my car—close the door.”
Nadelman complied and then rocked back and forth, his eyes closed, humming. The sound was nasal, like a jar full of bumblebees. Wasserman regarded him skeptically. He’d known Nadelman since before kindergarten, through all the awkward stages of life before they became butterflies—no, Wasserman thought, no, that’s not the right metaphor, not just because we’re not butterflies, literally or metaphorically, but because we’re still becoming. Or I hope we’re still…. But Nadelman began loudly intoning a wordless tune, heavy on dai-dai-dai’s and lai-lai-lai’s—to Wasserman it sounded like a children’s playground taunt—and that particular train of thought left the station without Wasserman.
"All flesh is like grass/All its goodness like flowers of the field:/Grass withers, flowers fade!" Nadelman cried.
“I’ve got to agree with you there.” It pleased him to be agreeable to Nadelman, who so often got under Wasserman’s skin and stayed there so that after any interaction with Nadelman he found himself itching as if he’d slept among bedbugs. Even the pity he felt for Nadelman after the death of Nadelman’s only child was tempered by annoyance, for which Wasserman could not entirely forgive himself.
The annoyance went way back. Wasserman looked at Nadelman out of the corner of his eye. He saw the round little boy, the only other Jewish kid in the neighborhood, permanent right-fielder (nickname: “Automatic Out”), seemingly oblivious to insults and occasional physical abuse, always bouncing back up like one of those clown bop dolls—Nadelman, a puppy searching for affection among jackals. A shanda fer di goyim, a shame before the gentiles! as Wasserman’s grandmother would have said. God knows, Wasserman thought, I was ashamed enough for myself by Nadelman’s—what? actions? No, by his very existence, as if it were a burden that Wasserman himself, as a fellow member of the tribe, must bear.
He avoided Nadelman as much as he could, but his mother and Nadelman’s were thick as thieves and so the boys were brought together involuntarily by carpools and piano lessons and beach outings and always he felt the Nadelman stain darkening and discoloring his skin, burrowing into his chest and into his very soul (Wasserman didn’t believe in a soul, but he was willing to make an exception in this instance just for rhetorical effect).
“A story…” Nadelman began.
No more stories! Wasserman thought. We’re a people plagued by stories.
“My rebbe used to tell this tale…”
“Nadelman, again with this Hasid business? What rebbe are you talking about? We had Rabbi Singer when we were kids. And then Kravitz and Bergstein and now Gutfreund. They’ve got trim little beards and higher degrees from fancy schools and their breath doesn’t stink of herring and Yiddish. None of them is a rebbe!”
Nadelman ignored Wasserman’s objections. “My rebbe used to tell this tale of his rebbe. This rebbe was visiting the Holy Land and one day he saw a hunchback, a cripple, a man broken and disfigured, sweeping the sand on the beach at Tel Aviv. Just sweeping the sand from one place to the other.”
Wasserman sighed. You want to tell a story? Okay. Game on. “That sounds totally stupid. Why would he be doing that?”
“The hunchback had a smile on his face, despite his deformities and the great difficulty and the seeming pointlessness of the task. So the rebbe was loathe to interrupt the man.” Nadelman nodded in approbation. “The next day, the rebbe was waiting for an elevator. The doors opened but the elevator was packed with people. There wasn’t enough room to squeeze in, not even for a small child. But suddenly, out of the midst of the crowd the hunchback appeared and gently pushed and elbowed until there was enough space for the rebbe to get in.”
Wasserman wondered where Nadelman learned this cockamamie story and what its point was. “Did the rebbe thank him? Did he talk to him?”
“The rebbe thanked him, but the man just smiled. The next day, the rebbe went shopping in the market on Friday afternoon, in preparation for Shabbat, and was carrying his groceries home, when who should appear but…”
“Yeah, yeah, the hunchback, right?”
“…the hunchback. Without a word, with just a smile, he took up one of the rebbe’s heaviest packages and carried it to the apartment the rebbe was renting. When they got to the apartment, the rebbe set his package down on the doorstep to get out his key, and when he turned around the hunchback was gone.”
“Did he walk off with the package?” Wasserman was in a permanent losing struggle with his inner wise guy.
Nadelman smiled. “Of course not. The hunchback was no thief.”
And neither was Wasserman—he had only borrowed one of his father’s Playboys and that was why he was pedaling his bike furiously toward the knot of boys gathered at the park. He was sure he’d have a couple of hours before his parents came back home—plenty of time to return the magazine to its place in the utility closet in the basement after temporarily solidifying his precarious place among his friends by furthering their education in female anatomy. He came to a screeching halt, jumped off his bike, and ran up to the group. He pulled the magazine out from where it was tucked into his pants and realized that the boys were standing in a circle with Nadelman in the middle. In the gathering shadows of a late summer’s evening he could see Nadelman’s shirt was torn and his nose bloodied.
In Nadelman’s retelling, Wasserman had played a clever trick on the other boys, diverting their attention with the only thing better than bloodlust—lust lust—allowing Nadelman to skedaddle. Over the years Wasserman tired of trying to convince Nadelman that his praise of Wasserman’s cleverness and nobility was misguided, and began to allow himself to think that maybe he had, in fact, planned this well-timed intervention to save Nadelman’s pimpled hide. But Nadelman’s sense of indebtedness to Wasserman weighed on Wasserman more than a bad dream. In fact, for years in dreams he saw Nadelman’s grateful mug gradually inflating like a balloon, filling Wasserman’s consciousness with anxiety at the prospect of its bursting.
“One day the rebbe went into Blessed Bagels and there was the hunchback. Despite his crooked back, his broken body, he was juggling bagel holes and reciting Talmud to the patrons. The rebbe was astounded. The hunchback, he decided, must be a holy man: Who else would be so full of kindness and Torah, not to mention powers of concentration and dexterity? He desperately wanted to partake of the holy hunchback’s wisdom. But how to approach him?”
“Indeed, how to approach a holy hunchback is a perennial problem!” Wasserman mocked.
Nadelman stroked his beard as if considering Wasserman’s remark. “The rebbe thought he detected a hint of a Bulnovian accent in the hunchback’s speech. So he said to the hunchback, ‘Oh, holy hunchback, unless I’m wrong you are originally from Bulnovia.’ The hunchback didn’t miss a bagel hole, or a word of Talmud, he just nodded.” Nadelman paused to shuffle his feet which, his shoes being full of water, made a loud squelching sound.
“’I thought so!’ the rebbe declared with delight. ‘Did you know the Bubbemeiser rebbe?’ because the Bubbemeiser rebbe, as you know, was also from Bulnovia.’ Did I know him?’ the hunchback said. ‘He was my teacher!’ And he stopped juggling. ‘He was your teacher!’ the rebbe exclaimed. ‘Gott in Himmel! Please, please, holy hunchback, share a teaching of the Bubbemeiser rebbe with me!’ the rebbe pleaded. ‘Ah, that was so long ago!’ the hunchback replied. ‘I’ve had so much tsuris since I was a boy—the marriages, the divorces, the bankruptcies, the flux and the vomit, the pogroms. I don’t know that I can remember any of the Master’s teachings.’”
Good for you, holy hunchback, thought Wasserman, there’s too much remembering among Jews, not enough letting go.
“But the rebbe insisted the hunchback share one of the Bubbemeiser rebbe’s teachings. ‘Please, holy hunchback, even the tiniest teaching of the Bubbemeiser rebbe would rekindle the Master’s spirit and bring new light into the world!’”
Wasserman was remembering. At his mother’s insistence he’d attended Nadelman’s 12th birthday party, a sleepover. There were only two other kids, both of them nondescript exemplars of their particular sad-sack Hebrew school class. They stayed up late watching a horror movie, and then played poker until Nadelman’s older brother Winston joined them. He had long curly hair and smelled vaguely like burning plastic. The details remained fuzzy, but Winston convinced them to play strip poker. The whole thing seemed off, but nobody said a word, as if playing strip poker were a thing they routinely did. There was a dread in the pit of Wasserman’s stomach as he lost, piece by piece, all his clothing.
They were in Nadelman’s fake wood-paneled basement, sitting on a fake bearskin rug. Winston was winning, but he was also peeling off his own clothes: “In solidarity,” he giggled. That was the first time Wasserman had heard the word and he remembered it distinctly because soon Winston tossed his briefs aside and stretched out on the fake leather couch, his penis erect and, well, solid-looking.
Winston appraised Wasserman’s nakedness and noticed where his gaze had strayed to. “The loser has to suck my cock, you know,” Winston said in an assured tone.
Nadelman continued: “The holy hunchback hung his head. He trembled, as if he were crying or suffering from the cold. He seemed to concentrate for a minute. Then he raised his head. ‘Yes, I do remember a teaching.’ The rebbe clapped his hands like a schoolboy. ‘The Bubbemeiser rebbe once taught about his rebbe. A learned man, the Bubbemeiser rebbe told us, a giant of learning of his generation. But he was an old man when he taught the Bubbemeiser rebbe.’”
I should have told him to suck mine, Wasserman thought. Instead, he bargained. Maybe just touch it with the (he couldn’t bring himself to think “my”) hand? Maybe just lick it? Maybe just take the tip in the mouth?
“’Children, precious children,’ the Bubbemeiser’s rebbe said. ‘I am old and I will not live to see you gain the fullness of manhood. That is why I tell you this now, and I beg you to heed me. There was a story that my rebbe used to tell, but I can no longer recall it. May it be enough for you to remember that the story was my rebbe’s story, and that he told it to me, though I can no longer remember what the story is.’”
Winston committed suicide after college. Mrs. Nadelman divorced Mr. Nadelman. That’s all I really need to remember, Wasserman thought. No, he corrected himself. Nadelman’s disappearance into Dungeons & Dragons in high school and reappearance after college as if he had indeed spent the intervening years in a dungeon, pasty-faced, soft, blinking stupidly in the light. Their renewed acquaintance in their 30s through the synagogue, Wasserman as the dutiful paterfamilias and Nadelman as a ba’al t’shuvah, a master of return, a Jewish convert to Judaism, as it were.
“The holy hunchback looked at the rebbe. The rebbe saw tears in the hunchback’s sad, world-weary eyes. The rebbe teared up as well. He moved to embrace the hunchback but when he did, the hunchback disappeared, and he was left embracing the air. Or himself.”
It took Wasserman a while to become aware of the silence left in Nadelman’s story. “That’s it?” he asked. “It’s over?”
Nadelman nodded his head toward the door of the synagogue. “Here comes your little Kaddish,” he said. It hadn’t occurred to Wasserman before but, of course, Sammy, like all children, would one day be expected to say Kaddish over his parents when they died.
“L’chaim to you, too, Nadelman,” Wasserman said, although the words caught in his throat and didn’t come out with the irony he’d intended.
About the Author: Joel Streicker’s fiction has been published in Hanging Loose, Great Lakes Review, and Burningword, among other magazines. He has published poetry in both English and Spanish. Streicker’s translations of such Latin American writers as Samanta Schweblin have appeared in numerous journals, including A Public Space and McSweeney’s.