Monday, July 9, 2012

Big Fish in a Small Pond

Sitting in his courtyard admiring a magnificent but modest dwelling that Fred and Blossom built after innumerable heartaches and aggravation he began to wax philosophical. How lucky can a man be, to have found a soul mate and together with some imagination and chutzpah create a Garden of Eden here on earth, in Jerusalem, the center of the spiritual universe, in the middle of a Farsi slum? And a slum it was in every sense of the word – drug dealers who would steal your sweaty old gym shoes for a hit, a convicted rapists found guilty of incest and other unmentionable crimes. Closed off and protected from all that sat Fred in his courtyard pondering whether it was better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond. It was an existential question for Fred, a question that wouldn’t give him any peace; just like the question Jews were really obligated to fulfill the commandments of the Torah if one lived in Israel. These and other existential questions didn’t allow Fred the peace that his soul yearned for, marring the beauty of his creation. Sitting in his Garden of Eden was really a fool’s paradise that to the casual observer wouldn't be obvious. Shiloh 16 was like a diamond tossed casually in a drawer filled with costume Jewelry. It shined, but it didn’t get the justice it needed in that tangled mess of junk jewelry. Like a rose in a field of thorns, just like it says in Song of Songs, mused Fred. 

Anyone passing in the street above would never be able to imagine what lies just beyond the steel door separating off Shiloh 16 from the grimy streets of the outdoor markets of Machane Yehudah. Not only that, but anyone entering the courtyard wouldn't have the slightest idea what lies below the smooth and warn flagstones in place for generations that cover the courtyard like a smooth carpet. The exception of one oversized oblong stone among the others, set off center in the rectangular courtyard broke the geometric symmetry of the space. The oversized flagstone was semi camaflouged with an old toilet and sink converted into flowerpots filled with geraniums and sweet scented jasmine resting on that single flagstone as though it were a tombstone marking its gravesite.

On the one hand, perhaps Shiloh 16 could be seen not as a diamond amidst a pile of junk, but a piece of zirconium that appears to be something that it really isn’t. Shiloh 16 appeared to the naked eye as one harmonious home system synchronized, offering its dwellers peace and tranquility blocking out the din of the market and its pollutants, but did it really? On the other hand, mused Fred, perhaps it was a diamond, but an imperfect one, at that. And what is so terrible with an imperfect diamond. How many diamonds are truly perfect? Is there anything in creation that is truly perfect? Even the world we live in, considered Fred, wasn’t perfect. And if one believed the Kabbalists it was intended by God to be imperfect: so that us humans could partner up with Him and make this a more perfect world: Tikkun Olam, Fred laughed referring to that idea as a load of crap! 

As Fred was pondering these weighty thoughts, his vision fixated on that singular, oversized flagstone he was distracted by a jarring echoing knock on the steel door, disturbing the quiet and peacefulness of Fred’s morning. He’d have to  climb 17 stairs to street level in order to unlock the steel door, since Shiloh 16 was built on a downward slope as though part of it was built into the road above with entry from grade level. To access the stairs he first had to exit his Garden of Eden via another decorative gate made of steel bars rather than a solid steel door, walk down a narrow path bordered by an imposing apartment building, which had a storeroom level with the path. That warehouse, a major blight in Fred’s tightly controlled environment, stored spices, extremely pungent and a health hazard due to the prodigious number of vermin and cockroaches that fed off the spices.

Unlocking the solid steal door to his Diamond in the rough was no simple task, for the door opened on to the stairs rather than out to the street. Had the door opened to the street it could slam into passerby or worse, slam into a car. Stepping into the street from the doorway was no easy task either with cars whizzing by in an extremely narrow alley that could get a pedestrian smashed like a bug if one wasn't extremely cautious. 

On this particular early afternoon the man banging on the door was a  problematic neighbor, always accompanied by two huge, filthy and threatening dogs resembling canines that could double for a werewolf thriller. Fred had met Shmulik a few weeks earlier at an early morning excursion to the local neighborhood grocer. Wanting to appear as a hail-fellow from the neighborhood, a ben bayit, he befriended Shmulik, not realizing that this unkempt, bearded, middle-aged man had a past that would cause him and Blossom sleepless nights. Buying a loaf of fresh bread and sour cream he shook hands with Shmulik inviting him over for a cup of coffee, never realizing for a moment with whom he was dealing. Warning bells should have gone off when Fred smelled a slight scent of whiskey from Shmulik and when he saw Shmulik buying a bottle of arak, wrapped in a paper bag instead of the typical diaphanous plastic bag so ubiquitous in Israel.  Shmulik accepting the invitation entered Fred’s domain with his dogs, taking over practically the entire living room, sniffing around including Fred's crotch, which brought him into an frenzied panic and a cold sweat. For a fleeting moment Fred was debating what chair to offer Shmulik, and at the last minute offered him a straight back wooden chair, avoiding the richly upholstered antique easy chair which remained unoccupied during the visit. It wasn't as though the chair had any unique provenance, but it did have a history and wasn't offered to every guest gracing the pride of this Farsi slum. The dogs circled the chair, sniffed it relentlessly, with a nearly uncontrollable passion, stunning Shmulik. Fred of course understood the spell that the dogs were under and was enjoying the spectacle.

Since that first visit, Fred and Blossom had learned the sordid details of Shmulik’s history. He had just been released from prison, having been away for the past twenty-five years on rape and incest. This wasn't alleged - no he was a convicted violent felon of the worst kind, and he had been a guest in Fred and Blossom’s home. In retrospect, his very presence seemed to have violated the beauty and innocence of this veritable Garden of Eden, this imperfect diamond in a field of thorn bushes. Having heard this news Fred was compelled to find confirmation from a reputable source, by seeking out his neighbor, Gideon. Gideon, a convicted drug dealer had for a short time shared a cell with Shmulik and the facts were facts. Gideon was a different sort; it was hard for Fred to imagine him in a prison cell with a convicted rapist. Gideon had a heart of gold, protective of Blossom and Fred, instructing the neighborhood toughs to lay off of them. It wasn't always like that. As a matter of fact there was a time when Gideon allegedly snatched Fred's gym bag, which normally wouldn't have been a big deal because what's in a gym bag anyway? The problem was that Fred had just sprung for a new pair of running shoes that set him back a month's salary. He ran in them just twice. Forgetting his bag on the street one day, he ran back to retrieve it only to find that it was gone. Fred had placed it down a few feet from where Gideon lived and knocking on his door asked him if he had seen it. When Gideon realized whom the bag's owner was he said that he'd look around for it and put the word out. Within an hour the bag and all its contents had been returned. It was obvious that Gideon took it with he intention of fencing the new Nikes, but having a heart of gold returned it to his neighbor.

Figuring out a way to defriend Shmulik without insulting him became another of Fred’s pressing problems, perhaps more so than considering other crushing issues of the day like whether Israel should have remedied the Palestinian issue immediately after the six-day war when the opportunity presented itself and when Israel was in a strong position to do so.  Fred certainly couldn’t find peace of mind either when considering that the preponderance of Jewish law may have become obsolete with the creation of Israel’s version of the Internal Revenue Service, negating the need for rabbinic Judaism, an invention of the Diaspora. How liberating that would be! More liberating perhaps would be the method by which Fred could defriend Shmulik without fear of reprisal. It was with this concern that prompted Fred to greet Shmulik and his dogs with a toothy smile welcoming him to his quaint home. He was determined however not to invite him in where it was closed to prying eyes, but to host him in the courtyard where they could be viewed by the yeshiva students who studied in the other three story building that towered over Shiloh 16.

The yeshiva and its leering students located on the third floor overlooking Fred and Blossom’s courtyard presented Blossom with a thorny problem: her inability to sunbath in a bikini. In fact the spiritual guide and leader of the yeshiva, Rabbi Meloomad advised her that she was expected to dress modestly as long as the yeshiva was in session and students were present, notwithstanding that it was her personal property. For the sake of maintaining good neighbor relations Blossom complied. Another troublesome problem was the custom of sounding the shofar daily during the month of Elul at the crack of dawn, denying Blossom and Fred elemental sleep that all sentient beings needed for survival. Notwithstanding these minor ripples, Fred was happy that he kept good relations with those fanatics. At least they would serve as reliable witnesses and perhaps for once, Fred would be able to appreciate the logic of the rabbis when they always argued for the necessity of a Mashgiach Tamidi, a permanent religious overseer: to prevent the possibility of committing a sin. Here to, Fred reasoned, by virtue of the fact that they would be in full view of the prying eyes of yeshiva students they would serve unknowingly but convincingly as religious overseers, and Shmulik would be reluctant to do something untoward.

They sat in the patio for an indeterminate amount of time, Fred getting bored as Shmulik hadn't much to say, other than the fact that he kept on commenting on his dogs’ infatuation with that oversized singular flagstone as evident by their tireless circling, sniffing and barking in a sign of frustration. Shmulik insisted that there was something that the dogs wanted to get at, but Fred was dismissive of his curiosity. Shmulik too getting up from his comfortable spot in the shaded part of the patio joined the dogs, circling the flagsone trying to figure out what was irritating the dogs. Not being able to solve the problem he and the dogs departed:  Fred heaving a sigh of great and bountiful relief, promising himself that he must find a way to avoid this malefactor.

Fred was reminded of the adage when in doubt do nothing, and fortunate for him that he did nothing to curb his relationship with Shmulik. A few days later, running into Gideon, he learned that the Jerusalem police arrested Shmulik for burglary. Sitting complacently in his patio, protected and feeling safe from the likes of that sex offender and contemplating whether there was a cosmic connection between the holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel Fred was disturbed by a knock on the door. Feeling confident that it couldn't be of a threatening nature he opened the door to be greeted by the sewerage department of the municipality. They had come for two reasons: scheduled annual maintenance of the cesspool and to inform him that this would be the last time this service would be rendered. Henceforth he was obligated to hook up to the city sewer system. Frustrated, Fred claimed that for the past year he and Blossom had tried but were met with resistance from the neighbors who refused to allow the hook since Fred and Blossom were Ashkenazi. Without the good will of their Farsi neighbors there was no way they could connect to the city sewerage system. They were boxed in. 

Normally, Fred wasn’t mindful of the cesspool holding all their waste was just below his pristine courtyard. There were times however, during a hamsin when there was a slight detectable odor that Blossom found unsettling. Imagine, she chided, having a party with the barbeque going and invited guests begin inhaling the most unsavory of odors mingled with the delicious aroma of smoking meats. How, she asked do you explain to invited guests that a foot below where they stood was a cesspool; the flagstone on which they are standing is the only thing between them and the unvarnished reality?

And once again, Fred recalled that adage, because ultimately he believed a pleasant solution was always found; the kind where there minimal friction, what is known in Sanskrit as sug-shema, frictionless. Those are the best solutions. That fall, a solution screaming sug-shema came in the way of a professor who wanted to buy the house, sight unseen. In a rush, he waved the right for a building engineer to check out the structure, mechanics, electrical, water and plumbing. Perhaps there was a god after all, giving pause for a moment to Fred’s agnosticism. Headed to New York, Fred once again began pondering the question whether it was better to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a very large pond. Fred was about to find out.