Penis Street, Jerusalem

He’d spent his whole life in a trajectory for this, aimed to land here, in Israel, on the streets of Jerusalem. And now that he was here, he wondered what he was doing. He’d flown through the air, a plane that held hundreds of people but seemed to just contain carbon copies of his family in all their permutations — screaming baby cousins, too-cool teenagers, and facsimiles of his grandparents, old and shriveled and sitting there docile like pets.

And then he’d landed, and he’d never felt alone like this before.

He was all alone. Utterly alone. Ridiculously alone, alone as a person but also alone in his destination, his hashkafa, his language. No one in this entire airport was known to him. No one in the country. The money he had in his pocket was all the money that was available to him. His yeshiva was in Jerusalem, a one-hour sherut ride away, but what if no driver in the airport could understand English? What if he’d miscopied its address? He no longer had a cell phone — he’d left it at home as a precaution; making it work in Israel was beyond his technical comprehension, and anyway, the yeshiva might not allow it.

The yeshiva was another unknown. New guys, new teachers, new rules. An entire society of people he’d never met before. Would they be more strict than he’d ever experienced, challenging him for saying the blessing over water, digging through his clothes to rip apart the traditions of his parents?

“You read secular books?

“You brought a bathing suit?”

“You wear colors?”

Unless he was the most stringent one there, and they all were crazily secular and turned the lights off on Shabbos when the rebbes weren’t looking and teased him for being too observant and chased him back to America.

He stepped into line. Waited a respectful amount of distance behind the woman in front of him, not so far that people would cut, but not so close that he would be suspected of being one of those Jews, trying to cop a feel, a pervert. This was Israel, after all. People knew about Hasidim here, but they also had probably experienced Hasidim at their worst. He had to make a kiddish Hashem.

He had to raise their opinion of religious Jews, show the people that no, he was not checking out this woman’s body; no, he would never violate another person like that. He felt the suspicion growing all around him, bored into him by unseen eyes, so much that, when the taxi pulled up in front of them, he sprang to open the door for her, averted his eyes so it was apparent that he took no pride in his behavior, that all he wanted was to make G-d’s glorious Creation a better place to live. As she slid in, the woman smiled at him to thank him. Not that he saw it! He busied himself folding together her walker and sliding it into the trunk.

Another taxi came, and it was his. He slid in. The midday heat was already oppressive — not the desert, but his own red and throbbing face. The driver, a stubble-jawed man whose hair contained no trace of hair nor headcovering and whose shirt had unfortunately lost all its buttons above his pupik, craned his neck and launched a machine-gun smattering of clicks and buzzes at him.

It was Hebrew, he knew, but not the Hebrew that he knew. His Hebrew was sleek and smooth, filled with esses and oys, a language perfected a handful of hundred years ago, kept untarnished like fine wine. The guttural chunks spit at him by this cabman were unsightly and unwieldy. They left a taste in your mouth like you wanted to get rid of them as soon as possible, and they fell from his lips just as fast. He couldn’t understand a word.

Stubble-Jaw grinned, then reconsidered. He really did have a face like a movie star, and when he spoke, his mouth was missing half its teeth. “Hey, my friend, welcome to the Holy Land,” he said. “Now where can I take you?”

The address. He had the address. He’d written it on a slip of paper, to carry on his body, not used as a stray bookmark or tucked in his backpack or lost along with any luggage that might have gotten lost. That was the most important thing: that he not lose the address.

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He checked his pants pockets. He checked his shirt pocket. He checked the pockets in the back of his pants, where he didn’t usually carry anything because whenever he did, it always slipped out. That was where his spare cash was. He reached there now, felt the fold of slippery bills half outside his slacks. An electric shock of alarm surged down his spine. Now he slid his money back in, and as he did, a slower, deeper, more mature horror took hold around his brain.

The paper was gone. That was it — that was all there was. The last strand connecting him to anything familiar. He was officially lost, lost like Moses in the desert, lost like Adam after he’d eaten the apple. He had nothing.

“My friend?” said the driver. “My friend, do you have somewhere to go?”

Okay. There was nothing he could do. Short of retracing his steps — into the airport, past security, all the way back to New York — he had no recourse. It was a new reality, and he was going to have to deal with it.

“My friend?” the driver was saying. “You must tell me a destination. Otherwise I cannot drive the car. Or I can start to drive the car, but every step we might be getting farther from where you want to be.”

He smiled. Half to himself, and half to the universe. This was exactly what he was running away from. There was only one Master, and any other idea of control — any chance that anyone else was running his fate, including himself — was an illusion.

“That’s okay,” he said. He eased himself deeper into the seat. “Just, to Jerusalem.”

“To Jerusalem? That is all?” To the driver, he might as well have said, Just drive into the sunset.

Something clicked in his mind. Penis. There was a Penis Street, a street in Jerusalem with the unlikely name of Penis. The Israelis probably pronounced it pea-NOOS or something more civilized, but that one day, the afternoon it had come in the mail, the address, his whole family had seen it. They’d read the admission certificate, and everyone had congratulated him, but when they saw the address of the yeshiva, they’d burst out laughing. Everyone. Even his two-year-old brother, even his parents, who on any other day would never utter such a word out loud. There’s a Penis Street! they cried, his mother and his father to each other. I wonder what kind of car you take to get there?

“To, uh, Pee-noos Street, please,” he said. “Do you know where that is?”

The driver smiled back at him through the rearview mirror. The same calm, easy, unrushed smile they now shared: Neither of us is in charge now. “You are going to Penis Street?” the man asked. “We drive down Penis Street, you see where you need to go?”

“Yes, please.” Already he could feel his body relaxing, his soul giving into the slow resisting submission that everything would be alright. “Straight to Penis Street, if you please.”


Photo by DoTryThisAtHome. Read her blog, because it’s kind of awesome. And with massive thanks for the name research to Heshy Fried and my odd Facebook friends.