A Lesson For John On King George St.

John elbows through the flow of people. People everywhere, disgorged from the large stand-alone houses of Rechavia sheltered from the madness of Jerusalem by trees and hedges, from the one-room huts of Nachlaot piled to their arched ceilings with books and drug paraphernalia, from apartments, from dorms. Ben Yehuda Street! Chinese tourists photograph juggling Yeshiva bochrim, and Sem’ girls colonize the ice cream shop. An Arab vagrant drums a bongo on the stoop of a closed Judaica store that’s ostensibly in fierce competition with the dozen other stores selling well-polished rams’ horns and menorahs made of clay Chassidim, but in fact is owned by the same Jew as the other establishments.

John fits in as well as anyone. Any Jerusalemite seeing him would assume he just slunk out of one of the wilder side-alley bars, and they would be correct. He is five-foot five, with an angular, narrow face dwarfed by his bushy red curls. He wears fingerless gloves and walks with a closed, denying hunch. He scowls perpetually, and extra hard if someone looks his way.

Spring is in full attack, and as he walks uphill he breaks out in sweat. He is mildly drunk, and the night seems open, possibility hiding in every shadow. He scuffs at an orange cat, and it skitters off. It doesn’t make him feel any better about earlier. The boys and he got into a slight altercation over a nice kid, a golden-haired California boy named Shraga/Steven.

 

Shraga/Steven arrived at Yeshiva the day before, and they offered to show him a good time on the town. Shraga/Steven asked if they were going to the Kotel, and John had glanced exasperatedly at Mordechai, who grinned. Yosef explained that Shraga could go to pray at the wall if he wanted, but they were looking for a different kind of good time,  do you catch my drift. Shraga pretended to understand and nodded too enthusiastically.

They sat at a table waiting for beer, and when New Guy went to the bathroom, John said that the Yeshiva’s admissions director, Rabbi Marmelstein, ought to be throttled. “Where do they even find these guys?” he kept repeating. “He’s still all googly-eyed over Hebrew letters. He’s blond. He wears honest-to-G-d pink Polo shirts. Is there any hope? By the Yeshiva Importance Principle, I declare an end to the human race.”

The Yeshiva Importance Principle states that, for various logically tenuous reasons – i.e. Non-Yeshiva Bochrim are either children or too old and distracted to care about the important things; non-Jews, though numerous and powerful, need Jewish leadership (“the light unto the nations” and all that); girls are girls; no other Yeshivas in Yerushalayim are even halfway decent; outside of Yerushalayim, none could possible compare – the entire world depends on the forty-some-odd guys in their dormitory.

They couldn’t afford a Steven, John was saying. Mordechai rolled his eyes.

“I’m serious, Maxim,” said John, calling Mordechai by his Russian name. “He shouldn’t be here.”

Mordechai grinned and twisted one of his long peyos. John was all of sixteen, tiny and angry. Maxim was twenty-five and a giant, stocky with round hills for shoulders and a face like slabs of meat sewn together, with non-dimensional black points for eyes.

“Yoezer,” he addressed John with Russian solemnity, Slavic tone warming the word like alcohol in the stomach.

John balled his fists and let out a battle cry as he stood on his chair and made to leap across the table. Yosef and Kalman knew from long experience what he was about to do and shot up from their places, arms outstretched. The erstwhile warrior flailed and kicked as they interrupted his flight with firm grips on his chest and stomach. He was so light it took almost no effort to shove him slumping back into his seat. He felt the stare of all the bargoers on his face, which reddened to match his hair. Yogi, the bartender, American and friendly, shook his head. “Who called him by his name this time?” he called to the bochrim.

Conversations started up again.

John’s chest still heaved with excitement, and he gasped, “It’s not my name.”

Yogi held up his thumb and first two fingers pinched together, Israeli for “just a second,” as he poured schnapps with his other hand.

“Here we go again,” says Kalman.

The next round of drinks arrived and John drank like a dying man. Cheap Israeli beer frothed down his face to water the dozen peach-colored hairs that sprouted from his chin. He smacked his empty glass down on the table. “It’s not my name,” he repeated. “my name is John. I get to choose my name.”

Yogi put a hairy hand on either side of his rotund stomach and threw his head back and roared with laughter. John looked to his friends for support and found Yosef studying his glass intensely, Kalman smirking at the green-white glow of a Heineken sign on the wall, and Mordechai drinking, stoic as a glacier. “Wish I had some friends,” John said to himself, feeling the beer soften his head. “If I had friends they’d call me by any damn name I choose.”

“You started it,” said Yosef.

“Besides, friends give each other nicknames all the time,” said Kalman.

“No need to smash up a bar over it,” Mordechai sailed in.

John was aware of his second attempted leap and of strong hands grabbing him under each armpit, halting his motion. He was escorted to the exit and chucked into the alley. As he turned to walk away he heard Yogi yelling something about boys who shouldn’t mix beer with mother’s milk. He convinced himself his reddening face was attributable solely to his inebriation.

 

John weaves past the famed harp lady near the top of Ben Yehuda and turns down a side street. He crosses between busses on King George, and passes through a courtyard with small recessed amphitheaters that echo your voice if you stand in just the right spot. A small group of freaks, three boys and a girl, sit in torn denim and piercings and terrible odor and whisper to each other. They don’t even glance at John, which annoys him.

“Shalom,” he announces, hands on his hips.

“Shaloooom,” mocks one of the boys, hair in long dreadlocks and some kind of dream catcher hanging around his neck.

“Salaam,” says another in Arabic, sunglasses glinting in the streetlamp light. They stand, towering over him on an amphitheater’s middle step. John doesn’t think he’s actually an Arab. Just abrasive as hell.

“What’s up, brothers?” musters John in his best Hebrew.

Dream Catcher erupts in a monologue too guttural and fast for the American to parse precisely, angry in tone. John thinks he catches achim near the end of it; presumably DC doesn’t appreciate the offer of fraternity. As the rant peters out, John looks, by some instinct, to the female, assuming she might defuse the situation. He isn’t comforted by the jagged crescent moon and star slashing in glow-in-the-dark green across her shirt, or by her two-dozen facial piercings.

DC wraps up his diatribe, sees John glancing edgily at Moonshirt, and yells so hard his mouth reduces to teeth and palate and spit flying everywhere. He doesn’t think I actually find her attractive, does he? wonders John, astounded.

Sunglasses pulls a knife out of his back pocket. John thinks various things, not all of them as worried as is appropriate: Is it dangerous to keep a knife in the back pocket? I wonder if he bought his in the shuk on special, like I bought mine. If he did, it’ll probably shatter before it stabs anyone, and you try getting money back from that place. Like squeezing water from a stone. Too bad I didn’t bring my knife with me tonight.

DC takes out some kind of weapon as well. It’s hard to tell in the dark – it could be curved brass knuckles, but it could just as easily be a wallet stuffed with expired plastic mikve cards, like the one John clutches in his pocket, ready to jab in someone’s eye. He kind of hopes it’s the latter. It glints in the lamplight. It’s not a wallet.

Darn.

Third male freak (he’s in a black T-shirt and jeans, the dangerous strain of freak who doesn’t look off and is only a freak because he hangs out with freaks) stands and steps down to ground level, hand in his hip pocket. The rest fan out to either side until John is caught in a tight circle, Lady Moonshirt staring at him from the side like a dog waiting for table scraps.

DC’s weight shifts and he holds his knife at shoulder level. John, wondering why he didn’t just pass them by, wondering why he didn’t run when DC started yelling, wondering why he had to get stupid at the bar, pulls his wallet out of his pocket, ready to defend himself.

His assailants snicker. “Who is this Jew?” says DC.

John can’t help a twisting grin from taking hold of his features. “I am Yoezer, son of Nathan, and in the name of all that is holy, prepare to die!” is what John feels like yelling, but instead he just kept smiling, waiting for something to happen. If I throw my wallet at the closest one, he thinks, maybe I can make a run for it.

Then, several things happen at once: DC takes a step toward John with the knife. John throws his wallet and misses. John hears a bunch of sounds from behind him; one is a voice shouting “Hey!” and another is simply a shout and a third is hollering that sounds like an angry chicken.

John is slammed into the pavement by what feels like a tree falling onto the small of his back, but it’s only Mordechai, who has tripped on a protruding cobble and falls on top of John. DC is closer now, recovered from the shock of the Russian mammoth’s charge, and still holds his knife. John can see it but can’t move much beyond his eyeballs. Then, the angry bird, a blur of pink, charges past and tackles DC in the legs. He goes down, hard. The knife skitters off to the side. The hollering force of nature stands up and turns back into tow-haired Shraga/Steven, who quickly steps away from the downed freak. The other freaks spook just as Yosef and Kalman charge in, and scatter down an alley, pulling Moonshirt behind them.

Mordechai lifts his own enormous weight off of John’s chest and stands. John can’t move yet; he feels at one with the cobblestones. “You guys ruined my attack plan.”

Guffaws all around.

“What? I had it.”

“Good thing you’re still in Yeshiva, little John,” says Mordechai as he walks off. “You’re not ready for the world yet.”

Shraga/Steven extends a hand to John, and pulls him up with surprising strength.

“That was a pretty good tackle,” mutters John as he picks up his wallet.

“Thanks. I was on the football team in high school.”

“Of course you were.” John throws his arm over Shraga’s shoulder, grasps Shraga’s arm with his gloved hand, and says, “The best bars within a mile radius of Yeshiva, in descending order, are as follows.”

A puzzled blond and a talkative ginger stagger off. The same moon that lit King David’s nights follows them all the way home.

 

Image from Wikimedia Commons.