Dreading the Buzzer
“Mrs. Westbrook!” the little man bellowed. His heavy leather shoes pounded the stairs, powering his way up-bull-mastiff head tilted forward, shoulders bunched tight, neck nowhere to be seen, chest parallel to the stairs, torso stuffed into a brown leather jacket and held rigid at an impossible angle to his legs. At the landing, he came to a sudden halt, switched his leather briefcase from one leather-gloved hand to the other, slicked back a wisp of hair, then brought the hand down to offer in greeting as his mouth spread into a giant feral grin. With his eyes almost hidden behind the tint of his aviator glasses, Mr. Wolf looked like some crooked relative from the old country-the kind who distributes boiled sweets to children and launders money for the Prague mafia.
Mr. Wolf came to us by way of a Viennese chocolatier. My mother had encountered the future confectioner as a teenager, as she hoarded Freud and Schiller and plotted her escape from Vienna’s stifling huddle of displaced Jews. Soon enough she fled overseas to university, found an Englishman to marry, and ensconced herself in London. She had her passport changed from “D.P.” to “U.K.” and her nails done every week.
A manicurist was in love with a Jewish man. So much in love that she braved the conversion test, passing thanks to Mr.Wolf, whom she found through her fiancé’s synagogue. Her new husband: none other than my mother’s compatriot, who now slung fancy bon-bons for a living in London. My mother was already looking for someone to prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah when she heard the story. Mr. Wolf was called up.
It was my father who insisted on the lessons.When I was seven, he had taken a job in the States. Whenever he came back to London, he would take me to synagogue. It was boring and stuffy, with an endless succession of sittings and standings. My legs ached. Around us, rich North London businessman greeted each other with puffy-fingered handshakes. They set to davening, a flock of little birds pecking at the air. Next to me, my father davened mechanically, stopping each forward dip at precisely the same angle, as though cantilevered at the hip.
A drab Sunday afternoon, streaks of rain on the windows. Mr. Wolf was already seated when I walked in. He stayed silent as I took my place. We stared at each other across the circular living room table, our faces reflected in the polished wood. I pursed my lips, my eyes set on his. He peered at me through his twin visors; then flipped open the book lying next to him on the table.
“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” he read aloud. He raised his head, magnified eyes meeting mine. “You know what kosher is?” he growled. I nodded. “When you eat, you have different plates for meat and for milk, and different knives and forks, yes?” I nodded again. He grinned. “So, show me,” he commanded twirling the book round so the text was in front of me. “Where does it say you have to do that?”
I stared dumbly down at the page. My forehead grew hot as the silence expanded.
“Nowhere,” said Mr. Wolf suddenly. I looked up. “Why do you think Jews keep kosher?” he asked. Again, I was stuck.
“Because God wants us to,” I offered weakly. Mr. Wolf’s lips began to curl. “Is that what you think?” he asked. I shrugged. “But this is the word of God,” he said, tapping the page. I stared blankly at him; I was getting irritated.
Mr. Wolf sat back and grinned. “Do you think God cares if I eat a ham sandwich?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said distractedly, sinking my hands into my pockets.
“Because it’s not kosher,” I said, slouching back and picking out a spot on the wall to stare at.
“Hmm,” said Mr. Wolf. “Well this is what I think. I think God couldn’t care less.” I stopped staring at the wall. His grin deepened.
“This rule was written by a man,” he said. “God didn’t write it. What, we’re supposed to believe that God wants us to not eat the goat in its mother’s milk, and to have separate kitchens for meat and milk like the religious? No, this is just what the rabbis say. You know the rabbis?” I nodded. “They take this one line in the Bible and they say, ‘Oh, this means you can’t have milk when you eat meat.’ They make up all these rules.”
He fixed his gaze on me. “I believe in God for one reason only,” he said. A pause for effect, a great suck of breath through the nostrils; then he started in again: “I read in the paper about the Big Bang-you know what it is, everything starting from one big explosion with hot gasses and particles and so on. Scientists say this is the how the universe was created. This for me is not an explanation. Where did it come from?” He paused again. I had no answer. “The only reason I believe in God is because I cannot explain the existence of the universe any other way.” He tapped out the last three words in the air, then hunched forward. “But to say that because of this God cares if I eat milk and meat – this,” he said, finger pricked to the heavens, “is bullshit.”
So began Mr. Wolf’s assault on piety. He was a marvel, a revelation, and I his acolyte.
Every Sunday that summer, he took me through another Bible story, reveling in its inconsistencies. Genesis had two creations-Adams and Eves with irreconcilable differences, man and seed swapping places in the birthing order. Moses ascended Mt. Sinai, or Mount Horeb, depending on whether you were reading Deuteronomy or Exodus. And of course Mr. Wolf’s favorite-the riddle of Cain’s wife, for which his brother had paid dearly.
“My brother was the most brilliant student in his class,” Mr. Wolf said proudly. “One day the rabbi was reading, ‘Adam knew his wife Eve and she begot Cain and Abel. And Cain knew his wife and she begot Enoch.’ My brother put up his hand. Who was this wife, he asked. How could there be another woman in the world unless Eve had daughters?” Mr. Wolf bared his teeth. “Without a word, the rabbi took his heavy wooden walking stick and hit my brother on his back. His spine was crushed. He was a cripple for the rest of his life.”
The rabbis were Mr. Wolf’s nemeses. No lesson passed without his ridiculing them. Rashi the Frenchman, scratching away at his illuminations as he surveyed his vineyard. The great Maimonodes and all the others straining at exegesis. They were fools as far as Mr. Wolf was concerned. So obsessed with what to obey, what the rules were, what precisely God wanted. They were like acrobats to him, tottering on the edge of the text, performing logical flips and linguistic contortions. He only waited for the moment when they tripped and tumbled, so he could pounce…
“…Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen,” Mr. Wolf read from Exodus-God speaking to Moses atop Mount Sinai. Moses had pleaded to behold God’s presence. God had met him halfway.
“Now,” said Mr. Wolf laying the book down. “The rabbis ask, ‘What are we to suppose Moses saw?’ Their answer: that God was wearing prayer phylacteries and had side locks growing on the sides of his head.” He pulled off his glasses. The skin around his small black eyes crinkled with tiny lines. “Can you believe it?” Mr. Wolf exclaimed, growling baritone spiking as high as it could go. “This is bullshit!”
The lessons continued. Noah fell down drunk in his tent. Lot slept with his daughters. Mr. Wolf delighted in their debaucheries. God had delinquents on his hand. Do this, don’t do that, because I say so. And still they acted up. It made “Him” seem rather hapless. Meanwhile Mr. Wolf stood on the rocks, suitcase in hand, gleefully parting a sea of nonsense. It was wonderful just to listen, to smile conspiratorially at the unraveling. We drifted through the summer like two Cheshire cats, grins floating in the ether.
Then one Sunday, Mr. Wolf snapped open his briefcase. He extracted a little Hebrew calendar and asked me when my birthday was. A few calculations later, my Bar Mitzvah date was set. He slid a cassette tape into a black hand-held recorder and gave me a photocopied sheet of strange pen-scratches-dots and dashes in peculiar configurations, like the ink-dipped footprints of a drunken ant. “I have done everything for you,” he said happily. “You will go down the notes and repeat after my voice on the tape.” I stared at him. He told me it was simple and pressed Play.
Yom Kippur fell on a Wednesday that year. The Day of Atonement, when the gates of heaven opened and you had your chance to be written in the Book of Life. My father’s voice crackled on the transatlantic line. He wanted me to go to synagogue. I put on a shirt and tie and made my way to St. John’s Wood.
The assembly hall was stifling hot. I sat down next to an old man with watery eyes, an ivory-handled cane between his legs. The service had already begun. Muttered prayers reverberated around us.
“You see all these fools here, you see them praying.” The old man was speaking to me. “I was in Auschwitz. God was not there. Where was God in the camps?” I didn’t respond. “I tell you it will happen again,” the man said. “You cannot stop it. No one can. Praying won’t help anything.” The top of the old man’s cane swung back and forth between his hands, constant as a metronome.
“I’m a little confused,” I told Mr. Wolf on his next visit. Once more, he was eager to explain. The notes matched the syllables of the Hebrew words in my parasha, the Torah portion I was going to read at my Bar Mitzvah in a few months time. Three times a week, Jews took the scrolls of the Torah out of the tabernacle and read another portion. When they finished the story, they started again. “And where does my portion fit in the story?” I asked.
“Ah, this is a very good question,” said Mr. Wolf excitedly. And we were off again…
“…How far did you get?” Mr. Wolf asked me a few weeks after giving me the tape. I was half-smirking, slouched on the velvet-cushioned seat, shoulders slack, hands in pockets.
“Not as far as I would have liked,” I said. His lips began curling into a smirk of his own, deep creases sinking into leathery cheeks. Laugh lines rippled over rising cheekbones.
“Hmm…” he said, then tipped his great mastiff head forward and slicked back his already slicked-back hair.
“…Koo-mi U-ri Ki-va-a O-re-ech.” The notes lurched up the register like an old man climbing stairs, a whining nasal lament. I shut off the tape and switched on the Super Nintendo, StreetFighter II already lodged in its cartridge slot. Tinny Nintendo music replaced Mr. Wolf’s voice as I smacked the life out of a computerized sprite.
My mother began preparing for the event. She booked a hall in Vienna. My aunts and uncles called to ask what presents I wanted. I sat in front of the flickering television in my mother’s bedroom, dreading the buzzer. The hour on Sunday before Mr. Wolf was scheduled to arrive now included a flurry of activity during ad breaks of Lost in Space or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. These were spasms of homework, nervous twitches stored up from all the times when I was meant to be practicing.
“You know, I’ve never had a student fail with me,” Mr. Wolf said in class. He scratched his forearm, fingers running through a straggly thatch of black-grey hair. Underneath them, thick lines of bluish-green ink formed a row of numbers above an inverted triangle. “I had one boy whose parents swore would never do Bar Mitzvah. He couldn’t read Hebrew, had never seen it in his life. And…” A finger shot up from the table for emphasis. “… he had only six weeks to study. But with me, in less than a month he was ready and did a beautiful parasha.” In my case, he said, there was nothing to worry about: I was smart; that boy had been an idiot.
In the following weeks, Mr. Wolf’s list of miracle children grew longer. This one had suffered from stage fright. That one’s first teacher had died before they even started preparing. Their time shrank: only two months, a month and a half, three weeks. No matter.
All had been saved by the tapes. Mr. Wolf made them for every student, happily dictating for hours on end. It was like having an ecstatic Czech genie trapped in a Sony Clear Voice, obeying only the command to stop or start singing. And when I pressed the Play button, all I had to do was obey, and Mr. Wolf would have another successful launch.
Months went by. And yet time didn’t seem to matter because of his awesome powers. He and I carried on in a kind of alternate universe, where time had no relation to speed and the twelve year-olds he’d salvaged seemed to float around us like dogs in Sputniks.
My father called and asked me how the preparations were coming. It was late at night, earlier for him. I told him things were going fine. He said he was glad. After he hung up, I stayed on the line, listening to the dial tone’s empty hum. I squeezed my eyes closed and let the sound reverberate, certain that I was the only one there.
“You should really be paying more attention to all of this,” my father huffed at the end of the service, folding his prayer shawl lengthways. He was back in London on his winter break. This time I’d been more sullen than ever. I’d refused a prayer book and spent the entire service staring out of the synagogue’s one open window.
“Why,” I said, voice sticking in my throat. “Is God going to be angry with me?” Someone pushed past me through the door as I said this. I looked out to the cement parking lot, ready to do battle.
“God?” my father said quietly. “What’s that got to do with anything? That’s all nonsense.” He rolled the prayer shawl into a bundle, then tucked it into the wooden bookshelf and made for the door.
Months passed and the tape never spooled past the first few notes. My progress stalled. One aunt told me she was giving me a CD player. Another said antique cuff links. My mother whisked me off to Saville Row to be decked in a beautiful blue suit that was astronomically expensive-a suit I’d wear once and grow out of within a year.
My mother asked me what kind of cake I wanted; the caterer could do a space ship if I liked. Mr. Wolf kept repeating himself, my lack of preparation getting harder to ignore. The synagogue in Vienna was alerted to the date.
Once I saw a boy do his Bar Mitzvah there. He stepped up to the podium and warbled confidently from the open scroll. Above us in the balcony sweet wrappers began to rustle, the women pulling them from their bags. The rustling grew louder as the boy sang his Bar Mitzvah portion, louder as he sang the first blessing, and so loud as he sang the second that a few men turned their heads up, hissing admonishment.
The boy came to the last chord, the rabbi and cantor raising their voices in unison to sing with him. At that moment the synagogue burst into color, a kaleidoscope of sweets pelting down from the rafters. A rumble of “Shkoi-ach” — “well done” — went up from the men as the shower rained down on us, and small children scrambled between the pews to collect their booty. Outside, an Austrian soldier stood guard with a machine gun, laced-up army boots shoulder-length apart on the cobblestones.
It was hot that Sunday, early spring. Mr. Wolf was in short sleeves. He scratched his arm. “How far did you get?” he asked.
“Not as far as I would have liked,” I said. I tipped back on my chair and gazed out of the window. Mr. Wolf didn’t smile.
“You know, I’ve never had a student fail with me,” he said. I turned my head back. We were coming close to a reproach. I felt my body grow warmer. If he said it outright, in full growl, I’d have to be defiant. I’d wrinkle my nose in a snarl and say nothing.
“But with you something is different,” Mr. Wolf said softly. This was new. I froze in mid-tilt. “I had one student who knew no Hebrew. He was ready in less than a month. If you wanted to, you could do this. But you…you resist.”
He sat pensively for a moment. Then he stood up and snapped his briefcase shut. I heard the other hangers clatter a little in the hallway as he took his coat down. We were only ten minutes into the lesson, forty minutes still left. I heard the front door slam shut; then silence. The rest of my Sunday was free.