The Book of Gershon

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1.  Now it came to pass in my thirty-fifth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, that the heavens were opened, and the Lord God spoke to me.  He spoke to me as I was leaving the office of my primary care physician, whom I had seen about a rash on my loins that was a sore affliction.  The physician, if you must know, had given me an unguent, and assured me that sometimes a rash is just a rash; and I was comforted, for I had thought that it was the creeping things.

2.  And the Lord God spoke to me on the Avenue of Madison, and His voice was like quiet thunder.  The Lord said, “Get thee to Rome and anoint the Messiah son of Yossef.”  And I said, “Lord, who is this Yossef, and what do I know from anointing?  I work in marketing.”  But the Lord insisted, “Get thee to Rome and anoint the Messiah son of Yossef.”

3.  And the Lord sent an angel, who was black and sleek; and the angel had a live coal in his hand, which he laid upon my mouth; and it burned so that I forgot all about my loins.

4.  And the Lord said, “Gershon, you will rectify Israel and prepare their hearts for the Messiah.  You will prophesy to the Jews so that they return unto Me.  Come to think of it, you will cause all My children to return unto Me, whether they be of the Jewish faith, or a follower of Jesus or Mohammed.  For I command them unto Me, and to pursue justice, righteousness, and lovingkindness.  And those who ignore My command shall be smitten, and their flesh shall be consumed, for the time of refinement is at hand.”

5.  And I asked the Lord, “How many shall be consumed?”  The Lord replied, “Two thirds.”  And I trembled upon hearing this, for unlike plumbers, God does not purposely lower his estimations.

6.  And I asked the Lord, “What of the followers of Buddha or Krishna?”  The Lord replied, “They shall be consumed, for the burning of incense in front of a statue is an abomination, as is the worship of idols.  But if they destroy their idols, and they worship Me, they shall not be consumed.”  I asked the Lord, “What of the atheists?”  He replied, “They must worship Me or be consumed.”  I asked the Lord, “What of the Wiccans?”  The Lord replied, “They shall be consumed, for their outfits are an abomination.  Now get thee to Rome.”

7.  And I went to Rome, which cost me many thousands in frequent flier miles.  And I wandered among the people, wondering how I should find this Mashiach ben Yossef, for his name was not in the phone book.  I wandered for a day and a night, stopping only to refresh myself with pasta and a bottle or two of Chianti.

8.  And on the second day I met a hairy man, who was the prophet Eliyahu.  With him was a bald man, who was the prophet Elisha.  And they took me to their dwelling, which was in a dreary quarter, and it smelled like goat’s milk.  And they repeated unto me that I, Gershon son of Harvey, had been chosen by the Lord to be a prophet; that I was to rectify Israel and prepare their hearts for the Messiah; and also that I was to bring the Gentiles to justice, righteousness, and lovingkindness.

9.  And I said, “Why me?  For I am an ignorant Jew, and I haven’t been to synagogue since my bar mitzvah.” Eliyahu replied, “That’s your problem,” and he darkened his countenance.  I said, “What’s eating you?”  Elisha said, “My master is upset, for it was prophesied that he should be the harbinger of the Messiah, but now it is you.  And he was so much looking forward to it that he got his mantle dry-cleaned.”

10.  I said, “He can have the job, for I wish only to return to the marketing of magazines, and to the chasing of women.”  Then Eliyahu and Elisha threw up their hands, crying, “No, no, we cannot go against the will of the Lord.”

11.  And I said, “Then where is this Messiah ben Yossef, for I wish to anoint him, and then return to the Hilton.” Eliyahu replied, “You have not listened to the Lord carefully, for He meant Rome, New York.”  And Elisha looked mirthful and called me a schmuck.  And I was angered, for nobody likes to be a schmuck, and I could have used those miles for Barbados.

12.  Whereupon I stood; but before I could take my leave, Eliyahu offered me his mantle.  He seemed most reluctant to part with it, so I told him to keep it, and that we should consider that the mantle had been passed metaphorically.

13.  And I went to Rome, New York, where on the corners there were immigrants seeking labor, and shuttered shops, and in the business district one almost expected to see tumbleweeds.  And this saddened me, for it was this way in many towns and cities, which was why I had been having difficulties in the marketing of magazines.  But I knew that this was the will of the Lord, for I had begun to read Mashiach for Dummies, which said that just before the Messiah came, there would be no plenty.

14.  And I saw a man who had a shop for the repairing of cars.  His countenance was middle-aged, he had an Israeli accent, and he called himself Ephraim.  I said, “Ephraim, are you the Messiah ben Yossef?”  He replied, “I may be, for my father’s name was Joseph, and I have dreamed that you would come to me.”

15.  Whereupon Ephraim took me to lunch, and he explained many prophecies: that more suffering was to come, and then a final battle between Israel and her enemies, which was called the War of Gog and Magog.  And I said, “Yes, I know that, for I have spoken to the Lord and also I have been reading.”  Ephraim said, “Well, Mr. Smartypants, do you know that there may not be one, but two Messiahs?”  And he laughed at my astonishment.

16.  Ephraim said, “The first Messiah will be from the line of Joseph, and he will lead the children of Israel against Gog and Magog.  The second Messiah, blessed be he, will be from the line of David, and he will be a teacher of righteousness.”

17.  As I considered these words, Ephraim said, “Are you going to finish that?”  And he took the rest of my grilled cheese.  I let him, for my bewilderment had taken my appetite.  And I wondered why neither the Lord, nor His angel, nor His prophets, had told me of these two Messiahs.  Nor did I recall hearing any of this in Hebrew school; and as the prophet Bob Marley had said, my mind was confused with confusion.

18.  And Ephraim helped himself to my French fries, saying, “Hearken unto me.  The sages predict that the Messiah son of David shall appear and summon all the Jews back to Israel.  He will rebuild the Holy Temple, and he will bring peace, prosperity, and piety to all nations.  So far so good?”  And I nodded to indicate that I understood.  Ephraim said, “The Messiah son of David will be a man of peace.  For if his hands are stained with blood, he will be unfit to rebuild the Temple.  Therefore, before he comes, Israel shall need the Messiah son of Yossef, who is a man of war.”

19.  And I said, “But how can a man of war be called ‘Messiah?'”  Ephraim said, “Because he too will be the Lord’s anointed.  The word mashiach means ‘anointed.’  And I may be he, for I know how to lead men in battle, and the angel of the Lord has appeared to me in my dreams.”

20.  And I asked him what this angel looked like, and Joseph replied, “Bald and very handsome, like that model fellow, what’s his name, Tyler Beckford.”

21.  And I took a squeeze container of salad oil and I anointed his forehead.  Ephraim said, “Thank you.”  And he glanced over my shoulder, and he said that he needed the bathroom.

22.  And a Trooper of the State was beside me, and he asked if I was Gershon son of Harvey.  I told him so, and he said, “You will go to the house of the insane, for you have been running about from place to place and hearing voices, and your parents have been very worried about you.”  I replied that I was a man of five and thirty, and that I could make my own decisions.  And the Trooper said, “Not anymore.”

23.  And he drove me to the Island of Staten, which was in itself a kind of punishment, not to mention living among those who had been smitten with madness.  And the physicians said, “Gershon, you have a schizoaffective disorder.”  And they gave me medicines that made me fat and logy and quieted my dreams.  Then they made me sit in a circle with those who had been smitten with madness, and bade us talk of our feelings, and when the patients spoke it was like the gibbering of monkeys.

24.  And my mother and father brought me victuals, like pastrami and knishes, so that I grew fatter.  But their visits were a comfort to me; even when my father complained, which was every time he opened his mouth, it was sweet to my ears, for at least it was not the prattling of those who had been smitten with madness.

25.  Then my parents did not visit me for some weeks, and I grew afraid, for my radio brought news of unrest in the world.

26.  And I was afraid for myself, for I did not know if I was a prophet, or if I had been smitten with madness.

27.  And in the sixth month of my incarceration, my brother came to rescue me.  Now, some years before, for incomprehensible reasons, my brother had become a Hasid; and he brought other Hasids with him; and their antics as they helped me escape was like the Keystone Kops with side curls.  And they brought me to New Hampshire, where my brother lived with his community.  There they had bought a sort of compound, with many cabins and a big house that they had made into a synagogue.  And they gave me a cabin, and some pills to wean me from the other pills that had made me fat and logy; and although I was pleased to be out of the house of the insane, I still was not too sure about my own sanity.

28.  But the food was adequate, and I had my own cabin, and a neighboring Gentile lent me books.  And my brother bade me to make myself useful, so I shoveled snow and I hauled wood, which brought back the strength of my arms.

29.  And I asked my brother, “Wherefore did you find the funds to purchase this land, and these cabins, and to lay in such a goodly portion of stores?”  And my brother wrung his hands, as he did when he was anxious.  And he said, “We sold our houses.”  And I said, “But I doubt that you got enough from your houses, for Hasids never take care of their lawns.”  Still my brother wrung his hands, and I repeated, “Wherefore did you find the money?”  And Jacob said: “We have sold your condo and your possessions, and we have cashed out your securities and your 401k.”  And I sputtered until I found my tongue, and I said, “Wherefore my Lexus?”  And he said, “We have sold your Lexus.”  And I swore at my brother, and I was tempted to smite him.

30.  My brother said, “You should be glad, for I timed the market well, selling all at a good price before the big crash.  Anyway, you need not worry about money, for when the Messiah comes, life will be easeful.”  And I said, “I too once believed that the Messiah was coming, and they locked me up for it.”  And we parted bitterly.

31.  And one afternoon as I hauled wood I met Leah, who had hair like spun fire and a pleasing shape.  She was a daughter of the Hasidim, but she had fled from them when she was one and twenty and there had been talk of marriage to the butcher.  And Leah had made a life for herself in the city of Boston as a designer of graphics.  But when the time of troubles began that city became dangerous, and food was scarce, and she went to her family in New Hampshire.  But she chafed under the rules and obligations.

32.  And together Leah and I fell into sin and licentiousness, which was a great comfort to me, and she didn’t have such a bad time either.

33.  And still my mind was confused, for I sometimes I believed that I had been insane, and sometimes I believed that I might be a prophet.

34.  And I was afraid for my parents, so I went to see my brother, who had an office behind the synagogue.  And he said, “They are fine. My people bring them medicines and food. Now let me get back to work.”  But I thought that we should fetch them, for in the cities it was a time of great unrest.

35.  So I took some cans of fuel and some food and water and I brought them to Jacob’s minivan under the cover of darkness, and Leah came with me.

36.  And we journeyed from New Hampshire to Fort Lee, New Jersey.  There were many dangers, but the angel of the Lord spoke to me through the G.P.S. device.  And he gave me many directions in a soothing voice.  Thus we avoided arrest and marauders; only once did we have to give some provisions to men with guns.  But Leah was clever, for she shared her cigarettes with the men, and she made them laugh, and we kept most of our provisions.

37.  And when we entered my parents’ apartment it was empty, and a sense of evil was in the place.  And I wished to search for my parents in the town, but Leah fell ill.  Therefore I washed her and gave her medicine, for my mother’s bathroom was like an outpost of Duane Reade.  Then I put her to bed, thinking that she would be well upon the morrow.

38.  Whereupon the angel of the Lord appeared to me again.  He called himself Metatron, and he was nattily dressed, and he sat upon my mother’s sofa.  And I said: “I hope you have no burning coals with you this time.”  And he said: “We need do that only once.”  He said, “Gershon, the Lord is displeased with you, for you are forsaking your duty.”  And I said, “I know not if I am sane or insane.”

39.  And Metatron said: “You are sane.  The Lord has chosen you to rectify Israel and prepare their hearts for the Messiah.  The Lord also wishes you to return the Gentiles to justice, righteousness, and lovingkindness.”  And I said, “But if the Jews are right, what does the Lord care for the Gentiles?”  And Metatron grew vexed, and he said, “The Lord cares for all His children.  For the righteous Gentiles have a place in the World-to-Come.”  And I was ashamed of my question, for some of my best friends were Gentiles.

40.  And I said, “What of this Ephraim?”  He said, “Ephraim is to protect Israel against her enemies.  You are to protect them against themselves.  Gershon, hearken unto me, for the time of refinement is at hand.  In all the earth, two parts shall be cut off and die; and the Lord will bring the third part through the fire; and He shall refine them as silver is refined; and He shall try them as gold is tried.  And you, Gershon, shall keep the Lord’s commandments before them, so that there is no backsliding.  Then Gog of Magog shall set his face against Israel, and Ephraim shall gather her fighting men and fighting women against him.  And Israel shall be sorely tested, but she will prevail. And when the land is cleansed of evil, you shall find Mashiach ben David and bring him to Jerusalem.  Then all of God’s chosen will return to the Holy Land, and Mashiach shall rebuild the Temple.  And peace and justice will radiate from Israel, and all nations will live in righteousness.”

41.  And I said, “That’s very nice, but why go to so much trouble if all is foreordained?”  And Metatron again grew vexed, and told me not to question the will of the Lord.

42.  And I said, “How shall this refinement take place?”  He said, “You have already been told of the plague.”

43.  And I said, “What of my mother and father, who do not believe, but who have never harmed a soul, unless you count undertipping?”  He said, “Fear not for your mother and father, who have come to trust in the Lord.”  But Metatron would not tell me where I could find them.  Then he bade me to abjure sin, and to repudiate my own weaknesses, which were intoxication and fornication with women.  Whereupon Metatron took his leave, using the door like a normal person.

44.  And I trembled at my burden, and I wished the Lord had put His finger upon some other slob.

45.  And I went to look upon Leah, who was white with fever.  And instead of her sweet smell there was a stink, as if she had befouled herself.  But the stink came from a great sore upon her arm, and another upon her breast.  And I recalled that the angel had warned of a plague, and I was greatly afraid.  So I awoke Leah, and I begged her to call upon the Lord.  But Leah refused to call upon Him, for she was an atheist, and she hardened her heart against my pleas.  And her sickness deepened, and her breathing was labored.  So I stretched myself upon the floor, and I cried out to the Lord.  But He would not hearken to my prayers, for the choice had been with Leah.  Her flesh consumed away; she shivered greatly; and at daybreak she died.

46.  And I tore my garments and I wept.

47.  And I enshrouded her, and I put her into the minivan, and I drove her to the burial place.  Many men were inside the gates, and they were dressed in white protective clothing, as if they were on CSI: New Jersey.  They were burning the dead on a great pyre, and the scent was abominable.  A man approached the minivan, and he took off his head covering.  And in a kindly voice, he said, “The mayor has decreed that all shall be burned.  I will help you put it upon the fire.”  And I grew vexed, and I said, “What is the decree of the mayor next to the decree of the Lord?  She is a Jew, and she shall be buried in the manner of her people.”

48.  And I put Leah in the ground, and I covered up the hole, and I said the first three or four words of the Mourner’s Kaddish for her, for that was all I could remember.  And my tears were bitter, for she had poured her affection upon me like ointment, and her voice had been like honey and milk.  Then I castigated myself, for she would have been a good wife to me.  For she had shown me many good qualities, and I had adored the roundings of her thighs.  But I had failed her twice: first, because I had not brought her to the wedding canopy; and second, because I could not bring her to the Lord.

49.  And the spirit of the Lord God was upon me, and I did not know if this were a blessing or a curse.  Still I knew that I must preach, for I must needs warn the atheists and idol-worshippers that the Lord’s vengeance was at hand; I must needs unblock their hearts.  For there were many millions like my Leah, who had harmed no person but displeased the Lord.

50.  Whereupon I girded my loins, metaphorically speaking, and I started for the city of New York.

Gordon Haber writes about religion and culture. His short story collection, Uggs for Gaza, is available from Dutch Kills Press. He does not live in Brooklyn.