Heat of the Moment
“Chicago is here,” Moishy said.
Chicago was an American living in Jerusalem who had fallen on hard times, or, possibly, had always lived hard. He may have had family somewhere in another part of Jerusalem or somewhere not far, or not at all. Details of his life, such as where he was from and how he got here, were mysterious, but the one thing he couldn’t hide was his thick American accent. Hence the nickname: “Chicago.”
Now he was here again, on one of his twice-weekly rounds, going from table to table, jiggling the coins in his hand. For some reason or other I had taken to disliking Chicago. He was cheerful, usually, never insisted that you give him something, the way most beggars did, and he never cursed when you shrugged your shoulders to indicate, “Sorry, don’t have.” But there was something about him that irritated me, his round belly, his accent, scruffy beard, the way he looked away when I made eye contact, or maybe it was his aversion to small talk. To this day I can’t figure it out.
“I can make sure he never comes around again,” I said to the bucherim at my table.
They all turned to me, curious. Beri, at the corner, continued shokelling so the mashgiach wouldn’t notice that he’s chatting instead of studying – his every move calculated for its effect on his eventual shidduch (although, quite strangely, if I’m not mistaken, he ended up getting divorced).
I collected a pile of coins from my table-mates. The boys looked on from the corners of their eyes lest the mashgiach on duty notice the commotion. I piled the coins up neatly, borrowed a cigarette lighter from one of the more eager faces around me and heated up the stack. Chicago was only a few steps away, inching slowly towards us. There were too many eyes on me – a point of no return if ever there was one. I knew I was doing something terrible before he reached for the neat and very hot stack. I was overcome with guilt even before I heard him scream.
The whole shul heard him scream.
“I don’t know, I just don’t know,” I told the menahel. I really didn’t know why I did it. I couldn’t explain it to myself, let alone to someone else.
“I have to kick you out,” the menahel said. For once I agreed . I deserved to be suspended. But I wasn’t. He must have sensed my guilt and in his infinite wickedness he probably wanted it to simmer and stew inside of me.
Chicago never came by again. I often saw him sitting in the coffee room of a neighborhood shul that had minyanim until late morning. I started avoiding that shul, which back then meant waking up early to catch the yeshiva minyan. On days that I awoke too late and had no choice but to attend that shul, I tried entering through the back , or I hurried through the main doors, eyes downcast, hoping to pass unnoticed. Lucky for me, Chicago never looked up from what he was doing. He always sat facing the crowd, his eyes on the floor or on people’s shoes, his hands at the ready for spare change.
Word of my callous act didn’t reach far, it appears, for within a year I was engaged to a wonderful girl. I knew, however, that I couldn’t get married before I asked Chicago for forgiveness. I did not want to have shalom bayis problems, deformed kids, a life of poverty, to become inflicted with a nasty illness, or a host of other things I begged God daily that he spare me. Chicago was still there in the coffee room. I walked in there one day, tried to make eye contact but he wouldn’t meet my gaze. I gave the man a 20-dollar bill. He looked up for a moment to see if I wanted change. I just smiled and said, “It’s for you.” “Thank you,” he said. If he recognized me he hid it very well. But I still hadn’t asked for forgiveness, I just didn’t know how to.
Purim came around, and I decided to collect whatever I could and give it to Chicago. I ended up with over 1,000 shekel, which I gave him in a little plastic bag. Chicago opened it, looked at it, looked at me, smiled, then looked down and thanked me, or the floor. I was leaving Israel in a few weeks, and getting married soon after. I was desperate and out of ideas.
My last Shabbos in Israel, I woke up terribly late. I went to daven at the local minyan factory, then went to another shul where bucherim knew to go after late prayers, where they served extra-spicy chulent and Yerushalmi kugel, even for latecomers. But I was late for that too. The shul was empty save for one man: Chicago. He was holding a couple of disposable aluminum pans filled with cholent and dried out pieces of chicken. He was happy to see me. I was happy too.
“Rabbi Chicago” I said, not knowing how else to address him, “I’m so glad to see you here.”
“I have to bring it home, my family is waiting for the food,” he said. He didn’t seem bothered or curious that I’d called him “Rabbi Chicago.” Maybe that was indeed his name.
“I’ll help you carry them,” I offered.
“It’s far,” he said. “And hot”. The address he gave me was far, and the weather was kind of hot for an Israeli day in spring.
Half an hour later I was still walking, panting, and schlepping both pans. Chicago didn’t utter a word the whole time. We walked slowly, mostly uphill as fate would have it. The pans that hadn’t seemed so hot at the beginning were now scalding my palms and the edges of my fingers. I shuffled the weight from arm to arm, trying to disperse the heat evenly, when I suddenly realized that I was being dealt a punishment so apt, so perfect that I could only embrace the pain.
I walked up the three floors to his apartment and laid the pans on the floor outside his doorway, exactly as he instructed. I didn’t get to see his family, but I got to see his eyes when he thanked me.
By the time I walked to my chuppah I no longer had burn marks or blisters, but I knew I had been redeemed.Printable Version