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Secrets of the City


By Anne Roiphe


In Chapter 66, Rabbi Gedali wept as the wild imp danced.

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Yonny, who had dropped out of the yeshiva because he was what in another part of town would be called a slow learner, had gotten a job with a bakery where one of the men who delivered the sacks of flour to the back of the store was a black guy named Earl who had a passion for old movies. As they sat on the back steps of the bakery after the job was done, smoking the cigarette Earl offered, he told Yonny stories, the likes of which the boy had never heard before. Yonny told his older brother Chaim the stories.

“Let’s get some movies,” Chaim said, putting one foot on a very slippery slope. “How?” asked Yonny. Next time the truck pulled up to the back of the bakery, Chaim and his friend Feibel were there. “We want to see a movie,” he said to Earl. “You need a television set. You got one?” Earl asked. Chaim said no. “You can get one for a few hundred dollars,” Earl said. “That all you need?” asked Eli. “No,” said Earl, “you need a VCR.” “What’s that?” said Feibel. Earl sighed. “You got $800, I’ll get one for you.”

“And the movies?” asked Feibel, who was no fool. “Get us some movies, too, same price.”

Did Feibel have $800? He did not. Chaim, who after all did have a job, had saved up a few hundred. He gave what he had to his brother. Feibel went to a few of his friends. Fifty dollars here, $12 there, someone’s sister lent him $40, believing the money was for the support of a yeshiva in the former Soviet Union. By the time the full $800 was assembled, 15 yeshiva boys had purchased a share of the VCR and the television and the movies. There was a signed contract written by Feibel, which he kept in his shirt drawer.

And so it was, and so Rabbi Gedali heard the whole story unfold, that the VCR and the television were placed in a storeroom in the back of the bakery underneath the stacks of flour covered with an old canvas cloth. So it was that on Wednesday nights when the other boys were pouring through books, making their eyes weak with the staring at fine print in texts that went round and round large pages, the 15 who owned the equipment began to watch the movies.

Earl had given them four movies. They watched them over and over. They were “Spellbound” with Ingrid Bergman, “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “Notorious” and, last but not least, “Gone with the Wind” with Vivien Leigh. Think of the pleasure of it, a transgression more terrible than any that the boys at Duncan Academy could have concocted, a voyage out of the neighborhood, out of the peoplehood, out of the America of the 21st century, not to mention whatever timeless place the yeshiva of Point Shrub inhabited.

Think what it did to these young imaginations, unsullied with visions of Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Wayne, Tom Hanks, the innocence of Nicole Kidman and Winona Ryder and Britney Spears, never having seen the Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton, never having heard of John Lennon, Eminem or P. Diddy. Tabula rasas they were, even though their minds were filled almost to the overflowing with the wisdom of the rabbis and the portions of the week and the midrashes of the ages.

Think how beautiful Ingrid Bergman looked at prayer, the very spirit of God inhabiting her habit. Think how odd it must have seemed to watch the Civil War as it unfolded as Atlanta burned, and think how it must have been to imagine yourself saving Vivien from the vile hands of those who would harm her.

To understand what followed you must remember what it is to love

truly for the first time. Because that is what happened in the back of the bakery on Wednesday night. Fifteen young men felt their hearts captured, their sexual urges rise, their gallantry soar, their hopes for themselves fly upward in search of fulfillment. They soon could recite whole minutes of dialogue. They soon began to act out the parts in synch with the turnings of the VCR. They were inflamed.

If they had been other boys with a different education, we might have spoken of them developing crushes, but what these boys felt was not a crush, which has about it the sound of childhood’s foolery. They had a passion, a fierce and wonderful and secret passion. This kind of passion knows only one object and cannot be shared. Which means that some of the boys loved Vivien and others preferred Ingrid, and the two camps split.

It was in this split that the yatzer hara found his footing. It was in this split that the disaster began.

As Rabbi Gedali heard the story, he felt his breath grow short. Such a thing he had never imagined. “No,” he kept saying. “No, it can’t be.” But it was.

At first the matter of which of the two actresses was more worthy, more pure, more perfect was no more than a heated discussion among friends. But then gradually lines were drawn and camps pitched. The Ingrid camp began to look down on the Vivien camp, and the Vivien camp thought that the Ingrid camp was falling for images of Aryan beauty that were traitorous to the Jewish people.

The Ingrid camp felt that Vivien was perhaps an evil spirit — look at the disasters that followed her about.

There were attempts made to diffuse the tension. Feibel said, “It’s like the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel all over again.” But that just made all the boys uncomfortable and even more irritable with each other because there was an element in their love for Vivien and Ingrid that was less than holy and they knew it — how could they not? “It’s like the Vilna Gaon against the Bal Shem,” Feibel tried again. “It’s not,” said an Ingrid supporter, “not like that at all.”

And so it went for some weeks: The boys meeting late at night, when their families thought them asleep in their beds, watching the same two films over and over, now imagining themselves inside the stories, now noticing little things: the flicker of light on a eyelash, the curve of an elbow as it bent, the slight dip of a lower lip, the hint of a hair blown out of place.

One night as snow was starting to fall they gathered as usual, but their tempers were unusually high. It became important to the Vivien camp that the Ingrid camp concede the greater value of their actress, clearly a greater woman of valor. The Ingrid camp did not back down and growled and began to menace with their eyes.

Chaim, who was not so bright, brought out from behind a desk in the back of the Bakery a gun. It was there to protect against robberies. It was there because no Jew intended to be slaughtered in his workplace, because the baker, although a man with a smile for all, had learned the hard way as a child to distrust the calm of the moment. Chaim was a Vivien supporter. “Say it,” he called out, “Say it: ‘She is the better; she is the most perfect; she is the one you should love.’ Say it, or I’ll shoot.”

At first no one paid him any attention, and then there was a pushing and shoving match. Some fists were thrust out, and someone shouted at Chaim that he was worse than the fools of Chelm, thinking he could change a man’s heart with a gun. And then there was a boy on the floor kicking his opponent, and then someone lunged for Chaim and the gun went off. The sound of the shot stunned all the boys, and Chaim, who was frightened, shot again because he didn’t know what else to do, couldn’t quite let go of the gun or the moment. Someone else grabbed Chaim from behind and took the gun and in the process more shots, random shots rang out.

There was blood on the baker’s floor. There were boys lying in the blood. Chaim was shot, and he called for his mother, and then he called for Vivien, as if she would appear off the screen and sweep him away. Perhaps she did. He choked and died. It was a very terrible scene, and who knows exactly who did what to whom, in the excitement, the TV tipped off the table and the VCR made a screeching sound, and there was just darkness. When it was over, a few boys were crying.

One of the boys got a mop and a bucket of water, and they washed down the bakery floor. Three of the survivors carried the dead and laid the bodies down in the street, around the corner from the bakery.

It was snowing, and the snow was coming down heavily, and all the world seemed magical, as if the snow could erase the past and undo what had happened. The survivors went back to their beds, and Chaim’s gun was placed back in the baker’s drawer, where its owner might never notice that it had been used.

The nose of the young boy who had told all was leaking, and his eyes were red when he came to the end of his tale. He had been there, included as the younger brother of one of the investors. He had hidden under a bakery cloth.

Mayor Mel Rosenberg was on his exercise bike when the phone rang. He was sweating and panting and hoping that all this work would keep him alive another few years, although after 20 minutes on the bike he felt like the end might be near.

He listened to the report from the Police Commissioner. “I don’t believe it,” Mel said, then sighed. Everyone else, or course, would know in a few hours.

“Where are the boys who went to Muttenfoot?” Mel asked. “Good question,” said the Police Commissioner. “We have their names and addresses. We tried to pick them up, but all of them are gone, vanished, on planes to Israel, where we are assured they will be punished. We could try to extradite, but I doubt we’ll get them.”

Mel called a meeting in his office. “We can’t let this city explode over Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman, can we?” He organized a march to Muttenfoot in which all the women of Point Shrub brought bags of gefilte fish to the woman of Muttenfoot. He was on the radio and the TV calling for calm. He expressed again and again his hatred of violence.

The next day, the Mayor’s polls went through the proverbial roof. He was now the Mayor on the Roof, his tune, pitch perfect. Of course in the garbage cans all over Muttenfoot gefilte fish slices could have been found, virtually intact. Gefilte fish is an acquired taste. Nevertheless, the residents of Muttenfoot understood that the gesture was well meant, even if the fish was most peculiar smelling.

Next week: Some things work out, and some things don’t.


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