By Chaim Bertman
Elm Street in December, you expect it to rain. Close
your ears, close the blinds. Do what you have to do:
eat a bag of raisins, watching television in your
underwear. Sometimes, one should live on the surface
On a Tuesday night, it is normal that the streetlights
orange glow past midnight shadow-box the blue glow
of the television, and normal that you are an idiot
wearing funny checkered pants, with a cows tongue,
too fat for your mouth.
So, youre a boy of thirty-five when an old man
dies, and alone, so what?
A person cant expect to live forever.
Close the lights. But leave a light on under the door,
as if Grandfather was in the other room watching television,
But if you are an idiot, dont pick up a pen.
There are certain things an idiot knows, even if he
has no tongue to tell much of what he feels. If you
had a pen, you would say what it is like to have a
heart with no brain to give it words, like a cat,
or an elephant at the zoo.
Even you know that there are truly two kinds of death,
and that they bend us in two different ways: your
own death is a work of the brain, a question mark
on either side of the soul, around the Judge of souls,
Nothingness, or the Other World. But the deaths of
other people, people that you love with an undiluted
heart, deaths which bruise the very muscle of the
archaic brain inside your ribcage, and cause salted
water to pour out your eyes, only rarely do they enter
this abstract mode. The latter deaths are of the Earth,
and on Earth remain; and the latter deaths tend to
be by far the more profound.
But an idiot doesnt know so well how to live
on the surface of things. For him, ideas of the world
to come do not take root, to wash away the tears of
the world of life.Last June, Zayde came into my room
to tell me that his bride (whose soul rests in Eden)
had died in her sleep. He broke into shivers, and
lay on the floor, pounding his old gray fists on the
floor, sobbing, even as the ambulance arrived. They
took him away for a few weeks; and he missed his wifes
funeral. When Zayde returned, he was truly an old
man. He said a soft shalom, and made me scrambled
eggs and a tomato. In the kitchen, he took out a vial
of pills, and sat down to talk to me. "Yosef,
you cant live forever. (May you live to a hundred
and twenty!) The doctor says my brain is turning to
oatmeal. Soon Ill be in the hospital, talking
to voices, waiting for the end, like an animal waits.
This is the way it must be, so were not going
to be bad and mope, right? But listen: when I begin
to forget, Yosef, I want you to remind me to take
these pills. Ive gotta take one pill every day
For eight months Zayde and I fought over everything.
Sometimes people forget that theyre talking
to an idiot. He yelled at me while we watched television.
"Ach, a regular Golem, he cant find
himself a Jewish girl?"
(By Golem, he meant idiot, plain and simple.)
Then, after his second stroke, Zayde stopped fighting.
Finally, he was able to see the way I sat by the window
all day long. Knowing my heart wanted to leave Brooklyn,
he softly tried to talk me out of it.
"But Yosef, we have already had great kings in
Israel do we need another? What could be better
for Jacob in his old age but to study quietly, and
let Esau have the world?"
"But Zayde, Im an idiot. Books flow over
me like water, and Im not even damp."
"So? An idiot also has his commentary: study,
stay in Brooklyn."
"Listen, Yosef, the Earth, as usual, is at war!
Stay in Brooklyn. A tree grows here."
That said, he grew weak, he could only groan. But
he refused to go to the hospital until he had lost
control of all his functions and fingers.
Its a shame the end has to be so ugly. But time
remembers the good things better than the bad. Gershom
came to the hospital with a few of the old guys from
Beth Peniel to see Zayde one last time. Gershom put
his hand on an idiots shoulder, and in Yiddish
starkly said, "Your grandfather was a Tzaddik.
Have strength, Yosef: G-d will provide..."
(By Tzaddik, he meant a righteous man.)
By the end of the week, Zayde was dead. We buried
him in the ground beside his wife.
Two more Creations had been taken apart, by the Holy
One, Blessed Be He, Who said that they were very good,
and let them live long years.
There is one thing that even an idiot knows: that
the Ancient of Days puts cows and children on the
Earth like toys, and at the end of the day takes them
away with His fingers, and washes His hands with morning
dew, with the waters of the Abyss.
And an idiot knows that the mourner mourns a low,
low mourning song: Holy, Holy, Holy is the One Above
the Stars, Who puts cows and good children upon the
What is so hard is an idiot remembers everything.
Like how Zayde, just before he died, became exceedingly
lucid. He didnt want to die in the hospital;
he told me to take him home. And the nurse pulled
tubes out of his nose, and stretched him upon a stretcher.
And I rode with him in the ambulance home. And he
held my hand all the way, saying, "Dont
cry, little Golem, dont cry," as we sped
along through the streets of Brooklyn in the cold
rain. He made me promise not to cry and not to leave
Brooklyn, until I was forty, and ready, and wealthy,
and healthy. Uncle Zalman would take care of me for
money, if I needed it. Not knowing what else to say,
he sang an idiot a childrens song, "This
is the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat my father
bought for two zuzay
Three hours later, back at home, a look came over
his bearded mouth. And I pulled on my own long red
beard, and asked, "So, is that the face of wisdom?"
And I went into the stairwell, and sat on the steps.
All the while, the body lay there in the other room.
And when it was very late, I went inside to shut the
light and go to bed. I woke up every twenty minutes
throughout the night.
But you gather up the minutes of sleep that your body
What else can one do for a Tzaddik, but offer him
a decent burial?
You think, you sit on the floor; and if you talk,
you talk with a heavy tongue.
You keep your head down, as you hear the angel of
death flap its wings beside you; and you must not
look at it, even as it brushes by you, with wings
of warm taut human skin, the touch of which causes
death. You must not try to run, as it flaps its horrible
wings over the corpse. And even an idiot knows, you
must not breathe into the bottom of your lungs, when
theres so much death in the air.
We buried Zayde on Staten Island, on the twenty-seventh
At that time of year in New York, evening falls before
four. By the time I got to the cemetery, the Sun was
going down, the Earth was coming up, and there were
already a few yellow stars over the city.
It was a small funeral; only four of the old guys
from Beth Peniel had come. They each said a few words
about Zayde, calling him a scholar, a lion, a good
Jew, a sweet person.
"Oy, vae ist mir, but he lived to be old;
and a person cant live forever."
"Oh, woe is me, this one was a Tzaddik!"
A few, cold drops of December rain came down, as the
rabbi let the prayers commence. Five elderly voices
recited a solemn Kaddish by the hole in the
ground where Zayde lay. Although an idiot doesnt
strictly know the meaning of words, the ancient Lament
wrapped around me with its kind, elderly wings: Yitgadal,
v-yitkadash, v-yitromam, v-yitnasseh... My own
lips moved but I couldnt hear myself through
the thick wind off the water. I felt the pain in my
belly that all animals feel at the smell of dam, blood,
the oldest name of both Life and Death, when Adam
first gave names to all things. Then, as the old men
bent, and genuflected toward the East, I watched the
horizon over Manhattan. As Babylon was good to its
bakers and beggars and tailors and merchants for a
thousand years, the sky-scrapers of this new Babylon
watched over us, like a Gargoyle perched on its egg.
Finally, at the precipice, we passed a shovel from
hand to hand, and buried my grandfather.
Each of the mourners tossed a few clumps of wet dirt
on the coffin.
I dont know how many shovelfuls I dropped. But
by the time the rabbi tugged the shovel away from
me, the coffin was completely obscured; there was
no sign of wood, beneath those round splatters of
mud and pebbles and rain.
And all of New York watched over an idiot burying
The rabbi dropped three shovels of mud onto the pine
casket, maybe four.
And we walked away like Neanderthals from the first
Neanderthal burial, our hearts bloated with blood.
And even an idiot knows that its no good to
push the pain out of the heart with ideas; therefore,
you dont talk too much; therefore, you dont
pretend about the world to come. Instead, you keep
your head down, as you hear the angel flap its wings
beside you. You must try not to run, as it flaps its
horrible wings before your eyes. And even an idiot
knows, you must not breathe into the bottom of your
lungs, when theres so little laughter in the
air. But can an idiot learn to live on the surface
At last, Zayde was in the Earth, where he would be
We went back to the boat, to sail past the bridges,
past the great mounds of humanity and concrete, into
the stale air, the caustic traffic horns of a thousand
souls per cubic meter, to Brooklyn. We took the slow
boat back to Brooklyn, as the December rain turned
to a dry white powder, and a long Winter set in over
In the end, these are small things, small things in
the life of a soul: can a person expect to live forever?
Therefore, if you are an idiot, do not pick up a pen.
There are certain things an idiot knows, even if he
has no tongue, or a tongue too fat for his mouth.
If you had a pen, you would say what its like
to stand beside a stone with no soul to give it life,
like an idiot at the end of days. If you had a pen,
you would draw a house and an apple tree, and everybody