Ari Belinkiy
Men Who Laughed, p.4

The Man with the Mustache leaned relaxedly against the back of his chair, took the pipe out of his mouth and meticulously knocked out the old tobacco. Then, poking his hand into the upper drawer of the desk, he found the tobacco-pouch, carefully filled the bowl with a new portion, stuck the pipe under his mustache and deeply inhaled... Nothing is new under the moon. Nothing is new in these Jewish stories...

Later the Man who Laughed paid a few occasional visits to the obese Levite to check his ability to fight further. The old man was ill but refused to compromise on Halakhic issues: everything that he announced as ritually clean was still clean and what he pronounced as unclean was unclean. Dying, he predicted a horrible death for them all. They laughed and lifted his excommunication to give him an honorable burial. They carried the coffin through the dirty streets of Lydda and he, the Levite’s close disciple, beat his flesh and the blood flowed down upon the earth. Then he commenced his funeral address: “My father, my father, chariot of Israel and horsemen thereof! I have many coins but no money changer to accept them...” Several halakhot he mentioned later in the Levite’s name. With love. In fact, he was his only truly disciple: who else liked cucumbers? Later, during the Bar-Kochba revolt, he would permit everything that the obese Levite insisted on - when it is time to act for the Lord, the Law can be put aside. Victory, final victory would justify this.

Waiting for his hour to come, the Man who Laughed was instrumental in all the numerous plots and conspiracies -- all of them for the sake of Unity. Together with the blacksmith and a young priest, he dismissed the young leader. To assure a majority they admitted his numerous disciples to the Academy. However, he was still unfit - it was not yet his time - and the young priest was elected the head of the Academy. Then, in a week, the Man who Laughed and the blacksmith invited the former leader back: a little humiliation was just enough to improve the man. Genealogy was no longer a decisive factor in Halakhic discussions: follow the majority in all, in life and good, in death and evil, in white fire and in black. Secretly the Man who Laughed wrote down the arguments from their daily heated debates and arranged them into a system. He knew about the informal ban on such writings: no written word should compete with the Book. However, he had to do it if he wanted to win; he could not bow each time to the statements which his main opponent, the leader of his arch-rival school, a priest, pronounced in the name of his ancestors. Later he would declare these oral traditions spurious. His disciples would crystallize in writing his vision of the Law and later generations would learn the Law from their books. He had only to be patient.

Time, times, and a part-time. Now it was his time, that’s why he laughed. In fact, he knew that he would win: everything was predestined. However the Holy One, blessed be He, was capricious and awarded them with freedom of will: to win or to lose. He understood it very well, invoking a verse from Isaiah and leaving a small problem for those who liked to solve puzzles. He said that he tied together the prophecies of Uriah and Zechariah. The former claimed that Jerusalem will be a ploughed field and the latter promised that old men and old women will sit at her broad streets. Until Uriah’s prophecy had been fulfilled, Zechariah’s prophecy had to remain unfulfilled. But now he clearly saw that first prophecy was fulfilled and thus believed that the second prophecy would also be fulfilled.

The Man with the Mustache nodded and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he slowly stood up and scraped his feet toward the restroom but suddenly changed his route and stealthily came back to the desk.

There he behaved somewhat strangely. He turned the lamp down and crept along the wall to the window. There he slightly caressed the edge of the curtain and suddenly ripped it aside with all his force. The moon, big and yellow as the pile of Russian blini with which his mother used to greet him coming home from the seminary, stood in front of him pressing the window from the outside. His upper lip snarled up to a crooked yellow smile, he stretched his palm forward as if inviting the moon in, then suddenly grasped the handle and tried to open the window. He furiously pulled the handle and the moon, the full moon of the Jewish month Kislev, ironically smiled at his efforts with a lopsided smile. On that day the light of the Moon will be as the light of the Sun and...

The rustle behind his back scared him. He jerked his head back: the bald secretary, disturbed by the noise and anxiously winking, looked out of a half-open door. The Man with the Mustache grinned, left the handle, and dancing with short 3-step “oom-pa-s” came toward the door. There he lurked in the shade behind the door, then slowly angled his body and tickling the secretary’s ear with his mustache whispered without his famous accent: You have a bad job, Vasilii, you do not sleep at night. Do you want to change it for a more quiet one? He saw horror on the secretary’s round flat face and to prevent any unnecessary words added: idi spi, Vasilii, go to bed. He stood before the closed door for a while, then made a movement to find his pipe and saw blood coming from under his nails. He thoroughly cleaned his hands by scratching them over his military jacket, then abruptly came back to the desk and quickly turned over a few pages as if looking for something familiar. The rest he read while standing.

The Man who Laughed waited: his explanation was not too sophisticated and, of course, many things could be said against it, too many: his comrades were learned men. However, to reject it now meant to reject his laughter, to reject his right to stand here, to reject him, a convert. It meant going back to the old oligarchic system, which was sustained by the Temple and which lay in ashes before them...Besides, he played according to the rules which they had welded together during the long debates in Yavneh, rules destined to become the Oral Law - the law which would mold the nation together in time of distress, which would be its spine and language, its burden and joy, its blessing and curse... He waited...The old blacksmith embraced him: you comfort me, my son, you console me. His comrades were too old or too pious to fight. He won. And he shall open and none shall shut. And he shall shut and none shall open... Later he mentioned a few halakhot in the blacksmith’s name with a note that in the case of machloket between the blacksmith and the obese Levite, the Law will follow the former.

The Man with the Mustache closed the volume, sat down and nodded a few times: well done. He appreciated the irony of the Man who Laughed: the first prophecy referred to the time of the First Temple, while the second referred to the time of the Second. Both could be considered as fulfilled, Jerusalem knew despair and desolation under her Babylonian conqueror and then her high hour under Herod the Great. He smiled: he had solved the puzzle, he had not played chess in the seminary, he had studied hard preparing himself for a career as the servant of the Holy One. His mother was right in asking him to study further: after all, the priesthood is not a bad job, in fact, it could be his destiny. He sat up straight: the spirit of prophecy rests on the wise, strong, and tall. On those who won battles. On those who are buried in the sight of thousands. It was for him to complete the prophecy, he would stand in the row of the ancient prophets and messiahs. In fact, his coming was already announced by a prophet. Time, two times, and half-time. Now it was his time.

Smiling, the Man with the Mustache reached over the table, pulled out the lower drawer and with his right hand groping in its depths, found a small box. Opened it. The yellow, moon-like spot on the stone which formerly belonged to the last Persian shah grew bigger and bigger, displaying something which was visible to him alone, certain letters or words. He whispered them quietly, then carefully hid the box back in the depths of the drawer. Closed it. Then he pulled the bell. His secretary entered carrying a salver with tea and a few cookies, put the food on the edge of the table and stood straight, ready to write. He looked at the secretary for a while without a wink, having stopped breathing as he always did when somebody offered him food. Then he ordered a message sent to his man at the UN (what is his name? Ukrainian?): the Soviet Union demands historical justice be served and the land be restored to the people of Israel.

Remaining alone, the Man with the Mustache slightly dipped the cookie in the tea and sucked it, then stuck the pipe under his mustache and slowly made a few circles around the room. He stopped near the big globe on the low stand near the desk and touched it with the tip of his finger. The globe, painted mainly in two colors, green and red, began obediently to rotate. He patiently waited, looking at it with a yellow-toothed smile; after a minute he stopped the globe with a slight touch. He had punched his short finger into the point in the midst of the red, singled out by red five-stroke star, then carefully following an imaginary line between two meridians, made a trip to the south until his uneven yellow fingernail completely covered a green narrow strip near the Mediterranean. He tarried for as minute and then with his fingernail suddenly tried to scrape the green color off the strip. Unsuccessfully. Then he went to his bed, slyly casting a look around, took from under the mattress a small switchblade knife and after turning it for a second in his hands pricked it into the globe, accurately cutting of the green strip. He looked at it for a while holding at his palm, then by some reason smelled it and tried to scratch the green color. After this desultory examination he yawned, tiredly walked to the restroom, threw the strip into the toilet and flushed.

[1]       [2]       [3]       4
Image: Bara Sapir, Tablets

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From previous issues:

Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Joshua Axelrad

Zionism and Colonialism
Michael Shurkin

Skepticism Does Not Exist
Jay Michaelson