By Michael Oren
Rabbi Shalom Hymowitz waited for his students to begin their weekly quiz before kissing the mezuzah and slipping out of class to the bathroom. Not that he needed to go but relished the break from responsibility, from the unbending rules and the need to enforce them on antsy ten-year-olds. Away from the Five Books of the Torah and sixty-three tractates of Talmud, the covenant and its endless fine print. All that disappeared in the bathroom. Instead of judgments and labyrinthine debates, there was porcelain and stainless steel. In place of prayers, silence. And a mirror that never lied.
Slope-shouldered and hunched, in the clunky black shoes that he was not required to buy but expected to wear, Hymowitz rushed down the hall. This was blissfully empty, not even a janitor in sight, and the door to Rabbi Gordon’s study was closed. This meant no raising of one massive eyebrow, no frown of mirthless lips that all but shouted, “what are you up to now, Hymowitz, shirking your duties? And you call yourself a rabbi.” No, thanks to the Holy One, blessed be He, there was no Rabbi Gordon. But neither was there Rivka. The principal’s modest-wigged, seraph-faced secretary who never had an unkind word for Hymowitz, who respected and even liked him, calling him Mori—“my teacher”—sometimes and others, quietly, Shalom. Who, for reasons known only to the Ruler of the Universe, became a widow exactly one month after the poor rabbi remarried.
He didn’t question it, no more than he did the fringes that dangled beneath his black suit jacket or the sidelocks curling from his temples. Hardship was a part of this world and the answers for it would have to wait for the next. His first wife, Breindel, whom he tenderly loved, cherished her fingertips and breath and the dreams she murmured about while sleeping, was taken from him before even leaving a firstborn. And now there was Pesha, penniless and irredeemably plain, quickly matched up with him with the hope that the two, though getting on in years, might still prove child-bearing. But Pesha found him unbearable, no great scholar but a mere teacher of fifth-grade boys, a man without pride or prospects, a joke in his own community. Pesha, whose name meant Daughter of God but also transgression, a crime that he apparently committed and for which he would endlessly atone.
He often thought about changing all that, walking home on winter nights from shul. Seeing people, Jews and non-Jews, who strode with an air of purpose, who’d surely be welcomed once they stomped snowy through their door and warmed by radiant families. He imagined a different home for himself, and a different profession. No more reciting the prophets by rote or re-enacting ancient disputes. He would leave all that and buy a little store, like the candy shop he passed by each night, with old Mr. Klein bent over the bins of suckers and caramels, toffees and pops. Rather than quizzes, Hymowitz could hand out sweetness to children, at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, rain joy.
But the dream disappeared once Hymowitz reached his own door and stepped inside to the cold. Fact was, he’d lost hope. A will and a conviction had snapped. Yes, he still drilled students in the laws of purity and defilement, holiness and the mundane, but cheerlessly. He still observed several hundred commandments and prayed three times a day, but without faith. The past was dead to him, his present and future lifeless. “Who is the rich man?” the Ethics of the Fathers asked, “He who is satisfied with his lot.” In which case, Shalom was a billionaire, not merely content but indifferent. Numb, impassive. If an earthquake suddenly struck just now, if the building split and swallowed him whole, the rabbi would not have felt discomfited.
The bathroom brought him relief from all that, not in the physical sense, though sometimes that as well. It was the one place where for a few stolen moments he could be himself by himself, without Rabbi Gordon or others in the community looking on, without Pesha or the memories of Breindel harrowing him, away from the temptation of Rivka. Just him and the sterile fluorescence. All light, absolution, and peace.
Butting with his shoulder, Hymowitz pushed through the door labeled Menschen. He knew immediately that he was alone. No need to peek under the stalls. The urinals unoccupied, yawning like giant fish. As usual, he washed his hands at the sink, but bathrooms being impure, refrained from saying the usual blessing. Here, alone, he was free from the need to thank the Lord who creates all things.
Instead, he gazed at his own reflection, at the undistinguished man of indeterminate age, pale, bespectacled, bearded but only wispily, eyes as small as his nose was long and misshapen. A rabbi only in name. He scrubbed that face hard as if to expunge it and groped for a paper towel. That’s when he heard the sound.
A faint croaking noise combined with a catlike purr. There was a presence as well, not of a student or another teacher or even one of the rodents believed to inhabit the pipes. He didn’t know how to define it—weightless, somehow, and dark. It didn’t so much surprise as terrify him to see looming behind his head in the mirror a pair of serpent-like eyes, garnet green, and unblinking. The pointy ears and even sharper teeth only added to his horror—that and the dragonfly wings.
“Shma Yisroel,” Hymowitz prayed, bathroom or not, believing this was death.
“Yeah, yeah, the Lord is One,’” a sibilant voice interrupted. “But one what, they don’t tell you. One huckster? One helluva guy?” Tiny horns, like quotes around a curse word, brandished. “And it’s all kind of a trick, isn’t it? I mean, if God is God then there’s only got to be one of him, not three, not four hundred. One.’”
“Hilul HaKoydesh,” Hymowitz gasped.
“Blasphemy, my ass,” came the chortled response. “You don’t even believe in me.”
Hymowitz glared, uncertain whether to be frightened or contrite. For no, he did not believe in what his eyes were registering, even in the unflickering neon, in the mirror that told only truths.
“You don’t believe even though the books you’re teaching out there tell you to.”
“No,” he nodded, so violently the yarmulke flipped off his head.
“Chagigah 16, Eruvin 18, Makhot 6. Need I go on?”
He nodded again, this time begging, but still the explanation continued:
“We’re responsible for epileptic fits and miscarriages, or haven’t you learned? We make you tired and wear out your clothes We live on roofs, under beds, in caper bushes. Be especially careful easing through palm trees—not so difficult, really, in Brooklyn. And we’re everywhere. A thousand of us on your right side, ten thousand on the left, according to the Babylonian Talmud. But, then again, you know how those Babylonians exaggerate.”
Hymowitz began to shake. He wondered if he were having what they called a nervous breakdown, the result of too much stress. He considered bolting out of the bathroom and scurrying back to his class, but the thought of Rabbi Gordon seeing him like this, deranged, paralyzed him. And Rivka.
“But, no worry, it’s easy to get rid of us. Refrain from eating or drinking anything in pairs. Repeat the word abracadabra. Or better yet, take the placenta of a firstborn black cat, burn it, grind the ashes, and rub them in your eyes—and you’ll see us! And hope the SCPA doesn’t hear.”
Hymowitz knew of the black cat passage, if not of the SCPA, but was still incredulous. He found himself staring at the fangs and triangular pupils, at a nose that was mostly nostril. The skin was hairy, the wings diaphanous. The bathroom smelled of ammonia.
“And I bet you’re familiar with our names as well, you chacham. There’s Asmodeus our king and his queen, Agrath. Ketev Me’iri active in summer afternoons and Ketev Yashud who prefers the mornings. Palga and Zereda and Lilith. Oooh,” the horns seemed to lengthen. “Lilith!”
“And you?” It was the closest Hymowitz had yet come to a sentence.
“Don’t make like you don’t know.”
“Shabbat 67,” the rabbi rattled off the tractates “Berchot 62, Gittin 70,” reluctantly.
He whispered the words like a spell. “Bir Shiriqa Panda.”
“Demon of the outhouse.” The pointy ears rose and fell in a bow. “At your service.”
“But this is not an outhouse…”
“Outhouse, inhouse, what’s the difference? It’s the place where everyone’s equal, same stink, no affectations, only solitude. And me.”
“You mean, I’ve never been really alone?” Without consulting the mirror, the rabbi knew he’d turned red.
“Of course, not. I’m here when you’re thinking how much you hate that shmuck, Gordon, and your farbissener wife. I’m here,” a reptilian eye winked, “when you dream about Rivka.”
“Don’t you dare!” His voice ricocheted around the tiles, no doubt reaching the hall.
“Nice face on her—those dimples, the upturned nose. Never guess she came from Flatbush. No wonder you’ve got that crush.”
“Why should you care,” a hirsute shoulder shrugged. “I don’t even exist, remember? The parting of the Red Sea, of course it happened! Manna from heaven, no doubt! But one little demon—forget about it.”
A strange sensation overcame Hymowitz. No longer fear or embarrassment, but something stronger. Remorse. “I’m sorry, it’s just that…”
“I’m no angel, I know. Scales instead of feathers. Harpies, no harps.”
“Why are you appearing to me now, all of a sudden? What have I done so wrong?”
Bir Shiriqa Panda laughed, though it came out more like a shriek. “I’m here to help you, yutz. Because I can’t stand it anymore the way you beat yourself up in here every day. The way you’re always—forgive me—demonized.”
“But what can you do for me, you, who only makes mischief?” Was he really asking this, Hymowitz wondered, to a spirit in the men’s room?
“Well, I’m not going to give you a miscarriage, if that’s your concern.” Another shriek, followed by a drumming of claws on porcelain. “But enough chitchat. It’s time we got down to work.”
Observers of Hymowitz over the next few weeks might have noticed the increased frequency of his quizzes and his furtive exits from the classroom. So, too, might they’ve seen his hunch disappearing, his shoulders raised and thrown back. Gone were the clunky black shoes, replaced by oxblood wingtips, and in the mirror his face looked flushed and symmetrical. He still prayed but now with intention and even his teaching improved. “Marry half of me,” he told his students, quoting a Talmudic hypothesis, “a man may say to his betrothed. But which half?” he delighted them. “The human? The beast?”
But no one noticed the changes in Hymowitz, certainly not Rabbi Gordon, emerging from his office only to sneer at him, and Pesha, who waited for him each night with words more fitting for a thief. “Where’ve you been, noch-schlepper? Not making a living, that’s for sure, not making yourself a laughing stock.”
Only Rivka seemed aware. The kindly widow adjusted her wig when she passed him in the hallway, called him Mori, and smiled. “Something’s got into you, Shalom,” she confided to him, softly, so Gordon wouldn’t hear. “You’re different.”
“Or maybe I’m me finally and that other person’s vanished.” His mouth stretched to unfamiliar dimensions, grinning. “Maybe I have a rabbi, too.”
Rivka smiled again, dimples deepening. Her upturned nose seemed to wriggle. “Well then tell him from me, he’s brilliant.”
He did, but Bir Shiriqa Panda was indifferent. “Just doing my job,” he snapped.
“But what is your job?” Hymowitz inquired as talons combed out his beard. “Why would God create you, of all things, to do this?”