By Max Sparber
18 September 2000
Although he was not recognizably human, in 1908 the old man was nevertheless recognizably Jewish. He looked as I imagine he must have looked for a thousand years. He was dwarfish and twisted, with long, gnarled limbs that grasped whatever they could clutch with a fierce clawing motion. His gray, matted beard and sidelocks met on the ground, where they tangled with each other and with the filthy fringes from his prayer shawl. He was small enough that my great-grandparents could fit him into an accordion case, and this is what they did, so that his moans and wheezing might be mistaken for the sound of wind running through an instrument's reeds. They carried him aboard the Lusitania, and my great-grandfather never let go of the accordion case, holding it to his side and whispering to it as they sat in steerage. When they eventually saw the Statue of Liberty, my great-grandfather kissed the accordion case and whispered to it, "Nyu York, Eliyahu, Nyu York!" The accordion case coughed and rattled back, unconcerned.
This is how the Jews brought the prophet Elijah to the New World.
My great-grandparents kept him under the sink of their tiny Brownsville apartment, feeding him dates and fortunes cookies, which he devoured -- fortunes and all -- by pulverizing the food against his gums with short, spastic jabs of his crooked hands. Elijah terrified the children, as a series of strokes had left him foul tempered, and he frequently flew into rages. His fits could last for hours, during which he would fling plates and silverware at my great-grandmother, who would do her best to subdue him by beating the prophet with a carpet whisk.
When my grandfather Jack was a boy, Elijah terrified him; every Passover, Jack was required to bring the old man a glass of wine, as tradition dictated. Jack knew through bitter experience that it was a bad idea to get too near the prophet. He recounted that one year he attempted to push the glass of wine across the floor to Elijah with a mop handle. The old man watched Jack warily, peering at him sideways through half-closed, yellow eyes, and when the mop handle got close enough Elijah lunged.
As they did every year, the neighbors stood outside in the hallway, ears pressed to my great-grandparents' door. When they heard Jack's screams, they gossiped, as they always did. "Ach, it is the Sparbers," they muttered to each other. "Every Passover it is the same. They beat their children! Ten times, once for each plague!"
While Elijah's temper seemed boundless, as years passed and the prophet grew older he quieted almost to the point of docility. My father does not like to discuss it, as he feels responsible, but the prophet's change in temperament came swiftly, with a tragic incident that occurred in my childhood home in Minneapolis.
My father owned a large German shepherd. Once when we were out, the dog got into the old man's crawlspace in the basement. We returned home to a house littered with clumps of hair and shreds of the old man's leather phylacteries. We found the dog and the prophet in the living room. Elijah lay face down on the floor with his arms splayed, looking very much like a rag doll that somebody had casually tossed aside. The German shepherd, growling and wagging his tail, pounced repeatedly at the prone figure and chewed at its leg. Madness still glowed in the eye of the prophet after that incident, but it was the madness of fear rather than the madness of rage.
Elijah grew very quiet, huddling against walls when we came near and fleeing into closets or hiding under beds when he was able. At night, we could hear his terrified voice whispering in Yiddish, the sound creeping up from his basement crawlspace through vents and emerging into our bedrooms as hoarse mumbling. These sounds unnerved me, and were the cause of uncountable nightmares. I would wake, screaming, and my father would come into my room and sit on the side of my bed, wiping the sweat from my brow with the back of his hand and telling me stories about the Messiah. When the Messiah came, he explained, there would be peace throughout the world. All the Jews would converge in Jerusalem, and God would slay Leviathan in the deep. God would spread the skin of Leviathan over Jerusalem, where it would hang like a great, glowing canopy. We would gather at tables to hear the words of the Messiah, we would eat the sweet flesh of Leviathan, and both would be more delightful than anything we knew.
"This is why the prophet Elijah is so important, Max," he would tell me. "It is Elijah that will tell the world of the Messiah's coming! He will go from door to door, knocking and saying, 'Gather your prayer shawl, gather your phylacteries! He is here! The Messiah is here!'"
However, by the time I entered college, I no longer ate meat, and I no longer hoped for a Messiah. I did not wish to go to Jerusalem and devour the flesh of Leviathan. It was at this time that I received the prophet, along with a pen set, as a gift to celebrate the onset of my adult life. I despised my responsibility for Elijah. I had no love for this man, who had been a burden on my family for too long. He was little more than rags and bones now, and he gave off a powerful odor that I could not inhale without gagging. I did not want to tend to Elijah.
I hid the prophet in the closet of my dormitory room, opening the door only long enough to fling scraps from my dinner plate onto him. I felt a mixture of guilt and resentment toward the old man. At night, when I would hear the voice of the prophet mumbling in Yiddish from inside the closet, I would close my eyes and secretly hope that God rejected those incomprehensible prayers. I imagined the words of Elijah rising to Heaven as wisps of smoke, and entering through the nostrils of God. I imagined God spitting the prophet's prayers out of His mouth as though they were filthy rags. Then I would sleep, and in my dreams, I would be terrified.
Elijah disgusted my girlfriend, who shared her dorm room with an easily shocked girl from Iran. This rendered neither of our rooms suitable for intimacy. We struggled to find locations to satisfy our desires, but every abandoned classroom or empty soccer field failed us. In the first instance, just as we were flinging our discarded clothes onto the chalkboard and front row of desks, a dozen first-year calculus students filed in and burst into embarrassed giggling. In the second instance, as we lay on the grass, furiously pawing at each other and gasping for air, a squad of cheerleaders stormed the field and stood above us, arms akimbo, demanding that we leave.
Unfortunately, my girlfriend's Iranian roommate never seemed to leave their dorm room, where she spent hours on the telephone speaking in rapid-fire Farsi. If we intruded during her conversations, she would stare at us from underneath her veil and her eyes would widen, followed by an inevitable high-pitched gasp. My girlfriend did not want to imagine how her roommate would respond if she witnessed us doing so much as holding hands.
My room was no better an option. No amount of discussion concerning Elijah made the prophet any less offensive to my girlfriend. She was not Jewish, and did not care one way or the other if he was a figure from the Old Testament. "Whoever he is," she would complain, "he needs to be in an nursing home. At least there they would clean him!"
Finally, in order to act on my lust, I decided to pay $50 to the two wrestlers who lived in the dorm room next to mine. I asked them to look after the prophet for several hours. When I left the old man with the wrestlers, he turned away from me and pressed his head and hands to the wall, shoulders rising and falling gently as he wept. The wrestlers seemed unconcerned. "He'll be all right," they promised me. "Go and take care of your lady."
While my girlfriend and I indulged our desires, the wrestlers fed Elijah beer and pizza. They turned their music up and danced around the old man, clubbing each other with their massive arms and howling. They went through their drawers and found their cheapest cologne, which they dumped on Elijah to cover his smell. They watched a pornographic movie with the prophet, smoking marihuana out of a six-foot plastic bong and blowing the smoke in Elijah's face. They used cigarette lighters to singe his beard and sidelocks, and they brought trinkets from their Hawaiian vacation out of their closet and decorated the old man with them. When I came for Elijah, two hours after I had left him, he was slumped on one of their beds with a plastic tropical-flower lei around his neck, a grass skirt around his waist, and a coconut-half bikini slung over his shoulders. He lay there, staring up at the ceiling, not blinking. One of the wrestlers lifted a tiki mug to me, toasting me with a tropical cocktail. "Hey," he said blearily. "Your grandfather is pretty cool."
The prophet was not breathing.
It took 20 minutes of CPR before paramedics produced a heartbeat. I visited Elijah every afternoon for a month, drowning in shame. I sat by his hospital bed and stared at the old man. I spoke quietly to him and grasped his hand, rubbing his dry, paper-like skin and praying he would come out of the coma. At the end of the afternoon, my father would join me, and we would go down to the hospital's cafeteria and eat dinner in silence. At first, I tried to apologize to my father, but he raised his hand to silence me. "It was too big a responsibility," he said, his voice breaking. "This is my fault. I should never have asked you to care for Elijah."
I would walk with my father to the hospital room, and he would take a seat alongside the prophet's bed. He would lean down towards the old man, whispering. "What now, Eliyahu?" my father would ask. "What now?"
My grades plummeted and my relationship with my girlfriend ended. I did not attend class, but instead wandered around the campus, filled with black thoughts. At night, I would watch the news, and I would hear of wars and murders, and wonder if it was not somehow my fault. What if the Messiah was ready to come, I wondered, but could not? What if the Messiah waited in Heaven, astride his white stallion, waiting for Elijah to announce him -- and because of my stupidity, that announcement would never come?
Unable to bear these thoughts, I drank, and the more I drank the angrier I grew. What sort of God, I asked myself, would keep the prophet alive in such a debilitated state? What sort of God would allow Elijah to grow mad and frail, so that a little bit of excitement might kill him? Was this my fault, I asked, or God's?
Drunk, I stumbled to the hospital. It was late at night, and the building seemed abandoned. I passed through the hallways unnoticed, as though I were in a dream, until I reached Elijah's room. I stood above the prophet and wept, wanting to press a pillow into the old man's face until he stopped breathing again. If the Messiah cannot come without this ruin of a man, I told myself, then the Messiah does not deserve to come.
I leaned over and pressed my lips to the old man's ear and, for the first time in my life, I whispered to him. "Gather your prayer shawl, gather your phylacteries," I whispered. "He is here!" Then I returned to my dorm room and slept without nightmares.
When I came to the hospital the next day, Elijah was gone. An orderly went through the old man's room, changing the sheets on his empty bed and spraying air freshener. On the floor, swept into a little pile, were half-eaten dates and fragments of a fortune cookie. From outside the room, from some distant hallway, I heard the moans and wheezes of an accordion.
(c) 2000 by Max Sparber