Rabbi ! had been working on his laptop, preparing a sermon for next Shabbat. He could only get so far typing text into a box. At some point he had to speak. No sermon is complete unless it’s spoken and no sermon is delivered to the congregation on Shabbat unless it’s complete. Therefore, all of us at the Epiphany Cafe were accustomed to previews of the laughing Rabbi’s sermons whether we liked it or not.
He shouted out to everyone, and no one in particular. “Guess how old I am. Go on. Guess.”
A few took a chance on some guesses. No one wanted to guess a number too high.
“Ha! You don’t know, do you? It’s a simple question, is it? But there’s no simple answer.”
We waited for it. We knew a well delivered sermon requires a sense of timing.
“It’s been sixty-two years since my birth,” he dramatically declared, “but the atoms in my body have been around since the Big Bang; or longer, if you believe there were previous Big Bangs before ours. Therefore, I am, simultaneously, sixty-two years old and six billion years old.”
We were glad he finally told us, so we didn’t have to continue to guess.
“An ancient piece of granite, having spent most of its life entombed far below the crust of the earth, and only brought to the surface after continents collided and glaciers eroded, is my contemporary. A star I see in the sky, which may have been extinguished millions of years ago and sent out its light as a last breath, may have been a companion of mine in my nursery. The dinosaurs were my playmates. The saber-toothed tiger my first friend. My atoms are an old deck of cards, shuffled and reshuffled by riverboat sharks, cut by saloon sharpies, and folded in Caesar’s Palace. I am as old as the universe.”
None of us thought he looked a day over fifty-nine.
“Not all of my organs are the same age. A healthy liver is younger than a failing heart. Of all the parts of my body, my head is the oldest. My hair turned gray long ago. My hearing and vision aren’t as sharp as they used to be. I no longer have a sense of smell and I have to remember what something tastes like if I’m going to enjoy food at all.”
He laughed at this part, even though it wasn’t funny.
“My brain may be the same brain I was born with, sixty-two years ago, but it looks far different than it did when it was a brambling bush. There used to be dozens of alternate routes I could take to arrive at the same thought. There used to be a capacity to retain languages, names, numbers, and facts. It has since been pruned. The meandering byways have become a superhighway you get on and, once you do, you can’t find an exit….”
He lost me there. He could prune that part and the sermon would be better.
“Further down, my fingers, which have inherited my mother’s arthritis, are just starting their progression towards rigor mortis, even though I haven’t died yet. My abdomen, which used to be as tight as a drum, has begun to sag; but my legs are the same as they were when I was a teenager, running on the high school track team. I have aged from the top down.”
Aged from the top down. That’s good, we said. That’s a good line.
“…My brain may be sixty-two years old, but my mind is as old as the people who’ve influenced me. I’ve read the words of Moses so much that they’ve become my own. I’ve borrowed the faith of Abraham, the patience of Job, and the dedication of David, although I always seem to misplace them when I need them. Every time I feel myself in exile, the poetry of Isaiah comes to my lips. Thus so, with Shakespeare, Thoreau, Homer, Sartre, and Proust. You can hear Melville’s rolling rhythms in my rhetoric, Blake’s incisive insights in speech. When I yelled at my kids, it was my mother’s voice I heard. When I open my mouth, my father’s bad jokes come out. Everyone thinks they’re mine, but they’re older than me.”
By now, he was on a roll and looked like the end wouldn’t come soon. A sermon in a synagogue was one thing, a sermon in a coffee house, quite another. Some were beginning to get restless. The High Street Witch, having said a cruel thing to her brother, left the cafe. A new customer came in and gave her order. The Lisping Barista foamed some cream. The Geeky Guy, deeply affected by the mean thing his sister said, stared vacantly into space.
“I’m as old as these greats and as young as the Millennials I chat with on the internet. My music is Boommerish, my movies from Generation X. Like many Jews, I feel I’ve just escaped the death camps, and may, just as easily, be sent back. When I see a low-flying airplane, it’s 9/11. When I go to the town where I was born, I’m a child again.”
You might not know it to look at him, but the Geeky Guy was about to demonstrate the Rabbi’s point about the variability of time. Although his body inhabited today, while he stared into space, his mind was returning to when he was no more than eleven, when his parents died in a terrible accident. His mother’s decapitated head was about to land in his lap.
“According to Jewish tradition, I was present when Moses came down from Sinai, thousands of years before I was born. I heard the roar of the Almighty’s thunder and saw the glint of the inscribed tablets.”
Whenever the Geeky Guy remembered the accident, it was never in story form so that he could convey it from beginning to end. He tried several times with the Therapist Emeritus, but was never successful. Flashes of memory. The same every time. Like stills, rather than video. No sound. A series of images. No transition between. Never in a chronological order. His rescue might come before he reached for his mother’s head and cradled it in his arms. The impact itself would occur before he saw the tractor-trailer skid ahead of them. It felt like he was accelerating into the images till they crowded around him, pressing from all sides. Trapped. Occasionally, he would burst free of them by desperate means of what was, for him, some outrageous behavior: punching a pillow, snapping at someone who didn’t deserve to be snapped at, or going for an awkward run, elbows flailing, until he collapsed into a heaving heap when he couldn’t run any longer. Usually, he curled into a ball and cried, unaware of the passage of time. His sister would call into work, both for him and herself. As mean as she could be, she would sit and stroke his head for hours. Sometimes days would pass until he fell asleep. When he woke up, the images would be gone.
“The most literal-minded among you might be asking, how can I be two places at the same time? How can I be at Sinai with Moses and G-d, while simultaneously sipping coffee in a modern cafe? I’ll tell you how. I do it the same way I can be simultaneously sixty-two and six billion years old. The way my hair can age faster than my thighs. The way everyone from Homer and Heraclitus to James and Joyce can share their mind with me. Our conception of time is like a poor translation, or a blueprint ignored by the builders, or instructions written by foreigners that cannot teach you how to assemble an entertainment center.”
The Rabbi had raised his voice during this last part, to build emphasis. He paused again to build drama, although it seemed like I, alone, was listening to the Rabbi’s sermon. Outside, the Waving Man waved, as he had been doing as long as anyone remembered. The Therapist Emeritus demonstrated unconditional positive regard for the zoophile even though she didn’t like what he did with gerbils. The Lisping Barista put up a non-fat cappuccino. Chai Latte sipped a chai latte. The Geeky Guy sat in a smashed car in the middle of the café.
I was about to enter the debate, arguing that it is not our concept of time that’s the problem, but the construct of the self. I don’t know if rabbis ever want their sermons to become debates. They may say they welcome dialogue, but I suspect they don’t. At any rate, that’s not why I didn’t speak up.
The Geeky Guy was just about to have a full fledged flashback. If he had, he would’ve run out of the cafe, missed his date, and returned to the arms of his sister, as always. Something unexpected happened, though.
The Lisping Barista had just finished her shift. She took off her apron and went up to the Geeky Guy. He didn’t notice she was behind him. She spoke and he jumped.
“I’m thorry I thartled you,” she said.
She placed her hand on his shoulder.
The Geeky Guy breathed hard and said it was OK.
No developing flashback is so bad that a pretty girl can’t save you. She talked about music playing overhead that he’d not been paying attention to. She knew the band.
“Thpellbinding Fith Fry. I uthed to follow them. Ith all peath and love and underthanding. They’re playing up in Mathachuthetth tonight.”
He didn’t understand a word, but that didn’t stop him from saying, “Sounds good.”
Then she said words that changed everything. The most catalytic words since she said yes.
“Hey, I know, let’th go.”