In the summer of 2009, on my twenty-fifth birthday, when I had drunk down all my disgrace and siphoned the vodka from my veins into the turquoise Vistula I was vouchsafed a miracle on my journey south from Poland, by Rabbi Low the great teacher of Prague, long deceased, creator of the protective Golem, that Incredible Hulk of clay, whom he animated with the word TRUTH. I was standing in the old Jewish cemetery of that newly rich Czech city passing the time of day among the tombstones which jutted this way and that like broken teeth when a young woman next to me with a Nikon camera slung around her neck bent to take a picture of the rebbe’s resting place, which was, like the Western Wall in Jerusalem, jammed in all its crevices with messages rolled up like joints, but which also featured flowers, unusual for a Jewish cemetery, on the tomb itself. She bent down, my raven-haired beauty, her skirt of a moment, with the sunlight behind her, diaphanous, and I saw right through to her gorgeous buttocks decorated and separated by only a thong. My penis, not so long ago circumcised (and still I might add a little tender) in its twenty-fifth year of existence, by courtesy of a grant from the great Jewish-American philanthropist Mr. Donald Fountain, who has provided us former Commie Jews with the wherewithal to bring ourselves into the covenant of our grandfathers, sturdily rose and disturbed the material of my Diezell jeans (purchased from a street vendor in front of the new Prada store on Parizska street) to such a degree that I was required to turn and make a quick adjustment. When I turned back my girl had gone. I thanked the rabbi and moved on.
What was I doing in Prague, aside from drinking gallons of Coca Light to replace my alcohol dependency with caffeine and an endless need to urinate? I was there to deliver a shipment of dolls: a small truckload of carved wooden Jews; happy Hassids with beards, hats and musical instruments: dolls so popular in Warsaw and Krakow that Pan Ossowski, my boss, thought that a breakthrough might be possible into the burgeoning Czech market. And so he negotiated for display space at a puppet store much loved by tourists beneath the Charles Bridge where our cheerful carvings could be set up under string-hung mini-Kafkas and large nosed, red-cheeked marionettes. Pan Ossowski borrowed a van from the Klezmer Hotel in Kazimiersz and sent me on my way.
The drive from Krakow, seven hours in all, took me through lovely hamlets, past forests and fields into the cradle of the old war where tree branches and wild flowers waved happily in the summer sun. There was a scent of earth and grass and despite the fact that when I stopped (many times) to urinate by the side of the road I had to take extra care with my zipper—too fast could bring a yowl of pain—I was ecstatic to be way out on the highway with none but the undulating birds, puffy white clouds and my iPod (donated to all of us by the Fountain Foundation, post-op, and packed with music by the great Jewish contributors to the history of American rock n’ roll) for company.
In Prague things only got better. I must have been doing something right (the circumcision!) because after only ten days in that tourist thronged hubbub the holy Rabbi Low performed another miracle. On Wednesday afternoon he brought my lovely from the cemetery back to me on the gray steps that descended to Charles Bridge Puppets and this time it was I whom she wished to capture in digital dots of information. Why? In my arms were not garlands or bouquets but two cardboard boxes full of my happy Jews. Their little carved heads, some with clarinets attached to their lips, poked out of the top flaps as their staring eyes took in the rippling wide Vltava and boats jammed with tourists that thronged its tranquil waters.
“If you give me your name and address,” Thong said after click, click, click. “I will e you the jpgs.”
Her accent was curled Czechy with a little trace of Polska, but she spoke in English.
“My name is Wolf Wilczyk,” I replied
“Wolf Little Wolf,” she translated with a smile.”Are you Native American?”
“No,” I replied, “I am a proud 21st Century Polish Jew, remnant of the lost and dispossessed, one of 1,500 Spartans before God who remain in our generally cold but hot in summer land.”
But even as I offered this boastful rejoinder, I remembered the scene in the movie The Indian in the Cupboard that my mother had brought back for me on VHS after a visit to her cousin Regina in Skokie, Illinois in 1995: Omri, the little boy, has the darkest conversation in the history of the world with his Indian friend Little Bear, who has come to life, like Rabbi Low’s Golem, after being a toy and now, after many adventures that the two have shared, he stands in the grate of a fireplace, ready to return for ever to the time of his time, which is in the days before the white man did his worst, days when the buffalo roamed and the deer and the antelope played.
“Tell me,” Little Bear says to Omri, “Does it go well for my people?”
Omri gets tears in his eyes and slowly shakes his head. How can he tell Little Bear the truth? How can he tell him what he knows?
I lied about the Vistula, it is not turquoise at all, but polluted, like an unpleasant brown god who has smoked too much, like the chimneys of the formerly Lenin steelworks at Nowa Huta that have turned fair Krakow black at the edges. I told this, or something like it, to Katya Krausova, a.k.a. Thong, when drinking in a bar that night (only Coca Light for me) not far from the poorly attended Kafka museum. We were in the middle of swapping partial life stories. Katya’s father plied the trade winds and skippered the yacht of a Russian oligarch while, down in the galley, her mother cooked up gluten free meals for the oligarch’s American friends, including, on one glorious occasion, none other than Mr. Donald Fountain. Katya had changed out of the transparent skirt but I was overjoyed nonetheless because all I have wanted in life since the circumcisional tingling set in on the tip of my penis, is to wash my hands in bright water and have a date with a captain’s daughter.
Outside the bar a dozen tourist English lager louts staggered about, glasses in hand and full of the mirth that attends a stag or football party. It was hard to know which celebration applied as they talked and sang equally about soccer and sex. To celebrate the occasion each man had dressed in the day-glo outfit of a different comic book super-hero. My Katya, never apart from her digital Nikon, could not resist the opportunity to capture the rowdy event. However, when Batman and Robin saw what she was up to they told her in no uncertain terms where she should go and what she should do with her camera. Luckily, The Flash intervened on KK’s behalf and, hands touching hands, reaching out, reaching out, we were able to beat a speedy retreat back across the river to the seductive sanctuary that is the Pachtuv Palace Hotel.
Up in Katya’s room, I worked hard to release her breasts from a restraining order imposed upon them by a tight brassiere. The feat accomplished, pink nipples revealed and my darling’s hand at my belt, I had to do some restraining of my own.
“Gently, gently,” I said, “I am recently done unto. But for a good cause.”
“Goodness,” Katya said when her extrication was complete, “The redfulness is most terrific.”
Later she told me that she had had been imitating her former boyfriend Mihir, an IT mogul from the populous city of Mumbai.
I won’t go into the pain of our condomic disasters (think unroll over terrific redfulness) suffice to say that Katya was as kind and gentle as she could be in substituting her delicate and deceptively small mouth (fangs recessed) to provide delight and hurt not.
In early morning she flung open the windows and a breeze flying south from Kafka’s boring castle crossed the river and ruffled the white gauze curtains of our room.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Time for you to go,” Katya replied.
No man can leave a beautiful naked woman standing in front of white gauze curtains. I looked across the pillow. One of my smiling, bearded Jewish friends was sitting there, sunk in goose down, playing his instrument. Katya must have retrieved him from the pocket in which I always carry a sample.
“Come back to bed,” I urged, “For while the Stoics and most particularly Philo of Alexandria believed that circumcision reminds the Jew to engage in intercourse not for pleasure but for procreation and Maimonides saw it as imprinting the memory of pain and thus constraining that unruly organ, neither is in fact the case.”
I had been quoting by heart from the pamphlet The History of Your Procedure issued to all of us in Outpatient at the Krakow General Hospital with compliments of the Fountain Foundation.
“Believe me,” I continued, “All this suffering and sexual purity symbolism is nonsense for not only does circumcision reduce the risk of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases but also it increases the gasps, whoops and yells for both partners.”
“And Klezmer music flies out of my butt,” Katya said.
Was this the young woman who only hours earlier in the wan Prague moonlight had gasped and yelled in a state of high rapture as I plucked her thong like David’s harp? It was. She refused to climb back under the sheets.
But the Jew on the pillow had given me an idea: enough with sales and the stringy world under Charles Bridge. For the truth was that while we had sold four Hasid fiddlers on day one of our operations (the base was carved like a roof) ever since there had been nothing but a big zero. It was clear to me that of all the world’s peoples only Poles truly love their little wooden Jews! But here is what came to mind while Katya struggled into her form-fitting jeans. All over Facebook Poland there were jpgs of stolen gnomes and other ornaments, removed from their habitual residences to travel the world in the luggage of their backpacking larcenists. They would re-appear from Machu Picchu to Red Rock Australia, usually alone, sometimes accompanied: ornaments and their thieves, smiling and stoic, or some variation of the same.
My dream, my new vocation, was to transport my wooden Jews all over the European Union. I wanted to show them the sights: the ironworks of the Tour D’Eiffel, the ruins of the Coliseum, Buda and Pest, the sparkling Danube, the great cathedral of Köln, bookstores in Bucharest, the Parthenon with its missing Elgin marbles, a cobbled tow path by an Amsterdam canal, the new Berlin with its art galleries and up to the minute eyeglass centers, operatic Vienna and on up, by train and boat, to Norway’s chilly fjords.
Katya kissed me sweetly on the forehead.
“Stay as long as you like,” she said, “But checkout is at noon. I needs must run.”
These are the days of miracles and wonders, I thought. Her camera was around her neck on a short strap, bumping between her breasts where I would have liked my face to be.
“Is this goodbye forever?” I asked, ventriloquizing my little Hasid while he sat in the palm of my hand.
“We will see what the gods have in store for us, and in the meantime I suggest natural Licochalcone for your redness relief.”
I checked out of my tiny room on Celetna Street near the famous cubist House of the Black Madonna (no relation to the famous kabbalista). Most of the boxes were still in my van.
“Here we go boys,” I said.
I connected my iPod, turning it over to make visible the note that Mr. Fountain’s kind assistant Janis had affixed to the back of its plastic cover.
“WHEN YOU GET TO THE END BEGIN AGAIN!”
WhamBamIslam I set off down the road, rocking and rolling. Somewhere in the countryside near the border with Slovakia it came to me that what I needed was some women and children Jews to accompany my lonely musicians. No wonder no one was buying. I stopped along the way for Coca Light or, in the primitive places that didn’t stock it, for other far less satisfying non-alcoholic beverages. To the jaundiced eye all I had was a load of kitsch to deposit, but I didn’t see my mission that way.
“Come on boys,” I said, “I’m taking you home. You won’t believe what’s happened since you’ve been gone.”
Close to Bratislava, in Poprad, I took out 99 wooden Jews and set them up in a pleasant wooded area near the train station. I could almost hear their music! No one was around. It was dusk and there was an autumnal chill in the air. Nevertheless I took off my clothes and began to leap and dance like King David before the ark of the Lord. The red tip of my penis glowed like a burning cigarette. O woodcarvers, O Katya, night comes on and it is cold, cold, cold, but I swear this journey is better than going the other way, and far, far better than being lost in the rain in Juarez at Eastertime, sick as a dog, with even your best friend the doctor withholding his diagnosis.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of seven books: the novels The Hiding Room (Viking, 1994) and A Palestine Affair (Pantheon, 2003), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, two collections of short stories, Schoom (Penguin, 1993) and An Ambulance is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble (Pantheon, 2004), two critical works on the fiction of Saul Bellow, and most recently a biography, Marc Chagall (Nextbook/ Schocken, 2007), runner-up for the 2007 National Jewish Book Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The Best American Short Stories, among other publications. In 1994 he received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. His fiction has been translated into many languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Chinese. He is Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, professor of English, and director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University. (updated 4/2012)