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Foebus felt guilty. He didn't want to hate Rabbi Shluggin. He knew that hatred was a sin.
As far back as he remembered, his mother taught him the mitzvah to love one's fellow Lubavitcher. But the taunts wounded him. The ruler across the knuckles. The boy understood that it wasn't personal -- Rabbi Shluggin was the same to all B.T.s. But that didn't remove the sting from the alien's slap.
He wrestled with his dilemma: If he left the yeshiva, his mother would be humiliated. She'd say he'd given into his yetzer horah -- his evil inclination. But approaching the administers with a problem was fruitless -- this was well known.
Foebus slumped forward on the desk, his face in his hands. But the sudden decrease in room light jolted him from his self pity. The chamber portal trumpeted a high-pitched whine, signaling that the headmaster had entered. Foebus sprang to his feet like a Pavlovian dog.
Rabbi Shluggin gazed out over The Hall of Learning. His fierce eyes traveled along the tight columns of uniformed students, all at attention, backs straight, eyes forward. Eventually he nodded and the boys dropped onto their stools.
From where Foebus sat, the rabbi's eyes were invisible behind thick-lens spectacles. Glasses had been obsoleted nine centuries ago, when Radial Keratotomy grew as common on Earth as aspirin. But the rabbi preferred the old ways. His father had worn glasses, and his father's father. Shluggin's sons would wear glasses, too. Tradition must be upheld, he said.
The rabbi adjusted the Borcillino hat, which sat like a crown upon his balloon-shaped head. His face had long ago abandoned its share of masculine good looks. It was a pity; for an Earther, he'd been a handsome young man -- tall, statuesque, with chiseled features and deep-probing eyes. But age lines now sketched a measured scowl, and high cheekbones were obscured by bloated jowls. His face no longer had character. It was just a fat face.
Shluggin spoke into the hidden wireless inside the lectern. His fleishic Yiddish resounded through the amphitheater.
"Tomorrow is the fourteenth of Iyar," Shluggin told the class of eighty-six B.T.s and seven Earthers. "To honor the Rebbe's arrival here forty-two years ago, classes will be replaced by outreach."
Foebus sighed. He was uncomfortable proselytizing to strangers, asking them to put on t'fillin and pray. But anything was preferable to sitting through Shluggin's class all day.
Shluggin straightened the tails of his black silken coat. "Ideally, one should wrap t'fillin on the B.T.'s top left arm," he said. "But wrapping the phylacteries on any of the man's four arms is sufficient. Says the Rebbe, the completion of our mission will hasten the coming of our righteous Moshiach."
Moshiach. The Messiah.
Two centuries ago, inhabitants of Tau Ceti IV had no concept of a Redeemer. Aside from sparse superstitions, the agrarian-based society had grown no religions. Hedonism was kept in check by an ethical code that held all life sacred.
Then the Lubavitchers arrived in their mitzvah ships. First in tens. Then in thousands. They had come, they said, on an errand of good will. Their mission: To spread the teachings of The Alter Krinsky.
The B'nai Tau were swiftly romanced by the pleasant, pink aliens. B.T.s enjoyed the exotic extraterrestrial tales, the hair-splitting philosophical debates over arcane legalisms, the corned beef on rye with a smear of mustard and half-sour gherkin. After two centuries, their culture was subsumed by Lubavitch. It was a bloodless revolution.
Moshiach. The Messiah.
The word caused Foebus to gaze upward. He stared absently at the magenta spires of the huge plexiform classroom. Near the circular ceiling stood the enormous holographic image of The Rebbe -- Grand Rabbi Shneur Zalman Yoseph Yitzchok Krinsky-Gutnik -- seventieth leader of the interplanetary Lubavitcher movement; spiritual lodestar and father figure to one-hundred-and-twenty million Lubavitchers throughout the galaxy. Lubavitchers believed the Rebbe himself to be the Moshiach, whom they had awaited since Moses gave the Torah on Earth forty-seven hundred years ago.
"Oww!" Foebus yelped as the pain shot through his ear.
"I asked you a question!" the rabbi shouted. He twisted the boy's lobe again. "Nu? Is this the only way to get your attention?"
It wasn't pain but humiliation that brought the flush over Foebus' pale violet cheeks. Tears welled up in his eyes. Several Earthers snickered.
"I'm sorry, Rabbi," he said. "I I didn't hear."
"You didn't hear?" Shluggin let go of the boy's ear and slapped the back of his head. "You never hear! That's the problem with you. I told you to give over the first paragraph of Kuntres Krinsky. With sources."
Foebus wiped back his tears. He took a deep breath, then recited the Yiddish words:
"It has been taught, 'Let the honor of your student be held in esteem by you as your own honor' (Yorah Daiah 242:33). Furthermore, our Sages explain that a teacher should not ridicule or use sarcastic remarks to his students. Rather, he should discipline them in a quiet, dignified, and positive manner (Bava Metzia 58b). This requires an explanation for it contradicts the Rambam's dictum that a teacher should instill fear into his students (Hilchos Talmud Torah 4:5; Ksubos 103b; Yorah Daiah 246:11). However, the matter will be understood after a preliminary discussion."
Foebus stared down at the fluorescent floor plates. He knew he'd been accurate, else he'd have savored another slap.
Shluggin turned his back and Foebus watched him waddle away. He didn't care what anybody said -- he hated the fat, red-bearded biped.
Hated his guts.
After five Earth-standard hours, lunch time arrived. Shluggin dismissed the class and ninety-two of the ninety-three boys ran from the room.
Foebus slowly ambled through the chamber door. His friend Yitzi waited outside. He avoided his classmate's eyes, choosing instead to stare through the translucent celoplex floor at the crimson sand dunes beneath.
"I hate that momzer," Foebus said, rubbing his still throbbing ear.
"Oh, Rabbi Shluggin isn't so bad," the Earth boy replied.
"Easy for you to say. He never hits you."
"That's because I pay attention."
"No. It's because you're Gezheh. You have roots."
Yitzi shook his head. "Rabbi Shluggin just has a reputation to uphold. My father says he's one of the best teachers in the galaxy."
"My father says Rabbi Shluggin takes wild, undisciplined boys and squashes them into real Lubavitchers."
Foebus scratched his back nervously with all four hands. He turned his gaze to the promenade. Thousands of B.T.s scurried to and fro. The panorama reminded him of a jar of potato bugs his father had brought back from Earth. After a moment, he looked back.
"Something's wrong here, Yitzi. Terribly wrong. You can't beat Torah into kids. It just makes them rebel like D'ooz." Foebus took a deep breath. "Torah should be taught with love."
"It is taught with love." Yitzi laughed. "My father calls it tough love. You're just not used to it."
It was nighttime in the boy's dorm. Foebus couldn't sleep. His ear had stopped aching, but not the memory.
It was a crime on Tau Ceti IV to strike a living creature. Even Vilshanskis -- the large, furry pets that resembled Earth walruses -- were protected from physical abuse. The People's Proclamation of Conscientious Prerogatives stated, "All creatures are sentient. Sentient beings have inalienable rights. The first right is to be free of pain."
Lubavitcher rabbis had a different code. They often displayed a flagrant disregard for planetary law and B'nai Tau culture. Many children were beaten in class. Never to the point of broken bones; just broken spirits.
After eleven years in yeshiva, Foebus had seen numerous B.T. children injured. Sometimes punishment came at the end of a belt. It was frequently the smartest boys, he observed, who received the harshest discipline -- typically for questioning the rules.
Of all the beatings Foebus witnessed, the worst was dished out to D'ooz. Although a B.T., D'ooz had been recognized as the best student in yeshiva. Even Earthers admired him. Foebus remembered the frail, older boy's peculiar complexion, and his keen mind for gemotrias-the Torah science of interpreting scripture via numerology.
One day, D'ooz suggested adding standard universal mathematics to the yeshiva's curriculum. Every student was excited by the prospect. But the motion was instantly dismissed by Shluggin.
D'ooz persisted. He urged the other students to petition Dathan Goebbelstein, chief administer, and quickly gained popular support. Within days, a document from the students demanded that math be studied.
The petition had several effects. For one, mathematics became the community's only topic of conversation for many weeks. D'ooz was also expelled from yeshiva. His family was put in Chayrum -- excommunication. But it didn't end there.
Foebus remembered sitting among the combined classes, the amphitheater filled to the rafters. It only lasted three minutes. Three minutes in which Shluggin beat the piss out of D'ooz. Literally. B.T.s often relieved themselves involuntarily when faced with danger. Shluggin had pummeled D'ooz without mercy. He left the B.T. battered and unconscious in a puddle of his own urine.
Foebus only saw D'ooz on one other occasion, some four years later. He was standing outside the yeshiva with his classmates when the older boy arrived. D'ooz was hardly recognizable. His expression, his eyes had changed.
Crouching low, D'ooz hid outside the parking hangar. After long moments, Shluggin arrived. He parked his autoglide in its designated spot and entered the building.
Moments later, D'ooz emerged; in his hand, a jagged knife glistened in the hangar's neon light. Then, with a viciousness uncharacteristic of a B.T., D'ooz slashed the auto's tires and ran.
Foebus lay in his tube thinking about D'ooz. The memories made his bladder twitch. He had a hard time falling asleep.
"Are you Lubavitch?"
Yitzi smiled at the man who had emerged from the deli. The B.T. returned the Earth boy's smile. He licked a spot of mustard from the corner of his mouth and nodded politely.
"Good," said Yitzi. "You get to do a great mitzvah today!"
Foebus watched as Yitzi produced a pair of two-inch black cubes from a velvet bag. He spoke nonstop as he unwound the leather straps attached to the boxes. "This is a splendid opportunity for you, sir. A wonderful opportunity. You're going to fulfill an important commandment." Yitzi didn't ask the man; he told him.
Foebus shuffled several of his feet. He observed closely as Yitzi helped the stranger wrap the t'fillin around his arm and recite the blessing.
A woman walking her Vilshanski halted to observe the spectacle. Several children also stopped.
Foebus adjusted his skull cap. He avoided eye contact with the onlookers. Instead, he watched the Vilshanski nibble a bug in its fur.
After completing the ritual, Yitzi removed the t'fillin and the stranger continued on his journey, but not before Yitzi gave him the standard three-minute lecture on the historical importance of Lubavitch over other arcane forms of Judaism.
"You'd make a great salesman," Foebus said. He leaned back on the dividing wall that ran throughout the promenade.
"A salesman?" Yitzi laughed his chirpy, unmistakable laugh. "Rebbe forbid."
Foebus straightened up. "What's wrong with salesmen?"
Yitzi didn't answer. He tucked the t'fillin back in their bag as his eyes scanned the promenade for another lead.
Foebus stared at his friend, who suddenly looked a great deal more alien than he had moments ago.
"You ever think about the future?"
"The future," Foebus repeated. "You ever think about it?"
Yitzi shrugged. "What kind of question is that?"
Foebus shuffled his feet again.
"You ever think about what you'll do after yeshiva?"
"You mean where I'll live?"
"No. I mean, what you'll do. For a job."
Yitzi tossed him a strange look. "Not really. Why?"
"My father was an agrologist. Expected me to be thoroughly educated. But when he died, my mother came to Lubavitch. Now she won't let me study technical sciences; insists that I spend all my time in yeshiva."
"Of course she does!" Yitzi said, somewhat indignant. "You have to have a Lubavitch education, don't you?"
"I would like a Torah education. But studying Torah shouldn't preclude other studies. The Torah itself says that a man must teach his son a trade. Maimonides was a doctor, wasn't he? The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe was educated in physics and math. But all that Lubavitcher yeshivas teach is Yiddish and the Alter Krinsky's Hassidus."
Yitzi's eyes flashed a momentary anger. He shook his head. "You know what you sound like? A Miznahged!"
The word stung.
It was just about the worst thing a Lubavitcher could call another Lubavitcher.
A Miznahged. An observant Jew who practiced Judaism differently than Lubavitchers.
The Miznahgdim had disappeared thousands of years ago, shortly after the ninth Rebbe outlawed all non-Lubavitch customs. Some said underground pockets still practiced pre-Krinsky Judaism, but that was just a rumor.
Foebus turned his back on Yitzi. "Why am I a Miznahged? Because I think about my future?"
"Because you talk like D'ooz."
Foebus felt his body tense. "Why is it every time someone doesn't behave like an android, it's attributed to D'ooz? Who did your people blame before he came along? Some of us have minds of our own! Some of us have free will!"
"You don't believe in Torah?"
"I didn't say that." Foebus whirled around. "Of course I believe in Torah. It's your rabbis I don't believe in At least, not ones who hit kids."
"So that's what this is all about." The smug broke out all over Yitzi's face. "A little potch and you B.T.s go all to pieces."
"You have it all wrong, Yitz. I'm just wising up to the fact that all Lubavitcher yeshivas produce are robots with one function-perpetuate the caste system. Let me ask you something: Have you ever read the words of The Baal Shem Tov?"
The forbidden name invoked instant anger. "Everyone knows The Baal Shem Tov was a Miznahged! And so are you!" Yitzi grabbed his books and his velvet t'fillin bag and stormed away. But Foebus went after him, caught Yitzi by the back of his shoulders and spun him around.
"Things aren't like they tell us, Yitzi. Listen to me. I'm your friend. This isn't real Judaism we're practicing. The Torah teaches us to love each other, but in this yeshiva, that's just lip service."
"My father is right! You B.T.s are meshugah! You should thank The Rebbe we're here to teach you!"
"I don't want to fight with you. I just want you to think about it, okay?"
"Think about what?" Yitzi's eyes were flame.
"About the way kids are treated here. About the Torah they don't teach us. About the fact that there's more to life than Kuntres Krinsky. If we don't get a rounded education, we won't be capable of doing anything except work for Lubavitch."
"What's wrong with that? My father works for Lubavitch. My grandfather worked for Lubavitch!"
Foebus stopped. He held his tongue. What had he been thinking? He couldn't expect a rabbi's son to understand. He couldn't blame Lubavitch-born-and-bred Gezheh for doing what they'd been programmed to do. It was his fellow B.T.s who were responsible for allowing matters to reach this point.
After a long silence, Yitzi was the first to regain his composure. He smiled and pat Foebus on the back as if nothing had happened. "It's just your yetzer horah, Foebus. You'll overcome it. Don't worry C'mon, let's eat lunch." Both boys began walking toward the deli. Foebus' eyes were downcast. His appetite was long gone.
"Besides," Yitzi suddenly added. "None of us will have to worry about making a living, soon. Moshiach is coming."
It was the seventeenth day of Iyar. The anniversary of the Rebbe's arrival had passed. But Moshiach hadn't come yet.
Foebus arrived early at The Hall of Learning. He stared down at his Kuntres and wondered if the rabbi would pull a surprise exam.
The room light decreased. The chamber portal trumpeted its high-pitched whine. But it wasn't the headmaster who entered. It was Goebbelstein.
Dathan Goebbelstein was the worst kind of Earther. Unlike Shluggin, who was congenial to certain B.T.s, Goebbelstein had no use for his purple "brethren." The Lubavitch outreach program, whose moneys he ministered over, was funded by contributions from wealthy Earthers, Neptunians, the Great Central Mines' conspirators, and settlers from Albie's Planet. B'nai Tau barely had a spare shekel. Their economic system was still based largely on fraternal barter.
Caressing a steel-gray goatee, Goebbelstein looked rather bored as he spoke into the wireless. He didn't bother to say good morning. He considered B.T.s beneath contempt.
"Despite my assurances that everything on this planet, and specifically in this yeshiva, is proceeding along the highest possible standards, the United Lubavitch Federation on Earth has asked that we survey the students regarding their comfort level. So I'm here to ask if there are any complaints."
Without moving his head, Foebus rolled his eyes over the students around him. No one flinched.
"Well?" Goebbelstein looked over the amphitheater. He seemed disappointed at the non-response. "I guess I am to assume that everyone here is happy."
There was nothing. Only silence.
"Very good," Goebbelstein concluded. "I also have another bit of news. Rabbi Shluggin has been promoted. He is now the Chief Lubavitcher Rabbi of all Tau Ceti IV. Effective immediately, you will refer to him as Your Eminence."
Goebbelstein's remarks were punctuated by explosive applause from one corner of the room. Foebus glanced at the Earthers who had risen to their feet and were clapping wildly. Yitzi applauded the loudest. Some B.T.s were also beginning to stand. Foebus rose slowly on all fours.
As if on cue, the lights dimmed again and Shluggin entered the room.
Foebus studied his teacher. Shluggin stared back. He was quite obviously disturbed. Indeed, Foebus watched as the rabbi began to grow furious. The boy's heart pounded as the fat Earther ascended the steps in his direction.
Shluggin's eyes were ablaze; his cheeks flushed -- nearly as bright as his orange-red beard.
Foebus was about to ask the rabbi what was wrong when he realized he was the only one still standing. And applauding.
The slap in the face knocked him back into his seat.
"You mock me?"
Foebus looked up at Shluggin. He tried to apologize, but his throat tightened up like a vise.
"YOU MOCK ME?" the fat man screamed.
"No!" Foebus managed to squeak out just before the huge hand came down upon him again.
"No sir!" Foebus cried. Again the hand, this time in the mouth. Then the left ear. Then the mouth again.
"No sir?" Shluggin unbuckled his belt, then pulled the strap from his pants with a quick jerk. "No sir?"
"No Your Eminence!"
Foebus did not feel the sting of the belt when it struck him across the shoulder blades. He was too embarrassed to feel it. But he heard it. Heard the crack of leather on his warm skin, which turned a deeper purple from the bruise.
He also heard the chirpy laughter.
It was Yitzi's laughter.
The B.T.s fell silent, mortified by the smell of urine. Foebus had gone into shock. He looked down at the puddle.
"Clean it up!" Shluggin demanded.
Foebus looked up at the rabbi. Tears poured down his cheeks. He summoned his last remnants of dignity. "I have nothing to clean it up with, Your Eminence."
"Then use your mouth," the rabbi said.
"Please, sir "
Foebus had no time to react. Not that he could have done anything. Shluggin was much larger. Shluggin was an adult. Shluggin was a rabbi.
The last thing Foebus remembered was the fat man landing upon him and shoving his face in the small puddle of urine. That's when he passed out.
It was a cold day on Tau Ceti IV. Far colder than usual. Scolding winds had blown in early that morning, kicking up an ominous dust devil of blood-red sand. Inside The Hall of Learning, it was only slightly warmer, but it was far noisier as the amphitheater buzzed with students. Classes were about to begin.
The room light decreased.
The chamber portal trumpeted a high-pitched whine.
It was a shrill sound. A siren. The headmaster had entered.
From behind a huge turret, the rabbi emerged. As he walked, he adjusted his Borcillino hat and straightened the tails of his long silken coat. He surveyed the students, who had risen like Pavlovian dogs.
He nodded. They sat.
"Tomorrow is the fourteenth of Iyar," Rabbi Foebus told the class. "To honor the Rebbe's arrival here sixty-four years ago, classes will be canceled. Instead, you boys will do outreach "
Rabbi Foebus stopped short. From the corner of his eye, he noticed someone walking in; a new student; one he didn't recognize.
"What is the meaning of this?"
The tiny boy looked up. "Of what, sir?"
"Your tardiness. What is your excuse?"
The boy smiled a warm, lavender smile. "I'm sorry, sir. I guess I overslept."
"Overslept?" Rabbi Foebus removed his belt casually as he walked toward the boy. "We don't oversleep in this yeshiva. There's plenty of time for sleep in the grave." Belt in fist, he raised his arm to strike the boy. The child didn't flinch.
"But rabbi," the little boy said. "There will be no more graves. There will be no more death. Moshiach is coming."
Rabbi Foebus froze as the words rang through his head.
Moshiach is coming.
Rabbi Foebus stared into the boy's eyes. He raised his arm higher. His muscles tensed.
Then he lowered the belt.
Moshiach is coming, he thought as he walked back to the podium. Moshiach is coming.
He felt a sense of contentment he hadn't known in years. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes. They were happy tears. Tears of relief. His first in so terribly long.
Moshiach hadn't come yet, but he would come. Any day now. Any second. And even if he didn't come, it didn't matter.
Foebus was happy now. He'd won the battle.
He'd beaten his yetzer horah. Conquered his evil inclination.
He was a Lubavitcher now, as respected and learned as any Gezheh.
Thank Gob Almighty, he thought. Thank Gob!
"If we only listen; if we only open our hearts;
if we only have the courage to break with the little people who lead us."
-- Meir Kahane
"I, Gezheh" © 1994 by Clifford Lawrence Meth. This version, the author's preferred text, was first published in STRANGE KADDISH: TALES YOU WON'T HEAR FROM BUBBIE. Artwork © 1994 Dave Cockrum. All rights reserved.
Posted September 27, 2002