Scene: Midtown Bar near Grand Central Terminal, Manhattan. Jukebox Music. Noise. Post-5 pm, the after-work crowd. Mostly twenty-and thirty-somethings, in no hurry to catch the subway home to Brooklyn or Queens or the train to Long Island. A sixtyish man, hair dyed fashionably, temples graying, turns to the man at his side. He is lonely, in a lonely, faceless City, wanting only someone to talk to.
Can I buy you another, Stranger? That John at the bar is a friend of mine—
“John! Can you get this guy another drink? What’s that, my friend? Stoli rocks? OK, John? Thanks, Buddy….”
My name? Ben. Ben Kohelet. Strange name, no? It’s Greek, I think; maybe Turkish. From the Middle East. Big mess out there, these days (drinks deeply). Mm…. John! Get me another Glenlivet, would you? Water side. (To the Stranger:) Single malt. The only way to go. Go in style. Yes.
What do I do? A little of this, a little of that—stocks, mostly. Hedge funds. That, and some day trading. “Have to be nimble,” as my Old Man told me. My Old Man? I doubt you’ve heard of him, but he did very well. Solomon Koenig was his name. Zalman, really, originally. A refugee, from Germany. Got out, just in time. Made it to this country, thank God; went back in the US Army, and fought in Europe. After the war, started with nothing, but, I suppose, his God was with him. You never know (drinks); you just never know.
Myself, I took what he left me, and I built on it. I was lucky; many were not. Lucky and smart. My generation, first beatniks, then hippies, wanted to seek the Higher Truth; I wanted something else, but I didn’t know what. I took my father’s legacy—it was mostly stocks, the usual stuff, and more than a few good ones—but, more than that. He was a survivor, in more ways than one. He had, despite my tendency toward bookishness and inwardness, given me a very, very practical education. He sent me to the finest universities and business schools. I was a good son; I listened; I didn’t rebel; I just went.
What is that song from the box, that they’re playing now? “Love for Sale”? Yes: in this world, I suppose that everything, including Love, can be a commodity….
But I digress. Because I was able to take my inheritance and add to it, I decided to conduct a sort of experiment. What is really important in Life? I asked myself. Just that day, back in the 1980s, in midtown Manhattan, there at the wheel of my Porsche—I could well afford a chauffeur, mind you, and did not mind using a service when I was en route to a business meeting, but I considered it to be something daring and sporting in driving myself through the concrete canyons of my native city—ha! Well, that must be the scotch talking—I found myself stuck in traffic, behind a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit—I did love them, and owned a few, in my time. But then I saw it, all the gimcrack idealism of the 20th Century, on display on a bumper sticker, on the back of the Rolls-Royce, like a little, cosmic whisper from the Universe:
He Who Dies with the Most Toys, Wins.
–so I decided to see whether that was true, or not. I set out, the next day, which was Saturday—my Old Man’s holiest day of all—how odd that, in spite of his having been persecuted, hounded, and almost killed for his faith, he nonetheless kept the traditions, the best he could! I don’t mean Orthodox, but—well, Conservative, I suppose. Never mind: where was I?
I got up early and traveled to far-off Connecticut, having deliberately looked for a town with a history of anti-Semitism—I found one, called Grover’s Corners. With my exotic name, I had no trouble finding a realtor, convincing them I was descended from some European minor royalty, and buying a country estate of considerable acreage. Over the next year, I bulldozed the ancient mansion there standing, and hired the same landscape architect whose great-great-grandfather had designed Central Park. On his recommendation, I hired another to design my country manse, a veritable palace which I christened (ha!) “The Retreat.”
This was my House of Merriment. I held parties galore; one who does business with many inevitably attracts both acquaintances (I had no true friends) and toadies. My music played into the night. I had matinees and soirees. I did forbid the use of drugs, but there were legal intoxicants, certainly. This went on for months. Months stretched into years.
But, in the end, I said of property, “What is that?” And of all those parties, “What do I need them for?” So I rehired the expensive interior designer, and ripped out the billiards room—I was never any good at it; I was no pool player. I put in a rich, dark-mahogany-paneled library instead—I like to feel and smell a book in my hands.
I bought Philosophy and Religion and Skepticism and Doubt. I read up on Stephen Hawking and the atheist Richard Dawkins and Maimonides, Rabbis Soloveitchik, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and all the Jewish denominations. It didn’t make me any more religious, though there was this little Reconformative—so they called themselves, or “Just Jewish,” though they were left-wing; how could they be anything else?—temple in Grover’s Corners. How they got there decades before, what with all that snooty local social racism, I have no idea, but the temple was established after the war, when America was feeling existentially guilty about the Jews. I met with the rabbi—a lovely young lady named Rebekah Noviss—several times. She was young and idealistic, and, even though I knew more than she did about several subjects—after all, I could have been her father. Still, her enthusiasm won me over. I started attending a few times a month.
Can I refresh your drink? No? Oh, you have to be going? And you have a question for me? “What’s the purpose of life?” Oh, that’s a big one….
Well, Friend Stranger—funny, I never got your name, but what does it matter? Let me think—
I know a lot of people. I’ve shaken a lot of hands. And now, I’ve read a lot of books, and even learned a few prayers, but also renewed my acquaintance with some prayers that my Old Man tried to teach me, years ago. My Old Man (sighs)—no; let me call him my Poppa, because that’s what I called him, years ago: Old Solly, Solly Koenig, Shlomo ben Duvid oo’Bas-Sheva, his name was—funny, how I remembered it, the first time that Rabbi Noviss called me up to the Torah in that little shul in Grover’s Corners! Ha! Go figure—and my name is Binyomin. Yes. Binyomin. “Son of my father’s right hand.” Yes. Good.
And what I’ve learned, Stranger, is that the rich and the poor, well—they may not all live the same, but they all die the same. And the only thing that makes a difference is the amount of good and bad that they—we—do in this world. The money we make—well, it’s all good, if we use it to do good. Sure, it’s good to help one’s family, and to ensure that one’s kids and grandkids are well-fixed (I don’t have any; I was too busy to find a wife, though I’ve had plenty of—well, never mind). But, in the end, it’s all—what did Poppa, and then Rabbi Noviss, call it? Mitzvote. Poppa called them Mitzvahs. Good deeds. Things to make you, and God, and the world, happier, or better.
Yes: better. The world is in bad shape; it’s broken. Make it better. One more sip, and then, off to home? Well, raise your glass once more, Stranger: L’chaim—To Life!