Petah Tefilla is the town that Socrates Cooper was living in and this was where he met Mr. Fuss. After praying one Friday evening, they were guests at the home of Uziel Applebaum. The Applebaums were Socrates’ favorite Shabbat meal hosts and he used to enjoy eating there both on Friday night as well as Saturday afternoon. They’d sing hassidic songs and when they were drunk, they would bang on the table like it was a huge drum placed in the center of the circle. Uzi would have a bottle of vodka and a bottle of whiskey, tasty wine, and sometimes there were two or three bottles of beer there too; green bottles and red bottles.
Plastic disposable medicine cups — the kind they give you in the hospital with two pills inside — were set up and filled for Uzi and his guests at frequent intervals throughout the meal. They’d eat fresh salads, spicy fish, soup with croutons and then the main dish. Uzi had three young boys and the middle-aged boy would sit on his totty’s lap and read his cute assignment which he had prepared in school that week.
Socrates did not choose randomly to live in the town. At the time, he was waiting to hear back from the army about what he would have to do not only to join the Israeli Defense Forces, but also what his job would entail once accepted, and the work he found in the meantime brought him to the temporary residence of the apartment in Petah Tefilla. He saw a therapist whom his mother connected with through the Christian therapist in Manhattan whom his mother had him see. The Israeli therapist lived in Ramat Aviv, just five minutes by bus from the Tel Aviv city center, but about an hour and fifteen minutes away from Petah Tefilla. Socrates would have to take two buses to get there. The therapist was about five feet tall and South African; he was impressively fluent in Hebrew and most of his patients were secular Israelis. He chain smoked in the house and in his office during sessions. One day, he tried to have Socrates hypnotized. “Lie down on the couch and shut your eyes:
Close your eyes and breathe long deep strokes of breath. Imagine an empty white house. A plane white corner with nothing in it. Now walk up the stone stairs all the way to the upper room with the window that looks out at the deep green field, sprawling yards of lush greenness, accented by simple slopes.
You will not be intimidated by your father’s success any longer. You will achieve spiritual independence. Count 25, 24, 23, 22, now open the door and gaze out at the beach. Feel the soft sand under your toes. Is it hot? Is it cold? I think it shall be hot.
Now return to the staircase and take the steps slightly sloped upward, across the catwalk. Is it an elevator? More steps 27, 26, 29, 19 ignore the green crates. You will stop smoking cigarettes. You will smoke your last one and throw it away because of the taste. Return to the corner <CLAP!>
Socrates faded back in, still lying there on the couch. He had not quite been asleep, but had been listening to the doctor’s orders. He sat up and forgot instantly what the doctor had said.
“That’s it for the session.”
“But we still have five minutes.”
“No, we are five minutes late. Sorry” he said now standing up and opening the door, “It is time for our next patient. Same time same place next week?”
“Sure” said Socrates.
The short, British-talking doctor helped him through the army process and helped him fill out an application to go to university. This was shortly after the release from his year-long stint in the army — which was more like one week of training and one year of house arrest.
Well, he was waiting to begin school at the Old American University in Jerusalem when he was all but adopted by Uzi Applebaum and Izzy Kirschenbaum, as part of the Chabad congregation there in Petah Tefilla. He went to this home often — that is the Applebaum home — but on that particular night, Fuss joined them. Fuss also joined them at the Applebaum’s the next day for Shabbat lunch, but he was much more withdrawn than he had acted on Friday night and it seemed as if he were not feeling well. Not the kind of sick where your skin turns greenish-yellow and you look as if you are about to fall out of your seat and die. But a subtle uneasiness could be felt by his presence.
From then on he saw Fuss frequently, usually at the synagogue. When it was time during the liturgy to sing, or recite the prayers aloud, he carried his voice the loudest and sang in a deep overpowering falsetto. Everyone took notice. Right away I noticed it: the element of grace which was missing from his presence — well, not such a lack of grace as an acute self-consciousness; like he had been a very graceful person in a former life, but somehow long life just beat it out of him.
These were happy days for him. He had just returned from eighteen months in the army, where he successfully completed training as a parachute infantryman. He rented a small studio apartment located about a half mile down the street from the synagogue. There was a kitchenette, a bedroom with a closet bathroom, a sofa which was there when he moved in and a small folding coffee table. On it he placed an Arab headscarf, unfolding it to make a table cloth, and his laptop computer was placed there with an ash tray, he also laid an incense stick there. The small television — which he purchased from a second hand store-cum-repair shop — he wheeled home to the apartment on a shopping cart that he had to rent from the grocery store — was placed on top of the sofa’s matching fabric loveseat.
He did not have many guests at the apartment and he does remember being quite lonely. Among the guests he had was one prostitute whom he had ordered over the telephone from a catalog he found on the ground in Tel Aviv. She arrived with her Russian bodyguard. This only happened on one occasion. Of course this behavior was unbeknownst to his more frequent guests, who were also his religious influences: Uzi Applebaum and Izzy Kirschenbaum. Izzy worked at the university on the administrative end, and it was he who helped him apply and be accepted. That is to say, it was he who gave Socrates the idea to apply to the university in the first place. He filled out the actual paper work with his South African therapist in Tel Aviv whom his mother paid for and insisted that he see. He was accepted to the university one year before its commencement, and he was studying Communication. This was the year he met Dr. Fuss.
Uzi had known “the doctor” — as he referred to him — for many years. Originally they met in America. Probably Crown Heights, New York where Uzi was a young bachelor doing his rabbinical studies and Doctor Fuss, a local, originally from the Midwest had befriended him, invited him in for Shabbat dinners and, now, with the doctor in Petah Tefilla, Uzi was returning the favors, showing the doctor around; introducing him to people. He was in some kind of trouble back in America. It was related to a divorce. One of the people he introduced him to was Socrates. They were closer than most of the social couples in the synagogue’s congregation because they were both English-speaking Americans both single men and both ‘returnees’ to rabbinical Judaism. Dr. Fuss walked with a limp.
The time they first spoke in-depth was during the ‘Feast of Mosiah’ which is the last night of Pesach when the entire congregation shows up at shul and finishes the rest of the matzah. Because the festival is not quite over, the main drink is wine. People bring their own bottles of wine and there is a lot of it, and matzah — boxes and boxes of matzah. He saw that Socrates had cigarettes and asked him for one. He and the doctor went outside on the steps to smoke. It was a warm spring night. The ground outside the lovely stone pavement was desert sand and every so often a Mediterranean breeze blew in softly through the trees.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Pennsylvania.” Socrates said.
“I’m from the Midwest.” he told him.
“Where?” he asked.
“My brother went to college there.”
“Really?” he asked. “And can I get a light?”
“Yeah” and “Sure” he said to him, handing him a Bic. “He was only there for a semester, though. He had a drug overdose.”
“Oh sure,” Fuss pulled the cigarette from his mouth. “A lot of drugs in Ohio.”
An awkward pause.
“What is your mother’s maiden name?” he asked.
“Sara” he said.
Quickly he changed the subject and said something like: “I am supposed to be in Jerusalem tonight. I have a meeting. I am a doctor.”
“Oh wow.” blowing the smoke out of Socrates’ mouth, tapping on the cigarette to neatly knock the ash from the stick.
“What kind of doctor?”
“I am an orthopedic surgeon. But recently I needed one of my own.” he slid his pant leg up to show me the scar running from his knee downward until where his ankle began. “I used to perform operations like these.” he said, tapping on his knee with one hand and holding the cigarette with the other.
“What happened?” Socrates asked.
“Fell off the roof of my house. Big mess. Thirteen screws in that son of a bitch…” he breathed a loud with his lips pulled tight. His glasses were fogging up.
“Where did you say you were from again? New York?”
We had put out our cigarettes and began walking back into the shul where the ‘Feast of Mosiah’ was taking place. I noticed Doctor Fuss’s limp.
They walked in and took their seats around the giant table in the rear of the synagogue. Everybody was crunching away on their matzah, picking up stacks of it and shoveling it into their mouths with their fingers. Pinchas Mizrahi, the man sitting next to Socrates took out a plastic cup and asked if he had had any wine. He told him he did not and he proceeded to fill his cup with the smooth red liquid. He could tell the wine would be tasty just by admiring the viscosity and the rainbow it made when the light shown through the bottle exposing the various physical dimensions of the drink, like a kaleidoscope looking glass in a fun-house mirror.
“Hello my friend” Uzi waved to him from a few seats down here he was sitting with his kids. “Do you have any matzah?”
“Just this little bit” Socrates said pointing to the two sheets of unleavened bread.
“Here” he said handing a box of egg matzah to one of his three blonde-haired boys to bring to the young American man, and cutely the young boy brought him the matzah. They ate the matzah out of plastic bags, so as not to get it wet, in keeping with the tradition of the hassidic sect. Then suddenly, there was a disruption at one end of the table.
“Put more in there!”
“Hold on, relax!” said a teenage boy, smiling embarrassedly.
Doctor Fuss was struggling with the young man to give him more wine.
“Whoa!” said the rabbi lightheartedly.
Fuss stood up, and pushed the seat from underneath him sideways onto the floor. He stumbled over to one of the pews towards the right of the synagogue where the lights were off. He sat down in the dark and grabbed a prayer book and started rocking back and forth in his seat. The whole room noticed. Half of the people at the table giggled or looked over at him, at the scene with embarrassed looks on their faces, and half of the room ignored it or did not notice. The rabbi launched into a Chassidic melody and the table was carried away with song.
Early one Saturday afternoon, Socrates prayed at the synagogue like he usually did, arriving as he usually did by himself. It was Rosh Chodesh. In the morning, they read the entire book of Psalms. Then they continued on, praying the entire morning Shabbat liturgy; it took three hours. Afterwards, they all crowded around the benches and tables in the back of the synagogue to make Kiddush. There were fifty men present at minion and twenty women hidden upstairs behind the great curtain. There was the herring and vodka. The seltzer, hummus and crackers. The rabbi started to speak and Socrates noticed that doctor Fuss had not shown up. Somebody tapped him on the shoulder. It was a new young father of two daughters who had just moved into town.
“Do you want to come over for lunch?” he asked.
“Sure” Socrates replied without hesitation.
He smirked to himself about how satisfying it is to always receive an invitation. And at the same time, the experience of becoming religious with this particular group of rabbis always did hurt a little bit. A slight stinging in the heart, only slightly debilitating. ‘Why hadn’t I discovered this earlier?’ It seemed so common sense to him and so taboo to his family. A Jew should stay in synagogue where he should find he is comfortable culturally and confident spiritually. If he would go somewhere for a meal in the afternoon, he would then walk back to his apartment before returning to the synagogue to pray the afternoon prayer and the Havdalah prayers. While there he’d probably break Shabbat by smoking a cigarette or even flipping on the television to watch the Saturday afternoon Israeli programming. This time he walked back with his new friend Moshe to his apartment. On the way he asked Socrates, “Do you know where that doctor lives? The American one, do you know who I mean?”
“Sure do.” And he began to lead him to Dr. Fuss’s apartment which was located there off the main street, Jabotinsky, the first apartment on the left there. The name of the street is Herzog and there is a convenience store there on the corner at the place where the lights are. The door was wide open. There was a silver metal ash tray wedged against the far end of the door to keep it open for guests and residence to float in and out of the otherwise bland Israeli building. One would not dear to smoke a cigarette there on Shabbat. Doctor Fuss lived on the first floor. They knocked on his door. First, there was no answer.
An old American voice said shakily, nervously.
“Hey, Dr. Fuss!”
Moshe followed him into the doctor’s apartment where he had already been once or twice embarrassedly. Fresh cigarette smoke wafted about. The half-dressed rabbi limped from his bedroom. His back hunched, his leg almost dragging.
“Okay.” Dr. Fuss smirked like an old man, opening the door.
Moshe and Socrates shifted politely to the doorway as if to say, ‘Alright, I’ll wait.’ ‘We’ll wait.’ They nearly did not even have to. The doctor was ready right away. He followed them from the main foyer out the door in the room where the lights were not even on, but normally, as per Jewish law, would have been on throughout the Shabbat. They began walking down the street and the doctor’s mood had drastically changed. He had cheered up instantly.
“Say, where’re we going?” asked Dr. Fuss and then he stumbled a bit.
“To my apartment to eat lunch.” replied Moshe, using his thumb to point in a general direction as if to lead the way. Immediately the two hooked, their drunken playful spirits. Two erudite men of Jewish law, the doctor who was probably in his sixties at this point and Moshe, the young newly-wed rabbi. You could tell the kid had been under a lot of pressure in the last few years. He looked like he had Chabad coming out of his ass. Like there was some rabbi over him, grooming him for his life as a missionary, a Zionist representative of the Chabad Lubavitch movement within Orthodox Judaism and someone who no doubt spent a lot of time poring over kabbalah and the Talmud in the study halls. Feeling lonely and intimidated by other men. They swung around the corner, and he opened the door knob leading to his apartment where his young wife was loudly reprimanding one of their daughters. The doctor ignored his wife and said something in Yiddish to the girls. They giggled for a second and then went on whining while the other one played, making a racket.
“Did you hear the Kiddush yet?”
Moshe leaned over to ask Socrates as they were all at the table. He said he had already contributed his services to the religious rite. The doctor took the cup from the hand of Moshe’s wife as she came around. Doctor Fuss filled the silver goblet up with the best wine on the table and proceeded to make the blessing. After this they got up to wash their hands and then Moshe made the blessing while shushing one of the daughters, and the wife subtly struggled to keep the younger daughter restrained in her lap. When the first course came out, the doctor reached for vodka which was in the center of the table and filled a glass water cup all the way up and begin chugging, not waiting for the host to make ‘l’chaim’.
“Where’s my Sefer HaMinhagim?” asked Moshe.
He turned to his wife. “Do you know where my Sefer HaMinhagim is?” referring to the Hebrew volume of pseudo-laws. His wife ignored him. He got up to the bookshelf and took a thick leather bound volume from off of the shelf, from behind a lovely show glass swinging door. The doctor launched into a song, anther Chassidic song and Moshe and Socrates sang along while the mother argued with her daughter. We sang for a few moments then Moshe began reading from the book. Drunkenly, the doctor leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed, focusing on what the rabbi was reading. The doctor, in the receptive position of listener got the attention of both Socrates and the woman, and they both thought to themselves, ‘the guy must be pretty smart at his old age. Despite all the drinking…’ –suddenly, the doctor’s eyes widened and he picked his back up slightly from the spine of the chair and said something in too loud a voice, interrupting and disagreeing with what Moshe was reading. Moshe called for another ‘l’chaim’ and engaged the doctor in a friendly intellectual debate which lasted longer than anyone else at the table would have cared for, and progressing at too a high a volume. Moshe put some vodka in the doctor’s cup. He banged on the table and shook the cup like a rattle, demanding that more liquor be poured into it. The meal proceeded like this all the way through the main course. They slammed their fists on the table in song and debate. The chronic drinking, the loud arguing about the law and the Rebbe and this or that particular custom. They stayed all afternoon and finally it began to rain. The girls went off to take naps. Socrates did not drink half as much as Moshe and the doctor who were doing all of the ranting and raving and tiring him out. He also seemed to be tiring out his wife more than her own daughters. They had a little argument, he and his wife. A small one, over something superficial. When it came time they got up from their places. He was not drunk but the other two were stumbling around, still with the high energy. And the three of them began the short trek back to the synagogue where they would study a bit, make the afternoon prayers, eat the sanctimonious third meal and then pray the evening prayers, eventually closing out the Shabbat by lighting the ‘Havdalah’ candles and watching a movie of the Rebbe in Yiddish. When the doctor entered, and other people were sitting in the synagogue, he seemed to annoy them slightly, his presence that is, seemed to touch a nerve with the congregation’s participants. Was it the way he barged through the door, stumbling drunk? Did they even know that they had been drinking? Were they bothered about the way the doctor behaved in general? He probably did stink like fresh alcohol. Usually the scent was more like dry vomit. He said something again to Moshe, telling him to pick another volume for them to learn and then let off a terrible sounding hacking cough. One could easily tell that while he was drunk and very engaging of Doctor Fuss the entire afternoon, Moshe knew that the man was suffering from depression. Both of them could tell when we entered the door to his apartment and he was just putting out his cigarette – an endless stream no doubt he smoked. They just absorbed it. Played along. Took him around as though nothing were out of the ordinary. As if that were not really a revolver pistol he kept on a show table behind the sofa in his apartment.
Socrates called Dr. Fuss sometimes to speak to him on religious matters. But that autumn he left Petah Tefilla and got a new apartment near the university where he was just beginning his first semester. He was doing half literary studies and half religious studies. Socrates was 26 but it was his return to college, a new way of doing things; and at the end of the first semester, one of the rabbi’s named Rav Rogabinsky gave a test on the Talmud. Rabbi Rogabinsky was also probably about 60 years old. He was American but had been in Israel for many years. He was a chaplain once in the IDF. He had curly hair and big glasses, with a fat polish nose. He stood about six feet and had a round gut that he made no effort to conceal when he faced you in the hallway for an encounter. He had been ordained at Yeshiva University by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. He had a Bachelors in Literature as well as a PhD in Jewish History. That semester they were learning the tractate which deals with the jurisprudence of borrowing and lending. The test was made of general questions based on the Talmud but also using the commentaries of Rabbi Alfansi the Rif, and Maimonides. He took half of the test in the study hall of the university’s rabbinical college, he did this along with his colleagues from the lessons. For the second half, though, he was on his own and despite his using a dictionary was having a hard time deciphering much of the Aramaic text. They learned using these clunky leather-bound tractates that had no English. He used to stuff his in his book bag and it weighed so much, it eventually tore through the canvas fabric of the bag. Anyway, so he had to contact Doctor Fuss, whom he imagined was lonely in his apartment about taking the test. He thought he’d put his knowledge to the test by having him take a look at the text and the questions and Socrates was impressed. He knew exactly how to translate the text and answer the questions. They sat in his apartment and smoked cigarettes. So far, no vodka. Socrates’ cell phone rang, it was his dad. He seemed sad and nervous as usual, and as usual Socrates was glad that he called. Socrates and his dad had a weird but amicable conversation as usual. In the ten minutes that they were speaking the topic drifted over to literature. Socrates did not ask his father to excuse him when he took the phone away from his face for a brief second and asked Dr. Fuss how to say the name of the book “Old Land, New Land” by Theordore Herzl in Yiddish. “Altand, Neuland,” replied the doctor. Dr. Fuss seemed uncomfortable. He was withdrawn when he was not drunk. This time, he thought he’d put him to the test. The signs said not likely: while they studied and he was not actively drinking, his breath smelled like dried vomit. Rava says in Yoma 76b, “Wine and fragrance [make my mind more receptive]…” But this was taking things to a much different extreme.
They finished answering the questions. He asked if he would like to stay over and eat.
“Sure” he said. “Why not?”
‘Two is better than one, and I have to eat dinner anyway so why not’, Socrates thought to himself.
“Socrates, one thing I need to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“Something we have to do.” he said, unscrewing a red Smirnoff vodka bottle lid. “You must make a ‘l’chaim’.”
“Okeydokey.” he shrugged in submission.
He started chatting me up about medicine.
“—wait, so you are a rabbi, a doctor and a lawyer?”
“Yeah. That’s right. All three baby.”
He poured himself another cup of vodka, still washing his mouth out with the last shot.
“You want one of these?”
“Nah,” I giggled kind of nervously. “So what do you do again?”
Socrates didn’t know whether the doctor was frustrated or what. Had he forgotten some of the details of his story which he had explained to me in erstwhile conversations?
“I am a patent lawyer.”
“Oooh, yes.” Soc was still feeling that little cup of vodka, the three sips or whatever it was on an empty stomach and an honest intellectual workout.
“I make medical patents.” He proceeded to explain to Socrates about his ideas and some of his inventions in the field of medical technology. It was not really interesting at all and while he spoke and chain smoked in his house and drank that bottle of vodka, you could not help but feel a little bad for him. ‘Where is his family, his wife and daughter right now’? ‘What do they think about all of the medical speak he is spewing at me’ as if Socrates should care, as if he worked with him or worse could have benefitted by receiving this information. He took him into his office which was dimly lit (it was just past sun down) like cheap light bulbs that last three months and there on the desk he had a computer unit with two large screen monitors. Our heads were buzzing from the alcohol. The screen had yellow post-it notes stuck to it. But you could definitely tell the doctor was a little more than unorganized or confused. He shuffled through some papers on his desk, the usual: some payment bills and paperwork pertaining to his business as a medical supply patent inventor.
“Ooooww.” He yelled out suddenly and grabbing his leg. He was calling out in pain. He pulled up his pant leg and showed Socrates the surgical scar and told him that this is what happened when he had fallen off the roof three years ago. He pulled the pant leg back down.
“Want to see a picture of me at work?” he asked.
He lifted the picture from the book shelf in the office where his degrees were framed against the wall. The picture was of him in medical scrubs, holding a scalpel. Somebody was being operated on.
“A female patient.” he said. “In her forties. She had a broken leg. We had to open her up in two places in order to get the placement right for the screws.” he laughed. This time Socrates was uncomfortable. They went back into the kitchen and he pulled the chicken out of the oven. He cut it in half with a knife and put one half on a plate.
“Want some greens? Some potatoes?”
“Oh fudge. We don’t have any. Where’s your cup? Have some vodka.”
“No thanks. I don’t want anymore.”
“Have some goddamn vodka.”
“Okay.” Soc laughed nervously.
He filled it up only half way and proceeded to explain about orthopedic surgery using the chicken as a model. He tore off the slightly dry meat and poked at the bone with his knife, holding the meat away from the bone with the fork.
After dinner he told Socrates that they would pray. ‘But how can we pray without a minion?’
“Why not let’s just walk back to the shul.”
“Nah, I don’t have the time for that” he sucked up, and tried to act sober – I could tell his body, his back and leg, as he said, were in pain. So they said the after-blessings on the food and Socrates proceeded with him out into the main living room there where he grabbed two ‘standers’ which are like music stands for studying scripture. The two of them began to pray without saying ‘kaddish’ the prayer that it is absolutely necessary you recite only with ten men present. He was a rabbi but even Socrates knew that they were not doing this the right way.
Socrates went about a year without speaking to the doctor. He got good grades at the university and became so wrapped up in the study of literature that he pushed the religious stuff aside. Since school was going so well he tried to contact the psychiatrist again, the south African one who lived in North Tel Aviv. The psychiatrist, however, refused to take his phone calls. Perhaps he was jealous of Socrates because of his confidence with his studies and the apparent fact that he received a lot of guidance from various rabbinical figures. Maybe the doctor felt as if he did not need Socrates anymore, that he had shut his case; or that Socrates did not need him anymore. Was there intimidation? ‘Why doesn’t he answer my phone calls?’ thought Soc. ‘If they cannot renew the sessions, well, okay, but wouldn’t it be the ethical thing to do to at least call him?’ Eventually, he gave up trying.
One night, as he was studying, his cellphone rang and it was Izzy Kirschenbaum from the congregation in Petah Tefilla.
“Doctor Fuss is dead.” said the voice on the other end. “He was alone at his apartment. Uzi found him. We called his daughter and she is on her way, they’ve postponed the burial until she gets here.”