He kicked at the mess of stuff on the floor that he had just whisked off the closet shelves in less time than it takes to sneeze. No strong box. Just a riot of papers, spools of tangled thread, passports and all seasons of clothes touching like strangers in a crowded elevator. The overturned jewelry box, resting in exhaustion after spewing out shiny, colorful but worthless baubles, lay empty on the bed.
“There’s nothing here,” he shouted to his fellow crook, busy doing the same dumping, sorting act in another room.
“Same here. Nada. Shit!”
He yanked open the desk drawers, grabbing the boxes of stationery and papers, scattering them everywhere. In his rage, he ripped open a few envelopes even though he could feel that there was nothing inside.
And then he spotted the small, white marble container on the night table. With his gloved, right hand, he slid the contents straight into his front pocket held open by his gloved, left hand. Some gold, some silver. Nothing worth much, his experienced eye told him. But it was better than nothing. There wasn’t anywhere enough – it didn’t even make his pocket bulge – to share.
“We’re screwed. Come on. Let’s get outta here.”
“Wait, I’m not finished. There must be cash stashed somewhere.”
“We’re done, you hear me? Let’s get moving. Now!”
They chose to leave through the front door like invited guests. The thief calling the shots went first. He turned, motioning to his accomplice to follow. He couldn’t believe his eyes when, instead of making a run for it, his partner reached up to touch the mezuzah and then put his fingers to his lips, kissing them.
“What the fuck! Are you nuts?”
It was a knee-jerk reaction, a habit so inbred that there was never a time that the mezuzah-kissing thief could remember not kissing the mezuzah. Leaving or returning home together, his father would always scoop him into his arms and bend toward the doorframe, instructing him to touch the mezuzah and only then kiss his fingers. Next it would be his father’s turn to touch and kiss. At first, not even two years old, the boy thought that his father was touching his own touch, kissing him in a roundabout way. He wondered why his father didn’t simply kiss him instead. Maybe, yes that must be why, his father thought that his beard was too scratchy. But when the boy grew to understand that the kiss was meant for God, he wondered if he would ever love God as much as his father did. And he wondered if his father
And now, so unexpectedly and yet so expectedly, the fact that he was Jewish hit him with the power of a curse. He melted into a heap at the door. He covered his face, cowering, pulling his knees up to his chest. If only he could disappear. But he knew that God saw him. He sat shriveled, shrunken in shame, shivering. What would God think of him? What sort of punishment would He bring to bear on him?
“What the fuck! I’m outta here!” the first thief mouthed, running, shaking his head in disbelief.
But that’s not how it happened.
They broke in, locked the door, shuttered all the windows, and left havoc minus a few pieces of jewelry in their wake. Not the first home ransacked, definitely not the last.
I came home after an evening out with the girls, away just a few hours. I was sure that I had locked the door. How careless of me to have forgotten! But how unlike me, I thought, just moments later. Even before I pushed the door open, I knew with certainty that I had locked it.
Everybody talks about being violated after a break-in, about the invasion to their privacy. This hardly begins to describe what I felt. I had inexplicably entered a movie set or a time tunnel as one of Woody Allen’s characters. I was there but I wasn’t. I was watching myself from a very long distance. And ever since then, whenever I put my key into the lock, I tell myself that it won’t surprise me if the door is unlocked and every single closet and drawer in my home has again had its contents trashed, smashed, covered with shoeprints, and smudged with the black dust of the fingerprint squad who, surprise, found only glove marks. Expecting a repeat makes it easier to take, especially if you’re a woman living alone.
But what I had never expected, not in a trillion years, was the number of people who began to tell me that I really should have my mezuzah checked.
First there was the religious Jewish woman at work in my high-tech office.
“If I were you,” she said straight out when I told her about my bad luck, “I’d have the mezuzah checked.”
And then she launched into a story how once, at her last place of work, a bunch of people who sat together in the same room started having all kinds of bad things happen to them. Accidents, deaths in the family, robberies, husbands losing their jobs, the list went on and on. More bad luck, I was sure, than there are stars in the sky.
“None of them was religious,” she went on. “They all laughed at me when I said that we should check the mezuzah on our doorway. But I insisted, said I would arrange for it and even pay for it, if necessary.”
“And?” I prodded, withholding my smile.
“And I did. And it was defective. So we had the scroll replaced, and all of our bad luck ended.”
“I wish I believed in it. I really do. But I think it’s all voodoo.”
“Maybe you’re right. At least from your point of view. But what can it hurt?”
“I believe in God. I thank him whenever something good happens. I don’t need any witchcraft to seal our relationship.”
“The most I’m willing to do,” I said, baiting her with a long pause, “is to backup my laptop.”
This, I have begun to do.
I thought that that was the end of that. But then my boss said the same thing to me. The fact that he said it with a wide grin, mocking the very idea that a scroll with “Hear, O Israel, The Lord is our God, The Lord is one” in a receptacle on the doorpost could in any remote way affect the outcome of anything, didn’t make it any less poignant. On the contrary, it made me realize how ingrained the concept of the mezuzah is as a potent symbol of God’s protection.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. He tells how it is – in language sharply critical, lucid and funny – when a curse in the Dominican Republic, the famous fukú brought upon the aboriginal people of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, becomes synonymous with the power of a murderous dictator, Trujillo. How it frightened the entire population into decades of fear, obedience and cowardice. How fathers sacrificed their daughters’ virginity to the voracious sexual appetite of the dictator rather than expose themselves and their families to the power of the fukú. Except for those who refused, and paid for it with their property, their good names and finally, their lives.
“But we are an enlightened country,” I told myself and anyone who would listen. “We believe in the power of science, sound economics, agronomy, demonstrations, and belief in self,” I insisted.
And, it turns out, the mezuzah.
When the very same advice came out of a third mouth, that of a close friend who proffered it in all seriousness, if with an embarrassed laugh, I knew it was time to consider the possibility that I had been found out. (Three is a number that is hard to argue with.)
So now I am thinking of replacing the genuine copy of the scroll that I downloaded from the Internet, printed out, and rolled up inside a beautiful, blue ceramic encasement with a gold embossed letter “shin” for “Shadai”, or “Shmor d’latot Israel” (“Watch over the doors of Israel”), with the real thing. A hand-written, flawless scroll on parchment, painstakingly lettered by a scribe with black ink and quill, after years of training, to reproduce the squiggles, broad strokes, curlicues, dots and thin lines that instruct the Jewish people to love God and follow His commandments – this may be just what I need to protect me from the wrath of God.
But not right away. I need time to mull it over, hoping that reason will prevail. After all, I am a modern woman, not an aboriginal believer in gibberish. Even if belief can endow the mezuzah with power beyond what the eye sees – this much I am reluctant but willing to consider – I will not be lightly swayed.
But I am no dope. I carefully lock and close the slats on all of the shutters, lock the windows, and double check the front door before I leave home wearing all of my best jewelry – even when I go to the swimming pool to do laps. Sometimes I go back to make sure that I have remembered to lock the front door. The last time I did this, I was certain that the crook who collapsed on my front doorstep, aggrieved by the sin he had committed, was pointing his finger at me in rage.
“None of this would have happened if you had checked your mezuzah!”
“It’s not my mezuzah that’s to blame. It’s your fault. You have gone astray!”
He whimpers pathetically before he vanishes. And I, I wonder how I have become so vulnerable that I am now spouting God’s words to a ghost.