Chapter 16: A Night at La Huichette D’Or

Illustration from 19th century
Fracas at La Huichette D’Or

The tavern, scene of a fracas, the likes of which hitherto unknown in Paris, wherein an array of sundry Churchmen and Secularists wrangle for the primacy of their Beliefes. In the end only Rav Levi ben Gershon and Meister Eckhart keep their Wit. The tropes that form Warpe and Woofe of the Social Fabrick are rapidly and irrevocably fraying at the edges. 

The Reader is reminded that this is a continuation of Undivided: The Redemption Inquiry. The 16th chapter of the novel and the sixth of…

Part the Third—Zeitgeists: In which The Right Reverend Rav Krishna declaims to his followers, in the visitors suite of the maternity ward, the long and tortuous history of the descent of Humanity’s Soule and Its Darke Twin, The Other, through the four levels of the soul as defined in the Lurianic Kabbalah. It falls out that the turning points in said history coincide precisely with the years—1309, 1925 and 2009—in which The Blessing of the Sun doth intersect with The Festival of the Passover, each year illuminated by a barroom fracas. The Soule of Humanity hath ascended, in the telling, to the realm of Creation, the realm from which the seeds of the Future come forth.

*    *    *    *    *

This time there would be no forgiveness. Three years ago, thirteen ought six, there had been yet another expulsion, but I managed to hang onto the inn as my mother had hung onto it the time before, when I was just a child, in 1282. During the current balagan, what you might impolitely call a ‘cluster-fuck’, the French King has wrung every last sou out of the departing Jews, in addition to gobbling up all the outstanding debt collection due from his Christian subjects. Effectively, I have been running La Huichette myself since Tante Chana of blessed memory ascended to her place in the heavens ten years ago. I kept the name in honor of her strange instrument, La Huichette D’Or. The street had long borne that name as well. Maman received intelligence from her constabulary sources that there would be a mass arrest—it turned out to be one hundred thousand souls—on the day after Tisha B’Av. What bitter irony. The day after our annual fast of mourning for the loss of both holy Temples, and the previous expulsions from our native soil, the Holy Land, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. This venal king would cause us to suffer expulsion yet again, this time from the corrupt kingdom of the Gauls.

 The Jews, as always, the eternal Other. In anticipation, the family had quietly pooled its resources and transferred the assets to a distant uncle in Avignon, Reb Levi ben Gershon, a man of demonstrable genius. My uncle had single-handedly disproved Ptolemy’s model of the geocentric universe simply by making careful measurements of the moon and by quantifying the light of the planets in a pinhole camera. Et voila, no epicycles, Ptolemy is wrong! Unfortunately for the world of science, but fortunately for Reb Levi’s life in the ambit of the displaced Vatican, nobody was paying attention. As soon as Reb Levi had purchased a small property in Avignon for our family and found a part-time pulpit for my father, my parents and siblings made a stealthy getaway. I, in the meanwhile, created the appearance of having accepted conversion to the Catholic faith, received the tonsure and enrolled in the Sorbonne. I was deeply ashamed, but it was up to me to keep the inn going to support my family. I was able to keep my dietary restrictions hidden with the help of clandestine shipments of kashered and salted meat. I secretly kashered the second kitchen at the inn for myself. It also kept alive my hopes for my family’s return.

My graduation from the Sorbonne enhanced the reputation of La Huichette as a meeting place for students, scholars, clerics and exotic travelers. With the unseen help of the skills I had acquired from Tante Chana—the reason my kitchen door was barred upon penalty of dire consequences to the overly curious—I was able to turn out prodigious quantities of food for my esteemed guests. More than a few fat friars graced my tables for just that reason. Three years on in 1309 the expulsion was still in place and I was growing weary of toadying to the crowd of highbrow chazers, tamed boars, who crowded my chambers. But the family was barely eeking out a living in Avignon, my sisters taking in sewing and mending, my brothers chopping wood, and my poor maman working as a maid in the papal residence. I was heartbroken, but saw no alternative solution to the fix we were in. Relief from the drudgery came in the form of a rogue wave of notable foreign scholars washed up on the banks of the Seine in 1309. I found the news from other quarters of the globe endlessly fascinating. If contact among disparate cultures was the source of fertility of mind, La Huichette D’Or was a veritable mountain of fertilizer. And my wandering people its most ardent shovelers. But the most interesting soiree by far that year was, ironically, the eve of Tisha B’Av.

 It’s a depressing day to begin with. And I had reached an all time personal spiritual nadir. I was beginning to wonder whether there was anything other than the most pecuniary purpose to my having stayed behind, put on the appearance of a Catholic scholastic only to serve treif—pork sausage, smoked ham, moules et frites, even escargot—to fatuous friars and mendacious priests. I was in a choleric humour that day, dangerously inclined to lashon hara, wicked speech. But I had to keep it to myself, put a good face on it and play host to the evening’s pilgrims. It was only a short while to sundown, so I slunk off to the back kitchen to scarf down my last meal. I slumped onto my wooden stool, a leaden bust with one elbow on the table, as I consumed the dessert du jour—a roasted egg rolled in ash. Symbol of the destroyed Temple. Better ashes than curses in my mouth. For me the fast had begun, though sundown was still a little ways off. There were only two or three quiet souls in the dining room at the time, each nursing his pint of mead blissfully unaware of the presence of the others. Suddenly I heard a distinctly Jewish-inflected voice call out, “What does a neshama have to do to get service in this place?”

I poked my head into the dining room, fearful for the safety of whoever was so guileless as to cry out in tzarfati dialect in Juden-frei Paris. Mon Dieu! It was my uncle Levi, in full rabbinic regalia, sitting ramrod straight at a table in the midst of my house of treif. I was horrified. I composed myself, draped a serviette over my left arm, and sashayed over to his table as quickly as I could without arousing suspicion. “Mon seigneur, to what do we owe the honor of a visit from such an estimable personage as yourself?” Followed by, sotto voce, “What in Gehinnon are you doing here, Uncle? Do you have any idea how dangerous it is for you to be here?” I looked around nervously. As I returned to my uncle’s visage, I was startled by how young he was. Standing next to this giant of science, philosophy and theology I felt like a prematurely aged kitchen scullion, though I was nearly the same age as he. He was my mother’s baby brother by nearly a score of years. He was the holy RaLbaG, acronym for Rabbi Levi ben Gershom. With a twinkle in his eye, “Mon fils, not to worry. I am under the protection of the Pope as the court astronomer. I have come to ascertain the wellbeing of my favorite nephew. Bon? And now I would like a glass of your best Aquavit.” To which he added sotto voce, “And perhaps a bit of beef tongue from your ‘second kitchen’ if it were to be had.” I smiled an undoubtedly dyspeptic smile, kissed my uncle on the hand and excused myself to the kitchen. Once inside I collapsed against the door in a pool of sweat. My uncle, genius that he was, was clearly out of touch with the mortal threat of being fingered as a Jew defying expulsion decree from the City of Paris. I composed myself and got the second kitchen to work preparing the delicacy my uncle had requested.

I mopped my brow, plastered a smile on my face, and strode out to Reb Levi bearing his glass of Aquavit and a platter of beef tongue. In my absence, a small crowd had wandered into La Huichette and taken up battle stations at a few tables scattered throughout the room. I scurried from table to table, offering the customary greeting, “God be with you, gentlemen, what is your pleasure here?” The first table I accosted thus was peopled by an odd threesome. The one in charge bore the mien and attire of a high status Eastern monk. He was in the company of a large scowling Mongol in Persian dress and an Italian banker. The monk muttered to the banker and vice versa. The banker rose to his feet, turned and gestured to the whole room as the monk smiled, “His Eminence, Rabban Markos, would like to offer a toast to his former teacher, Rabban Bar Sauma, who once patronized this house twenty years ago when he was the guest of your king for an entire month. To the joined futures of the Western and Eastern Church and the defeat of the Mamluk tyrant! Please, give everyone another glass of whatever they are drinking.”

 Rabban Markos, his hoary head bobbling, smiled expansively and lifted his glass to the assembled multitude. The crowd that had gathered by then all gargled their approval. My mother had met this man’s mentor, Bar Sauma, a highly educated world traveler. He’d left her a copy of his dilatedly titled memoir, The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiary of the Mongol Khans to the Kings of Europe, and Markos Who as Mar Yahbh-Allaha III Became Patriarch of the Church of the East in Asia. I remember pouring over those exotic tales translated into the French. So this Eastern monk Markos is Mar Yahbh-Allaha III, the Patriarch of the Eastern Church! By now, at the time of The Redemption, we know that he failed in his unifying mission. Humanity’s inability to play well with others continued to the bitter end. So it was as well, just before The Redemption, when the AIs concluded that the cost benefit ratio for maintaining the last human colony on earth was rapidly shifting into the debit column. The streets of Leviathan had devolved into petty but violent squabbles among all the religious and ideological micro-factions, held in check only by ZizCorp’s vigilance and Behemoth’s ‘reeducation’ program. But in La Huichette, as my uncle drinks his Aqua vitae in the company of these illustrious Christians, I simply marvel at the mix of humanity pouring into my humble establishment. The Mongol, it turns out, is a representative of the Ilkhanate, home to the remarkably sophisticated Persian academies of astronomy and mathematics. He’s looking for an alliance against the Mamluks as well. In spite of their Turkic rulers being coreligionists with the Ilkhanate’s Moslems, he sees them as the descendants of slaves and unfit for world domination.

 Before I had time to finish gathering my thoughts, I was immediately hailed by yet another member of the Italian laity at the adjoining table. “Mio huomo! Enough of those inflated papists. Can an honest free-thinking intellectual get something to eat and drink here?” I turned my gaze toward the voice and was confronted by the rather severe pale visage of an Italian nobleman. “Marsilius of Padua, at your service. Don’t look so shocked, young man. I am a physician and can tell you with certainty, a surfeit of friars may be fatal to one’s health.” He smiled sagely at his companions who smiled back with forced mirth. “Your own King Philip surely agrees with me on the necessity of limiting papal power and accruing it to the secular authority. The affairs of state and the affairs of men are rightfully the jurisdiction of the crown. We’ll happily yield the study of the soul and such metaphysical ditties to the church, no?”

 Marsilius seemed rather pleased with himself as he folded both hands on the table in front of him. I bowed from the waist. “And what will monseigneur le Padovan have to eat, if I may ask?” He eyed me with some condescension. “Tripe, the Florentine way. Can you do it?” I bowed curtly and replied, “We pride ourselves on the variety of our cuisine. Florence produces no shortage of tripe of which we may avail ourselves, unless the gentleman prefers the Padovan variety.” I smiled blandly. “And for the rest of you gentleman?” I gestured to his sycophantic table companions, but Marsilius interrupted, “Ha ha! Good one, my tonsured friend! We are of one mind, that is to say mine. Let there be tripe on every tongue in this city of clerics! And do be quick about it.” The Padovan sat back, pleased with his own cleverness. I had already turned on my heel with a curt nod, both irritated and amused, when I spied a table of three young rakes taunting an older scholar who clearly was holding his own. Curious about their passionate discourse, I sidled a bit closer to the table.

 “Master Philippe Vitry,” Buridanus, the more raucous of the three rakes, shouted, “I toast you, very like a window, une vitre, onto the musical landscape of our age! I drink to Ars Nova and to your health as long as the good Lord may let you fog the mirror!” He raised his pint of mead to the distinguished young composer of experimental music. “And verily and forsooth you are an arse nova of the equine variety!” snorted de Muris, the dandy at Vitry’s other elbow, to Buridanus,”a most terrible pun on our young musical genius’s town of origin. Vitry, vitre! Comprends? Rather rich, don’t you think? Or do you find it too…vitry-olic! Whoah, I say, did you catch it, my hoary liege, Monsieur Jacobus of Liège?” he said with exaggerated deference as he addressed the elder of the two composers.”Vitre for Vitryhee-hee-hee! Good one Johannes!” he perseverated, a steady drool of mead running down his chin. Buridanus, in mead-fueled hilarity, took up the inanity, “And you with your ‘my lieeeege’,” he sniggered as he attempted to stand and offer a dramatic bow with a flourish. “A capital jest on our elder’s birthplace, our most modest and abstemious critic, our ancient lieeeege from Lièèèège.” An explosion of drunken guffaws. The more senior, and sober, musical theorist, Jacob of Liège, carefully placed his pint on the table, folded his hands around his flagon and looked with pursed lips and dramatic disapprobation upon his juniors. Momentarily silenced, they attended him with bloodshot eyes. “I, in a sound and sober state, merely rest counterposed to your irreverent and corrupt ‘music’ with my modest silence. Et Ars Antiqua regnabit in saecula saeculorum. I de-mur to you, Johannes de Mur-is, in all matters brute, licentious and spur-ious.”

With a look of exaggeratedly smug self-satisfaction, Jacobus quaffed his mead and patted the corners of his mouth with his kerchief as the others reloaded for the next volley of farce. Vitry, the celebrated young composer of the first toast, could not hold back a cackle, “Score one for the antique gentleman, de-murring to the philosophe within our walls—Muris the murrrr! The genitive, I believe. Wall of….what? Ignorance, no doubt!!” With a roar they all downed another pint. Then he turned to the youngest and most boisterous of the company, the newly minted Jesuit of fiery mien, “Johannes Buridanus, you’re no ignoramus. Foist your choice upon us—Ars Nova or Ars Equanimous!” At that all four cried “Huzzah!”, nodded as in the agreement of a court of fools, clinked their flagons together and downed another pint of mead. The young priest wiped his non-existent mustache, smiled at the others and shook his head in feigned moral quandary, “Truly an ass between two feed troughs am I, so torn in my equal and opposing passions I am unable to feed at either one!” They all brayed in chuckling approval of the one thought wrung from their compatriot’s otherwise soggy pate. I laughed as I turned and walked away. I counted myself among the cognoscenti, recognizing the seed of Buridan’s famed philosophical conjecture on the matter of impetus and the impossibility of choosing between two impulses of equal magnitude and opposite valence. As future scholars of cybernetics later realized, this is a problem for any intelligent system with no means of creating bias, the original statement of the Halting Problem, the problem that plagued the development of artificial intelligence until its solution in the 22nd century. But my faithful golem suffered from no such lack, the tilt of my intention propelling it to action when called. From the vantage of The Redemption I knew that the two Johannes’, de Muris and Buridanus, were bound for trouble. The former, an aloof and shiftless polymath, would be banished to Cyprus for the murder of a cleric. The latter, a Copernican womanizer, would be sentenced to be thrown in a sack into the river Seine. Sic semper inebriotis.

I was about to skulk back into the kitchen to perpetuate the illusion that there was actually a staff at work in there to whom I must give direction, when my eye fixed itself upon a singularly striking German Dominican with a kindly, albeit ethereal, air about him. He was seated with, of all people, William of Paris, Inquisitor of France, nemesis of Templars and Jews. The German smiled most pleasantly as he caught my gaze. The Inquisitor interposed himself and motioned for me to draw near, “My friend Eckhart inhabits realms other than that in which you and I find ourselves. I’m afraid I will have to order for the both of us. Rabbit stew and a couple of meads will do nicely.” It was then that I noticed the plush gray fur that poofed out from his collar and sleeves. Of course, I thought to myself, rabbits for the fox! The influence of the vulpine Inquisitor rivaled the authority of foul King Philip. “Post haste, your eminence,” as I bowed and made to scurry off. But when I turned to go, I saw an elderly Spanish medical man stooping at my uncle’s table. Worried what else my guileless uncle might say, I rushed over to Uncle Levi’s side in a few quick bounds to intervene if need be.

As I got there, I heard the Spaniard exhorting my uncle, “Aqua vitae! I highly approve. It prolongs good health, dissipates superfluous humours, reanimates the heart and maintains youth.” I breathed a sigh of relief. Just another blowhard. I gave him a wry smile, “Monsieur le médecin, que c’est-que vous voulez?” He turned his hoary brow my way and exclaimed, “Why I’d like to have an Aqua vitae with this extraordinarily learned young scholar!” With that he sat himself down at my uncle’s table. As he saw me staring at him in a state of some small alarm, he added, “Young man, I am a doctor, Arnaldus of Villanova. Is something ailing you?” I shook off my momentary cataplexy and assured him, “No, monsieur, I am quite well. Nothing a little Aqua vitae couldn’t remedy.” My uncle then turned to Arnaldus with a droll smile as he patted me on the back, “He has the aspect of one altogether too prone to worry, a melancholic. Not a bad trait in an educated servant, but doomed to foreshorten one’s life.” Arnaldus clapped my uncle on the shoulder, “Well said, but then again the end is nigh, a scant sixty nine years off by my calculation, the whole blasted planet. Hoist one with us, my young fellow, to the End of Time! When you are done slopping the rest of these hogs,” he indicated the other denizens of the establishment. My uncle, usually the soul of discretion, burst into belly laughs, and the old geezer whinnied in counterpoint.

I finally fell back into the kitchen and clutched my chest to stifle the rapid beating of my heart. The first round of orders was already underway. Tanta Chana had taught me well. Hanging back to create a judicious delay, I grabbed the waiting tray of drinks and dashed out for another sortie. As soon as I entered the room I spotted two newcomers—a querulous young Brit in tonsure and an old coot of a Spanish Franciscan—both vying for the last free table in the room. I rushed over to them with my tray of drinks to find a way to ease the awkwardness of the situation. “Gentleman!” I smiled at them both, “May I suggest that in honor of the conviviality of the evening that you introduce yourselves to one another and discover what a fine dinner companion you have just met. I shall happily fetch you the beverage of your choice and leave you time to contemplate the delights of the palate you may anticipate from our kitchen.” Without moving a facial muscle, the young Brit dourly observed, “This is the last available table in the room. The both of us wish to dine here. Therefore, we must perforce be seated together.” He gingerly placed his fingers on the back of the chair in front of him. The ancient Spaniard raised an eyebrow as he made to sit as well, “And what do you call yourself, my eminently logical young pup?”

 The Brit tilted his head ever so slightly without actually making eye contact, “William.” Long pause. “Of Ockham.” His elder reached out a hand, which he then let drop for lack of reciprocation,“A fellow Franciscan. Ramon Llul. Also known as Doctor Illuminatus, a name conferred by one of your own, the estimable Duns Scotus.” He collapsed into the chair and emitted a loud groan for emphasis. “And what brings you to this side of the Channel, my callow Englishman?” Young Ockham sat, and stated flatly, “Last trip abroad before I matriculate at Oxford for my Master’s.” The old man turned a bit morose, “You are fortunate to have seen your way so clearly so young. I, on the other hand, while still a young man and Seneschal to the King of Majorca, was very given to composing worthless songs and poems and to doing other licentious things.” A sigh of deepest regret escaped the old Spaniard’s lips. “But I threw off the entirety of my old worthless life, including my wife and my children, and dedicated myself to the cause of Heaven, the conversion of heathens.”

 Doctor Illuminatus leaned close to his unwilling dinner companion, insuring that the young scholar was sprayed with a steady stream of spittle, “In addition to forcing the Arabic tongue upon myself, and attending the mystic Sufic rites, I learned from the Arab astrologers the abstruse science of their contraption, the zairja.” He raised the bushy set of caterpillars that wriggled over his eyes and continued in a stage whisper, “They say it came down to them from the ancient Enoch, known to the Jews as Metatron, the chief of angels. A logic contraption for divining the answers to all variety of questions by way of navigating a system of trees and circles. Quite ingenious. I adapted it to my purpose of converting the heathen by setting it in a circle of assumptions acceptable to all the monotheistic faiths which, by brutal logic, leads inexorably to the one true faith.” Rubbing his hands together, he pronounced with no small drama, “I call it my Ars Magna! No more the conquest by sword, but by intellect alone!” He poked the air and turned his rheumy gaze to me, “I say, young man, bring the two of us a flask of your best Catalan wine and two glasses that we might toast the conversion of the Jews!”

 I fairly ran back to the kitchen, barely containing the bile that was rising in my gullet, silently loathing the old fool. His forced choice Ars was not unlike the push-polls of the 21st century Machiavellian pundit Frank Luntz, the instrument of many a forced political ‘conversion’. I take some comfort in the knowledge, looking back from the point of view of The Redemption, that Doctor Illuminatus later went on a fool’s mission to Tunis from which he did not return alive. Dido’s revenge. Seems he was given false information that the Sultan was interested in his ministry. Cause of death: hubris. And his contraption, his Arse Magna, as I would call the wielder of the weapon, the predecessor of all such tainted tools of artificial intelligence, doomed to hoist their masters on their own petards. Arse Magna indeed! But my job then, as so wonderfully stated by Arnaldus, was to slop the hogs, not to argue with them. I returned to the dining room with what no doubt was an insane grin plastered of necessity across my face as I delivered the goods to every table. When I reached the Illuminator’s table to deliver his undiluted intoxicant, the old Spaniard tottered to his feet once again, this time to address the entire crowd.

“Conquistadors! We soldiers of the faith must drink to our joint mission in this, our scholastic capital. With the power of a superior intellectual system, we may defeat the ignorant heathen with his own logic. I raise a glass of the finest Catalan wine, courtesy of our generous young friar, and invite you to join me in toasting the conversion of the Jew and the Saracen!” The Mongol’s perpetual scowl grew deeper, his hand edging toward the dagger at his hip. I did not like the looks of the situation. Suddenly the old buffoon Arnaldus stood up, a possible source of comic relief. “Catalan wine, you say? Let’s have some of that over here as well. I’ll drink to anything over that potent stuff. Only thing for which I’d set aside my noble Aquavit.” Unfortunately, the fatal error was in drawing the Illuminator’s gaze to my Uncle’s table. He set one shrewd eye on Reb Levi and immediately silenced the room with his bellow. “Monseigneurs! We have an adversary among us, seated with my myopic compatriot Arnaldus. A marvelous mind for doctoring the body, but dubious taste in friends.” Suddenly all eyes were upon Reb Levi. “And who, my dear sir, might Jew be?” Still seated, staring intently into his untouched wine glass, Reb Levi stated crisply, “Levi ben Gershon, astronomer to the Pope at Avignon.” Then looking squarely at his interrogator, “At your service.”

 My God, I thought to myself, this is going to its ill-starred conclusion faster than shite through a mead-soaked mendicant. I could hear the gears clicking and whirring in Fra Llul’s Arse. But before he could let fly another gaseous explosion, it was William the Inquisitor who leapt in. “I say, by all that is holy, I swear that man with Arnaldus is a Jew!” At which point Marsilius, a few pints of mead in his belly, shot back, “Hold, you fatuous papist. This is a matter for the king as it was he who, three years ago this day, declared the ban, not the clergy. We should send the friar here to summon the Night Watch, if it is the law which compels you.” His eyes dared the Inquisitor to disagree. “Let them determine whether or not this man is guilty of criminal trespass. If it is of souls that you inquire, then rest assured that your trespasses have not gone unnoticed by the Almighty. Look to yourself!” With that, Marsilius returned to his drink.

The Inquisitor blanched at such bald impertinence. Rather than risk further embarrassment, he turned to his table mate for support. “My dear temperate Meister Eckhart, what do you see in yon Levi ben Gershon’s mien? Surely an occult threat to French Christendom, no?” His companion stared dreamily in my uncle’s direction and spoke as one might discourse with angelic beings. “The eye through which I see Levi ben Gershon is the same eye through which I see God, and through which God and Levi ben Gershon see me; my eye and God’s eye and Levi’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” The silence was deafening. I stood frozen to the spot. As soon as I gathered my wits sufficiently I inched toward the kitchen to fetch Tanta Chana’s huichette. Surely if there was a time to recruit the aid of the Golden Trumpet, this was it. But before I could crack open the door who should pipe up but the pipsqueak headed for Oxford, that human clamshell William. Of Ockham.

“Ahem,” he stammered as he rose from his seat. “On the matter of Pope versus King, upon much study, I declare them separate but equal. On the matter of Arnaldus’ companion, I must vouchsafe, the man wears the clothes of a Jew, bears the name of a Jew, and verily hath the face of a Jew. Q.E.D. the man is a Jew. As to the existence of the general case of the Jew, I defer to my worthy opponent Burleigh standing at yon table.” A rather large, bearded and inebriated cleric nodded from the other side of the room. With a conclusive set of the jaw, the young scholar made to resume his seat. But upon the instant, the Persian Mongol, having had his fill of pietistic claptrap, unsheathed his dagger and sent it sailing toward the clueless future Oxonian. It grazed the young scholar’s face as neatly as any barber’s tool. In the muddled recollection of the evening’s badinage, the Persian Mongol’s rejoinder was henceforth known as ‘Ockham’s close shave’ or, alternatively, as ‘Ockham’s razor’. 

Pandemonium ensued. As I dove for the trumpet, out of the corner of my eye I saw a posse of Dominicans of evil aspect converging on Arnaldus. The Mongol and the Italian banker kicked over their table and deployed it as a siege tower to shelter the Spanish doctor while advancing on the foe. The Eastern Patriarch alternately wrung his hands and cheered his comrades. Mead, mugs and mutton legs flew freely through the air. Cries of “Heretic!” and “Blasphemer!” criss-crossed the room. William of Paris advanced and slapped Marsilius on the cheek. The latter’s Padovan companions pinioned the Inquisitor against the wall, all four limbs espaliered to the max. The Defender of the Peace, as Marsilius loudly proclaimed himself, grabbed a bench to use as a battering ram and aimed straight for William. With the intervention of Ramon’s leather-bound Arse, aimed smartly at Marsilius’ shins, the Italian went flying face first into the Inquisitor’s pudendum. The two adversaries  crumpled under a mound of flailing friars. Augustinians, Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans, even a stray Jesuit, all jumbled in the mix. Only Eckhart and Levi sat unmoved in their seats, observing the melee as if seated before a mummer’s play. Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, I placed the trumpet to my lips and blew with the most focused intention I could muster. Every item in the room stopped, frozen in mid trajectory. Even the spittle flying from Ramon’s beard and the projectile vomitus coaxed from the Inquisitor’s lips.

A tableau of moralistic inanity writ large, burns in my memory of that eve of destruction. Then the chairs and benches started to move about the room of their own accord, collecting the rump ends of all the combatants. As my grandfather would say in tzarfati dialect, a be a chair a be a tuchus. For every seat a hindquarter. The brooms and dustbins leapt to the ready. Each zombie pugilist sat astoned, cleaned of the ravages of the battle, astride his faithful stool. At my signal, well after the town was fast asleep, a caravan of somnambulist squabblers floated ghost-like through the byways and alleys, each reveler transported to his own bed, perchance to dream, but certainly not to remember the night’s carnage. I looked forward to the purgation of the ensuing day’s fast. Only Eckhart and Levi would recollect the evening’s mayhem. Upon The Redemption, each sought out the other to regale him of the tale once again. From irony to bliss. And miles to go between.

*    *    *    *    *

Rav Krishna closed the time-worn tome, nestled it to his chest, shut his eyes and rocked back and forth on his heels in silence. Outside the visitors lounge the first intimations of dawn pierced the still dark Eastern sky. Eyes sealed, he distilled a tune that sublimed gradually from the depths of his kishkes, the well of his innermost, rippled through the diaphragm and condensed in both lungs until it burbled out lips and tongue. As the words came spilling out, his eyes fluttered open and he nodded in rhythm. A sympathetic wave of head-bobbing propagated across the sea of bodies in the room. Keli Atah, v’odecha, Elokai aromamekha. Keli Atah, v’odecha, Elokai aromamekha. Hodu l’Adonai ki-i-i-i tov, ki l’olam ha-a-a-asdo. Hodu l’Adonai ki-i-i-i tov, ki l’olam ha-a-a-asdo. Over and over, the haunting minor mode niggun. The founder of the Rav’s hassidic dynasty, the Baal HaTanya, had first put that soul to paper three centuries earlier. Gratitude, the breath of life, unbounded kindness. Every element in the room buzzing in harmony. Swirling eddies of improvisational scat and a spirit of optimism, sweet to relentless.

 As the tune damped down to a smattering of mumbled ai-yai-yais, the Rav called upon his well-wishers, his roomful of chevrusas, serious study partners to a one, to attend his concluding word. Chevre, he smiled, one crazy book, nu? Heads nodded, exhausted but strangely sated. Don’t think about it too much. Just take it in, let it sit in your kishkes for a little while before you even try to say anything about it. You have all been the greatest of blessings to Sita and me this night of learning and camaraderie. And most of all, I believe we have loaded up our baby boy with your abundant spirit. May he ride the crest of our love into the uncertain times to come, and may he cultivate that spirit in the service of beleaguered humanity’s future. A somnambulant chorus of amen, amen with the downing of the last of the Boyd & Blair. 

About the Author
Michael Diamond is a writer based in the Washington, DC area. He practices psychiatry there and is a doctor of medical qigong. He has published verse, fiction and translation in Andrei Codrescu’s journal, The Exquisite Corpse; in the journal Shirim courtesy of Dryad Press; in the online journal for Akashic Press; in New Mexico Review and in The Journal of the American Medical Association. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, an artist and illuminator of Hebrew manuscripts, their dog, two cats, a cockatiel named Peaches and a tank of hyperactive fish. He has had a strong interest in Torah since first exposed to traditional stories as a child. Over the course of his life he has run the gamut of spiritual exploration of many world traditions of meditation and mythology. For the last several decades he has landed squarely in the traditional Jewish world. His writing is informed by all of this experience, by his curiosity about today's world and by his desire to mine the Jewish experience for its hidden and revealed wisdom. Torah Obscura, as in camera obscura, from Latin, meaning "dark room", also referred to as a pinhole camera, exploiting the optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene outside of a chamber projects itself through a small hole and can be seen on the inner surface of the chamber. A glimpse of an otherwise invisible world afforded by a small aperture for light. All materials herein copyright © 2018 Michael S. Diamond. All rights reserved.
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