Michael S. Diamond
Torah Obscura

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 Secularistes wrangle for the primacy of their Beliefes. In the end only Rav Levi ben Gershon and Meister Eckhart keep their Wit. The tropes that are Warpe and Woofe to the Social Fabrick rapidly and irrevocably fray 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 seek their womb in the world.

*    *    *    *    *

This time there will be no forgiveness. Three years ago, thirteen-ought-six, there had been yet another expulsion, but I hang onto the inn as my mother had hung onto it the last time the Jews were unceremoniously invited to leave Paris, when I was just a child, in 1282. During the current balagan, the French King has wrung every last sou out of the departing Jews, in addition to gobbling up for himself 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 keep the name in honor of her magical instrument, La Huichette D’Or. The street has borne that name as long as anyone can remember. Maman received intelligence from her constabulary sources that there would be a mass arrest—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, the prior expulsions from our native soil, the Holy Land, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. Venal King Philip chose the very same date to expel us yet again, this time from the corrupt kingdom of the Gauls. The Jew, as always, the eternal Other.

In anticipation of the forced exodus, the family quietly pooled its resources and transferred the assets to a distant uncle in Avignon, Reb Levi ben Gershon, a man of unquestioned genius. Uncle Levi, in the quiet of his observatory, had single-handedly disproven 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 voilà, 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. Remember Galileo. As soon as Reb Levi purchased a small property in Avignon for our family, and found a part-time teaching position 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 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 mastery of the golem—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. It may not have been the most profound use of Tante Chana’s magic, but it kept the family in sardines and challah while in exile. More than a few fat friars graced my tables for the sheer pleasure of my cuisine. Three years on, in 1309, the expulsion is still in place and I am growing weary of toadying to the crowd of highbrow chazers, the tamed boars who crowd my chambers. But the family is barely eking out a living in Avignon. My sisters take in sewing and mending, my brothers chop wood, and my poor maman was put to work as a maid in the papal residence. I am heartbroken, but see no alternative solution to the fix we are in. Relief from the drudgery comes as a rogue wave of notable foreign scholars washes up on the banks of the Seine in 1309. I can’t believe my good fortune that they actually all showed up more or less at the same time. The news from other quarters of the globe is endlessly fascinating. If contact among disparate cultures is the source of fertility of mind, La Huichette D’Or is a veritable mountain of fertilizer. And my wandering people its most ardent shovelers. But the most interesting soiree by far that year is, ironically, the eve of Tisha B’Av.

It’s a depressing day to begin with. And I feel that I have reached an all time personal spiritual nadir. It is from this sordid time in my life that I earned the not so affectionate eponym, Le Pécheur, The Sinner. A simple change from accent aigu to a circumflex would render me ‘The Fisher’, but alas, we are what we do. I am beginning to wonder whether there is 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, even escargot—to fatuous friars and mendacious priests. I am in a choleric humour today, dangerously inclined to lashon hara, the evil tongue. But I have to keep it to myself, put a good face on it and play host to the evening’s pilgrims. It is only a short while to sundown, so I slink off to the back kitchen to scarf down my last meal. I slump onto my wooden stool, a leaden statue with one elbow on the table, as I consume the dessert du jour—a roasted egg rolled in ash, chased with a piece of stale bread and a gulp of water. Symbol of the destroyed Temple. Better ashes than curses in my mouth. For me the fast has begun, though sundown is still a little ways off.

There are only two or three solitary souls in the dining room at the time, each nursing his pint of mead blissfully unaware of the presence of the others. Suddenly I hear a distinctly Jewish-inflected voice call out, “What does a neshama have to do to get service in this place?” I poke my head into the dining room, fearful for the safety of whoever is so guileless as to cry out in tzarfati dialect in Juden-frei Paris. Mon Dieu! It is my Uncle Levi, in full rabbinic regalia, sitting ramrod straight at a table in the midst of my house of treif. I am horrified. I compose myself, drape a serviette over my left arm, and sashay over to his table as quickly as I can without arousing suspicion. “Mon seigneur, to what do we owe the honor of a visit from such an estimable personage as yourself?” Followed, sotto voce, by “What in Gehinnom are you doing here, Uncle? Do you have any idea how dangerous it is for you to be in Paris?” I look around nervously. As my eyes return to my uncle’s visage, I am startled by how young and innocent he looks.

Standing next to this giant of science, philosophy and theology, I am suddenly aware of the prematurely aged kitchen scullion that I am, though nearly the same age as he, short a few years. My mother’s baby brother, younger by nearly a score of years, the holy RaLbaG himself, 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 adds, sotto voce, “And perhaps a bit of beef tongue from your ‘second kitchen’ if it were to be had.” I smile an undoubtedly dyspeptic smile, kiss my uncle on the hand and excuse myself to the kitchen. Once inside I collapse against the door in a pool of sweat. My uncle, genius that he is, is clearly out of touch with the mortal threat of being identified as a Jew in defiance of the expulsion decree from the City of Paris. I compose myself and set the second kitchen ‘to work’ on my uncle’s delicate request.

Mop brow, plaster smile on face, and stride out to Reb Levi, every footfall echoing in my ears. I balance his glass of Aquavit and a platter of beef tongue. In my absence, a small crowd has wandered into La Huichette and taken up battle stations at a few tables scattered throughout the room. “God be with you, gentlemen, what is your pleasure here?” I scurry from table to table, offering the customary greeting. The first table I accost is peopled by an odd threesome. The one in charge bears the mien and attire of a high status Eastern monk. He is in the company of a large scowling Mongol in Persian costume and an Italian banker. The monk mutters to the banker and vice versa. Rising before the smiling monk, the banker turns and gestures to the whole room, “His Eminence, Rabban Markos, would like to offer a toast to his former teacher, Rabban Bar Sauma, who once patronized this very house twenty years ago when he was the guest of your king for an entire month. Gentlemen, 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 bobbles his hoary head, smiles expansively and lifts his glass to the assembled multitude. The crowd that has gathered by then all gargle their approval. My mother had been running the inn when she met this man’s mentor, Bar Sauma, a remarkable world traveler. He’d left her a copy of his expansively 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. How I was transfixed by those exotic tales, translated into the French by Maman. So this Eastern monk Markos is Mar Yahbh-Allaha III, the Patriarch of the Eastern Church!

By now, at the time of The Redemption from which I pen this tale, I know as well as anyone that His Eminence failed in his unifying mission. Humanity’s inability to play well with others continues to the bitter end. So it was as well, just before The Redemption occurs, when the AIs conclude that the cost benefit ratio for maintaining the last human colony on earth is 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, represents the Persian Ilkhanate, home to sophisticated academies of astronomy and mathematics that my uncle would no doubt love to visit. The Ilkhanate is looking for an alliance against the Mamluks as well. In spite of the fact that their Turkic rulers are coreligionists with the Ilkhanate’s Moslems, he knows them to be the descendants of slaves, unfit for world domination.

Before I have time to complete the ingathering of my thoughts along with my breath, I am immediately assailed by yet another member of the Italian laity at an adjoining table. “Mio huomo! Enough of those inflated papists. Can an honest free-thinking intellectual get something to eat and drink here?” I snap my gaze in the direction of the voice and confront 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 smiles sagely at his companions who smile back with forced mirth. “Why, your fair 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 trivialities to the church, no?”

Marsilius, rather pleased with himself, folds both hands on the table in front of him as if to beckon further audience. I bow from the waist. “And what will monseigneur le Padovan have to eat, if I may ask?” He eyes me with more than a little condescension. “Tripe, the Florentine way. Do you have it?” I bow curtly and reply, “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 smile blandly. “As for the rest of you gentleman?” I gesture to his sycophantic table companions, but Marsilius interrupts, “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 sits back, tickled with his own cleverness. I’ve already turned on my heel with a curt nod, both irritated and amused, when I spy a table of three young rakes taunting an older scholar who is clearly holding his own. Curious about their manifestly inebriated discourse, I sidle a bit closer for the entertainment of it.

“Master Philippe Vitry,” Buridanus, the most raucous of the three rakes, shouts, “I toast you, very like a window, une vitre, onto the musical landscape of our age! I drink to the radical wonder of Ars Nova and to your health as long as the good Lord may let you fog the mirror!” He raises his pint of mead to the distinguished young composer of experimental music. “And verily and forsooth you are an arse nova, the horse’s cousin!” snorts de Muris, the dandy at Vitry’s other elbow, to Buridanus, ”a most intolerable pun on our young musical genius’s town of origin. Vitry, vitre! Comprends? Most rich, don’t you think? Or do you find it toooo… vitry-olic! Whoah, I say, did you catch it, my hoary liege, Monsieur Jacobus of Liège?” he mews with exaggerated deference to the elder of the two composers. ”Vitre for Vitry–hee-hee-hee! Good one Johannes!” he perseverates, a steady drool of mead running down his chin. Buridanus, in comparable mead-fueled hilarity, takes up the gauntlet of inanity, “And you with your ‘my lieeeege’,” he sniggers as he stumbles to his feet to offer a dramatic bow and flourish. “A capital jest on our elder’s birthplace, our most modest and abstemious critic, defender of Ars Antiqua, our ancient lieeeege from Lièèèège!” An explosion of drunken guffaws. The more senior, and sober, musical theorist, Jacob of Liège, carefully places his pint on the table, folds his hands around the flagon and looks with pursed lips and dramatic disapprobation upon his juniors. Momentarily silenced, they attend him with bloodshot eyes. “I, in sound and sober state, merely rest in counterpoise 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.” Silence.

About to skulk back into the kitchen to perpetuate the illusion that there is actually a staff at work in there with whom I must have congress, my eye fixes itself upon a singularly striking German Dominican with a kindly, albeit ethereal, air about him. He is seated with, of all people, William of Paris, Inquisitor of France, nemesis of Templars and Jews. The German smiles most pleasantly as he catches my eye. The Inquisitor interposes himself and motions me near, “My friend Eckhart inhabits realms other than that in which you and I dwell. I’m afraid I must order vittles for the both of us. Rabbit stew and a couple of meads will do nicely.” It is then that I notice the plush gray fur that poofs out from his collar and sleeves. A pair of rabbits for the fox’s lunch! The influence of the vulpine Inquisitor rivals the authority of foul King Philip. “Post haste, your eminence,” as I bow and make to scurry off. But when I spin to go, I am confronted by the sight of an elderly Spanish medical man stooped at my uncle’s table. What else my guileless uncle might say? I rush over to Uncle Levi’s elbow in a few quick bounds, to intervene if called for.

As I arrive, I hear the Spaniard exhorting my uncle, “Aqua vitae! I highly approve. It prolongs good health, dissipates superfluous humours, reanimates the heart and maintains youth.” I breathe a sigh of relief. Just another blowhard. I give him a wry smile, “Monsieur le médecin, que c’est-que vous voulez?” He raises his furry brows at me and exclaims, “Why I’d like to have an Aqua vitae with this extraordinarily learned young scholar!” With that he plops himself down at my uncle’s table. As he sees me staring at him in a state of some small alarm, he adds, “Young man, I am a doctor, Arnaldus of Villanova. What ails you?” I shake off my momentary cataplexy and assure him, “Monsieur le médecin, I am quite well. Nothing a little Aqua vitae couldn’t remedy.” My uncle then turns to Arnaldus with a droll smile and pats 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 claps 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 indicates the other denizens of the establishment. My uncle, usually the soul of discretion, bursts into belly laughs, and the old geezer whinnies in counterpoint.

At last I fall back into the kitchen and clutch my chest to stifle the rapid beating of my heart. The first round of orders is already underway. Tante Chana taught me well. Hanging back to create a judicious delay, I grab the waiting tray of drinks and dash out for another sortie. As soon as I enter the room I spot 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 speed over to them with my tray of drinks to find a way to ease the awkwardness of the situation. “Gentleman!” I smile at the two, “May I suggest that, in honor of the conviviality of the evening, you introduce yourselves to one another and discover the first rate 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 observes dourly, “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 places his fingers on the back of the chair before him. The ancient Spaniard raises an eyebrow as he makes to sit as well, “And what do you call yourself, my eminently logical young pup?”

The Brit tilts his head ever so slightly, without actually making eye contact, “William.” Long pause. “Of Ockham.” His elder extends a hand, which he must let drop for want of reciprocation, but powers on, “A fellow Franciscan! Ramon Llul. Also known as Doctor Illuminatus, a name conferred by one of your countrymen, the estimable Duns Scotus.” He collapses into the chair and emits a loud onomatopoetic harrumph. “And what brings you to this side of the Channel, my callow Englishman?” Young Ockham takes his seat, states flatly, “Last trip abroad before I matriculate at Oxford for my Master’s.” The old man waxes 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 escapes the old Spaniard’s lips. “But I threw off the entirety of my old worthless life, including my wife and children, and dedicated myself to the cause of Heaven. The conversion of heathens!”

Bored, I glance for a moment back at the rakes’ table to see what progress they have made.  I spy the elder Jacobus, with a look of exaggerated smug self-satisfaction, quaff his mead and pat the corners of his mouth with his kerchief while the others reload for the next volley of farce. Vitry, the celebrated young composer of the first toast, cannot 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? Why, ignorance, no doubt!!” With a roar they all down another pint. Then he turns 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 cry “Huzzah,” nod in agreement, a court of fools, clink flagons and down another pint of mead. The young priest wipes his non-existent mustache, smiles at the others and shakes 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 bray in chuckling approval of the one salient thought wrung from their compatriot’s otherwise soggy pate. I laugh as I turn on my heel and hurry off.

I count 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 realize, 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 suffers from no such lack, the tilt of my intention propelling it to action whenever called upon. From the vantage of The Redemption, I also know that the two Johannes’, de Muris and Buridanus, are bound for big trouble. The marvels of Quantum Universal Integrated Experiential Temporality, the technology of The Redemption. I have seen the former, an aloof and shiftless polymath, banished to Cyprus for the murder of a cleric. I witnessed the latter, a convicted Copernican and a womanizer, bound in a sack and thrown into the river Seine. Sic semper inebriotis.

Speaking of inebriates, I return to my two newest guests just in time to see Doctor Illuminatus lean close to his reluctant dinner companion, thus insuring that he sprays the young scholar 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 raises the bushy set of caterpillars that wriggle over his eyes and continues in a stage whisper, “They say it came down to them from 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 pronounces with no small drama, “I call it my Ars Magna! No more the conquest by sword, but by intellect alone!” He pokes the air and turns 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 sprint back to the kitchen, and choke back the bile that rises in my gullet, silently loathing the old fool. His forced choice Ars is 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 will go on a fool’s mission to Tunis from which he does not return alive. Dido’s revenge. Seems he is given false information that the Sultan has an interest in his Ars Magna. Fixed his Ars indeed! Cause of death: hubris. And his contraption, his Arse Magna, as I would dub one who wields such a foul ‘weapon’, the predecessor of all such tainted tools of artificial intelligence, doomed to hoist its master on his own petard. But my job, as so wonderfully stated by Arnaldus, is to slop the hogs, not to argue with them. I explode back into the dining room with what no doubt is an insane grin plastered of necessity across my face that I might deliver the goods to every table. When I reach the Illuminator’s table to deposit his undiluted intoxicant, the old Spaniard totters 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 grows deeper, his hand edging toward the dagger at his hip. I do not like the look of the brew. Suddenly the old buffoon Arnaldus stands up, mayhaps a 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 is in drawing the Illuminator’s gaze to my uncle’s table. He sets one shrewd eye on Reb Levi and immediately silences the room with his bellow. “Monseigneurs! We have an adversary in our midst, seated next my myopic compatriot Arnaldus. A marvelous mind for doctoring the body, but dubious taste in friends.” Suddenly all eyes are upon my poor ingenuous uncle. Illuminatus turns one jaundiced eye on Reb Levi, “And who, my dear sir, might Jew be?” Still seated, staring intently into his untouched wine glass, Reb Levi states crisply, “Levi ben Gershon, astronomer to the Pope at Avignon.” Then looking squarely with a disarming grin at his interrogator, “At your service.”

My God, I think to myself, this is going to its ill-starred conclusion faster than shite through a mead-soaked mendicant! I can hear the gears clicking and whirring in Fra Llul’s Arse. But before he can let fly another gaseous explosion, it is William the Inquisitor who leaps 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, shoots 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 that compels you.” His eyes dare 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, O fox in the sheepfold!” With that, Marsilius simply returns to his drink.

The Inquisitor blanches at such bald impertinence in his sphere. Rather than risk further embarrassment, he turns to his table mate for support. “My dear most temperate Meister Eckhart, what do you see in yon Levi ben Gershon’s mien? Surely an occult threat to French Christendom, no?” His companion stares dreamily in my uncle’s direction and speaks 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 is deafening. I stand frozen to the spot. As soon as I gather my wits sufficiently, I begin to inch toward the kitchen to fetch Tante Chana’s huichette. Surely if there ever was a time to recruit the aid of the Golden Trumpet, this is it. But just as my fingers reach to crack open the door who should pipe up but the pipsqueak headed for Oxford, that human clamshell William. Of Ockham.

“Ahem,” he stammers as he rises 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 nods from the other side of the room. With a conclusive set of the jaw, the young scholar makes to resume his seat. But upon the instant, the Persian Mongol, having had his fill of pietistic claptrap, unsheathes his dagger and sends it sailing toward the clueless future Oxonian. It grazes the young scholar’s face as neatly as any barber’s tool. In the muddled recollection of the evening’s badinage, the Mongol’s rejoinder is henceforth known as ‘Ockham’s close shave’ or, alternatively, ‘Ockham’s razor’.

Pandemonium ensues. As I dive for the trumpet, out of the corner of my eye I see a posse of Dominicans of evil aspect converging on Arnaldus. The Mongol and the Italian banker kick over their table and deploy it as a siege tower to shelter the Spanish doctor while advancing on the foe. The Eastern Patriarch alternately wrings his hands and cheers his comrades. Mead, mugs and mutton legs fly freely through the air. Cries of “Heretic!” and “Blasphemer!” crisscross the room. William of Paris advances and slaps Marsilius on the cheek. The latter’s Padovan companions pinion the Inquisitor against the wall, all four limbs espaliered to the max. The Defender of the Peace, as Marsilius loudly proclaims himself, grabs a bench for a battering ram and aims straight for William. The intervention of Ramon’s leather-bound Arse, aimed smartly at Marsilius’ shins, launches the Italian face first into the Inquisitor’s pudendum. The two adversaries crumple under a mound of flailing friars. Augustinians, Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans, even a stray Jesuit, all jumble in the mix. Only Eckhart and Levi sit unmoved in their seats, observing the melee as if attending a mummer’s play. Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, I place the trumpet to my lips and blow with the most focused intention I can muster. Every item in the room stops, frozen mid trajectory. Even the spittle flying from Ramon’s beard as well as 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 start to move about the room of their own accord, collecting the rump ends of all the combatants. As my grandfather would say in his obscure tzarfati dialect, a be a chair a be a tuchus. For every seat a hindquarter. The brooms and dustbins leap to the ready. Each zombie pugilist sits astoned, cleaned of the ravages of the battle, astride his faithful stool. At my signal, well after the town is fast asleep, a caravan of somnambulist squabblers floats 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 look forward to the purgation of the ensuing day’s fast. Only Eckhart and Levi will recollect the evening’s mayhem. At the time of The Redemption, it will be a point of communion for the two gentle souls. From irony to bliss. And miles to go between.

*    *    *    *    *

Rav Krishna closes the time-worn tome, touches it briefly to his lips, nestles it to his chest, shut his eyes and rocks back and forth on his heels in silence. Outside the visitors lounge the first intimations of dawn pierce the still dark Eastern sky. Eyes sealed, he distills a tune that sublimes gradually from the depths of his kishkes, the well of his innermost, ripples through the diaphragm and condenses in both lungs until it burbles out lips and tongue. As the words come spilling out, his eyes flutter open and he nods in rhythm. A sympathetic wave of head-bobbing propagates 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 bit of 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 and relentless.

As the tune damps down to a smattering of mumbled ai-yai-yais, the Rav calls upon his well-wishers, his roomful of chevrusas, serious study partners to a one, to attend his concluding word. Chevre, he smiles, one crazy book, nu? Heads nod, 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 abundance of 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. 

♠     ♠     ♠

 The reader is instructed to proceed directly to Chapter 17: Cathar Rendezvous.

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, The Deronda Review, The Atherton Review, The Blood Project, Ars Medica 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, a tank of hyperactive fish and ten-thousand honeybees. 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, 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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