by Shai Afsai
part 1 of 2
When he departs from this world, a man discards not only the possessions he has gained through years of honest or deceitful toil, but also the physical instrument of their acquisition. According to Jewish custom, this well- or ill-used body is to be buried without delay.
It takes time, however, to arrange a funeral, notify relatives, gather the late man’s acquaintances, and attend to other details surrounding a burial. During this period between a person’s death and the return of his body to the earth, the remains are to be watched over. Why, and what for, we can come to later.
In the past, before my time, a relative or associate of the deceased probably discharged this duty. But so vast is the disintegration of familial and societal ties that has beset mankind, not leaving even the sphere of religious obligations untouched, that a person can no longer be confident that family or friends will console him in this regard after the hour of his passing. If this does not mean much to you now, such matters gain in importance the more one gains in years.
Sometimes it happens that family or friends are unavailable, are busy, are away; but even when they are not, I think we can admit that guarding a corpse is a task many people would rather avoid. So varied and numerous are the ways by which a man is capable of winning the bread he eats in this world, that a person may be salaried to watch the dead. This was the case with Ganzenberg.
Before continuing, let me first assure you I am not the kind to invent the things you will hear out of the air. But whether or not you choose to believe this tale, what does it matter to me? A man reaches an age when he tells stories even if he knows no one is listening. At least I have an audience.
In a one-bedroom basement apartment, equidistant from a kosher Chinese restaurant and a Jewish funeral home, lived Josh Ganzenberg. At these two places of business, he, twenty-seven years of age, made his modest living. At the restaurant, he was a mashgiach — a religious supervisor; at the funeral home, he was a shomer — a guard or watchman.
This restaurant, called The Cho-Zen, was owned by two Koreans, managed by a Hmong, and employed several undocumented Cambodian cooks. The Cho-Zen was under rabbinic supervision, and required Ganzenberg’s services in order to maintain its kosher credentials.
From the first cook’s arrival at dawn until the last soy-soaked bag of trash was removed at night, Ganzenberg or a fellow mashgiach was there, ensuring that the restaurant’s gentile operators adhered stringently to Jewish dietary laws on the premises.
None were allowed to so much as cook a noodle without the presence of a supervisor, lest the Orthodox Rabbinic Council revoke its certificate. And I don’t have to tell you what happens to a Chinese restaurant outside of China if Jews stop frequenting it.
Being a mashgiach meant that Ganzenberg had a good deal of spare time on his hands in the course of a workday. True, he could not leave the restaurant, but his duties there were few. Occasionally, he was called upon to crack eggs (“You crack egg”) and verify that there was no blood in them. Sometimes he would be asked to rinse broccoli, bok choy, or some other green (“You wash vegetable”) and determine that no insects remained.
But for the most part, Ganzenberg spent his days at The Cho-Zen reading, watching the preparation of Chinese food, and eating it free of charge. What he read, we can come to later. What he ate is unimportant.
At night, and sometimes during the day, Ganzenberg also worked as a shomer — a guard or watchman, as I mentioned — at Schwartz’s Memorial Chapel, the Jewish funeral home near his one-bedroom basement apartment.
Now, if you ask me how I know so much about Ganzenberg, I will tell you that if you are an old man, you find yourself beginning to spend an inordinate amount of time at funeral homes bidding farewell to people you cared about. There comes a day when you know more people inside the cemetery than out of it. And if you are an old man who did not know what it was to make so much as a cup of tea during all his married years, and whose wife has passed away, you also find yourself eating a lot of Chinese food at The Cho-Zen. At these places, I met Ganzenberg and learned about his life.
It is said that a person seldom anticipates the hour of his own death. Yet, Ruben Katz, age twenty-seven, awoke on Friday morning from a fearful sleep, one of the worst he could remember, feeling deeply that perhaps on this day it would be wise to stay at home and avoid the world. Such is mammon’s pull on man, however, that thirty minutes later Ruben was heading to work, stepping briskly onto a bus, and reaching into his pocket to pull out the quarters and dimes necessary to make one dollar and eighty-five cents.
As exact change revealed itself in his open palm, he complimented himself on disregarding his earlier premonition and allowed himself to believe that maybe this would be a great day after all. And indeed, it would be, for someone, somewhere, but alas, not for Ruben Katz.
Ruben moved toward the back of the bus and seated himself across from an attractive young woman — Vietnamese or Laotian, perhaps, or Cambodian. He could not tell for sure. She wore a short, black, one-piece dress over black stockings, and black pumps. Ruben made sure she wasn’t looking before taking in her legs and thighs for a long moment. She was beautiful, and her beauty set his mind to dreaming.
They fell passionately in love. She did not speak English very well, but that was no impediment to communicating the intensity of their feelings for each other. In fact, it helped. He was in her parents’ kitchen at a table laden with Asian cuisine, which he ate respectfully with chopsticks as her family chatted in Khmer.
After the meal, he squatted with her father and uncles, short, lank, wiry men with dirt under their fingernails, and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes in the living room with them while the women cleaned up in the kitchen.
Although hesitant, at first, the family quickly grew to like the American she had brought home, who was curious and respectful of their customs, although woefully incapable of picking up even the most rudimentary elements of their language. The plump mother, in particular, became as fond of him as of her own sons.
The bus came to a halt, waking Ruben from his reverie, and the woman disembarked. Re-buttoning his coat, Ruben prepared to get off at the next stop. His final thoughts were of how he would like to have a hot dog, heavy on the relish, and maybe a milkshake, before work.
As he stepped onto the sidewalk, a young man built like a linebacker, who was running to catch the bus, accidentally plowed him down, and Ruben was knocked into the curb, head first. Seconds later, he was dead. Thus concluded Ruben’s life, a promising career in advertising, and plans for breakfast.
At eleven a.m. Ganzenberg was awakened from an early Friday morning nap by Mr. Schwartz, the funeral director, who informed him that one Ruben Katz had died earlier in the day. Ganzenberg took an active interest in his work, at both the restaurant and the funeral home.
“What did he die from?”
“A man trying to get the bus pushed him over and cracked his skull. He had few living relatives, but a great-uncle is taking care of the costs. This uncle’s in Chicago, and when he flies in on Sunday we’ll have the funeral. Until then, I need a shomer.”
“I’m your man.”
Ganzenberg’s shift would begin about an hour before sundown on Friday evening, and conclude shortly after the end of Shabbos, when another shomer would relieve him. This was a lengthy shift, but Ganzenberg’s duties were few. He was to read psalms in order to comfort the deceased — who still maintained a connection to his body and was concerned over it — and to elevate his soul.
What Ganzenberg did with the rest of his time, so long as he kept inside the funeral home, was up to him. Mostly, he read. It used to be that a person was needed to protect the dead from rodents and body snatchers, but these are now less of a problem. Still, it is essential that even after death, a Jew should not be left without another Jew to console him.
Now, Ganzenberg had a girlfriend, a pretty lady twenty-four years of age, by the name of Rebecca Leipan. Even a person who would miss the sun in the morning or the moon in the middle of the night could not help but notice that this meydle was getting it into her head that Ganzenberg should soon be proposing. Given that the theme of both of Ganzenberg’s professions was constant observation, Rebecca’s new proclivity did not escape him, either.
When a young woman starts to acquire such matrimonial sentiments, she sets about trying to make the man she has selected into someone she can live with. You understand what I am saying. My own wife did this with me; Eve did it to Adam.
Here is the man, she says to herself, as he is: he dresses like this, he acts like that, he has these dreams, he has those hopes. Then she tries to transform him, to alter him like a pair of ill-fitting pants with all the tools of her seamstress-sex. Sometimes she succeeds.
With Ganzenberg, Rebecca was not succeeding. The man appeared content to live in his basement apartment, eat Chinese food, and watch the dead until the day when someone would have to watch him. This did not suit Rebecca. For that reason, also, Ganzenberg did not mind having to spend Shabbos in the funeral home. He would have a little peace from her.
Ganzenberg arrived at the funeral home a good half-hour before Shabbos. Schwartz was in his office, on the phone, trying without success to ascertain the whereabouts of a shipment of eight hundred yarmulkes that were to have arrived one week ago. He motioned for Ganzenberg to take a seat across from him.
“Look, you bastards, I ordered those yarmulkes fourteen days ago. Two weeks. I have a funeral here on Sunday and I don’t have my yarmulkes. What kind of a circus are you clowns running?”
The woman on the other end said something that made Schwartz roll his eyes. He leaned back in his chair and gestured for Ganzenberg to bring him a cup of water from the cooler.
“Lady, an employee of mine is getting me a cup of water. By the time I finish drinking the water in that cup, I better have word from you that my yarmulkes will be here on Sunday even if old man Jakobowitz has to drive them down himself Saturday night. Is that clear?”
Ganzenberg handed Schwartz the cup. “She has me on hold,” said Schwartz, sipping the water slowly. “Business isn’t business anymore, Ganzenberg. You remember what I’m saying. Jakobowitz roasts in the Florida sun with his mistress, leaves his fool of a son to steer the ship, and I don’t get my yarmulkes. Family isn’t family and business isn’t business.”
The woman said something and Schwartz nodded. “Good. You do that.” He hung up the phone and finished his water. “Well, Ganzenberg, let me show you your charge.”
Although Schwartz was universally regarded as an unpleasant man — except, perhaps, by the dead with whom he worked, and from whom, he often repeated, he had never heard any complaints — and in turn, seemed to find most men detestable, he did not dislike Ganzenberg. Maybe it was his utter lack of financial aspirations that somehow made Ganzenberg tolerable, his air of complete indifference to worldly matters. Schwartz had been ambitious as a youth and had had lofty dreams.
What did they get for him, those dreams and ambitions? Ordering yarmulkes at five-thirty on a Friday afternoon at the age of seventy? Getting divorced from a weary wife who was no longer willing to share him with his work? Owning a business that his children had no interest in entering?
“Here he is,” said Schwartz, opening the door of the refrigerator room. Ruben Katz lay on his back, clad in a white burial shroud, sleeping the sleep of death. “He was only twenty-seven. Worked in advertising. A real shame. Don’t forget to set the timer in your room, Ganzenberg. You don’t want to sit in the dark all Shabbos. We had a shomer who worked here once that did that, you know — forgot all about the Shabbos timer.”
Ganzenberg had been hearing the sermon-like story of this shomer several times a month for several years, and hoped Schwartz would not repeat it now. With each prolonged narration, new vile and contemptible traits attached themselves to the careless shomer’s personality, while Schwartz’s keen powers of prognostication, allowing him to realize the watchman’s true nature even before the moment of his hiring, grew in kind. Shabbos would be starting soon and Ganzenberg wanted to settle in.
“The man was absent-minded, Ganzenberg,” Schwartz began. “I could tell this the second I saw him. I knew right away he was one of those fellows who would forget his own name if people weren’t always calling him by it. He had a sleepy, sloppy look about him, like an alcoholic or a...”
Schwartz paused, distracted by something on the carpet. “I just had the cleaners in here yesterday,” he said, bending to pick it up.
Upon rising, Schwartz held a narrow piece of red string, the length of a paper clip, between his forefinger and thumb. He inspected it contemptuously. “What is this? What are they doing? Bringing the dirt in with them instead of taking it out? I hire them to remove the filth and the bastards spread it around? Business isn’t business, Ganzenberg.”
Schwartz shoved the string in his pocket and unlocked the door of the shomer’s sleeping quarters, which contained a long couch, a small fridge, a table, and two chairs.
“How’s your lady friend, Ganzenberg?”
“Rebecca’s fine.” Ganzenberg tossed his duffel bag onto the couch, and began placing his stock of Chinese food, beer, and soda into the fridge. A few books, including a prayer book, a Book of Psalms, and a tattered copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, lay among his change of underwear and socks at the bottom of the bag.
“Good. You hold on to that one. She’s a real beauty. Well, you have a good Shabbos, Ganzenberg.”
“You too, Mr. Schwartz. Good Shabbos.”
Copyright © 2012 by Shai Afsai