Guide for the Perplexed
Ernie Levinson went to the rear of the market where Shifrah Fienberg was preparing the sesame chicken casserole. The dish was one of the market’s most popular items, especially during the summer months, since it could be served cool and invigorating directly from the refrigerator. “I’ve fallen in love,” he spoke morosely, “and want you for my wife.”
The Israeli woman never even bothered to lift her eyes from the chicken breast she was dicing with a Mercer eight-inch, chef’s special. Shifrah brought the knife to work each day in a leather carrying case. Forged from high carbon, German steel, the paper-thin blade was razor-sharp. If she inadvertently left it out on the cutting surface during coffee break, no one among the help would go near the lethal weapon.
“A date or a dozen roses might be a bit more appropriate.”
“Okay, I’ll take you out to dinner this weekend… a swanky Italian restaurant on Federal Hill.” He gazed at the small, olive-complected woman with the short-cropped, black hair and pinched features. She wasn’t pretty. If anything, Shifrah had an insular, tetchy disposition that held coworkers at arm’s length. She seldom initiated conversations, was brief and crabby when spoken to. Her saving grace – the woman was wizard with herbs, spices, exotic oils and condiments.
Reaching for a plate full of steamed cabbage, she tossed the shredded vegetable in with the chicken. “That doesn’t work for me.”
“Your reputation precedes you, Ernie.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
The woman drizzled a handful of chopped almonds over the concoction then reached for a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. “How many woman have you slept with in the past month?”
“A few… not many,” he blustered, tripping over the words.
Eight girls – Ernie had slept with eight different girls over the past four weeks. More to the point, the number of nights he slept alone could be counted on the fingers of one hand with several digits to spare. “All that’s changed,” he croaked. “I’ll take a vow of celibacy.”
Shifrah raised her eyes from the food and glanced vaguely in his direction. “You think that because you’re the owner’s son, you can intimidate me?”
“A date… that’s all I’m asking.”
She tasted the food, added a teaspoon of sugar and tasted again. “Pitgum… how do you say?” She was fumbling for the proper term in English. “Pitgum, pitgum… a story that teaches a lesson.”
“I don’t know.” Ernie was becoming emotionally unhinged. “A fable or parable.”
“Two little boys decide to play hide and seek. One says, ‘Go hide somewhere and I’ll count to a hundred and come look for you. The youth starts counting, but long before he reaches a hundred he hears the other boy crying. He goes to him and asks, “What’s the matter?’ and his friend replies, ‘I hid and no one came looking for me.’”
For the first time since Ernie accosted the woman, Shifrah looked him full in the face. “The other boy says, ‘Now you know how God feels.’”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
The Israeli woman shifted her grip on the handle and brought the knife down, full force, in the center of the maple, butcher block table, burying the blade an inch into the hardwood surface. “Leave me alone or I’ll quit on the spot, and you can explain to your father why his best food preparer went to work for the competition.”
Later that night at home, Ernie confided to his father, “I’m in love with Shifrah Fienberg.”
Saul Levinson rubbed his jaw with a stubby hand. He was a short man, squat but powerfully built. A petulant, gruff outward manner masked an emotional softness. “No, you don’t want her for a soul mate. Find another bride.” Mr. Levinson had eased down on the sofa in preparation for the evening news. Each night he gorged on thirty minutes of war, pestilence, public mayhem and insanity before taking a shower and getting ready for bed. “Damaged goods... a woman with a broken spirit, that’s what she is. You want to start life with a freakin’ albatross like that weighing you down?”
“Why is she damaged goods?” Ernie demanded.
“It’s complicated.” Mr. Levinson flicked off the news midway through the third story and retreated to the bathroom where he washed his face, patting the skin dry with a moist washcloth before smearing a layer of shaving cream over his plump cheeks.
Trailing on his father’s heels, Ernie lowered the toilet seat and sat down. “The Fienberg woman... what’s the big mystery?”
Mr. Levinson reached for his twin razor. “She lived on a kibbutz, a communal farm in the upper Galilee. They tended orchards... mostly oranges, grapefruit, apples and pears.”
“She told you this?”
“No. She don’t never say nothing about her past. The Fienberg woman’s a closed book… an emotional cadaver. I gleaned the information second hand from one of her coworkers so the facts may not be a hundred percent reliable.”
He ran the blade tentatively down the right side of his face away from the sideburn. “Moslem terrorists infiltrated the kibbutz... stole down from the Golan Heights on the Syrian side, attacking the defenseless farmers in the middle of the night. When the dust settled, eight kibbutzniks along with her mother and father lay dead. A twin sister had her throat slashed.” The short man cleaned the stubble from under his chin. “Shifrah Fienberg lost faith... in God, humanity, the universe. She’s an empty vessel – a regular luftmensch if ever there was one.”
Saul Levinson pivoted on his bare feet and shook the soggy razor at his son soberly. “Weltschmertz… you know what that is?” When there was no reply the older man continued. “Welt - world, schmertz – pain. The pain and suffering of the universe… Shifrah Fienberg’s got a terminal case of weltschmertz. You don’t want nothin’ to do with a tragic character like her.” Mr. Levinson finished shaving and splashed Old Spice aftershave on the smooth skin.
“What’s this?” The first week in September, Ernie showed up at Shifrah Fienberg’s apartment with a dozen roses.
“I’m still in love with you. Nothing’s changed.”
“Yes, well nothing’s changed on my part either,” she replied with a guttural inflection. Tossing the flowers on the coffee table, several rolled off onto the shag carpet. The woman was wearing flannel pajamas, her freshly washed hair wrapped like a turban in a white, terrycloth towel. “Thank you for the lovely flowers. Chalamoat paz.”
“What does that mean?”
“I dream in shades of gray since you rejected me.”
The Israeli woman had rubbed a moisturizer into her skin, which glistened with an oily sheen. “Don’t foist your dirty laundry on me.”
Several more flowers dangling precariously on the lip of the coffee table slid off onto the floor. “Since when did unrequited love become dirty laundry?”
“I haven’t slept with a woman in three months.”
“Go away or I’ll call the police,” Shifrah growled, slamming the door shut.
The week of Thanksgiving Ernie cornered Ruthie Adleman in the bakery wing of the market. “You’re on decent terms with Shifrah?”
Ruthie, a skinny, florid woman who suffered from chronic roseola, was pulling a tray of cinnamon raisin bagels from the oven. “That poor woman... she’s been to hell and back.”
“I heard about the terrorists,” Ernie confirmed.
Ruthie gawked at him. “What’s that?” Ernie recounted what he learned from his father, but the woman with the blotchy complexion shook her head vehemently. “No, that never happened. You got it all wrong.”
Ruthie went and got a tub of cream cheese shot through with chive. Tearing a steamy bagel in half, she handed a piece to Ernie. “Before moving to the States, Shifrah lived in a Jewish enclave near the Arab sector of Hebron. One of the Jewish militants, a messianic crackpot, took an Uzi machine gun and went on a rampage... slaughtered an Arab woman and three children on their way to market.” Ruthie slathered the warm crust with cream cheese and took a bite.
“That’s nothing like the story I was told,” Ernie noted.
“There’s a ton of downright lies and imaginations run amuck where Shifrah Fienberg is concerned.” Ruthie rubbed at a patch of inflamed skin running down the side of her nose. “She sure is one hell of a cook, though!”
Because the bulk of their employees were non-Jewish, The Levinsons held an annual Christmas party, a small, catered affair at the Marriot Hotel. “You lived on a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee?” Ernie inquired.
“Wherever did you hear such a thing,” Shifrah Fienberg exclaimed. She wore a simple, strapless back dress with a Star of David on a gold chain and no makeup whatsoever.
“From someone that works at the store,” he hedged.
“Well it’s not true.”
“I also heard that you spent time on a settlement in the occupied Arab territories.”
“More lies,” she confirmed with a note of finality. “I came from Nazareth... the new city, not the Biblical town further down the valley.”
Ernie lowered his voice so that none of the other guests would hear. “I’m still in love and want to marry you.”
“Of, God!” she groaned. “Will you ever leave me in peace?” In the far corner of the room a piano trio was playing a medley of Christmas carols at a brisk tempo. “Go study Maimonides,” she muttered in a dismissive tone.
“He wrote a book, Darach ha’Nivoochim… a Guide for the Perplexed. You’re behaving very odd lately. Maybe the book will help you sort things out.”
A week later Ernie approached the Israeli woman as she was leaving work for the day. “The Maimonides... I found a copy of the book at the local library but couldn’t make any sense of it.”
“It was written in the tenth century based on Talmudic law.” She unlocked the key to her car and slid the black leather bag containing her knife onto the passenger seat.
“Yes, but what’s the underlying message?”
“According to Maimonides, in order to become free in this world one must become a slave to the laws of God.” She turned the engine over and rolled down the window.
“And how does that work for you?”
Flicking on the windshield wipers, an inch of powdery snow flew off the windshield. “I’m not a believer,” she eased the car into reverse, “so The Guide for the Perplexed holds absolutely no relevance.”
The week after New Years, Mr. Levinson went into the back of the kitchen. “Am I a good boss?”
Shifrah smiled indulgently. “Yes, of course!” The market was trying to appeal to Hispanic clientele with a new offering - Mexican Delight. The casserole contained sautéed ground beef, basmati rice, scallions – both the diced tops and pearlescent bulbs – along with mild chili peppers and salsa.“Sure, you’re a peach!”
“In eight and a half years, I never took liberties or treated you unfairly?”
“Then marry my goddamn son.”
Shifrah scooped the scallions she was chopping with her Mercer eight-inch chef’s special and sprinkled them over the orangey rice. “I layered a bed of tortilla chips on the bottom for flavor and crunch,” she noted as an afterthought. “It also adds to the presentation.”
“Levinsons is a family supermarket.” He ignored the remark. “Marry Ernie and become family in the literal sense.”
Shifrah Fienberg breathed out heavily. “A while back, your son offered to take me to some fancy-schmancy restaurant on Federal Hill.”
“It’s not enough.” Mr. Levinson’s voice was beginning to crack. He stepped closer and put his paw of a hand over her wrist. “Even marriage won't suffice. He wants you for eternity… in this world and the next.”
Shifrah took a slender wooden spatula and lifted a small amount of the Mexican Delight from the bowl. “Taste.” The older man tasted the rice dish. “Does it need anything?”
“No, it’s fine. Maybe a little sea salt… I dunno.”
“B’tabaat zu, art mikoodashat lee,” Shifrah spoke the ancient Hebrew verse in a singsong cadence. “With this ring, I thee wed.” She kept her eyes lowered and continued in a hushed monotone. “With this ring art mikoodashat lee… You are beloved… sacred unto me.”
“From the Aramaic Hebrew… that’s the original meaning?” He tightened his grip on the woman’s hand. “My son cherishes you; he worships you from afar.”
“Yes, then I’ll marry him,” Shifrah said. “I’ll be his wife and your daughter-in-law.”
In the far corner of Levinson’s Whole Food Market, Ernie was stacking vine-ripened tomatoes on a bin alongside the Italian plum variety. The tastier, native-grown vegetables that through the summer months sold for a dollar less a pound had disappeared from the market by the middle of October. The older man pressed her close and kissed his future daughter-in-law on the cheek. “Why don’t we go break the good news to the future groom?”