The way out to The Caves cut back through the cen­ter of town. Six blocks from the traf­fic cir­cle Mt. Izmir released its pur­chase on com­merce and suc­cumbed to rur­al Ohio. Those six blocks car­ried the aging bod­ies of behe­moth Vic­to­ri­ans, pas­tels dulled by decades of win­ter and rain. The splen­dor of these var­ie­gat­ed anachro­nis­tic hous­es was tem­pered only by the yel­low murk of the bulging lawns that occlud­ed them from the streets of town, the sense that they were just a meter or so too low from being ele­vat­ed to a more regal plain. There was snow, but it was Ohio snow, not the reify­ing snow of mid-Win­ter New Eng­land, Feb­ru­ary Buffalo.

Beyond these heir­looms a hill climbed north­east out of town. On the medi­an strip on the main street from Mt. Izmir, an Amish man pulled a horse by the reins, hand near the bit, the light­est tug of the brown flesh of horse nose mold­ing itself to met­al. The horse trailed behind it a bug­gy. Three Amish kids sat in the back with their wares, bread and sweets, to sell at the cen­ter of the col­lege cam­pus, as Zeke remem­bered them on week­ends. Noth­ing changed in a decade. Like Johan­na said, time bare­ly even a thing here. All the boys wore the same black flat-brimmed hat and the same flow­ing puffy shirt as their father. On the back of the bug­gy were two red lights, the only elec­tron­ics on the whole cart.

Soon Zeke found his way past Izmir’s out­skirts. There was a heavy nos­tal­gia for him, alone and free behind the wheel of a rental sedan here, the first time he’d been back to the town out­side his alma mater since grad­u­at­ing, when he and Johan­na had just bro­ken up for good. Gram had been his respite then — they would stay up until the sun rose play­ing gui­tars, drink­ing a jug of Car­lo Rossi or a fifth of Jack, jump­ing off tres­tles into shal­low water. What­ev­er inhi­bi­tions Zeke had then, Gram had forced him to shed them. It occurred to Zeke that this was how grief worked: the real mem­o­ries, the nuance obscured by time and lan­guage, were a pri­vate encounter. Even try­ing to share them over cof­fee with Declan and Johan­na felt a poor sim­u­lacra. Was. What might have been a full swell of nos­tal­gia even now was fore­stalled by the image of stran­gled Osman, a boy about the age he was when he arrived here for col­lege, which kept block­ing, then over­shad­ow­ing, mem­o­ry; kept cou­pling with an image he’d cre­at­ed of Gram just before he plunged to his death onto the inter­state out­side of Colum­bus. A surge of ugly sooty emo­tion buzzed to his fin­gers. He looked out his win­dow and attempt­ed to shake it. All he could do was observe. First were long slow fields of yel­low where the snow had yet to stick. Yel­low grass­es dry­ing in the snow, yel­low corn­husks worn raw by long weary­ing win­ter. When he had begun at the mag­a­zine ten years ear­li­er, Zeke had used a micro­cas­sette recorder for oral notes. Now his iPhone con­tained all the same tech­nol­o­gy. He held it to his mouth and said: Note yel­low fields specked with white. Along Turk­ish Road an inlet where Gram once lost con­trol of his truck on a late drunk­en night but came out unscathed. Gram always came out unscathed.” He paused. Always did.” Paused again. Breathed. This wasn’t a sto­ry about Gram, and need­ed not become one. Note decrepit hous­es. Note decrepit barns. Corn cobs like nubs of worn down teeth. Remem­ber — well — remem­ber memories.”

Ten miles out of town he came upon the sign Yehoshua Green told him in the email he’d see, hand­writ­ten on a wood­en plank: The Caves.” A low mist rose off the slow-mov­ing Bosper­ous Creek, expan­sive and warm in the cold of day. As the road went east the flat fields of rur­al Ohio became hilly gorges, lift­ing away from the riv­er. As the trees grew thick­er and the inclines roller­coast­ered, Zeke turned left onto Caves Road. He was mov­ing through a gorge and back toward the creek. Off in the dis­tance a hill sparse­ly cov­ered by trees, like the last lone­ly hairs on a near­ly bald head, rose above the near hori­zon. He was just about here. He put his brights on, rolled down all four win­dows of the car, and put Matisyahu’s One Day” on his Spotify.

Ten miles out of town he came upon the sign Yehoshua Green told him in the email he’d see, hand­writ­ten on a wood­en plank: The Caves.”

Zeke turned onto Shebb­tai Road where he encoun­tered all at once: An RV with an immense air­brushed paint­ing of the face of Nathan Fritz­man, Natan of Flat­bush, Hebrew let­ter­ing atop the image; two trail­er homes in the near dis­tance; a sin­gle two-sto­ry colo­nial set back from the road; and in front of each of these build­ings, men in tra­di­tion­al Hasidic garb car­ry­ing auto­mat­ic rifles.

Johan­na had not men­tioned the gun-tot­ing Hasids.

Yehoshua Green had not either.

There were a half dozen of them, each indis­tin­guish­able from the oth­er for their beards and peyes and black suits and tall black-brimmed hats. Very much unlike the Amish, they wore tal­lit under their black jack­ets and on their heads and hands were the box­es and flap­ping leather straps of phy­lac­ter­ies. Zeke stopped the car and put his hands flat on the dash of the Hon­da Civic as Green had instruct­ed in the email. Five of the Hasidim walked to the shot­gun side of the car maybe twen­ty paces back. The sixth walked up with his rifle at his hip, point­ed toward the rocky Ohio ground, and approached.

I’m the reporter from the mag­a­zine in — in New York— here to meet with Yehoshua Green. He knows I’m com­ing. He told me to. To do this. In an email. Told me. This was the way to do it.”

There was a long tense pause. The two men out­side his win­dow looked at him skep­ti­cal­ly. Then looked at each oth­er. Zeke wished he’d put the Matisyahu vol­ume up louder.

We don’t have plans to let any­one in here,” the first of them said. He was up close enough now that he could see that though this Hasid wore a black hat and car­ried an AR-15, he was maybe twen­ty years old. Looked five years younger. Flecks of tooth­paste still crust­ed on the cor­ners of his young mouth.

Yehoshua told me to come,” Zeke said.

Yehoshua didn’t tell us shit,” the Hasid said. He put his hand down near the trig­ger of the auto­mat­ic rifle. He moved it so the long bar­rel of the gun was now point­ed on an angle that looked like it met Zeke’s feet in the rental car. Zeke liked his feet.

Ok,” Zeke said. But could you maybe call him, or — ”

Look!” the Hasid said, rais­ing his voice. Lis­ten. You’re not lis­ten­ing. I said there’s no one com­ing in and out of here today so put your fuck­ing lit­tle sedan here in reverse, and — ”

Before he could fin­ish his sen­tence, a voice came across the field.

We’re good here!” Tromp­ing out from one of the trail­ers Zeke saw at the edge of the prop­er­ty was a thin man about his age, more for­mal­ly dressed — he had a hood­ie under his black jack­et, no hat. The Hasid looked at him as he came up to them.

You didn’t say we had any­one com­ing,” he said.

I didn’t?” the guy in the hood­ie said. I guess I didn’t. But I meant to. And I’m say­ing now. We’re good here.” He looked at the younger man. Hard.

We’re good here,” the Hasid said. He put his AR-15 back on his shoul­der, and the five oth­er men with him were now walk­ing away from the car.

Sor­ry about all that,” the hood­ie guy said. His voice was in tenor, tim­bre, and accent almost exact­ly the voice of Mike D from the Beast­ie Boys. I’m Josh, Yehoshua, the one you emailed with — very good to meet you broth­er.” Yehoshua put out his hand and shook, and he point­ed to a paved dri­ve­way run­ning up to the trail­er clos­est to where he now stood. Just pull on in so you’re not block­ing the way.”


The trail­er smelled of incense, patchouli oil, expen­sive weed, and laun­dry dri­er sheets. Zeke told him­self: remem­ber the smells. He didn’t dare pull out his note­book to record it. The space was divid­ed into three rooms by par­ti­cle­board lam­i­nate par­ti­tions. The mid­dle room had two dun brown couch­es fac­ing each oth­er and against the far wall a 72” curved flat screen tele­vi­sion, mut­ed, show­ing the pre­vi­ous night’s Sports­Cen­ter. From the room behind it came the soft busy basslines of Mar­vin Gaye’s What’s Going On? Just as Zeke was sit­ting down, Yehoshua came back into the room with cans of Bell’s.

Two-Heart­ed or Expe­di­tion Stout?” Yehoshua said.

Oh, thank you Yehoshua,” Zeke said.

Which.” Zeke said Two-Heart­ed. Just call me Josh.” Zeke said fine, and Yehoshua hand­ed Zeke the beer. I guess I need to apol­o­gize for all that back there. The guns and all. We’ve had them through­out, of course — every­one out here does. Sec­ond amend­ment! And they’re so easy. You just walk into a Wal­mart and there they are. But. But since the… the events with Osman… we’ve had to be more careful.”

You said over email.” Zeke popped the top of his can and the hiss­ing sound calmed both their nerves. In a cor­ner of the room sat yet anoth­er AR-15, lean­ing against the wall.

Just think — if we were meet­ing in Judea and Samaria, every­one would be car­ry­ing. I was six the first time I went to Yerusha­lay­im, and I remem­ber how scared I was at first, see­ing all the machine guns. Women with Uzis. But hey, the Israelis invent­ed the Uzi. Maybe we won’t need them once the world rec­og­nizes Natan as meshi­ach. But this is all too far along already — first things first, as the Ohioans like to say. So: wow it’s good to meet you.” The sound of Mar­vin Gaye’s voice rose in the room next door say­ing, Mom­ma mom­ma, there’s far too many of you dying/​we’ve got to find a way… and Yehoshua yelled, I need you to turn that down we have a guest here— a dis­tin­guished guest!” A vein popped out in the mid­dle of his fore­head while he shout­ed. Then turned back to Zeke and again smiled. The vol­ume dipped so only the bass was audi­ble. Sor­ry. She loves 70’s soul. Some­times I can’t get her to turn it down.”

What’s your wife’s name?”

Yehoshua looked at him side­ways. Devo­rah. You’ll meet her. When she’s prop­er­ly cov­ered. For now we have so much to catch up on, coo­lo tov!” Yehoshua stopped for a moment and took Zeke in again. What hap­pened to your face?”

Zeke put his hand to his eye. He’d for­got­ten about the ban­dage above his eye amid all the guns and Hasids. Stitch­es were pulling at skin, mak­ing it more uncom­fort­able than ever. He said it was noth­ing, not much of any­thing at all, a lit­tle acci­dent from the way in.

I sup­pose an injury like this is a token of mem­o­ry for you when you’ve left. Where do you think Natan stands on the sec­u­lar strug­gle here? Did you meet with the Franklin woman in Mt. Izmir? I read the doc­u­ments about Smith vs. Employ­ment Divi­sion that you sent. I agree that if the Indi­ans get to eat pey­ote and call it reli­gion, sure­ly the Eigh­teen Com­mand­ments must cov­er the meshiach!”

Yehoshua was mov­ing very fast.

Well I’m just get­ting start­ed here,” Zeke said. Nor­mal­ly I would be deep into research, but I only heard of your sit­u­a­tion for the first time today. So maybe you could tell me a lit­tle about your com­mu­ni­ty first.”

Right, how stu­pid — ” Yehoshua said. Let me give you at least the basics.” So while Yehoshua talked, Zeke took notes, which would go direct­ly into the Slack when he left. Here’s how he record­ed it on the notes app of his phone:

–This sect was called the Dönme

–A hun­dreds-years-old sect of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism, who out­ward­ly prac­ticed Islam.

–Just before his death in the late 17th cen­tu­ry, Shebb­tai Tzvi, false mes­si­ah of Natan of Flat­bush and his fol­low­ers, was found in a cave in Alba­nia and at the mouth of the cave his dis­ci­ples dis­cov­ered a drag­on ensconced by mas­sive bright light.

–When a Turk­ish immi­grant, a prac­tic­ing Dön­me named Mehmet Osman, had come to Ohio, he had cho­sen to live out at The Caves when he arrived here just after WWI, in 1919.

–The Dön­me lived there still, now led by Natan of Flatbush

When Yehoshua fin­ished talk­ing and Zeke fin­ished thumb­ing this all into his Notes app it occurred to Zeke that Yehoshua was look­ing down at his hands, not entire­ly unlike Declan and Johan­na had done at the café this morn­ing. There was a grief in this room, too; mourn­ing, fill­ing the space between them.

So lis­ten,” Zeke said. Before we get fur­ther into the stuff about Natan and the charges against him, about your life with the Dön­me, all that, I’d like to hear more about your own back­ground. How you got here. Tell me about your­self. It always helps me to start with a per­son when I’m try­ing to under­stand a sto­ry.” And so Yehoshua began the way humans begin to tell sto­ries, from some­where in the mid­dle of their thought pat­tern, no begin­ning, no end; no present or past tense to rely on, just the flow­ing list of thought and opin­ion that left a human mind.

There was a grief in this room, too; mourn­ing, fill­ing the space between them.

Coo­lo tov, coo­lo tov,” Josh said. I mean when I first moved from Crown Heights I thought it was gonna be all ban­jos pick­ing and pigs oink­ing and corn cobs. It wasn’t that. Was. Not. That. Well not only that. There was this whole oth­er inten­si­ty.” Zeke nod­ded. Stayed silent. Knew he had three days to get what he could and if some­one was talk­ing and that some­one wasn’t him, he was on the right track. So you know I’ve been liv­ing in Mt. Izmir for eleven years now,” Yehoshua said. Eleven, eleven, eleven years, eleven good years thanks to the Prophet, thanks to Natan of Flat­bush. When I first got here it was just me and Devo­rah and our kids. We were Lubav­itch­ers back home. For the Lubav­itch­ers the main thing is just to get mar­ried and get start­ed on the life of Torah, study­ing Tal­mud and pop­ping out kid­dos. You know we were fif­teen when we got mar­ried. We had Shai by the time we were sev­en­teen. Young, right? I mean, you were prob­a­bly in your twen­ties by the time you got married.”

I’m thir­ty-two,” Zeke said. I don’t have kids.” He paused. Or a wife.” Paused again. And I don’t want one.”

From the oth­er side of the par­ti­cle­board par­ti­tion they could clear­ly hear Devo­rah groan. When in the pause that fol­lowed she clear­ly per­ceived the silence and under­stood she’d been indis­creet she said, from the oth­er side of the wall, Oh sor­ry! Sor­ry. Go on.” Josh didn’t look behind him. He pulled out a glass bowl and start­ed break­ing up a huge bud that had been on the table. It was so con­spic­u­ous Zeke hadn’t even noticed it.

This strain we call the Shek­inah,” Josh said. End of our har­vest from Purim. This year was a good, good year.” Anoth­er sound from behind the par­ti­tion. I mean, for our grow­ing. Obvi­ous­ly not the — ” Josh con­tin­ued until he’d bro­ken up the bud and rolled a Bob-Mar­ley style joint. He offered it up.

The Dön­me have believed, all the way back to our prophet Shebb­tai Tzvi, in redemp­tion through sin. The true Prophet, the true meshi­ach, could make holy all our actions through his mere belief in them. At the com­ing of the meshi­ach, all of halakhah will be undone. All that’s holy will be holy, and all that’s unholy will be holy.”

And it’ll just be shrimp bacon cheese­burg­ers from there on out,” Zeke said.

Josh looked at him and held in a lung­ful of pot smoke until his chest con­vulsed just a bit. Smoke bil­lowed from each nos­tril. Then he exhaled, coughed, and start­ed to laugh.

Hah! Nice. You’re quick. That might be good for you here. Or. Any­way. So yeah we were so deep in the Lubav­itch­er world. I mean our whole world was on East­ern Park­way, bare­ly even made it past the Brook­lyn Muse­um. We were too nar­row in our lit­tle world there. Then I heard about Foot­steps. You know what Foot­steps is?”

I don’t.”

Yehoshua looked back at the wall behind him. He point­ed his thumb toward the wall and with pot smoke com­ing from his mouth mouthed, The ears have walls, my friend.”

Then he took one more epic toke from his spliff and stood.

Let’s toke and walk.”

Daniel Tor­day is the author of The 12th Com­mand­mentThe Last Flight of Poxl West, and Boomer1. A two-time win­ner of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for fic­tion and the Sami Rohr Choice Prize, Torday’s sto­ries and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, The Keny­on Review, and n+1, and have been hon­ored by the Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries and Best Amer­i­can Essays series. Tor­day is a Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Bryn Mawr College.