British writer Howard Jacobson’s most recent collection of essays, The Dog’s Last Walk (and Other Pieces), was published last week by Bloomsbury Publishing. Below’s excerpt from the book, “There Was a Rabbi in Kiev,” offers a Yom Kippur tale.
Now that another Yom Kippur has been and gone without my being struck down for my sins – the biggest of them, in some eyes, being my failure to honour the Day of Atonement in the way a Jew is supposed to – I will unfold to you a tale. Call it an expiation for not adequately expiating.
There was a rabbi … Jewish parables always begin that way, and as often as not situate the rabbi in Kiev. So: there was a rabbi of Kiev, only he was not a rabbi in the conventional sense, he was rabbi of Radical Scepticism employed by the City Duma’s Department of Rationalism to keep an eye out for irrationalism of a specifically Jewish variety. Though known to his friends as Viktor, he always jumped when someone shouted: ‘Abram!’ This was because Abram was the name his parents had given him. Whenever this happened, Viktor – who had bestowed that name upon himself – fell into a fit of guilt about his parents and prayed for forgiveness from the God in whom they had believed but he did not. Immediately he had finished praying he castigated himself for showing such disrespect to his own non-belief. Viktor did not keep Shabbes, took no notice of any of Jewish festivals and ate whatever took his fancy. Because lapwing was high on the list of foods proscribed in Leviticus, he would have tucked into lapwing with gusto had he known where to buy it. Food was scarce in Kiev, so it was difficult enough to find ossifrage, let alone lapwing. Snails, however, were a delicacy he indulged. Hare, whether grilled or in a pie, likewise. And as for the bacon he fried in butter every morning, as an accompaniment to blood pudding – so many slices, fried for just the right number of minutes, a little salt, a little pepper, a dash of oyster sauce – why it was almost a religious ritual to him.
But he was troubled by an inconsistency. If he could dine on bacon without a qualm, and pork sausage, and ham hock, and chitterlings – and there was even one dish he adored of which the chief ingredient was pig’s rectum – why couldn’t he ever eat pork belly? If he saw pork belly on a menu, he needed to drink a glass of water. If he sat next to someone eating pork belly, he had to fight himself from retching. Once, when one of his colleagues ordered pork belly, Viktor announced he would have to leave the table while the food was being consumed.
‘Viktor, you must be able to explain this inconsistency,’ his colleague demanded. But Viktor was unable to. It wasn’t what the pork belly looked or tasted like that was the problem. It was the pairing of the words, the concatenation of sounds – pork and belly. Pork on its own – fine. He loved a pork sandwich with apple sauce. Belly, too, as a discrete entity, presented no problems. He had once eaten yak’s belly on a visit to Moldavia and loved it. But put pork and belly together and he was disgusted. It was a foreignness – a transgression even – too far.
So what was it a transgression against? Viktor was damned if he knew.
And thus it was, inversely, with Yom Kippur, that’s to say thus it was when it came to ignoring it. Hanukkah, Pesach, Purim – Viktor respected none of them. He saw his co-religionists – except that he was no longer a religionist himself – spruced up for synagogue and shook his head over them. Slaves to custom and superstition! Drones of blind faith! On festivals where it was necessary to be solemn, Viktor took pains to be seen laughing. Where it was necessary to laugh, Viktor wore his longest face. On Yom Kippur, however, he kept out of the way. He saw no reason to apologise for his sins since he was always apologising for his sins. Why set aside a single day to atone for your guilt when you’ve been atoning for it all year? Indeed, if he had a besetting sin it was being over-conscious of sinning. So he certainly wasn’t going to fast. But – and this he knew to be illogical – he wasn’t going to be seen not fasting either. No ostentatious banquets at his favourite restaurants on this day. No public retching over another diner’s pork belly.
On the Day of Atonement the sun happened to be shining and Viktor decided on a walk. He nodded at some of the Jews he knew – more pallid than ever on account of doing without food – and suddenly, despite having enjoyed a hearty breakfast, he felt hungry. A snack was all he needed. A biscuit or chocolate. He wandered down a side street and found a tobacconist and confectioner’s. Here he bought a bar of chocolate. But he hesitated before breaking into it. On this day of all others, he thought, couldn’t I at least have done without chocolate?
But that was a superstitious thought and he put it from him. He ate a piece of chocolate, was disappointed in the taste and decided to throw the rest away. What made him decide to throw it in the Dnieper when he could have tossed it over any fence he didn’t know. But when he got to the river, he realised he couldn’t do it. It looked too much like tashlich, or casting your sins upon the water, a ritual Viktor scorned. As though you could drown a sin! He walked on but knew he had to get rid of the remaining chocolate. Why? Did he think he could half atone for half a sin? Did he think he might be half forgiven?
It would seem, he admitted to himself, that I am half superstitious.
Once he got back to his department offices he confessed his recidivism and offered to half resign. At a hurriedly convened meeting of councillors he was fired altogether. You have to make your mind up in this institution, they told him.
There is no moral to this story. But as someone who recently bought a bar of chocolate on Yom Kippur I can vouch for its essential truth.
From The Dog’s Last Walk, by Howard Jacobson, published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright ©Howard Jacobson 2017. Reprinted with permission.