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Seir Cafe

1. Jake I look up again at the sign, and it seems this must be the right place. It says Seir Cafe, in bold letters, broken neon lights filling up the antique-looking script, and I think of my family, think of how they didn’t even want me to come here to see you, and I’m thinking maybe I ought to turn around and get in my car and speed home. But then I see you sitting in the corner of the restaurant, and even though I haven’t seen you in twenty years, I know it’s you, because even though you’ve got gray in your hair now and you’ve gained weight, your face is still the same and your cheeks still glow with that ruddy complexion. And you see me and you bound over to me and you throw your arms around me, and in your bear hug I can feel how small I still am compared to you, and for a moment you hold me so tight I’m afraid you might suffocate me. And you ask me what I’m doing now, and I tell you that I became a rabbi with a large family, and you laugh a little and say that you might have expected that, and in your laugh I can feel a scoffing, a still-bitter brokenness just beneath your voice, but I know that it’s only fair that you’re still angry at me, and I’m glad when the waiter comes over to take our order, because you order a steak and I order the salad and we both laugh until we have tears in our eyes and I can see you can’t be that angry with me any more and that we won’t go to our graves as enemies. 2. Es I try to pretend I think you’re funny but you really aren’t, and I can see how relieved you are when the waiter comes because you want some diversion, something to distract ourselves from how surreal this all is, some way to avoid the fact that you came half way across the country to meet me near my home so you could patch things up with me because it pained you so much for us to have been estranged from each other for all these years. And I’m looking at you, at that head with a kippa on it like the ones we both wore when we were boys, only darker, at your black jacket and your graying beard, and I’m looking for things I once loved, but instead I watch your eyes, the way they look up when you talk instead of at me, and I see you’re still the same smarmy, self-righteous little brother you always were. And when I tell you that I’m a well-paid lawyer for the defense industry you nod knowingly, and pretend to be impressed, and smile a disparaging smile like that’s what you expected of me. And you tell me that Dad always said I was very clever with words, that I could trap a man with nothing more than my tongue, and I laugh and you laugh but you know that it’s no compliment, and that no matter how successful I was at anything, Mom was on your side and made sure Dad was, too. And you reach into your pocket and take out your wallet, and show me pictures of your family as if to suggest they are your riches, like mine aren’t good enough, and so I take out my pictures to show you my family and though you only smile and say lovely I can almost hear you shouting shiksa in your head and when you look at my children and their foreign faces I know you are never in a million years going to invite them over to play with yours. 3. Jake I’m looking at the beautiful Asian eyes of the nieces and nephews I’ll never know and not knowing how to tell you how gorgeous they really are without saying something wrong, something that might sound racist, and then I remember how upset Mom and Dad were about you marrying out, and I decide to say nothing at all. And so I tell you why I came, why I tracked you down, and I explain to you that my life has been quite difficult these last years, how I’ve struggled to survive and got cheated in bad business deals, and that through all of my problems I realized that the only way I’d ever be at peace was to come back and reconcile with you. And I tell you that I’ve finally recovered from my financial misfortunes and I want to pay you back for what happened, but when I try to pass the envelope across the table you put your hand on mine and say, don’t, I don’t need it now, and I try to push it back and say, use it for your kids, for college, for something for them, and you say, I don’t need it, and I can feel something turning over in my stomach, the part of you that remains forever inside of me, still wrestling with who I am. And so I try to explain why I did what I did, why I took Dad’s will in to him while he was sick and made sure that I’d be the main beneficiary even though you probably should have had at least half. When you ask me I admit the truth, that it was Mom who told me to do it, and that I didn’t want to disobey her and that I had no choice. I nod and I tell you that I know it sounds bizarre now, but that Mom told me she had been having all kinds of dreams about us and told me it was the right thing to do, that it was what God would want. I know it will sound crazy to you. But what was I supposed to do? And I look at your bare head and your blue jeans and I tell you that now, all these years later, I realize it was unfair, but that it probably came down to the fact that I went to shul every day and you refused to go, that I was already planning on becoming a rabbi like Dad and you were running around eating traif and going out with shiksas on Shabbes and you acted like you had no interest at all in taking over the synagogue. That’s the world they were raised in, Es. You’re either in or your out. You’re lucky Mom and Dad didn’t sit shiva for you. Maybe it’s not fair. It’s just the way it is by us. But I can see you’re not really listening to me and when the steak comes you slice off a piece like a butcher and devour it with no bracha and I feel as if you and I have been living on different planets. 4. Es So I start to eat the meal we’ve ordered just to make you happy, because after bothering to track down the only kosher restaurant in this part of town just to please you, I’m not going to pass up on a good rib steak. But I realize I have no appetite at all and this time around, you won’t get off easily just by treating me to a meal. And frankly, this talk about how Mom talked you into it makes me feel a bit sick, because that’s no excuse for making Dad sign a new will when he was too ill to think straight, and woe is me, Jake, all your sob stories about what Mom wanted and what Mom dreamed just aren’t going to cut it. And yeah, I’ve had to go through therapy, too, Jake, spent hours trying to work out why I could never do right in Mom’s eyes, but when I tell you this you cross your arms lean back in your chair as if to say it isn’t true. But you know, Jake, you know it is. And I suddenly remember when you came to me that night, when I had just gotten back from being out late at the clubs, and you asked me to give up my place in the will, and I said sure, what the hell, well, I thought you were only kidding. And Dad wasn’t exactly about to die anyway. How should I have known you were serious? It never seemed that Dad had that much money anyway, so what was the point? We lived in that tiny apartment all those years! I assumed we were poor because Mom and Dad only bought what they needed to survive. And I watch you pick at your salad and I can see you can’t eat either, and I imagine you at home with all of those children and I wonder whether they ever ask about their uncle and their cousins. I roll my eyes over the edges of your worn suit, your old briefcase with some worn Hassidish book popping out the top, the red plastic droplet on your lapel showing that you gave blood, and I realize you have become just the man Mom and Dad had hoped you would be. And for me to be a secular man, a person who didn’t need your God and your rituals to be become enlightened, that was always going to put me far below a good holy-roller like you. And when you explain yourself you shuckle a little with each point, that prayer-sway I haven’t seen in decades because we don’t even have your type around here, it almost feels like you’re bowing just for me. Towards me. And for the edge of a moment I think I see the Jacob I once loved, the smart little boy who helped Mom around the house, the handsome guy the girls all noticed, the student who had a sense of humility. 5. Jake And I can see now that you have changed some, Es, but you haven’t changed all that much, and that you’re still a materialist person, still calculating what you lost in numerical estimations instead of spiritual ones. And you go back to your steak and I poke my fork around my salad, and I imagine your life now, surrounded by a family so different from the one in which we grew up, no vestiges of the religion our parents taught us, closed off  to the prayers that were a blessing to me and a burden to you. I remember that Dad said he also wanted you to be blessed, that he said he loved you no matter what. And I look down at the business card you push across the table towards me, and I see you have changed your last name, and when I ask you why, you shrug and tell me that you didn’t feel the need to go through life with an annoyingly long Jewish last name that’s like wearing a Star of David on your lapel. And I take the envelope again and hold it with trembling hands and I feel ashamed and my eyes fall and I tell you I really wish you would take it so I could feel right your eyes again, and when I look up again I can see in your eyes that you will never truly forgive me. But you reach across the table and upon my hand you lay yours, the dark hairs on it grown wiry with age, and you whisper OK, I’ll take it, and the white flag of folded paper rises up and changes hands, and I am filled with relief and I remember that I had a brother who could also be kind and generous and I want to say so much more and nothing at all. And the final bill comes and we part, and I limp on my way and you don’t even notice, and I know we are as at peace as we will ever be, and that we may be the world’s only brothers who can love each other and love knowing that we will never, ever meet again. ***

Ilene Prusher is Jerusalem Bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor. She teaches creative writing at the Pardes Institute. This story comes from a larger series, titled Genesis Next.

Photograph courtesy of Channel 4: a still from Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, USA Series 2

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