I have a dybbuk. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. I hope those of you inclined to make fun of me will bear with me while I explain.
But first. For any of you who might actually care. I apologize. I disappeared a few months ago after my summer in Jerusalem. What I disappeared into is the life of a graduate student. I’ve never been one before. I now understand the immense gap between law school and real graduate school. What I understand about graduate school – for me the Jewish Studies program at Jewish Theological Seminary – is reading. Reading more than I have ever read in my life. Reading from well before dawn to well after dusk, reading while waiting for the bus or train (ok, I walk, I don’t take the bus or train, but it’s a nice trope), reading while eating, reading while washing, reading while everything, from when I lieth down until I riseth up, and then all the hours between riseth and lieth and then back again. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. It has kept me from writing (except in Hebrew). But I feel compelled to write. Because you might one day have a dybbuk too. And you should know how to deal with it. I didn’t.
OK. Back to the dybbuk. Here’s the story. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my favorite chair – reading, if you haven’t yet figured that out – and using my highlighter and my favorite pen to make notes to myself. Absent-mindedly, I put the pen on the ottoman. I went to pick it up a few minutes later. It was gone.
Stop thinking what you’re thinking. I didn’t misplace it. My tuchus never left the chair. But, after ten minutes or so of funfering around reaching for it, I slid to my knees and started searching the floor, under and around the few pieces of furniture in the corner where I sit. It’s a small apartment. I branched out. No pen.
Now I know a thing or two about dybbuks. And I know a thing or two about pens. And I know that a pen simply doesn’t go walking off without a dybbuk to accompany it.
I also know a thing or two about my own absent-mindedness and a thing or two about the memory of a man who is within sight of saying adieu to middle age (according to the Federal government, but who cares about those apikorim.) I also know that I am sufficiently careful to put things where they belong, at least things I care about. I considered the possibility that I might have misplaced the pen. But after some serious thought, I realized it had to be a dybbuk. Perhaps it was the faint odor of herring in the air – I haven’t eaten herring in months. Perhaps it was the strange nusach that went through my head. Who knows? All I know is that I was pretty sure it was a dybbuk. I mean, everyone knows that the Upper West Side is full of them. It’s just that most people don’t have the guts to admit it for fear of angering their dybbukim. I’m fearless. And penless.
Anyway, a pen is a pen and a dybbuk is a dybbuk. Who had time to worry about either of them? I had reading to do. I could find another pen, and it is clear from that herring smell that the dybbuk had what to eat so it shouldn’t be hungry. (Don’t ask about how cranky dybbuks get when they’re hungry.) A reader without a pen is still a reader, and a dybbuk full of herring is still a dybbuk. What was I to do about it?
So there matters lay. A few more weeks passed. I half expected the dybbuk to return my pen, but it didn’t. For all I know it needed the pen to write essays on Mishna, and I probably could afford a new pen better than the dybbuk. (which I needed because I had to write essays on Mishna). I am a charitable man. Let the dybbuk have the pen.
But everybody knows that the thing about dybbuks is, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. I should have known somewhere between Rambam and Ramban that there would be more tsooris.
There was. I remember it well – it was a Wednesday evening. I returned home from school at around 7, my normal time. Always I’m a mess when I walk in – hat on hatstand, scarf on scarfstand, coat on coatstand, tefillin bag on – well, you get the point. I went to my room to daven Mincha (it was before daylight savings time ended which I have to make a point of saying in case my rabbi should read this) and then put on my gatkes. I came out of my room. First I put my cellphone on the ottoman – yes, that ottoman. Then I put my headphones beside it. I can see the picture even now. Order. Ready for anything. A German Jew would be proud.
I returned to my room for a moment. Really. A moment.
When I came back to my chair, I realized something. The headphones were gone! From that same ottoman. In that very same place. I looked beneath it, beneath the chair, beneath the furniture, in the corner. I pulled up the rug. No headphones.
Now I was angry. Those headphones were expensive. I had to think in the store, what? – ten minutes maybe – to allow myself to spring for them in the first place. Headphones like that you don’t buy everyday, at least if you’re not Schiff. These headphones were special. I always knew where they were. I always put them carefully in their case. (And talmudically kept touching them to be sure they were there.) But not tonight. One night I forget. And they’re gone.
What could I have done with them? Suddenly, I remembered. The Dybbuk! It had been quiet for a couple of weeks. I learned to like my new pen. I forgot.
I should have known. I know enough about dybbuks that I should have known that the little mamzer wouldn’t be content only with a miserable pen. Now it went for my expensive headphones. Forget Rambam. And Ramban. And Buber. And Bubbie. My headphones were gone. And I didn’t even know the dybbuk’s name. I didn’t know if it was a he or a she. The thing had never been polite enough to introduce itself. But it had no problem taking my stuff.
I called to it. I pled with it. I begged it. I reasoned with it.
What a waste. Everybody knows that there is no reasoning with a dybbuk. So I tried to be nice. I ordered three pounds of kishkas from Fine and Schapiro. (I don’t care what its practices are – it’s not going to eat trayf in my house.) It gobbled it all up before I could even tip the delivery guy. And I was hoping maybe for a bite or two. Now the apartment smelled like schmaltz. And what did I have to show for it? Naked ears.
I needed headphones. Hebrew class required them. But who had the money to replace such nice headphones that you had to take at least ten minutes in the store to decide to buy? The next day I bought a (relatively) cheap pair. I didn’t open the box for a while because I was hoping that when I walked through the door with new headphones the dybbuk would have had it’s laugh and would return mine. No such luck. (Did I say that my dybbuk was a bit of a mamzer?) So I opened them and sacrificed the possible return of thirty bucks.
By this point, I had come to terms with the fact that the dybbuk was here to stay. I don’t know much about the care and feeding of a dybbuk except to realize that this one had more than a healthy appetite – and a bit of a gas problem. I wanted to name it, but without knowing its gender that was hard (and a little embarrassing when I went to the shower). I tried to come up with a gender neutral name, although I kept coming back for some reason to Moishele – which should have told me something to begin with.
And so it was. I had a new roommate. Who, by the way, was not only stealing things but not paying its share of the rent. Other people have their tsooris. This was mine.
Yesterday I decided to clean my apartment. I hate to admit it, but it was filthy. That’s what happens when your nose is buried in the wit and wisdom of the Vilna Gaon. I mean, I didn’t mind it so much, and I was pretty sure that the dybbuk hadn’t exactly come from a palace, but what did I know? I was cleaning the bedroom. My sweatshirt was on the floor. I picked it up.
My headphones fell from the pocket.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the memory of an alter kokher led me to put it in the pocket, imagine that I had put it on the ottoman, and that was that. Not true. First, I’m not that alter of a kokher. Second, my memory is pretty good. Third. I am positive – I swear by the name of You Know Hu – that I heard gigging coming from the general direction of the ottoman.
But I am a rational man. Perhaps it is possible that I was forgetful and put the headphones in the pocket myself? Perhaps.
But what about the pen?
I’m hoping my dybbuk will introduce itself. I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay. Perhaps I can drag it to minyan.