Excerpt from Chapter One: Lipschitz

One by one we file into Finkelstein's living room (Finkelstein, the big shot): Goldberg comes with me, Greenblatt and Weissbaum show up together, everyone glum. Reb Miltie and Breshman arrive smelling of bagel, then Bernstein in his Hindu get-up with the orange shawl. Finally Moscowitz, looking pathetic. And that's it: counting the deceased, we have ten men, a minyan. You're not supposed to count the deceased, but what do we care? Nobody's standing on ceremony. What, God's going to turn a deaf ear on a technicality? The herring and the sponge cake can wait; we have to say kaddish for Lipschitz.

Freddy Lipschitz, dead at thirty-five, found in a bathroom with a needle dangling from his arm. Who knew he was still shooting? Not me or Goldberg, certainly. Not Greenblatt. No one knew. Okay, Bernstein knew, because Bernstein with his Turkish connections and his hashish friends with their Tibetan Book of the Dead routine, Bernstein supplied him with the stuff. But none of the rest of us knew.

Poor Freddy, miserable his whole life anyway — everyone secretly felt he was better off. A guy with his talents, his gifts, still living with his parents. Broke, out of work, no direction, hadn't touched a woman since the Beatles broke up. Plus ugly — pock-marked, big nose, a guy you'd be uncomfortable seeing in a public restroom. Death couldn't be all bad for Freddy Lipschitz.

Now, to the point: Assembled in Finkelstein's — the big shot's — living room are ten Jewish men.  And kibbitzers every one of them. Listen to me, already mouthing off:

"Jesus said, 'Whereever two or more are gathered in my name, there will I be also." The Jews never had it so easy. They had to gather ten or more before God would show up. Nine other shleppers in the room and what you say counts. Otherwise your deepest soul cry is considered idle chatter upstairs.  You want to talk to Jesus, that's a different story. You could be in the back room of the Ramrod Club shtupping a stranger in the behind and it still counts as two or more. But you want the king of Abraham and Strauss to listen, you need a minyan...is this right?"

Nobody is listening. They are all preoccupied with Freddy, and with the spread Finkelstein's wife has laid out on the dining room table, a little snack for the boys after kaddish. Delicious-looking platters from Petaks. Kosher dills like they are going out of style. A feast for Freddy, heartburn for the dead.

And these guys were no strangers to deli. Real fressers, every one of them. Committed eaters, the cold cut for them was a religious matter. The Gentile kids may have rubbed their bloody, pricked fingers in secret rituals, but the Jewish kids were born brisket brothers. They may not have set foot in a synagogue since their Bar Mitzvahs, but show them a Jewish mother's pot roast thirty years later — any Jewish mother's — and watch them pray.

'Course there was a trade-off — along with the food they also had to listen to the litany of be carefuls and watch outs, all the play-it-safes: the ear muffs so you don't catch cold; the lock all your car doors in this neighborhood and leave a radio on in the house; the never order meat loaf 'cause you don't know what they put in it; the watch your step it's like a sheet of glass; the fear of Gentiles and Germans. And through some inexplicable alchemical interaction, this combination of Jewish food and Jewish fear led to a wild sex drive most of them had for Christian women, all the girls who never drank Manishewitz, who couldn't pronounce the 'ch' in challah or Chanukah, blonde girls that made their mouths water. 

But how can you possibly explain this to a mother when you imagine that she wants you to marry someone like the zaftig Friedberg girl and wind up being a shlump in a chair the rest of your life stuffing your face on potato latkehs? (Like the late Mister Friedberg.) You can't, and you don't. So as close to their mothers as Jewish boys usually are, is also how distant they can be when they become men — even if only on a purely informational  level. There's just too much information about their lives that, from experience, is better left unspoken.

Which leaves, in many cases, only the very brisket itself as the bridge, the primordial place of connection — it is love on a pure and holy meat level. But the more stuff sons keep hidden from their mothers over time, the greater this informational distance, and that can cause lots of problems.  Emotional problems, I don't have to tell you. Tsores in relationships — don't even ask. 

Ten Jewish men with emotional problems like nobody's business. And I grew up with most of these idiots. The playground at East Lake Elementary was our stomping grounds. We did recess. We did lunch. We stood on line together with our pants at our knees waiting for the school nurse to squeeze our testicles. (How many seven-year-old boys actually have hernias?) No wonder we were a bit off when it came to women.

Winner of the Knoxville Writer’s Guild 2003 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel