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Authors: Joshua Max Feldman

The Book of Jonah

BOOK: The Book of Jonah
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To Mom & Dad, with love

 

CONTENTS

 

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Epigraph

  
I. New York (Forty Days and Forty Nights Earlier)

 
II. “In Case of Loss, Please Return To _____”

III. Amsterdam, or the Belly of the Whale

IV. Nineveh, or Las Vegas

 
V. The Desert, the Ocean

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Reading Group Gold

Copyright

 

The last of the road sank into the heat shimmer of the horizon behind—and Jonah saw in every direction the unbounded desert—the scrub clinging to its face giving its tracts the look of a vast, sealike rolling. And he lay down with his back on the scorched sand and with his face toward the sun, relentless and colorless—and he unfurled for the Lord his sorrow.

J
ONAH 5:1

 

I.
  NEW YORK (FORTY DAYS AND FORTY NIGHTS EARLIER)

 

PROLOGUE. THE SMIDGE

Jonah knew the 59th Street subway station well enough that he did not have to look up from his iPhone as he made his way among its corridors and commuters to the track. He felt lucky as he came down the stairs to the platform to see a train just pulling in—he boarded without breaking his stride, took a seat by the door of the nearly empty car, went on typing. A crowd of people flooded in at the next station, but Jonah felt he'd had a long enough day that he need not give up his seat. But then an older woman—frumpy, blue-haired, with a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose—ended up standing directly before him, and Jonah decided to do the right thing and he stood.

He was not on the train long, but when he got off he saw that many of those moving past him on the platform were soaking wet: hair matted to foreheads, clothes translucent and sagging. They all bore it well, though, Jonah thought—stoically marched ahead with mouths fixed, eyes straight, as though they got drenched during every evening commute. Then, as he came to the stairwell leading up to the street, he found that a group of twenty, thirty people was standing semicircled around the bottom, not continuing out. Jonah advanced a few steps. Rain cascaded down onto the concrete stairs in an unbroken sheet, making the light shining into the station pale and misty, as if they were all gathered behind a waterfall. Those in the group shrugged to one another at their predicament—tapped away on their smartphones or just stared placidly at the rain, seemingly admiring this temporary transformation of the world outside. Some, having stood there for a few moments, turned up their collars or held out their umbrellas and flung themselves up the steps with a sort of reckless bravery. Those coming into the station—umbrellas bent, hair dripping—looked puzzled at the gathering below, as though finding a crowd of people in the subway unmoving, unshoving—even by and large content to be there—made their surroundings somehow unrecognizable.

Jonah had been running late when he'd left his office, but he knew QUEST events were always well attended; his absence from tonight's cocktail party for another ten or so minutes wouldn't make much difference. He had time, in another words, to stand there and wait out the rain, too—and he found he was glad for this momentary interruption of his day. He had lived in New York for almost a decade now, and was gratified to find, once again, that it could still surprise him.

Jonah Daniel Jacobstein was thirty-two; a lawyer; ambitious, unmarried and dating; never without his iPhone. For all these reasons, his concerns tended to be immediate, tangible, billable. But every now and then such moods of appreciation would wash over him. He would glance out the window of the Q train as it crossed over the Manhattan Bridge and would take in the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the whole of the skyline over the river; he would climb into a taxi on a Friday night with crisp bills from the ATM in his pocket and Sylvia (or Zoey) to meet; he would be drunk at 4:00
A.M.
with a great slice of grease-dripping pizza in his hand; and he would count himself incredibly lucky—as he did now, watching the rain in the subway station—to be who he was, when he was, where he was.

But these moods never lasted long, of course, and after a moment he checked his phone again—this having become an almost autonomic response in him, on the order of blinking. He'd gotten a dozen new emails since he'd boarded the train. That afternoon, a case he had spent the better part of a year working on had come to a settlement favorable to his clients. He was pleased to see in his inbox several congratulatory messages from colleagues—even a few from partners.

He dropped his hand back to his side and saw that a very large Hasidic Jew had appeared beside him: pink-faced, jowly, in black hat, black coat, forelocks dangling gently at his ears, his beard jet-black, wiry and unkempt. The man was only a little older than Jonah, though he was much bigger—an enormous stomach protruding directly outward from above his waist. And he stared with peculiar scrutiny at the rain, as though he could recognize some subtle meaning in its drops.

Normally, Jonah was an avid follower of the New York convention of never under any circumstances striking up a conversation on the subway with a stranger. But he was feeling cheerful—and there appeared to have been some temporary reordering of New York conventions, anyway. And, too, Jonah, whose own Judaism was characterized by deep ambivalence, had always had a certain curiosity regarding those Jews whose Judaism seemed characterized by life-consuming certainty. Recognizing this as one of his few opportunities to talk with such a member of his (ostensible, theoretical) brethren, he turned to the Hasid and said, “Don't you have a number to call when this happens?”

In response, the Hasid pulled the sides of his fleshy face into a grin—sly, knowing—exposing yellowed teeth. He said, “You think I'd be on the train if I could make the rain stop?” Jonah chuckled. “You're on your way to some business meeting, my friend?”

“No, my day's over. I'm just going to, an event…” He found he was reluctant to call the cocktail party a charity event, though QUEST was indisputably a charity; describing it that way, however, struck him as somehow disingenuous. But the Hasid gave him a look of being greatly impressed by his answer.

“I could see you were a man of the world. Where would we be without such people?” His voice was rich-toned, Russian-accented, and a little high-pitched, in a decidedly wry sort of way. “You have a business card, my friend?”

This request surprised Jonah, but he didn't see any harm in it—he reached into his jacket pocket and handed the Hasid one of his cards. “You're Jewish, my friend!” the Hasid said, still more impressed. He studied the card carefully, as if he was taking note of each line, each digit in each of the three phone numbers.

“Well, I was raised Jewish,” Jonah answered.

“And you study Torah, my friend?” the Hasid asked, now returning the card. “Do you keep the Sabbath?”

“I feel guilty on Yom Kippur.”

The Hasid's grin broadened. “And you know, of course, the story of your namesake, Jonah, son of Amittai?”

Jonah's knowledge of such things had been halfheartedly acquired in the first place, was half remembered at best. “There was a whale…” he ventured.

“Oh, my friend, there is much more than the whale!” The Hasid had now moved his massive frame a little closer toward Jonah, whose back was already up against the side of a MetroCard machine. “Jonah was a man of the world, too, just like you. Going about his business, making deals. Then one day
HaShem
came to him and said, ‘Jonah, go to the corrupt city of Nineveh and tell them that while they have gold, finery, vast armies, only their body is clothed, but their soul is naked.'” Here the Hasid winked; Jonah nodded uncertainly, not quite sure what to make of this. “But Jonah had other ideas,” the Hasid went on. “He tried to flee from the sight of the Lord. And what do you think happened? Storms, whales, disaster.


HaShem
sees everything,” the Hasid continued, waving a playful finger beneath Jonah's nose. “We think we can hide, but in the end there's no escaping.” He inclined his thick-bottomed chin up toward the stairs, where the rain was tapering only slightly. “Look what happens when the Lord sends even a little rain. Everyone runs underground, none can tell his right hand from his left. Won't it be so much more on the Day of Judgment, when calamity rains down from afar?” Again, Jonah could only nod, not sure with how much sincerity the still-grinning Hasid was asking. “One day it's all a big party. Then the angels knock on Lot's door. What will you tell them? Remember, not everyone gets a seat on the ark. America is naked, my friend, as naked as Nineveh. Cell phones, computers, spaceships, yadda yadda yadda. The body is clothed, but the soul is naked.”

Jonah believed he was learning all over again why you were supposed to avoid entering into these conversations. “Well, it's all very interesting,” he said. “In any case…”

This social cue toward ending the encounter was unnoticed or ignored. “You can't hide on the subway from the Lord's outstretched hand,” the Hasid went on, “any more than Jonah could hide on the seas. Wouldn't you rather be counted among the righteous when the arrogant are washed away?”

“I don't think the arrogant are going anywhere.”


Im yirtse HaShem,
we will live to see their destruction!” the Hasid cried.

It was all made the more disconcerting by the persistence of the wry grin on the Hasid's face. Though the rain was still falling heavily, Jonah edged his way around the MetroCard machine toward the stairs. But the Hasid leaned his head and large stomach even closer to Jonah—his breath unpleasantly musty. “Remember, my friend, the Lord seeks out what has gone by. Nineveh, the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah. Don't you know history is full of 9/11s?”

With this, Jonah's patience, which varied in length but not in the consistency of the irritability to which it gave way, was exhausted. Implications that he was damned he could tolerate—because who could take that seriously?—but moralizing about 9/11 was a different story. He had been in the city that day: And no, he had not lost anyone close to him, had not been in any immediate danger—but he felt he had experienced enough of it that he shouldn't have to endure hearing it characterized as some sort of divine punishment. “If you really think God had anything to do with 9/11, you're as ignorant as the people who did it.”

The Hasid looked deeply saddened, and shook his head gravely. “Oh, my friend, I'm afraid you've misunderstood everything. It's my fault. I didn't go to Harvard College.”

“Neither did I.”


Nu,
you think it matters to
HaShem
what you think is ignorant?”

And though the Hasid capped the question with a final and more definitive wink—as though the whole conversation were merely a shared joke between them—Jonah decided he had heard enough and walked over to the stairs and mounted them two at a time. “Your bar mitzvah won't save you, my friend!” the Hasid cried—and maybe even guffawed as he said it.

The rain continued to fall steadily, quickly began soaking Jonah's hair, the shoulders of his suit jacket. He saw a few people huddled beneath the overhang in front of a discount shoe store—he ran over and pressed himself against the windows. Jonah didn't think anyone knew what mattered to
HaShem
—or whatever you wanted to call it—but he felt he understood the Hasid's point perfectly: You drew a circle around yourself, and everyone inside the circle was righteous and everyone outside it was not. There wasn't much more to the Hasid's philosophy—such as it was—than that.

BOOK: The Book of Jonah
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