Readings — From the December 2012 issue

The Jew

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Dedicated to poet Jerome Rothenberg on the occasion of his eightieth birthday last year. Bernstein’s Recalculating will be published this spring by The University of Chicago Press.

The town is in a terrible commotion, and the mayor and his counselors are in despair. They ask the Jew for advice. “This commotion is a sign that your town is doing better than the town to the north and the town to the east. Give a banquet to honor those who have done the most to bring about this state of affairs.”

The Jew comes upon a couple in violent argument. “Stop! You are both wrong.”

The water is painfully frigid on one of the hottest days of the summer. The bathers do not know if they should wade or swim. “Do as the geese do,” says the Jew. “Glide on top.”

Too much pepper has been added to the stew. “Use this stew as a spice for a new stew,” says the Jew. “In this way a moment of discomfort will give way to a dozen aftershocks.”

The homeowner is disturbed that he owes the bank more on his house than the house is worth. “A bad investment,” the Jew tells him, “is like a spoiled puppy that requires even more attention than a baby. You learn to love it all the more.”

The Jew tries a new bread knife. “The bread was never easier cut. But even this knife will not work for a good bagel.”

The poet complains that the most recent book did not sell many copies or receive any reviews. “Even if your book sold and was reviewed,” the Jew says, “it would not have been able to compete with Schwartz or Goldberg. So at least you have avoided that disappointment.”

The Jew sees a crab. It is an ordinary crab.

A hard worker has been summarily fired from a job, replaced by a person with less experience and less ability. “The person who did this,” says the Jew, “will never understand the wrong that has been done and so will not be able to make amends. The only thing worse than what has happened to you has already befallen this person.”

A man buys a suit on sale that is too tight at the waist and long in the sleeves. “Yes,” says the Jew. “Things often turn out like this.”

The lifeboat capsizes and the passengers are close to drowning. “I always wanted to be buried at sea,” says the Jew. “But I had hoped to die on land first.”

A tear graces Jesus’ cheeks as he suffers on the cross. “That tear is not for his own pain,” says the Jew, “but his pity for those who condemn any man to death, regardless of what he has done.”

The waves wash over the child’s magnificent sand castle. The Jew consoles the heartbroken builder: “The castle will always be more beautiful in your memory than it could have ever been in the harsh light of the day. Tomorrow, the waves of your mind will erase even the memory of your castle. Making is its own best reward.”

The patient does not know whether the treatment is more injurious to life than the disease. “Whatever you do, it is bound to be a giant, annoying, and irrevocable mistake,” counsels the Jew. “So you might as well make the best mistake you can.”

The young scholar cannot decide the best color for a new couch. “Pick not the color you want to see,” says the Jew, “but the color you want to sit on.”

Little hope is given that the cake will be ready for the wedding. The party planners are beside themselves. “An unfinished cake,” says the Jew, “is like a marriage in progress: tomorrow is always in the offing.”

A business deal goes sour when the main investor runs off with the owner’s spouse. “A fly in the ointment is the proof in the pudding,” says the Jew.

A reader complains about the obscurity of a line of verse and seeks a Jew’s counsel. “Obscurity is like the yeast in a cake. It is long-acting to ensure the dough rises in time.”

Vandals steal the pump’s handles. “You think this is bad,” says the Jew. “You should have seen the neighborhood before the vandals moved in.”

A miller notices that the grain is too coarse to sell and is advised to consult a Jew. “Cohen still owes me fourteen dollars.”

A Jew writes a book in which he bears false witness against his friend, also a Jew. How could my friend turn against me? A Jew is asked for advice: “When Jew does this to Jew it creates a problem: it’s harder to ascribe it to anti-Semitism. But not impossible.”

A high-handed literary critic dismisses the irony in a work. The writer turns to a Jew. “The absence of irony in a work,” says the Jew, “is like a windowpane without a window: impossible to justify.”

Two parents both claim a child is theirs. A Jew is brought in to arbitrate. “Don’t try that ruse where you propose cutting the child in half,” says one parent. “We weren’t born yesterday,” the other adds scornfully. “Yesterday’s ruse is like a jackhammer drilling in sand,” says the Jew. “The end result is still a hole in the ground.”

The scholar cannot understand an unusual diacritical mark over a word in the text he is studying and ponders it for several days before asking a Jew. “It means nothing,” says the Jew, blowing a speck of dust off the page.

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