On a hot summer afternoon my two younger sisters and I sat licking ice cream cones on our front stoop on Clark Street, while our parents occupied two kitchen chairs beside us. Old Mr. Jacob Malamud, leaning heavily on his cane, hobbled by slowly on his spindly bow legs and nodded politely in our direction. He was so bent over that his torso from the waist up was almost parallel to the sidewalk. His translucent fine skin stretched tightly over his sharp cheek bones, the narrow slightly slanted eyes, and the bald oval head gave him the appearance of a leprechaun. Every day he made the laborious trip to Irving’s corner store to buy a Pepsi and a Joe Louis.
“It’s not healthy food,” our mother commented as she started another darn on a sock that had already been darned from toe to heel. She took pride in reading the leaflets from the clinic that instructed mothers on the benefits of wholesome foods.
Our father set Der Tog on his knees, slipped a Turret between his lips, took a long puff, and exhaled with undisguised pleasure. “Pepsi, Joe Louis and cigarettes never hurt anybody,” he said, grinning. He didn’t pay attention to our mother who insisted that smoking was bad for the heart.
“Is it true that Mr. Malamud is 150 years old?” Helen, the youngest, asked.
“No one can live that long,” I said.
Our father came back with, “He can even be older.”
“Impossible,” I said. “No one in my encyclopaedia lived that long.”
Our mother came to my defense. ”Even Moishe Rabaynu only lived to 120.”
“Never mind Moishe Rabaynu and your encyclopaedia. I know better,” he said, and told his story in the usual way, switching between English to Yiddish —often in mid-sentence.
“It is written in the secret books of the Kabbala that when a person is born, the shamehs of Heaven receives the information from the Riboino Shel Oylam Himself. You may ask what information? So I’ll tell you. Where the person will live, if he’ll have a family, how he’ll make a living, when he’ll die. The only information he doesn’t get is what kind of person he’ll be. A person can choose to be good or bad, it is up to him. It is written “if you choose good and not bad, you will be blessed with milk and honey.”
“I don’t like honey,” Helen said.
“I’m never getting married,” I said. “I don’t care what’s written in the secret books.”
“So go on with the story,” Bena said, hugging her knees.
“I’ll go on if people don’t interrupt.” He held our attention with his keen brown eyes, waited for total silence, and continued. “Anyway, the shamehs has to have a good memory because he gives the information to the bookkeeper. The bookkeeper writes it down in a ledger like in a factory. Once it’s written, the person begins his life.”
“In what language?” I asked. The note of scepticism in my voice was not lost on my father.
“In Hebrew, like in the Torah,” he answered sharply. “What language do you think? Turkish? Any more klots kashes?” There weren’t any so he resumed. “You know, it is written in the Yom Kippur Machzor that Heaven knows who will live and who will die before the year is over. But if a person promises from the heart to be good and change his bad ways, he is forgiven and the shamehs tells the bookkeeper to erase the old information.”
I threw Bena a pertinent look. She had scribbled in my story notebook because I refused to take her downtown with my friends. Her eyes filled with tears. My arm went around her and I assured her that she’d be forgiven if she didn’t do it again. And Helen said she’d always “do messages” for our mother from now on. When the others turned their pointed gaze in my direction, I reluctantly promised to hang up my clothes. Our father was pleased with the effect his story was having.
“What does this have to do with Mr. Malamud?” our mother asked, holding her needle up and threading it. The sun’s rays played on her hair, turning brown stray strands into red and gold. She looked younger when she wasn’t working in the factory.
“Patience, I’m coming to it.” Again he waited for total silence before he continued. “Well, it happens that the shamehs is very busy. Thousands of people are born in the world every day, and there are millions more praying to change the information in the books, so he can get mixed up. After all, he is only human.”
Our mother gave a little gush of laughter. “He should get an assistant.”
“I’m telling the children a serious story so they should learn something and you laugh?” our father said, peeved.
“Go on, Daddy, tell the story,” Bena and Helen clamored as did a few neighbors who had in the meantime gathered around our stoop. The growing audience delighted him. Placated, he went on.
“Well, the day Jacob Malamud was born was a very busy day. It was on the first night of slichos in the year that a great holy man, Nahman of Bratslav, was praying hard for his people. It was also a record day for births all over the world, so the shamehs forgot to tell the bookkeeper that Jacob Malamud was born and his name didn’t appear in the books.”
“You mean he can live forever?” I asked, incredulously.
“Unless the Riboino Shel Oylam calls in an accountant to check over the books,” our mother laughed.
“Your mother is a real comedian,” our father retorted. “She should be on Jack Benny.” Our mother grinned, taking his remark as a compliment.
Helen said, “I hope they forgot my name too so I’ll live forever.”
“Don’t say that,” our father said, shaking his forefinger. “Mr. Malamud is all alone in the world. His children, his family, everyone went before him. It’s a curse I don’t wish on nobody.”
With that our father tucked the newspaper under his arm, asked our mother for a glass of tea, and with the hint of a bow to his rapt audience, went into the house. Our mother beamed at her children, collected her darning paraphernalia, and followed her husband. By then we had finished our ice cream and ran off to play before the day faded.
Several years later, when Jacob Malamud went to meet his Maker, my father said, “Nu, the bookkeeper finally balanced the books.”
Our father died at the age of 102. For years I had assumed the heavenly shamehs had forgotten to report his birth, and I had taken it for granted that he would live forever. It came as an overwhelming shock when he left us. The shamehs hadn’t made an error, and my father’s longevity was the decree of the Almighty after all.
Written in 1993