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Levitation

From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1985, Vol. VII, No. 1

From the end of summer until the High Holidays, there was always a great sense of expectancy about Proszowice. Another season complete, harvest imminent, the prosperity of the farmers communicated itself to the merchants, who passed it along to the scholars, who spread it like loam on the fertile community ground. Amidst the clamor of exchange, pyramids of ripe vegetables were transformed into cloth and herring and clocks. My mother cleaned our house from basement to beams, and would have climbed up the chimney if my father had let her. To stop her, he took her arm to promenade in the square “just because the air is so fine.” They went by the shul, where the sexton was riffling the pages of the prayer books to make sure that none had stuck together in the damp, August heat. Everyone, in his or her own way, made ready for the New Year.

But I was impatient. I lived in an eternal “now” that would not conceive of either the “soon” or the “later.” I could not wait, and the pining burned my heart like a brand. Worse, though, I did not know what I could not wait for. Come September, I would advance one grade in school and reach one shelf higher in my father’s store. Maybe I would get more of the olders boys’ wit, but this was a minor accomplishment, and I craved the momentous. I was a self-conscious puppy with dreams of a mastiff. Sometimes, I felt so sheerly vital that I tugged my father out of bed to start the day. It was only during the first New Year’s reading of the Shema Yisroel that I finally saw the form my inarticulate desire would take.

In the original days, the sons of Levi ministered to the needs of the priests, who were the sons of Aaron. With the destruction of the Temple and the dispersal of the Jewish people these tribal roles disappeared and, along with them, the defining characteristics of the tribes themselves. In Exile, there was no such thing as a Kohan or a Levite; there were only Jews. But on Rosh Hashana, the descendants of the priestly caste performed one final act of sympathetic magic. Calling forth their vestigial powers, they blessed their brothers, not as men reciting holy writ, but as God’s own dummies. So awesome is their metamorphosis that it is forbidden to look upon them during this ritual. To ensure that they should not even accidentally witness the Kohanim, some members of the congregation prayed with their backs turned.

Before these prayers could begin, however, the Kohanim had to be cleansed. They were helped, as of old, by the Levites, of which my father and, therefore, myself were two. We met them at the water trough. I recognized their hands. Cohen, the carpenter’s, were as rough as a piece of wood; his nephew, Moscowitz’s, only slightly less callused. Cohen, the butcher’s, were tinged by the pink of the chickens whose heads he had so neatly severed for countless Friday night dinners. These were holy men?

“It is not Cohen, specifically,” my father explained. “It is the office of his ancestors. “

And were my ancestors any less fine than his?

“It is not a matter of better or worse. It is a difference without a value, a difference of function.”

“I see,” I said, seeing only that I had washed their hands.

Our heads were lowered so that only the Kohanim’s feet and the fringes of the dipping prayer shawls were visible to us. My dissatisfaction grew through the preliminary chant. Moaning, keening, in thrall to an unseen God, their pains wracked the fragile sanctuary.

“You know why we can’t look,” Jacob Lester nudged me. “That’s because if you saw who was blessing you, you would faint.” Lester was our village cynic, though his eyes too were cast down. He was joking to ease the gravity of the occasion, but I felt the sting of truth.

And the Kohanim wept, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

But why could not Israel see, wherefrom was imposed this limit? I cannot abide limits. I don’t know when to stop. I have always wanted (imagine that I will always want) to see or do whatever is prohibited me—for precisely that reason.

The prayer of the Kohanim was coming to an end. One more phrase and I would have been safe from the terrible annual temptation to peek. But one year later and I would be thirteen—bar mitzvahed—a man, responsible. I could not help but calculate this last fugitive opportunity, and resolve to grab it. Decision, however, was easier than execution. My eyes seemed unable to obey my mind, as if there were coins taped to each lid. When I did finally yank them wide, I could have sworn that I heard the zloty clank to the temple floor, and I saw the unseeable—three old men. The Kohanim clutched in their stained hands their taleysim like tattered angel’s wings.

It was the first deliberate act of religious disobedience in my life. I expected the slimy arm of the devil to reach through the floor of the shul to drag me under.

I do not know what there was within me that made me so contrary. I do not know why I could not accept the lot drawn for me at birth, and gratify my parents’ and my people’s expectations, so many of which I shared. I meant no disrespect, but I yearned for something they would never be able to understand. Right then, among my family and friends, beneath the lowering countenance of my God, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever,” I thought, “I want to fly.”

Levitation has troubled the wise men for ages. Some have thought it a property of the real to be modified in accordance with established rules of nature. The air has a small but significant weight less than that of clouds, leaves, and yarmulkes. For more solid objects to join this category, change them. Transmute the elements. Others have denied that levitation is a matter of proportion. In order to achieve the literally transcendent, they wish to eliminate the very quality of weight while keeping those of blue or bitter. Reweave the fabric of being without that heavy thread, they say. Unfortunately, I treasure the God-given essences too greatly to consider tampering with one or removing another. Instead, I wish to add a new quality, that of levity, to those of substance. This may sound contradictory, but the true believer does not shrink from paradox; he embraces it.

Most physical laws have inspired similar philosophical quandaries. Invisibility, malleability, and magnetism have all undergone the deepest of Talmudic analysis, and each still has its advocates, but only weight, along with its airy antithesis, has spellbound men for so long. From the magician to the American technician, it has exercised the highest faculties of the human imagination.

But I wanted neither science nor the occult. I wanted merely to fly.

My every thought for the rest of the prayers floated about my head like a halo. It is said that sometimes the Baal Shem Tov and his students became “so fired with learning that they knew not whether they were in Poland or heaven.” Some find this rapture in study, some in money, and some in love, but I found it in the images of flight that played on the periphery of my mind.

I could see the church spire off in the distance and, for a moment, I envied the cabbage heads their peak. They too did not know whether they were in Poland or heaven. I thought of Joshua, who stopped the sun, and I thought of Moses, begging a sign of divinity, rapping the desert rock for water, subject to the sin of pride. God knows, I too was proud, but I was also reverent according to my own lights. My family would take my aspirations amiss, but like them I was in search of the presence of the holy. Only our maps differed.

Complete independence was the new first principle. My father, for example, did not stand or rely upon the floor; he bordered it. One’s every motion was therefore a redefinition of the world. The Torah’s silver crown pierced the firmament, while my little toe’s twitch shook the foundations. Yet look how delicately the pieces meshed! Wonderstruck by this drastic, immaculate configuring, I stood when those about me sat and sat when they stood and failed to notice the Rabbi’s signal to his cantor. When the shofar blew its primitive cry, my cup overflowed. I saw my white knuckles and knew that if I let go of the dark wooden pew, I would rise with the ease of a balloon, until Zalman the Digger pulled my chin back to earth and said, “What are you, a statue?”

Just the opposite, I thought. They were the statues, caught fast beneath the millstones of their belief, unaware of the freedom that lay one step beyond. I may have looked like them, a Yiddish miniature in prayer shawl and yarmulke, but I was vibrating like a softly tapped cymbal. I felt a surge of power every time I considered what happened when I dared to behold the secret rites of the Kohanim—nothing, absolutely nothing. Ah, to shed the yoke that bore us down, to harness that magnificent lack, to meet the perfect contradictions of the Almighty on his own ground—that was my goal.

The prayers went on. We gave thanks and pleaded mercy for our sins, “sins committed knowingly or unknowingly, openly or secretly, under compulsion or freely . . . sins of scoffing, slander, impurity, presumption, and evil inclination . . . sins for which the law would have imposed chastisement, flagellation, excision, or one of the four death penalties,” sins the mere enumeration of which would exhaust the most dedicated sinner.

Thoroughly convinced of the lowliness of our nature, we set off to Tashlikh. This is the one service conducted outside the temple proper, beside the nearest body of water, for in it we wash away our sins. We walked in contrite and motley procession (the Kohanim and Mrs. Lopotkin and her three unmarried daughters, Mrs. Hemtobble leading her husband like a trained bear, C.M. and Shivka Bellet of the pew with the brass plaque, Jergenchic the barber, Bobover, Kleiner, my father, my mother, my grandmother, my brothers, my infant sister, and Zalman the Digger peering at the rest with the incuriosity he showed to all who met him before their maker) from the shul through the question-mark-shaped streets of the town to the Proszowice River. This was actually a sluggish irrigation ditch with muddy banks on which a few tenacious weeds managed to entrench themselves. I felt the exhilarating dread of a soon-to-be martyr on the road to the gibbet or stake. There was heartstopping fear and anxiety, but there was also a gratifying sense of curiosity contentable.

A spatter of shadows meant a flock of geese overhead. With the first shade of autumn in the tips of the leaves of the yew trees, they were traveling south from the Arctic Circle, maybe to Palestine. While I gazed idiotically after them, yearning, stumbling, the entire flock, as if acting on a single impulse or connected by invisible strings, banked steeply to the left, and came down by the river.

The geese had just settled into the shallows by the large hollow willow tree when we came upon them, a loud, homely mass, myself in the rear. There was a frightened, flapping, honking ruckus, and all except one of the geese rose, awkward until they cleared the willow and regained their impeccable V formation. In a twinkling they were dark stars in the distance, save the straggler. It pecked at a root not ten meters upstream, oblivious to both the human presence and the absence of its mates.

The purification ceremony commenced. The men squatted and thrust their hands violently under the surface of the water, as if it were scalding. The women bent carefully, holding their dresses to their chests with one hand while letting the stream run over the other. Changing hands, they left soft wet prints on themselves. A few of the youngest, most immature children were allowed to wade into the riverbed. I myself had done this five years ago, so that from the venerable antiquity of age twelve I envied the little Mikovsky boy and the Balybys twins their freedom. After a day of solemn injunction and duty, the water beckoned with a sparkle I could not resist. I kicked off my shoes, peeled off my socks, and joined the babies, and everyone laughed.

Even the sole remaining goose turned its long, variegated neck to stare at me. Its eyes bulged. A thin, red-speckled snake was coiled around its leg. The snake slid down into the tidal muck, the leg with it, and the goose fell off balance. Its wings flapped and arched backwards, and it called out to its bygone companions with a strident, pathetic honk.

The twins left the water.

There was a final thrashing of wings and a hoarse squeal as the graceful neck, limpid eyes, and tapering beak were pulled beneath the surface.

Several hands appeared to help me, but I was entranced by the last of the air bubbles and a few stray feathers that began to float downstream. That was when I realized that the time for my own personal ascent had finally come.

The prayers started, and I declared, “Here, O Israel.”

I said to myself, on this site I shall willfully and without external aid levitate. My body, like bread, like breath, shall rise.

Let the Proszowicer laugh. I can hear their many mirthful tongues like voices in an orchestra. First is the din of the Rabbi and the Doctor’s assertive trombone. Then comes an abundance of modestly chuckling clarinets: Jacob Lester proud of his new shoes, Isaac the Millionaire down at the heels, Old Man Medisky smelling faintly of orchids. I can hear the stringy smirking of Reb Tellman, my teacher, and the lower, kinder cellos of the other teachers I have known. They contrast with the mockery of the snare drums that are my classmates, from whom I am accustomed to such abuse. Finally, there is the ominous undertone of the bass multitude. The silent one is the one they will not listen to until they realize that he is holding the baton. Let them laugh.

The only two who do not pass musical judgment are my father and my mother. They are worried, baffled as usual by their firstborn. In the meantime they smile with a benign skepticism, and my mother reaches out gently to turn the pages of my prayer book.

“Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.” It is the third reading of these words today. Three times daily for the rest of the year they will be repeated, but never with the same clarity and passion. Graven in my mind like words on stone, they still leap skyward. I cry, “Amen.”

The congregation murmurs indulgently. Everyone in the world I know stands on shore. They think I am daydreaming, but they are wrong. I am keenly aware of the lapping on the skinny thigh beneath the hem of my short woolen pants. They are waiting for me to emerge. Instead, I stay in the water. I have always been a bit simple, they think. Pity the parents for the imbecile child, but I should know better. The joke has gone far enough. After all, this is Rosh Hashana.

“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” My voice climbs heroically.

My father whispers my name.

Someone glares at me, but he is complacent. Rich or wretchedly poor (predominantly the latter), the Jews of Poland have forgotten the gift and the glory we have been commanded to remember forever.

“Thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thy house, when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and,” here I tremble, “when thou risest up.”

Reckoning on the progress of the text, I am nonetheless delighted when the words of the Shema echo my innermost ambitions. I am dressed in a white tallis that flutters in the autumn breeze as if it can hardly wait to bear me aloft. It has a delicate blue embroidery and tassels that bounce merrily above the cool flow of the stream. A current eddies about the frail stalks that support me and begs to uplift me. Both air and water conspire to aid me. My act, however, must not be the accompaniment to prayer, for it is not illustration I seek, but revelation.

Somebody tugs at my tallis.

Remember, I am standing in the water, which is literally aswim with the cast-off sins of the last year. Newly clean, the people hesitate to soil themselves with their own impurity, of which each alone knows the secret extent. Only I am immune from this contamination, and will be until I emerge, which I reassure the Proszowicer I genuinely intend. The only thing is that rather than step out of the running water, I plan to hover above it.

“Enough is enough,” grumbles Old Man Medisky whose greenhouse is as overgrown as his beard.

“He never knows when to stop,” comments Isaac the Millionaire. This is true, but this time I don’t have to. As long as I am out of their reach, I am within reach of my goal. A buoyant, ecstatic power enters the tips of my toes, rises through my feet, and stretches the muscles till my legs turn rubbery. Strange things happen at my center and then ride across the plain of my stomach. I thrust my arms upward, as if to grab ahold of the clouds.

“Hey,” they call in an attempt to break my reverie. There is a moment of surprise as they read the seriousness of my expression, and their humor fades.

“Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” the Doctor asks.

“Answer him,” C.M. Bellet insists.

I smile blissfully, which turns their impatience to anger. The women’s faces blanch, the men’s turn red.

“Stop this immediately,” Reb Tellman commands, but I must answer to a higher authority. My teacher wears his orthodoxy like the crumpled gray hat that never leaves his head. Feast or famine, he bows to the superior wisdom of the Lord. I too bow, no questions asked, but I pray for an answer.

The Shema, the most beautiful of prayers, comes to a close.

“Ignore him,” the Rabbi says. They think that I want attention, that if they pretend that I am not there, I won’t be. They stifle their laughter, and the prayers continue and not an eye deviates from the text to myself, still in the center of the moving stream.

Together we recite the Slicah, the Amdorah, and, in silent devotion, the Amidah, during which my intention becomes rock solid. When the service is over, before we retire for dinner, my upraised arms stretch further and creak. My knobby little knees quiver with the strain. I announce, “Hear me, O Israel.”

And the Proszowicer freeze.

They cannot imagine this. It is as if they had seen the Kohanim. Until now my behavior has been outrageous, but this is obscene.

“Blessed be My entry to your glorious kingdom for ever and ever.”

The Rabbi is the one to break the spell. He blinks. His nostrils flare. His beard fairly bristles with fury. He proclaims it, “Sacrilege!”

And the Proszowicer erupt. Everyone at once—some to me, some to each other, some to themselves, some to God—they are declaring, discussing, denying, “Shame.” Forbidden pagan doctrines and the most evil of practices are ascribed to me. From the depths of the crowd, I hear the murmurous syllables, “Caballa.”

Only my mother and my father remain quiet. It is their son, but what can they do? They will come with me if I rise, catch me if I fall.

My insides are churning. The power has taken my chest, inflamed my neck. It is a furnace that pumps hot air through the seared passages of my nose and throat, like a dragon. Steam obscures my vision, so that everything blurs into a translucent haze. Voices are raised in indistinguishable cacophony against the background of blue sky, blue stream, and a few dead feathers.

I begin to spin. I am like a Hanukkah top on the point of my toes, my arms flung out like wings for balance. Instead of slowing, however, I keep on gathering speed and momentum, pulling the water into a whirlpool around me. I feel that through the sweat of my effort and the centripetal force I am unloading the ballast of my worldly self into the disappearing funnel along with the feathers. I am dizzy, nauseous, but I am laughing, splashing, and the surging power continues to stir me. “Amen!”

“Grab him!”

Both Rebecca the whore and Shivka Bellet, the one in rhinestones and the other in pearls, are screaming, and the Rabbi is shaking his fist. Reb Tellman is trying to hook me like a fish. But without entering the stew of their past indiscretions, these arms fall short into useless dismay on the bank.

I am on the verge, less connected with every revolution. Still I must spin faster, fast and faster than I possibly can, to achieve the holy thing, the name of which I must exalt myself to utter, “With all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might . . . to levitate.”

Mrs. Lopotkin, fainting, falls to the ground. Her legs are splayed like a cart horse’s that can no longer carry its weight. Her daughters try to revive her to no avail. The Kohanim are wailing in tandem, beside whom Mrs. Hemtobble, who is Cohen the butcher’s sister and the music teacher, taps her club foot.

“And you shall speak to me in the house . . .”

The orchestra plays with a shattered vigor, drums pounding, brass blaring, violins screeching, so that they fail to notice that the pebbles rubbed smooth by the action of the stream are chattering like teeth in winter. The water is boiling, and the individual rivulets that make up the body seem to be twisting apart, like strings in an elaborate braid unwound as I twist in the opposite direction, faster and faster.

“And by the way . . .”

My head is filled with the rushing noise of the foot-deep stream, as if a dam has broken, as if Noah’s deluge is pouring-upon me from the infuriated heavens. The wind lashes at my tallis like waves. The waves rush through my toes like the wind.

“When I lie down . . .”

I am a tree stripped bare by the ferocity of the storm and the searing sky waters, my hair and eyebrows plucked. My back is scored by invisible fingers tearing at me from the sanctified shore. Curses like salt shower into the wounds. The river has become hot tar, the clouds above me brimstone, but the fire feels good and the burning droplets etch through the last moorings that bind me.

“And when I rise up . . .”

Up.

I am lying on the ground. I can feel its rough, sandy surface against my cheek, and I can feel the air above me. I am nowhere near the river, but I am wet, drenched, a rag set out in the yard to dry. I must blink several times to clear my vision of the muddy water and focus on the circle of concerned faces that surrounds me. They are no longer laughing, no longer angry. “Tell me,” I croak. Don’t we speak the same language?

I jerk myself into an upright position, but I no longer seem to have any strength. I am about to fall back when a familiar, reassuring hand becomes a pillar supporting the small of my back. I rub my cheek like a man his new beard. “Tell me,” I beg.

“What?” my father asks.

“Anything you wish,” my mother answers.

“Did I . . . you know . . .” The sacred word is like a crystal on my tongue. I can’t say it. “Lll . . .”

My mother sighs with pain.

My father says, “We don’t know.”

Don’t they have eyes?

He explains. Men were shouting, women screaming, children sobbing. I was jumping and splashing, and the sky turned black. Looking into the heart of a fountain, who can say if the marble figure moves? I fell, maybe slipped on one of the chattering stones. My father, ever the Levite in aid of the holy, saved me from the river of sin.

That poised on the brink of flight I should be subject to accident is ludicrous. I was empty of my self and filled with the majesty, I was certain, to rise. All I wanted between myself and the world was the height of a grain of sand, the depth of a drop of water. But if the Devil was not strong enough to stop me from gazing at the Kohanim, if the Kohanim were not strong enough to effect their magic, if God himself was not strong enough . . . why should I be different?

Maybe I was different. Maybe the sight of the Proszowicer was veiled by the grandeur of my ascent. Why then is memory gone?

My father and my mother look at me with the inexpressible ignorance born of love and the rending knowledge that there is nothing we can do to help each other.

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Melvin Jules Bukiet's "Levitation" became a part of his first book (well, first finished, second published) Stories of an Imaginary Childhood. Besides that, he's published five novels and two other collections. He's also edited three anthologies. He lives in Manhattan and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.