The Inspection

Josh Bernstein Click to read more...

Josh Bernstein’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House Online, Kenyon Review Online, Harpur Palate and others.  He is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.  The fiction editor of Tikkun, he has recently completed a novel about the Israeli army.

The December 2004 administration of the Israeli Halakha Standards and Kosher Certification Board Exam, Level III: Advanced took place in a nondescript conference room on the third floor of the Jerusalem Gate Hotel. Twenty-five takers were in attendance, most of them progenies of well-regarded clans or has-been dynasties spanning the Pale and Carpathians. A few sprung from squalid development towns—Sderot, Netivot, Yeruham—or other rotting lands in the south. All were equally in-bred, and all were well-prepared for the test.

Shlomo Lipshitz was not. He sat sweatily in back, gripping the desk of his writing chair, biting his lip, cupping his beard, deliberately avoiding eye contact with the furry-faced behemoth in front, a shiny-toothed Litvak named Yakov, who proctored in a glittering frock-coat. He was mumbling phrases inaudibly, lost in contemplative prayer, or otherwise trying to impress them. Shlomo should have paid him off. Across the aisle to his right sat Yossi, a smarmy Moroccan, grandson of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, thick-lidded, round, and looking as if he might well have consumed his own weight in shakshouka that morning. He gave Shlomo a tomato-smeared grin.

Question 39: After the liver is broiled and the outer juices have stopped flowing, how many times must the liver be rinsed under a stream of cold water?

Fuck this, Shlomo figured. He reached in his rekel, which was bunched below his desk, parted his tzitzit, and unsnapped the leather box of his tefillin. Then he pulled out a small strip of parchment on which he had scribbled some notes. Beside him, the Moroccan just leered.

Shlomo knew it was written here somewhere between bugs and the boiling of kitchen utensils.

Three, he marked on the test. Then he whispered to the shvartze beside him: “God comes to us in multiple ways.”

Shlomo’s big break as a kosher inspector came a couple years later, when he discovered two or three shrimp shells inadvertently dropped into a package of cod. The order, which had been placed by some upstart caterer near Kiryat Yam, had fallen under the supervision of the municipal rabbinate, which had neglected its watch. Shlomo, as the Deputy Regional Inspector, was actually tipped off by a friend of his, a classmate from kollel, who owed him a ride.

There was hell to pay in Jerusalem. Three rabbis were fired—or not promoted, to be exact—and Shlomo’s picture was displayed in the Chief Rabbinate’s Weekly, which was circulated on all the important blocks in the capital and distributed as far west as Toronto. The article cited him as an “exemplary” inspector, one who is “G-d-fearing, properly trained, and responsible in all he undertakes.” He even got to pose in a shtreimel, an enormous fur cap, which he didn’t even own. Three weeks later, he was married to the Mir Yeshiva head’s daughter and employed as a Sabbath supervisor at the new Laromme Hotel in Jerusalem. Things were looking up.

Then, in 2007, he committed a gaffe. As a side-project, and in effort to get his name out—he had hopes of becoming a district supervisor, if not more gainfully employed—he had founded a rent control committee in the Sanhedria neighborhood of Jerusalem, where landlords were gouging their tenants. Similar groups had been founded in Bnei Brak and other telescoping tenements. What he hadn’t counted on was the owners being patrons of Shas, the largest rival party, and Sephardim to boot. Normally, one could negotiate with these people, and pretty much anyone wearing a hat. But when he showed up at the offices of Deri & Yishai, intending to outline his plans, and possibly squeeze them, he found none other than Yossi, his four-ton nemesis, sitting at the desk, picking an olive from his teeth.

“Multiple ways,” Yossi said. Then he thumbed through the sheets of his prayerbook. “How’s the new wife holding up?”

Twelve hours later, Shlomo was reassigned to the most isolated patch of the Negev, overseeing the kosher inspection for a senior citizens’ home near Ofakim. To call the place desolate would have complimented the region. Actual scorpions crept along the sand, which had more the consistency of rock, and even in May, when he arrived, the thermometers simmered at 47°C. “I guess God wills it,” said his wife, who detested him but didn’t say a word, apart from that. She and their two kids settled comfortably into their pink-walled, swamp-coolered condo, which was in an eight-story building, ironically enough, despite being 3km from the next. Shlomo, for his part, only visited the center once or twice-a-week, just enough to watch people die. Most afternoons, he played cards in the park and lingered around the yeshiva, dipping his toes in the bath or haggling with Bukhari merchants over the price of their babkas, which were obviously inflated, even for him. He took up smoking, as well.

Fortunately, things played out to his favor in Jerusalem. Yossi suffered a stroke at age 36, which wasn’t unexpected in his circles—they all ate a lot—but he hadn’t even made it to the hospital in time to stabilize his brain. The result was that he had gone comatose—an awful, squishy state—and any other people would have pulled the plug. Shlomo visited him in the hospital once and felt a slight shred of compassion: the thin charcoaled eyes, the scintillating mask, the cables affixed to his jugular, like some massive shrimp. Shlomo thought about pulling the cord himself. Then he stepped out for a smoke.

Twenty months later, his nemesis was dead, and Shlomo was called back to Jerusalem, where he attained a well-deserved sinecure as the Sabbath Inspector of the David Citadel Hotel. His wife, who had borne him two more, was elated, albeit unanxious to move. She also disliked moving back near her father, at whose home they were expected to gather each Friday night. That is, everyone in the clan except Shlomo, who made his rounds at the hotel.

One Friday evening around six, as a golden sun steamed through the clouds, igniting the cliffs of Talbiya and spraying warm light on his suite, Shlomo got up from the loveseat. He had been watching Jeopardy, sipping a good Cabernet (for which he had directed the import and levied a not-unreasonable tax), picking the jam from his toes, when it occurred to him that he deserved better than this. His father, a hapless shoe merchant from Netanya, had told him that nothing would come of this “life,” this newfound devotion he attained at age 17, when he’d moved to a Haifa yeshiva and taken up the calling of God. Shlomo wasn’t technically ordained as a rabbi, but he had always been spiritual, and he did His work. Hell, he married a hag and had children—four of them, from what he could tell—and prayed most weekends at the Wall. He was fairly compassionate. He never overtaxed the religious and always gave alms to the poor. And he had never actually cheated anybody—that is, asked for an outright bribe. At least not without reasonable grounds. He was diligent with his reports. He didn’t aim to be a district supervisor any longer, but his wife deserved more than a two-bedroom flat on some derelict block in Sanhedria. And his Audi needed new tires.

He closed the drapes. He tightened his frock-coat. Then he picked up his half-emptied wineglass, wrapped it in a towel, dropped it on the floor, and stomped it. The shards were still settling in the bin when the deadbolt clamped in his door.

Downstairs, he made his usual trek through the lobby, where George, the Assistant GM, was berating a security guard for having patted down a foreign head of state. A red dusky light checkered the carpets, the wrought-iron tables, the porcelain trays—all of this secular crap. Outside, the wind loudly whipped at the pool. Must have been a khamsin. He could hear its hum through the glass.

As Shlomo barged through the swinging doors of the restaurant’s kitchen, without warning, of course, he heard a thousand plates fall. Moses himself couldn’t have exuded such power. In the center, beneath the hood of a vent and above a steel counter with plates, a goateed chef looked back at him in panic. “Rabbi,” he peeped.

Shlomo just studied his thumb. He knew right away what had happened. The wind had blown out the stoves’ central pilot light, but the sun had already set. Six hundred chicken breasts cooled on trays along the wall, and a half-dozen servers were scrambling, unsure of how they’d proceed.

“Go ahead, light it,” Shlomo said to the chef, a kibbutznik named Ron, who wasn’t even supposed to be working now.

“But what about—”

“Go ahead. Do it. See if I care.” Shlomo eyed a young female server, an Arab, with copper-green eyes. He gave her a sumptuous wink. Then he approached Ron’s counter, where a huge saucer of gravy was resting. He dipped his thumb in the pool, licked it, and turned to the five or six servers, all of whom were huddled by the door, waiting to hear his pronouncement. “I think it would be a shame to close you guys down now. What, with the delegation coming.” The Mideast Quartet was dining that night in the ballroom, and what seemed like half the UN was expected to arrive for brunch.

The gravy tasted liquidy, dull. “Ron,” Shlomo dried off his hand on his frock-coat, slowly fingered his beard. “Let me ask you a question.”

Ron stared straight above the plates.

“How long have you been in this business?”

“Twenty-seven years.”

“Any kids?”

“Just a couple.”
“That’s nice. Do you feel this place is a success?”

Ron didn’t flinch. He had the look of death in his eyes. “I guess.”

“Hmm.” Shlomo turned to the young Arab server. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

She glowered at him, bravely.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“Nahla.” She grinned.

“What a beautiful name, Nahla. What does that mean?”

“Drink of water.”

“I see.” He turned to Ron, who was quivering beneath his white chef’s hat. “You know, I’d like a drink of water.”

“Okay.”

Then Shlomo spun around to the hall, to the extent one can spin in a frock-coat. He brushed the door’s slanted mezuzah and gave the young girl a passing tap on the back—like David seducing Bathsheba, he figured.

Outside, George was scrambling over through the lobby, brushing past the legions of security guards and mustached UN personnel. “Rabbi,” he pleaded. “I was going to tell you about the stove. There’s nothing we can do. We couldn’t ask a goy to light it, and the timers are already set.”

“Just do what you wish,” Shlomo said.

“But what about the license?”

“What about it?”

“How can we be sure it’s okay?”

“God has his ways.”

Shlomo didn’t bother to come down for dinner that night. He didn’t have to. He chose to eat in his suite. The chicken was cold, but definitely reheated, and it arrived on a long silver tray, along with a vintage Bordeaux and a chilled green bottle of Perrier. Beneath it was a manager’s enveloped stuffed with pink bills—banded 200’s—and an unstruck, newly-torn match.

Shlomo’s suite was actually meant to accommodate his family—it featured two adjoining rooms—though he kept the doors closed in effort to ward off the ghosts: the ghosts of his father, now dead, his nemesis, Yossi, and his mentor, the Litvak, whom no one else liked but appropriately feared, since that was the only passable way.

He flipped through the bills, smelling their stack. Then he dumped them all out in the trash. Money meant nothing to him now, just part of his earthly abode. He wasn’t sure why he was feelings this. But the sight of it rankled his chest.

Fuck his new tires and his wife. He grabbed the Bordeaux, uncorked it, and laid himself down on the bed.

At around three am, he heard a soft knock on his door. He stirred on his pillow, opened his eyes, and realized that his pay-per-view porn was still on. He reached for his kippah and rose, winding through the suite in his bathrobe. Peering through the peephole, he saw a young girl looking down, shielding her face with her palm. It was Nahla, of course. His drink.

 # #

 “So here’s the plan,” her uncle told her that morning, inside the Daheisha Refugee Camp, 12km south of Jerusalem. “You’ve got to kill a Jew. I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care if you die. The payment is 12,000 sheks.”

That was it, Nahla realized. That was the worth of her life, excluding the cost of her funeral and the fees for rebuilding their house. Both would be deducted, of course.

Her uncle was munching on a date as he said it, a waxy medjool, propping his shoes on a floormat she’d cleaned the past night. He was wearing his Yankees cap backwards, as he always did, and watching Arab Idol.

“And what if I back out?”

He didn’t look up. He just spat his pit at the set. It clunked against the screen and bounced into a fake potted palm—a well-practiced shot.

Suddenly, Muna dashed in from the store. “Abu Jabri said he can’t help us any more. But he gave me an ice cream and drink.” Her clueless little sister, still clad in her navy-striped school dress, was slurping a Fanta and holding a half-melted Magnum on a stick. Then, as if on cue, they heard their father’s moans from upstairs: at first, a soft whimpering, then shuddering cries, as if the life were being squeezed from his veins. Another round of chemo would kill the man. That’s if they could afford the next cab.

“I’ll do it,” she told her uncle, “on two conditions. First, Muna doesn’t stay in this house. You’ll let her live with her aunt in ad-Doha”—a neighboring village, outside the camp, where she wouldn’t live in squalor and fear of bi-nightly arrests. “And two, before I go, you’ll let me spend time with Jaffar”—a neighbor who had repeatedly courted her, and whose marital requests her family had repeatedly denied. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good-looking. He was simply, unequivocally poor. And they had always entertained high hopes for their eldest. At least until the cancer set in.

“If you want to whore yourself out, feel free. But your handlers will meet you at one. You’ll pick up the explosives vest when you get past the checkpoint, inside the monastery gardens. As for Muna, that’s fine.”

She would have considered it further, but she had already made up her mind. She’d put in the request six months ago, though the Islamists wouldn’t accept. So she had turned to her uncle, a crude UNRWA janitor, who had ties with the nationalist groups. They were less reliable and even more misogynistic, but better-funded and seeking recruits. They had also found her a job, through covert channels, at a Jerusalem hotel, where Palestinians weren’t normally employed.

“Come here.” She hugged her little sister. Then she grabbed her thin, sticky hand. “I want you to run down to Jaffar’s and tell him to come here at once.”

“I hope he gives you a ring,” said her uncle.

“I hope your wife doesn’t get fat.”

After Muna dashed off, Nahla bathed, said her prayers, and visited her father upstairs. With the help of two militants, she recorded a video of herself draped in red flags, clutching a rifle, and professing support for their cause.

Then Muna rushed in with a reply. “Jaffar’s still out at Efrat. He won’t be back until six.”

That figures, Nahla thought. She kissed her pale father goodbye.

Downstairs, as she reapplied lipstick in her mirror, she noticed her lips were too chapped. The militants had told her that that could be a telltale sign to security. But it was clearly from the khamsin. Outside, through the bathroom’s slatted grey window, a particled wind choked the camp, swarming through laundry, slabs of cement, and the chalky green leaves of a loquat, which she had once planted herself. Now all she wanted was to see the tree demolished. She could feel the hot wind in her throat. The going would be rough through the checkpoint, she realized, assuming traffic still crossed. Then she’d detonate herself outside the hotel, or wherever she encountered some guards.

In the kitchen, she smeared some olive oil on her lips and retrieved her late mother’s sunglasses—an oversized tortoiseshell pair, like the kind that Umm Kulthum wore. Her life had been miserable, as well. Everyone’s was, she supposed.

“Good luck,” said her uncle, bidding her adieu. “May God grant you peace and good health.”

 # #

 “Good evening,” said the girl, as Shlomo slowly opened his door.

He looked at her face, those soft Arab cheeks, the pouty, wet folds of her lips. She was wearing sunglasses, too, which she hadn’t worn downstairs. But her nametag clearly said Nahla, and it was pinned to her uniform’s vest. She also wore a matching blue skirt and white dress shirt with scarf, beneath which her massive breasts bulged. “May peace be upon you,” he said.

Diffidently, she entered, looked about the suite, and studied the tall windows’ glare. The curtains were drawn, and a wild orange light flitted in: the illumined stone walls of the Old City beyond, compounded with the sweltering dusk. It looked truly biblical, he realized. Like some heathenish plague, or a curse.

“Al-Quds,” he said, using the Palestinian name.

“Jerusalem.”

“Are you Muslim?”

She grinned, watching him retrieve two crystal flutes from a glass-covered, wall-mounted shelf.

“Then I guess you don’t drink.”

“There’s a first time for everything.” Smirking, she removed her black sunglasses and let down her long walnut hair.

As he bent to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of Clos Du Mesnil, ’98 (she was worth it, he figured, even if she was a bit overweight), he tried not to take his eyes off her, but he noticed she was watching the trash.

“Are those real?” she asked, referring to the discarded Shekels.

“Nothing is real in my life.” He untied the cork and it popped. Foam drizzled onto the carpet, along with his robe and his hands. His pajamas were silk, and the stain would be hard to get out. Not as hard as blood, though. This girl was a vision from God. “Do you want them?”

She eyed him fiercely, as if too enraged to respond.

“How old are you?” he asked her.

“Nineteen.”

“And you’ve never been with a man?”

“Is that what you are?”

“If you want to leave, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to do anything you don’t want.” Still smiling, he held out a bubbling glass.

Slowly, she approached him and took it. She sipped it, coughed, and set the glass on the desk. He took her hand and pulled her into his chest. She smelled of perfume—some raw, earthly scent, and he could hear the soft tick of her heart.

“I’m scared,” the girl whispered.

“You’re scared?”

“Yes.”

“Scared of what?” He could feel her whole body convulsing.

“About what I need to do for the cash.”

He looked at her sullenly. Then he glanced about the suite—its crystal, silk, gold—like David’s own palace of sin. “Nothing,” he responded. “I just wanted you to give me a hug.”

“What?”

“I’m old enough to be your father. I’m not going to do anything to you. And if you want to take the money, that’s fine.”

She was shaking madly, half-writhing in his arms.

“There, there,” he said. “It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay.” She backed away. “Fuck you, you Jew.”

“What’s wrong?”

She eyed him darkly. “You forgot to inspect me,” she said. Then she reached in her vest. “Allahu Akbar.”

“Shit.”

The last thing that Shlomo Lipshitz would hear—besides the sound of shrapnel impacting his head—was the sound of the wind as it rattled the glass, and an echoing, high, shrieking laugh. Whether it was the girl’s, or Yossi’s, or even his father’s, Shlomo himself never knew.

Print Friendly

Discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.