The Old Man
Let us imagine an old man. There, it is almost too easy. This old man we are picturing, was he ever young?
But tell me, is there a cheerful glow to him, granted by some faraway memory of warmth and summer? Or perhaps the warmth and glow are summer themselves, perhaps this old man sits outside, sweltering. Ah, I've confused you already, this was not the old man you were picturing. If it is summer, it cannot be the same old man. You, like me, are always picturing an old man in winter; like King David he feels the cold, and no number of blankets can warm him. But it *is* summer and the old man *is* sweltering. He sits on a bench, just a few blocks down from his apartment building in Brighton Beach; he is in a short sleeve button up and too-high pants. Is he alone?
No, there is a woman by him. She wears floral medical scrubs. She is darker than him, and speaks with a thick accent from far east of here. Hindi? Tamil? In fact, it is a Bengali accent. Most likely she is a home health aide who works with him. She would be shockingly young to be his wife, though she is not young. The woman, whose name is Harshi, is remarking on the day, its weather, the people as they go by. She maintains a strong stream of talk because she believes it cheers the old man.
It is possible it does. It is difficult to know with this old man. His slightly strained smile indicates any number of moods, mental states, thoughts. It could be the distracted smile of the demented. But no, there is no fuzz of confusion, there is a sharpness to this old man. Or perhaps he is thinking of his children? They visit him often, you think, and he is meditating on some family matter. But you are wrong. The old man has no family.
He might be grimacing in frustration at his health aide's chatter. But look closer: he is nodding at Harshi's words, but with no correspondence to what she's saying. He is not listening. He is elsewhere. Hmm, could it be the pretty young woman pushing a stroller across the street who distracts him? He may be one of these dirty old men we hear of, who is always off in some erotic delusion of youth. He may even cat call at this young mother or babysitter! But he does not. The truth is the old man is ignoring all his surroundings, the hot weather which causes him to sweat, the young woman, the health aide. He is thinking of a book.
What a surprise! You were so sure it was the pretty woman. But no, this is not a dirty old man, but a bookish one. (But, you object weakly, the story moving on without you, he could easily be both!) He is out on his morning walk, which he detests, but which his health aide insists on. He would rather be back in his dark, cramped apartment, surrounded by his untidy stacks of books and newspapers, combing through them, desperately searching for . . . for what?
To understand what the old man is looking for, you must know his name, and you must know his secret, a dark and terrible secret about the old man, and the world. The name on his social security card, the name in his wallet, and, were he at all inclined to company these days, the name under which he would introduce himself, is Emmanuel Yosefsky. But that is only his name by way of a slight and rather unfunny play on words. His real name, the name he was born under, and the name he has been running from ever since, is Immanuel ben Yosef HaCohen. And here is his secret: He is the long-promised Messiah of his people, the Jews.
What is the Jewish Messiah doing in Brighton Beach? The simple answer is that Emmanuel Yosefsky, whose coming is foretold in the prophecies of Isaiah and Amos and Ezekiel, certain pages of Midrash Tehillim and the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin, and in the writings of Maimonides, is in a sort of exile. "Why, yes!" You may say, "I should hope he is! Imagine the King of the Jews not joining them in their long exile!" Or perhaps you are one of those who believe that since the creation of the state of Israel, Messiah's business must take him to the Middle East more often than not? Well, in either case, you have completely misunderstood the exile of Emmanuel Yosefsky.
The more complicated answer, as in the case of most exiles, involves geopolitical pressures, personal choices, business endeavors that failed, ideologies, passports, visas, refugee statuses. Emmanuel Yosefsky has had a difficult half century, to be sure. Often, he himself has wondered if these are in fact the long-promised birth pangs of salvation that are mentioned along with his coming. And so we have arrived at the question we began with: what is the old man looking for in his books?
It is not true what some say of Messiah, that he is a sort of deity in himself. Rather, he is fully human, and nothing else. And as a human, he is subject to uncertainty. Doubt fills Emmanuel Yosefsky. He reads his books for signs and surety. He knows somewhere, in the grand mass of Kabbalistic writings and mystical meditations, is a synthesis waiting for him, a unique and clear plan for the salvation of the world. He has searched for it his whole life. But still it remains opaque. He — perhaps like you? — does not know the course of action he must take. He does not know the date or hour. Emmanuel Yosefsky, the Messiah, is uncertain of his own coming.
So he sits impatiently on his bench, right where we pictured him, listening to Harshi's chatter. He hopes to get back to his books, to understand his destiny, which he has been puzzling over for the last 50 years or so.
But something extraordinary is about to happen. Where does it begin? With the pretty young woman pushing the stroller, who has stopped just next to Emmanuel and Harshi's bench, to coo over her infant. But suddenly her brow furrows, she grows concerned, she leans in.
"He's not breathing!" she yells, "Help! Help! He's not breathing! My baby!"
Harshi stops talking immediately and rushes over. "Are you a nurse?" asks the mother. "I trained as a home health aide, but I'm current on CPR. Call 911 and I'll do what I can." Frantically, the mother agrees, makes the call, stands tensely by while Harshi begins to administer the quick diagnostic procedure. Emmanuel is shocked and horrified, he completely puts out of his mind his piles of books and his portentous destiny. Now he is just an old man, standing next to a stroller and a woman, feeling useless.
The woman begins to sob as Harshi puts her mouth over the infant's mouth and nose, and screams but does not stop Harshi as Harshi roughly pushes on her infant's chest. Over and over, Harshi breathes through the infant's nose and mouth, over and over she pushes on the child's chest. The breaths seem so short to Emmanuel, the violent compressions take ages. 1, 2 breaths. 30 compressions! He loses track of the cycles, the screaming and sobbing of the Mother. Where is the ambulance? he wonders.
Harshi grows tired. She looks up, but the mother is panicking, she can not breathe regularly herself, how will she breathe for her child? In a split second, Harshi has made her decision. She grabs Emmanuel, and tells him what to do. Emmanuel is old, but not too old to breathe into an infant's lungs, to push 30 times on a child's heart.
It is halfway through his fourth repetition of two quick emergency breaths, that he feels a tickle on his cheek. The infant's hand has flung up against his face. It is moving. He removes his mouth from its nose and mouth. It is breathing and screaming. The mother practically pushes Emmanuel down in grabbing up her child, but she turns to him with tears in her eyes, as the sirens are heard at last. "You saved him!" She says, in wonderment. Emmanuel Yosefsky, the promised savior who will redeem the Jews, sits down, exhausted. He has no breath in his lungs.
He looks at the child he saved, as the EMTs finally arrive. There is a huge bustling; the child, whose name is James, and the mother, who is Anne, will go to the hospital, will find out why James stopped breathing. Anne embraces Harshi and Emmanuel and at Harshi's request, gives them her number so that they might learn how James fares.
The ambulance drives away, and Harshi looks after it for a long time, until she notices that Emmanuel has taken her hand, something he has never done before in the 5 years she has attended to him. She turns to the old man, and notices the tears in his eyes. Oddly enough, he also has an enormous grin on his face. He squeezes her hand tightly, and he says, "Now I know. All I have to do is breathe."
And with that, we are saved.
is a 5th generation New Yorker who has lived in Jerusalem and Mexico City. He currently resides in Philadelphia, with his wife, Atenea and Pharaoh-Let-My-People-Go the cat. He is in the process of finishing a long overdue Bachelor's degree at Goddard College.