Ben Zonah

By Max Asher Miller

Eli Marzipan was the most despicable person we knew. That he wouldn’t make it through the year wasn’t speculation, it was a decision we reached unanimously. If, at any point since he transferred into our grade, it appeared as though Eli had a chance of staying in Yeshivas Torah V'Emes Seminary High School of Denver, we would band together as a student body to ensure the opposite. Our strength was in our shared sense of purpose, in that when one among us flouted that purpose, we joined like white blood cells to excise the existential threat.

None of us could pin down what made Eli unsavory. It wasn't any one thing. It was the way he wore his suits with one button too many undone and his felt hat tilted back “like a mishugoy,” as Avraham Abrams said, spitting on the ground in derision for emphasis and straightening his own wide-brimmed, black fedora. It was the way he talked with a Texas drawl (which was off-putting when he read from the Talmud) and never finished davening until halfway through breakfast.

“Walking around like a bum who thinks he’s Moshiach,” Yonatan Moskowitz agreed.

“Yeah, except the Torah says the Moshiach will be descended from King David,” Ari Fleischer chimed in, “not from a whore.”

“Plus, he’s a homo,” sneered Doni Engle, and the room fell silent for a beat. We sipped our Cokes anxiously. About this, we felt uncomfortable speculating.

“People are allowed to be homos, Doni,” Yonatan said.

“It’s just acting on it that’s a sin—an aveira,” Ari said.

“I don’t think any of us would hate him for being a homo,” Avraham said cautiously. “It’s just that when you add that to all the other stuff…”

We nodded in agreement.

Some of us said the best way to get rid of Eli was to catch him alone in the dorms and put some yiras shamayim into him, a real fear of the Almighty. Others suggested that his chavrusa should refuse to learn with him. We could take his seat in class every time he found a new one. We could slash his bike tires or, better yet, throw his whole bike into Sloan’s Lake. Whatever was cleanest, quickest. We didn’t want to prolong his suffering, for that, too, would be an aveira. We only wanted him gone.

Getting rid of a problem bochur was no easy task. You could beat him up, sure, but the rabbis were bound to get involved if it resulted in the student trying to leave. There were only about a hundred of us. Eventually, through a process of interrogation refined over many decades of Talmudic argumentation, they’d arrive at whodunnit. There’d be a big gathering in the beis midrash study hall whereupon the Rosh Yeshiva, the head of the school, would give a fiery sermon on loving one’s fellow Jew, the boy who threw the punches would have to study during lunch for a week, and then things would go back to normal—the sole difference being that the problem bochur felt that justice had been served upon his bully. It was counterproductive all around.

Someone reminded us of the time Levi Feld had been sent home with mumps, never to return. It was a big deal at the time, setting off an internal panic within the yeshiva. None of us got within ten feet of each other for fear of contracting a Biblical plague. The grapevine of unverifiable rumor which comprised the lifeblood of our institution suggested that Levi’s testicles had swollen to the size of overripe grapefruits, that his neck had enlarged to make it appear as if a giant thumb protruded from between his shoulders in place of a head. But how would we give mumps (or any quarantinable illness) to Eli? We couldn’t think of a method by which we could expose him to such a thing without exposing ourselves in the process. So that, too, was out.

As we verged on tabling the discussion for a later date, Chaim Gould, a bespectacled boy with pronounced, freckled cheeks which, in direct sun, matched the color of his beet-red hair, spoke up with an uncharacteristic voice of authority.

“What if we all do it together?”

We turned as a group to look at him. Unused to holding anyone’s attention, Chaim stumbled over his tongue, managed to compose himself, and said, “If we do it as a group, they can’t punish the lot of us. Not without disrupting the whole yeshiva. Let’s invite him for cholent this Friday and, when he shows up, we give him what for. We don’t even have to hurt him that bad. He just needs to know he’s not welcome here.”

We didn’t have a better idea.

Beer is the secret to a good cholent. It pulls everything together and brings the flavor out of the meat, barley, and beans. In honor of Shabbos, we considered it acceptable to break the laws of this goyish country to add this secret ingredient. The owners of a liquor store a few blocks down Colfax would forget to card even the most pubescent-looking among us if there were no other customers around.

Friday night cholent was a sacred tradition among the student body of Yeshivas Torah V'Emes. Filling our bowls from a crockpot, we gathered after dinner in a senior dorm room to sing songs and discuss our week. The rabbis knew of our practice and considered it wholesome enough to avoid patrolling the dorm for a few hours. Classes ended early on Friday to give us time for pre-Shabbos prep.

We stopped Eli after beis midrash and let him know to come to the dorm after dinner. He tried to strike up conversation with a few of us, but we assured him we were in a rush and promised to catch up over the best cholent in Denver.

Our conversations for the remainder of the school week did not involve Eli Marzipan. None of us wanted to think about what had to be done, in the same way we didn't discuss a test no one had studied for yet. We talked instead of the Yankees and the Rockies, of the seminary girls at the Beis Yaakov down the street and the daughters of our rabbis. Our opinions were that if the Yankees won, it proved the game was rigged and that Rabbi Berkman’s oldest daughter was too hot to be a Beis Yaakov girl, most of whom were Buchari and had mustaches.

Second to Torah, we lived for sports. That's what we said to each other because it would be an aveira to put anything above Torah. Baseball was the mainstay. From the hill near the freeway overpass, we could see over the Coors Field walls into the diamond, bring some cheap binoculars and watch the Rockies play free of charge. But we each had our teams. Yankees for the New Yorkers, Sox or Cubs for the Chicagoans, and so on. The year Eli Marzipan joined our class, the Yankees went up against the Phillies in the World Series.

Doni Engle and Ari Fleischer came back to the dorm from smoking a cigarette and danced down the hallway, kicking and pushing their stomachs out, mimicking the Phrenetic. They both came from Philadelphia, and, though they weren't related, they looked alike, tall and handsome, with jaws like whiskey glasses.  They seldom left each other's sides, and whenever one appeared without the other, it was as uncanny as a spread of bagels without cream cheese.

"Phillies have it locked up."

They laughed.

"Lee locked it up from the mound in game one."

Around the corner came Eli, who, having heard them, remarked in passing, "Yankees all day."

Doni stepped forward, head and shoulders taller than Eli. "Fuck'd you say, Marzipan?"

Ari approached Eli from the other side.

Eli took a step back. The rest of us in the hallway watched hungrily.

"I think the Yankees have a chance. That's all. I'm not trying to start anything. I’m from Texas anyway."

Ari shoved Eli into Doni. Doni shoved Eli against the wall.

"Keep it moving, then."

Eli kept it moving, headed downstairs.

Doni shouted after him, "Faggot!"

Just like that, the show was over.

The secret to a good cholent is beer. We covered that already, but it really is worth stressing. How many cholents have you had that tasted like potatoes and regret with the consistency of a viscous shit, cholents that somehow managed to drain all flavor out of the meat, turning a Shabbos treat into a wet mound of disappointment? We’ll bet you ten bucks you didn't put a good, thick American lager in it. Some of us even forgot that Eli was to be dealt with that night until he mentioned to us how excited he was for a good bowl of cholent. That made us hate him even more, his reminding us of what we had to do to him.

We drank the leftovers. You only need a single tallboy to make a crockpot of cholent. We drank them in the crowded dorm room, which was dilapidated, holes in the walls and tears in the carpet, the result of our restless antics, which the faculty had long since given up repairing. We sang z'miros and talked about our weeks, about our rebbeim and the Menahel (with whom as dean we had a fractious relationship) and the Rosh Yeshiva. Like, was it true that Rabbi Abrams had cried in front of his class because Moshe Zimmer mimicked his stutter? No, he screamed at the class and beat Moshe like a cheap rug in the office afterward. Moshe started the crying rumor so people wouldn't talk about him walking funny.

"Mister Rubiwitz cried in front of the class last year."

"But that's different because the secular subject teachers usually don't last as long as Rubiwitz."

And then Eli Marzipan showed up. It was the moment we'd been waiting for. He was smiling, clearly thrilled to have been invited into the inner circle for our most hallowed tradition. 

Eli looked at us. We looked at Eli. We looked at each other. Eli helped himself to a bowl of cholent.

And we realized, person by person, that we might not have the balls to jump him. We kept glancing at each other to see who'd initiate the thing, but not a single bochur wanted to be the first.

He was no less despicable than usual. His hat was tilted so far back. We let him fill his bowl of cholent and ate in silence.

"This is really good, you guys," Eli said. "What's the secret ingredient?"

"Beer," Yonatan mumbled, his head down.


"Beer, motherfucker!" blurted Doni.

We called it an early night. Our failure sapped our spirits and the beer weighed in our stomachs and we just wanted to go our separate ways, to forget all of this.

From then on, we didn't talk about getting rid of Eli. We still wanted to, but our inability to carry through on that night haunted us, a strange performance anxiety.

Eli got a lot of flak from us after that night, don't twist it. We'd ignore him when he spoke to us, choose him last in gym, never offer to study with him. He had to get the sense he wasn't entirely wanted. But he kept coming back for cholent every week, even though we didn't invite him a second time. And every time he came for cholent, we found ourselves once again unable to do what we had to do, and every time, we hated him that much more. He was taking our food, drinking our beer, talking our talk. We wanted to scream at him, "You're not one of us. You'll never be one of us."

Before long, though, he was hanging out with the rest of us, a clinger-on at the edges of our social life.

We sensed, even if we wouldn't admit it, that Doni Engle was fucking Avraham Abrams. We didn't want to think the worst of them, and so we didn't. Maybe that's why it was our go-to topic when we wanted to get a rise out of Ari Fleischer, turning the whole thing into a joke rather than a fact we'd have to deal with. "Your boyfriend is cheating on you again." "Do you have threesomes with them?" "Can you taste Avraham's shit when you suck Doni's dick?"

Ari clenched his jaw and looked like a furious trapezoid. We'd always push him right until he was about to hit one of us, and then we'd back off. "Well, if you're not a homo, you can take a joke, Fleisch. Jeez."

We played cards in the dorm when we had nothing better to do. At first, it was just games. Poker was gambling, an aveira, so we played other games. Go Fish. Golf. Speed. Then we started putting money on them. Just a few dollars. The betting, we rationalized, wasn't intrinsic to the games, giving us a loophole in the rabbinic law. That was fun, too, until Moshe Zimmer won thirty dollars in a row and the rest of us were left without our snack money. Someone ratted the game out to the school, and before we could leave the shul for breakfast the next morning, we had to suffer through a lecture from the Menahel on the immorality, the "spiritual rot" of gambling. Moshe figured Avraham had been the snitch because he'd had the worst losing streak and been all bitter about it, throwing his cards and pouting, so he found Avraham in the bathroom and slammed the stall door into his skull a few times, popped one of his braces off. Avraham got to skip secular classes for the afternoon to go see an orthodontist. Told the Menahel he'd slipped and fallen.

The Menahel knew he hadn't. The faculty always knew, but they wouldn’t intervene unless asked. 

Sometimes we were surprised we had time for all of this drama in the margins of our dedication to the Torah. We studied for twelve hours a day. We had so many good and true beliefs. We kept the strictest standards of Jewish law.

Our lives were holy.

We didn't have a television, of course, but we had smuggled a radio into the dorm for the sole purpose of following along with the World Series. It was a mini boombox-style Sony that still had a cassette tape deck, and the thick, asbestos-laden walls of the dormitory did plenty to obscure the signal. Doni and Ari's room had the best reception, and they had plenty of space, so dozens of us crowded in, packed shoulder to shoulder on the beds, which creaked and sagged under the weight.

Listening to the radio announcer felt like the purest way to experience baseball, in many ways more exciting than being in the stadium itself. The announcer had a strong grasp of the fact that the tension of baseball is in the pregnant moments between the action, and we sat silently enraptured by his narration, only breaking into wild whoops and boos when a big play was made. We hadn't made an effort to separate the Phillies fans among us out from the Yankees fans, so when one team struck out or got a run, small fights would break out, ending immediately to shushes as the broadcast continued.

So it was that we found ourselves in early November, listening to Mary J. Blige crooning the national anthem at a pitch too high for the radio to fully deliver. It was game six, the first time a Series had been this close in years, and we turned the radio down as she sang so we wouldn't enjoy kol isha, the singing of a woman.

Noticeably absent were Doni and Avraham, and Ari looked somewhat lost without the former.

The Yankees had an early two-run, and the room descended briefly into chaos.

"Fuck yes!" said Eli Marzipan.

Ari glared at him and flipped a finger.

The rest of the Yankees fans jumped to their feet. Some of the Phillies fans did, too, and scuffles broke out until Chaim put a meaty index finger to his lips and shushed us with such force that those closest to him wiped his spit from their faces.

Between every play, Ari checked his watch. He was starting to clench his jaw, and the muscles in his temples flexed enough to be distracting for those nearest to him.

Avraham was from New York, and tonight, that fact only added insult to injury for Ari. Some of us looked at each other meaningfully. To have your best friend stolen from you by a supporter of your team's biggest rival? A thing like that had to sting.

The play-by-play returned and we fell silent once more. But after several minutes of narration, we heard something from outside. The fire escape was creaking, and a faint giggling drifted into the room. Slowly, one by one, we looked away from the radio and toward the window.

Doni and Avraham popped up onto the fire escape balcony, arms around one another, Doni nuzzling Avraham's neck and smiling in content.

Avraham was the first to see all of us. His eyes widened. He wrapped Doni's neck in a headlock and kneaded his head with his knuckles, turning the nuzzle into a noogie.

Some of us understood what we had just witnessed. Others, mostly those whose parents hadn't allowed them to watch or read goyish movies and books, looked vaguely confused. What we all understood was that Doni had been caught in the act of betraying Ari.

Our eyes moved from Doni and Avraham back to Ari, who was balling his fists to choke back tears. He sensed us looking and dug his nails into his palms even harder, attempting to distract himself enough to keep an outward stoicism. In a voice straining to sound unbothered, Ari said, "Took you two long enough. What were you doing? Making out?"

That was the permission we had all been looking for to deflate the balloon of tension swelling in our stomachs and we laughed as if Ari had come up with the most original joke we'd ever heard. Eli Marzipan laughed the hardest, and Ari's jaw set once more, his eyes locked onto him.

"Who's winning?" asked Doni, climbing through the window.

"Yankees," replied Yonatan.

"Oh, hell yeah," Avraham crooned. "New York don't play."

"Fuck New York," Doni said, looking at Ari as if this were some form of apology, then back at Avraham to make sure he hadn't taken offense. 

"Guys," Chaim whined, "I can't hear."

We returned to our places around the radio. Moving apart from each other. Doni and Ari couldn't quite look at each other and kept stealing side-eyed glances while the other was making sure not to.

The pop-click of a can being opened rose over the announcer. Moshe Zimmer had broken into the stash of extra cholent beer. In seconds, they were passed around the room, and a chorus of clicks, pops, and fizzes erupted just in time for Matsui, the Yankees' star player, to bat in a two-run double, further increasing New York's lead. Chaos descended once more, this time punctuated by cries of, "L'chaim!" from the New Yorkers and the sloshing of amber beer onto bedsheets.

The innings passed in this manner. A play. An eruption of noise. A shushing. A play.

The ninth inning approached with the Yankees up, and the mood in the room had shifted from one of excited competition to a stale resentment. The Phillies fans could feel the title slipping away as the Yankees supporters salivated at the scent of victory.

At the bottom of the ninth, the final pitch. A clean hit.

"And the Yankees are back on top," the announcer yelled, his voice made only more thrilling by the radio static. "World Series champions for the twenty-seventh time."

We stampeded. We tore into the halls with drunken abandon, leaving chips and spilt beer in our wake. Our chests clashed against each other's while we howled, half of us cursing a loss, half cheering a win.

Most of us didn't notice Ari at first. He had his eyes fixed on Avraham, his jaw set and grinding. Like a minotaur, he began to stomp down the hallway, leading with his bullish head. Those of us right next to him would later recall that Ari was growling, the low rumble of a junkyard dog.

Only Eli Marzipan saw what was about to happen, his eyes widening. He pushed through the sloven mosh of bodies to step in front of Avraham.

"Get out of my way, Marzipan," Ari barked.

Now we were paying attention, forming the requisite circle around a potential fight.

Eli's voice verged on cracking. "He didn't do anything to you, Fleischer."

Ari didn't stop. He grabbed Eli by the head with both hands. "You've had this coming for a long time, Marzipan."

He crashed Eli's head against the wood-board hallway wall with a thwack that silenced the room.

Doni stepped forward, sensing that his quarrel with Ari could be resolved if only their resentment were channeled into a new target. As Eli's skull rebounded off the wall, the wood now splintered, Doni swept Eli's legs out from under him. Eli crashed to the floor face-first.

For a brief moment, time suspended itself. Eli bled from his ear, and as the first drop of blood blotched the carpet, we were upon him. This was the moment we had been waiting for, the energy of sporting fever breaching the dam of resentment we had built up over the course of the semester for Eli Marzipan.

With great unity, we nabbed him, two of us at each shoulder, and dragged the boy down the hall, our cheering mass proceeding along the starkly lit corridor.

"Bring him back to our room," Doni yelled. We dumped Eli next to the radio like a sack of laundry.

Ari emerged from the bathroom with a wet towel. "In here."

Eli, for his part, had managed to flip himself onto his back, cradling a broken nose. He tried to stand, but his balance was off. His ear bled profusely. He was too dazed to react, even with fear. Before he could attempt anything, we were shoving him toward the bathroom, heaving him into the tub.

Avraham stood at the back of the throng, crying. We paid him no attention.

We held Eli by his hair, too coifed and wavy for a respectable bochur, two more of us pinning his legs. His shirt, we stripped from him, popping the buttons, and we took turns lashing him with the wet towel, marveling at the long, red welts that appeared across his abdomen as the blows fell. 

In a mocking tone, Yonatan Moskovitz began to recite Selicha, penance, and the blows fell to the rhythm of prayer. "Selach lanu avinu ki chatanu…"

Two boys, drunk and diuretic, urinated on Eli.

When we had each had our fill of lashing, Ari stretched the towel across his face underneath the faucet. The tub had begun to stain with blood. Eli could not manage to struggle but began to whimper.

We turned the water on. Eli thrashed and coughed, screaming through the flow.

We cheered.

Deep red lighted to rust. The thrashing lessened. Only Eli's fingers still twitched like the legs of a crushed cockroach.

"You're going to drown him!" Avraham yelled from the back of the crowd.

A meaty hand reached out to shut the spigot.

"He's had enough," Chaim said.

Ari glowered at Chaim. "Get him out."

Eli Marzipan was raised from the bathtub and we carried him as a group, dripping, barely conscious, a limp burden. We took him down the hallway, raised above us like an offering until we came to his bedroom and dumped him on the altar of his bed.

We went back to our post-game celebration after that, and it was all the sweeter.

Eli left the next day, slipping out with his suitcases while we were at synagogue for morning prayer. It was later rumored that he had transferred to a yeshiva in Texas, the kind of place where they were all as terrible as him.

Our lives, meanwhile, were holy.

We would each leave the Yeshiva one day, embarking on our own paths through life, but the Yeshiva never left us. On nights when the silence brought out in us our worst fears, we saw—as if he were right there with us—the smiling, despicable face of Eli Marzipan.