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I. On art

I was six the first time I ever saw a naked man. Lured by the promise of cultured family bonding, my parents had dragged us both, my sister and I, to the recently opened Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. As she was still at that stage in life when, confined to a stroller and incapable of coherent speech, she probably had no idea we were in a museum at all, I was left to assume that the excursion had been intended for my benefit.

By the time we had fielded our way through two collections of Plexiglas chairs, labeled “Do Not Sit,” an expansive room full of Sock Monkeys in piles ankle-deep, guarded by a “Do Not Touch” sign, and what felt like a whole new race of human being—the kind that used words like “existential” to describe Sock Monkeys—I felt exhausted.

And then there it, or rather he, was. At least twenty feet tall, he lay suspended against the white backdrop of his gallery’s easternmost wall, his extremities splayed like a pinned moth. Similarly scaled, his bare posterior glared unabashedly from the opposite wall, where a couple all in black and drinking something noire at three o’clock in the afternoon were regarding it with unholy interest. Asphyxiated by fear, I found myself eye level with the ankle of the largest portrait—a fact which necessitated the act of looking up.

But as I turned away in panic, I found my way barred by a raised stone platform, across whose surface lay another larger-than-life, full-frontal nude print like an Egyptian sarcophagus. His lips were open and poised in in a wet, obscene circle. His shoulder length hair and unshaven face, coupled with the fleshy mound of his stomach seemed purposed to invert every depiction of The Crucifixion I had ever seen.

As my eyes traveled of their own accord the length of him, I felt the rise of something akin to panic forming in my chest, choking me in its desperate attempt to escape.

“That’s disgusting!” I screamed at the top of my lungs to the cavernous room full of highbrow art aficionados, and bolted.

I felt the fundamental pillars of my life shift that day. Far from brushing lightly against the subtlety of “art nouveau,” I had been thrown headlong into the ongoing war between classique and moderniste.

Here was a man doing something which I understood to be inherently wrong: displaying the unbridled and un-lovely image of IRL nudity to the public. It was simply unpalatable. It wasn’t even that I was unfamiliar with the concept of nudity in art—I had seen the vague Impressionistic interpretations of the human forms, the works of Italian masters, cubism. Yet the classical tableaus by Michelangelo and Picasso’s half-men, half-geometric proofs were modest in their calm and calculated proportionality. This ani-David, at nearly twenty feet, was a rebellion against the very notion of “nude” as it stood it my world. I was simply unable to reconcile this leviathan with the true, the divine and digestive art of my prior knowledge.

II. On conversations with my Rabbi

A week before my Bat Mitzvah, Rabbi Helbrum asked me what I wanted to be when I “grew up” and, out of spite, I answered that I aspired to become a biologist. The very question was a contradiction in terms: was I not “grown up?” Was this not the purpose? Buoyed by layers of insult and belligerence, I had immediately turned to Darwinism.

And on the sixth day, God had created the future scientists of the world, and alongside them the insistent and turned-nosed creationists, the ones who will continue to shout, “Ahh, but who created the big bang?” in the manner of playground discourse. And yet our chief witness remains the being who began it all. Go figure.

Nevertheless, there hadn’t been a true believer, a profit, among us for ages. Single handed conversation with the lord almighty was a lovely prospect, but in all my one-sided discussions with “Him” no supernatural power had as of yet accounted for their actions. It was therefore my job to show this man of blind faith the truth so eminent and reasonable, it became yet another insult to add to the list. I would play along with this charade, recite meaningless verse from memory, but it wouldn’t make me an adult and it most certainly wouldn’t make me a believer.

It was as I was coming to this conclusion that Rabbi Helbrum asked me if I believed in aliens.

“No,” I answered, prepared as I was in my assertions about the nature of faith itself and the workings of the universe that I couldn’t adequately respond to something as ludicrous as the prospect of extra-terrestrials.

“Well if you met one, an alien I mean,” he added politely, “What would you ask them?”

Rabbi Helbrum listened patiently as I delved into a lengthy explanation of how I would inquire about their various biological functions, their sources of energy, their relationships, language, their notion of time. As I continued to talk he continued to listen with a bemused and indulgent expression.

When I had talked myself out of the virtues of science he interjected with, “Do you know what I would ask?” Without waiting for me to respond he continued, “I would say to them—well, first of all I would say Shalom—but then I would say that I know there is one God, our God, in heaven and Earth.”

It wasn’t a question; it was a certainty, a divine fact that I had no right and no grounds in attempting to refute. And all the while Rabbi Helbrum, president of the North Shore Rabbinical Society, had been looking at me with such pity and with such faith that all my arguments for the importance of science, the divinity of logic and the prevailing mercy of fact began melting away. I felt I had been tricked somehow, as if this small, balding man in a purple Kipot knew all there was to know on the subject and had just been waiting for me to realize that I would never win, simply by default. I also knew that this would be the last conversation the two of us would ever have. I would never be setting foot inside that temple again, at least if I could help it, and we both knew it. And yet he had still tried to impart a piece of his world on me before I left for good.




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