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from “Seven Moral Failings”

Now was the time to ask for a recommendation from David. In fact, he had already intended to raise the subject at their morning meeting, but then that student had appeared, whose name, he discovered, he had forgotten again, and the whole matter had dissolved. He really had to find supplementary sources of income, now that he'd retired. He couldn't depend only on his pension. That was especially true in New York, where the cost of living had become intolerable. Fisher planned to address a number of foundations to get grants and stipends in the coming years. He pinned special hopes on the grant for "Human and Jewish Values," which was given by a Jewish foundation, with whose heads David was associated, although he wasn't Jewish, and he had even received a grant from it a few years earlier. He would use the money to write a book on the place of Judaism in Einstein's life. A popular book, not an academic one. A book like that had a chance of selling not at all badly. But before asking David, he had to choose the right moment carefully, so that David would really want to help him and not write a recommendation merely out of a sense of obligation. Fisher directed the conversation to David's forthcoming travels. That way, perhaps, he would feel guilty for getting all those good things, whereas he, his former teacher, was reaching his hand out to him for a single modest grant. Without doubt that would make him try harder for him.

"So, you're going to France this summer," Fisher stated.

"Yes," David confirmed. "Didn't I tell you?"

"The whole family."

"Yes. We decided to make a vacation out of it."

"Ah," said Fisher. "I'm envious of you. What is it to go to Europe these days? Nothing. In my day it was expensive, not something you did two or three times a year, a little hop and that's all. Once—a trip to Europe . . . it was something that maybe, if you were lucky, you did every four or five years. Alone, of course. There was no way you could take the family."

"I still remember that myself," said David.

"You're too young," Fisher dismissed his words.

"No," David insisted. "When I was a student, twenty or twenty-five years ago . . . by the way," he said, filling both the cognac snifters again, "I never told you how angry I was at you then, about the conference in Heidelberg . . . "

Fisher didn't understand. Angry at him? How?! He was the one sinned against. It was his right to be angry!

"Ah, just nonsense," David apologized. "Twenty years have gone by. It's history."

"But . . . why . . . " Fisher was puzzled. "How come?"

"Forget it," said David. "I drank too much. I shouldn't even have mentioned it to you."

"No," Fisher demanded. "I want to know."

This time David looked at him with astonishment. What did he mean by saying he wanted to know? Had he really forgotten?

"We were working on a joint project," David reminded him.

Fisher nodded. Certainly he remembered. David was about to finish his doctorate then, on the German academy between the two world wars. He suggested they could give a lecture together at the conference in Heidelberg. Fisher would speak about Einstein's scientific work in Berlin, David would provide the general historical background. David was so enthusiastic, thanked him, Fisher, from the bottom of his heart for the opportunity he had offered him. Fisher remembered all of that very well. Now David was telling him that he was angry at him?!

"You went to Heidelberg," David continued.

"True," Fisher confirmed, cautiously, wondering where the trap was.

"You asked the history department for financial support."

"Yes . . . "

"The funds were intended for travel, with high priority for students. You submitted a request in both of our names, but you got support for only one person. You were the one who went: you didn't even tell me. You didn't even offer to split the money . . . "

Fisher breathed heavily. His fingers drummed nervously. Yes, he had acted improperly then. There might be saints who would have displayed magnanimity and given the student the full amount. Many people would at least have divided it half and half . . . No. He was no saint. What could he have done? He so wanted to go to Europe! With his own money he couldn't have. His research funds were minuscule. And out of his own pocket, from his straitened salary . . . and to split the money? That way neither of them would have been able to go: one of them was restricted to his student budget, and the other—to his miserable salary. And David had been accepted at the conference entirely because of him. Alone he would never have managed. He had been fair to him. He had given him the credit he deserved. He remembered very well how he had addressed the audience, "I am presenting work here today that I did together with a very gifted student of mine, David Gilroy . . . " David was so young then, at the beginning of his career. So many opportunities and trips would come his way!

"Now," said Fisher, "you have a lot of Europe, as much as you want."

David confirmed it. Even more than he wanted. Just now he had returned from a week of lectures in London and York, and in the summer he would go to Paris with his whole family. Next spring he would divide his time between Munich and Amsterdam. With deep regret he had had to refuse an invitation to Madrid. But nothing, David smiled, nothing could compensate for his wounded feelings then . . .

"Why didn't you say anything to me?" Fisher was insulted.

David smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "What good would it have done?"

Andrea appeared in a diaphanous white nightgown. "I'm going to sleep, David."

Her body was quite visible through the cloth. She wasn't wearing a bra. Had she purposely showed herself that way in front of him? Fisher wondered, turning his eyes away in embarrassment, so that David wouldn't notice him. Now he had to get up and go. In fact, he should have gotten up and gone a lot earlier. Still, he couldn't give in to David. This time belonged to him.

"I think the T stops running at twelve-thirty," Andrea added, looking at her husband.

"Oh," Fisher reassured her. "I'm in Medford. Anyway I won't be taking the subway."

Andrea went out.

"Some more cognac?" David offered. Fisher pushed the snifter toward him.

"I didn't know it bothered you so much," Fisher defended himself in a slightly annoyed tone. "Why didn't you ever say anything?"

"Ah, nonsense, nonsense," David protested. "I don't know why I even had to start talking about it."

"Listen," Fisher began, but David made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "It's not important, Doug, really it's not important."

"I want you to know . . . " Fisher insisted.

David interrupted him. "It's okay, Doug, really."

"I . . . " Fisher tried.

"I think I even have to thank you for that experience," David surprised him. Fisher looked at him to make certain he wasn't mocking him. "You know, it's so easy to forget, when you're a professor, and you have so much power, and the status and the access to means, to funding, it's so easy to forget how it was to be a student, and you don't have work, not even a doctorate, and you're dependent on your advisor, on his good will . . . It's so easy to forget, when you're making a good living, what it's like to be short of cash, what it's like to live on hamburgers and hot dogs, to think twice before you sit down to drink a beer. It's so easy to forget, when you have your own house, what it's like when you have to scrape up the rent money during the summer. It's so easy to forget, when you have tenure, what it's like when you're not even sure whether you'll have a temporary job next year . . . So I haven't forgotten. Among other things, because of that matter. For me, a student is sacred. Everything I can do for them, to alleviate that distress even a little. Every publication I can arrange, every scholarship, every job . . ."

"I arranged a publication for you," Fisher reminded him, "in Heidelberg."

David racked his memory. "Yes, right," he finally uttered. "Some of my colleagues think I go too far," he went on. "This semester I hardly got anything done, because I was working on a research proposal with two of my students—their scholarships ran out, and I'm worried about how they'll manage next year. I'm going to spend all of Thanksgiving weekend writing recommendations. This is the season, you know. When we travel, I always offer to let my students live here, to housesit. There are people who would try to make a few bucks from it, to try and rent it for the summer. I prefer to help my students."

Fisher was about to remind David how he had let him stay in his house for two weeks, but after a moment he thought better of it.

"You see," David summed up. "I really owe you a debt of gratitude. Seriously."

"Your students ought to thank me," Fisher chuckled resentfully.

"Yes, I guess so," David agreed.

They drank the rest of their snifters. Fisher chatted about one thing and another. David did his best to answer.

"Come," David said at last. "I'll drive you home."

Fisher looked at his watch: ten to one. He knew very well that here he should protest strongly, call a cab. But cabs were so expensive. The cab from the airport had cost a fortune, and he still had to take one back there . . . Aside from that, what was this ingratitude on David's part? What was the matter with him driving him? And why bring up forgotten things from more than twenty years ago . . . Now, after he'd retired!

"I'll just tell Andrea, so she won't worry." David went out. The expression on Andrea's face, when David announced to her that he was going out to drive him to his hotel, was something Fisher could only guess. David silently drove the family car, a dark greenish jeep, down nearly empty roads, with snow on the edges. Fisher tried as well as he could to navigate. "I think you should turn right here," he suggested. David ignored him, driving straight. "In a little while you'll get to a traffic light," Fisher mentioned, "and there . . ."

"It's okay," David interrupted him. "I know where Medford is."

"Look," Fisher stammered when David turned to let him off at the entrance to his bed and breakfast.

"It's not important, Doug, forget what I said," David silenced him, but Fisher went on to say what he had meant to say from the start:

"Look, David, I'm applying to that foundation in New York . . . "

David nodded wearily. He promised to do his best. Fisher assumed that at that moment he would have promised him anything he asked just so he could go to bed. "The book . . ." Fisher continued his plea. David nodded. Just send him the manuscript. Yes.

Though he was tired, Fisher couldn't fall asleep. Yes, he had acted improperly. Once. And that was what David remembered about him. Not a word about the bounty he had showered on him, the hours he had spent reading the drafts of his doctorate, the recommendations he had written for him, not to mention the meals in his home, the lodging at his expense. Just that little slip was what he remembered. And even to make such a monster out of him . . . Just because of his supposedly horrible, selfish behavior, David had become gracious and merciful to his students! He wouldn't get the fellowship to be in New York. He also wouldn't publish the book with him. Anyway, he consoled himself. David, too, most likely, covets more than what his fate had provided him. Without doubt he regarded himself as a worthy candidate to teach at Harvard. Now he had to sit on the other side of the river and look at Harvard all the time, knowing that he wouldn't be offered a job there.

***

"Good-bye, Happy Thanksgiving!" the stewardesses greeted the passengers as they left the plane. Fisher sat in the minibus station. In twenty minutes somebody would come to take him, the supervisor promised. He pulled out the university newspaper that he had stuffed in his briefcase on the day of his departure. On the first page was an article about the traditional Thanksgiving dinner held by the president of Redwoods University for all the students who had to stay on campus during the holiday. The president, an amateur chef, got up at four on Thursday morning to roast five turkeys and peel twenty pounds of sweet potatoes. The pumpkin pie, also prepared by him, was baked in advance. This year forty-two guests would eat at his table, including students from Ghana, Zambia, Moldova, Germany, Barbados, and France. Were professors who were forced to stay alone on the holiday invited as well? No. Professors could take care of themselves. In the faculty club, Fisher had noted the week before, a Thanksgiving buffet was offered for thirty dollars. Too expensive. The homey diner, where he used to eat dinner two or three times a week, offered a noontime holiday buffet for fourteen ninety-nine. He already knew that food from past years. Decent. In fact, not bad.

He asked the driver of the minibus to take him to his office. The department was completely empty, except for Yoav Evron, who was leaning over the computer in his office, with the door almost completely open, since he didn't imagine anyone would appear on the day before Thanksgiving.

Fisher knocked on the door: "Busy?"

Evron shrugged his shoulders, smiling apologetically. The freckles on his face were lit by the fluorescent light in his office.

"I came to see how my old office is doing," Fisher explained. Evron made a broad gesture: welcome.

"So you're staying here for the holiday," Fisher stated with satisfaction.

Evron nodded, this time without a smile.

"I imagine it's a little far for you to go home," Fisher joked, and Evron uttered an almost inaudible sigh, looking at his papers again.

"Dan and Allison, my relatives in Nahariya," Fisher explained, "told me that Thanksgiving simply doesn't exist in Israel. Is that true?"

"It's an American holiday," Evron answered curtly.

"Yes," said Fisher, "but you might think that Americans in the Diaspora would celebrate that holiday. In Paris, I heard, they celebrate Halloween, did you know? So what would be more logical than for Americans far from home than to celebrate the most . . . American holiday? Also the most family holiday, more than Christmas. Not to go home on Thanksgiving is like . . . "

"Being alone on Passover?" Evron asked.

"Exactly."

"Tough life," Evron chuckled, adding that he had to do some shopping. Tonight he was cooking dinner.

"You cook, too!" Fisher was amazed. Evron qualified his statement. He didn't actually cook. He had one recipe, chicken wings in honey and soy sauce, which he made every time. Aside from that, he wasn't much of a cook. Potato puree, an omelet, pancakes . . .

Fisher told him about the luncheon buffet he was planning to go to the next day. "The food is really good," he said enthusiastically. He volunteered to introduce Evron and his wife to the real America, to give them a proper Thanksgiving dinner. If they joined him, at his expense, by the way—he was inviting them—they'd have a traditional American holiday meal, with stuffed turkey in gravy and sweet potatoes and real apple pie . . .

Evron apologized: he and his wife were busy. They had been invited to some friends' for lunch tomorrow.

"Israelis?" Fisher asked. Israelis, Evron answered, and Fisher was cross with Evron for a moment, without knowing why himself, for not inviting him to come with him and his wife to their friends'.

"If everyone there is Israeli," he said, "you need someone to teach you what a real American Thanksgiving is . . . " and he laughed awkwardly at his own joke.

Not exactly Israelis, Evron corrected himself. Acquaintances of his parents from the sabbatical year they had spent here. The husband was from Israel, his wife was American. Fisher was full of envy: this Yoav already had acquaintances he had inherited from his parents on the basis of a single sabbatical year, and he, thirty-five years . . .

"It doesn't have to be on the holiday itself," Fisher tried again. "Maybe on Saturday . . . "

On Saturday, Evron explained, he and his wife were invited to Larry's. Fisher tensed: Larry's famous leftovers feast. He had heard people talking about it quite often. Following the holiday, after eating with his wife and daughters in an intimate family setting, he opened his house for a meal of leftovers, which outdid, so it was said, the holiday table itself: sandwiches on fresh, homebaked bread, with slices of turkey and roast beef and spicy mustard and pickle relish, croquettes of pureed sweet potato in chive butter, salad of chicory and arugula leaves straight from the garden, southern pecan pie served with homemade caramel ice cream . . . Larry had never invited him, but Yoav, a vagabond, a newcomer . . .

Evron, who noticed Fisher's dissatisfaction, apologized: nothing had been planned. His wife had met Caitlin at the swimming pool on campus, and she had invited her.

Fisher started telling about his relatives in Nahariya again. Once again he described his visit to them in 1967. They didn't have a car or even a telephone—they waited four years!

"Things have changed since then," Evron spoke glumly.

Fisher went on to describe his impressions from his visit to Israel. A small, out-of-the-way country, materially backward, he hoped that Yoav didn't mind his saying so, but what spirit! What people! Everybody was cordial to him, how at home he had felt . . .

"Did you say 1967?" Evron suddenly asked. Fisher confirmed it.

"Before the war or after it?"

Before the war, Fisher boasted, exactly during the waiting period. Dan was called up, and he had helped Allison dig a trench in the backyard and fill sandbags. The American State Department called for all American citizens to leave Israel immediately, and he hadn't listened—he had stayed there till the end of June, as he had planned. And how he had gone with Dan and Allison to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem . . .

But the young man didn't seem impressed by his story. Why should he be impressed, Fisher thought querulously. He and his parents and all his family also lived in Israel then.

"Do you remember anything from 1967" he asked Evron. "You were probably just a little kid then."

"Me?" Evron was surprised. "I wasn't even born then."

Fisher left him and started to go. Then he turned around and went back to him with a question: "Tell me, is there a proverb in Hebrew, not to envy, one mustn't envy . . . " He tried to say the Hebrew words he vaguely remembered from his childhood.

Evron shrugged.

"For a few days now I've been walking around with that, and it's driving me crazy. I'm sure that I once learned . . . "

"I don't have the slightest idea. Sorry."

"Okay. Happy Thanksgiving," Fisher wished him and went away.

"Happy Thanksgiving," Evron wished him in return and closed the door.

His car wasn't there, he suddenly realized. How had he failed to think of that when he came here from the airport? He considered for a minute whether he should ask Yoav for a ride. After a moment he decided to go by foot to the main road and wait for a bus there. He walked on the empty boulevard, to the faint glow of the streetlights. All his efforts did him no good. His daily appearances at the department. His insistence on taking part in meetings. He had retired. He was no longer a professor. Even if he traveled far away, David would take the trouble to remind him. What was that proverb, damn it? Even Yoav didn't know. "Don't envy . . . not to envy . . . " He flagged down an approaching bus. He got on and looked for change in his pocket. He was three cents short. The woman driver, as a Thanksgiving gesture, agreed to let it go. "Make it up next time." As if he took buses! He entered his apartment, went over the mail that had come in his absence. Advertising flyers for Thanksgiving gifts, a dentist's bill. Maybe he would call up his cousin Stanley. Stanley was a dentist. He had lived in Israel for a year. Maybe he would know the proverb.

Fisher showered, heated a frozen meal for himself, and listened to Tristan and Isolde. The telephone rang. His son wished him a happy holiday. It had to be short, he explained, because he'd gone to Europe. A ski vacation in Austria. Yes, it was an excellent deal. Less than five hundred dollars. Including the flight? Fisher asked. Including the flight, his son answered, pleased. The flight, lodging for four nights, and even a free pass to the ski slope. And how was the hotel? Fisher asked. Excellent, answered Aaron. In fact, he boasted, he had paid for four stars, but the hotel was completely booked, so he had been transferred to a five-star hotel without having to add another penny. Fisher twinged. In Europe! When he was his son's age, he couldn't even have dreamed of that, and now, with the prices so low, he was already old . . . Again he was filled with indignation at David, for daring to be angry with him over such a little matter, something that had happened more than twenty years ago. Look how much he had, how very much. Who was he being so hard on, a miserable pensioner?

"Have a great time, Aaron," Fisher wished his son. When he put the phone back in its cradle, he remembered. Here was the proverb he'd been looking for: "There are two that a man should not envy: his son and his student."

From Seven Moral Failings (Tel Aviv: Xargol, 2006). By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Jeffrey M. Green. All rights reserved.