Sample Story: The God of Curried Fish

from Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, Reclaiming Judaism Press

The God of Curried Fish
by Rabbi Goldie Milgram


It’s a little too close to dark. I’m driving through a dicey neighborhood. Five hours on the road and didn’t stop yet to eat. On the right just ahead, a neon sign declares, “Hallal Jamaican Restaurant” and drawing closer, I can see under it is written on a white board: “Today‘s special: Curried fish, fried sweet plantains.” Perfect.

Inside, the take-out line is short, but growing. Only one customer sits at the old diner-style, cruise-ship blue, Formica tables, a large, powerful- looking man in a fire engine red T-shirt with tall white letters screaming on it: “Did I give you permission to talk? Shut the ____ up!”
The woman at the counter is wearing a bright white, immaculately clean apron over a boxy, navy dress suit, with matching stockings and pumps. Her swollen ankles seem crowbarred-in beyond bearability. I lose this trend of observation while lurching and ducking in concern at a sudden bellowing from behind: “Where the hell is my refill#@!”
Almost simultaneously, the much-stained chef emerges from the kitchen, and the counterwoman turns to receive a steaming, savory- scented bowl of oxtail soup.
“Excuse, please,” she speaks softly to our take-out pick-up line.
Bowl carried firmly in two hands, without hurry or slosh, she aims straight for the big customer, sets it down, blowing strongly on superheated fingers.
“Reggie, it’s so nice to see you again. Let me know should you want anything more.”
Reggie responds kindly, “Thanks, Alinda. Thanks.”
Alinda returns to the counter. I can see down the line that I’m not the only one whose shoulders relax at Reggie’s polite response.

Several orders, including mine, are taken and turfed back to the chef on scraps of old, paper placemat. The eat-in tables are filling rapidly. Alinda is hustling as best she can. The early-bird take-out crowd, we’re leaning against the walls covered in jazz, gospel, library, social service and Bible study announcements. No one seems to read them, though they are surprisingly current.
Hmmm, wonder if the gentleman five people behind me might be a minister, in his shiny black suit and polished shoes, short-cropped hair, and request to post a gospel poster upon arrival. Or, my shadow side considers, maybe he’s a recovering addict; he keeps fingering a pack of cigarettes nervously. Maybe he’s both. A wiry fellow hosting a huge head of dreadlocks spits loudly onto the floor without missing a beat of full body sway to whatever is coming through his headphones. No one gives him a glance, save for Alinda who uses her same kind voice:
“Sir, please don’t do that in here, not sanitary.” He gives no indication of listening or hearing.
Two young ones, maybe age seven at best, hair in corn rolls with beads and bows that bounce, and dressed in impeccable Sunday-best, start to whine in boredom and get smacked real good. I flinch, and the mom gives me an I-dare-you-to-say-something glare. We all start reading the wall posters. Alinda comes to the rescue, fumbling in her apron pocket while balancing two platters of what looks like chicken, rice, and red beans on her wrist and palm:
“Crayyyonnns, come’n get ‘em! Show us what you two young artists can do.”

       Twenty minutes further, I’m debating leaving without my order. It’s getting quite dark out. Suddenly, from behind, I feel a light shove. It’s Reggie, pushing past all of us, holding up a ten-dollar bill. The chef, Jamaican by accent, has just brought out a bowl of what appears to be lamb curry, passes it to Alinda, and then pauses to take the payment. Instead of handing it over, Reggie balls the bill up in his hand, lifts his thick, muscular arms on high, and then smashes both his fists down on the counter. Being closest to him, I can’t help but jump and gasp along with the chef and many others. Reggie turns and flashes me a maniacal smile of bright, white, bulbous teeth, punctuated by gaping spaces with a touch of a gold partial bracket showing on the lower right canine. He then vibrates the air into palpable waves with a passionate declaration:
      “I am so worn out, defeated, and lost. I would rather be dead.”
Everyone backs up about three paces. The fellow to my right fingers what might well be a gun tucked into his pants under his African pattern shirt. Big Reggie looks at me, and I become conscious of my paling face, mint green, huge-brimmed sun hat, bright yellow silk designer top, and sun-resistant mesh-vented hiking pants. Reggie re-bellows with head slightly lowered, eyes fixed on mine,
“Sister, did you hear me?! I’d rather be dead, girl, dead.”
Considering the situation, the many church store-fronts in the neighborhood, and that he is directly addressing me, I respond softly,
“Have you...have you asked God to help you?”
Deafening silence with a few strong nods, and then one fairly feeble, “You said it, sister,” from a table near the back.
Reggie glares but responds in a voice slightly less deafening, “I’m so tired of that bullshit...(pause).” His eyes are closed, he looks beyond weary, his shoulders are somewhat lower, but his fists are still balled up.
“I’ve been a Christian all my life, and I’ve discovered it’s all complete bullshit.”
So much for my projections. I note the chef’s hands are now under the counter and wonder if he’s surreptitiously reaching for an alarm. I respond as I would to any congregant, slowly, clearly: “You are suffering and lost, worn out and defeated.”
Pause...shoulders a bit less down. “Lady, do you believe in God? In any of the types of god being peddled these days?”
Pheww, he’s hurting. My old social worker instincts tell me he’s not so dangerous now that he’s reached out and seems to feel heard. I take a step closer to him, tilt my head to one side with a neutral yet present look, and venture an educated summary: “You feel betrayed by God.”
“Yup, all that prayin’ and believin’ and nothin’ comin’ of it...Lady, you didn’t answer my question: you believe in God?”
Need something to give him a further toehold on sanity. Has to be honest because body language tells all. Seems this is no time for the “G-word.”
“Reggie, I’m for sure amazed by creation and live in awe. It’s incredible what we’ve got here. Not so impressed by what we do with it lately.”
Reggie just continues, “You believe in life after death?”
Oh, whoa! Might he be considering checking-out on life, as in suicide, or committing a crime to get what he needs and contemplating the eternal consequences?
“Reggie, my daddy taught me it’s a mystery, and we’ll find out one way or the other when we die.”
      “Mystery, that I can do! Makes sense, treat’n it as a mystery. I don’t believe all that crap about going to hell and burning. And it is awesome, just awesome sometimes.”
       Everything in the restaurant has come to a standstill. “Halleuyah, brother!” echoes from various tables.
I come back with: “Anyone who tells me they know the answer for sure, I kinda tend to avoid.”
Reggie appreciates that: “Yeah, how could they know? They brainwashed.”
He gestures at a table that just opened up. We both sit down. No one argues that it’s really their turn to sit down.

       “Reggie, what happened that’s got you so low?”
      Reggie places his warm, thick hand over my small fingers, where great-grandmother Goldie’s three-diamond engagement ring lives. A ring that survived the Cossacks and serves for me as an enduring reminder of her courage and ability to protect her girls and use all of herself to survive when they rampaged through her cottage in Russia. I consciously bid my hands not to tense up.
Folks turn back to their meals, as Reggie lowers his voice to conversation level.
“Thing is, lady, I’m a simple man, and I lost my job twice this year to companies downsizing. See, I’m a simple man. You tell me, ‘Pick that heavy thing up.’ I can do that. You tell me, ‘Put it over there.’ I can do that. You want me to figure a good or right place to put down what you told me to pick up. I can’t do that. I’m no good at that. I can’t boss others. I can’t make a schedule. I can pick up what you tell me and put it down just right. I need a job, a simple job. I bartered my good old Pontiac car this week for money to live. If I miss my next rent payment, I live on the street. God don’t deliver. God don’t care.”
“Goldie, curried fish and plantains!”
I rise reflexively and Reggie does, too. Index finger raised in the language of “hang on a sec” to the man at the counter, I return to Reggie: “You are a simple man, and you want a simple job, and God does not provide.”
e looks into my eyes the way you know you’ve got a friend for life and says, “Are you some kind of Christian?”
“Actually,” I reply softly, “I’m a rabbi.”
“A rabbi?! No shit.” He looks around as though expecting a surprise TV crew to pop out. Then Reggie claims both my hands in his and passionately pleads: “Rabbi, what am I to do? I’m scared. It’s too tough now out there to make it. I know lotsa folks got no job. I’m two minutes from sleeping on the street."
Indeed, that’s the 30-billion-dollar question. I do the only thing left inside, in a strong, firm voice everyone in the shop can hear: “Holy One of Blessing, this man needs a job. Right now.”
Folks turn and stare at me. I’m aware of the pattern of whites of eyes in variously dark, surprised, but not frightened faces. I’m aware of feeling angry—at God, at government, of a glowering impotence that just isn’t acceptable. The prayer, my clear petition, pours through again, louder, toward Heaven: “Holy One of Blessing, this man needs a job. Right now.” The silence is complete; even the two children fold their hands in prayer.

The chef clears his throat. “Ma’am, your order’s getting cold. $11.50, please.” No one moves. Reggie lets go of my hands in an incredibly tender way, the whites of his huge brown eyes are redlined and brimming with tears that don’t fall.
As I shift to my purse, trying to focus on securing $11.50, the chef’s voice turns thoughtful:
“One more thing. Reggie. You can work for me. I’ve got a bad back these days. You pick it up; I’ll tell you where to put it. Every morning be outside at seven a.m. for deliveries. You can also push a broom and bus tables cause Alinda can’t cope since Orly quit yesterday. You can work a full day. But—and it’s a big but—you have to keep it together, stay on your meds, and treat folks respectfully. Get rid of that damn T-shirt for starters.” He tosses a sky blue shirt with the restaurant's name and logo on it to Reggie. “Put this one on. Free meals, minimum wage.”
Both of us gape at the proprietor.

      Reggie pumps my hand, “Thank you, Ma’am! I mean, thank you, Rabbi! Jews surely are the Lord’s chosen people; the Lord was listen’ to your prayer! Thank you, Ma’am, thank you, thank you.”
I stutter out, “Ddddon‘t thank me, thank the proprietor. He’s the one who’s giving you a...”
The chef interrupts me, “Don’t thank me. Seems I gotta check out what you Jews got goin’. Sure does work on a man’s soul.”
I shake his hand. “Thank you, sir, thank you for giving Reggie a job. You see, what you’ve just done, it’s so very holy. It’s what in my tradition we call a mitzvah, a wonderful, huge mitzvah.”
      One of the little boys jumps up and down, shouting, “Chef Ali, you a bar mitzvah. How about that?! Here’s a present, Chef Ali, the picture I drew, and Sammy’s, too. OK, Sammy? Good. Chef, here. Looks like I made you your first bar mitzvah present.”
      A raw, sharp sound pulls our jubilation up short. What is that noise?
Reggie’s laughing! Awesome, glorious, full-bodied laughing, which triggers me laughing, and now everyone’s laughing. Curried cold fish, coming right up, hope hubby will understand the delay. No, the holy chef’s already on it. “Rabbi Lady, can I warm that up for you?”

    was created in honor of Peninnah Schram 

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