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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fishin’ for the Truth

Fishin’ for the Truth -- this story was published in my book,  Bridging the Golden Gate, purchasing details on top of page. 

This is a true story, as told to me by Judy. Today, Judy is happily married and the mother of a large family. She lives on a small moshav north of Jerusalem. Her parents – very dear friends of mine -– moved to the same moshav after they retired. George and Roberta were brutally murdered late one night by a marauding raccoon (yes, you read that right).

It all began while I was studying at a prestigious college in Southern California. I wasn’t exactly what you would call the studious type, and I probably gained more from the dorm experience (and believe me, it really was an experience) than from my college classes, which, on the whole, consisted of such courses as “The Political Aspirations of the Indians in the Late 1800s” and “Understanding the Id Within You.” It would have been more advantageous for me to have taken “Basic Basket Weaving” or “Home Economics II,” but at the time, I imagined myself to be somewhat of an intellectual.

It was around two o’clock in the morning and I had just fallen into a deep sleep when my roommate, Marge, started shaking me and yelling in my ear. “Judy! Judy!” she screamed.

I rolled over and opened half an eye. “What’s the matter?” I mumbled.

“The pond in front of our dorm,” she gasped. “There’s a large machine there, sucking out the water. It looks like a gigantic Dracula.”

“Were you were planning to go swimming tonight?” I asked incredulously, before pulling the blanket over my head and turning to face the wall.

“Judy, WAKE UP. This is an emergency!” She was shouting directly into my ear.

“What’s the matter?” I was beginning to realize that I would not get anymore sleep that night.

“Those poor fishies in that pond; they'll die if we don’t do something to save them. This is our chance to really do something meaningful with our lives, Judy. Don’t you see? We’re the only ones who can save those poor animals from extinction. This is our chance; it’s up to us,” she concluded passionately.

I jumped out of bed, ready to save the world.

Within seconds, we raced out of our dorm and stood opposite the workers, who were coldly obeying orders and destroying the homeland of those poor innocent fish.

I tried addressing their sense of right and wrong. “Sirs,” I began, remembering the importance of always being respectful and tolerant, especially when trying to show another person that what they are doing is absolutely immoral. “I understand that you have families to support, and cannot afford to lose your source of income, but just think of those poor innocent fish who are also trying to survive. Couldn’t you show some compassion and STOP REMOVING THE WATER FROM THE POND?”

Although I tried to remain calm, I was so upset that I almost clobbered the workers as I screamed the last sentence at the top of my lungs.

The men just shrugged their shoulders, smiled (that really infuriated me) and continued with their job.

“Marge,” I said, all the while staring pointedly at the workers, “I don’t think we really have any choice at this point. We’ll just have to wait for them to finish and then save whatever fish manage to survive this … this …” I had no idea what word I could use to describe this horrible deed. But I was enough of a Jew to realize that the term “holocaust” was inappropriate.

Both Marge and I plunked ourselves down on the grass overlooking the pond and between wiping our tears with the backs of our hands and shooting cold glances at the heartless workers, we kept a what-was-left-of-the- night vigil. Every once in a while we quietly started humming “We Shall Overcome.” We felt extremely righteous. 

The workers left at around five o’clock in the morning. Marge and I inched our way down to the now-empty pond, expecting to see dozens of dead or dying fish at the bottom. Instead, there was only one rather large carp lying perfectly still on top of the damp rocks.

“I think we’re too late,” sobbed Marge.

“It certainly looks that way,” I whispered.

The fish chose just that moment to flip into the air. 

“I think she’s dying,” I gasped.

“We’d better do something quick.”

“But how can we pick her up?” I asked.

“We’ll have to use our hands.”


“Remember, this is our chance to really make a difference. If we don’t save this fish, then no one will,” Marge explained passionately. “Perhaps, well, I know this is going to sound a bit superstitious, but Judy… maybe… maybe this is the reason that God decided to put us into this world. I’m not religious, so I really don’t believe in such things, but something deep inside of me, something deep in my soul, is telling me that each person must have a purpose in life. Perhaps this is it.”

“To save a fish?” I asked incredulously. But when I saw the pained look on Marge’s face, I realized that my words had been inappropriate. Marge had shared her deepest feelings with me, and I had not taken her seriously.

“You know,” I continued in a gentle voice, “you really do have a point there.” And with that, I slithered into the depths of the pond and grabbed the slimy fish with my bare hands.

“I’ve got it!” I yelled triumphantly.

We raced across the lawn and bounded up the two flights of stairs to our dorm room. “Quick, get it into the bathtub!” Marge whispered frantically.

Trying to be as quiet as we possibly could -– after all, it was not yet six o’clock in the morning –- we ran into one of the bathrooms and locked the door behind us. I was more than happy to release the fish while Marge filled the tub with water.

Within minutes, the fish was contentedly swimming up and down the length of the tub.

“We’ve done it!” screamed Marge, hugging me exuberantly. Her eyes brimmed with tears of joy. “We’ve actually done something meaningful with our lives,” she whispered in awe.

The two of us left the bathroom in a state of euphoria. We hoped to catch a few more hours of sleep before classes.

But it was not meant to be.

Fifteen minutes later, we were rudely awoken by the sounds of hysterical screaming coming from the far end of the hall. “The fish!” we both gasped simultaneously as we jumped out of bed.

Within seconds we were standing in the bathroom staring at the fish -- which had jumped out of the bathtub, skidded under the bathroom door and was flipping back and forth along the white tiled hallway.

I quickly scooped up the fish (with my bare hands – ugh) and unceremoniously dumped her back into the water.

“The show’s over,” Marge announced while wiping all traces of water from the floor.  The girls slowly started to disperse. The two of us dashed back to our room in an attempt to catch a few more minutes of precious sleep.

But as I realize now, that was simply not bashert. Instead of attending classes (no great loss, believe me), we ended up spending the entire morning sitting in the bathroom, picking up the fish and returning it to the water each time it jumped out of the bathtub.

“Marge,” I began, after I had scooped up the fish for the umpteenth time. “We just can’t go on like this. I absolutely must get some sleep.”

“I know,” she yawned, barely able to keep her own eyes open. “You’ve really got a point there. If we don’t get some sleep, we’ll collapse. So I guess I'll climb into bed while you take care of the fish. When I get up, you can go lie down.”

Something about what she said didn’t seem quite right, but I had no energy left to argue, and besides, she was already trotting off in the direction of our room.

Later that night, I decided that Marge and I must have a heart-to-heart talk. We had to come to a decision. “I think the fish misses its natural habitat. A bathtub will never do,” I began.

“You’re right,” Marge mumbled, still half asleep.

“My parents have a pond in their backyard. Tomorrow morning, let’s drive to their house and let our dear Fishie spend the remainder of its time on this earth enjoying the good life in my parent’s pond.”

My parents owned an enormous mansion set among Redwood trees of Northern California. I knew that if our fish got bored in the confines of our pond, it could enjoy itself in our swimming pool or Jacuzzi.

I left Marge to stand guard while I ran to the public telephone to call my parents. I asked them if it would be possible for me to bring a friend for the weekend. “Oh, and by the way,” I continued, trying to sound nonchalant, “we’re bringing along a fish.”

“A fish?” my mother asked, puzzled.

“A fish to put in the pond behind our house,” I replied, before regaling my mother with the heroic story of how we had rescued Fishie from extermination.

My mother didn’t say another word.  

The next day we set off on our historical journey to bring the fish to its new home.

“But how are we going to transport the fish?” Marge asked.

It occurred to me that lack of sleep was having an effect on Marge’s problem-solving abilities.

“That shouldn’t be difficult,” I smiled self-confidently. “I’ll fill my laundry tub with water, and we’ll put the fish inside. I’m sure it won’t even realize that anything unusual is going on.”

And so we set out on our journey. I drove, while Marge sat in the back, holding the laundry tub steady and gently pushing the fish back into the water every time it tried to jump out.

The first hundred miles passed without any difficulties. But just as we were about to pat ourselves on the back, a truck suddenly pulled in front of the car, forcing me to jam on the breaks. Everything went flying, including the tub with Fishie in it.

“She’s dead!” Marge wailed.

“I am not!” I pointed out indignantly.

“Not you,” she explained. “But look at Fishie.”

I decided to wait for a more auspicious time to have a serious discussion about the lack of concern Marge had shown for her best friend.

Fishie was flipping back and forth, desperate for more water. The two inches of liquid covering the bottom of the car was obviously not enough to sustain our beloved fish.

We realized that finding water was a matter of life and death.

I drove to the nearest exit and started searching for a gas station, while Marge hovered over the fish, wringing her hand and urging me to hurry. “If we don’t get her into a bucket of water, she’ll die,” Marge cried.

I pursed my lips and pressed harder on the gas pedal.

Even before the car came to a full stop, Marge had jumped out of the back door and was running frantically towards the gas station attendant. “Water! Quick! It’s an emergency!” she panted.

The attendant looked at my car and then at Marge. There was no smoke bellowing out of the engine. “The hose is over there,” he mumbled, walking away.

Marge dashed to the hose, while I carefully placed the fish in the laundry tub and gingerly carried it out to where Marge was impatiently waiting for me.

“Hurry up or she’ll die.” By now, both the attendant and his friends had stopped whatever they were doing to stare at us, wide-eyed. 

With as much dignity as we could muster, we filled the tub with water and lugged it back to the car. I still don’t understand why it didn’t occur to me to drive the car over to the hose. Perhaps the lack of sleep was taking its toll. But at least the fish didn’t try any more acrobatics. It was probably too exhausted.

Marge and I arrived at my parent’s house on Friday afternoon, less than an hour before sundown. My parents had mentioned to me something about how they had met a rabbi and that they had started keeping something they called Shabbos. I assumed that it was some passing fad to keep them busy while they went through the trauma of middle age.

When I opened the front door and saw my parents racing madly around the house, I just looked at my friend with bemusement and whispered, “I’ll put the fish in the pond and we’ll stay out of everyone’s way.” But the moment my mom caught sight of me, she stopped whatever it was that she was doing and became my mother again. “At least that hasn’t changed,” I thought.

Looking back at that first Shabbos, I realize how difficult it must have been for my parents as they tried to find their way in the spiritual desert of Northern California. They tried to share their enthusiasm for keeping Torah with Marge and me, but we just rolled our eyes and politely listened to their explanations. We were far more interested in the fate of our fish than the fate of our souls.

But still, when I heard Dad sing “Shalom Aleichem" with George and Roberta (George and Roberta were my parent’s pet cockatoos. My father had taught them how to sing “Shalom Aleichem” and “Eishes Chayil” and now they joined him – although slightly off-key -- every Friday night.) I felt something that I could not define. Today I realize that I had sensed kedusha -- holiness.

Of course my mom’s food was, as always, delicious, even if it was kosher. I even partook of her homemade gefilte fish with gusto, without once thinking about the fate of the poor fish that gave its soul for my gastronomical pleasure.

That Saturday night, my parent’s synagogue had planned a special melaveh malkah with a well-known guest speaker. My parents asked Marge and me if we would join them, and for lack of anything better to do, we agreed.

For me, that evening was the beginning of something that I can only describe as revolutionary. Perhaps it was the combination of the rabbi’s inspirational words after having experienced the beauty of Shabbos, or maybe it was the result of a vague feeling of emptiness that had been slowly gnawing at my insides. After all, Marge did have a point when she said, “Something deep inside of me, something deep in my soul, is telling me that each person must have a purpose in life.” I couldn’t imagine that it was just to save some fish from extinction.

After that weekend, I made a point of coming home as often as possible to spend Shabbos with my parents. After all, I couldn’t allow Dad to sing with only George and Roberta to accompany him! I enjoyed those Saturdays so much that within a few months, I, too, had become hooked on Shabbos.

A year later, we found Fishie floating belly-side up in my parent’s pond. But by then, I was not terribly upset. I had found my purpose in life and I didn’t need to rescue a fish to give my existence meaning.

Oh, and what ever happened to Marge? Last I heard, she was crusading to save the whales. But I really haven’t had much time to stay in touch with her. I’ve been much too busy taking care of my even-by-Israeli-standards large family, thank God. And no, none of my children are named Fischel.

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