The Man Who Came Back As a Herring
by Rachel Igel ’70
Israel Mechal was the youngest son of Nachman Isaac, the Bobover Rebbi of Boro Park. There were eight children in the family, and, although four were older brothers, it was clear from an early age that Israel Mechal would succeed his father as leader of the Bobov Hassidic sect. At the age of 3, he was reading simple Hebrew. By 5, he had mastered Aramaic, German and English. At the age of 8, Israel Mechal was reciting tractates from the Talmud, a feat never before accomplished at his school by someone so young. There was no doubt he had been touched by God. A brilliant future lay before him.
He grew into a quiet, thoughtful boy. Although thin and frail, he had a generous nature, and was well liked by his fellow schoolmates. His mother, Miriam, and three younger sisters, Nechama, Gitel and Pesche, adored him. Nachman Isaac was the proudest father in Brooklyn.
The year that Israel Mechal turned 18, John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States. Although America was entering a new decade, Israel Mechal’s world more closely resembled the Polish and Russian ghettos of his father. He was content to allow his parents to make all the important decisions in his young life, as was the custom in the old country.
A marriage was arranged with a suitable family. The father, Shmuel Rosen, was a respected businessman, and his youngest daughter, Chanale Sarah, would bring a large dowry. She was the apple of his eye, and nothing would be too good for his son-in-law. As an added bonus, she was friends with Pesche, Israel Mechal’s married sister, and her character was therefore a known quantity. Although no beauty, she was levelheaded, with a practical approach to life, vital qualities in the wife of a scholar.
When Chanale Sarah heard that she had been promised to Israel Mechal, she was overjoyed. Although she had never actually met him, she had once seen him entering shul with his father, and remembered clearly his handsome face and deep, brown eyes.
“He has a kind nature,” Pesche told her. “But he’s a dreamer, prone to flights of fancy and trance-like states. You’ll have to watch out for the day-to-day affairs.”
They were married in June. Within a year, their first child was born, and Chanale quickly became occupied with the many chores of a wife and mother. She ran the house, paid the bills and handled all of the distractions of life to leave Mechie, as she now affectionately called him, free to pursue the more spiritual side of life. He was sensitive and thoughtful, but Pesche’s prediction had proved to be true. He would often disappear into the study hall for days, absorbed in the discussion of some obscure passage of the Gemara, neglecting his personal needs and fasting for extended periods. He was a picky eater, and Chanale soon learned which foods he liked and which were to be avoided. Mechie did not go in for gourmet dishes or exotic foods, but he did have one indulgence: He loved herring. Herring of all kinds. Fresh herring, jarred herring, pickled herring. Even sardines, which were, after all, young herring. Chanale served her husband herring almost every day.
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In spite of these eccentricities, the marriage was a good one. Chanale confided in Pesche, now her best friend and confidante, that Mechie was a wonderful lover; energetic, gentle yet passionate. Pesche pointed out that Chanale had no one to compare him to, but Chanale just laughed.
“No other man could ever measure up to Mechie. Believe me, Pesche, a woman knows these things.”
“Nonsense,” said Pesche. “Suppose Reb Nachman had picked another girl for Mechie. Suppose your father had refused the match. You would have learned to love some other man.”
“No,” said Chanale. “Mechie and I were destined for each other. We’ll always be together.”
“I hope so,” said Pesche. “But only death is certain in this life.”
The years passed, and before long Mechie was the father of six boys. As his reputation as a Talmudic scholar grew, so did his withdrawal from the world. He spent nearly all his time locked in his study, preparing a series of complex commentaries on various Mishnaic tractates. He began to study Kabbalah and the mystics. He spoke less and less.
Chanale’s father, Shmuel Rosen, was supporting the family. He was a wealthy man, and, as Reb Nachman had predicted, nothing was too good for Mechal and his favorite daughter. But Reb Nachman was worried. He had seen his son Mechal draw further away from the world of men. Who would succeed him if Mechal could not assume a leader’s responsibilities?
The summer was brutally hot in the ninth year of Chanale’s marriage. It was nearly the end of September, but temperatures still hovered in the 90s. Through all this, Mechal had shut himself away in his airless study, working feverishly on the final volume of his Mishnaic commentaries. The sound of the air conditioner distracted him, so he never allowed it to be turned on. Chanale could not remain in the room for more than a few minutes without becoming dizzy and nauseated. Mechal had forgone food almost entirely, and only bread, water and herring were allowed in the study. The entire house stank of the fish. The saltiness caused him unbearable thirsts, and gallons of water had to be brought up at regular intervals. He would not see or speak to anyone, including his own children. Chanale feared for her husband’s sanity.
One night, she brought up the evening meal. Mechal was sitting at his desk, staring off into space. The atmosphere in the room was stifling.
“Mechie, it can’t go on like this,” she said. “You’ve become a stranger to your own family. Reb Nachman and papa are very worried.”
He didn’t respond.
“I’m very worried.” She went over to him. “What you’re writing can’t be worth the loss of your health or the happiness of your family! Mechie, answer me!”
He turned slowly and looked at her. There was a fire in his eyes. “Chanie, the answer is in the water.”
“Water? What water? Answer to what?”
“The oceans. The seas.” Mechie’s voice was eager. “Where it all began. Where everything will return.”
“Listen to me. I don’t know what you’re talking about. You look terrible. This room smells! You smell!” Chanale’s voice was taking on a hysterical tone. “You’re losing your mind cooped up in here day and night! What’s going to become of us?”
Mechal stood up and took her in his arms. “Water. Life. Don’t you see the connection? ‘And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,’” he said, quoting the second sentence of Genesis.
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She stared at him.
“I first saw the connection in the herring,” he said. “Isn’t it funny? It was right under my nose all the time.” Mechal smiled and kissed his wife on the cheek. “You have to go now. I’ll come to bed early tonight. Chanale, without you I’m nothing.”
She tried to protest, but he silenced her. Something had to be done, and the respective families agreed to meet that very night at Reb Nachman’s. Each person had a different idea, and the hours quickly passed in argument and bickering. It was finally decided to confront Mechal the next day as a group and, if necessary, physically remove him from the study. Only Pesche dissented.
“It won’t help,” she said. “He is possessed.”
“Don’t start with your crazy theories,” said Anshul, her husband. “He needs help.”
“Yes,” said Pesche. “But we can’t give it to him.”
The next morning, they found Mechal slumped over his desk. Although still alive, he had fallen into a coma. The doctors diagnosed a massive cerebral hemorrhage due to severe hypertension, a result of lethal amounts of salt intake. Mechal was put in the intensive care unit. Life support was discussed but proved academic. Chanale Sarah’s husband died several hours later.
In the weeks that followed, Chanale mourned Mechie with a passion never before seen in the community. During the required seven days of shiva, she received guests in the house but did not speak to anyone. She was given to sudden, uncontrollable fits of sobbing, and could be heard wailing and calling Mechal’s name. She refused to go through his clothing or papers, and would not let anyone else do so. She began to gain weight, and drank several glasses of wine each night.
The change in the children was frightening. They no longer bathed or recited the morning prayers. The older ones were seen eating non-kosher food and hanging around Italian pizza parlors. Baila, the maid, told her husband that Chanale was now sleeping in Mechal’s clothing and often stayed in bed for days, moaning and making disturbing sounds.
Pesche couldn’t bear to see what was happening to her friend. Phone calls to Chanale went unanswered, and repeated visits to the house were rebuffed by Baila with all kinds of excuses. It was beginning to affect Pesche’s own marriage. Anshul was sick of hearing Pesche talk about it.
“She’ll get over it,” he advised. “Give her time.”
“Anshul, it’s not normal. My brother, may he rest in peace, was loony to begin with. He’s infected Chanale with his demons.”
Anshul went over to Pesche and took her in his arms. He kissed her passionately. She could taste the lox from the bagel he’d been eating, and felt his erection pressing up against her. She realized how lucky she was to desire her husband the way she did. For so many women she knew, sex was merely a torture to be endured.
“Not everyone is like us,” said Anshul. He lifted her skirt and put his hand between her legs. “My beautiful little Peschele.”
Later, as they lay in bed, Pesche couldn’t get Chanale out of her mind.
“Anshie, I’m worried about her.”
Anshul took a bite of the bagel he’d been eating before. “Look to your own family, my love.”
“But she’s my friend,” said Pesche.
“Stay out of it,” he said.
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One night, Chanale began to go through Mechal’s papers. It was late, and the house was as still as the grave. She climbed the top flight of stairs to Mechal’s study and opened the door. Manuscripts were piled up everywhere, seemingly in no order. Some chapters were written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic. Notes in the side margins were in English and Yiddish. Many pages were not numbered, and Mechal’s small, meticulous handwriting was often indecipherable.
She went through the drawers of his desk and saw a thin folder lying off to the side of the bottom drawer. The title caught her eye: “Properties of the Herring.” Chanale opened the folder.
Properties of the Herring
The herring (Clupea harengus) is a small food fish frequenting moderate depths of the ocean in great schools. It is a remarkable food. Rich in sodium and carbon, it raises the electrolyte levels in the blood and purifies the system. Its high levels of sodium cause the eater to become thirsty, thereby needing to drink large quantities of water, which everyone knows is extremely healthy.
And so it went on. As she read, Chanale remembered clearly the last conversation with Mechal the night before he died. “Water. Life. Don’t you see the connection?” he had said. “The answer is in the water.”
Mechie had been trying to tell her something. He must have had a premonition of his death, and the divine spirit had come over him. Why hadn’t she seen it before? No wonder he had worked so feverishly to finish the commentaries. Just as the knowledge of a divine presence had come over Moses when he saw the burning bush, so Chanale Sarah knew with certainty that her husband, Israel Mechal, had returned to life as a herring.
The change in Chanale after that night was remarkable. She rose early, and could be seen shopping for food in the neighborhood. She organized a massive cleaning and redecorating of the house, going through all of Mechal’s things and sorting them according to which charities they would be given to. She gave Baila a raise. She took the boys in tow and made it clear to them the parameters of behavior that were acceptable in a Jewish home. There was to be no more eating of non-kosher food or socializing with Italian boys, who had exposed her sons to talk of women and sex. She organized Mechal’s papers before turning them over to Reb Nachman. She began to attend shul and resumed socializing with family and friends. She lost weight.
“What did I tell you?” said Anshul, one Sabbath after Chanale had visited them. “Didn’t I say she would snap out of it?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Pesche. “But something isn’t right.”
“Don’t go looking for trouble,” said Anshul.
“I’m not looking. It’s there.”
“Let’s look for something else,” said Anshul, touching Pesche’s thigh. “It’s Shabbat. It’s a mitzvah to make love.” He took her hand and put it in his crotch. She felt him and wanted to go away to that place, the place where only pleasure lived. But something nagged at her. Complex problems rarely found simple solutions. She resolved to have a talk with Chanale, but didn’t want to think about it now.
The next day, she went to Chanale’s house for an afternoon cup of tea. As they sat together, she noticed how beautiful her friend looked.
“You’ve done a terrific job on the house,” she said.
“Yes. I felt it was time to put the past behind me. Life goes on.”
“Yes,” said Pesche. “Exactly. And what led you to finally come to this conclusion?”
“Why, the knowledge that Mechie is still alive, of course.”
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Pesche felt a heaviness in her chest. “Mechie is alive?”
“And where is he?”
“I don’t know exactly,” said Chanale, genuinely confused by Pesche’s question. “Swimming somewhere in the ocean.”
“And why would he be swimming in the ocean?” asked Pesche.
“Well, you wouldn’t expect a herring to put on a suit and walk down Thirteenth Avenue, would you?”
Pesche smoothed out the napkin on her lap. She tried to control her voice. “Has Mechie turned into a herring?” she asked.
Chanale smiled. “No, he hasn’t exactly turned into a herring. He’s come back as a herring.”
“I see,” said Pesche.
“Before I realized what had happened, I don’t mind telling you, I was considering suicide. The thought of Mechie lying cold in the ground was too much. But that was before I understood what he tried to tell me the night before he died. When I think of him now, swimming happily in the ocean, my heart is full of joy.”
On the way home, Pesche thought carefully about her conversation with Chanale. What harm could such a delusion do? As long as she was happy, able to return to the world and go on with her life, who was she, Pesche, to burst the bubble? Perhaps Mechal was swimming somewhere in the ocean. What business was it of hers? She decided to keep the conversation to herself.
Several weeks passed. Winter fell upon Brooklyn with a vengeance, and the streets were covered in snow. Reb Nachman was deeply engrossed in preparing his son’s commentaries for publication in the spring. There was talk of finding Chanale a suitable husband once a year had passed, and a candidate was picked out. A widower with three grown children, Joseph Silverman was an established businessman with a good income and spotless reputation. Most important, he was willing to be a father to Chanale’s six boys. A potential tragedy had been averted. Everyone in the family breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone, that is, except Pesche. But she kept her thoughts to herself, afraid of alienating her husband and causing more trouble in her own home.
The wedding was planned for October. A giant hall on Fourteenth Avenue was booked for the occasion. Chanale was inundated with solicitations from caterers, florists, stationers and the like. Mechal’s books had been published to great acclaim. The critics gushed with superlatives over his beautifully written commentaries, which were filled with subtle insights and examples of the purity of ethical principles. Like the ancient scholars, Mechal originally intended to expound and interpret the text but, also like them, had been carried away by his love of dialectical arguments and poetical digressions. The books were a delight.
A large party was planned by Reb Shmuel to take place several weeks before the wedding. Although the night of the festivities was the coldest it had been in memory, everyone who had been invited came. A great feast was prepared by Chanale’s mother Leah. There was chicken, beef, noodles, kasha, a selection of vegetables and all kinds of salads. Pesche and Anshul brought cholent and sweet potatoes. There was gefilte fish, horseradish and a huge selection of desserts. And there was herring.
When Pesche saw the herring, alarm bells went off. Somehow she would have to remove the plate, but before she could act Chanale saw the herring and let out a wail. She couldn’t catch her breath. Her heart was racing, and her pulse quickened. She had not seen or tasted a bite of it since Mechie’s death, and a terrible thought passed over her. In a split second, she knew what had happened.
“He’s been caught!” she cried.
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When Reb Shmuel canceled the wedding, no one was surprised. Rumors flew around Boro Park. Some said that Chanale was possessed, and her behavior after that night only fueled the speculation. She began searching all the local delis and grocery stores, looking for Mechal. She looked through the fresh herring. She scanned dozens of brands of jarred herring. She even looked at the sardines. But nowhere was Mechal to be found. The possibility occurred to her that he might have been sent somewhere outside of Boro Park, but she dismissed this thought. If it were true, how would she ever find him?
Although her family was convinced she was crazy, they did nothing. The children were being well cared for, and she had not reverted back to her behavior following Mechal’s death. Only Pesche could not accept the turn that events had taken, refusing to let her friend descend into madness. She thought and thought about it, and then it came to her. She decided to tell Anshul that night.
“The woman is meshugina! You’re playing with fire,” he warned.
“What else can I do?” said Pesche. “She’s my best friend.”
“Listen to me,” said Anshul. “These schemes never work out. Leave it alone.”
“I can’t do that,” said Pesche.
There was a moment of silence between them. Anshul gently put his hand on Pesche’s shoulder.
“It will end badly,” he said.
The next day, Pesche went to Goldblatt’s Market and bought a jar of herring. From there, she went straight to Chanale’s house. Baila opened the door.
“Where is she?” said Pesche.
Baila gave her a guarded look. “In the kitchen,” she said, making a motion with her head.
Chanale was sitting at the table staring at a jar of herring. There were jars all over, and the smell of fish was overwhelming. Pesche opened the refrigerator. It, too, was stuffed with herring of all kinds. The small fish were everywhere.
“Chanie, I have good news,” she said. “Your search is at an end. I’ve found Mechie.”
Chanale looked up. Her eyes widened.
“You found him?
Pesche took the jar out of the Goldblatt’s bag and put it on the table. Chanale stared at it.
“How can you be sure it’s him?” she asked suspiciously.
Pesche looked her straight in the eye. “Don’t I know my own brother?”
Chanale picked up the jar and peered into it. Something seemed to move inside.
“Believe me,” said Pesche. “It’s him. You can get rid of all these other herrings. I’m sure Mechie wants to be alone with you.”
“Yes,” said Chanale. “That’s a good idea.” She thought she heard a faint voice coming from the jar.
“I’ll come by tomorrow,” said Pesche. “Get some rest. You and Mechie have a lot to talk about.” She kissed Chanale on the cheek. Pesche drew Chanale to her in a powerful embrace. She hugged her tightly and whispered in her ear, “Goodbye, my friend.”
Chanale stood up. The voice in the jar seemed clearer. To Pesche, she said simply, “Thank you.” They held each other for a moment and then separated.
On the way out, Pesche said to Baila, “Hold on a bit longer. It will soon be over.”
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“You can’t imagine what it was like. The nets, the confusion, the smells. The only thing that kept me going, Chanie, was the thought that you would find me.”
“It’s all right, my love. Everything will be all right now.”
Chanale sat holding the jar in her hands. She brought it up to her lips excitedly.
“Eat me!” said Mechal.
The next morning, they found Chanale on the kitchen floor, a strangely radiant expression on her face. The official cause of death was asphyxiation. She had apparently gulped down the entire contents of the jar too quickly and choked on a herringbone. Baila, the maid, had gone home early that night, and no one had been there to help Chanale.
The night following her sister-in-law’s funeral, Pesche served Anshul a stiff drink. She then poured one for herself.
“What’s to become of the children?” he asked.
“The family will take them in.”
Anshul looked up at her sadly. “You see what comes of poking your nose where it doesn’t belong? Didn’t I warn you?”
“Don’t worry,” said Pesche. “It all worked out.”
“And how is that?” asked Anshul.
Pesche thought of her friend and smiled.
“They are together,” she said.
Rachel Igel ’70 has worked as a film editor in Los Angeles and London for more than 30 years, and has also directed and produced several animated films. She has been writing short stories for most of her adult life.