Dear fellow Sasson readers, writers, and friends,
With the kind permission and encouragement of Sasson’s talented and inspired editors, I would like to invite you to join me on a journey – the biweekly serialization of my novel, ‘Open When You Are – A Spiritual Allegory Based on the Inner-Torah View of Reality’.
If I may, allow me give you a little background behind this unconventional and (hopefully) intriguing endeavor:
Some thirty years ago, after graduating college, and much spiritual searching from Kafka to Castaneda, I discovered that my own birth-path of Judaism provided the paradigm of existence that most resonated with my soul. As I dug deeper, I was amazed to find that Torah/Kabbalah held hidden keys to the mystery of individual and collective human destiny and the Jewish people’s role within it, but I also saw that this life-changing wisdom, buried under a mountain of misconceptions and off-putting religious terminology, was virtually inaccessible to the modern mind.
‘This is an incredible story,’ I would keep telling myself, ‘If only it could be told in a way the world could hear…’
So, more than a decade ago, I began to act on this inner-voice’s urgings and re-tell this story as a secular spiritual, urban fantasy-flavored narrative, with plot twists, captivating characters, romance and humor—as well as wry social commentary and a deep, yet very accessible spiritual/philosophical underpinning. I left out all mention of religion, Torah or Judaism, leaving the story and ideas to be considered on their own merit, and hopefully reach places (and people) that no Jewish book has ever reached before.
One of the main characters of this novel cum hashkafa sefer, Gabel Aftergood, is a chef and ex-Woodstock era counterculture hero, and cooking is subtheme throughout. Therefore, I’ll say as in cooking, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’, so I invite you to come and taste – nibble or dig in – to ‘Open When You Are’ and see how it sits on your palate. In this special Sasson serialized edition, I’ve included for the first time footnotes to decode the allegory/mashal into its Torah-Kabbalah nimshal and ‘bring it all back home.’
And now, without further ado…
OPEN WHEN YOU ARE
by Ben Ackerman
Strad was late. Really late. For his own party. And if he was keen to participate, like most civilized folk in a world where that kind of stuff mattered, maybe he’d just be…fashionably late. But to Strad, social convention was a bothersome fly. There were always so many intriguing things swirling around a person, and social obligations, like the rest of life’s arbitrary ‘rules’ seemed nothing more than roadblocks between him and the things, events, and people that he might like to get to know.
Still, he was on his way. He didn’t want his punctual fiancé to become apoplectic and give him his walking papers. But as his feet carried him toward the party, his curious eye spotted an oddly placed sign and he craned his neck to get a better look. Who puts up a sign in a deserted alley? He pushed aside the overgrown ivy and read its whimsically pasteled text.
* G A B E L’ S T A B L E *
If You’re Hungry, Come and Eat If You’re Thirsty, Come and Drink
Regardless of the ivy’s choice to cloak it, he liked its look, its hand-painted designs. Maybe he’d check the place out someday. …If You’re Thirsty Come and Drink… He actually was kind of thirsty. There’d be plenty to drink where Nina and his friends were waiting for him just a few blocks away. There was no reason to make a detour. Ignoring that logic, he followed his feet down the alley, away from where he thought he’d been headed.
Strad’s ‘quick peek’ soon became a search mission and then, ultimately—like so many of his recent endeavors— a wild goose chase, as he reached the alley’s dead end. He turned around and started walking the other way, making a mental note to use the tranquil alleyway as an urban refuge in the future. He’d nearly reached the main street from where he’d come when he heard some odd, tingly music beckoning him. His eyes followed the melody to the top floor of one of the nearby brownstones, its windows glowing a promising neon. The low, chain-link fence separating him from the building seemed a minor obstacle until he actually tried to get past it. He winced as he contorted his gangly body beneath thick willow branches, while underfoot thorn bushes nipped the legs of his jeans like a swarm of mosquitoes. Finally, exulting like a triumphant jungle explorer, he emerged through a small opening in the fence.
“My good mon, c’mere a minoot will you?
Strad froze. He looked up and saw a wiry, denim-clad figure standing in front of a small metallic shed. A barrel-shaped object was lodged between his arms as he pushed against the edge of the shed’s open door with his shoulder.
Strad’s first instinct was to slip away, but the guy didn’t seem angry and, curiosity getting the better of his judgment, Strad drew slowly closer. The stranger winced, struggling to balance what was now clearly revealed as a keg of beer.
“You’ve arrived just in the nickel of dime. Come and help me, will you? Just give this intransigent door a little keek, can you?” The man pointed his head—thick rust-colored dreadlocks spilling out from an oversized, red, blue, and yellow sock—at the half-open door of a walk-in refrigerator.
Strad pushed the door closed. The fellow smiled, thanked him and started to walk away. Strad didn’t know whether he was expected to follow or not, but smelling an adventure, he jogged up to his side.
“You need help with that?”
Without breaking his stride, the man turned, looked the skinny Strad up and down, and shook his head.
“I appreciate the offer, m’good mon. But this is a bit of weighty matter, don’t you know? And from the looks of you, I doubt you could carry more than a tune. But I can see you are perilously thoorsty, and the beer is rethawafying as we speak—come along.”
Strad followed him around the side of the building to the bottom of a rusty fire escape. The man put the keg down, reached underneath the steps and pulled out two sparkling clean glasses. He filled them from the tap and handed one to Strad. “Let us enlighten the barrel before its ascension, shall we?”
Sipping the cold, dark beer, Strad took his first good look at the man’s face: worn but handsome—mid-thirties maybe— delicate features, definitely Caribbean but with incongruous freckles and pale blue eyes.
“Are you Gabel?” Strad ventured.
The man nearly spit out his beer as he broke into a cackle, rolling his head and holding his sides. Recovering, he said, “Oh, yes indeed! Of course, I am! And you, I suppose, are the depotentated King of Sweeeden!”
Strad took another swig of beer, more amused than offended by the outburst. “I saw a sign on the street and I thought…”
“You thought? It’s always the same story, isn’t it?” He clicked his tongue. “If people would spend half as much time drinking as they did thinking, the world’s problems would be solved.” He extended his lean, bony hand. “Sir Reginald Albert Sykes. But you may call me Reggie.” Fumbling through the pocket of his worn denim jacket, the man fished out a small, carved wooden pipe. “Come along, you’ve destructed me far too long already. But shall we have ourselves a puff first?”
Strad shook his head. Thanks, but the beer’s fine. Anyway, my fiancé would kill me.”
His dreadlocked drinking companion grinned, waving off this protest. “Not a problem. Bring the lass as well. There’s plenty of puff to go-round.”
“That’s not it.” Strad shook his head. “She doesn’t touch the stuff. She says it’s an escape from reality.”
Reggie rolled his eyes and grimaced as he tried in vain to flick his lighter. “She means escape to reality, now doesn’t she? Forget that blinkered woman, mon. My boss, the one you misunderstook me for, is not the keenest on it, either. Of course, it’s easy for him, isn’t it? Being as he’s higher than a Himalaya even without it. Now, where did I put that other lighter?”
Smiling, Strad shook an Indonesian clove cigarette out of the pack stashed in his shirt pocket, lit it, and offered one to Reggie, who readily accepted. “Now, why didn’t you tell me you had matches?” He thrust the pipe Strad’s way. “I’ll give you the honor of the initial incendation.”
“I’ll pass for now, thanks,” he said.
“Have it your own way,” Reggie shrugged, tucking the pipe back into his pocket. He stood, hoisting the keg. “You’re welcome to taggle along,” he called over his shoulder as he began climbing the metal steps. “But be forely warned, despite the gravity of the situation, ’tis far simpler to climb up this staircase than it is to come back down.”
Nina Thorne bit down on her well-glossed lower lip and glanced at her watch.
“Are you sure you told him the party was for this year’s birthday?” Ted winked at her, leaning back on his upholstered bamboo chair.
Nina forced a smile. When she’d called the get-together at Honda Lulu’s, the city’s trendy retro-Polynesian restaurant-lounge, the young professionals had cleared their busy schedules and showed up ready to party. Five years after graduating together, they remained close, while transitioning smoothly from college to real life. All of them, except for Strad.
“Let the festivities begin!” Paul announced with rum-fueled bravado.
Had he arrived? Nina glanced at the door. No, it was still just the five of them.
“Strad Crossriver…” said Paul, who’d stepped up onto his seat, drawing amused looks from the nearby tables and wary ones from the wait-staff, “We hereby accuse you of maliciously and intentionally turning twenty-six. We are therefore left with no alternative than to celebrate this momentous occasion—without you.”
Despite her dark mood, Nina couldn’t help smiling at the mock indignant snarl as the successful attorney loosened his silk tie; the exact expression he would don back in school while haranguing them with one of his fiery ‘save the world’ speeches.
“We’re recalling all search parties and shall commence to commemorate your birthday in absentia, and to ply you with food and drink—in effigy.”
“You’ve got to admit that when the guy does show up,” Allison said, patting her mouth with a red and black batik table napkin, “it’s always just in time. I’ll never forget that night back in school? Nina and I were sitting around, we had the munchies like anything and there was nothing in the fridge or cupboards? Then, out of nowhere, Strad throws open the door…”
Nina tuned out and checked her email; two new from TJ. Her grandfather didn’t like Strad and when they’d first announced their engagement, he’d tried hard to talk her out of it. When Strad quit his last job, he’d grudgingly offered him a position with Pyramedia. Nothing as prestigious as Nina’s own high profile reporter’s post with her grandfather’s mega-media company, but a job half the city’s liberal arts graduates would kill for.
Strad wouldn’t even consider it.
She could understand why. Nina loved her grandfather, who’d adopted and raised her since her parents passed away in her infancy. She loved his power, his confidence. If he stepped on toes he didn’t care; truth was, neither did she. But at least she knew she shouldn’t step on toes and tried not to. They were alike in so many ways. Maybe because they were so similar, she had no problem with him as a boss. Others, like Strad, would rather starve than work for TJ Thorne.
“…As if he’d read our minds, he marches straight to the fridge and says ‘You have a feast in here—let’s eat!’ He whipped up such a meal; I don’t know how he did it. Remember, Nina?”
She did. Strad had charmed her, pulling the ingredients out of thin air. But his latest disappearing act left her feeling anything but charmed. Nina drummed her fire-engine fingernails on the tablecloth, checked her watch and felt a flush rise up in her cheeks. It wasn’t from the strong rum punch she’d been straw-sipping from the communal “dragonhead” punchbowl—she could hold her liquor better than most men.
“Despite the fact we all know he didn’t have to work late tonight,” Ted Calhoun drawled, in his Boston-Brahmin brogue, winking at Nina as he stood up to brush the crumbs from the lap of his well-tailored suit. The junior executive of his family’s investment bank continued, “I for one am not at all surprised Strad isn’t here, because the man is entirely beyond time. I used to think his problem was that he didn’t own a watch, and I gave him one as a gift. He looked at me like I was trying to slap a set of handcuffs on his wrist instead of a two-hundred dollar Swiss watch. ‘What do I need this for?’ he asked me. I explained to him how many interest-ing people he would meet by wearing a watch to keep his appointments. He just smiled at me and said, ‘But think how many different people I’ll meet by not wearing one!’ I’m glad I’m not his boss…”
“Or his fiancé,” muttered Nina.
Then a spotlight beamed down onto their table as the main lights dimmed. The restaurant’s Hawaiian-shirted band, on cue, struck up a loud, brassy version of the classic birth-day ditty, hands flying over drums, steel guitars, and ukuleles.
“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!”
***to be continued***
 The door to truth, to spirituality is open to all who seek it – but you have to be open to it first.
 Reinforcing the earlier allusion to Strad’s (the tinok sh’nih’bu’s) spiritual thirst.
 When a person has genuine spirituality, he needn’t ‘escape’ to the ersatz ‘high’ of chemically induced altered states of consciousness.
 Once you’ve ‘climbed’ and been exposed to the truth, it’s hard to ‘come back down’ to ‘ignorant (non-)bliss.’
 The ‘real life’ they all transitioned to is not ‘real’ to a sensitive soul like Strad, who intuits there is something more. He is more ‘real’ than they are, but he’s scorned for not accepting society’s ‘givens’.
 Another reference to Strad being able to see what others can’t. A Jew has the power to see potentials and opportunities that others cannot. If he uses this power responsibly it benefits the world and he is praised – if he uses it selfishly, it leads to chillul Hashem and Jew hatred.