The Unexpected Visitor.

Author:Szanto, Gabor T.
Position:Short story


I got a call from the information desk at the university's Museum Boulevard entrance that someone was here to see me. I had a class that evening--a seminar on modern Jewish literature. The seminar was my private project; I didn't get paid for it. You might say it was an obsession of mine. In these parts the subject is not taken very seriously at universities; professors question the viability of modern Jewish literature as a discipline, as if they were reluctant to admit that there are still Jews around and would rather avoid using the discomfiting word itself.

I had no choice but to ask the clerk to put the visitor on, but he wanted to speak with me in person and was not willing to divulge the purpose of his visit unless he could see me.

He spoke Hungarian slowly but articulately, with a Hebrew accent; his voice, however, was agitated.

A few minutes later a Hasidic man around 80, with a tangled white beard and a long black coat, entered my office. I was flabbergasted by the sight. Never before had I had such a visitor at the university. I became embarrassed--all I could think of was what the guard downstairs must have thought, or anyone else who overheard this man saying that he wanted to see me.

The old man's drawn face bespoke pain and sternness, and also a degree of suspicion and alarm on account of the surroundings, which for him must have seemed strange. His watery gray eyes appeared to be continuously tearing; he kept looking around as if sensing danger. But when I returned his greeting with a respectful "sholem aleichem" and politely pointed to an armchair while asking him if he would drink a glass of water here, he relaxed a bit.

I let the water run until it was nice and cold. I filled a glass, pulled out the rolling swivel chair from under my desk and sat down facing him:

"I'm listening."

He held the glass with both hands, as if he were grasping it for support. The skin on the back of his hand was yellowish, translucent almost, resembling old and brittle parchment. He crouched in that chair like a hunchback. He saw I was looking.

"Osteoporosis. It started in the camps."

He pulled out a magazine from the inside pocket of his caftan and slid it toward me. I knew it well: It was a special issue of a Budapest Jewish periodical, of which I happened to be the guest editor. My name along with a biographical sketch was listed in the issue; that's how he got to me. I kept wondering how he'd come across the magazine. The religious public doesn't go for such stuff. I looked at him questioningly.

"They handed it to me on the plane. A Jew is a Jew, they must have thought. I never read such things, only sifrei kodesh ... how do you say it?"

"Holy books."

"That's right. I don't read these things, and not literature, either. That is, literature written by goyim, I mean non-Jews, though by Jews as well. They also write all sorts of things."

"I see." I nodded and was sorry that I did. He seemed to be aiming his reproaches at me personally, except he chose his words tactfully. I had no idea that El Al was handing out this magazine on its flights to Hungary. My back was itching, but it would have been awkward to start scratching myself. I felt as if I were sitting at attention.

"They let me have this journal on the airplane on...

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