aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude ל: New York City

September 3, 1978
New York City

I.

Flanked by two guards, Mayor Ed Koch walked into the room.

It seemed out of place in the middle of New York City. Poorly lit, musty, packed with books of diffent ages and provenances. The furniture was all wooden, and either antique or made by someone with a dim view of aesthetic innovations after about 1800.

And then there was the man in the ornate wooden chair. He was old too. And he looked older than he was. His beard was long and white, and his clothing cut from the same aesthetic mold as his furniture. And in another sense he looked too young, like at any moment he could jump up and start singing.

“Mr. Mayor,” said the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “Such an honor to see you again.”

The Rebbe had a funny way of showing it. He’d made the Mayor wait until midnight for an appointment – that was always the rule, too busy with religious functions during the day – and then Koch had to wait outside while the Rebbe adjudicated a dispute between two elderly Jewish men who had come in before him and were apparently arguing about ownership of a goat. Who even had goats in Brooklyn? But Koch’s aides had warned him about this. It was first-come-first-served with the Rebbe, honors and offices gained you nothing, and you visited him on his terms or not at all.

“Rabbi Schneerson,” said the Mayor. “I’m sorry I haven’t visited you in so long. I do value your advice. But politics!” He waved his arm in a gesture of dismissal. “You know how it is!”

“But now you want my help,” said the Rebbe softly.

Koch never knew whether to feel intimidated by the Rebbe or hug him. He had a sweet face, almost angelic-looking. But his light blue eyes were unusual, very unusual, and there was a lurking power in the old man, like a coiled snake. Koch just nodded.

“You’ve heard what’s been happening,” he said, then realized he might not have. What did the Rebbe hear? He could have believed the man knew everything that happened in the furthest corner of the Earth, but he could also have believed that news of the Industrial Revolution hadn’t quite reached him yet. “After the federal government collapsed, the demons broke their alliance. They swept down into Canada. What was left of the Army went up to stop them. There were a lot of battles. They won. It took two years, but Canada’s fallen. Now they’ve crossed the border into the US. Two attacks. One to the west, straight down the plains from Saskatchewan, bearing down on Salt Lake City. The other to the east, due south from Ottawa. They’ve got to be headed for New York City. The US Army’s in shambles; President Carter has promised to dispatch a couple of people up here but it’s not enough, he’s mostly worried about DC. Governor Carey has called up the state militia, but it’s not enough. And – I feel silly even asking this, but I was wondering if you might have some way of getting some, you know, supernatural aid.”

“Why is that silly?” asked the Rebbe.

“It’s just…everything’s so new, with the sky cracking ten years ago, and it would have been ridiculous to even talk about demons before, and I’m the Mayor of New York and not some kind of Biblical priest-king, and…”

The Rebbe held up a wizened finger.

“Long before the sky cracked people were asking God for help. And long before the sky cracked He was giving it, if that was His will. And now! In this age of angels, and demons, and people discovering long-lost Names! Of course you should ask for supernatural help!”

The Mayor visibly relaxed. Then he asked “What exactly are you going to do? Do you know some special way of helping? Do you need to talk to the militia? Should I – ”

“How should I know?” asked the Rebbe. “I am going to seek help from God, and He is going to answer or not according to His will. Go in peace.”

Koch was still confused, but he knew a dismissal when he heard one. He gave an awkward half-bow to the Rebbe, the kind you give when you’re not sure if you’re supposed to bow or not but a chummy handshake seems clearly inadequate, then left the room.

One of the Rebbe’s assistants came in. “Rebbe, the next two people in line are an elderly couple asking for advice regarding their goat. Should I send them in?”

The Rebbe put his hands over his face. “Only the Holy One knows why so many people have goats in Brooklyn,” he said, “or why they all come to me. But no, I think I am done for the night. Tell them to pray to God for advice, and also that if they want to own goats they should really move somewhere more rural. Actually, dismiss everyone else for tonight, give them my apologies, but I have some work to do.”

This had never happened before. The assistant hesitated briefly, then nodded and went out to dismiss the petitioners.

The Rebbe took a book of Talmudic commentary from the bookshelf, started leafing through it. Then another book. Then another. The Sepher Yetzirah. The Etz Chayim. Just as he was positioning a chair to grab the Zohar from the top shelf, he slapped his forehead. “Ah!” he said. “No, the traditional solution will do just fine here.” He returned the books to their usual positions and ran out, hoping to call back the petitioners before they made it out the door.

II.

Mayor Koch met Governor Carey at White Plains, and a load fell from his shoulders when he saw the rank after rank of young New York Militia recruits behind him. “Thank God,” he said. “I’m so glad you came.”

“I’m not coming,” snapped Carey. “I’m retreating. We’ve lost Albany. I know nobody down here in the city ever remembers Albany exists, but I feel like the news that we lost our state capital should be met with a little more than ‘I’m so glad you came’.”

“I’m sorry about Albany,” said Koch. “But New York City is half the state population. It’s more than that. It’s a symbol. And one of America’s biggest ports. And the gateway to the Mid-Atlantic. And…”

“Yes, yes,” dismissed Governor Carey. “They’re a day behind us, by the way. No more. What preparations have you been making?”

“I’ve turned the NYPD into a makeshift militia,” said Koch. “That’s about 10,000 men. It wasn’t hard. I was…actually kind of shocked at how militarized they were already.”

“Ten thousand.” The Governor frowned. “I have sixty thousand. It was more, but – ” He paused. “It won’t be enough.”

“I’ve also organized all the gun-owning citizens into militias,” said Koch. “I was…actually kind of surprised how many guns there were. Oh, and the Mafia’s going to help. That’s another few thousand.”

“I forgot how much I hated this city,” said Carey.

“We’ve also fortified the Bronx as best we can,” said Koch. “It’s going to be building-to-building fighting there. We’ve rigged all the bridges to explode. I was surprised how close some of them already were to…”

“Spare me,” said the Governor. “Any word from Carter?”

“It’s like we expected,” said Koch. “There’s not much left of the federal government in Washington, and what there is only wants to defend themselves. In the end, even the couple of troops they promised didn’t come through. No point in sending someone off to get massacred. A quarter of New York City has already fled to safety in Jersey anyway.”

“Only a quarter?”

“Well, it’s Jersey.”

“So that’s what we’re going to do?” asked the Governor. “70,000 men, some militia, and a couple of mafiosi making a last stand at the Bronx?”

“It doesn’t have to be a last stand,” said Koch.

“No way I’m going to Jersey.”

“I mean we might win!”

“I was there for the first half of the battle in Albany,” said the Governor. “The demons aren’t even an army. They’re a swarm. You try to resist them, and they just cover you, and it feels like everything good is sucked out of the world, and then you run. The veterans from the Canada campaign said it happened there too. There are hundreds of thousands of them. Millions.”

“What about God?” asked Koch.

“Are you even religious? You played the faith issue so well during the campaign that no one can even figure out whether you’re Jewish or Catholic.”

“I…believe in God,” said Koch.

“Tell Him to hurry up,” said Carey.

III.

Right on schedule, the hordes of Hell slammed into the Bronx.

The New York forces thought they could stand. They were wrong. They were pushed back to Norwood before they even had time to think about how quickly they were retreating. Once they figured it out, Carey rallied some of his New York Guard and made a stand. The Botanical Garden saw some of the fiercest fighting of the whole battle before they were wiped out, guard and governor alike. Then they fell back to Fordham, and the West Bronx, where the door-to-door fighting finally materialized as gangsters used to taking pot-shots through their windows started exercising their skills in earnest.

(Meanwhile, in New York Harbor a wizened old man tried to catch a ferry but found they were all closed. He frowned, mouthed an apology to God for doing something that might look like showing off, and started walking across the water.)

The New York Police Department knew these streets. They had been patrolling them for centuries, they were baked into their institutional memory. Finally they had an enemy that they could shoot without getting put on trial for excessive force. Guns brandished, or nightsticks held high, they rushed into the streets near Concourse, killed and were killed in turn.

(When the old man had gone far enough, he spoke the Ascending Name and rose into the air.)

Mayor Koch gave the order for all the bridges from the Bronx into Manhattan to be blown up, though the river was shallow and it would delay the demons only a few hours at best. A few tried to fly across on their vestigial wings; the others flooded down the banks of the Harlem River and took Yankee Stadium and Port Morris. They had outflanked the defenders. Now time to tighten the cordon.

(The short old man took a paintbrush out of his pocket and dipped it in an old-fashioned inkwell he had brought.)

They weren’t trying to cross. There would be time enough for that later. They were trying to wipe out the Guard. Koch ordered his men east. The demons followed. They took the Bronx River and trapped the New Yorkers on the other side. Then they kept pushing.

(The old man began to paint.)

The 678 and 295 bridges had already been blown up. The defenders were trapped on Throggs’ Neck, literally between the Devil and the deep blue sea. The entire demonic army descended upon them. They fought well, but rank after rank died, the screams of officers merging with those of mafiosi and militiamen as their desperate last stand inched toward a bloody conclusion.

Then a miracle occurred.

Not like the earthen golem of Czech fame,
Laid low, and in some dusty attic stowed
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates there strode
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Was the imprisoned lightning; and a Name
Writ on her forehead. In her crown there rode
The Rebbe, and his face with Torah glowed
“Sh’ma Yisrael HaShem elokeinu HaShem echad” prayed he
Then, with silent lips: “Save them, Your tired, Your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to break free,
The wretched refuse of your demon war.
Save these, the hopeless, battle-tossed, for me,
I lift my lance beside the golden door!”

The Liberty Golem lifted her lance, formerly the spire of the Empire State Building. She loosed the imprisoned lightning of her terrible swift torch. From her crown the Rebbe flung warlike Names that sputtered and sparkled and crashed into the hellish hosts and disintegrated them like fire melts ice. They shrieked and began a retreat.

The New York Guard would have none of it. Inspired with sudden new courage, they leapt into pursuit, swarming around the giant golem, picking off with their guns and nightsticks what she couldn’t with her lance and fire, until demon after demon disincorporated and the entire army that had set forth from Albany had been blasted back into the hell from which they came.

IV.

When it was all over, Ed Koch approached the golem. It lowered a giant green hand, picked him up, brought him face to face with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the crown. Not that there had been any doubt.

“Um,” said the Mayor, “You will be able to get the statue back, right? Not that I’m ungrateful. Just that it’s important to us.”

The Rebbe still managed to seem humble and soft-spoken, even atop a 150-foot killing machine that had until recently been America’s most recognizable national monument. “Of course,” he said.

“So is that how it works?” asked Koch. “If you write the Name of God on any human-shaped figure, it becomes a golem?”

“Ah,” said the Rebbe. “Not the Name. God has many Names, Mayor. Some animate earth. Some animate stone. This one animates copper. And many others do entirely different things. I think you will be learning much more about them soon. But remember, however it may seem to you, God doesn’t give away any of His Names unless He wants someone to have them.”

Koch couldn’t resist straining his head to try to read the Hebrew text written on the statue’s forehead, but it was very small, and he was very far away, and he couldn’t make out a single letter.

The Rebbe smiled.

“And God wanted you to have this one? Now?”

“I asked him for it. Mr. Koch, do you know when I arrived in this city? 1941. Fleeing the Nazis. Those men you saw in that synagogue, most of them are all that is left of their families. You saved us, Mr. Koch, you and your people. Now it is our turn to return the favor.” He hesitated for a second. “And…I know I must seem very strange to the people of this city, but I am a New Yorker too. Praise be to God.”

Ed Koch looked at the wizened old man, dressed in the clothing of 18th century Poland, seated atop of a golem made from the Statue of Liberty, and he knew the Rebbe was right. Heck, there were New Yorkers who were much stranger than that.

“What about the other army?” he asked. “The one headed west. Is God going to send a miracle to stop them too?”

“How should I know?” asked the Rebbe, cheerfully. “Let the West save the West. If God wants it to be saved, they’ll get their miracle too!”

“But what about Canada?” asked Koch. “What about Russia? What about everyone who wasn’t saved? If you can call down miracles, then…”

“Mr. Mayor,” asked the Rebbe, “Why do you think God grants me the power to perform miracles?”

Koch thought a second. “To heal the sick…to save the righteous…that sort of thing.”

“If God wanted the sick to be cured, why would He make them sick? If He wanted the righteous to be saved, why would He put them in danger? God lets people perform miracles to make a statement.”

“Which is?”

“Oho.” The Rebbe’s eyes sparkled. “God’s statements never have just one meaning.”

“But if He’s already given you these Names, can’t you use them to save everybody, or to heal all the sick, or bring the country back together…”

“Is that what you would do, if you had Divine Names?”

“Yes! It’s what everybody would do!”

The Rebbe looked positively amused now. “Perhaps God will give you the Names, then, and we will see if you are right.”

He made it sound like a threat.

“But for now I’ll be headed back toward Liberty Island. I’ll leave the spire at the base of the Empire State Building. You’ll have to figure out how to fix that one yourself.”

Koch nodded mutely. The golem put him down and began to lumber away.

V.

When the statue had been safely restored, the Rebbe dismounted, walked back across the water to Brooklyn, and went back into his synagogue.

“Rebbe,” said his assistant, “there’s a young woman here. Wants to talk to you about her chickens.”

“Tell her to come back tomorrow,” said the Rebbe. “I’m exhausted.”

He sank into his bed and drifted on the edge of sleep. Outside the his window, New Yorkers of a hundred different ethnicities danced in the streets, set off fireworks in celebration. Just past the synagogue, someone was singing an old patriotic song:

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of Liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.

Our fathers’ God to Thee,
Author of Liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.


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There is a new author’s note up here
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108 Responses to Interlude ל: New York City

  1. Pickle says:

    Also, as a New Jerseyan who has been spending a lot of time in Manhattan in the last few years, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about this dialogue.

    • Anthony C Vicari says:

      As a Long Islander, I wholeheartedly support this dialog 😉

      • gwern says:

        As a Long Islander, I don’t see anything controversial in these descriptions and I feel a little nostalgic for when I used to read Ed Koch kvetching in Newsday.

        Also: “They had outflaked the defenders.” outflanked

    • Dues says:

      It’s insulting, but it’s authentic. I’ve lived I New York.

  2. Daniel Blank says:

    There’s probably some Kabbalistic meaning to the inclusion of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” othe r than the last verse, but I don’t know what it is.

    Also, God seems to like iambic pentameter.

  3. Ialdabaoth says:

    Your love
    is lifting me higher
    than I’ve ever
    been lifted before

    So keep it it up
    quench my desire
    and I’ll be at your side
    forever more

    You know your love
    your love keeps lifting me
    Keep on lifting
    love keeps lifting me
    Higher, higher and higher! Higher!

    I said your love,
    your love keeps lifting me
    Keep on lifting me higher and higher

    • roystgnr says:

      Ghostbusters 1 may have been the better movie, but Ghostbusters 2 had the best scene.

      • Loweeel says:

        And what comes out on this very Friday?

        This isn’t a coincidence because nothing is a coincidence.

      • Quintopia says:

        I rented it just to know what you were talking about.
        spirit
        some people hear it
        some people fear it
        spirit
        some people just won’t go near it
        Sure as I’m me and the skies are blue
        The Rebbe is back and all brand new

  4. Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

    Okay, that was not what I expected for how New York would be spared.

    Much better, really. The Rebbe goes to war!

    • hnau says:

      I heard somewhere that “Demons run when a good man goes to war.” Nothing is ever a coincidence, even across multiple fictional universes.

  5. What’s going on at Mt. Rushmore?

  6. But … how’d he get the spire down in the first place? The Statue of Liberty is 111 feet from heel to head, while the Empire State Building has a roof height of 1,250 feet.

  7. Peter D says:

    It seemed out of place in the middle of New York City

    I imagine the meeting probably took place at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn

    • Great article – the part about the gematria of Beis Moshiach being 770 is great. I would add that within Unsong, the Eastern part is highly significant too.

      • Anon says:

        Interesting. I think the sunrise is the obvious first guess as to why, but that seems too obvious and there’s certainly more to it than that.

        • Aegeus says:

          Jews traditionally face east when they pray, towards Jerusalem. Not sure what the significance is for Unsong, though.

          • Aegeus says:

            (Yes, if you were east of Jerusalem, you would have to face west, but Judaism didn’t really catch on in Asia, so almost everyone faces the same way).

          • Lambert says:

            What about the exact north and south poles? Islam seems to do better with the hairy ball theorem by putting the Ka’bah at the pole.

          • John Cowan says:

            At the South Pole, all directions are north, but just the same, there is a geodesic between where you are and Jerusalem, and you can face it.

        • Chrysophylax says:

          One of the earlier chapters discusses the significance of west and east. I can’t find the passage, but it’s something to do with eschatology, I think.

          • Daniel says:

            Found it:

            During the day, the sun goes from east to west. This sunrise – sunset cycle represents the natural course of the world, the movement from birth to death.

  8. Peter D says:

    So, what’s the deal with these demons? They can be killed by firearms? They cannot swim?

    • stavro375 says:

      There’s swimming, and there’s swimming while being shot at, and there’s large numbers of soldiers swimming across a half-mile of water while being shot at.

      I assume that the “firearms killing demons” thing was foreshadowed by how the USSR was able to resist the demon invasion at all.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Yeah, somehow I didn’t notice that before; it’s a bit odd when you consider that angels recoalesce.

        • Yossarian says:

          Maybe the demons recoalesce in Hell, so they take their time to get back to the battlefield, or maybe it’s like DOOM nightmare difficulty – bad, but not unsurmountable, especially if you are in coop and know what you are doing.

    • sohi says:

      “Over the centuries, mankind has tried many ways of combating the forces of evil… prayer, fasting, good works and so on. Up until Doom, no one seemed to have thought about the double-barrel shotgun. Eat leaden death, demon…”

      -Terry Pratchett

    • Utilitaria says:

      I’d like to ask, again, why warfare has apparently gone back to the 19th century. Even without nuclear weapons and with unreliable air travel, the whole US industrial base on a war footing can do a tremendous amount of damage, especially to an infantry army using wave attacks. Rocket artillery can kill everything for square kilometres from hundreds of kilometres away, tanks and IFVs could mash their way through the deamon hordes discorporating rapidly if ordianry bullets work. There’s also barbed wire, incendiaries, cruise missiles and all sorts of other stuff. Was it just a matter of the US expending all their ammunition and advanced vehicles and then another horde of deamons returning to outnumber the last?

      • Utilitaria says:

        Space travel clearly still works and I’m assuming explosives do, or guns wouldn’t fire. But all bets are off since this isn’t a world that follows the ‘universal fire’ type rules about consistency. I would retool all the US’s ICBMs to carry conventional explosives or kinetic buckshot, i.e. like Iran’s ballistic missile program, start building big artillery guns to deal area damage and other things. The way these wars turn into slow standstills seems consistent with advanced technology suddenly failing; does it turn into some kind of trench warfare style slog?

      • Utilitaria says:

        If aircraft still work at all, which I think they do at this point in the timeline, the USAF could use its supply of B52s to incinerate huge tracts of land and carpet them with high explosives. We know that a famous landmark spitting fire can inflict enough damage to kill hundreds of thousands of deamons, so they can’t be much less vulnerable to incendiaries than humans. How would they react to white phosphorus and fuel-air explosives?

  9. When we first heard of the Comet King, I think someone suggested he might be the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I’m glad he got a place in this story.

    Also,

    “Is that what you would do, if you had Divine Names?”

    “Yes! It’s what everybody would do!”

    This makes me sad about the name of this story.

  10. I assume, in this timeline, Ed Koch was elected Mayor in 1973.

  11. What effect will the completion of the Crazy Horse Memorial have?

  12. While I’m at it, did Thamiel raze The Motherland Calls as a defensive measure?

  13. Walter says:

    “A quarter of New York City has already fled to safety in Jersey anyway.”

    “Only a quarter?”

    “Well, it’s Jersey.”

    *Snerk*

  14. Anon says:

    Something loosely related to the story: I was reading this talk by Alan Kay, a respected programmer known for his work at Xerox PARC. At the bottom of page 7, he says this:

    There’s a nice saying from the Talmud: We see things not as they are, but as we are.

    In the last chapter, Sarah the Ark is in possession of Names of great power, and uses these to bargain for a new body that isn’t an ugly computer thing:

    “You have to keep it secret,” said the Ark. “Nobody can know what I really look like. Who I really am. I’m so ugly. So hideous.”

    It’ll be interesting to see how Sarah’s the Ark’s self-image will inform the decisions it makes with its growing power and knowledge.

    • Was I the only one who read that line from Sarah the Ark as manipulative rather than sincere? Her entire encounter there was meant to appeal to Gadiriel’s sensibilities. An ugly creature petitioning to become beautiful is a trope that can be used as a tool against someone enamored with stories.

      • I read it that way too – but she wants a body for something, which means she wants something, which (probably) means she has emotions. So even if she was manipulative with Gadiriel, she’s sincere about something, which is interesting.

  15. Aran says:

    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Was the imprisoned lightning; and a Name
    Writ on her forehead.

    Hah! Okay, maybe I should have seen this one coming by now.

  16. Megafire says:

    Oddly enough, this victory still feels very hollow. Those demons aren’t gone, they’ve just been pushed away from the front-lines for a short period of time. I guess it’s sort of inspiring in a ‘turn the tide’ kind of way, but I’m reminded of a quote from Worm:

    “We’re fighting a war. The consequences don’t seem to hit the bad guys as hard. We fight Leviathan, and people act like we won, because the casualty rates were lower than they’ve been in nine years. Slaughterhouse Nine come, and again, there’s a lot of people who act like it was a victory because only half of them made it out of the city. Nobody but me seems to notice that, hey, those guys still lived. They escaped.”

  17. Quixote says:

    Very good chapter. It felt vey true to New York. I say that as a very longtime New Yorker.

  18. Sniffnoy says:

    We’re going to run out of interludes before book 5, aren’t we. 😛

  19. Ninmesara says:

    A great chapter, one of the best so far.

    A question:
    – Demons seem to be killed by bullets. How is it possible then that a modern army loses miserably, while an army supported by a Rabbi speaking names on top of a copper golem with a stick that throws fire wins a complete victory? It seems unlikely, given that a modern army can do much more than throw fire.

    Some criticism (with the usual caveats, the story is great, etc.):
    – You don’t describe demons killing people. How do they do it? Do they tear them apart with tooth and claw? Do people die when touched? Probably not, since policemen seem to be able to take care of them with nightsticks. Do the demons have any kind of ranged weaponry? This makes it hard for me to form an image of the demon army. I know that “they just cover you, and it feels like everything good is sucked out of the world, and then you run”, but I’d like it to be more concrete.

    – The Statue of Liberty is a majestic sight. A moving statue of liberty should have been described in greater detail. Does it run? Does it walk slowly? In more practical matters, how did the Statue get to the top of the Empire State building to get the spire? From Ellis Island to the Bronx it’s about 9km. How long did the statue take to get there? What were the people’s reactions to the sight?
    – The moment of victory feels a little rushed. I’d take a little longer dwelling on the part where the humans start to win.

    Some praise:
    – The description of the fighting in the Bronx is very well written. It would have been perfect if it weren’t the first time that humans have been described fighting demons (as I said above, this fight deserved to be more concrete – and gory, probably)

    – The dialog between the Mayor and the Governor is great, even if Scott-like

    – The part when Rebbe thanks New York for saving him and the other Jews who had come from Europe is quite moving and a rare place where cynicism is absent from the book. Don’t get me wrong, I love the cynicism, but the contrast between this dialog and the rest of the book is a good thing.

    • null says:

      In regards to the first question, a wise man put it better: “Magic must defeat magic.”

    • SonOfLilit says:

      Orthodox Jews IRL can be astoundingly non-cynic for this modern world.

      • Ninmesara says:

        What do you mean? Could you expand on this?

        • I’ll give an example of my own:
          A year or two ago, my dad finally managed to convince his religious sister to come to our seder. She’d been going through some pretty tough medical issues, and she’s had conflicts with the family before, so it meant a lot that she was willing to come spend the holiday with us.
          Thing is, she’s pretty fastidious about religious matters (we generally aren’t), so my dad wanted to make sure to get all the super-kosher stuff to match ultra-orthodox standards, so that she wouldn’t feel guilty or unwelcome for eating with us. So my dad went to Mea Shearim, the most ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.
          This was pretty close to the holiday, way past when the actually religious people have bought all their preparations stuff, and the markets there were all empty. My dad was about to give up when this random guy saw him wandering about and asked what was the matter. When my dad explained, the guy immediately invited him home, gave my dad everything he could possibly need for a seder from his own stores, and wouldn’t hear of any form of payment, just saying it was God’s will that he had found him and he was happy to help.
          Beyond the sheer helpfulness, there’s something about a random guy seeing someone in trouble and jumping out to help, in the name of God’s will, that’s pretty rare to find. But it’s fairly standard in the ultra-orthodox community. There’s a reason they attract people despite all their ridiculous arbitrary rules.

  20. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    When the second line of the poem clicked for me, I started laughing out loud with a tear in my eye.

  21. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    All the talk of goats gives me a thought.

    Somewhere in this universe is someone, who often finds themself in danger, who carries a special capsule.

    It’s their last resort, for situations so bad that almost any change is for the better.

    The capsule has a pin, which had two effects when pulled.

    One is to activate a Name releasing sudden thermal energy.

    The other is to remove an internal divider, allowing the two halves of the capsule’s contents to mix freely.

    In one half is a sample of goat flesh.

    In the other, its mother’s milk.

    • LPSP says:

      It’ll have to be a very well preserved capsule. Or can the flesh and milk decompose and still count due to their origin?

      • Peter says:

        A bit of googling suggests that UHT milk will keep for 8-9 months, and jerky will keep for longer. It’s just about possible that recent patches to physics have taken the UHT option away. UHT milk is kosher, as is jerky (and goat jerky is totally a thing), so (wildly guessing here) I don’t think there should be a a problem with UHT or jerky being kaballistically inappropriate. On the other hand, the sampling aspect may be difficult – you might need a whole goat, or at any rate a goat that was whole until you took the blood and the digestive tract out.

        • LPSP says:

          UHT milk and jerky, of course. I suppose if the pill is absolutely air-tight and heat-treated when sealed it could last a lot longer, and even then somewhat gone-off milk would still work, just not completely curdled goo.

          As for sampling, it’s just trial and error. Collect different amounts and types of goat-bit and see which ones generally cause catastrophes when mum-milk’d.

    • It seems like the goat in its mother’s milk thing can cause almost any catastrophe almost anywhere (e.g. Elisha Ben Abuyah did it in Jerusalem and caused a volcano in Pompei). It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the option to, in essence, nuke some random place in the world, would be a good option.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        If all else fails, you could use it to hold the overall well-being of the world hostage, if your alignment alloes that sort of thing.

    • Aran says:

      That would be what Raven carries around in this universe instead of a nuclear warhead. Kill him and the whole continent segfaults.

  22. LPSP says:

    Did the rabbi take his time to animate the Golem? Given how greatly it overpowered the demons, could the lives of those who died before its animation have been spared?

  23. Was Salt Lake City saved by a miracle-working baby from Colorado?

    • I suspect he was surprisingly grown by then (he had a daughter by 1982, after all).
      I’m guessing the plotline goes something like this: After the battle of New York, Humans start discovering and using Names, and the Comet King arises in the west. Between the two developments, Thamiel gets driven back and the global community reachieves some measure of stability and safety again. Then the comet king reads Singer, decides to invade Hell, and ends up killed by the Other King*. With Name technology, humanity’s too powerful for Thamiel to attack directly again, so he sits around trying to get Uriel’s machine to break down.
      In 2017, americans seem worried about the Other King, but not so much Thamiel, so I assume he’s been dealt with (at least temporarily) in some way.
      My big question is, how does Sohu fit into this? I feel like the Sohu/Uriel storyline is going somewhere beyond just providing background information. Maybe they figure out a way to temporarily seal Thamiel away, or something?

      * I’m not quite sure how this all played out. Did TCK physically invade hell through Russia? At what point during all this did he seek out Metatron and the Shem Ha Mephorash? How and why did he battle the Other King in the Never Summer mountains in Colorado (presumably)?

      Also, I’d like to go on record as theorizing that the Big Man in charge of the Not a Metaphor is Uncle Vihaan (=Elijah?)

      • Good Burning Plastic says:

        I feel like the Sohu/Uriel storyline is going somewhere beyond just providing background information.

        Probably, otherwise it’d be narrated in interludes rather than in chapters.

    • Mike says:

      Let the West save the West.

  24. Just some anonymous says:

    Sorry if it’s in violation of a rule or just plain rude to advertise one author on the blog of another – please delete this comment if so – definitely no disrespect intended to Scott or to Unsong, which always make my week.

    It’s just that it occurred to me after I read this interlude that I know of a few pieces of literature that might make some Unsong readers happy if, in between the installments of Unsong, they would like to read something with God, miracles, and New York.

    1. Mark Helprin, “Perfection” (a very Jewish story about baseball, in collection “The Pacific and Other Stories”)

    2. Mark Helprin, “Winter’s Tale” (a novel, sometimes classified as magic realism, almost no relation to the movie)

    The writing is beautiful. Helprin is a great stylist, largely unknown in the US (likely for political reasons).

    • According to wikipedia,

      Helprin wrote an op-ed published in May 20, 2007 issue of The New York Times, in which he argued that intellectual property rights should be assigned to an author or artist as far as Congress could practically extend them.

      Sounds like he’d get along great with Malie Ngo.

      (Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll try reading the stories when I get the chance).

    • g says:

      Perhaps also The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker. Not much involvement of God as such, but features both New York and a golem.

  25. Elizabeth says:

    In II, Koch is “actually… kind of surprised” by something two sentences in a row, and “surprised” by a third thing after that. Feels clunky.

    • Lux Sola says:

      I think it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Crumbling infrastructure, massively over-militarized police force, and a high rate of gun ownership are not things that would surprise anyone who has ever read anything about New York. Koch is supposed to think of his city as being all sunshine and roses, and act like he didn’t know about these massive problems turned unexpected blessings.

    • MugaSofer says:

      It’s to establish a pattern so that the final one is funny – the New York police are surprisingly close to being a military, their populace is surprisingly close to being an armed militia, and their bridges are surprisingly close to being … [an impassable moat].

  26. K. says:

    I must ask if this is an homage to Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard, the climax of which has the good guys use a word in the Divine Speech to animate all the statues in Central Park in order to save New York City from a direct attack by the Power that first rebelled against God.

    (Not a criticism; I love the book and it’s a fine and honorable thing to take inspiration from.)

    • Never read it, but if you’re in New York and you have a word that can animate statues and all you do is animate the ones in Central Park, you are embarrassingly uncreative.

      • XerxesPraelor says:

        I think it was a localized fight, so getting statues that are further away would take too long.

        • K. says:

          It was, IIRC; the heroes were specifically trying to defend a location within Central Park, on very short notice.

        • Pickle says:

          Furthermore, the Mason’s Word only works within the range of your voice, so they couldn’t have used it on far away statues even if they’d wanted to.

          • Error says:

            One of the heroes commented, of the shouted Word “they probably heard you in Times Square”. The book didn’t specify whether that was an exaggeration, but it marks the distance between Central Park and Times Square as an upper limit.

            (actually, since many of the statues that joined the fight were real statues listed by name or description, you could probably work out its range by which ones showed up)

      • You’d like the third one, High Magic; it features Sohu and Sarah waking up a planetwide silicon demiurge.

        • Error says:

          Unless the author changed the title in later editions, the title was “High Wizardry.”

          (I loved those books as a kid. I tend to re-read the collection of the original three every few years)

      • Subbak says:

        Well, “The statue of Liberty animates” is a very tired trope, about as tired as alien invasions somehow always being repelled in New York. I would says specifically animating OTHER statues might count as creativity.

  27. yt says:

    A KABBALISTIC ANALYSIS OF WARREN G. HARDING’S PRESIDENCY

    The G. in Warren G. Harding stands for Gamaliel. This is similar to the Hebrew name Gamliel, meaning ‘God is my redeemer”, but the extra ‘a’ changes the meaning to “God is my camel”. This fuck-up perfectly summarizes his presidency.

    Gamaliel is also the name of the Klipah associated with the Sfira Yesod. This Klipah is associated with sexual obscenity, and Harding unsurprisingly had at least two extramarital affairs that severely damaged his reputation when they were revealed after his death.

    The Hebrew word Yesod, meaning ‘foundation’, is spelled as the Hebrew letter Yud plus the Hebrew word “Sod”, meaning ‘secret’. The astute Kabbalist will therefore be unsurprised that Harding’s presidency was founded on a bed of secrets and lies.

    Harding died in office suddenly, at a point in time when he was immensely popular. However, shortly after his death, the massive corruption of his Cabinet was uncovered. Due to the emergence of these obscene transgressions, Harding is generally ranked as among the worst presidents of all time.

  28. PedroS says:

    Am I the only one who started was playing Billy Joel’s song “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” in their head as a perfect fit for the description of the battle of New York?

  29. Saint Fiasco says:

    “So is that how it works?” asked Koch. “If you write the Name of God on any human-shaped figure, it becomes a golem?”

    “Ah,” said the Rebbe. “Not the Name. God has many Names, Mayor. Some animate earth. Some animate stone. This one animates copper.

    This leads credence to the theory that Aaron did not forget the Name he found, but rather found a name that gives a soul only to Sarah.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      No, Chapter 1 explicitly said that the same Name was used to ensoul Adam.

    • ChasidBaseReaction says:

      I think giving a soul is in a completely different class of names than the animating names, otherwise all golems could use names. So maybe there is one name of god for every soul, so it can only be used once. This would work well with Lurianic Kabbalah, which says that every human contains a divine spark. The idea of one spark = one name feels like it fits to me.

  30. If you can make It there, you’ll make It everywhere:
    I want to flee a part of it: Great Work, Great Work!

  31. Greg says:

    The 678 and 295 bridges had already been blown up.

    Local geography nitpick: I’ve only ever heard these bridges referred to as the Whitestone and Throgs Neck, respectively. Were the interstate references intentional? Do these numbers have gematriacal significance?

    • Sniffnoy says:

      …oh, those are the bridges he meant? Yeah, those are called the Whitestone and the Throgs Neck. Since I didn’t recognize the numbers I assumed they were, like, two of those minor bridges over the Harlem, or something.

    • Musk says:

      Who knows two hundred ninety-five?

      “Elokim spelled out with hei” is: alef (1) lamed (30) pei (80), lamed (30) mem (40) dalet (4), hei (5), hei (5), yud (10) vav (6) dalet (4), mem (40) mem (40) =295.

  32. hnau says:

    She loosed the imprisoned lightning of her terrible swift torch.

    Nice mixing of patriotic metaphors there.

    Also, it’s safe to say that ‘Chaim Potok meets steampunk’ is not a phrase I ever expected to have pass through my head.

  33. Little Yid says:

    On a somewhat personal note:

    I grew up a Lubavitcher. I became an atheist at 14.

    Thank you, Scott, for giving me Blake, and Ginsberg, and Lowell. Thank you for reigniting a dancing flame within me that I thought my quest for intellectual honesty had extinguished forever.

    And thank you for this chapter. Thank you so, so much for this chapter. Like all good little Lubavitchers, the Rebbe was my childhood hero. Only recently have I felt the inner permission to love and admire him again, and this chapter of yours was like Yud-Tes Kislev come early.

  34. Ben Cass says:

    Typo: “Outside the his window” -> “Outside of his window”

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  36. Rand says:

    How is there no King in the East after this chapter?

    (Note: Neither of the following answers are admissible:

    1. He doesn’t want to be king.
    2. He is dead.)

    • Jeremy Jaffe says:

      Maybe there is a king of the west – and he’s just not mentioned in the story – that’s why people say
      “long live our master, our teacher and our rabbi, the anointed king forever and ever”

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  38. John Cowan says:

    I’ve read everything up to the current terminus (33), and this is the only part that moves me emotionally. The rest is funny, clever, witty, well-engineered. This part is real; it matters.

    Apparently I’m a NYC patriot. Who woulda thunk it.

  39. Anon says:

    You call the Statue of Liberty 150 feet tall, but it’s more like 300.

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