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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