You could say that my Magic Jew arrived via freak accident, one of those bizarre physical embodiments of ‘shit happens’ that strike with nose-thumbing defiance of all laws of logic. And while many freak accidents can make for deliciously cruel entertainment on YouTube or in newspaper columns invariably called ‘This Wacky World’, their ‘holy fuck’ factor packs a harder punch when they hit close to home.
For my best friend Bill, his came while standing on a corner in New York City waiting to cross the street. Two speeding cars collided in the intersection, sending one’s bumper hurtling into the crowd and hitting Bill below his left ankle with what an orthopedist would later describe as “the force of a wrecking ball.” Several mothers and children standing inches away were completely unhurt.
I’d rushed to the emergency room and sat alongside his gurney into the night, waiting with him for an open room and an available trauma specialist. Though we were able to easily joke about bad luck and good pain meds, Bill was clearly going to need immediate surgery and an extended period of convalescence. And because he lived by himself in a small fifth-floor walk-up, he clearly couldn’t recuperate at home.
True friendship carries certain unassailable responsibilities. Had it been my foot hit by that chrome-plated missile, I know that Bill would have done anything to ensure my recovery. There was no question that he would be moving into my apartment for as long as he needed.
Because I lived alone and worked from home, I could be in constant attendance. The most significant downside would be several high-paying out-of-town jobs that I would now have to immediately cancel. And while the loss of income would sting, it was nothing compared to what Bill was facing. As long as I didn’t have to change bloody bandages or wipe any ass other than my own, it was going to be a relatively manageable time.
I brought Bill home a few days after his first surgery, during which his foot had been completely rebuilt with pins, plates and screws. He was an easy patient who ate little and slept much, and I fit in a few freelance writing jobs where and when I could. His office co-workers were helpful, with several frequently stopping by with home cooked meals. But by far the most concerned was Agnieszka, the office’s elderly Polish cleaning woman. She and Bill had become warm friends, and his accident had affected her deeply. “Is terrible,” was all she’d say to me in those first weeks, her eyes filling with tears. “Is terrible.”
Though still mostly bedridden, Bill eventually felt strong enough to get back to work. “You are such good person,” Agnieszka said to me one day when I’d stopped by his office to pick up some files. “You make sacrifice for friend.”
I too had become friendly with Agnieszka over the years, and she knew that my work had been significantly curtailed by Bill’s recovery. “What you need,” she said decisively, “is Magic Jew.” I was confused; the only Magic Jew I knew of was Houdini, or perhaps the asshat I’d worked for in the ’90s who’d made tens of thousands of production dollars disappear up his nose.
“Magic Jew is painting of old Jew,” Agnieszka explained, “and Jew is counting money. Many home in Poland has. It bring,” she said with a wide smile, ‘great proos-peer-etty.'” I don’t remember how I replied, though I’m positive I never mentioned that I was Jewish. And evidently, I never dissuaded Agnieszka from what she now felt was her personal responsibility to restore my business fortunes.
Three months later, Bill had returned to work and his own apartment. He was on crutches and in physical rehab with additional surgeries on the horizon, but the doctors assured him that he would eventually walk on his own two feet. One afternoon, he’d called to say that he would be stopping by my place after work with “a gift from Agnieszka.” His voice was oddly stern. A few hours later he tossed a small wrapped package on my desk. “You,” he simply said, “should be ashamed.”
Puzzled, I unwrapped it. It seems that soon after our conversation, Agnieszka had called her son in Krakow and had him commission a Magic Jew from a locally renowned Magic Jew artisan. I now held in my hands the result – an 8×10 painted canvas in a cheap gold frame – with a combination of revulsion and confusion. It was a simple portrait of an elderly orthodox Jew, complete with long white beard, round black hat and traditional side curls, peering intently over a big nose and pince nez glasses as he counted a handful of golden discs that I hoped were oatmeal cookies but were clearly coins. Bill was right; I was ashamed.
After he’d left, I sat down and considered my new Magic Jew. While the painting was not as cruel a caricature as those prevalent throughout Nazi Germany or even in renditions of Shylock, it was nonetheless a hardcore perpetuation of a hateful stereotype. Furthermore, this stereotype was now imbued with magic powers. But was it really much different, I asked myself, than wearing a St. Christopher medallion, having a statue of Ganesh, clutching a rabbit’s foot, or any other good fortune / lost cause / protection amulet or superstition?
Though my capacity for self-delusion is often admirably huge, this, sadly, was not one of those occasions. Hoodoo is hoodoo, no matter what the naïve cultural application. The appalling fact was that my new Magic Jew was little more than a modern-day, virulently anti-Semitic version of ‘rubbing a pickaninny’s head for luck’. Feeling slightly sick, I put the painting facedown on a bookshelf. I’d deal with it in days to come, most likely by putting it in the trash.
The next morning I sat at my desk and checked my mailbox, which was oddly full. The first email I opened stopped me cold: It was from a prominent corporate headhunter who’d been searching for me for weeks regarding an executive position complete with an annual starting salary that was more than I’d earned in the past 3 years combined. Two other emails from two different clients contained offers of similar high-paying projects. I got up and walked slowly to the bookcase to take another long, hard look at the small, ugly painting.
I ran my fingers over the lumps on the canvas searching for some sort of rationale for random convergences of chance and coincidence. There were no fast answers, and never would be. Shit happens. And when it does, you just have to deal with the realities at hand. I quickly got a hammer and nail and hung my Magic Jew on the wall over my desk. Then I sat down and started returning some phone calls.
A few days later I stopped by Bill’s office, primarily to thank Agnieszka and tell her the incredulous story of the job offers. “It is Magic Jew!” she said, smiling. “This is what he is supposed to do.” She turned and walked away, shaking her head in disbelief.