The rabbi is mellow enough to actually consider my request for a moment, then regretfully declines.
So I keep looking. The shul, the Kosher Konnection grocery store, the lines at Quick Check or Valley National Bank. There should be lots of faces like that where I live in Orthodox Passaic, but somehow it's not working. Maybe I'm getting too demanding. Now he should look vaguely mystical, and the next day I add on "slightly tortured," and “ironic.” And one last thing -- he should be at least five foot ten.
Forget it. Nobody fits the bill, so I switch tracks and turn to the other character in my novel who I’d like on the cover, Mustafa, a gaunt, misshapen man, a janitor on the Temple Mount. This character needs to look distinctly Arabic, in his fifties or sixties, a tragic face that makes you want to flee, and yet draws you close somehow. Of course I could leave the novel cover purely in the talented hands of my publisher but I'm a control freak, I can’t let go.
I google on Images and every picture of an Arab laborer strikes me as a cliché of wizened suffering.
A face, a face. I’m searching for a face. The Torah sages say, a face is public property, reshus harabaim: the expression you carry around is there for everyone to see, so don’t go to the market with a face that disturbs others. And yet the face I’m seeking – I want it to cause an inner disturbance.
Then my husband says, “What about Shem Tov?” I’m floored. Shem Tov. Of course.
Always I see Shem Tov – means Good Name, in Hebrew – crouching on the sidewalk outside the Kosher Konnection grocery, eating his lunch. He’s from Iran, could be fifty-five or seventy. Used to be wealthy, Shem Tov says, owned a fancy barber shop, I think, but was forced to leave it all behind when he moved to the States. It was in Los Angeles, I believe, where a car plowed into and half-crippled him.
Sometimes I spot him inside the store, pushing a cart through the aisles in his gimp-legged manner, in fits and starts. He finds a way to make himself useful, stocking the shelves, tracking and returning abandoned carts, handing children their fallen mittens, a quasi-employee.
Shem Tov is perfect for the cover. It’s not just his dusty, no-color clothes and his Mid-eastern complexion, but those eyes of his, the seekingness in them that make it nearly impossible to look at him straight on, but I try to anyway. For years we’ve had a nodding friendship. I nod as I pass by with my cart, he nods back, like we’re both in on some secret. If I actually stop to make conversation, he looks happy – too happy. Why do I find his happiness so painful? Maybe because it takes far too little to make him feel good.
He frequently blesses me and my children. It’s hard to understand his broken speech, though. I like how everyone in the store hovers over him with a certain protectiveness -- the Latino stock boy with the curly ears, the Hassidic cashier with the pointy black beard who speaks fluent Spanish, and the other cashier, a gregarious yet moody Indian lady. Shem Tov eats his meals regularly at a number of Jewish homes in the area. I’m ashamed to say I have no idea where he sleeps. But in my Passaic community of mitzvah do-gooders, I know he’s more or less safe.
I’m about to ask if I can take his picture for my novel, but I stop. How can I ask? I’m going to take this man with the heartbreak face, heartbreak life, this neshama, and capture him with my Canon Sure Shot? But having a novel coming out, a novel that I labored off and on for over nine years, does things to me. I want that picture, I want his face. Besides, if he doesn’t like the picture, we can always scrap it, I tell myself.
So I ask Shem Tov if I could take his picture for my book. He smiles and says something but his thick accent makes him hard to understand. Still, from the way he bobs his head and smiles I can tell he likes the idea.
Then I ask, “Do you know where I can get a kaffiyeh? Because I’ll need to wrap one around your head.” I say this because I want it to be clear that he’ll be posing as an Arab. Generally Arabs don’t like to be mistaken for Jews and Jews don’t like to be mistaken for Arabs.
“I no wear tefillin on my head,” he says.
Now I’m completely thrown. I’d said nothing about tefillin, the black phylacteries that Jewish men bind around their arms and head. “Uh uh. Not tefillin,” I say. “A kaffiyeh,” I repeat. “Like the Arab men wear.” Got that?
He nods and smiles. “Kaffiyeh. Fine.” Still, I wonder if he understands.
“Like the Arabs," I repeat. "How can I reach you?”
“I have cell phone. My son give to me. But I no have number.”
The Latino stock boy with the curly ears is listening in. “I have the number,” he offers and dials Shem Tov’s number and gives it to me.
Okay. I’m good to go. Now I have one perfect face. I feel a mild queasiness about the whole thing but I put those feelings aside. Now all I need is the rabbi face. And here I thought finding the rabbi would be far easier.
In a way this echoes my process in writing the novel. The editors who initially “passed” on my novel – how I now hate that word -- loved Mustafa. He wasn’t the problem, the Jew was. Which makes me think sometimes it’s the people closest to you that are the hardest to capture, or even recognize.
A face. So much can ride on one.
Help! Can anyone suggest a rabbi for me? Someone willing to shlep out to New Jersey and sit on the ground back to back with Shem Tov? I’ll take a couple of pictures and that’s it. The book is coming out in the fall, so I have to get this cover going already. I’d ask my husband but he doesn’t have the right kind of beard.
Please send all photos as attachments. And don't worry -- I'm flexible on height requirements and irony.
* * *
Fast forward two months later. No worries. Cover issues have been resolved entirely by the New York Review of Books. Here is the cover in the end. Much thanks to Eve, Stewart, Caprice, Helen, Varda, Yisrael, Heather, Temima, Leah, Fran, Alissa, and everyone who weighed in on my cover obsession.