The band, which had been strumming quiet, dinner-music type riffs, suddenly exploded into a rich, weaving, beat-heavy blast as hundreds of guests streamed into the room. The crowd divided spontaneously in two, like an amoeba, forming a middle lane through which the young bride and groom in their floor-length ivory robes, faces glowing, strode through accompanied by their parents.
The couple, a trail of well-wishers at their heels as the swarming guests zippered together behind them, made their way to a regally appointed ‘head’ table, raised slightly upon a dais in the middle of the room. A wild frenzy of dancing broke out around them, unlike anything Strad had seen. Nobody was dancing with anybody as much as everybody was dancing with everybody. The whole room joined hands and wove over the dance floor in a giant, circuitous chain. Strad was watching from his safe perch next to the bandstand when one of the dance line’s coils suddenly surged his way and two of the villagers dropped hands, motioning for him to join between them.
“Go ahead,” Gabel shouted over the music’s roar. “I’ll take care of the food. Go have yourself a swim.”
Strad knew that if he pulled away, or even shook his head, the line’s momentum would sweep his would-be dance partners away like a tide. But wasn’t that what he’d been doing all his life — standing to the side, watching the rest of the world dance? He gingerly held out his hands and was immediately pulled into the train that pulsed in syncopated rhythm.
After several moments tripping over his own feet, Strad was just getting the hang of the dance — a modified stutter- step — when the music stopped abruptly. After a moment of confused murmuring, everyone dropped hands and froze in place. Strad wondered if, like in ‘musical chairs,’ he should grab a seat. Then the door swung open. A semi-circle of young men charged in, clearing the crowd. Behind them, a small, white-bearded man walked with a slow but surefooted gait and apologetic smile, as if uncomfortable with the tumult his entrance was causing.
“Kalonymos came to the wedding!” Strad heard someone whisper, as he watched the ancient man move toward the seated bride and groom, ascend the dais and join the smiling newlyweds.
The music started up again. Most of the crowd resumed the snaking dance, but Strad noticed a group forming a line that started at the head table. He felt a tap on the shoulder.
“Shall we rejoin the dance?” Strad, still breathless from the spectacle he’d witnessed, turned to see Juni’s innocent face and outstretched hand. Strad hesitated. It had been different holding hands with people he didn’t know.
“Why are those people lined up over there?” he asked, both out of interest and a desire to change the subject.
“They are going to greet the couple, and receive a glass of spirits.”
A glass of spirits; that’s just what he needed. Despite the crowd’s incredible energy he hadn’t seen a drop of alcohol in the whole place. “Can anyone get in that line?”
Juni seemed taken aback by the question. “Oh no… I mean yes. Generally, you have to be invited to… but I’m sure they would make an exception; after all you’ve come from so far.”
Strad’s feet cooled. He wasn’t the line-crashing type and, while a stiff drink would hit the spot, he wasn’t sure he was up to facing that intense old man.
“You know, never mind. I think I’ll just sit back and watch for a while.”
“Strad, don’t worry. Come, I’ll show you what to do.” Finally giving in to his inviolable credo of ‘trying anything once,’ Strad shrugged and followed the determined teen who led him over, under and through the waves of dancers until they finally reached the line.
Juni, who seemed to know everyone, chatted easily as Strad leaned in to see what was happening at the head table. The procedure looked fairly straightforward. One by one, each guest stood opposite the wedding party, bowed slightly to the newlyweds and then the old man, who would hand the guest a glass of clear liquid — vodka?… or maybe a liqueur? — and then move on. Despite the hoary beard, Strad noticed that the man moved with a youthful grace, deftly pouring glass after glass from a narrow bottle wrapped in a velvet cloth.
Strad waited for the man to change or refill the bottle, which according to his estimate should have emptied out after four or five cups. Yet five, ten, and more guests passed and he kept pouring from the same covered bottle. Strad turned to Juni and was about to ask about it when his roommate’s uneasy eyes cut him short.
“My teacher’s calling me. Just stay in line and it will soon be your turn.” He smiled apologetically, bowed and ducked out of sight.
Several minutes passed and Strad, lost in thought, shuffled forward absently until he bumped into someone’s arm. He looked up, startled, and peered into a stern face.
“Sorry, you aren’t allowed in this line. It’s by invitation only.”
“I’m not trying to break any rules. Juni told me it would be fine.”
“Please step out of line right now,” the young man repeated, “or I will be forced to take you out.” Strad sighed and began to step off the line, when a bony hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Stay right where you are,” Juni whispered. He turned to the gatekeeper. “What seems to be the problem?”
The guard sighed. “You know the rules…”
“Oh, come on,” Juni interrupted sharply. “What’s the big deal if… ?”
“Guys, really, it’s not worth fighting about.” Strad’s words went unnoticed as the argument progressed. A middle-aged man pushed his way in and signaled the gatekeeper.
“Strad,” Juni whispered excitedly, “Kalonymos himself has just requested you move to the front of the line!”
As Juni led him past the line of spectators, Strad hoped the old man would pour him a double; after all he’d been through. The lad nudged him up the steps and then backed away. Now on his own, Strad shuffled past the bride and groom until he stood before Kalonymos. He looked at the man’s face, a study in contradictions. The full, white beard and deep thought lines in his forehead signaled old age, yet the tight, tawny features and shining, sea-green eyes radiated youth.
With a warm, conspiratorial smile, Kalonymos handed Strad a tumbler and slowly filled it to the brim. Talk about a double. Strad figured if this stuff was any stronger than white wine he’d soon be on the floor.
He didn’t know if he was supposed to drink it right there or move on. Was he expected to say something after receiving a private invitation? He raised his eyes, hoping Kalonymos would give him a clue, and startled. The old man was looking through him, peering into his eyes as if they were windows. Yet Strad did not feel uncomfortable. On the contrary, he’d never felt so genuinely seen, exposed but un-judged… unconditionally loved. He’d seen those eyes before — but where? At the restaurant, when he first burst into Gabel’s kitchen!
“We’ll meet at the Ocean.” Strad turned to see who’d whispered in his ear — but no one was there. He looked back at Kalonymos, who signaled Strad to drink. Strad wished he had some idea what to expect. It was something exotic for sure, maybe tequila? He drank, waiting for the inevitable burn at the back of his throat, but it never came. Water?
As the line pushed on, Strad stepped down from the platform and was swept into the dance line. Strad danced on, stronger, faster, riding the ever-strengthening torrent of pure, clear water that burst a dam within him, one he’d had no idea he’d built, and quenched a thirst he never knew he had.
(Excerpted and adapted from ‘Open When You Are’ by Ben Ackerman – a deep, yet light and lively sci-fi spiritual allegory based on the inner-Torah view of reality.)