A JEWISH DEFENSE
by Alexander and Leo Shargorodsky
They never liked chess, yet they played it every night.
Around eight in the evening, the old man would set aside his enormous cup of tea, wink and say to his son:
“Well, how do you feel about playing a game?”
With great difficulty, his son David would tear himself away from his newspaper. He really didn’t want to play chess. He was reading an article about Hollywood — it was Oscar night — and very much wanted to finish it. He thought he would do some work later on a screenplay, polish up the ending, or maybe revise a word here or . . .
“Sure!” he said fatalistically, picking up the chess set that lay on top of the dresser. Of course, there were other chess sets: there was the set under the dresser and the one under the bed . . . and, oh yes, the sets on the sofa and the English table and let’s not forget the ones in the three suitcases . . .
There were magnetic sets and Vietnamese sets and portable sets and ivory sets. For some reason, though, they played on the chess set David had brought down from the dresser.
Perhaps because one white bishop, the two black knights and several pawns were missing. . . .
And, then again, it could have been because it still smelled of their old apartment in Leningrad, while all the other sets were bought after their departure.
It’s not easy to come up with the real “why’s” and “wherefore’s” for things that happened years ago.
David wiped the dust off the chess board, while his father set up the pieces. This was an unspoken law between them.
You see, David was simply incapable of setting them up. For him it would have amounted to nothing but so much time squandered, not to mention the unrelieved tedium of the whole business. His father, on the other hand, would puff on his favorite Russian “Kazbek” cigarette — the Western variety didn’t agree with him. Too weak, he used to say — and whistle some tune while setting up the chess pieces.
He’d then break several matches in half and arrange them on the board in place of the missing pieces — even though a proud, exquisitely carved knight rested comfortably nearby. As did, incidentally, also a bishop made allegedly of genuine Indian ivory. . . . The old man preferred the broken matches. As a matter of fact, he preferred anything that had to do with smoking. At this moment, he was positively inundated in tobacco smoke, like some plantation in Cuba.
Just when the chess pieces were almost set up, a musical fanfare resounded from the den. In a moment, a TV announcer would present a roundup of the latest news.
David was already fidgeting on the sofa.
“What’s the matter?” Aren’t you comfortable?” his father asked.
“No, no, it’s just that I’m curious to know what Shamir will say in reply. . . . ”
“In reply? Reply to whom? To what?”
“To Shimon Peres,” David said drily.
“Why, did Peres ask him anything?” asked the old man.
“For goodness’ sake, papa,” David almost blew up, “don’t you remember?! We watched the news together yesterday!”
“Yes, yes, but I don’t know a word of French!”
“What does that have to do with it? Didn’t I translate it for you?!”
“So what if you did,” said the old man, “I didn’t hear a word of it. And how could I . . . over the roar of the TV set?”
“What do you expect me to do, papa?” David said evasively, “if I turned the set off, there wouldn’t be anything for me to translate. Come on! Why don’t you join me? It’s already started.”
“Go on! Go on!” said the father. “I’ll finish setting up the pieces.”
“Just a peek, I promise,” David said as he disappeared into the den.
He watched as explosions, invasions, earthquakes, demonstrations and hunger strikes followed each other on the screen in quick succession. Finally, he wandered half-heartedly back into the living room.
“Well, are they all set up?” he asked.
“Are you kidding?” the father said, taking another sip of his tea. “I had a whole half hour to kill.”
“So why haven’t you made your first move?” asked David.
“How could I? I still don’t know whether I’m playing white or black,” the old man responded with some passion. “We haven’t even drawn yet for the colors, or haven’t you noticed?”
He then picked up two pieces off the board. They quickly sank into the palms of his enormous hands.
“Choose!” the father demanded, showing two fists.
“Come off it, papa!” said David. “You are holding two whites in your hands. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know?”
“Are you serious?” the old man said in astonishment.
As if he didn’t know. Every night he was astonished. Every night he wanted his son to play white: Why not make his son happy? . . .
“Seriously?” he repeated.
“Of course I’m serious. Look for yourself!” David said.
The father relaxed his fists to reveal two white pawns — one in each.
“Oh, no!” he said, shaking his head. He put down one of the white pawns on the board and picked up a black one. Once again he stretched out his enormous, swarthy hands before David.
“Well, go on! Choose!” the father demanded.
David knew which fist held the white pawn. It was always the hand nearer to him, i.e. to David.
And David always went for the black.
“You’ll have to nudge up a bit if you really want the black,” the father said with a smirk. Pause. “Well, in that case . . . ” he added, sighing with relief.
And he made the first move. It was his favorite opening.
“E-2 to E-4!!!”
And David responded no less traditionally by slapping himself on his forehead and crying out:
“My God! I forgot! I have to make a phone call!”
The father tried vainly to tear himself away from the chess-board:
“But you called him yesterday!”
“No, I didn’t. This is another matter altogether. I’m talking about Albert Cohn, the extraordinary director? Remember?”
“Of course! Of course!” the old man said, rubbing his forehead. “And how well. I remember when he lived in Leningrad. Lenin Square, wasn’t it?”
“Lenin Square?! What are you talking about, papa?” David retorted. “What the devil does Lenin Square have to do with it?! Cohn is from Paris. He lives at the Place de Vosges!”
“What, has he emigrated, too?”
“Papa, this Cohn is from Paris. He has nothing to do with our Cohn from Leningrad. Don’t you see?”
“But ours was also called Albert. Right?”
“Yes! But this Cohn’s first name is Alber’, not Albert! Can’t you hear the difference?”
“Not very clearly, David,” his father replied. “But that’s of no importance. Tell me — which one of them do you prefer?”
“The Parisian one, of course!” David answered with alacrity and pride. “Who wouldn’t?!”
“Then this goes to show you that we didn’t leave Russia for nothing,” the old man said, a gentle smile on his face.
David got up and disappeared into the hallway to call the Parisian Cohn. He dialed again and again, but each and every time he ended up talking to the director’s answering machine.
“This is Cohn speaking,” the answering machine said.
“Go to hell!” David answered. He then threw down the receiver. For some reason he preferred talking to living creatures.
Cohn was always “speaking” to him, but he could never get him on the phone in person. He sat by the telephone and wondered which Cohn he really preferred. Finally, he decided that the Leningrad Cohn was, after all, more a man after his own heart — he didn’t bother with an answering machine, he filmed his screenplays, and, of course, he drank Vodka and spoke Russian!
But could David really admit all this to his father?
“Where have you gone off to? You sure know how to take your time!” the father said when David returned.
“I was on the phone to Cohn,” the son replied and looked vacantly at the board. “Well, go on. It’s your turn . . .”
“My turn?!” I already made my move a good twenty minutes ago . . . ”
“Oh, yes! Of course!” David recalled and immediately fell to thinking. He wondered how to get a hold of Cohn, how and where to find Markovitz. The latter recently donated fifteen million francs for a film — his film, on the other hand, could do very well with a mere half a million – - and he asked himself why Goddard has still not answered. For goodness’s sake, he wrote to him over a month ago!
“Well, are you going to make a move or what?!” his father interrupted his meditations.
“Make my move? How? . . . Where to?” David said in amazement. “How can I make my move when even Goddard turns out to be a swine!”
He got up again and, without explanation, left the room, apparently to write a letter to Goddard.
The father followed his son with his eyes, sighed, then opened the second volume of Josephus. The Jewish War was now in full swing when David returned to his place.
“Well, have you made your move?” he asked.
The old man shook his head. “Your move!”
“Again?!” David exclaimed in astonishment. “Two moves in a row?!”
“What do you mean?! You haven’t made a move yet!”
“Impossible, papa!” David said, as his wide eyes surveyed the board. “Oops, you are right!” He sat silently for a moment, then added: “So, it’s
E-2 to E-4. Right?”
“Yes,” said the old man, “E-2 to E-4. So what?”
“Nothing. A little strange, though, for an opening.”
“Strange? What’s so strange about it?” the father asked.
“It’s just that . . . I can’t seem to recall its name. What kind of defense is this, anyway. I mean ‘E-2 to E-4′?”
“I believe it’s called a Spanish defense,” the father replied.
He wasn’t sure. It’s just that he loved Spain.
“Why not a Sicilian defense?” David interjected.
“No, no, not Sicilian . . .” the father rejoined with some hesitation.
“Amazing!” David said indignantly. “All over the world Jews play chess. There are God knows how many defenses — there is a Spanish defense, a Russian defense, an Indian defense, even an ancient Indian defense, but where on earth is there a Jewish defense?!”
The father looked up in bewilderment. “What do you mean ‘where on earth is there a Jewish defense?!’ What about Israel?!”
“Israel? What’s Israel got to do with it?” David blurted out.
“You don’t think Israel is a Jewish defense? Is that it?”
“Papa, I’m talking about chess!” David insisted.
“And I’m talking about something much larger than chess! Israel is a lot more important to me than chess. Or perhaps you think differently?”
“What on earth are you talking about?!” David asked.
“So you admit that they do have a better defense?” the father shot back.
“Naturally,” David acknowledged.
“So there! You admit it! And, incidentally, their offense is better, too! Look here . . .” And here the father opened to the appropriate page in The Jewish War and, after finding the passage, turned to his son and added: “Right here! You see? Titus himself admits that they have better archers!”
David looked at the passage, then at his father’s handsome face, at his large eyebrows, tobacco-stained fingers, the whorls of smoke, and he suddenly felt like hugging him. He looked at him with sadness in his eyes and then said:
“Papa, why don’t we move to Israel?”
The old man tried in vain to tear himself away from his book.
“Let’s move to Israel,” David went on, “let’s move to Jerusalem. We’ll walk in the footsteps of the swarthy Maccabees, lay wreathes on the graves of the prophets. How about it, papa?”
The old man’s eyes lit up impishly.
“Sure!” he finally said, “but not this fall.”
Every evening David proposed to his father that they move to Israel, and every evening the old man’s face lit up with excitement, only to regain its pallor with the obligatory “not this fall” or “not this winter” or “not this summer” or “not this spring”.
There weren’t any more seasons on the calendar. Maybe that’s why they never made it to Israel. . . .
They never made it to the Holy Land, but after this “Let’s go to Israel” business, the old man thought for a long time and finally made his second move.
David looked at him with tenderness.
“Not two squares, papa! You just can’t leap all over the place.”
The old man suddenly remembered and moved the piece back.
“I’m an old man,” he said apologetically. “Well, go on, make your move! . . . ”
At long last, David made his move. He picked up the pawn, lifted it high and moved it from E-7 to E-5.
And at this moment the father noticed a bruise on his son’s hand. Or perhaps it was a pimple. Or a red spot.
“What’s that?!” he said, alarmed.
“That’s a pawn, papa” replied David.
“Not that! I mean on the palm of your hand!”
“Oh, nothing. Really, nothing. I burned myself. Nothing to worry about, I assure you!”
“What do you mean ‘nothing to worry about?’” the father said solicitously. “Well, go on, put the pawn where it belongs! Here, let me help you!”
He took David’s hand in his, removed the pawn and examined the burn with great care.
“Couldn’t this be the first sign of measles?” he finally said.
“Measles?!” David said incredulously. “You must be kidding. You can’t get measles after ten. And look at me! I’m almost fifty years old! No, it’s that teapot!”
The father put on his glasses.
“It doesn’t look like the teapot to me, David,” he said authoritatively.
“No, not the teapot! The saucepan! That’s what did it. What’s the difference, anyway?”
“A big difference! Have you ever drunk tea from a saucepan? It could’ve been contaminated.”
He got up, took some sort of cream out of the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and rubbed it on David’s hand.
“Well, now you can make your move,” he said.
David squinted at the place on his hand where the cream had been rubbed, inhaled the air with little satisfaction — the cream smelled horribly — and picked up a pawn. A different pawn, this time.
“Changed your mind, huh?” the old man said in amazement.
“Why should I? Isn’t it the same pawn?” David asked.
“No, the other one was king’s pawn. This one is queen’s.”
“So what? What’s the difference, anyway? You want me to play king’s pawn?”
“Nobody is telling you to do anything,” the father said, “play any piece you want to!”
“No, please,” said David, “if you want me to play king’s pawn, I’ll play king’s pawn!”
“For God’s sake, why not play the knight, then!”
“Knight? Why should I play the knight? Papa, you’ve completely confused me. I don’t know which piece to go with!”
“Take your time, David! Think about it! There’s no clock here to rush us.” Suddenly, as an afterthought, he added: “I’ll be right back. I just want to get some tea.”
The old man got up. You could hear the shuffling of his slippers as he sauntered into the kitchen.
David sank back in his armchair and fell to thinking about his screenplay. He thought of making a devastating move, the kind of move that would force the directors — every one of them — to take notice of him, yes, even that Cohn with his answering machine. He went on thinking as he gazed at the darkening sky. Every now and then he took a sip of his dry martini . . .
“Well, have you made your move yet?” the old man said as he entered with his teacup in his hand. The smell of strong tea and lemon pervaded the living room.
“Yes,” answered David. “Not a bad one, either, I think.”
“We’ll see soon enough!” the father said as he plunked down on the sofa and made himself comfortable. “Hmmm! I wonder . . . ”
“Do you see what I mean?” David began. “It’s ironic!”
The old man winced. “What’s ironic?”
“There’s a terrifying disease afoot,” David continued. “Antisemitism. A fatal disease! There is no real cure for it, except, of course, by loving a Jew. So why doesn’t Goddard love us? For God’s sake, why doesn’t he write?! Maybe he isn’t afraid of death?! . . . So what do you think of my move?”
The old man looked at his son with sadness in his eyes.
“You want to bring mankind to ruin?” he asked rhetorically.
“Yes, you . . . and the Jewish people to boot?”
“Why, for goodness’ sake?”
“I don’t know,” said the old man. “That’s how it looks to me. At any rate, it’s not a bad move. Moves like these will lose you the game. Take my word for it. Why don’t you make another move, my son? Do something!”
“I can’t. That’s the only move open to me!” David exclaimed.
“Then I’ll move for you. Look at your first option: The Messiah comes at long last, but there’s no one to greet him.”
“I’m not writing a tragedy, papa!”
“Good!” said the old man, “so here’s the second option: The Messiah comes and discovers peace and harmony on Earth — everyone loves everyone, even the Jews.” The old man bursts into laughter. “What a comedy, what a splendid comedy this would make. You do write comedies, David, don’t you?”
“Well, sort of . . . but why write comedies, papa, when life is one big comedy, anyway?” David asked.
“And often quite a bad comedy,” the father added, “the kind that makes people cry. But you write comedies that make people laugh.”
He slapped David on the shoulder, unwrapped a pack of cigarettes, took one out, lit it and inhaled deeply.
Smoke drifted aimlessly out of the window. The old man looked at the dark sky through the open balcony door.
“Tell me, David, why are there no stars here?”
“Why do you say that, papa? Look over there! And there! And behind that tree over there! Do you see?”
“You call that stars?” the father sighed. “Don’t you remember our stars? Ours were larger, more brilliant. You could’ve almost touched them.”
“It’s the same stars, papa,” David insisted.
The old man took the cigarette out of his mouth.
“I’m not talking about astronomy, son,” he said, smiling for some reason or other. “I guess we’ll never finish the game tonight.”
“You’re right. For some reason, it’s really dragged on tonight,” David agreed.
“You’re playing better these days,” the father said. “I used to win all the time. Now our positions are more or less equal. Look!”
“No, that’s not true!” David objected. “Your pawn has almost made it to my side of the board! One more move and you’ll have a queen in your hand. You’ve won, papa, after all.”
“Not quite. It’s a long way still to your end of the board,” the old man said evasively. “How about settling for a tie?”
“No, no! . . . ”
“Well, in that case, let’s put the game aside. We’ll finish it tomorrow.”
They’d jot down their respective positions, but their games always went unfinished. They loved to start all over again.
David would take down the chess set from its place on the dresser and wipe the dust off it.
The old man would then arrange the pieces on the board. He’d then make the first move:
“E-2 to E-4″
David would then fall to thinking.
“What do you think of this swine Mubarak?” he’d say in response to the old man’s move.
“Scum!” rejoined the old man.
They just loved this game, this Jewish defense.