The Pressure Cooker

The Pressure Cooker

My neighbor, James,* died last night. But nobody was surprised.

James wasn’t Jewish. He came to Israel from Scotland after his wife left him about 20 years ago because he “wanted to work in the gardens of God.” And that was what he did. James worked as a gardener at Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens and in private gardens for upwards of 15 years.

But after James had a heart attack four years ago, he was no longer strong enough to garden. And then he started drinking even more heavily than before. And then his schizophrenia, which had never been noticeable before, ran amok inside James’ skull.

James was a kind enough person. When I saw him on the street, shuffling on his way back and forth to the liquor store, on rare occasions he would even return my attempts at a cheerful “Hello!” But most of the time James just walked past me like a zombie, as though he didn’t even recognize me, his closest neighbor in the world for the past 8 years.

Over the past two years, barely a week would pass by without Social Services or the Police or an Emergency Medical Team knocking on James’ door. Then they would rush James off in an ambulance with the sirens blaring, only to have him shuffle back home a few days or even just a few hours later. And once home, enveloped by the stench of rotting food and discarded trash and dirty clothing that covered every visible surface of his apartment, James would sit in his armchair and continue to drink himself, as we discovered this morning, to death.

But when I think of James, there is one story about him that brings me great joy. It even, the truth is, moves me to tears.

This past August, I saw James walking in my direction on the street looking blankly ahead, as usual.

And then James did something that I found truly shocking.

James turned to me as though he had just recognized me for the first time in months, and said, “You had a baby!” indicating my 2-month-old baby Tsofia in her carriage, “I have a present I want to give you!”

I was as shocked as if my Israeli supermarket cashier had just started serenading me with Chinese opera.

James had noticed that I was pregnant? James had noticed that I’d had a baby? And strangest of all, James wanted to give me a present?

James asked when he could stop by to bring me the present. For safety reasons, I only wanted him to stop by when my husband was home, so I suggested the following evening at 8 PM.

The truth is that I was almost positive James would get drunk again, and just forget about the whole thing. And the truth is, of course, that I was really hoping that would be the case, since I was more than a little afraid of my unusual upstairs neighbor.

But the following evening, at 8 PM on the dot, James rang our doorbell. I opened the door, and James handed me a present in honor of the birth of my newborn baby…

Not a baby blanket or a pink outfit or a bouquet of flowers…

James handed me a Soltam pressure cooker, wished me a rushed “Congratulations!” and then, as quickly as he’d come, he turned around and walked up the stairs to his own apartment, and slammed his door behind him.

It was James’ old top-of-the-line pressure cooker. A very expensive pot. It was in perfect condition, except for the cobwebs that had developed inside from disuse. Once scrubbed and koshered, it would help a lot with my Shabbat cooking.

But what really amazed me more than James’ generous present was that for so many years alcohol and mental illness had prevented James from seeing past himself. The only thing that interested James it seemed, for the vast majority of the time, was how he would get his next drink.

And that evening, James had climbed up to peek over the alcohol and the voices inside his head, and had given a gift to his neighbor celebrating the birth of her newborn daughter.

This morning, after they removed James’ body, my husband lit a yahrzeit candle in James’ windowsill. A flickering flame of holiness against the background of disarray and filth of James’ apartment.

And seeing that candle in James’ windowsill, I was reminded of the sad life of my neighbor. And I was reminded, as well, of the spark of Divinity that burned strongly within James, and that burns within all of us, no matter how low we fall in life or how far we wander astray from our true selves.

And I pray that the memory of that candle burning by James’ window is the one that will shape my memory of my deceased neighbor for the decades to come.

May James’ memory be for a blessing. Yehee Zichro Baruch.

*Identifying details have been changed.

Photo by Flickr.com user Juneelyn B.

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9 comments

  1. Daniella

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Very potent: such a tragic end of a life, but you did see the spark of his soul. Can you post link to the time you spoke about James vs. your Gan Eden (I remember your videos!): I can’t find the video but it completes the picture.

  3. Chana Jenny, I can’t tell you what this small story means to me. There are Jameses everywhere among us and though he was not, many of them ARE Jewish – like my younger brother, Eli. This story IS my brother. Maybe a little older, and b”h, he is still alive. He is 40 years old now. Sadly, we haven’t yet found an apartment, rooming house or other living arrangement that will hold his “disarray and filth”, so I’m kind of wondering whether it will be the alcohol or Canadian winters that will kill him before his time.
    I hope my brother, too, keeps finding the nice neighbours out there to receive his odd gifts and occasional moments of lucidity.

  4. Sharon Saunders

    Jenny,
    You are one of the holiest women I know, so it is not surprising that you lifted James out of his fog for a little while.

    Baruch Dayan Emet.

  5. yehudis chana

    Beautiful story. I like how you described James’ transcendence of his ego as climbing up to peek over the alcohol and the voices in his head. But what I appreciate more is that you noticed, reminding us that part of our work as Jews is to search out and take note of the spark of good in all of Hashem’s children–

  6. Like Jennifer, I had a younger brother with schizophrenia. He lived with my mother, took medication and was very highly functioning. Even so, he struggled with his illness and one night he accidentally took too many Rx pain killers. He did not wake up. He was a beautiful Jewish human being and I miss him every day. I appreciate your story about a subject that is very close to me. Mental illnees and the people affected by it are too often overlooked.

  7. the harsh reality is that people with this kind of neurological condition end up drinking or on drugs, if not medicated properly….and then the meds are not perfect either, but they can’t live inside their own brains because their thoughts “hurt” too much.
    a beautiful gesture to give you the pot, with his kind heart, which in essence, is what stays pure.

  8. That kind act of James’ tells us more about him than his drinking. Thank you for sharing.

  9. boruch dayan emet.
    thank you for sharing the story with us.

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