The King of the King of Falafel
By Jon Papernick
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Mordechai HaLevi was still very young--only seventeen years old--when his father Boaz, the King of Falafel tried to run over his chief competitor with his rusty Toyota truck and was sentenced to three years in prison in the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The King of the King of Falafel had opened business across the busy thoroughfare of King George Street only six months earlier, undercutting the King of Falafel, selling two falafels for the price of one. Boaz told his son that, Benny Ovadiah, the newly crowned king must have been scraping vegetables off the floor of the Mahane Yehuda market and selling them in his sandwiches for such a price.
"He's using rat meat to make his shwarmas. I know it," his father said. "How else can a man sell falafels so cheap and still keep the rain off his head?"
"Maybe the angels," Mordechai said.
"The only angel I know is the Angel of Death," his father answered, turning his wedding ring on his thick finger.
The week before his father went berserk, Mordechai was sent across the street to plead with Benny Ovadiah who was a war hero, saved by golden-winged angels at the Allenby Bridge. He was a religious man and would listen to reason.
Manufactured air blew into Mordechai's face as he entered the gleaming oasis of polished marble and glass, where twisting rams horns, bronze water pipes and wide-eyed hamsas hung decorously from the walls. Hungry patrons sat in plush chairs covered with richly embroidered swirling Yemenite stitch work beneath a sky-blue domed ceiling. They ate from round marble tables that were smoother than ice and whiter than snow. Mordechai wiped his brow, leaving the heat of King George Street behind. Pictures of the great mystics, the Baba Sali, Ovadiah Yosef, and others were taped on the glass beside the Mandate-era cash register that ka-chinged with annoying regularity.
Benny Ovadiah stood behind the counter wearing a large black kippa pulled low onto his forehead.
"My father wants you to move away," Mordechai said. "He is the King of Falafel,"
"But, I am the King of the King of Falafel," Benny Ovadia said, throwing a falafel ball in the air and catching it in an open pita.
He was right. His prep-men juggled their falafel balls in the air, tapped their tongs on the counter and sang Heenay Ma' Tov as they made their sandwiches. The King of the King of Falafel offered 32 different toppings including, thick hummus, zesty tahina, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled turnips, radishes, olives, eggplant, red peppers, onions and chips.
"Give this to your father," Benny Ovadia said, handing Mordechai the fully dressed falafel.
"But, when will you leave?" Mordechai asked.
"When the Messiah comes."
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When Mordechai returned to the falafel stand to tell his father, he had to shout above the noise of the ancient ceiling fan that clattered like battling swords. His father slammed the falafel against the wall and said, "The fucking Messiah! I'll kill him!"
Mordechai did not love falafels, but he did love his father, so he agreed to run the business while his father was away. With the help of his friend Shuki he secretly planned to drive the King of the King of Falafel out of business to honor his departed father.
Shuki was a juvenile delinquent who did not want to serve in the army and did his best to convince society that he was unfit to die in Lebanon. He wore a T-shirt that said "Rage," smoked filterless cigarettes and spat on the street as he walked. He whispered ideas in Mordechai's ear and laughed like a sick braying beast.
They paid a Russian farmer from the north to deliver pork to Benny Ovadiah's back door, but the King of the King of Falafel could smell treif a mile away and threw it in the street in front of Mordechai's falafel stand. The flies buzzed above the meat all afternoon until Benny Ovadiah approached Mordechai at the end of the day as he was sweeping the floor. Only an autographed team photograph of the Betar Yerushalayim football club hung on the wall next to a yellowing dog-eared kashrut certificate.
"Not many customers today," Benny Ovadiah said. "The smell is difficult, the flies are worse."
"It is not so bad," Mordechai said, wondering if Benny Ovadiah smelled of body odor or cumin powder.
"You are losing money. Come and work for me. You can buy cigarettes to send your father in prison."
"I want you to leave," Mordechai said. "Go to Katamonim. We don't want you here."
"You are a punk, but there is hope for you. You honor your father even though he is a maniac. It's a Commandment of God."
"But I don't love my neighbor," Mordechai said, sure now that no cumin powder in the world could smell so rank as Benny Ovadiah.
"Leave!" Mordechai shouted
"When the Messiah comes," Benny Ovadiah said, laughing.
"There cannot be two kings of falafel."
"Why don't you call yourself the King of Shwarma, or the King of Fuul, or" Benny Ovadiah said in English, "the King of Fools." He grabbed his rounded belly and laughed again. "Or maybe, the son of the King of Fools," he said opening the door to King George Street.
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To gain leverage over his enemy, Mordechai stayed open on Shabbat to take advantage of hungry tourists wandering the empty streets of Jerusalem. For a while, he made brisk business until the black-hatted Ultra-Orthodox from Mea Shearim caught wind and pelted stones and bags of dung at his falafel stand.
"Go back to Germany and destroy the Sabbath," they shouted.
Cars packed with families arrived from as far away as Nahariya, Afula and Yeroham to savor the delights of Benny Ovadiah's King of the King of Falafel.
"What spell has he put on them?" Mordechai wondered. "What angel watches over him?"
Even his most loyal customer, Reuven the Watcher walked away from the King of Falafel saying, "Your falafel tastes like sand. I wouldn't feed it to the dead."
Mordechai gave away free samples, concocted the fruit falafel, painted a new bright red sign, shouted down his adversary through a megaphone and continued to lose business to Benny Ovadiah. He even considered calling himself the King of the King of the King of Falafel, but did not have enough space on his tiny storefront.
Shuki suggested they steal Benny Ovadiah's pita bread that was delivered to his front door hours before the King of the King of Falafel opened for business.
"Falafel without pita is like the Dead Sea without salt," Shuki said.
They were amazed to discover that without his pitas, the King of the King of Falafel did not fold up and blow away. He thrived, in fact. People lined up all along the street, jockeyed for position and shouted across to Mordechai and his empty stand. Finally a policeman on horseback arrived to calm the crowd, but he too dismounted and joined the hungry line.
"What's going on?" Mordechai shouted to one of the patrons.
"It's amazing," a young girl called back. "He is serving falafel on manna from Heaven."
When his father wrote him asking how business was, Mordechai lied; when he asked after the nudnik who called himself king, Mordechai said the filthy dog was on the run: "He's in the mikvah now, preparing for the Messiah."
"He should drown," his father said.
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One day Shuki drank a jar of olive oil and bit into a shwarma at Benny Ovadiah's restaurant. He threw up on the floor right in front of the King of the King of Falafel and screamed, "Bad lamb! Bad lamb!"
But Benny Ovadiah had seen Shuki hanging out with Mordechai and beat him with a broom.
"Don't break your teeth. I'm not leaving," Benny Ovadiah shouted as he brought the broom down onto Shuki's head.
"What about the Messiah?" Shuki said.
"Show me the Messiah."
Frustrated and tired of falafel, they ate hamburgers at the new McDonalds, where Shuki tried to lighten the mood, moving the buns of his burger like the mouth of a hand-puppet. "I am the red heifer. I taste better with cheese." And he bit into the burger laughing.
"I am the pink heifer," Mordechai said, holding his burger. "Cook me some more, please."
"Stupid!" Shuki said, hitting Mordechai on the forehead with the palm of his hand. "Don't you remember from religion class in school where God told the Children of Israel to purify themselves."
"Take a shower," Mordechai said, laughing. "With soap!"
"He told them to sacrifice a red heifer, a pure red heifer without blemish or spot, because only the ashes of a red heifer can purify Jews so the can rebuild the Temple," Shuki paused and beat a drum roll on the table. "And-bring-the-Messiah-the-King-of-Israel."
"But there hasn't been a red heifer in Israel in over 2,000 years," Mordechai said, remembering the mysterious passage calling for the sacrifice of a pure red heifer.
"Yes," Shuki said, "that is true. But now. . ." And he began to hum, and then Mordechai joined in and they were singing, "Moshiach, Moshiach, Moshiach!"
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They drove out of the city under a starless sky towards the west and the coastal plain. The air became warmer as they descended. Shuki rolled down his window and lit a cigarette. Mordechai fiddled with the radio dial as they drove, finding Jordan Radio in English, then Arutz Sheva, the Jewish settlers pirate station, and finally Galei Zahal, Army wave radio, where they sang out together, ". . .and after all you're my Wonderwall!"
"Remember when we were young?" Mordechai asked Shuki as they turned off the highway.
Shuki knew the kibbutz guard by name, because he used to hitch down every week to make out in the banana fields with a girl he'd met on a school trip to the Holocaust museum. They waved and drove by him, but they didn't stop at the girl's room, they kept going along the dirt road past the bulls kicking up dust, and on to the dairy. The air smelled of fresh cow manure and trees.
"Cows are so dumb," Mordechai said. "All they do is shit. They live in shit, they sleep in shit. . ."
"Quiet," Shuki said. "Operation Secret Messiah."
The frightened cows moved away from them as one, their hooves rumbling against the earth. Mordechai and Shuki followed them twice around the pen under the moonless sky. The cows were brown and black and some were just brown.
"Okay," Shuki said, "Let's get this one, she's stopped moving."
"She's too big," Mordechai said, laughing. "Even bigger than Tamar."
"My sister's having twins, idiot. Just grab one." Shuki answered. "Grab it by the tail."
But they couldn't catch the other cows who kept circling around and around the pen in the darkness.
"Let's get this one before she wakes up," Mordechai said, slapping the fat sleepy cow on the rump. "Yala!"
It wasn't easy to get the giant brown cow into the truck, who wouldn't move after being prodded out of the pen. When she did move she stepped on Mordechai's foot, and then didn't move again.
"Ouch," Mordechai called. "She's on my foot."
"Punch her," Shuki said.
"In the nose."
"No. You punch her."
"Tickle her then," Shuki said, spitting onto the ground. "Like she's your girlfriend."
When they finally got her into the truck they covered her with a tarp and gunned the engine past the guard when his back was turned.
When they pulled back onto the highway, Mordechai and Shuki sang the song calling for the Messiah that they thought was so hilarious. "Moshiach, Moshiach, Moshiach! Ai, ai, ai, ai,. . ."
"We should call her one million burgers,'" Mordechai said as they drove back up towards the holy city.
"She's the red heifer," Shuki said. "And I'm a blonde."
In the alleyway behind the King of Falafel they slathered red paint onto the cow and worked it into her coat.
"The hairdresser at work," Mordechai said.
"If that will keep me from the army," Shuki said, kissing the cow dramatically on the forehead.
The cow stood still, big-eyed, oblivious.
It was nearly four o' clock in the morning when they led the red painted cow across King George Street. Mordechai and Shuki were as red as the cow, their hands and faces smeared with paint. They were high from the paint fumes.
"Ai, ai ai, ai, wo-o, wo-o, wo-o. . ." Mordechai sang.
"Quiet," Shuki said.
"Jews are depending on you, big girl," Mordechai whispered. "In the morning they will wake to trumpets and flutes and harps. . ."
"Shut up," Shuki said, leading the cow into the alleyway behind the King of the King of Falafel.
"At last the Messiah can come," Mordechai added, patting her on the head. "Isn't that right, Red?"
Not even a moo.
Shuki jimmied open the back door of Benny Ovadiah's King of the King of Falafel with a pocket knife he carried in his jeans. They had difficulty leading the beefy cow through the back door, her wet paint rubbing off against the door, but they forced her through, laughing as they went.
"Through the red door, destiny awaits," Mordechai said.
They left her standing alone in the dark, in the middle of the restaurant.
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From across the street they could hear the red-painted cow rattling around in the darkness, a breaking of glass, battering against the steel shutter that said: KING OF THE KING OF FALAFEL, and then the graffito, "Is the king of nothing." They heard hooves stamping and long, loud, moos.
Mordechai imagined Benny Ovadiah's unblemished marble tables shattering on the floor, his tapestries trod upon, his bronze chotchkes battered and stomped on. He imagined the Lubuvitcher Rebbe climbing out of the photo from beside the Mandate-era register to sweep the cluttered floor muttering lamentations, and the frightened cow nuzzling close, dripping snot on the black-clad rabbi.
From the time they locked the cow inside, there was not a moment of silence. Afraid that the paint fumes had made her crazy as a bull, they agonized all night under the moonless sky, without a star to wish on.
"You go see her," Mordechai said.
"She's destroying the place."
"She's destroying the place," Shuki repeated, and they both broke out laughing.
Mordechai's insides heaved as he laughed and felt a warm glow inside him. He laughed so hard he could not tell if sweat or tears poured down his face.
For a moment before the sun rose, the sky filled with stars and then morning burst out of the east to greet them.
Things were not so hilarious by the time Benny Ovadiah arrived to open the King of the King of Falafel. Both Mordechai and Shuki were exhausted and a little afraid.
"Caught with red hands," Shuki said, but did not laugh.
The sun was out now, and there was nowhere for the two boys to hide. They stood by the side of the road and could hear Benny Ovadiah screaming and cursing, calling them sons of whores, sons of bitches, sons of shit. Mordechai turned to Shuki and offered a prayer for his soul. He was only half joking.
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When Benny Ovadiah emerged from his battered restaurant, he was completely red, covered in paint or blood or both.
He carried a bloody butcher knife in his shaking hand. "You had better hope the Messiah comes now," Benny Ovadiah shouted, stepping into the street. "Then, the dead can rise again. And you will be the first."
"You can't kill us," Mordechai said.
"Why not? I can share a cell with your father."
He reached the sidewalk and grabbed Mordechai by the hair.
"It was just a joke," Mordechai said, almost in tears.
"I've slaughtered your joke," Benny Ovadiah boomed.
"But, we're neighbors," Mordechai said, the words almost swallowed. "Look," he said, pointing to the pathetic sight of Benny Ovadiah's ruined falafel restaurant across the street.
"No! Look!" Shuki cried, wide-eyed.
And, from behind an overturned table Mordechai saw a little red calf stumble unsteadily out of the wreckage, its legs buckling like a drunk, as it mooed and stepped out to join the morning traffic.
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