The Pickle Rabbi by Emile Barrios

Sidewalk Cafe by Jonelle Summerfield
Sidewalk Cafe by Jonelle Summerfield

The Pickle Rabbi

by Emile Barrios

I need to know if Di Fara has the best pizza in New York.

“How’s the writing going?” my wife back in California asks every night. Great. Wonderful. You wouldn’t believe.

“New York is where all the writers live,” I had told her. “I’ll work on the novel for a month, meet people, get into the community—it’ll launch my career.”

“My sweet Hemingway,” she said. “Go.”

Three weeks in the city and I’m riding the Q train to this ancient pie house I overheard someone talking about.

Every day I work. But my pages sound plagiarized and I’ve lost the thread of the plot. In California I called myself novelist. Eight days now before I fly home to “Tell me all about it.”

Avenue J in Midwood buzzes with restless energy, low mismatched buildings shouting with bright Hebrew letters. Heimische. Glatt. I’m awash in a river of serious bearded men and young boys with long curls and black hats, old ladies in babushkas.

Di Fara is on the next corner, an anachronistic sore thumb with its shabby sign and stained brick. Inside, the peeling walls and ground-down linoleum radiate primal baking smells.

Dom, the pizza legend in a plaid polyester shirt, caresses the dough and composes rough-shaped pies while a crowd watches. Since 1964 it’s been only him—when he’s not there the place is closed. The wait can be two hours.

I take a bite and taste Dom’s mastery—spicy and sublime. His kingdom is shabby and dusted with flour, but there is no doubt. He makes the Best Pizza in New York.

Outside the sun is below the buildings, decaying leaves thick on the shivery air. I see a sign on a bright green awning: Pickles Made Under Rabbinical Supervision. White barrels occupy the sidewalk and my goyim brain grasps at the concept.

Is there a Pickle Rabbi? And wouldn’t that be the worst rabbi job? Maybe it’s an entry-level position for new rabbis, or where they send rabbis who stray from their calling—a kind of pickle rehab. I imagine an idealistic young Pickle Rabbi, curls redolent with brine and spice, reading the Talmud amongst the barrels and dreaming of his own congregation. First the pickles, they tell him. Then we’ll see.

“Are you Jewish?”

A twentysomething hasidim grabs my arm.

“What?” I go blank. He pulls at my sleeve.

“Are you Jewish?!”

“Uh, I’m not.”

“Augh!” He runs away.

A taxi horn blares and the pickle smell stings my nose. Two blocks away, the Q clatters. I stand there, trembling.

An old man with a long white beard touches my shoulder. “He’s assembling a minyan,” he says. “A prayer service. He would have invited you to join.”

I nod and then he’s gone too, leaving nothing but the barrels and blank onrushing faces in the imminent dusk. I wind my scarf tighter and walk, eyes downcast, past Di Fara toward the train.

Suddenly, I need the hour back to Manhattan.


My memoir, Nub: Story of an Ex-Cripple was published in 2007. My work has also appeared in Vestal Review and Concho River Review. I’m currently working on a novel about the Cajun culture of south Louisiana. My MFA is from UC Riverside/Palm Desert.