by Robert Wilkinson
I posted this on the old site when it first hit the news. This story about a talking fish announcing the "end of days" is one of the weirder things I've seen reported in the media, and it's so surrealistic I figure it's worth posting it again. I left it in its original format since I had no idea how long we'd have access to the news story. As a Master once intoned, "So for your consideration, a tale of a fish speaking Hebrew, a Christian fish cutter, and a warning for us all. Welcome to the Twilight Zone."
Fish Talks, Town Buzzes
By COREY KILGANNON
NEW SQUARE, N.Y., March 13 — And so it came to pass that a talking carp, shouting in Hebrew, shattered the calm of the New Square Fish Market and created what many here are calling a miracle. Of course, others are calling it a Purim trick, a loopy tale worthy of Isaac Bashevis Singer or just a whopping fish story concocted by a couple of meshugenehs. Whatever one calls it, the tale of the talking fish has spread in recent weeks throughout this tight-knit Rockland Co. community, populated by about 7,000 members of the Skver sect of Hasidim, and throughout the Hasidic world, inspiring heated debate, Talmudic discussions and derisive jokes.
The story goes that a 20-pound carp about to be slaughtered and made into gefilte fish for Sabbath dinner began speaking in Hebrew, shouting apocalyptic warnings and claiming to be the troubled soul of a revered community elder who recently died. Many people here believe that it was God revealing himself that day to two fish cutters in the fish market, Zalmen Rosen, a 57-year-old Hasid with 11 children, and his co-worker Luis Nivelo, a 30-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant.
Some people say the story is as credible as the Bible's account of the burning bush. Others compare it to a U.F.O. sighting. But the story rapidly spread around the world from this town about 30 miles NW of Manhattan, first through word of mouth, then through the Jewish press. The two men say they have each gotten hundreds of phone calls from Jews all over the world. "Ah, enough already about the fish," Mr. Rosen said today at the shop, as he skinned a large carp. "I wish I never said anything about it. I'm getting so many calls every day, I've stopped answering. Israel, London, Miami, Brooklyn. They all want to hear about the talking fish."
Here then is the story, according to the two men, the only witnesses. Mr. Rosen, whose family owns the store, and Mr. Nivelo, who has worked at the shop for seven years, say that on Jan. 28 at 4 p.m. they were carving up carp. Mr. Nivelo, who is not Jewish, lifted a live carp out of a box of iced-down fish and was about to club it in the head. But the fish began speaking in Hebrew, according to the two men. Mr. Nivelo does not understand Hebrew, but the shock of a fish speaking any language, he said, forced him against the wall and down to the slimy wooden packing crates that cover the floor.
He looked around to see if the voice had come from the slop sink, the other room or the shop's cat. Then he ran into the front of the store screaming, "The fish is talking!" and pulled Mr. Rosen away from the phone. "I screamed, `It's the devil! The devil is here!' " he recalled. "But Zalmen said to me, `You crazy, you a meshugeneh.' "
But Mr. Rosen said that when he approached the fish he heard it uttering warnings and commands in Hebrew. "It said `Tzaruch shemirah' and `Hasof bah,' " he said, "which essentially means that everyone needs to account for themselves because the end is near." The fish commanded Mr. Rosen to pray and to study the Torah and identified itself as the soul of a local Hasidic man who died last year, childless. The man often bought carp at the shop for the Sabbath meals of poorer village residents.
Mr. Rosen panicked and tried to kill the fish with a machete-size knife. But the fish bucked so wildly that Mr. Rosen wound up cutting his own thumb and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The fish flopped off the counter and back into the carp box and was butchered by Mr. Nivelo and sold.
The story has been told and retold, and many Jews believe that the talking fish was a rare shimmer of God's spirit. Some call it a warning about the dangers of the impending war in Iraq. "Two men do not dream the same dream," said Abraham Spitz, a New Square resident who stopped by the store this week. "It is very rare that God reminds people he exists in this modern world. But when he does, you cannot ignore it."
Others consider it as fictional as Tony Soprano's talking-fish dream in an episode of the "The Sopranos." "Listen to what I'm telling you: Only children take this seriously," said Rabbi C. Meyer of the New Square Beth Din of Kashrus, which administers kosher-food rules. "This is like a U.F.O. story. I don't care if it is the talk of the town."
Whether hoax or historic event, it jibes with the belief of some Hasidic sects that righteous people can be reincarnated as fish. Unnatural occurrences play a part in the mystical beliefs of members of the Skver sect. On the other hand, some skeptics note that the Jewish festival of Purim, which starts Monday night, is marked by merriment and pranks, which might be a less elevated explanation for the story.
Some community members are calling the two men an enlightened pair chosen to receive the message. Others have said that Mr. Nivelo may have been selected because he is not Jewish. "If this was a story concocted by a bunch of Jewish guys, it might be suspect, but this Luis, or whatever his name is, he has no idea what this means," said Matisyahu Wolfberg, a local lawyer. "If people say God talks to them, we recommend a psychiatrist, but this is different," said Mr. Wolfberg, sitting in his office with his black hat resting atop his computer terminal. "This is one of those historical times when God reveals himself for a reason. It has sent spiritual shock waves throughout the Jewish community worldwide and will be talked about throughout the ages."
Zev Brenner, who last week broadcast a show about the fish on "Talk Line," his talk radio show on Jewish issues, on WMCA-AM (570) and WSNR-AM (620), said that the story has fascinated the religious community worldwide. "I've gotten calls from all over asking `Did you hear about the fish?' " he said. "You can imagine, a talking fish has got people buzzing. This is going to be talked about for a long time to come, unless it's somehow verified as a hoax, which is hard to imagine, since the proof has been eaten up."
Mr. Brenner said that the story is so well known that it has inspired a whole new genre of wedding jokes for Jewish comedians. "The station had an advertiser, a gefilte fish manufacturer, who considered changing his slogan to `Our fish speaks for itself,' but decided people would be offended," he said.
As for Mr. Nivelo, a practicing Christian, he still believes the babbling carp was the devil. His wife told him he was crazy, and his 6-year-old daughter even laughs at him. "I don't believe any of this Jewish stuff," he said. "But I heard that fish talk." He said that Spanish-speaking rabbis have been calling his home every day and night asking him to recount the story. "It's just a big headache for me," he added. "I pull my phone out of the wall at night. I don't sleep and I've lost weight."
Mr. Rosen said that he spoke to his wife, who was visiting Israel, and that she had already heard the story from someone else. "My phone doesn't stop ringing," Mr. Rosen said. "Always interruptions, people coming in and taking their picture with me." He paused and turned to Mr. Nivelo, who was cutting salmon for a customer.
"No, too big," he said. "She wants appetizer."
(Originally posted May 8, 2004)