One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (6 page)

BOOK: One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross

“Look, David,” said Lanigan, “don't make a big thing out of it. Just if you happen to think of it. I'm sure Amy wouldn't want you to go to any trouble.”

“Of course not—”

“It's all right,” said Miriam. “David makes notes because he can't remember. But then he forgets to look at the notes. But I'll remember, Amy, and since I'll be getting it—”

“I suppose you've had a lot of requests from your congregation,” said Lanigan.

The rabbi smiled as he flipped the pages of his notebook. “Pills for her sister—Mrs. Gross; psychology book—Oscar Lamed; greetings—Mandelman family; notify Ben Levy re his brother Aaron—gall bladder operation successful; talk to and size up Ish-Tov, formerly Jordan Goodman—”

“Jordan Goodman? Louis Goodman's boy. I remember him,” said Lanigan. “Is he over there? He changed his name?”

“He didn't so much change it as translate it.
means man and
means good, so Ish-Tov is a translation of Goodman. He's become religious. What we call a Baal Tshuvah, in a yeshiva there.”

“You mean like born again?”

“Sort of. You know him? Officially, I mean?”

“Oh, it was years ago. There's a professor at Northhaven lives here in town. We've got quite a few of them—professors, I mean—living here in town: Harvard, B.U., Northeastern, that's because they're about half an hour south of here. And Northhaven, which is about the same distance north. Well, this one had a picture window in his house broken. He called us about it. Said he was sure it was the Goodman boy. Had he seen him do it? No. Had anyone seen him? No, but the boy had threatened him. Seems he'd cut him off from his scholarship. The professor was on the Scholarship Committee, I gather. Naturally, we said we'd look into it. It wasn't what you'd call a high-priority item, what with there being no proof. But I sent someone down to see Louis a few days later and he reported back that the boy had left town. So maybe he did do it. And that was the end of it. I certainly wasn't going to put out an all-points bulletin over a broken window.”

“That's all?”

“Yeah. Oh, then sometime later Louis came to see me about the boy. He had a snapshot of the boy in a long white gown and he was now a member of some crazy group in Arizona. Louis thought they might be a cult like the Moonies or the Hari Krishna and that maybe they brainwashed him and he might be a kind of prisoner. Well, of course, if he was being held against his will, I could notify the Arizona authorities. I
make some inquiries. According to the report I got they were supposed to be harmless. Some pot, maybe they even grew it. And, no doubt, some easygoing sex, but nothing the Arizona people were interested in doing anything about. So now he's turned back to his own religion, has he? Well, that's good. Louis and Rose must be happy.”

“I'm not sure that they are. Things are not the same with us as with you. Your religion is grounded in faith, and return—some sects use the term ‘to be born again' meaning to recover one's faith, to believe once again. But our religion is a matter of obeying specific commandments. One who falls away from his religion doesn't stop obeying all the commandments—thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness—merely some of them. He may stop observing the Sabbath or obeying the dietary laws—or he may continue to obey those because they're apt to be a matter of dietary habit.…” The rabbi smiled. “If I converted to Christianity tomorrow, I still wouldn't be able to eat a lobster.”

“I get it,” said Lanigan. “You mean when they fall away and become atheistic they continue to obey the major commandments but don't bother with the minor ones.”

“Well, in theory we don't distinguish between major commandments and minor ones. A commandment is a commandment. Perhaps you might say the liturgical rather than the moral and ethical ones. But that's pretty much it.”

“So when they become a what did you call it, a ballchew?”

“Baal Tshuvah,” the rabbi said with a smile.

“Then he starts observing all the commandments? What sort of thing does he do?”

“Well, he might wear a
, a skullcap, all the time, and he's apt to stop shaving. ‘Thou shalt not trim the corners of your beard.' And he'd be meticulous about reciting his prayers three times a day. He'd make sure to wash his hands and recite the blessings that are called for before eating. Most of all, I suppose he'd spend a good deal of time in study.”

“Not in prayer?” asked Amy.

“No, we just recite the prayers that are enjoined on us. There is no merit in repeating them. In fact, it might be considered to be taking the name of the Lord in vain.”

“How about girls, women: Do they have to keep away from them?” asked Amy Lanigan.

“Pretty much, in the sense of socializing. But they're expected to marry and have lots of children.”

“But if they don't socialize with girls,” asked Amy, “how do they get to meet their wives?”

Miriam laughed. “There's always the matchmaker, the

“And I suppose keeping them apart from women makes the matchmaker's job all the easier,” suggested Lanigan. “But tell me, how do they make a living? Does this school train them for any profession? Do they become rabbis?”

“Some of them do, I suppose,” said the rabbi. “It's a different kind of job there than it is here, though. It might involve being a clerk in one of the rabbinical courts, or a
, a sort of supervisor of the dietary laws in a hotel or restaurant, or a teacher. Some leave to go into some purely secular activity. Some just stay on.”

“So what are you looking for when you go to see young Goodman?”

The rabbi shook his head. “His mother would like to know if he appears well fed and healthy. His father—I don't know. Perhaps whether there is any chance of his coming back. At least that's what I'd want to know if it were my Jonathon.”

“You wouldn't want him to become one of those Baal—”

Rabbi Small shook his head vigorously.

“But why not?” asked Amy Lanigan. “It's a religious life, isn't it? I should think you of all people would want him to have a religious life if he could.”

The rabbi chuckled. “Not really, not in the sense that you people use the term. I'm not a man of God or the spiritual leader of the congregation in the sense that a priest or a Protestant minister is. My duties are essentially secular. I am authorized to sit in judgment or to arbitrate on disputes, but no one ever comes to me to pass judgment. It has happened to me only once since I've been here. And even as to advising on matters pertaining to the proper way of observing the commandments, I am rarely called upon. The congregation here is not that meticulous in its observance. So I am largely confined to maintaining and teaching our tradition. My sermons are directed to that end, but I'm afraid fewer and fewer of my congregants care. Most of them regard the sermon as a break in the tedium of the service. We have a great respect for learning and study. After all, it's what distinguishes us from the lower animals. But to spend one's life in study in a yeshiva, as in a monastery or convent, is to shirk one's responsibility to the everyday world. We respect the learned, but we expect them to be involved in society and the world's work. Even our great sages of the Talmudic era all had secular jobs of one sort or another, some of them quite menial. You see, the practice of Judaism is essentially an amateur occupation.”

“But if he received a call—” Amy urged.

“You mean the way Jonah did? ‘Go preach to the people of Nineveh.' No. And if you remember,
was unwilling. When he finally did, he found it most unsatisfactory. God didn't destroy the city, which left him disgruntled and embarrassed.”

“But you did, didn't you?” Amy persisted.

“Receive a call?” The rabbi smiled broadly. “Only from old Jacob Wasserman, the chairman of the Ritual Committee, at the time.”


Miriam slid over to occupy the window seat. The rabbi folded their coats and laid them out carefully in the luggage compartment above. “Do you want me to put your bag up there, too?” he asked.

“No, I'll keep it on the floor at my feet,” said Miriam.

The rabbi took the middle seat, strapped himself in, and then fished in the pocket on the back of the seat in front of him for something to read. There was only the plastic card with the diagram of the plane and instructions on what to do in case of an emergency.

“The stewardess will be around soon with papers and magazines,” said Miriam. She fished in her bag. “Or do you want to read my
Ladies' Home Journal

“No. It's all right. I'll wait.”

They watched as passengers moved down the aisle, some stopping to check seat numbers, some stopping to load hand luggage and coats into the baggage compartments and then to take their seats beneath. They wondered if it was a full plane, and if someone would take the aisle seat beside them, or if it would be left vacant so they could have an extra seat in which to stretch out.

They were not kept in uncertainty for long. A well-dressed man of medium height stopped at their row, checked the letters of the seats against the notation on his boarding pass, and smiling down at the rabbi, said, “I guess this is it.” He placed the topcoat he was carrying over his arm and his carry-on case in the rack overhead and then sat down and buckled himself in. Almost immediately he took out a paperback from his jacket pocket and began to read. But a moment later he unbuckled himself and took off his suit jacket. As he folded it neatly before placing it in the rack overhead, the rabbi noted that his name, James Skinner, was embroidered on the inside breast pocket. Then once again he took his seat, buckled himself in, and opened his paperback.

The rabbi, having no reading matter to occupy him, found himself glancing covertly at his seatmate, wondering about his reason for going to Israel. He was obviously Gentile on the basis of both his appearance and his name. Was he traveling on business, or was he planning to tour the country? Was he, perhaps, a missionary, or a scholar? Perhaps he was an archaeologist who was planning to take part in one of the various digs that were being conducted in various parts of the country.

Miriam turned around to look toward the stewards' station and then asked, “Do you suppose they'll be serving soon, David?”

“On these late-night flights, just as soon as we're airborne, I imagine,” said the rabbi.

A steward walked slowly up the aisle, his head turning from side to side, checking to see if everyone was strapped in, his seat back upright.

The rabbi's seatmate looked up from his book, and addressing the steward in Hebrew, he said, “You'll be serving almost immediately, won't you? I'm starved.”

“We'll be serving drinks as soon as we're airborne,” said the steward, “and dinner immediately after.”

When the rabbi translated for Miriam, the stranger said, “Oh, you speak Hebrew?”

“Yes, I'm a rabbi. David Small. And this is my wife, Miriam.”

“How do you do? I'm James Skinner.”

“Yes, I know,” said Rabbi Small. “I saw the name on your jacket.” He chuckled. “When I saw the name, I assumed you weren't Jewish.”

“I'm not.”

“But you speak Hebrew.”

“I was born in Jerusalem.” He smiled. “So was my father, for that matter. We're from Minnesota originally and I still have”—he grinned—mishpacha there.”

“It was your grandparents who first came to Israel?” asked Miriam.

“Palestine, then,” he corrected her. “But the Holy Land, in any case. That's right, they came because it
the Holy Land. It was a pilgrimage of faith. Actually, they were on their honeymoon. That was back in 1906 or '07.”

“And they just stayed on?”

“Well, no. But Grandpa saw a chance to do some business there. His people were in the wholesale grocery business, and he had the bright idea of shipping out dried figs under the label ‘Fruit from the Holy Land.' See, his family's business covered a good portion of northern Minnesota. That area of the country was pretty religious—still is, I reckon—and he figured anything from the Holy Land would sell.”

“And did it?” asked the rabbi.

“It sure did. Not only did it sell well to the firm's regular customers, but it also gave them a toe-in to new territory. Later, Grandpa shipped other stuff—olives and olive oil, dates, almonds, saffron—a whole slew of stuff, nuts and dried fruits. Anything that would travel.”

“And your grandfather stayed on?” asked Miriam.

“Oh, he came back to the States now and again, but his home was in Jerusalem. He liked the climate and he liked the area. I guess almost anything is preferable to a Minnesota winter. When I'm in the States I live in Boston, which is bad enough, but not nearly as bad as northern Minnesota. He, Grandpa, stayed in Palestine until his father died, and he went back to Minnesota permanently to handle the family business. And, of course, by that time my father was old enough to take over the operation in Jerusalem. He had bought a house in Abu Tor, and we conducted our business from there. Then things began to get a bit sticky, too close to the Arab section, and we left the house and took an apartment in Rehavia, for safety, you understand.”

“So your father opted for the Jewish Side?”

Skinner laughed. “Not really. Of course, the Jews were the Chosen People, but on the other hand, they had repudiated the Christ. Then most of his business associates were Arabs. I guess he was inclined to be neutral, except that he did hate the British, and since they seemed to be anti-Jewish at the time, he tended to side with the Jews. You know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. He was even of some assistance to the Haganah on occasion. My older sister and I had been sent back to the States, where we remained. I went to school in the States, which always was my father's intention. My sister never came back; she met someone and got married. I came back after the Six-Day War.

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