Letters to Israel
By Cary Gitter
“I like Rabbi Herman Fink.”
This is what Eve Lind, forty-seven-year-old pianist, thought to herself as she watched the rabbi on the hot, humid morning of Sunday, September 6, 2014. It was nearly noon, and she’d come to Congregation Sons of Israel to fetch her daughter, Aurora, from her first day of Hebrew school that year. In May, pretty, precocious Aurora, just turned twelve, would be bat mitzvah’ed.
Eve — a dead ringer for the actress Amy Irving, people still gushed — stood at the back of the modest, white-walled sanctuary, under marble plaques memorializing dead Jews who’d belonged to the small Reform synagogue. A second ago, as she walked in, there’d been cacophonous chaos. Fifty kids, ages five to twelve, had packed into the pews, jabbering and fidgeting and giggling after three captive weekend hours in classes — all while the chronically disrespected Cantor Melissa, an acne-ridden recent cantorial school grad, fought to lead them in concluding prayers.
But suddenly the children snapped silent. Rabbi Fink had ascended the bima.
It wasn’t that the old rabbi intimidated. A sturdy, tanned seventy-five, he still boasted the boxy body of the Golden Glove boxer he’d been as a teenager back in the fifties. But out of his neatly trimmed silver beard shone, almost invariably, the grandfatherly grin of a zeyde. He emanated the priestly aura of a man at peace, a man of achievement, a man awash with affection for his Jewish world. Rather than sternness, this benevolent venerability, which the children could sense but not articulate, subdued them in his presence. To misbehave in front of him would have provoked shame. He ruled by love.
Eve felt it too. In the two years since the semi-retired Rabbi Fink had arrived in River Hill to take over tiny Sons of Israel — after leading the vast Temple Beth El, down in Central Jersey, for three decades — she’d spent more time with him than most. The setting for their time together was mainly the bima, where Eve, as one of her many piano gigs, played the keyboard at High Holiday services and other special occasions. (The temple lacked the funds to afford a year-round accompanist.) She’d sat for countless hours on the side of the stage, poised at her Yamaha, observing the rabbi at work. And although she recognized that age was slowing him down — his sermons growing more circuitous, the pauses between his words lengthening — she felt the warmth of the paternal, spiritual glow still radiating from him. Even Eve — a non-believing “cultural” Jew, apt to look down her statuesque nose at the provinciality of the congregation and its suburban milieu — even she liked the man.
“Shalom!” he called to the kids through a toothy grin, visibly perspiring in his navy-blue wool suit. A traditionalist, he wore suits in all weather.
“Shalom, Rabbi!” the chorus replied in dissonant unison.
“How was your first day of Hebrew school?”
Head tilted, hand to ear: “I can’t hear you . . .”
“Gooood!” they yelled, except for the anarchic sixth-grader Dylan Green, who shrieked, “Bad!”
“It’s great to see your faces again. I hope you had terrific” — Rabbi Fink’s favorite adjective; he used it endlessly, especially with children — “summers.”
Then all at once his trademark cheery expression vanished, like a card shuffled to the back of a deck, in favor of his patented grave one: pursed lips, narrowed eyes, jungle-thick eyebrows slanted down. Dramatic pause. “Unfortunately, this was not a terrific summer for everyone. It was not a terrific summer for our brothers and sisters in Israel. Does anybody know why?”
Oh God, Eve thought. The muscles of her slender frame tightened whenever the temple talk, either the rabbi’s or her fellow congregants’, turned to Israel. For she and her Gentile husband, Matthew Lind, a Lutheran-born atheist, were, as far as she knew, the sole members of Sons of Israel who supported the Palestinian cause and scorned Israel as an occupying oppressor. A prudent couple, they never dared to air this attitude within the synagogue community. Eve had wanted to send their daughter to Hebrew school because of Judaism’s rich heritage, not its politics, and she’d persuaded the reluctant Matthew that the “Israel stuff” wouldn’t be a big deal. The goal should be to help Aurora find her identity. When the loaded topic did come up, well, they could tell her to listen with a critical ear. Still, Eve inevitably tensed whenever Israel was mentioned at synagogue.
The instant Rabbi Fink asked the kids why Israel’s summer had been less than terrific, the pencil-thin arm of Rachel Koenig, a bespectacled ten-year-old know-it-all, flew up.
The rabbi seemed to struggle for her name, to no avail. “Yes?”
“The Palestinians attacked Israel again, and Israel had to fight a war,” the girl chirped.
Surely, Eve assumed, this girl was parroting mealtime remarks she’d heard her parents make.
The rabbi nodded soberly. “Yes. This summer our Jewish homeland fought for its existence once again. There was great fear. Lives were lost. Now, Baruch Hashem, there is a ceasefire, and the rockets from Gaza aimed at our brothers and sisters have stopped. But it has been a tragic time.”
A pious hush filled the room. From her post at the rear, Eve peered out over the tribe of unmoving children and wondered what the rabbi’s weighty words on Gaza could possibly mean to them — these carefree sons and daughters of River Hill, NJ, a cozy, upper-middle-class nook, untouched by the troubles that brutalize so much of the earth’s population. Sure, the kids dimly perceived a faraway place called Israel whose perpetual peril they were supposed to care about. But didn’t they really want to go out and play?
Eve spotted the back of her own child’s head, haloed by the same bountiful brown curls as hers. Poor Aurora, trapped between this worship of Israel she heard at Hebrew school and the disdain for it she heard at home, particularly from her dad. What was she thinking now as Rabbi Fink grieved for the heroic state as a target of wanton Palestinian terror?
“Because of the sad events of the summer,” he continued, stepping down from the bima into the aisle, like an actor seeking greater intimacy with his audience, “we’re going to do something very special here next Sunday. My friend Rabbi Resnikoff at the URJ — does anybody know what the URJ is?”
Eager to hear about this “something very special” — to learn what Israel-related scheme her daughter was about to be implicated in — Eve felt more impatience than usual with the rabbi’s habit of punctuating his statements to children with, “Does anybody know . . .?” She ran her hand anxiously through her hair.
Smarty Rachel Koenig didn’t even wait to be called on. “The URJ is the Union for Reform Judaism!”
“Very good, young lady. After the recent fighting my friend Rabbi Resnikoff has started a terrific” — that word again — “program with the URJ that you’re all going to participate in. It’s called ‘Letters to Israel.’ Have you all written letters before?”
“Well, next week you’re each going to write a letter of support to a soldier in the IDF. Who can tell me what the IDF is?”
A letter to an Israeli soldier?Eve immediately suffered a drop somewhere in her gut.
This time the arm that shot skyward fastest belonged not to straight-A Rachel Koenig but to husky, ten-year-old Max Ziegler. In the eighties, Max’s Bronx-born plumber dad, Lou, had gone to fight for Israel in Lebanon. Eve knew this because the man brought it up incessantly.
“The IDF is Israel’s army,” the boy said with filial passion, “and everybody in Israel has to join.”
“The Israel Defense Forces. That’s right.” Rabbi Fink, once more unable to locate a child’s name — within what Eve envisioned as the fog of his aging mind — instead squeezed Max’s shoulder with his boxer’s grip. “Unlike in America, in Israel every citizen must join the military when they turn eighteen. Male and female. If all of you lived there, that would be you in a few years.”
He surveyed the sea of upturned Jewish baby faces, his hazel eyes unusually serious in the effort to drive this point home. Were the kids imagining themselves in tanks, with guns?
“But you’re very lucky to be safe here, while brave young Israeli men and women defend the Jewish state for us, as they have this summer. That’s why each of you is going to write a letter of gratitude to one IDF soldier next Sunday. Through Rabbi Resnikoff’s terrific program, you’ll receive the name and a picture of your soldier — men for boys, women for girls — and you’ll have the opportunity to thank them for their courage and sacrifices.”
As soon as the rabbi finished, Eve saw her daughter spin around in her seat in the center of one of the kid-crammed pews, searching for her. Aurora knew as well as Eve did that Rabbi Fink’s plan represented a huge problem. It was not okay. It totally contradicted all that she had ever absorbed from her parents about the downtrodden Palestinians and their powerful, American-sponsored persecutor. She had learned from them that Israel lacked any logical right to exist in the Middle East. It illegally inhabited Palestine’s land, subjugated its people and waged disproportionate war on them. And, although Eve might have allowed Aurora to author the letter so as not to stir up trouble with the temple, Matthew Lind would no doubt be less tolerant.
Mother’s and daughter’s eyes met across the room. Eve read the nervous uncertainty on Aurora’s typically placid face — a mirror, maybe, of her own: Mom, what does this mean? Am I going to write this letter? What will Dad say? In the child’s five years of religious school, she had never been asked — either by Rabbi Fink or by his diametrically opposite predecessor, Rabbi Wendi, a thirty-something, guitar-strumming hippie — to endorse Israel so directly. Obviously Aurora had heard plenty of positive talk about the country, which she’d taken with the ample lump of salt her parents had handed her, but this appeal for an expression of support was a first. A Letter to Israel. Pen pals with the civilian-bombing IDF.
Had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“the yahoo,” as Matthew called him) been here, he might’ve called Rabbi Fink’s announcement a “red line”: the point past which the Linds would not go.
A loud, staccato farting noise interrupted Eve and Aurora’s worried mother-daughter interplay. The vaudevillian blares blew apart the brief quiet that had followed the rabbi’s last remarks. Everyone — clergy, children, a dozen or so newly arrived parents — swiveled to track down the source of the sound. Sure enough, at the end of a pew, in the middle of the sanctuary, there was the devilish eleven-year-old Dylan Green furiously flapping his right arm, with his other hand tucked under it, to produce the farcical, flatulent toots. Plainly the prospect of corresponding with a member of the Israel Defense Forces had left the boy unimpressed. The Hebrew schoolers sitting nearest to him did everything in their power to suppress their laughter — but failed.
Rabbi Fink had reached too august a stage of his career to scold mini miscreants, so the beleaguered young Cantor Melissa bounded off the bima to go shut Dylan up.
Meanwhile the rabbi, appearing a little lightheaded from the muggy air, smiled at the kids. Solemn speech over: Cheery Rabbi restored. “Well, it is terrific to see all of you back at school. Don’t forget to figure out what you want to say to your soldier next Sunday. Shalom!”
As the children bolted into the aisle, Eve looked from the kindly old rabbi to Aurora, her guileless daughter, and then to the American and Israeli flags that flanked the temple’s wood-paneled ark — and all she could think of, with trepidation, was her husband’s impending reaction to the Letters to Israel project. What was Matthew going to say?
“Should I make the call, or should you?” Matthew Lind asked her that night.
The couple stood in the warmly lit, sleekly renovated kitchen of their century-old River Hill house, where Eve was kneading the dough for a loaf of Mediterranean black-olive bread. She’d picked up bread-making as a hobby in the past few years, primarily because it bore no connection to music.
The Linds maintained an obsessively musical household, and Eve savored any respite from melody and rhythm. In addition to her own work as a home-based piano teacher and an accompanist for small choruses in the area — despite her classical training, she’d never aspired to a concert career — Matthew himself knew some renown as a jazz critic and scholar. Music filled the house constantly: Matthew’s jazz albums on the Klipsch stereo in the living room; Eve and her students on the Steinway grand in the den; and, since last year, Aurora in her room on the dinged-up flute she’d received after joining the middle school band. So Eve felt grateful for these rare silent moments when she could knead dough alone at the smooth, marble counter.
Matthew earned the bulk of the family’s income through his professorship in NYU’s cultural reporting and criticism program, while Eve managed the greater share of parenting Aurora. But now, Matthew had trespassed.
“Should I make the call or should you?”
Eve took one last, longing look at the sliced black olives peering out of the dough. Then she pivoted around to face her spouse.
Just months from fifty, leather-skinned, he wore his bourgeois bohemian uniform: rumpled slacks, open-collared, earth-toned shirt and moccasins — all in thrall to a big, unruly head of graying hair that screamed a final protest against small-town domesticity. His eyes had that filmy look they got whenever he holed up in his office to pound out a record review for DownBeat.
“The call?” Eve pointlessly pretended not to comprehend Matthew’s question.
She did, of course. Earlier, around noon, she and Aurora, both equally uneasy, had returned home from Hebrew school and, over a Sunday family lunch of hummus and pita, told him about the Letters to Israel program. Matthew had greeted the report with surprising stoicism, nodding and saying nothing in front of his daughter but notifying Eve with a hard glance that they’d discuss it later.
Later, apparently, had come.
“Yeah, do you want to call the rabbi, or should I?” Matthew asked, shuffling to the fridge and retrieving the Brita pitcher to pour himself a glass of water. “About the Israel thing.”
“So it’s a big deal to you?”
“What? Yes. We’re not letting Aurora write a fan letter to some Israeli soldier . . .”
“The whole Hebrew school’s going to do it.”
“So.” Eve gazed at her floury hands as if yearning to penetrate deeply into their grainy whiteness and out of the reality in which she’d idiotically placed her daughter in the care of a Jewish institution whose core allegiances her own husband — and she also, to a degree — opposed.
“You okay?” Annoyance, not concern, colored Matthew’s tone.
“Okay. Well, I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t expect this to even be a discussion.”
“I’m just . . . thinking of Aurora,” Eve said. She could hear her, blessedly innocent and apolitical, begin to practice the flute upstairs. “I mean, clearly I don’t like the idea of her writing the letter either . . .”
“Right, since it would pretty much make a mockery of everything we’ve instilled in her about the injustice in Palestine. ‘Oh, no, sweetie, it’s actually okay, you can thank the good IDF guy . . .’”
“She’d be writing to a female soldier.”
“Whatever. Isn’t that kind of sexist? Why are they having the boys write to male soldiers and the girls write to women?”
“I don’t know. And of course I agree with you about the . . . the hypocrisy of the letter, but . . .”
“But what, Eve?” Whether enduring a lousy jazz show or bristling at his wife’s illogic, Matthew had a squinting, incredulous glare that shamed its targets.
“I’d hate for Aurora to have to, you know, start off her bat mitzvah year in the middle of a conflict with the Hebrew school — with Rabbi Fink. She’d be the one kid not writing a letter on Sunday, and it’ll make her stand out. It’ll probably be confusing and hard for her.”
Drifting down faintly, haltingly, from the girl’s room came the flute part from her school band’s arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon. The well-worn stream of notes — a schmaltzy staple of weddings and graduations that Eve had probably played a thousand times on the keyboard — seemed to Eve to rise and fall in ironic counterpoint to her dispute with Matthew. But was this a dispute? Weren’t she and he in complete agreement about Israel’s inherent wrongness? Then why did she now hear herself arguing that they should, of all things, let Aurora write the letter?
“Look, I don’t want Aurora to feel uncomfortable at Hebrew school either,” Matthew said. “But what’s the alternative?”
“She goes next week and jots down a letter like everyone else. We can tell her she’s supporting a young person on the other side of the world who’s . . . who’s caught up in a tragedy . . .”
“A soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.”
“Yeah, who was, what’s the word, conscripted, who doesn’t have a choice . . .”
“That’s beside the point. Israel isn’t ‘caught up’ in a tragedy. Israel creates the tragedy.”
“Maybe that’s a little extreme . . .”
“Eve,” Matthew said in a tone that sounded like, “Who are you?” With manic fingertips he scratched at his permanent stubble. Watching this motion and recalling his pointed glare of a minute ago, Eve realized that by middle age this man, who took such pride in his fierce intellectual originality — the quality that had attracted her most to him in the first place — had amassed a stockpile of predictable gestures and expressions.
“What message would this send?” he went on, his speech soaring with characteristic indignation. “All summer Aurora’s heard us talking about another Israeli invasion of Gaza, with thousands of Palestinians killed — and most of them civilians — and less than a hundred Israelis. She’s heard me say ‘war crimes,’ but then all of a sudden, because senile Rabbi Fink says so . . .”
“He’s not . . .”
“I’d say ‘early dementia’, judging from the last few sermons I’ve had to sit through.”
From where had this spite emerged, Eve wondered. She didn’t recall it as one of the ingredients that had made up the Matthew she’d once known, but these days it salted so many of his words.
He continued, “Because the rabbi says so, we tell Aurora no, it’s actually fine for her to go to Sunday school and write a letter of thanks to an IDF soldier? The same IDF that’s done all this killing and displaced hundreds of thousands of Gazans, again, so Israel can keep Palestine down? How could we look our own daughter in the eye? Aurora won’t know what to believe anymore.”
As Matthew unleashed this latest diatribe against the Jewish state, Eve glimpsed — over his shoulder, in the living room beyond the yellow-lit kitchen — her dead father’s face. His mustached smile, oversized glasses and bald head floated, disembodied, in the pale light. A photo of him hung on the wall. Slipping out from under the torrent of Matthew’s tirade, Eve let her thoughts settle on the very different ways in which her husband and her father uttered the word “Israel.”
Eve had been close to her dad, Abe Abravanel, a wide block of a guy who’d sweated selling shmattes in the Bronx for Schloff’s Women’s Garments. Born in 1935, he’d grown up alongside antisemitism: Italian kids branding him “Christ killer,” Hitler staring determinedly out of newspapers. Then, on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, with his aureole of white hair, spoke Israel into being. After the incineration of a continent’s Jews, a miracle — a homeland. Abe never traveled there, but in his sandpapery voice he’d always said “Israel” to Eve with the profoundest love, as if he’d proudly beheld the splendor of Galilee from atop Mount Meron.
Eve’s husband, on the other hand, pronounced “Israel” with a clipped tone of disgust. He and his father-in-law hadn’t gotten along. A descendant of Scandinavian Lutherans, Matthew possessed no emotional tie to the country. In his combatively leftist view — one shared by his colleagues at NYU — Israel persisted as one of the modern world’s abusive powers, first forcing the Palestinians out of their rightful land and then proceeding in the ensuing decades to oppress and assail them. That the oppressors should be Jews, themselves historical victims of persecution, made it all the more galling.
So here Matthew was, haranguing Eve on how monstrously dishonest it would be if the two of them — both conscientious critics of Israel — permitted their child to salute, via the mail, an IDF aggressor. Once he’d finished speaking, he sighed and sipped his water. Aurora’s flute wheezed upstairs.
“Well?” asked Matthew.
“I guess you’re right.” Eve found herself mouthing her classic mantra of capitulation.
“No, you’re right. I mean, Aurora is going to feel weird being the only one not writing to a soldier. But yeah, I suppose she’d feel even weirder doing the exact opposite of what we’ve taught her about the Middle East. She wouldn’t know where we stand.”
“My point. Thank you.” Emboldened by victory, Matthew ambled across the kitchen, and his nasal voice deepened, “You know, episodes like this — Israel stuff — that’s why I was unsure about Hebrew school for Aurora in the first place.”
Not this again. Eve’s father’s ghost winked at her from the living room. “Hebrew school does her more good than harm,” she protested. “And she likes going. She’s very excited about her bat mitzvah.”
Matthew looked unconvinced. “So which of us calls to break the news to Rabbi Fink?”
“I’ll do it. We both know you’re not going to.”
“Hey, I’ll . . .”
“But I’m not going to call him. I’ll go see him at the temple tomorrow. Sorry, I need to put this bread in the oven.” Eve wheeled around to regard lovingly, desperately, her expanding dough, an earthy blend she’d sculpted with her own hands, independent of Matthew.
“Why not call him now?”
“Because, Matthew . . .” Jesus, he’d already won; why did he care? “. . . I have to play on the bima with the rabbi at Rosh Hashana in three weeks. I’d like to do him the courtesy of telling him in person that we don’t want Aurora writing a letter to the IDF. It’s going to break his heart.”
“Well, that’s his fault. He shouldn’t expect every congregant to automatically share his rah-rah go-Israel trip. It’s not exactly an uncontroversial issue.”
“Rabbi Fink’s of a different generation. He’s like my dad with Israel.”
“Great excuse.” Matthew rolled his eyes, which still appeared bloodshot from the hours he’d spent typing on the archaic, harshly bright computer up in his office, where he had probably used epithets like “derivative” to quash the hopes of some young jazz combo making its record debut. “Thanks for talking to the rabbi. I’ll tell Aurora she won’t have to do the letter.”
Good, Eve thought, it’s over. Now I can return to my olive bread and savor the rest of this night, before I have to wake up tomorrow and pay the rabbi an unpleasant visit. Aurora will mess around and make silly noises with her flute in her room, as she always does after a half hour’s conscientious practice. And Matthew will ascend to his professorial lair crowded with slanting skyscrapers of books and CDs, having once more come out on top of a spousal conflict.
But again: why did this feel like a conflict? She and he were in accord about Israel. They both thought that it had no legitimate place in the Middle East, had been victimizing the Palestinians for seventy years, that this summer’s offensive was yet another in a parade of gratuitous assaults. Naturally it would be insane to let Aurora send a laurel wreath to a warrior of the rogue Zionist state.
And yet . . .
“Are we okay?”
Matthew’s stubbly face suddenly hovered inches from Eve’s, his eyebrows earnestly upturned, a paternal timbre to his familiar question. Already, incredibly, he was in reconciliation mode. He caressed his wife’s cheek and brushed away an errant curl, which told her that he’d later try to initiate sex, an event that often capped evenings when he got his way in domestic matters.
And, as Matthew’s Nordic blue irises searched Eve’s Ashkenazic browns for an affirmation that all really was okay between them, as Aurora’s flute trilled playfully from above, as the framed, fatherly visage of Abe Abravanel grinned on in the living room, Eve thought of her freshly risen bread and of how sweet, septuagenarian Rabbi Fink would swallow the fact that Aurora wouldn’t be penning a letter to Israel.
Amid these sensations, a crazy notion invaded her head: In marrying Matthew, had she, a Jew, through some colossal oversight, married an antisemite? Or was he just a self-righteous, domineering asshole?
It’s funny how the right circumstances can erase your politics overnight.
If not permanently, at least for a while. This dawned on Eve as she sat across from the rabbi the next day, on Monday, having just finished informing him that Aurora would not be participating in the Letters to Israel program. Earlier she’d awakened in bed sensing that all her convictions about tyrannical Israel and ill-treated Palestine would be eclipsed, like the moon in the quasi-Cubist Chagall hanging down in the den, by the specter of the sad sight she now indeed saw: Rabbi Fink’s finely wrinkled, gray-bearded, bewildered face.
They sat in his office, which was situated not in the cramped synagogue itself but next door on Hill Avenue, in a rundown white house that Sons of Israel had converted into its religious school. Eve had walked here this warm, windy morning, between piano lessons, scaling the steep slope that gave the sleepy street its name, toward her dreaded confrontation with the rabbi.
The charming clutter of his stuffy office, a repository of four decades of Jewish leadership, made her feel guiltier about hurting him. Everything was yellow and brown, the colors of faded Torahs and coffee. On the shelves were tattered volumes of the Talmud. On the walls were weathered photos of him and his European-refugee wife, Talia, on summer trips to the Holy Land. In the corners of the room were stacks of paper that Eve imagined were all the sermons he’d ever finished. And on the mahogany desk were Rabbi Fink’s two most sacred icons: his zeyde’s shtetl shofar and a black-and-white picture of his twenty-four-year-old self striding past Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington.
After a few seconds the rabbi spoke. Alone here on a Monday, he nonetheless wore his formal full suit, but his private tone had a character less sonorous, more age-cracked, than its public counterpart.
“Aurora won’t be writing a letter to an Israeli soldier?”
“No, she won’t. And I know this is your thing, Rabbi, so I wanted to come tell you in person. I can keep Aurora home on Sunday, or if there’s another arrangement we can make for her . . .”
“Why won’t Aurora be writing the letter?”
Was he serious? Wasn’t it obvious that she and Matthew opposed Israel and didn’t want their daughter praising one of its military pawns? But Eve had never known crafty rhetorical inquiry to be part of Rabbi Fink’s arsenal, and when she scanned his friendly face, from tidy beard to furrowed temple, she found a childlike earnestness. He truly wanted to know why.
“Well,” she said, not quite believing that the words were departing her dry mouth, “Matthew and I have complicated feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of Aurora writing to a member of the IDF.”
There! She’d said it. In a building belonging to Congregation Sons of Israel, she’d finally revealed her family’s anti-Zionist secret. And what could the rabbi do now but accept it? As Matthew had declared last night, the issue was far from uncontroversial. In 2014, with the world’s sympathy tipping toward Palestine, dissent had to be expected even inside the Jewish community. Eve was simply the messenger to a lovable but hopelessly out-of-touch old rabbi.
“You aren’t comfortable, or Matthew isn’t?”
“Um, sorry?” Rabbi Fink’s charged, unforeseen question caught Eve off guard.
“Eve, are you the one who doesn’t want Aurora writing to a soldier, or is it Matthew?”
“It’s — it’s both of us. We share the same views. Why do you ask that?”
The rabbi, to Eve’s surprise, given the fraught situation, unveiled his signature million-kopek smile. “I know marriages.”
But he didn’t know Matthew, she thought, since her husband seldom set foot in the synagogue. So what accounted for his sniffing around for a hidden fault line between husband and wife?
“Do you mean because Matthew’s not Jewish and I am?” Eve asked “No, we’re together on this.” Were they, though? Why didn’t it seem that way in the kitchen last night? “We’re both critical of certain Israeli policies” — laughable understatement — “including the recent flare-up in Gaza? And Aurora knows that, Rabbi. She’s grown up knowing. So it would be inconsistent of us as parents to put our principles aside and let her take part in this Letters to Israel . . .”
“Israel,” Rabbi Fink interrupted.
Eve stopped short, waiting for him to go on. But that was all he said: “Israel.” His crinkled eyes darted around the office. As if her sheer utterance of the country’s name had sent him spinning away from her desperate defense, into a nationalistic reverie akin to one of her late father’s.
Distantly he continued, “I’m sorry, what you were saying reminded of my sermon for Friday.”
His sermon? Had he been listening to her? Had he even heard her explain why she and Matthew couldn’t allow Aurora to write the letter?
“You see, my sermon is about Israel. I was making notes before, on a legal pad, but then you came, and now I can’t remember where I . . .”
Before he’d finished speaking Eve noticed the legal pad on his desk, inches from him: a yellow burst that couldn’t have stood out more in the sepia office had it radiated a celestial light.
“Is that it?”
“My goodness. Right in front of my nose!”
As the rabbi glanced down at the loping scrawl of his notes, Eve’s confusion grew in tandem with a tingle of heat on her nape. First, how had he forgotten the location of the clearly conspicuous legal pad? And second, did this abrupt, nonlinear rerouting of the conversation from the Aurora problem to his sermon represent a subtle strategyof some sort? Or was it the early dementia Matthew suspected? What if the rabbi were further gone than she’d recognized?
“Yes, my sermon is about Israel,” Rabbi Fink repeated, deliberately, eyeing Eve. “But it isn’t about Gaza, or ‘policies’.”
Okay, so he had in fact paid attention to her spiel on her family’s antipathy to the nation.
“My sermon on Friday night, Eve, is just going to be a simple prayer. A prayer asking God to help us all remember that Israel is more than its wars. It is our pride. Our strength. Our one safe haven.”
Wonderful! The same old Zionist cant. A last-ditch attempt to sway her into permitting Aurora to participate in his program. This is how Eve, with an exasperated, Matthewesque inner sigh, at first interpreted the rabbi’s response. But strangely, as he continued in a low, steady rhythm, never averting his benign crow’s-footed eyes from hers, his words began to take on something like a hypnotic resonance. Maybe it was the airlessness of the room, but without really deciding to, Eve surrendered and let them flow over her weary soul.
“We mustn’t forget these truths. We must travel to Israel. We must bring our children there. Not merely read the sad headlines and make our small judgments. Israel is much more than a place of strife. It’s an eternal part of being a Jew. And I’m going to pray to God on Friday to help all of us, especially in this time, remember that.”
Rabbi Fink went silent and, oddly to Eve, smiled again. Now what? Was he waiting for her to say that his paean to the Promised Land had changed her mind and that now her daughter would dispatch a Letter to Israel after all? Eve felt a bit faint and dangerously close to making some kind of concession. Perhaps she’d better get up and go.
“Aurora can sit with me on Sunday.” The rabbi winked.
“While the other children are writing their letters to the IDF soldiers.”
“But you were just . . .”
“Telling you about my sermon, that’s all. Those are my beliefs about Israel. Whether Aurora writes a letter is up to you and Matthew. You’re her parents; I’m only the rabbi. But she can sit in here with me while the others write.”
“Okay . . .”
“Don’t worry. I won’t make any patriotic speeches. I’ll tell her some terrific old boxing stories.”
“Well, thank you, Rabbi, for being so understanding.”
“Eve,” he said, positively radiant now. “It’s all right. You’re all right.”
All right. All right? No, dear Rabbi, nothing is all right. I have never been more alienated from Matthew. Little, lovely Aurora remains caught between us and her Jewish education, into which I so carelessly plunged her. In the Middle East thousands of Palestinians have died, and Israelis live in fear, and I don’t know what to think about any of it anymore.
I am not all right.
But then an unexpected thought came. Could it be that Rabbi Fink was, somehow, correct? Just for a moment, here in his office, across from this mensch, surrounded by desert images of Israel and a lifetime’s worth of religious artifacts — here in the Jewish sanctuary she’d abandoned long ago for adulthood, for atheism, for marriage to Matthew, for politics — here in the embrace of her forgotten faith and her spurned homeland, wasn’t Eve, in some fundamental sense, all right?