By Mona Leigh Rose
1. Rabbi Ethan
“‘Brainwash’ is a strong word, Rachel.”
“How else do you explain it, Rabbi? He started the summer my sweet little boy. Now he’s like those crazy Black Hats who preach at you from street corners in the Jewelry District.”
“Let’s take this one step at a time.” He keeps his voice calm, like the senior rabbi had coached him. “We’re a Reform synagogue. How exactly did Jacob become involved with an Orthodox congregation?”
“All the summer camps were booked and I got desperate. So, I enrolled him in the Hasidic day camp. Summer camp is supposed to be trips to the beach, arts and crafts. You know, camp.” Rachel’s grip on the edge of his desk becomes tighter, her knuckles nearly white. “Two weeks in, he starts to call them his people. ‘His people.’ I could die.”
“Children often try on new identities, play with concepts of self.” Ethan leans back in his chair, hoping his easy posture will reassure her. “I’m sure it’s a phase.”
“A phase, Rabbi? He’s a ten-year-old quoting Talmud to his math teacher. Refuses to sit next to girls in class. He says it’s an abomination. He found his father’s old yarmulke, and wore it to school. I took it away, and do you know what he does now? Makes them out of newspaper and scotch tapes them to his head. He cut the tassels off the living room drapes and stapled them to the hems of his shirts.”
Rachel’s voice rises with each word. Can Miriam hear her out in the reception area?
“He even cut the hair off his sister’s Raggedy Ann doll and taped the curls to his temples. You call that a phase? To make matters worse, the principal at St. Anthony’s called yesterday, ready to expel him. My child, expelled! Can you imagine?”
“St. Anthony’s?” Ethan struggles to keep his composure. “Jacob goes to the Catholic grammar school?”
“Best private school in the city, Rabbi. I should deny my only son a decent education because we’re Jewish?” She gives him the shrug.
If he had a shekel for every time a congregant tried to explain away a bad decision with that shrug...
He lowers his own voice, hopes hers will follow. “Perhaps Jacob is confused about his Jewish identity. A Catholic school during the year, an Orthodox camp over the summer. Too many of our young people turn their backs on the faith. If he acts out, isn’t it better that he acts out as a devout Jew?”
“Well, of course we want him to embrace Judaism. His father and I bring him to services on the High Holidays, we donate to the temple building fund every year, we even planted a tree in Israel when he was born. But we want him to be our kind of Jewish.”
Her eyes have that wild look he knows too well. He can’t let another hysterical mother leave his office in tears. “How can I help, Rachel?”
“I want you to talk some sense into him. You’re a rabbi; he’ll listen to you.”
“I’ll do my best.”
He peers outside the office door. Jacob is seated at the far end of the waiting area reading to a girl who looks to be his younger sister. Ethan motions for the boy to join them. Jacob makes a wide circle around Miriam at the reception desk on his way to the door.
“Hello, Jacob. I’m Rabbi Ethan. Please, have a seat.”
Jacob sits next to his mother, back straight, his feet a good four inches from the floor. Maybe Rachel has a point. The paper yarmulke, the green tapestry tassels dangling below the hem of his school jacket, the red yarn stuck to either side of his face. He’s reminded of the circus clowns who gave him nightmares as a child.
“That’s some outfit you’re wearing, kiddo. Can you tell me why you’re dressed this way?”
“Is it not a mitzvah to dress as God commands, Ethan?”
Rachel snaps: “Jacob, show some respect. Call him Rabbi.”
“Oy gevalt. This shmendrick isn’t a rabbi. Only a frummer can call himself Rabbi.” It comes out as more of a whine than a statement of conviction.
“Oh, Jesus Christ. Sorry, Rabbi, but now do you see what we’re dealing with?”
“It’s okay, Jacob, you can call me Ethan. You know, there are many different traditions in Judaism, and one of the hallmarks of our shared heritage is that we’re encouraged to question ourselves and each other. Do you have that calling?”
“God spoke to me and told me to daven three times a day. Just like he spoke to Avraham.”
Rachel jumps to her feet. “God did not speak to you!” No doubt Miriam can hear her now. “So help me, if you say that one more time I’m going to ground you for a month!”
Ethan has a sudden flashback to his own mother, making him go to shul in his underwear when he was four and refused to wear the clothes she’d laid out for him. “Rachel, please.” He composes his face, turns toward Jacob. “God speaks to all of us in one way or another. Tell me, Jacob, does God speak to you often?”
“Don’t encourage him. He’s here so you could talk some sense into him, not make it worse. Look, it’s almost four o’clock; I need to get Jacob back to school for rehearsal. He’s playing an angel in the Christmas pageant.” Rachel strides to the door, looks back at Jacob. “Come on, sweetie. We don’t have all day.”
“Don’t be a noodge, Mother.” He slides off the chair and reaches a small hand toward Ethan. Jacob’s handshake is firm, certain. Ethan never cared much for kids, not even when he was one himself. But he genuinely likes this boy.
“Jacob, I’d like to continue our conversation. Can we pick this up another time?”
“Sure, Ethan. Can we talk about the Exodus next time? I would like to hear your thoughts on the rebbe’s midrash.”
“I’d enjoy that.” Ethan watches the boy follow his mother out of the office. He leans back in his chair, squeezes the bridge of his nose. His professors at rabbinical school didn’t prepare him for this. After a moment, he hits the intercom. “Miriam? Who’s next?”
“Mrs. Fishman. She started a petition to install a Douglas fir in the social hall for the Chanukah party. She brought some blue tinsel and ornaments to show you.”
He rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Please send her in, Miriam.”
Rachel practices the lines in her head on the drive home from rehearsal. Finally she gave in. Met with the school psychologist. He told her to gently lead Jacob to his own realization that he needs to stop this absurdity. Nothing else has worked, so she’ll give it a shot.
She forces herself to make her voice bright. “I watched some of the rehearsal, Jacob. Your halo was a little crooked, but you did a great job. Did you have fun?” She watches him in the rearview mirror. The tape on his right temple is starting to peel back, the yarn close to falling.
She’d watched from the back row of the auditorium. Jacob didn’t talk or laugh with the other kids. He stood stock still under the bright lights, face pale under his white robe and halo. Principal Clayton cornered her mid-way through the rehearsal.
“Ms. Grossman, Jacob continues to defy the St. Anthony dress code. If you don’t get him under control, I will have no choice, no choice mind you —”
“Religious expression is grounds for expulsion, Principal Clayton? I know a certain reporter who’d be very interested to hear that.”
He blanches. Scurries away.
Jacob is the only Jew at St. Anthony’s, and after last year’s cafeteria protest by the lesbian vegans led the six o’clock news, the school can’t afford to let this get out of hand. But she can’t keep the principal at bay forever. So, in the car, she follows the psychologist’s script.
“The other kids looked like they had a lot of fun. I couldn’t believe when Sean dropped the baby Jesus on the wise man’s head at the end of the second act. Did you see Sister Margaret’s face? She looked like Grumpy Cat in a habit.”
When Jacob doesn’t reply, she forges ahead. “You didn’t laugh with the other kids. You didn’t even talk to them. How come?”
She watches him trace a drop of rain with his finger as it zigzags down the car window. “The other kids don’t like me, Mom. That isn’t a new thing.”
A pang of guilt: Is she too hard on him?
Shayna wakes up in her car seat next to Jacob, spider-crawls her hand over to him and twirls the fringe stapled to his shirt hem. “Mommy, I’m hungry.”
“We’ll be home in a minute, pumpkin.” Rachel steers the car onto their street. “I get that it can be hard to make friends at this age, Jacob. But deliberately acting and looking different will only make things worse.”
His eyes bounce up, laser in on hers in the mirror. “The Jewish people have been persecuted for centuries, Mom. God commanded me to wear the peyot and the tzitzis. I should disregard God’s commands because some pishers laugh at me?”
She can’t help herself, hits the steering wheel with the palm of her hand. “For God’s sake! I’m not some cloistered nun you can shock with that crap. When are you going to drop this ridiculous charade?” What does that school psychologist know, anyway? If he was any good, he’d charge two hundred an hour in private practice.
Shayna hums “Jingle Bells.” Jacob starts to hum “Ma Tovu.” Shayna joins in after a few bars.
“Mom, can I spend the weekend with Saba? Not just Sunday afternoon, but the whole weekend?”
“This is your Dad’s weekend. It’s up to him.” They pull into the driveway and Jacob jumps out.
“You never answered me, Jacob,” Rachel says. He runs ahead, fishes the key from his backpack and unlocks the front door. “Jacob!”
“Don’t want to talk about it.” He darts to the kitchen phone.
“Who’re you calling? I need you to help with Shayna while I make dinner.”
“I want to ask Dad about this weekend.”
Maybe his grandfather can talk some sense into him. “Fine. But winter break starts next Friday. Let’s get through this term without any more calls from the principal. Can you at least do that for me?”
“Now remember, Jacob, don’t press the button until I give you the signal.”
“I remember, Saba.” Jacob’s index finger hovers precisely one inch above the big red button on the console. He stares intently at the button, and then, holding his body perfectly still, turns just his head left and waits for the signal.
Bernie holds up his right hand. “Five, four, three,” two fingers, one finger, he points and Jacob presses the button.
“Welcome to the Negine Hour on KCRW, friends. This is Bernard Grossman, Sr., your weekly guide to the exciting world of Jewish music. My favorite engineer and I have some wonderful selections for you today. We will start with a bit of klezmer music from the great Leon Schwartz.” Bernie eyes the first turntable, cued to the third track, then touches the tip of his finger to the needle arm. “This first song will bring memories of dancing with your sweetheart by the Mediterranean Sea. Away we go with ‘Doina’.” He lowers the needle and flips the green switch. “Good job, boychik.”
“Saba, why did you save all these old records?” Jacob stands next to his chair, runs his finger down the spines of the old LPs stacked on the side table, the album covers worn and tattered.
“My dear boy, your old saba has been collecting these records since before your father was born.” Bernie can’t help but sit a bit straighter in his chair when he talks about his music.
“Did Savta like them too?”
“Your bubbie and I met because of this music, in Israel after the war. I would check the lists tacked to the post office wall every Tuesday morning, search for names from my town, for anyone who might know what happened to my family. There I would see the prettiest girl. She had big brown eyes, a long neck like a Russian princess.” He stops, swivels his chair toward Jacob. “I haven’t told you this story before?”
“No, Saba. I would’ve remembered.”
“Well, I was too bashful to talk to her, but timed it so I stood next to her at the wall while we read the names. One night, she and her sister walked into the dancehall where I worked. A Ukrainian kolomeike was playing. The up-tempo beat gave me nerve, I suppose. I introduced myself. Asked her name. ‘Irma,’ she said. “Looked at me in a way no one ever had.” He gazes over Jacob’s head at the poster of Ira Glass on the wall. “All our life together, we would search record shops for the music of our youth, the music of our love. I play it now to remember her and the family that never made it out.”
“Saba, the song is almost over.”
“Oy gevalt! Right you are, Engineer Jacob!” He cues up a track on the second turntable and flips the green switch. “I hope you enjoyed that trip to the past. Now here are the Klezmatics with a song written by the great Woody Guthrie. Not many people know that Mr. Guthrie identified the trials of the Jews with those of his fellow Okies.” He starts the track and flips the switch.
“Where did your family go? Did you find them?”
“That’s a story for another time, Jacob.”
“Rabbi Ben-Avi at the Hasidic temple says people dressed like me in the old country, before the war. Is that right, Saba? Did you dress like me when you were a boy?”
“When I was a boy, we wore what we had. The modern Hasidim, if you’ll excuse my use of the word ‘modern’” — he winks at Jacob — “they are a devout people; they’re not playing dress-up.” Swiveling his chair to face Jacob, he asks: “Why are you dressed like this, Jacob?”
Jacob hesitates. “People ask me that a lot, Saba.”
“I imagine they do. What do you tell them?”
“I usually tell them that God commanded me.” He looks up into Bernie’s eyes.
“And did God command you?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly. I mean, what does God sound like? How would I know if he commands me to do something? Rabbi Ben-Avi says that God commands us all, but I don’t know if he means out loud or just in our heads.”
Bernie holds up a finger. “Hold that thought, boychik.” He cues up a new track, introduces it to his listeners, and turns back to Jacob. “My own opinion is that we all know the right thing to do deep down inside of us. Whether God planted those seeds in us, or whether our families did, I don’t know. If you want to dress like this, then you should dress like this. But don’t do it because someone told you it’s what God wants you to do.”
Jacob sits quietly through the rest of the song. Bernie starts the next track and then breaks the silence: “So, are we going to finish our chess game after the show? We were very close to finishing last week, as I recall.”
“Eight more moves, Saba.”
“Well, I’ve been studying the board all week, and I think I may surprise you. I have come up with a strategy to thwart your attack.” He winks at Jacob.
“Maybe, but don’t get your hopes up, Saba.”
Bernie laughs. “What a shmuck I am to teach my grandson so well!”
Sean lifts the baby Jesus above his head, Lion King style. From stage left, Sister Margaret points to the angels: “And behold, unto the world a savior —”
“— is born?”
The other kids turn and gape as Jacob steps over the straw crib. His voice is steady and calm. “Joseph and Mary named their baby Jesus. When he grew up, he performed mitzvot like feeding the hungry and showing kindness to strangers. He helped his friend John perform the ritual mikvah bath and was an all-around mentsch.”
Sister Margaret flips through her script with shaky hands, as if trying to find the lines coming out of his mouth. Jacob can’t see past the bright footlights, but he knows Mom’s voice as it pierces the silence: “Jacob, stop!”
He figures he has about fifteen seconds. “Jesus fought for social justice for his people, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Woody Guthrie did. Decades after his death, Jews who opposed the strict dietary and social laws proclaimed Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Oy vey! If they didn’t want to keep kosher they should have just started a Reform synagogue.”
He hears Saba’s big laugh ring out in the dark auditorium. “Right you are, boychik!”
A rumble rises from the audience. Sister Margaret’s face is crimson, framed by the white fabric of her habit. She flaps both arms at the stagehand and whispers: “Lower the curtain.” The stagehand pulls the wrong rope and it crashes to the stage in a heap. Two of the wise men start to cry. The boy in the back-half of the camel costume loses his balance and knocks into one of the manger’s wooden supports. The ply board roof wobbles over the kids’ heads. All but Jacob shriek and scatter. He remains perfectly still at center stage.
Mom emerges from the darkness, runs down the center aisle. Principal Clayton catches up to her. “Mrs. Grossman! I cannot allow Jacob to hijack our school with his grandstanding. I have no choice, no choice, mind you, but to expel him!”
The house lights come up. The other parents stream down the aisles, swarm Mom and Principal Clayton. Jacob pulls the yarn from his temples, walks to the side of the stage and hops down. Shayna runs up and throws her arms around his waist, a smile lights up her face. “That was funny, Jacob! Can you do it again?”
5. Rabbi Ethan
“So, when you examine the text closely, you see that it doesn’t matter if Moses actually caused the waters to part or if the ten plagues technically occurred. What matters is that the Hebrew people defined themselves as separate from the Egyptians and established themselves as a distinct society.”
Jacob moves his pawn. “Check. I see your point, Ethan. I hadn’t thought about it as an allegory. I’ll read the text again before our next meeting.”
They sit in the small temple courtyard in the last of the bright December sun.
“I notice that you aren’t wearing the peyot and tzitzis today.” Ethan rests his index finger on his king, hesitates, chews his thumb nail. He reaches for his pawn and slides it to the next square.
“I decided that I don’t need those things. My little sister likes the fringe so I gave it to her. Besides, I looked at old pictures of my saba and he looked a lot like me.” Jacob moves his bishop. “Check. My mom was so happy, she gave me back Dad’s yarmulke. I like it better than the paper ones.”
Ethan admires the dark blue kipa perched atop Jacob’s head, much better than the tangle of newspaper, scotch tape and hair that Jacob sported two weeks ago. “We all evolve, Jacob. We’ll call this your minimalist period.” Ethan moves his knight. “I hear that you start at the science magnet school in January.”
“Uh huh. Principal Clayton pulled some strings to get me in.” Jacob moves his bishop. “Check.”
Ethan studies Jacob’s face. Is that a look of triumph, or the sun in his eyes? He turns his attention back to the board.
Ethan looks up, a grin creeps up one side of his mouth. “‘Rabbi’, Jacob?”
Jacob meets his gaze, not a bit of irony in his expression.
Ethan releases the grin and says in a serious tone: “You can call me Rabbi, but honestly, I prefer that you call me Ethan. It seems to fit our friendship.” He moves his pawn.
“Why is there a Christmas tree in the social hall?”
Ethan gazes at the dreaded evergreen through the window. “I’m told that it’s a Chanukah bush, Jacob. As for why it’s in our temple, only God and my therapist know for certain.”
He turns back in time to see Jacob set his queen down on the board. “Checkmate, Ethan.”