Set It Free
By Susan Kleinman
“Can you tell me how the contract thing works?” Joni asks, and Rob’s face burns. Not that the question is in any way risqué (her husband’s contract is up for renewal; Rob is on the board), but because Rob, forty-seven-year-old husband, father and homeowner, has a crush like a thirteen year old.
Well, he tells himself when he is feeling ridiculous about all the time he spends daydreaming about Joni, at least he’s not some pathetic midlife-crisis cliché, flirting with a bimbo secretary at the office or puppy-dogging a Spandex-clad trainer at the gym.
Nope, not him.
He is in love with the rebbetzin.
Of course, Rob would never think of Joni Schleiffer as a “rebbetzin” – the traditional title for a rabbi’s wife, calling to mind a kerchiefed crone who smells like pickled herring. No, Joni Schleiffer is not a rebbitzen. She is a goddess. She is Aphrodite, goddess of love. She is Isis, goddess of magic. She is Freya! Maat! Demeter! Shortly after Rob met Joni, he Googled “goddesses” and couldn’t find even one whose description didn’t remind him of her – well, except for the huntress, Diana. Joni is a vegan. Rob is thinking of becoming a vegan, too.
Yes, Joni is a goddess, and Rob thinks about her night and day, the way Deuteronomy commands him to worship the other deity, who merely created the mountains and the seas. Rob thinks about Joni “when he dwelleth in his house and when he traveleth on the road; when he layeth down to sleep and when he rises.”
And oh, how he rises – often, and at the most inopportune times. Like now, when he’s talking to Joni at the kiddush after Saturday-morning services, so near that he can smell her sweetness; or during the prayers, when he could see her over the mechitza. Joni’s husband, Rabbi Andrew Garelick, keeps lowering the mechitza month by month, like a limbo stick. He claims his goal is “to empower women,” but Rob suspects it is to torture him: “Nyah, nyah, Liebman, look but don’t touch. She’s mine and you can't have her.”
Not that Rob knows what he would do if he could have her. He would never, ever leave his wife. He, himself, is the product of a broken home: lonely weeknight suppers with his mother; exhausting make-it-up-to you Sundays with his dad. There’s no way he would do that to his own kids. Although at this point, he sometimes thinks – as he purposely loads the dishwasher incorrectly or sleeps in the position most likely to cause high-decibel snoring that will keep Marcia awake all night – he probably wouldn’t object too strenuously if Marcia decided she had had enough of him.
None of this is Marcia’s fault. Not really. She is a pretty and well-educated woman, a wonderful mother to their kids. But Joni… ahhhh… Joni is a breath of life. “Then the Lord breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life,” his and Marcia’s son Eli had chanted from Genesis at his bar mitzvah last October, “and the man became a living soul.” Rob had looked over the mechitza at Joni right then, hoping she could read his mind (O, Artemis, Goddess of Intuition!) – hoping that she would know that even on that day of days, with his wife in her hat-that-matched-her-shoes-that-matched-her-suit, and his beloved sons flanking him in the pews, all Rob could think about, all he could see, was her.
Rob had been smitten with Joni the very first time he met her three years ago, when she and Andy flew out from California to audition for the pulpit, and Rob had picked them up at the airport. Into his minivan she had floated on that bright June afternoon, her silky scarves fluttering like wildflowers in the breeze, her twinkly earrings calling to him like wind chimes.
“J-O-N-I,” she had slowly, sweetly spelled her name when Rob mistakenly called her “Joan” upon their introduction (a gaffe for which he has still not quite forgiven himself).
“Ahhh, like Joni Mitchell?” he had asked. And when Joni smiled at him, Rob was quite sure she saw beyond his bald spot and his minivan, saw back to the Rob with a full head of hair and a second-hand VW, who used to play guitar on College Green all afternoon. The guy whose rendition of “Circle Game” made young poetry professors on their way to teach Whitman stop and listen to him and sometimes even grow misty-eyed. We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came….
The synagogue board had offered Andy the job, and the day after the Schleiffer-Garelicks moved in, Rob had snuck out to the bagel store while Marcia was still sleeping, and drove over to Joni’s with a baker’s dozen.
“Welcome to the East Coast,” he said, thrusting the warm paper bag at her and becoming tongue-tied when he realized that she wasn’t wearing a bra under her worn-sheer Lilith Fair t-shirt. They stood there awkwardly for a while until Joni said, “Um, why don’t you come in? I’m just making matcha. Would you like some?” Rob had no idea what matcha was, but was flattered that she thought he looked like a guy who mightknow, so he just nodded.
In the kitchen, she reached into an upper cabinet for two handmade-looking mugs. Her t-shirt rose to reveal a sliver of pure, white skin above the waistline of her gauzy skirt, and Rob tried to distract himself by reading a poster magnetted to the fridge: It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.
"Tupelo Honey?” Joni asked over her shoulder. Finally! A woman with decent taste in music! Marcia listened to Barbra Streisand and – for the love of God – Bette Midler. Rob sometimes wonders what grievous sin he committed in a previous life.
“Yes! Tupelo Honey!” he said, with enthusiasm that seemed to startle Joni. “My favorite! How did you know?” He was just about to start singing it for her in his best Van Morrison voice – “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey. She's an angel of the first degree” – when he noticed a jar of amber liquid on the kitchen counter and understood just in the nick of time what Joni was actually talking about. Of course: Honey. And – mugs! Duh! Matcha must be some kind of exotic tea.
She poured some steaming liquid into each cup and drizzled in some of the honey, then sucked a drip of it off her finger languidly until Rob had to shift in his seat to hide the swelling in his jeans. He tried to mentally recite the “Tupelo Honey” lyrics backwards – degree/first/the/of/angel/an/she’s – and when that didn’t have the necessary desire-deadening effect, he reminded himself of his mother-in-law’s impending visit. And then, once he felt confident that he could stand up without embarrassing himself, he asked, “Do you need help hanging pictures or anything?”
She said that she didn’t, thanks. They didn’t have much art to hang. Their apartment back in Berkeley had been quite small.
Berkeley. She might as well have said Shangri La. Rob had wanted so badly to go to college out in California, to become a poet and a revolutionary – or at least an advertising copywriter who voted Democrat. But his lonely, un-remarried mother had guilted him into staying on the East Coast and had forced him to major in business because the alimony wasn’t enough for her to help him out after graduation. “And your father,” she had reminded him in her aggrieved martyr’s voice, “isn’t exactly what you’d call reliable.” So Rob had spent four rainy years at Penn, majoring in finance and missing out on everything.
“You’re from Berkeley?” he asked Joni as if this were news – as if he hadn’t actually memorized everything he could Google about her after that ride back from the airport earlier in the summer. “Lucky duck!”
Oy. Lucky duck? He wanted to kick himself. What kind of grown man said “lucky duck”?But Joni didn’t seem to notice. She just kind of mumbled, “Looks like my luck might have run out.”
Rob didn’t know what to make of that, so he just said, “Well, then, I guess the luck is all ours,” and Joni smiled at him (she was as sweet as tupelo honey!) and said, “Well, aren’t you nice.”
Encouraged to prove exactly how very nice he could be, he said, “Looks like you’re doing a great job with the place.” As he looked around the nearly-bare kitchen to demonstrate his admiration, his eyes landed on the cookbook shelf:
The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. The Virtuous Vegan. Gluten Free Forever.
Dammit! The glutinous bagels. He was such an idiot! He wondered whether he should apologize for having brought them, but decided not to. Hopefully, Joni had already forgotten his misstep.
“Is that the dining room?” he asked, pointing to the room next to the kitchen – as if it could possibly be anything else. Joni yawned, loud and open-mouthed, and for a moment Rob wondered whether she was trying to hint that he should leave, the way he sometimes feigned sleep (faux snoring and all) in the living-room armchair when Marcia’s parents came for an afternoon. But then he remembered. Of course Joni was yawning! She had just flown clear across the country! If anything, she was trying to show him how comfortable she was with him already, how far beyond silly social conventions they had already moved.
“You want a tour?” she mumbled. No, he told himself, she wasn’t mumbling, she was whispering.
There was nothing much to see in the dining room, just a table-and-chair set and a couple of cardboard boxes. In the living room, a lumpy old sofa was covered with an Indian batik cloth – exactly the kind of exotic textile under which Rob’s high-school self had imagined losing his virginity out at Berkeley. Instead, he had lost it – belatedly, ineptly – under the Laura Ashley comforter of his junior-year-at-Penn girlfriend, a spoiled princess from the Five Towns who admitted with no shame whatsoever that she’d voted for Ronald Reagan because her father had told her to.
“So,” Joni asked Rob, tilting her head toward the misshapen couch, “any idea where we can buy eco-friendly furniture out here? We gave our coffee table to friends back home.”
Home? But West Cloverdale is your home now! he thought, slightly wounded but vowing to himself that he would hunt and gather the furniture information for her. Meantime, he scanned the bookcases that lined the living room walls: full sets of the Talmud (Andy’s, presumably) and volumes of Maya Angelou poetry that Rob guessed belonged to Joni, who was (Thank you, Misssster Google!) finishing a dissertation in Twentieth Century Feminist Literature. Here were compendia of Torah commentary, there were volumes of literary criticism. And right in the middle, at eye level, a satin-bound book whose spine announced, “An Illuminated, Hand-Drawn Kama Sutra.”
“There are three bedrooms,” Joni said, pointing toward the staircase.
Rob felt dizzy. It took him a moment to realize that she wasn’t inviting him to join her in acrobatic yoni-lingam congress, but merely providing an architectural note.
Of course, he already knew how the house was configured. As a member of the synagogue board, he had seen the floorplan and deed of the split-level parsonage when the previous rabbi’s wife threatened to sue the shul for kicking her out after her husband’s death. But he didn’t want to stop the flow of Joni’s honey-sweet voice, so he just nodded.
She exhaled loudly – part of her yoga practice, no doubt – and after a while said, “and downstairs is Andy’s study.”
Wait a minute. Why did Andy get the study here in the house when there was a rabbi’s study – a perfectly nice one! – at the shul? Why didn’t Joni, who surely deserved more time and space for her dissertation than Andy needed to pull together a couple of Maimonides references and a Mishna or two for his weekly sermon, get the basement study? How come Rabbi Garelick – Garlic, that stinky bulb! – got the run of the place?
“So where will you do your work?” Rob asked, trying to keep his tone light. There would be plenty of time once he knew Joni better to hint that her husband wasn’t nearly good enough for her.
“Local library,” she answered with a shrug. “I’ve never really been able to work at home.”
The library! Rob suddenly thought of seven hundred and forty-six books he needed to borrow – starting, of course, with Maya Angelou’s poetry. Wouldn’t it be a funny coincidence if he bumped into Joni at the circulation desk? He was about to ask whether she liked to work in the morning or the afternoon when Garlic burst through the front door holding a bag from the Wheat-Free Wonderland Bakeshop over in River Ridge. Sure, go ahead, Rob thought, make me look like a gluten-gluttonizing Neanderthal.
“Welcome! Welcome!” Garlic said, when he spotted Rob in the living room. He opened his arms wide, as if waiting for Rob to give him a hug.
Rob crossed his arms over his chest.
“How nice of you to stop by!” the rabbi said. If he was upset to see one of his new congregants home alone with his wife, he wasn’t letting on. Could he not even imagine Rob as his rival for Joni’s affection? Why the hell not? Was it the spare tire at Rob’s waist? Was it because he looked like the kind of guy who drank plain old Lipton tea? Rob vowed right then and there to embark on a matcha starvation diet.
“I was just leaving,” he told the rabbi, and then said directly to Joni, “When you need help hanging anything up, just call me. I’m in the shul directory.”
All week he waited for her to call, standing over the phone so that if it did ring, he – and not Marcia –would pick up. Marcia would probably talk Joni’s ear off about shoes and recipes and local zoning-board fights until Joni got bored and hung up without even asking to speak to Rob. No, he needed to be the one who answered the phone.
Finally, when it was too late at night for any hope (surely Joni wouldn’t call him at one in the morning, would she? – maybe he should wait just a few more minutes), Rob found himself in the garage going through the milk crates of memorabilia Marcia had yelled at him for schlepping out here when they moved from the city fourteen years ago. He paged through his notes from the few poetry classes he had squeezed in around his finance and accounting requirements, dusted off his old vinyl albums (Van Morrison! Joni Mitchell!) and thought about the girl he had been in love with during the spring of his senior year: Serena.
Serena. Serenahhhhhh. It struck Rob that Joni looked a little bit – okay, a lot – like her. And he realized, closing his eyes at the sense memory, Joni smelled like Serena, too: that same intoxicating mix of wheat-grass juice and health-food-store toothpaste. Come to think of it, Serena had had that same poster on her dorm room wall – It will be a great day – right next to the other sentiments that had almost allowed Rob to imagine that he was somewhere farther away from his mother’s kitchen; somewhere more revolutionary, than drizzly Spruce Street, and that he was someone other than a nice Jewish boy with nice argyle sweaters.
Be the change you wish to see in the universe, another sign in Serena’s bedroom had urged, and in her tiny off-campus apartment, Rob had almost believed that change was possible. Another poster had announced that, The timeless in you is aware of life's timelessness under a line drawing of Khalil Gibran. And while Rob hadn’t quite understood what that meant, merely being in the presence of the Arabic poet’s face – Him! Rob Liebman! A graduate of the Hebrew Academy! Six inches from an Arab! – had made him feel worldly and wise.
All these years later, he tries not to think about a third poster, the one Serena quoted to him the day she dumped him for her Haiku professor, looking at Rob with pity as he wiped his eyes on the back of his hand like a little boy. “If you love something, set it free,” she had intoned, her voice as soothing as a preschool teacher’s. “If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”
Serena never did come back, and Rob spent every night the rest of the semester standing outside her building, looking up at her window to see if her light was on – and, when it wasn’t, torturing himself with a mental list of places she might be, and with whom. By May, he had sunk into a depression so deep he didn’t bother showing up for graduation. The job he landed at Goldman-Sachs meant nothing to him, and the women’s phone numbers his mother pressed on him – her boss’s pretty daughter; her neighbor’s newly-divorced-but-it-wasn’t-her-fault sister – sat on his dresser, undialed. He went from work to his apartment and from his apartment back to work, numb and listless, tired and bored.
Eventually, he grew too lazy to cook his own meals or even pick up take-out at the kosher deli, and started accepting invitations to Shabbos dinners in the apartments of other Upper West Side singles: old friends and friends-of-friends. Friday night after Friday night, over spongy challah and supermarket hummus, the guys complained about the assholes they worked for and the women complained about the assholes they dated. And when the complaining was all done, everyone analyzed the latest Seinfeld episode until it was late enough that they could all go home and fall asleep in their cold, lonely beds in their stuffy, overheated apartments, dreaming of the ones who got away.
It was at one of these Friday-night dinners that Rob had met Marcia, right before his thirtieth birthday. After Shabbos, the host called Rob and said, “If you ask Marcia out, she’ll say yes, in case you’re wondering.”
He hadn’t been wondering at all, but he called her anyway. Maybe Marcia wasn’t Serena, but then neither was anyone else he had met in eight years. And the Friday night crowd was marrying off, dwindling like a sad game of Farmer in the Dell in which Rob was likely to end up the cheese, standing all alone.
And, so, no, Marcia wasn’t Serena, but maybe that was just as well, Rob convinced himself. With Marcia’s expensive taste in shoes and haircuts, she wasn’t likely to leave him for a poet anytime soon. A year to the day after that Friday night dinner, they married at the Teaneck Sheraton. They moved to a one-bedroom apartment on Columbus Avenue, with a Crate & Barrel couch and a computer Rob opened any time Marcia left the apartment for even a quick errand, so that he could frantically search the internet for news – any crumb of information – about Serena.
She had earned her doctorate in Asian Poetry, he learned over his slow dial-up connection; and as far as he could determine, she still wasn’t married – not to the haiku twit; not to anyone. He tried to decide whether that cheered him up or made him even more miserable, and when he couldn’t find the answer to that question in the bottom of Pepperidge Farm cookie bags and Haagen Dazs containers, he bought bigger jeans and a Center Hall Colonial in the suburbs.
And now here he was in West Cloverdale, New Jersey: Rob Liebman, pillar of the community, counting the days until the Schleiffer-Garelicks’ first Shabbos in town, when he could see Joni again.
Finally, Saturday arrived. Rob catapulted out of bed without even saying good morning to Marcia, and race-walked over to shul. He caught Joni’s eye during the Torah reading and smiled at her, blushing when she smiled back. When the prayers were over, he made his way through the crowded Kiddush room to the corner where she stood alone, and told her the names of three organic furniture stores he had found for her.
“Thanks,” she said, averting her glance – because, he was sure, she really liked him, and eye contact would feel too intimate.
That was three years ago now, and there has not been a Saturday since then that Rob hasn’t sought Joni out in the corner where she always stands during Kiddush (is she waiting for him there?). Barely a morning he hasn’t woken up from a sweet, sweet dream about Joni, hoping he hasn’t blurted her name out in his sleep. It’s all a bit much. Even Rob himself has to admit that. But he refuses to feel guilty about the time he spends thinking about her. After all, he tells himself, his love for Joni hasn’t hurt anybody. It hasn’t cost him his job or his family. Marcia would no sooner see Joni as a threat than Garlic had seen him as one. No, Marcia and her friends make fun of Joni mercilessly. They mock her for her earnestness and her sincerity; for the unpolished toenails that peek out of her Birkenstocks; for the downy hair on her shapely legs.
“That woman needs a day at the Koreans,” Rob once heard Marcia snickering to her best friend, and for the first time, the only time, in their marriage, he had wanted to slap his wife. Joni doesn’t need a day – not even an hour! – at any kind of salon. And she would never call the place “the Koreans,” either. Joni is perfect exactly as she is.
And now, he might lose her forever.
The rabbi’s contract is up at the end of June, and there have been rumblings about not renewing him. Reb Andy is “too far out there,” people say, and Joni “just doesn’t fit in.” Of course she doesn’t fit in, Rob thinks. Joni is a peacock in a flock of pigeons! A diamond in a pile of coal! And Rob isn’t going to let this band of Philistines send her away. Not without a fight. Already he has started planting the seeds for a contract renewal. He has emailed the shul treasurer an article about the hidden costs of hiring a new rabbi; has hinted to the board that failure to renew might open up the shul to a lawsuit; has bribed friends at the local Jewish papers to write glowing profiles of Congregation Beth Torah and its forward-thinking leader. And in between, he has said nice things about Joni to everyone else on the executive committee, and (it almost killed Rob, but it was for a noble cause) nice things about Garlic, too.
“Can you tell me how the contract thing works?” Joni asks, and Rob’s face burns.
Let’s run away together, he wants to beg her. We can move to Berkeley! We can listen to Van Morrison and make Kama Sutra love under a batik bedspread! But of course he doesn’t say any of that. He just clears his throat and explains the process to her: “Well, the executive committee meets and votes on whether to extend Garl – to extend your husband’s contract. Which they will; don’t worry! Then Al Edelberg (he’s the chairman) presents our recommendation to the general membership and they approve it.”
“How do you know they’ll approve it?” Joni asks, looking around the Kiddush room nervously.
“Golden rule,” Rob says. “He who has the most gold, rules.” He points to a huge plaque identifying the Kiddush room as The Edelberg Family Social Hall. “So, really, it’s just a matter of getting it through that first vote.”
Joni looks away.
“You all right?” Rob asks, hoping, praying, that she is upset about the possibility of having to leave him.
“I’ll be okay.” She nods and leans in. Is she going to kiss him? Here in the Kiddush room, in front of everyone? But no, he realizes with disappointment she is leaning towards his ear and not his mouth.
“Am I horrible person,” she whispers, “if I’m praying for him not to be renewed?”
The following Tuesday, the Executive Committee meets at Edelberg’s house, just as they had three years earlier when they’d voted to hire Garelick in the first place. Some of the same people are still on the committee: Stuie Lipshitz, Barbara Kranzler, and Jerry Freudenheim. And there are some new executive board members, too: Carol Gold, Michael Miller, Ken Blaustein, and Lisa Isaacson. Rob looks around the table and tries to guess how the vote will go.
Stuie is a momzer and a misanthrope. Rob still can’t figure out why Stuie voted for Garelick the first time. Maybe he had mistaken the young rabbi’s gentle manner for weakness, and had figured he could push him around. But Andy has proven remarkably strong-willed. He has held firm about not allowing any foods containing GMOs at shul events and didn’t give an inch on the special service he wanted to hold for Indigenous Persons Day. Yeah, Stuie will probably vote to boot Garelick, and try to bring in some nebbish he can make his jailhouse bitch.
Al Edelberg? Rob has never heard him say much about the rabbi, pro or con, but to vote against him now would be to admit that he had chaired a wrong call three years ago, and Al Edelberg is not one to admit that he has erred. Okay, then: One for, and one against.
“My kids love him,” says Ken Blaustein, and everyone knows it’s the teenaged inmates who are running that asylum. Two in favor.
Carol Gold, a Realtor, takes a spreadsheet out of a leather folder. “Home prices here in West Cloverdale have stayed the same since Rabbi Garelick came,” she says, frowning. “Whereas prices in Sycamore Hills and River Ridge are up 3.2%.” Carol will vote not to renew, then. The woman has a cash register where her heart should be.
“I like him,” Michael Miller says without elaborating.
“What kind of rabbi doesn’t have children?” asks Lisa Isaacson, who has three sets of twins and, presumably, stock options in Clomid. “There’s something unnatural about that.” Rob had often wondered, too, why Joni and Garlic don’t have a baby yet. The thought that she was suffering with infertility pained him. The possibility that she and Garelick never actually had sex cheered him boundlessly.
“Unnatural,” Lisa repeats, wrinkling her bobbed nose as if smelling something foul. A no vote from her, then. And undoubtedly a nay, too, from Barbara Kranzler, whose son and daughter-in-law live in what the rabbi insists on calling “The Immorally Occupied West Bank.”
But Jerry Freudenheim is almost guaranteed to vote Yea. The rabbi had penned “A Prayer for Coming Out” when the Freudenheims’ son brought his boyfriend to shul last year, and hung a rainbow banner next to the Israeli flag at the front of the sanctuary.
Four in favor. Four opposed.
Rob looks around the table slowly, tallying and re-tallying projected ballots in his head. With pride and with terror, he realizes that he is the swing vote. Andy’s future – Joni’s future – rests in his hands.
“Praying for him not to be renewed,” Joni had said. And now, as Al Edelberg hands out pages from his prescription pad for a secret ballot, Rob thinks back to all the shul functions Joni hasn’t attended in the past three years. Maybe she hadn’t just been busy writing her thesis, as he’d always told himself as consolation for her absence. Maybe she just didn’t want to be there. Perhaps, now that he thinks about it, the reason she was always so quiet at the few events she did attend wasn’t that she was “such a good listener,” as he wrote in his secret journal. Maybe she was just bored. How had he not seen it before? Joni is miserable here. Perhaps even as miserable as he would be if she were gone.
If you love something, set it free.
The letter the board sends Andy is full of regretful words, offers of glowing recommendations, and kind but meaningless assurances that the vote had been razor-close.
The following Shabbos, Rob pours two glasses of spring water and brings one over to where Joni is standing in the corner, all alone.
“Thank you,” she says, and for a moment, Rob thinks she has figured out that his was the vote that set her free. That, if nothing else, she will lie in her bed on Friday nights dreaming of him, Rob Liebman, the one that got away.
But no, he realizes, as she raises the cup to sip. She was just thanking him for the water. He wants to tell her that she’s welcome, so very welcome, but she is already heading off to the recycling bin, with her silky scarves fluttering like wildflowers in the breeze.