Reb Moishe and the Beanstalks


Reb Moishe and the Beanstalks

By Philip Graubart


Summer, 1995
It wasn’t Catcher in the Rye, or The Foundation Trilogy, or even Henry Miller that caught Moishe’s attention. Unusual reading for a thirteen-year-old, but you didn’t have to be a genius or even supremely precocious to enjoy J. D. Salinger, particularly at this expensive camp filled with the offspring of doctors and lawyers. And certainly reading alone under a birch tree while most of her peers snuck off to dark corners to make out, or rushed to the lake for a quick swim, or just huddled together joking and giggling, boys with boys, girls with girls, waiting for the night, waiting for the changes that would transform them into adults that wasn’t so strange either. There were always teenagers, always adults for that matter, who preferred to be alone. But when he spotted her lugging around a thick volume called Variety of Religious Experience, and then saw her reading it under a tree, her lips moving slowly, he thought: I should get to know this girl.
Until then, he’d spent his mornings sleeping late. He could sleep through anything, even Jewish tweens and teens howling like feral cats, playing and fighting with such equal fervor that Moishe could barely tell the difference. The rest of the day and into the evening, he stood on the front porch of his cabin strumming his guitar, writing new melodies, performing old songs. Most evenings, an audience of about twenty gathered: Tsipi and her clique of popular older campers, and a few curious counselors. It was Tsipi’s mother, the president of the camp’s board of directors and a longtime fan, who’d gotten him the gig. They were paying him to hang out – mingle with the campers, mentor the staff – but they’d given him nothing to do. No camp-wide performances, no classes, no lectures. Moishe understood. The camp director was a lifelong Conservative Jew, into Israeli politics, history, the satisfying logic of Jewish law, and remembering the Holocaust. Moishe’s mystical music, his Jewish reincarnation workshops, his lectures on Jewish paganism, on Torah and Tantra, his God-intoxicated calisthenics, his beard, his accent, his Yiddish pronunciations – these all struck this otherwise kind and competent fellow as not only nonsensical, but dangerous and subversive. And Moishe couldn’t disagree; they were all those things, that was the point. Moishe flaunted the subversive nature of his teachings, yet he couldn’t deny that much of it was nonsense. This was religion after all, not physics.
Moishe suspected that the director had also sensed the laziness that often infected Moishe’s soul, and that’s why he agreed to hire him. What harm could the old fat man do, sitting on the porch playing guitar all day? Moishe couldn’t exactly mesmerize these wealthy children with his thoughts on how binah mated with chokhma to produce tiferet, or teach them to sit quietly and meditate on God’s thirty-nine true names, or explain how emanation, revelation, and creation were essentially the same things, the same powers clothed in husks of separate colors. It wasn’t kids’ stuff.
It was only when he saw Yael (he’d learned her name from Tsipi) reading one day from William James, the next day from Kierkegaard, and the following day, God help her, from Heschel himself, that he thought, I wonder if I could talk to her. I wonder if I could teach her something. Perhaps I could do something here.
First he instructed Tsipi to bring Yael to that evening’s front porch concert.
“Why?” Tsipi immediately asked.
He squinted at her through the thick lenses of his glasses. The eleven a.m. sun, just emerging from a cloud, produced a kind of halo over Tsipi’s head, while the glare obscured the rest of her body. An angel? Moishe considered. But the cloud moved slightly and Moishe took in the red tank top, the blue shorts, the bare feet, and the eyes so filled with scheming and petulance. A child, he thought, but then corrected himself. She’s sixteen. Moishe’s mother had gotten married at eighteen. And this Tsipi, his Tsip’ele? He had to admit she looked less like a child, and more like her mother, every day. He sighed. Careful, he thought. What was he doing here? Teenagers. They were a separate species. He knew nothing about them.
“Why Yael?” Tsipi asked again. 
So beautiful. This stunning woman-child, Tsipi: perfectly formed, legs, torso, toes, wrists, fingers in perfect aesthetic alignment, proof of the Holy One’s beneficence and artistry. And she stood under God’s bright sun, His emanating touch, in this dazzling green paradise with rolling hills, blue lakes, butterflies and hummingbirds. God, God, God. So beautiful. Of course, there were the two reddish blotches on her nose, and the even bigger one taking up half of her lower chin. Her stringy, unwashed hair. There was the smell of chlorine, inescapable even in the kitchen. It was from the latrines, the less said the better. The odor of boys, everywhere. The yammer and groaning of spoiled children. His aching back, re-injured every night by the ancient mattress. God. So wondrous.
“Nu, Tsip’ele, she’s not a child of God? Like you, like me?”
“I don’t have to do everything you tell me. Mom hired me to be your assistant. That doesn’t mean you’re my master. I’m not your slave.”
“So, nu, you do it as a friend. I ask you as a personal favor. Your holy mother pays you money, that means nothing to me. For me, you’re my Tsip’ele, my good friend.”
She tilted her head. Her squinted eyes and slightly upturned lips, communicated annoyance and affection at the same time. How does she do that? Moishe asked himself. So beautiful. If only she’d wash her hair.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that, Moishe,” she said.
“Tsip’ele? I’ve always. . .”
“I’m not seven, Moishe. My name is Tsipora. And no one likes Yael. She’s sort of creepy, reading by herself all the time. It’s not a good idea. She’ll keep people away.”
He stroked his beard. Cliques, he thought. It’s not that he was unaware. They existed even among the yeshiva bukhers in Yerushalayim. But those social rankings formed around Talmudic prowess, which meant that Moishe was always at the top, in a category all his own. These rich American kids? Their hierarchies were more rigid and harder to follow than the sephirotic chart. He could ask Yael himself, but that would probably scare her away. “Nu,” he said. “You’re right, my Tsip’ele. Sorry, Miss Tsipora. I’m not your master. I’ll discuss this with your mother. I’ll need a new assistant. But please know, my love for you is the purest. It’s undying, my sweet holy child. . .”
“Okay, okay. Chill. I’ll do it. I wasn’t refusing. Just giving you advice. She’s not. . . well, look at her. She’s not normal.”
Moishe laughed, his belly laugh, his full-bodied chuckle. It worked for some people. For Tsipi’s mother, and sometimes also for Tsipi. She laughed along with him, though Moishe wasn’t sure why. “Normal?” he asked. “Tsip’ele, does that seem like the criterion for what I’m doing here? You imagine I’m looking for normal?”
“Point taken,” she said. She turned away quickly and sprinted, doe-like, across the field. Artemis, Moishe thought, the huntress in pursuit of prey. Or, better, our holy mother Rebecca, rushing forward because to live as God’s prophetess is to rush, to move, to dart, to spring, to jump. So beautiful.
The breeze turned chilly that evening, so they moved indoors for the concert. Yael sat in the corner, her legs folded tightly against her chest, as if she was trying to pull herself into invisibility. But the room was small, and Moishe could see everyone, the older boys and girls, some of them holding hands or resting their fingers on a partner’s thighs, all of them brushing up against each other, the physical contact contributing to the room’s atmosphere as much as the music – maybe more so. And there was Yael, alone, tiny, but with budding breasts, just acquainting herself with adolescence. Moishe noticed the tears after the second song, and they flowed all through the concert, her hand in constant motion, brushing them away. Was it the music? he thought. Or the loneliness? What was the difference?
He assumed she would rush off afterwards and he’d have to find her the next day under her tree. But she stayed, waited patiently, leaning against the wall, while he hugged the older girls and boys goodbye, laying his hands on their dirty hair, whispering blessings into each of their ears. After the last one left, he approached her, held out his thick arms for a bear hug. But she stuck out her bony hand and he understood right away. Nu, a handshake.
“The music was so beautiful,” she said. “It reminded so much of. . .”
She couldn’t talk. No tears now, but no voice. She stared at his eyes, still holding his outstretched hand. His heart broke. He’d met adults moved to tears by his songs, hundreds of them. He’d embrace them in his famous bear hug, then sign them up for one of his courses, put them on the mailing list, maybe sell them a CD. But this wounded robin, this fragile soul. Could he do it? Could he be a rebbe to a lost teen?
“Child,” he said. And it was enough. She wept, fell into his arms.
It wasn’t so much the divorce, she told him. Divorce she could handle, half the kids in her class visited parents on the weekends. Even the adultery, she supposed she could live with that. Her father had at least tried to explain: her parents had fallen out of love with each other, it happened all the time. So he’d reached out, in his pain and loneliness, to his secretary. Okay, creepy, but really who else was it going to be? She got it. She was mature. But the scandal. Her father’s picture in the paper, the crazy headline accusing him of consorting with mobsters. It wasn’t fair. Her father wasn’t a celebrity, just a rabbi. And now he was ruined. And humiliated. It would never go away. She knew it.
“Of course it will go away, sweet child. Everything passes.” They were in Moishe’s cabin, at the table he used for eating, though he had nothing to offer her, no cocoa, no cookies. Just schnapps, but that wasn’t for her. It was well past bedtime, but Moishe would explain to her counselor.
“Not this, Moishe. I can see it in my father’s eyes. He’s so embarrassed. His reputation means everything to him. It doesn’t even matter if he gets another job. It’s a stain. I’m dying for him.”
“You die for him. Gevalt. Child, that’s not the way. He dies for you.”
“I know. I know. And he would. But he’s. . . he’s not strong, Moishe. Not like you. He loves too deeply, that’s what he told me.”
He chuckled. “Ah, to love too deeply. I don’t know. Nu, is this possible? But, sweet one, maybe it’s you? Maybe you love too deeply? Or, you don’t save enough love for yourself?” He looked at her, watched her study her fingernails, her eyes half shut. So focused. So tight. Was she thinking about his clichés, his nonsense? Loving too deeply, what does that really mean? “Tell me something, my angel. Why Kierkegaard?”
She smiled. “You saw my books.”
“Why do you think you’re here? Nu, I get William James. Heschel, certainly. But Kierkegaard? Christian mysticism? Existentialism? I’m not seeing the connection between this and your beloved father.”
“I’m trying to pray. It’s all I can think of. It’s not just for him. It’s for my mother. She’s so filled with hatred. I can’t talk to her. About him, about anything really. And now we’ll have to move. This is the thing, Moishe. I’ve got no control. I need to do something. I’ve prayed my whole life, but that was, well, bullshit. Sorry. It was nothing. Just bat mitzvah stuff. Memorizing. But the night before they made me come here, I saw my father in his office wrapped in a tallis, holding a siddur, swaying back and forth, and. . . I’d never seen him cry. But he was shaking. He was jerking around so much, the tears were literally flying off his face. It was the first time I ever thought that prayer could mean something other than getting the words right. He was praying like he could change things.”
“And you want to? Nu? You want to change things?”
“I want to pray. Like it means something.”
“But you know, precious child, everyone knows. What you want to change, can’t be changed by prayer. You pray for what, nu, that your parents get back together? That you go back in time and stop them before they fall out of love? You’ve read Heschel too, nu? In prayer you enter the domain of the King. You feel the presence of the Sacred Queen. It’s not a vending machine, you put in a shekel, it gives you a candy bar.”
“I know, I know, I know, I know, I know.”  She grabbed a clump of tangled up hair and looked ready to tear it out. For the fourth or fifth time in the conversation, she seemed on the verge of hysteria. What, then, could Moishe do? But each time she swallowed back her tears. Instead of crying, her greenish brown eyes (he’d never seen that color in eyes; he’s not sure he’d ever seen that color) beckoned, drew him in. “I swear, I’m not looking for that. I read your article on prayer in the Jewish Handbook. I just need. . . I want what you want. I know God won’t put my family back together again. I’m not a child, not anymore. I want to believe someone’s listening. I just want a presence. A voice. I swear, that’s all.”
Suddenly a buzzing sound filled the cabin, steadily increasing in volume. Yael brought her fist to her mouth, gaping at Moishe. Angels? Devils? “Mosquitos,” he said. “Nu, they’re exactly on time. Like alarm clocks, these dear friends. Except instead of calling me into God’s beautiful world, they tell me it’s time for bed. They only bite if I stay up too late talking to campers. That’s the bargain I made.” Moishe waited for her laugh, then shrugged. What did he know about how to make a thirteen-year-old girl laugh? But they’d connected, hadn’t they? She’d read his article, his only non-academic publication, the only article he’d written that didn’t attempt to unravel complicated Talmudic passages or compare different late medieval manuscripts. And he’d given her an idea. Maybe he could be useful in this place, after all, with these children. Or at least with her.
He thought about how to approach the camp director about his proposed project, but then a brainstorm hit him of astonishing ingenuity: he wouldn’t ask permission. He’d use some of his “free concert” time, sneak a few moments during lunch, and rely on the campers’ discretion for the midnight sessions. He asked Tsipi to gather ten campers, with only one criterion: they should be spiritual. Spirituality was key. Mamesh spiritual.
“I don’t know anyone who’s spiritual. No one is spiritual. I don’t know what the word means. No one does. I don’t know what mamesh means. Why do you always tell me things I don’t understand? I don’t want to work with you anymore. I don’t like you.”
She smiled through the rant, looking at the sky. Despite what she’d said, Moishe could tell she was considering who to ask, but perhaps using a different calculus than he’d suggested. Nu, it didn’t matter. As long as one of the ten was Yael. Tsipi wrinkled her nose at that, but didn’t protest. In the end, she chose five boys and five girls. Except for Yael, they were all sixteen, athletic, confident, extroverted, awful, obnoxious, and, Moishe guessed, popular, though honestly, even when he became adored, massively adored years later, he never understood the concept.
This was the plan. The group planted two rows of beans at a corner of the central field. They’d care for each row equally: water, plant food, weeding, chasing away insects, fencing out squirrels and rabbits, whatever it took. He put the largest, most muscular boy in charge of cultivation because to Moishe he looked like a shtarker, a peasant. But they would only pray on behalf of one row. He instructed them to direct their hearts to “Row Avrum” in their morning and afternoon davening, and ignore “Row Itzik.” And three nights a week they would gather for khatzot – midnight prayers, where they would pour out their souls for Row Avrum, and perhaps even throw in a curse at Row Itzik. He put Yael in charge of prayer.
She took to it like a demon. She composed hymns extolling God’s loving mercy to beans planted in honor of our holy and saintly father Abraham. She convinced Moishe to set her words to melody and, in a surprisingly lovely voice, she led the congregation in heart-wrenching midnight singalongs. She distributed tallesim and tefillin to everyone, and demonstrated how to tie tefillin for those who’d only done it once on their bar or bat mitzvah, and forgotten. She carefully inspected the plants every morning, and when she spotted a few with suspicious looking white spots, she adapted the traditional healing prayers and directed her campers to focus them on the sick individuals of Row Avrum. When that didn’t seem to work, when one of the plants appeared to die (though Moishe himself wouldn’t have been able to distinguish life from death when it came to beans), she switched to Debbie Friedman’s modern healing song, changing the line “Bless those in need of healing” to “Bless those beans in Row Avrum in need of healing.” When that didn’t work, when it became clear even to farm-illiterates like Moishe that Row Itzik was thriving and Row Avrum was dying, she instituted midnight tachanun services, where everyone threw themselves on the earth, their faces in the dirt. Together, as one sacred congregation, they implored the Holy One, with full throats, with all the breath in their lungs and all the blood in their veins, as if their pleadings were the waters that fill the rivers and lakes, and their tears the holy salty substance that formed the seas. They implored the Blessed one of Mercy for healing, renewal, and growth. But only for Row Avrum.
It didn’t work. The campers emerged the next morning dusty and dirty from aerobic prayer to find Row Itzik sprouting deep green buds, and then the beginnings of actual beans, round, hard, and healthy. But Row Avrum, nothing. Gornisht. Some brown spots, leaves that had vanished overnight, thin grassy stalks nibbled on by passing bugs or withered in the sun. At first Moishe suspected sabotage. Was Tsipi sneaking to the field, poisoning the plants, adding spiders, worms, or other plant predators? Did she dislike Yael so much? Were the social hierarchies so ingrained that Tsipi would commit planticide to deny Yael any spiritual satisfaction or alteration in her social status? Yael, consciously or not, was becoming a leader in this project. The boys looked to her for prayerful guidance, and even the girls nodded respectfully at each liturgical instruction. Was this intolerable to his Tsip’ele? But Moishe noted a sad desperation even in Tsipi’s normally cynical expression as the kids davened, and then faced the failure of their prayers. He didn’t think Tsipi, or any of these American campers, could effectively fake the existential sadness that he spotted behind their eyes. It wasn’t sabotage. It was the verdict of God, the All Merciful. He’d rejected their prayers.
But that was the point, wasn’t it? He’d wanted to demonstrate to them that davening was a spiritual experience divorced from outcomes. You came into the palace of the King – that was the only benefit to prayer. And that had to be enough. It was enough for him. He, after all, was not much more than a poor beggar despite a lifetime of prayer. If God chose to heed our pleas, well, nu, blessed be God’s name. But if the answer was no, still there was God. Prayer was God and God was prayer. So simple. So hard to explain. You explain it by showing. That’s what he’d done, to these sweet blessed children. He’d showed them.
It didn’t go well. It broke their hearts. Tears, tears, tears. Protests, screams of agony. “I hate you!” Tsipi screamed, and Moishe nodded stoically. Of course she hated him, not God. He, Moishe, hadn’t rejected their prayers; he’d prayed along with these kids. But, nu, better they should hate Reb Moishe than God. They didn’t get it. They’d wanted their vending machine to work. It didn’t. They’d inserted their coins. But no candy for these sweet children. They cried on that final midnight, beat their chests. They protested. “You tricked us! You killed the beans!” They called him a murderer, and he heard no irony at all in their accusations. What could he say? It didn’t matter. The next day, they’d be over it, back to flirting, to archery, to ball games he would never understand, to preening in ridiculously immodest bathing suits, to lives filled with trivial heartbreak and the American pursuit of happiness. Nu, even this drama, this gnashing of teeth, this sackcloth and ashes, what was it but a show? A school play like the dozens their parents had been forced to watch as their privileged children grew into young Americans. Just pretending.
But he spotted Yael, kneeling by herself, fingering a single stalk from Row Itzik. No tears, no yelling, just thoughtful contemplation. She gets it, Moishe thought. It’s enough. I did this for her.
But she didn’t, apparently. Two nights after the blow-up in the field, just as the mosquitos announced his bedtime, she pounded on his door. It seemed she had stopped breathing. Her face was beet red and damp. Her lips trembled, but nothing emerged – no protest, no cry, no air.
“Gevalt,” he said softly, and pulled her in by her arm. “Breathe, precious one,” he said, and somehow it was enough. She expelled air, then sucked it in. Then collapsed in his arms, weeping. He patted her on the back of her tank top, careful to avoid the bare naked arms. “Ah, sweet one. You care so much. The pain in your heart. That’s what it means to enter God’s throne room. That’s our secret. You understand it now. But you already knew. My heroine. My strong one. You knew.”
“No, no, no, no, no.” She pulled back, staring at him, her brown-green eyes magnified by the tears, so they looked enormous, super-charged. “I’m not strong. I failed. I saw what you were doing. I knew it wasn’t about which row of beans did better. You told me. I read your article. Not about the outcome, that’s what you teach. It’s about entering God’s palace. Being with God. I knew that. But I just – I so, so, so, so, so wanted those beans to live. I wouldn’t even have cared if Row Itzik had lived, too. Or even if Row Itzik grew better beans. But my beans all died. It wasn’t fair. I failed. It wasn’t about the beans. It was me. I flunked. I can’t pray.” She fell back into his arms.
Weeping over spiritual failure. Who was this child? A reincarnation of the holy Reb Nachman? Nowadays, who mourned God’s exile? Who grieved at the hiding of the face? No one. Except for this blessing in his arms, this tsadeket with the broken home and broken heart. “You are my rebbe,” he whispered to her. “Only a true rabbi teaches heartbreak, sweet one, and you’re teaching me so much. So much light from the darkness. That’s what you give me. It will come to you. The light will invigorate your soul. You’ll be the truest friend, the wisest teacher, the most soulful lover. Gevalt, sweet friend. One day you’ll see it.”
But not that day. He couldn’t console her. She was inconsolable. He walked her back to her cabin. Then detoured through the field to check on the plants. The fences were gone, torn away by rodents or sixteen-year-old humans. The beans were eaten. Nothing was left but a few stalks.
“What did you do to that girl?”
He was in the office of the director. In a cabin not unlike his own, with stained brown walls made of wood, a metal picnic table, a kitchenette, and an ancient sofa. Moishe preferred bare walls but the director had decorated his with Israeli flags and posters featuring sand, camels, and blue skies; bearded yeshiva boys in Jerusalem dancing, their faces turned toward heaven; soldiers weeping at the Western Wall; Israeli jet fighters flying over Auschwitz; and campers in skimpy bathing suits cavorting in the lake, an advertisement for Camp Tikvah. Sitting at the uncomfortable table, the director peered down, looming over Moishe like a Cossack. His arms alone were tree trunks but Moishe was particularly impressed with the huge barrel chest, the chest of a man who could hold his breath forever. Every limb on his body – his clenched fists, his coiled thighs, his bullet head, his sunburned face – communicated conflict. Imagine wrestling this man, Moishe thought. Could be fun for maybe one minute.
“Do? Nu, I taught her some songs. She discussed with me this business with her family, her father. We davened, and, nu. She accuses me of something?”
The director leaned in. He threw his thick right upper arm across the metal table, as if challenging Moishe to an arm-wrestling match. Moishe noted the veins in his neck, now distended, nearly touching the arrow-sharp point of his chin. A hug, Moishe thought. This poor holy Jew needs a hug. Too much stress. Gevalt.
“Moishe, if she’d accused you of something, it wouldn’t be just you and me talking here. There’d be lawyers. And, listen, I can’t believe you’d do anything truly inappropriate. So relax, okay? I’m not a cop. I’m not your biggest fan, I think you’ve figured that out, but I’m not your enemy. The last thing we want is a scandal. But I have a camper who can’t stop crying, who can’t get out of bed, and can only say two words: ‘Reb Moishe.’”
Moishe shot to his feet. Not so easy for an out of shape yid, first thing in the morning. “I need to go to her.”
“Sit. She’s gone.”
“Gone? Where is there to go?” He thought of the woods, the lake.
“Her father picked her up this morning. He’s taking her for a ride. Hopefully, she’ll come back.”
“The father. But he –”
“Yes. Mendel Gold. He’s got his own problems. But I’ve got a camper weeping her heart out who won’t eat or get out of bed. What do you expect me to do?”
Expect? An interesting question, thought Moishe. She calls for me, but instead this large fellow, my holy brother the camp director, calls her father. The problem is the father. The solution is spiritual, in her soul. There’s no healing in running away. But how to explain this obvious truth, especially to this gvir, this wrestler? “Nu? He came? They left? Gone? That’s it?”
“Look, Rabbi Gold has been one of our biggest supporters. Frankly, he’s raised a lot more money for us than Tsipi’s mom. I know he’s got problems now, but who knows where he’ll end up? I wouldn’t bet against him. His daughter has a breakdown, I call him. Right away. He wants to come right now and take her for a ride to calm her down? I’m not going to argue. But I need to know. Because at some point she will stop crying. And then she’ll talk. Moishe. Why is this girl crying? What did you do to her?”
Over the course of the next hour, Moishe told the story. In Moishe fashion: adding a few songs, even composing a new melody, and meandering through the details, whisking the listener on the magic carpet ride of story through the mystical cities of Bratzlav, Sura, Ishbitz, Mezrich, Stashov, and Cleveland Heights. Because his audience of one was a literate Jew, he spoke in Hebrew and Yiddish and Aramaic, but always returned to English, this man’s mamaloshen. Two rows of beans, one blessed, one cursed. Nebekh, the cursed one triumphed. Nu, like Esau. Like Ishmael. The hated brother, coming out on top. He referenced Rashi, Ramban, Radak, the Ritva. It was, Moishe thought, one of his better performances. Learned but, at the same time, moving. The head and the heart. Chochmah and Binah in celestial harmony. The director listened intently without interruption, never removing his beefy forearm from its position, a quarter-inch from Moishe’s.
Then he fired Moishe.
He gave him twenty-four hours to clear out his shit and hit the road.
Moishe assumed, as his eighteen-year-old Datsun struggled through the insanely green hills, that his career as a Jewish educator, such as it was, had ended. Even Tsipi’s mother, he figured, would remove her patronage, since her own daughter would undoubtedly characterize herself as a victim of the bean plant scandal. He wondered if he should finally move to Israel, or maybe make a go of it in Poland, sell himself as the last real Eastern European Jew, travel the Jewish tourist circuit from Prague to Cracow to Warsaw to Budapest.
But, as was often the case when Moishe made predictions about his future, he was wrong. Far from destroying his livelihood, the beanstalks made him famous. The article he published on the experiment won several magazine awards. He turned it into a book and then a documentary film. Concert bookings quadrupled, then quadrupled again. Tsipi’s mother didn’t abandon him, after all. Instead she recruited more millionaires, even billionaires. They clapped and danced, sweated and wept, at his concerts; they took his business cards from his outstretched arms, and sometimes actually called him for advice, or with new gigs: a concert, a lecture, a corporate class, or some spiritual consulting. In between concerts, lectures, and workshops, in a kind of semi-sleep fugue state, he wrote serious scholarship on Jewish mysticism, and suddenly invitations came from universities. Case Western, Indiana, Northwestern. And lastly, of course, kicking and screaming, always resistant to mystical nonsense, the Hebrew Theological Institute. A faculty position. New donor friends insisted on this. Particularly the billionaires from Silicon Valley. They adored him.
And then, with God’s good grace, Tsipi of all people became Chancellor. Her first academic act was to offer him tenure and an endowed chair. A big shot scholar at the age of seventy-three, and even one with some money in the bank.
That’s what happened after the director – Moishe honestly could never recall the holy Jew’s actual name – fired him.
“What did you do to that girl?” the wrestler had asked, and Moishe had told him the story.

But before the story, he had answered the question. “What did I do to her? I taught her to pray.”


Copyright © Philip Graubart 2020

Philip Graubart is a rabbi and writer living in San Diego. He’s published six books, including the novels My Mother’s Song, Planet of the Jews, Rabbis and Gangsters, and Silwan. His latest novel, Women and God, will be published next fall. He has served congregations in New York City, Northampton Massachusetts, and San Diego. He’s also held senior leadership positions at the National Yiddish Book Center and The Shalom Hartman Institute. He is currently the director of Jewish Life and Learning at the San Diego Jewish Academy. 

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