It was only meant to be a prank. I admit that it was stupid, but I was twelve. What did I know? Had I all the pertinent information at hand then had carefully deliberated all of the potential outcomes, I would not have done it. Kids do stupid things all the time and everyone forgets about them, but this keeps coming up no matter where I am. Why? Because it’s shocking? Funny? Sacrilegious? The whole thing lasted less than ten seconds. People should just forget about it already.
I had just elbowed my way through the crowd of embarking passengers, fighting to descend from the 18 bus in Jerusalem, when I caught the tail end of my phone’s ring. A glance at the display told me that it was my mom, so though even a two minute conversation would make me late for morning prayers, I answered.
“Mom, What are you doing up?” It was around seven in the morning in Jerusalem, which would make it midnight in Pennsylvania. My mom usually turned in by ten at the latest.
“Jeffery gets a mazal tov. Jennifer just got engaged.”
“Jennifer is his youngest?”
“Yes. You should know that, she is your stepsister.”
I probably hadn’t spent more than thirty days altogether in the company of my mom’s husband Jeffery, and even less time with his two daughters. Jeffery married my mom a few years after I had already left home to attend a yeshiva high school in Maryland. From Maryland I went on to study in yeshiva in Israel, commencing a commitment to full time Talmud study. That was five years ago, and I had yet to leave the Holy Land since.
“Well, mazal tov to Jeffery:
”Wait a minute, Benjamin. I’ll put him on.”
I was left listening to waves of incoherent party chatter and the oompah drum beat of hassidic music until the phone reached its intended destination.
“Rabbi Benjamin!” I heard Jeffery yelling over the chaos.
“Mazal tov,” I responded.
“Rabbi Benjamin!: He yelled again. “Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me. And you don’t have to call me rabbi.”
“Rabbi Benjamin I can’t hear you! Speak up!”
I was standing right next to the Yeshiva’s entrance, with bleary eyed students stumbling through the doors on their way to morning prayers. So though I preferred to talk at an appropriately low volume, Jerry’s desperate yells left me with no choice but to raise my voice a few octaves.
“Yes, Jeffery. Mazal tov on Jennifer’s engagement!” I yelled, drawing glances from the yeshiva students.
“I can hear you now! So, rabbi, I don’t know if your mother said anything, but Jennifer would like you to officiate the wedding!”
“Officiate the wedding? Is it in Israel?”
“No, it’s here in Philly. We’ll fly you in. It would be an honor.”
“Jeffery… I’m honored… but I haven’t ever done a wedding before…I’m really not that kind of rabbi…”
I was ordained as rabbi two years prior, rather unintentionally. I had sought a consultation with a well know Jerusalem sage regarding how to properly respond to my mom’s allegations that I was wasting my time studying full time in yeshiva without pursuing a degree. As unique as I thought my circumstances were, the rabbi apparently saw dozens of guys like me every month and had a well established protocol for dealing with such situations. I left the rabbi’s office with a 50 question open book test to be completed by the end of the summer, and the ability to tell my mom that I was not just sitting purposelessly in yeshiva, rather was in the process of obtaining rabbinic ordination. My mom was thrilled that she was going to have a rabbi son, and I was equally thrilled to have her blessing to stay in yeshiva. So now I was now Rabbi Benjamin, being asked by my stepfather to officiate a wedding, because that is what Modern Orthodox people in suburban Philadelphia think rabbis do. But I did not see myself as a rabbi in that sense, rather just as a fifth year yeshiva student, and I told Jeffery as much.
“Don’t sell yourself short”, Jeffery replied, missing my point entirely, “You’re just as much of a rabbi as anyone else. And you’re family, so even better. We’ll book your ticket when we get the date settled. Mazal tov.”
He hung up the phone, and I stood there stunned.
Apparently, for the first time in five years, I was going home.
The most recent of the unrelenting reminders of the prank came just the night before that phone call. It was in an email from a childhood friend, back from my days as a member of the Orthodox Synagogue Youth Movement. Its contents served as reminder as to why I have stayed in touch with so few friends from those days. It read:
I saw this article in the Post and tried to tag you, but you seem to be the last person on Earth who isn’t on Facebook. Totally reminded me of you. You’ll see why. Text is below.
“Butterfingers Not Kosher for Jews When Handling Torah: Dropping the Holy Scroll Considered a Curse Needing Atonement”.
There are many ways in which Jewish law could be violated, but no transgression carries such strong consequences as the dropping of a Torah scroll.
“Sources for over a thousand years have understood that a congregation in which the Torah is dropped to the floor is being sent a message directly from God that they must repent, especially the individual who dropped the scroll himself,” says Rabbi Moses Schelling of Congregation Beth Israel, “Tradition calls for penance is such a circumstance, usually by undertaking repentative (sic.) fasts.”
Though the Torah scroll, which consists of about 80,000 hand-written words on a thick deerskin parchment wrapped around rollers made of solid wood usually weighs in at about fifty pounds, it is often handled by regular laypeople. During services, the bulky scroll is taken out of the ark where it is stored and carried over a large table where it is read. But its journey does not end there. After the reading commences, a ritual called “Hagbah” is performed, in which an honored member of the congregation is chosen to lift the scroll above his or her head for all to see. Still, with all this handling, it is extremely rare for the Torah to fall to the ground.
“I have been attending services every day for over fifty years, and I have never seen it happen,” Rabbi Schelling continued, “I have only even heard of one actual case of it occurring. From what I understand…”
I stopped reading, wishing I could avoid email as successfully as I had avoided Facebook.
I was eleven when the machine whose beeps had recently become synonymous with my father’s life sounded for the final time. A minute after it was shut off, my mother turned to me and whispered, “I guess we need a rabbi.” I was more than a little surprised, for I could not recall my mother ever as much as mentioning a rabbi in the previous eleven years. But it was the first time that I had a father die and trusted that my mom knew the proper procedures. Only she didn’t. So, how does a woman who had not attended synagogue in over a decade choose a rabbi for her husband’s funeral? Apparently she types “How do I find a rabbi in the Main Line PA?” into www.askjeeves.com. Which is how she ended up calling Rabbi Lowy, rabbi of the Orthodox Synagogue of the Main Line, the top recommendation of the ever helpful Jeeves.
We, of course, were not Orthodox. But Rabbi Lowy was kind and present and that was all that we needed. He arranged for my father to be buried in the section of the cemetery reserved for his own congregation. He asked us asked for details of my father’s life and mentioned my father’s love of backgammon and collection of civil war paraphernalia in the soft spoken eulogy. He instructed us on the traditional behavior in a shiva house, and arranged a minyan in our living room once a day so that he could recite kaddish in my father’s memory. But he did not only serve as a concierge of religious services. He sat with us for at least an hour a day throughout that week of mourning, listening to us as we spoke about my father, my mom’s childhood, my little league team, or anything else that came up.
A few weeks after the shiva ended, my mom took me out to Baskin Robbins to get my free birthday cone. My birthday was actually a month before, but my mom told them how we couldn’t come in on time because my father was sick in the hospital, and they let it slide. She did not mention that he never got better. Sitting at the counter, she said that she felt maybe we could use a community, some structure, some spirituality, and maybe some other things, and that she wanted us to try out attending Saturday morning services at Rabbi Lowy’s synagogue. I asked her if I had to wake up early. She said services started at 9:00 and the synagogue was an 8 minute drive away. I agreed to attend.
That Saturday, my mother got up early to blow-dry her hair, something I hadn’t seen her do since my father had been admitted to the hospital. My Saturday morning cartoon watching (which I had just begun to feel self-conscious about, but not self-conscious enough to stop) was interrupted every few minutes by mom walking between myself and the TV to elicit my opinion about yet another outfit. I dressed in my only pair of pants that weren’t jeans and my only shirt with buttons, which had first appeared on my bed the morning of my father’s funeral. .
At exactly 9:00 my mom turned right off Dutch Ave. into the synagogue parking lot, and immediately slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the chain that was cordoning off the lot.
A couple of men in suits turned at the sound of screeching tires and stared at our Mercury Sable as my mom backed up into the street.
“Why is the lot chained off?” I asked. “Half the spaces were empty.”
“Because it’s an Orthodox Synagogue. They don’t drive on Saturday.”
“If you knew that, why did you try to drive in?” she didn’t respond, though to my pre-teen analyses of my mother’s psyche it was obvious that she did so solely to embarrass me,
We drove further down Dutch Ave. until we reached a strip mall parking lot. My mom drove to the closest open spot, hit the brakes, pulled the parking brake, and unbuckled her seat belt in one fluid motion.
“Come on,” she called into the car, where I was still playing with my shoelace, “We’re already late.”
We hurried towards to the synagogue. The air was balmy for a fall day, and beads of sweat began to glisten off my mother’s bare arms and her dress began to cling to her legs. Her blow dried hair was already a mess and she began to work it into a pony tail, all the while jogging towards the synagogue, when a man in a suit and tie strode up from behind and called out,
“Whoa, slow down Miss. Don’t want to twist an ankle.”
My mom turned around to face the man, who looked to be in his forties with some gray hair covered with a black yarmulke, clean shaven, and a bit of a paunch in his midsection.
“Thank you for your concern,” my ever polite mother replied as she stopped slowed to a stop, “We just don’t want to be late.”
“Late? Its only 9:40?”
“I thought services began at 9.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry about being late. You’re not missing much. It’s the same stuff as last week. Next week- same thing again.”
My Mom puckered her lips and squinted into her “I do not understand what this person is trying to say” face.
“I mean,” Jerry continued, “Women generally don’t show up for over another hour, around the beginning of the sermon. But if you’re concerned, I go to the upstairs services. They start at 9:30. You’ll be right on time. I would be happy to escort you and your … husband?”
My mom faked a laugh and looked at her watch, “Well, at least we will be less late.”
“Just follow me. The minyan is in one of the classrooms, I’ll show you the way,” he said with an exaggerated bow.
My mom smiled in turn, gave an exaggerated curtsy and said “Thank you very much, that is very kind of you.”
He smiled, extended his arm to shake my mom’s hand, and said, “Jerry Goldberg. It is a pleasure to meet such a devoted woman.”
If I were to compile a list of people who had the biggest impact on my life, it would include my parents, a few dedicated teachers, and a number of brilliant rabbis that I had the privilege of studying under while in yeshiva. Together with all these exceptional individuals you would find Jerry Goldberg. The median quality of said list would be much improved had he not approached my mom that morning in the parking lot with an out sized grin. But for the time being he was only an aggressively friendly man who was still trying to make small talk with my mom instead of walking towards the synagogue, though by now he was more than twenty minutes late.
Eventually Jerry led us in through the synagogue’s front door, up two flights of carpeted steps, and into a hallway, all the while peppering my mom with questions until we reached a door with a sheet taped up that had “9:30 Minyan” printed on it in comic sans font. Jerry pointed to a door further down the hall and said to my mom “The entrance to the women’s section is right there.”
“So there is no way I can sit near my son?”
Jerry smiled and patted her gently on the shoulder, “Don’t you worry. He’ll be safe with me. The service will end in about an hour and a half. Then you’ll come over for the kiddush. Uhh… refreshments. It’ll be great.”
“Thank you so much,” my mom said, not making any motion towards the door down the hall.
“It is my pleasure. Now go. You don’t want to be late,” he said with a wink.
My mom gave me a hesitant wave, and turned to walk down the hall. Jerry watched her until the door to the women’s section closed behind her.
Jerry led me inside, surveyed the room, and walked me over to a seat in the back, next to where a skinny red headed kid wearing an uncomfortable looking suit and big glasses sat with a prayer book open on his lap.
“Josh,” Jerry said to the kid, “This guy is new here. Show him the ropes.”
The kid looked up, shrugged, and returned to his prayer book.
I sat down dutifully and placed my hands on my lap as the congregation mumbled through their prayers, wondering if I should try to get Josh’s attention. After a few minutes I turned to him and asked, “What are they saying?”
“Bircot kiriyat shma.” Josh said into his prayer book “Do you have a siddur?”
“A siddur. Uhhh… like a book for davening, I mean praying.”
“I think I left it in the car,” I lied, for no reason I could think of.
Josh’s turned his face towards me. “In the car? You drove here?”
Now I apparently had his full attention.
“Well my family… I mean my mom and I…we’re not Orthodox…”
“So you don’t keep any of the rules?” Josh said breathlessly.
“Well, I don’t know all the rules, but we do drive.”
“Do you watch TV on the Sabbath?”
He face was now so close to mine that I could see tiny freckles magnified by his glasses.
“So do you know what happened in the Sixers/Lakers game?”
“Sixers won. Iverson scored 40.”
“Yes!” he exclaimed, pumping his fist. A few men turned around and half heartedly shushed him. “I hate when the Sixers play on the West Coast on Friday night. The papers don’t get the scores in time for the morning edition.”
We talked about the Sixers, then the Flyers, as I dutifully mimicked Josh’s standing and sitting at the appropriate junctures. As the Torah was being carried out of the ark, Josh asked, “How did you end up here, if you’re, you know, not religious?”
“My mom wanted me to come. She thinks the rabbi is nice,” I replied, avoiding mention of my father’s funeral.
“Well, he is, but he doesn’t come here. He stays downstairs, in the main synagogue. This minyan is mostly for people who want to avoid his speech.”
“Oh. It’s just that we were late, and my mom really wanted to be on time, so some guy named Jerry brought us here.”
“Jerry brought you? That’s big stuff!”
“Why? Is Jerry like the rabbi here?”
Benjamin let out a laugh so loud that it drew another round of shushing, despite the consistent chatter taking place on all sides of the room.
“No, Jerry is much more important than that. He provides the kiddush.”
Though I had ignored some of the unfamiliar words that Josh had said, I asked him for clarification on this one.
“Well, usually it’s like a snack after prayers have finished. But Jerry takes it very seriously. He’s some kind of lawyer and he has meetings in New York on Thursdays, and he brings back tons of herring and kugels and super fresh deli from Brooklyn. Also tons of packages of the best cookies, like Stella D’oro Swiss Fudge and Sunshine Hydrox.”
“I never heard of those cookies.”
“Hydrox? There are like Oreos but they are Parve, so you can eat them with meat. He also brings all kinds of alcohol. Sometimes he brings this whiskey called Goldschläger. It tastes like atomic fire balls and has real gold pieces in it!”
“You drink the gold?”
“Yeah, you can drink anything. Jerry is so cool. Did you talk to him?”
“Not really. He was just talking to my mom.”
“So we’ll talk to him later. Do you know any dirty jokes? Jerry loves dirty jokes.”
“He also loves pranks. Once Yossi Greenfeld-that kid over there in the Eagles yarmulka- his dad is a professor of Arabs or something- switched Jerry’s siddur with a Koran! And once Eric Deutch – he’s not here yet- took Jerry’s tallis out of his tallis bag and replaced it with a bra! It was so funny.”
“And Jerry is okay with this stuff?”
“He loves it. He brings up the bra trick like every shabbos. He always comes to this minyan and does hagbaah. It’s his thing. He does it every single week. You know, as sort of a reward for paying for the Kiddush.”
“Lifting the Torah- watch.”
Just then Jerry walked over to the folding table where the Torah lay and cracked his knuckles, as someone dragged a plastic chair to about two feet behind him. He arched his back, made a big show of rolling his shoulders as if to loosen them, then grabbed the two wooden Torah handles and raised the Torah above his head in full view of the congregation, who pointed their pinkies at the scroll and mumbled dutifully while Jerry turned right, then left, then back up into the chair behind him, holding the Torah in place as Yossi Greenfeld with the Eagles yarmulke began to cover the Torah in various decorations of velvet and silver.
Towards the end of the services Josh brought me to the back of the classroom to help set up the kiddush. Between the screeching of the tables being dragged across the floor by a handful of kids, the chatter from the women’s section which was now filled with women in big hats and elaborate outfits, and the lively debating by the men standing in small groups over the merits of Ariel Sharon, it was nearly impossible to hear the final prayers that were being belted out by a little kid in a big prayer shawl in the front of the room. The kiddush food lived up to Josh’s ardent description, and while I found that I was not partial to herring, I actually liked Hydrox cookies better than Oreos. Josh introduced me to a bunch of kids, who were equally enamored with my knowledge of the late Friday night sports scores. As we sat in the corner of the room passing around a plastic cup of Jägermeister (made with 56 herbs and spices!), Jerry himself joined our little drinking circle.
“Hello guys! Did you all meet Benji? Cool guy huh?”
The guys all responded that indeed, I was cool.
“So Benji, got any good dirty jokes from Main Line Elementary for us?”
I sat sheepishly, unable to recall any such jokes on the spot and not really sure if I wanted to.
“It’s okay. You’re a first timer,” Jerry said with a grin as he clapped me on the shoulder, “I’ll take this week. But be prepared for next time.”
As Jerry told a bit about an overeager mohel that I did not fully get, I thought about how glad my mom was going to be when I would tell her that I wanted to return to synagogue the following Saturday.
Trips to the Orthodox Synagogue of the Main Line became a weekly occurrence, with both myself and my mom making new friends. Josh, Yossi, and the other guys who went to Hebrew Day went very quickly from guys who I talked with during services and hung out with at the kiddush to guys with whom I would spend the whole Saturday, even getting together with after school when we could work it out (which was not so simple as they arrived home from Hebrew Day a good four hours after dismissal time at Main Line Elementary). As my mom stopped driving to the library parking lot and my Saturday afternoons were being spent with the Hebrew Day crew, it was only a matter of time before we began to fully observe the Sabbath Orthodox-style. My new friends forgave my lack of access to up-to-date scores.
I became something of a celebrity at the 9:30 minyan, with friends vying to sit next to me so they could show me proper page and teach me the correct motions during prayers. Though none of them seemed that interested in the service when I first came to the synagogue, whichever kids were around me seemed to put in extra effort to focus on their prayers, or at least for what they deemed as the “important parts”. My celebrity carried over to the kiddush, where I was always the first kid approached by Jerry to tell a joke, whereupon he would take credit before all my friends for being the “one who brought this cool guy to the 9:30 minyan.” My new friends would nod their heads in agreement.
It wasn’t only at the minyan, though, that I would see Jerry. Though a number of adults from the synagogue would come by our house to visit my mom and help out with various logistics of our ongoing religious transformation (at least four different women came by to teach my mom how to bake hallah, with very little success), it was Jerry who was our most frequent visitor.
The first time that he came by was one night during dinner, when my mom answered the door to find Jerry holding a toolbox proclaiming “Was in the neighborhood and thought you might have something that needs fixing, with you being alone and all.”
My mom pointed out a leaky faucet and jammed doorknob. Jerry worked on those, and suggested a few more things that could use repairing. Soon Jerry was over at least once week, and hanging out in our kitchen well after the work was completed.
When Jerry would be in the kitchen my mom would call me downstairs to hang out with him. I figured that with my father gone, she wanted me to have a male role model to look up to. So I would take the Inquirer sports section and sit at the table as Jerry would tell stories to my mom about a big client he had just scored, his love of fine wines, or how his wife did not understand him, none of which held the remotest interest to my eleven year old ears.
Then, out of nowhere, Jerry did not like me anymore. He stopped asking me to tell jokes at the kiddush. I tried to say one without his invitation, but he didn’t laugh and no one else did either. I went to the library and took out a book called “Dirty Religious Jokes” and carefully selected and memorized 5 jokes, 3 about rabbis and 3 about nuns. When I tried to tell one of them at the next kiddush, Jerry cut me off after about five words saying “Do you always have to be the center of things? I mean, you should try staying out of sight for maybe two minutes sometime.” The kids all stared. Jerry never said things like that to other kids. I was afraid that they were going to think that there was something wrong with me.
This could not have been happening at a worse time. After six months of hanging out with my Orthodox friends and spending a few Sabbaths away from home with the Orthodox Synagogue Youth Movement, I had decided that I wanted to switch to Torah Day for 7th Grade. It would be hard enough joining a new school with my limited background in Hebrew and Torah, but to go in as a social outcast would be even more difficult. I figured I had to find a way to get back on Jerry’s good side and again be admired at the kiddush, and had to figure that out soon.
If dirty jokes were not going to cut it, there was only one other way to impress Jerry. A prank.
It had to be something that hadn’t been done before. Something creative and funny and unique, something perfectly tailored for Jerry.
That night I sat on my bed and wrote down everything Jerry loved: The New York Giants. Schnapps. Herring. Twelve items down the list, as soon as I scribbled the word, a smile spread across my face. I had my prank.
The next week at the 9:30 minyan, I got a seat one row behind the folding table where they put the Torah. I sat through the services, praying the parts I knew and faking the others. The Torah was taken out, placed on the table and read. After the last blessings were said, Jerry walked over to the folding table where the Torah lay and cracked his knuckles, as someone dragged a plastic chair to about two feet behind him. He arched his back, made a big show of rolling his shoulders as if to loosen them, then grabbed the two wooden Torah handles, and raised the Torah above his head in full view of the congregation, who pointed their pinkies at the scroll and mumbled dutifully while Jerry turned right, then left, then backed up towards the chair behind him. As his large posterior hovered about an inch above the seat, I grabbed the plastic chair and pulled.
Jerry’s legs shot up forwards into the air. For a moment, his arms remained upright and it appeared as if the Torah was floating magically, holding him aloft like a parachute. Then in a blink of eye, it came down with a crash that sounded more like a multiple car pileup than a lone scroll hitting a linoleum floor. All talk in the synagogue stopped. Perhaps all the breathing did as well. The only sound I heard was Josh whispering in my ear, “You better run home now. Fast.” At the time I didn’t know why he had said that, but something about the deadly seriousness that had overtaken the room told me to listen. I dashed out of the classroom, taking the stairs two at a time, and didn’t stop running until I reached my house.
That night Rabbi Lowy flew to Israel to consult with a well known rabbi as to the repercussions of a Torah falling to the floor in his synagogue. The rabbi said the congregation had to choose forty days over the next year in which to fast sunrise to sunset. Not everyone had to fast, just ten volunteers for each of the forty days. In a synagogue with over 400 families, this was not particularly difficult. Almost all the members picked one day each to fast between November and January, the months with the least hours of daylight.
The exception was Jerry. Because he was the one who dropped the Torah, for him extra repentance needed. He would have to fast on each of those days. All forty of them.
I did not return to the 9:30 minyan, nor to the larger Orthodox Synagogue of the Main Line. For the remainder of the year I attended Sabbath Services at the Yeshiva of Philadelphia. When I reached seventh grade I went away to an Orthodox boarding school in Maryland. I rarely came home.
In the twelve years since I had pulled that chair, I went from having little or no Hebrew reading skills to being presented with the “Outstanding Talmud Scholar” award at my yeshiva high school graduation, spent the following years studying full time in a number of the most prestigious yeshivas in Jerusalem, and now lived in a cramped ultra orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood about as far away as you can get from the suburban upper middle class life of the Orthodox Synagogue of the Main Line.
Still, the prank seemed to follow me everywhere. One summer I was studying Talmud in a Yiddish speaking yeshiva when the rabbi giving the class, apropos of nothing, began talking about the laws of when someone drops a Torah and said “I remember a few years ago a story from America. I think it was in Philadelphia. Binyamin, you’re from there. Tell me if this is true…”
When he finished I mumbled that I was not sure about the details of the story, and walked out of the class. I switched to a different yeshiva the next day.
“So you’ll go with Jeffery and Eli to synagogue on Shabbat?” My mom said on the drive to her house from the airport.
“Eli is Jennifer’s fiancé, right?”
My mom stuck her tongue out and said, “I know that you know his name. You have to in order to perform the wedding. So you’ll join them?”
“To the Orthodox Synagogue of the Main Line? I’d rather go to the yeshiva.”
“Please, Benjamin. It is Eli’s first Shabbat here. They are going to call him to the Torah. I bought 200 Sunkist Fruit Gems for the women to throw at him after the haftorah. It is practically part of the wedding. You should go.”
Perhaps I would have pushed back harder had I not spent the last two hours running around to various customer service desks all over the airport in a wild, but ultimately successful, search for my missing bag, but as it was I had no fight left in me.
“Fine, I’ll go.”
“Great!” she chirped. “They will be going at the 9:30 minyan.”
“The 9:30 minyan? Do I really have to go?”
“Benjamin. You’re a grown up now. A rabbi. Carry yourself with a bit more dignity.”
“Fine, mom. You’re right.”
“And besides, I’m sure no one even remembers that stupid prank.”
I knew I was a grown up and a rabbi, but I still felt sick to my stomach for agreeing to go.
“So Eli, you got to get up by 9:30 tomorrow. Will that be a problem?” Jeffery asked his future son in law at Friday night dinner.
“Sure. Don’t want to miss all that candy being thrown at my head.”
“If you like candy, just wait till after the services for Jerry Goldberg’s Kiddush. Plenty of candy there. Schnapps too.”
“Who’s Jerry Goldberg?” Eli asked. I felt the little wine that I had drunk rise up toward my chest.
“Who’s Jerry Goldberg?” Jeffery repeated. “Everyone knows Jerry Goldberg. Everyone loves Jerry Goldberg. But Jerry Goldberg doesn’t love just anyone,” he said, gently poking my mom in her stomach.
My mom turned a bit a red and whispered “Jeffery” in a weird sing-songy voice.
“C’mon, honey. Doesn’t Jerry Goldberg love you?” He said reaching his hand over again. My mom broke out into hysterical laughter and playfully slapped his hand away.
“I think he loves you the best,” Jeffery continued, still smiling but sans tickling.
“Well, not anymore,” my mom said with a smile.
“What are you guys talking about?” I asked. As much as I wished for an immediate end to this exchange, I felt like I was a little kid being left out of an adult conversation, so I risked prolonging it with a question.
“What do you mean ‘What are we talking about?’ You were here back then,” my mom said.
“Here for what?”
“When Jerry tried to put the moves on your mother. Not that I could blame him,” Jeffery said with a grin and made another grab at my mom’s midsection.
“Jeffery!” Another slap.
Now I was mad. Why where they messing with me? “I have no idea what you guys are talking about,” I said, “I think you guys have drunk too much.”
“Benjamin.” My mother turned to me with puckered lips squinted eyes, “Are you being serious?”
“Yes I am being serious! Have I said anything funny?”
“I just … I always thought you knew… “
“Well, after your father died, from the first time we went to the Orthodox Synagogue of the Main line, and Jerry was … you know… checking me out in the parking lot… I can’t believe I wore a sleeveless dress to the synagogue… Anyway, he was always coming by, trying to… you know… be intimate with me… saying really inappropriate things. I mean, I never let him do anything but I let him try for a while because he was so popular at the synagogue and you were so new… I mean we were so new… and it was important to me that you make friends. But eventually it got to be too much, I mean… I wasn’t married but he was, so I told him that he shouldn’t come over anymore if his wife wasn’t with him. Then he started to be really cold to me at the synagogue. Maybe towards you as well. I can’t believe you never knew, I just … I always just assumed that’s the reason you did what you did with the chair. You know, I thought that was your way of sticking up for me.”
We all sat in silence for a minute before saying the Grace after Meals and going to bed.
Jeffery, Eli and I walked into the classroom at exactly 9:30. We were alone. We took seats in the middle of the room as it filled up: First the older men who shuffled in on time to recite the first kaddish, then the fathers trailed by their younger kids in gold buttoned blazers, followed by yawning teenagers. I was glad to not recognize a single face. When I had last attended the minyan I would not have paid any attention to the older men, and the kids now present had yet to be born. Better still, no one seemed to match my bearded face with that of the eleven year old boy who attended the minyan for a few months eleven years prior. As for my former friends from Torah day, they had all moved away, mostly to North Jersey or Long Island. So I sat with my stepfather and future stepbrother-in-law in comfortable anonymity until the middle of Torah reading. Still, I fidgeted nervously, hoping to make it through the prayers and kiddush without a confrontation.
When Jerry Goldberg walked in his eyes immediately flashed with recognition. I dropped my eyes to the prayer book that lay open on my lap, and when I looked up again I saw that he had taken his usual seat. I breathed a sigh of relief that he had chosen not to approach me. Perhaps he would ignore me during the kiddush as well, realizing that it was in no one’s best interest to recall the prank that embarrassed us both.
I was called to the Torah, which placed me right next to Jerry. I said the blessings, stood beside the table as the Torah was read, and returned to my seat without so much as a look from the man. I began to think that my mother was right. What would I, a respected young scholar in Jerusalem, have to fear from a group of people who started their own minyan solely to avoid hearing their rabbi give one ten minute Torah lesson a week? There was nothing here to be concerned about.
The reading came to an end and Jerry approached the table as he was called up for hagbaah. Suddenly he stopped and turned. I could feel the eyes of the entire room following him as he walked right up to me, stuck his finger in front of my face, and said, “Don’t you try anything funny, kid, or else.”
Then he turned back around and returned to the table.
I stood, staring at the back of the man who had just humiliated me in front of a room full of people. But not had just humiliated me, and not only in front of this room, but had caused me to do something that had caused me so much embarrassment that I felt I had to leave schools, leave home, leave my mother. Do something that had followed me around my whole life, that I whenever I met another Orthodox Jew I felt a moment of fear that they would recognize me as that kid from that story. And why did I do it? To impress him. To impress a man who built up a newly religious kid just so he could get with his mother, and when that did not happen, made him feel like an outcast. But forget about me, think about what he did to my mom! A new widow approaches an Orthodox synagogue for the first time and he, as the first man who sees her, can only think about bedding her. The numerous visits to our home were not to help, but to harass, to wear down my mother until she would give him what he wanted. And when he didn’t get that, he did not repent, rather took revenge. I watched him as he cracked his knuckles, arched his back, make a big show of rolling his shoulders, and grab the two wooden Torah handles. A Torah that a man like him should not be permitted to even touch.
As his large posterior hovered about an inch above the seat, I grabbed the plastic chair and pulled.