It had arrived.
Rebecca placed the receiver in the cradle of the phone as if returning a keenly honed sword to its velvet-lined case. She slumped back in the office chair and stared at the computer screen but her eyes did not see the words of the case file flickering there.
It had arrived.
When she got home, it would be lying on the front room floor in the early darkness of naked autumn. On any other day she would have come in, placed whatever she was carrying--books from the college library, groceries, the New York Times, the mail--on the long black mahogany table, taken off her coat and laid it over the back of the black leather couch, sat in her rocking chair and gone through the mail. But tonight she would hurry along the hallway past the front room and the adjacent middle room and rush up the stairs.
That's what she had done last summer when she came home and saw a furry brown bat hanging upside down from the exposed beam in the front room. After a sleepless night of hearing the bat's wings slicing distress into the air, she got the stepladder and a frying pan.
There had been a problem, however. It was Saturday morning, Shabbat, an early summer Shabbat morning when the air was so soft and gently warm she felt awash in holiness. "Uvtuvo m'chadeish b'cholyom tamid maaseih v'reisheet," she said to herself, quoting from one of the Shabbat morning prayers--"In Your goodness, day after day, You renew creation."
Could she kill a bat on Shabbat? Somewhere in the Talmud one of those crazy Galilean rabbis had to have asked, Is it permissible to kill a bat on Shabbat? Unfortunately, her set of Talmud was in the front room--with the bat. Then she wondered: was a frying pan kosher after you killed a bat with it? A good Orthodox Jew would've resolved the questions before acting. Being a Reform Jew (and a good one) she balanced herself on the stepladder (her left foot on the lower step), hit the bat with enough force to smash an atom, and threw it and the frying pan into a large black garbage bag, the kind with a drawstring, which she pulled tight and dropped into the green trash barrel in the garage.
The problem it posed could not be resolved so directly, especially since she did not know why she thought a problem existed. But she would let it lie there, which is what it had been doing for more than fifty years anyway. What would another day matter?
She supposed she should call Saul and Patric and tell them it had arrived. More than anyone, they had pressed her to send away for the Torah scroll. That had been five years ago. There was no need for it now, though Saul and Patric might try and convince her otherwise.
Saul Greenberg was an enormous man, a reputed computer genius who taught at the college. He had grown up on Long Island where, on Sunday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, his parents and a hundred others deposited their children at temple for Hebrew school to learn the rudiments of Hebrew and something about Judaism and Jewish history. Rebecca didn't know what had happened or when, but something had transformed Saul into a Jewwho prayed the requisite three times a day, seven days a week, his body bending rapidly back and forth as if he were the victim of uncontrollable spasms. Despite such pious earnestness, he told her once that his soul was as parched after prayer as it had been before. Rebecca was afraid Saul would see the scroll's unexpected arrival as a sign from God. Whatever the scroll's arrival might mean, Rebecca knew it wasn't that.
She had no idea how Patric would interpret its coming. She had not seen him after what happened at his house on New Year's. She missed him. He had been the first faculty member to befriend her when she had come to work as a therapist at John Brown College five years ago. Rebecca had been flattered that one of the country's leading authorities on religion would want to be friends with her, a failed rabbi, but he seemed to enjoying talking with her, especially about religion, something she knew little about besides Judaism. He was a devout Episcopalian, though she wasn't sure what that was exactly. She had never understood the differences between the various Christian sects nor why there were so many of them. They all believed Jesus was the son of God who died and rose from the dead to save everybody from sin. What was left to disagree about? Having grown up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and attended yeshiva until she went to Columbia, Rebecca had never had a reason to think much about Christianity. She had not had to confront one of the religions Judaism had birthed until she became rabbi of Temple Sinai in suburban Pine Grove, New Jersey (which was devoid of pines and groves), and found herself invited to participate in interfaith services and have lunch with ministers eager to display their Christian liberalism by eating with her at Hunan Israel, the kosher Chinese restaurant in the next town.
Perhaps the five years of hearing her ministerial colleagues piously refer to what they called the "Judeo-Christian tradition" led her to say more than she intended that October afternoon of her first year when she and Patric were chatting in a booth at The HangOut, the cafe; on the lower level of the Student Activities Building.
He made some reference to the "Judeo-Christian tradition" and gave her an unctuous smile like the ones Jim Swisher, one of the ministers in Pine Grove, used to bestow on her, as if he were making her an honorary Christian. Sitting there opposite Patric and feeling herself getting angry, she realized for the first time how stressful it had been to maintain clerical cordiality with her Christian counterparts.
"Did I say something wrong?" Patric asked, forcing Rebecca to bring her mind back from Pine Grove.
She looked across the table at him. He returned her gaze, bewildered by the anger he saw in her eyes. His face, covered with a neatly trimmed white beard and mustache, was lean as he was. The full head of dark hair was streaked with enough gray to make him look like a very distinguished sixty-three-year-old. Most striking was the softness in his dark eyes. What had he done in his life that God had rewarded him with eyes that gleamed so fiercely with kindness?
"You happened to touch one of my pet peeves."
"I don't think there is such a thing as the 'Judeo-Christian' tradition," she answered.
"And why is that?"
"Well, it implies that Jews and Christians believe in the same things, and we don't."
"We share a common scripture," Patric put in.
"Not really. Christians appropriated Jewish scriptures as theirown. The Christian Bible is primarily Jewish scriptures, which you call the Old Testament. The Jewish Bible does not contain your so-called New Testament."
The kindly eyes narrowed but Rebecca was back at Hunan Israel telling Jim Swisher all the things she had been too young and shy to say six years ago.
"And then there's Jesus," she continued. "In ancient Israel each year at Yom Kippur, Jews symbolically put all their sins on Azazel--a goat--and sent him into the wilderness, taking our sins with him. I've always thought it arrogant and presumptuous for a man to proclaim himself scapegoat for the world."
Rebecca stopped, having been far more blunt than she had intended. She waited tensely for Patric to refute her petulant assertions with a litany of scholarly references. Instead he smiled wryly, shook his head, and chuckled softly.
"You know, I'm supposed to be an authority on religion and yet, with a few simple sentences, you made me realize that I know nothing about Judaism. I've spent months at Zen monasteries in Japan, with Hindu holy men, with the Dalai Lama. I've been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem but I've never taken the time to study in a yeshiva. I've appeared on panels with rabbis but can't recall ever having a conversation of any length with one--until now. I've always assumed that Jews and Christians had so much in common there was no need for me to examine Judaism closely."
A few days later he called and asked if she would consider leading Shabbat services at her home a couple of times a month to help an ignorant Gentile educate himself. He added that he had spoken with some Jewish faculty members who said they would be interested in coming. She doubted that the few Jews at the college or the onesscattered through the mountains of northern Vermont near the Canadian border were really interested. Jews only moved to the most remote part of one of the most rural states because he (and she) wanted to get as far away from other Jews as possible.
She had no desire or intention of being a rabbi ever again, but she couldn't say no to Patric, flattered that he thought she had something to teach him, he whose books and tapes on religion were very popular. He had also hosted a popular fourteen-week series on religion for a cable network during that awful spring when she and her husband were separating and she was deciding to leave her congregation before they fired her.
But flattered as she was, Rebecca's first impulse had been to say no so loudly it would've been heard in Montreal. She didn't want to spoil a perfectly good Shabbat with services. Having spent the week counseling students, staff members and even an occasional professor, she looked forward to being alone on Shabbat. But once she began considering the idea she found herself fantasizing about her home becoming a place where Jews came to worship and study and, in so doing, redeemed her failure as a congregational rabbi. In nervous anticipation of that first service she duplicated ten copies of the opening prayers, psalms and morning service from a siddur, and that week's Torah portion and translation from a Chumash. She was surprised when twelve men and three women crowded into the front and middle rooms of her house.
She led the service singing the prayers in Hebrew in her beautiful soprano voice, gratified that many sang along with her. With the completion of the morning service, it would have been the time in a synagogue to take the Torah from the ark and read from it, but she had no Torah scroll. Instead she led a discussion on the Torah portion whichthat week was Noach, the story of Noah and the flood, among other things. The excited conversation extended well into the afternoon.
Rebecca dared hope her redemption was at hand, but as autumn meandered toward winter, the group's interest in talking about the week's Torah portion, God and holiness was not as compelling as sharing their adolescent memories of the rebbetzin's greasy cholent, the sweetness of the lokshen kugel made by this one's grandmother, the tenderness of the brisket made by that one's mother, and how another could not hear the Kol Nidre without remembering how he felt as a little boy standing next to his grandfather, enveloped by the huge tallis draped over the old man's shoulders. Their Jewishness consisted of little more than shtetl nostalgia, something American Jews from deracinated suburbs were prone to since they did not speak Yiddish or Hebrew and thought they were being good Jews when they ate bagels, lox and cream cheese on Sunday morning.
Many of them had moved to Vermont in the late sixties and early seventies to pursue a back-to-the-land fantasy, though most had been New Yorkers whose walking on the land until then had consisted of the grass in Central or Prospect parks. But they had learned to walk not only on grass but on snowshoes to care for livestock when the temperature was twenty below and in heavy boots through the viscous mud of spring thaws. It had not taken long for them to realize that there was no romance in the vagaries of farming and raising livestock and some discovered a talent for making pottery or cutting boards, wooden spoons, salad bowls and lamps to sell to vacationing New Yorkers who projected a nostalgia for Eden onto Vermont. One had discovered he had a talent for making dowsing rods while another had made a small fortune by pressing and sealing Vermont's famous autumn leaves into hard plastic cases and selling them. (NativeVermonters did not understand how the state had come to embody the American ideal of pastoral virginity, but they did what they could to profit from the projection.)
Married to non-Jews, they had settled into contented non-Jewish lives on Vermont's steep back roads, had children and, the next thing they knew, twenty years had passed and one day dim ancestral memories were awakened when they heard that a rabbi had moved to the area and Saturday morning services were being held at her house and one Saturday morning they told their families they were going out, just out, no place specific enough that a spouse or one of the kids would ask to come along, and they came to the services, some with wary curiosity, others with the nervous enthusiasm of puppies. They were surprised when they walked in and saw someone they had known for fifteen years but neither had known the other was Jewish. There was even one couple whose wife learned for the first time that her husband was a Jew and she wondered what else he had hid from her but she would always be afraid to ask.
One Saturday morning before the group's appetite for nostalgia had been sated, Saul had asked Rebecca how they could acquire a Torah scroll for their nascent congregation. The others became excited. Rebecca didn't want to squelch their enthusiasm, but even a small scroll cost upward of twenty thousand dollars.
"But you can't have a Jewish community without a Torah scroll," Patric had put in.
That wasn't true, Rebecca corrected him. "The first thing Jews do when they want to start a community is acquire land for a cemetery. You can have a community without a Torah scroll. You can't have one without a cemetery."
At the next service two weeks later Saul announced he hadinformation about a place in England where Torah scrolls stolen by the Nazis had been deposited after the war and the scrolls were sent out on permanent loan to any congregation that requested one.
"But we aren't a congregation," Rebecca argued.
"But we will be," Saul insisted. "We will be."
Everyone present pleaded and begged her to write a letter to the repository and request a scroll. Against her better judgment, she did. Ironically, only seven people came to the next service. There had been snow that Saturday morning but many people, including her, had four-wheel-drive vehicles, and snowfalls of six inches or less did not stop Vermonters from going wherever they wanted to. But attendance continued to decline until the Saturday morning in late February when only Saul and Patric came.
What had happened in New Jersey had happened again, only this time she did not have to watch it taking place over five long years. If she had been a good rabbi, that is, if people had felt she had something to offer, they would have continued coming. Two Saturdays a month. How onerous a commitment was that?
A synagogue's membership increased when the rabbi spoke words that caused beauty to flower in the soul. The membership at Temple Sinai had dwindled steadily during each of her five years, and so what if members had been moving to the next town where there were trees, even groves of them. The synagogue board had wanted to move the synagogue, too, and they finally voted to do so over her protestations. After such a rejection of her leadership she'd had no choice but to resign. She'd heard the new temple's membership had increased by almost half. Maybe that was because her successor wanted people to call him Bob and he didn't mind playing golf on Saturday afternoons at the country club with the Catholic priest.
Maybe that had been her problem. The congregation had wanted a friend, not someone who insisted on being addressed as Rabbi, someone responsible for a two-thousand-year-old tradition whose focus was how to meld holiness into daily life. If people addressed her as Rabbi, she had thought, they would be acknowledging that tradition and possibly begin living in closer relationship to it, something not possible if they addressed her as Rebecca.
But that wasn't it, she concluded. She hadn't spoken to their needs. If she had, they would have driven the fifteen miles back to the synagogue each Shabbat to hear her, to be with her. This wasn't unreasonable because, every year at Rosh Hashanah, thousands and thousands of Bratslaver Hasidim flew from Israel and the United States to Uman in the Ukraine to begin the new year at the grave of their founder, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who died in 1810. Dead, he inspired more Jews than she ever had, even though, through some accident of fate, she carried the same surname.
Patric tried to convince her that the weather was responsible for the drop in attendance. Saul wondered if some of the non-Jewish spouses were feeling threatened by this sudden interest in Judaism on the part of their husbands. After all, for the past twenty or more years these were families that had gone to church together, celebrated Christmas, bought new clothes for the kids at Easter and hidden dyed eggs around the house for them to find.
Rebecca remained convinced that people had stopped coming because she didn't know how to communicate the beauty of Judaism in a way that would have made them realize they were being given a handful of diamonds, each one of such dancing brilliance that, like God, they could not be looked on directly.
Patric and Saul would probably still be coming. She understood thespiritual emptiness of Saul's life. Jews like him had wandered into her office at the synagogue thinking God was found in ecstasy. She supposed that was true for Hasidic Jews, but she, like most Jews, distrusted an excess of emotion where God was concerned. Feelings came and went like thundershowers in August. If God resided anywhere, she told Saul the one time she had made the mistake of going out with him, it was in despair and hopelessness. She knew.
Rebecca understood the emptiness in Saul. He was looking for God in his emotions instead of being still and letting God find him. But she was baffled by the void she perceived in Patric. How could a man who knew as much as he did about religion look at her as if she had something he needed? More than once during services she had seen him staring at her, his eyes pleading like those of a cocker spaniel wanting to be let into the house. She was sorry now that she had not been able to imagine what Patric thought she could give him. If she had, she would not now have to live with the painful memory of New Year's Day.
She had put an end to the services one Friday afternoon in March after meeting with a female student with a pierced lip, tongue and nose whose hair was orange on one side and purple on the other and listening to her talk for an hour, without inflection in her voice or expression on her face, about being abused by her alcoholic mother. When the student finally left, Rebecca sat at her desk, unable to move. She wasn't sure why that girl's story hurt her more than all the other stories she'd heard. That's what rabbis and therapists did; they listened to the horrors people endured in the belief that the mere listening was healing.
Perhaps it was the accumulation of all the stories, or perhaps it was her fear that talking about wounds merely inflamed them. Perhaps some wounds never healed and you had no alternative but to live withthe pain as best you could. All Rebecca knew that Friday afternoon was that if she had to open the siddur the next morning and read anything about God's goodness and how much He cared (Ad heinah ahzahrunu rachamecha, v'lo ahzahvunu chasadecha--To this day Your compassion has helped us, Your kindness has not forsaken us) she would either burst into tears, explode in a tirade of profanity or throw the siddur through the window. She called Patric and Saul and told them that Temple Beth Rebecca was closing its doors forever and hung up.
At the time she had thought of writing the repository in England and withdrawing the request for a Torah scroll, but she assumed they would investigate and discover there was no synagogue in Brett, Vermont, and that would be that. In the intervening four and a half years, she had forgotten about it until Mr. Applewhite, the postmaster, had called a few minutes ago.
"A crate from England is here for you."
He was the town storekeeper and postmaster. Within a month after she moved to Brett, Mr. Applewhite knew that a Brooklyn postmark was her parents, while New Jersey would be a former congregant, and Israel, friends. He had called her at her office shortly before Rosh Hashanah that first year to tell her she'd gotten a postcard from her mother, who was flying in to Burlington at four and "she's expecting you to meet her. Seeing that would be about the time you get your mail out of your box, and it's an hour's drive, she'd be worrying a while. I hope you don't think I'm being nosy or anything like that. In a town our size we tend to look out for each other."
Rebecca's mother had never entirely left Auschwitz. If she had been afraid to travel from Brooklyn to New Jersey to see "my daughter-the-Rabbi" lead services at her very own congregation, shewasn't coming to Vermont. Every year right before Rosh Hashanah, Hannah sent postcards to her cousin in Israel, another cousin in England, and friends who were also survivors, announcing arrivals everyone knew not to expect. The postcards were her way of making the visits.
The next morning Rebecca had taken Mr. Applewhite a jar of grape jelly she'd made just the week before from the Concord grapes she had seen hiding under enormous leaves of vines twining around a poplar tree just beyond the place where the road came to an abrupt end. When he asked if her mother had gotten in all right, she told him her mother had spent a year in Auschwitz and seldom left the house except to go to the hairdresser's and Bloomingdale's. She said it as casually as if she had commented on how beautiful the foliage was, and just as she did not feel responsible for the orange-red leaves of sugar maple trees, she felt no responsibility for her mother's inability to have a life outside or even inside the small, dark apartment she shared with Rebecca's father. Indeed, Rebecca had concluded that she did not like her mother, which was all right. How could you be expected to love or even like someone whom you'd had no choice about knowing? The Torah didn't say you had to love or even like your parents. Honor your father and mother. That was reasonable.
Rebecca assumed Mr. Applewhite had repeated the little story about her mother to his wife who repeated it to someone else's wife, or maybe her grape jelly had been better than she thought because after that morning people tapped their horns and waved when they saw her driving down the rutted hill called Pulpit Road, past the Gentrys' place, onto county road number 323 and into the center of Brett, where it intersected State Road 5 and created the corner where APPLEWHITE'S GENERAL STORE AND U.S. POST OFFICE stood next tothe Texaco station that still displayed a round sign with a winged red horse on it. On the hill, above the intersection, the old Brett mansion, abandoned now, watched the town with the bitterness of frustrated hopes and rotted dreams. She turned right onto State Road 5, and twenty narrow and winding miles later she arrived at John Brown College, having tapped her horn and waved back to almost every car that had come toward her, sometimes tapping and waving first, always wondering to whom.
The civilities of dailiness were being extended to the Jew in their midst who received magazines and newspapers printed in the strangest language they'd ever seen. They were relieved when Father Lear told them it was Hebrew, not Russian. They had always known there were a few Communists teaching up there at that college and just because the wall over there in Germany had been taken down a few years ago and you could get a Big Mac in Moscow now didn't mean that Communism was a thing of the past because that Castro was as Communist as he was hairy and the Chinese still saluted a red star and if Father Lear hadn't told them that she was a rabbi they would have wondered why a young, single, educated woman would want to live in a little place like Brett if she wasn't a Communist, but then again, as Mr. Applewhite pointed out, what was in Brett that would interest the Communists, and Father Lear reminded them that Our Lord and Savior had been a Jew, which just proved once again that God moved in mysterious ways. Patrick Lear noticed that on the rare occasions when he happened to see the rabbi at Applewhite's, she was friendly but did not use his title when addressing him. Being of the new generation of Catholic clergy who encouraged their parishioners to call them by name, something the older members had difficulty with, he wanted to tell her she could call him Pat, but it didn't seemthat she wanted to talk with him or anyone. Even though she was the most stylish dresser anyone had ever seen in Brett, sorrow wrapped itself around her like a beautiful and warm shawl knitted from the finest wool since Jacob made Joseph's coat. Larry Gentry, who lived a half-mile down from her on Pulpit Road and plowed her out in the winter and wouldn't accept a dime for doing it, said it was nice to know someone was living in the ol' Simpson place and, to tell the truth, he felt sorry for a woman as pretty as she was who had a limp which was how come she had that handicapped license plate on her four-wheel-drive Jeep wagon, but that showed she had common sense and would do all right in winters as cold and icy as the hairs on a polar bear's ass, beg pardon, and spring thaws that turned Pulpit Road into river bottom mud.
If Rebecca had known what they said about her those first months she would have told them that after being a congregational rabbi, six months of snow and ice and wind and subzero cold followed by rain and mud sounded like a spa vacation.
"Looks to me like the crate would probably fit in your Jeep with the backseat down, but it's too heavy for you to get in your house without help. When Larry Gentry comes in, I'll see if him and one of his boys can't take it up to your place in his pickup. Where do you want it?"
"You can leave it in the front room. And thanks a lot, Mr. Applewhite. As always, I appreciate your thoughtfulness."
"Don't mention it, Rabbi."
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF GOD. Copyright © 2004 by Julius Lester. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.