I am sitting with my new friend C talking about resistance, mine in particular. It is early spring according to the calendar, but the weather gods seem to have missed the message and so I am wrapped in my Eddie Bauer sleeping bag coat sipping hot tea. The sun streams in through large, plate-glass windows while cold air blasts onto us from the vents above.
C sips a milky iced coffee seemingly unfazed by these temperature disparities. I imagine this is what makes her a good (albeit now retired) pastor, and what makes her a good spiritual guide – her presence.
I am questioning my path to the rabbinate. This is nothing new. The resistance has been with me as long as the call, more than 25 years. What is different is this time I have pushed beyond consideration. I completed the application process last spring – writing a series of essays and gathering transcripts and letters of recommendation – was invited for an interview last fall, and days before Thanksgiving, was offered a seat in the fall 2019 class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
I have put down my deposit, secured a place to live in Philadelphia, and at the school’s suggestion taken on formal study of both Biblical and modern Hebrew.
The money for the deposit. The Biblical Hebrew class that fit neatly into my crowded schedule. The professor who offered to tutor me in modern Hebrew for free. The room in Mt. Airy – my neighborhood of choice – that meets all of my wish-list requirements including “cost effective” and “with good lighting.” All of these things have fallen into place seemingly magically, with little or next to no effort on my part.
It seems clear that the universe has been conspiring to make me a rabbi.
What is not different is my resistance. To what? I am not certain. The time? Six years. The move? Yet another. The Hebrew? Daunting. The debt? Maybe.
The thought of me as a rabbi first arose when I was 23 or 24 and in the middle of an exciting but painful love affair with a man who was considering the rabbinate himself.
“I would not be a very good rebbitzin,” I mused, (not that he ever asked). “But I would be a hell of a rabbi.”
The words surprised me, but I said and did nothing. More than 15 years would pass before I would hear them again, first like a whisper — a friend recalling the first thing I ever told her about myself was that I wanted to be a rabbi – then growing more loudly, as I reminded my husband of our agreement that it would be “my turn,” once he completed medical school and residency, which he was just about to do.
He struggled to envision us moving from Seattle – where we had just moved to and where he had secured his dream job as a doctor – to Philadelphia – where he did not have a job or any prospects — carrying $200,000 in medical school debt and loans because I might want to be a rabbi.
Truthfully, I did too.
When we divorced less than a year later and it was unquestionably “my turn,” the desire left me entirely. Gone. Until about two years ago when I felt its familiar pull during High Holy Day services, like an impatient child tugging at my sleeve, yet again, “pay attention to me.”
I mention this to our congregation’s rabbinical intern.
“Oh yes,” he says, drawing out his “s” like a snake.
“Oh no,” I reply.
I mutter something about not wanting to study Hebrew and Aramaic, which sounds mostly ridiculous as it falls out of my mouth, and about not wanting “the life” of a rabbi, to which the intern points out the unconventional congregation of which we are a part. Then I say something which sounds like the truth.
“Who will date me?”
I think I throw up a little bit inside my mouth.
Have I been resisting my heart’s desire because a potential partner might find it unacceptable? It seems possible. And now that I know this, I cannot unknow it.
And so, I begin leaning into this calling that I do not understand and all of its associated fears, taking each step that has made “this time” different. Almost as soon as I begin, I meet a man – Jewish, sober and covered in tattoos.
“This is my guy,” I think.
And for a moment, he is. And then he isn’t. When he ends our brief romance – in about the nicest, mensch-iest way I can imagine – I decide to try out/try on my rabbinical aspirations with him. As he is already “gone,” I have nothing to lose.
“D,” I stammer. “I think I might kind of, sort of, maybe want to be a rabbi.”
“That is amazing,” he says, smiling big, his eyes meeting mine.
I cock my head like a cartoon dog, surprised by his response. I ask if he would feel this way if we were still dating, as introducing your girlfriend “the rabbi” is different than introducing your girlfriend “the lawyer.” At least to my mind.
“Absolutely,” he says.
Tears stream down my cheeks. My shameful fear has turned out to be a bogeyman.
C looks up from her iced coffee.
“God’s got skills,” she says.
“You know that saying we have in Alcoholics Anonymous,” she says. “That no normal drinker thinks, ‘Maybe I should go to an AA meeting.’ Only someone who should be in AA thinks about going to AA.’
“I think it’s like that. Only someone who should be a rabbi thinks ‘Maybe I should be a rabbi.’ ”