Only Someone Who Should Be a Rabbi Thinks …

doors open
“They” say when things are right doors fling open.

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.

“Why not?”

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.

I nod.

“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.’ ”

 

 

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Artist Date 111: The Heart I Am In Love With

 

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Note: The entire time I was writing, I was certain the Katherine Mansfield quote referenced was “The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” It was only when I placed the photograph (above) into this post that I realized my error. That the quote was, “The mind I love must have wild places.” I am choosing to leave the essay as it was written, assuming it is the truth of my subconscious…that the heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild…and honoring it. 

“The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” (incorrectly attributed to Katherine Mansfield.)

The words are written on a wooden bookshelf with black Sharpie marker. I smile as I snap a photo to send to D – as requested – proof that I, this little bit wild heart he once loved, made it here. To Desperate Literature, Artist Date 111.

This mostly used, mostly English-language bookstore is about a seven-minute walk from my house – the other two locations are in Brooklyn and Santorini, Greece – but I’m only just now finding it. That’s how Madrid is. Lots of windy paths, disguised as roads, bumping into one another. Arteries and veins, as I like to call them.

There is an economy of space here, and it’s easy to miss so much as there are no familiar grids to zig up and zag down. One either stumbles onto a place or is told to go there.

In this case, the latter.

First by Naked Madrid – a must-read blog for non-natives looking for a local experience. And again by my friend E after she attended its “The More Eggnog the Better” Christmas party.

It’s noon – still fairly early for a Sunday “morning” in Madrid – when I stumble in and am greeted by a small man wearing small, round John Lennon-style glasses.

“Please excuse me for just a moment,” he says in a proper Londoner’s accent. “My father just texted, insisting I call him.”

I am charmed by his BBC accent. His familiar greeting. His use of the phrase “excuse me” – words I so rarely hear here, either in English or Spanish. It is simply not a part of the culture. Instead, it is common for Madrileños to push against one another on the metro and in the streets. The lack of “perdon” or “con permisso” considered neither rude nor noteworthy.

There are “Books for When You are Bored” here. “Sexy Books.” “Boozy Books.” (Which come with a shot of whiskey.) “Books for When you are Desperate.”

A vintage typewriter with onion-skin paper slipped through the scroll and a hand-made sign taped to it that says, “Write the poem.” Not A poem. THE poem.

2016-02-07 12.30.54A chess board with the words “play me,” written on it – also in black Sharpie marker. A copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass on the nearby shelves.

A small, children’s mattress stacked on top of a wooden bench built into the wall – the ultimate reading nook for anyone under the age of 10. Forty-six, I nonetheless settle in with a handful of books and consider the possibilities of words.

Meanwhile, the owner returns offering me a cup of ginger tea and an update on his father – seems he’s getting married for the fourth time –  while characters from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, painted on the wall opposite of me, return my gaze.

I open Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country. Four handwritten messages are scrawled inside the front cover. Among them, “Adios, hijo de puta. Que te rompan el culo en NY. Peter.”

And while I am still a Level A – beginner— in Spanish, I do know the meaning of “hijo de puta.” (My teacher Diego just taught it to me last week.) And I smirk.

I lean into Bryson’s first essay, “Coming Home”– about his return to the United States after a 20-year sojourn in England – and well up. I’ve been here just six months but wonder if I too will struggle to find the words I once knew, like spackle and anchor. Already I grasp for language, ultimately feeling like I speak neither Spanish nor English very well. I am told this is not an uncommon experience.

It feels like a nod from God…that I am supposed to be here.

As does Lefty Frizzell piped through the speakers, singing about Saginaw, Michigan – my mother’s hometown.

As does the copy of The Artist’s Way, propped up behind the front counter. The book that introduced me to the Artist Date. That I was looking for a copy of last week – my dog-eared copy tucked away in an attic in Chicago – to cite in my graduate-school application.

As does the Katherine Mansfield quote on the bookshelf.

Somewhere at my mother’s house there is a photograph of me sitting in Mansfield’s husband’s (Irving) lap in Beverly Hills. I am five-years-old, wearing a brown and white, gingham-checked bikini with cherries on it. My hair is wet and we are smiling big – both of us, in love with my little bit wild heart. The same little bit wild heart that brought me here.

 

irving mansfield