“Hello, is the Rabbi there?”
Rabbi Aaron Krinsky rubbed his forehead with his hands, debating whether to say Modeh Ani. It was 3:00 in the morning.
“Rabbi, I’m so sorry to bother you so late at night (pause) I mean early in the morning. I had nobody else to talk to.”
“No, that’s alright, that’s alright,” said the rabbi soothingly. “Just give me a second to wash my hands. Can you wait a second? Who is this, by the way?”
“It’s Yitz. Yitz Kramer.”
“Oh Yitz, sure. Okay. Hold on.”
The rabbi walked the few short steps it took to get to his bathroom and washed Netilas Yadayim. He left the bathroom and said the blessing quickly, being mindful not to walk and pray at the same time.
“Baruch atah Adonay Elokainu Melech Haolam asher kidshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al netilas yadayim.
He hated to keep people waiting when they wanted to talk.
“Hey, Yitz, I’m here.” The rabbi switched on his bedside lamp.
It smelled. He scanned the room and saw the cigarette he’d almost forgotten to stub out before bed.
Quickly he took a drag from it, even though it was dead. Like many of his congregants, the rabbi had an oral fixation.
“OK, Yitz, I’m up now. Tell me about it.”
“It’s really been on my mind a lot,” said Yitz. He’d been going to the rabbi’s shul for about two years now, starting out non-observant and eventually taking on Shabbos and kosher observance.
“I don’t think I want to be religious anymore.”
The rabbi tried to remain calm. It had taken him more than twelve months to find a girl for Yitz to marry. They’d settled down in a small apartment near the synagogue, not more than two blocks away.
Yitz was always there for a minyan.
“I just can’t do it,” Yitz said. “It’s too hard for me.”
“Tell me about it,” said the rabbi, trying to sound nonjudgmental.
There was something else happening in his mind as well. Yitz had tripped off one of his own secret wires. He tried to remain calm.
“It’s just like, every minute of my life is regulated,” said Yitz. “I liked it better before, when I could…I don’t know, just be.”
“You said that you felt life was pretty meaningless before,” said the rabbi.
“Well that’s true,” admitted Yitz. “It sort of was. But at least I could relax in my own home.”
“What’s not to relax?” said the rabbi. “Judaism isn’t supposed to be so oppressive. Halacha is for living — vechai bahem.”
The rabbi realized he was in trouble when he started quoting these types of sayings, but somehow he couldn’t stop himself.
There, there was the whiskey. On the bedside table. The rabbi took a long, deep drink. Ohhhhhhh that burns, he thought to himself. In a good way.
“C’mon, Yitz, you know what I always say. Just follow the basics. You should enjoy your life, not be miserable.”
“Well I want to, rabbi, but that’s the thing. Shayna is always on me.”
“She’s always reading stuff, and taking those classes with the ladies. She checks the broccoli for Chrissake, oh I’m sorry rabbi, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, it’s fine.”
The rabbi looked down at his disheveled body. He hadn’t had sex in more than three years. He could barely even remember what sex felt like.
“It can be difficult with the wife,” he said to Yitz.
And the rabbi remembered when he had had a wife. What excuse did she give when she left — she had to “find herself,” or something. It was yesterday and forever ago.
The rabbi took another drink and was relieved to find that he could barely remember anything.
Where’s the weed?
Yitz went on, and on, and on about his marital problems, which in his view stemmed from his overly stringent wife.
Meanwhile the rabbi couldn’t find the weed.
He put Yitz on speaker.
“Yes, I know! It’s awful!” he threw in every now and then.
At some point the rabbi looked in the mirror. Baggy eyes, a sad little beard. Why had he gone in for semicha in the first place?
“…mostly the thing that drives me crazy is this mikvah shit, you know? Oh, sorry rabbi.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the rabbi.
I found the weed.
It occurred to the rabbi that he was no longer functional unless he was either drunk, or high, or some combination thereof.
He wondered if anybody noticed that he walked around completely off the ground half the time.
Probably not, he reassured himself. Probably not.
After all, he didn’t make any trouble. He didn’t say controversial things. He was extremely careful, also, to hide any doubts from the community.
If he wasn’t as religious behind closed doors as he seemed to be at the Shabbos table, well then who would be the wiser?
The main thing he worried about was being good to them. And also, because a man certainly has to eat, trying to avoid pissing off the Chairman of the Board and potentially losing his job.
“Thank you so very much, Rabbi,” Yitz was saying. “You have no idea what this means to me.”
“Anytime, Yitz. You know that,” said the rabbi. “Go back to your wife and work it out.”
Yitz hung up the phone and so did the rabbi. Again, he looked up and into the mirror. But this time he looked behind him.
Piles and piles of paper covered every surface of the room, from ceiling to floor to windowsill. Medieval Jewish history, Romantic literature, the migration of Jews from Russia to Israel in the pre-Zionist days, all of it, mushed together in piles that he didn’t even bother to examine anymore.
The rabbi had a computer, but he liked paper better. Paper made him feel safe.
When Chaya left, he decided that he would indulge his diverse interests. They were safe enough, for sure, that he could talk about them. And he always seemed to be in the middle of writing a manuscript on one thing or another.
But as the months went by, the rabbi only seemed to pile up more topics, while she had settled down and entered a graduate program.
The clock turned from 3:59 to 4:00 a.m. and all in a moment, in a moment, the rabbi felt suddenly like he was suffocating.
“Oh no! NO!”
The rabbi ran into the bathroom.
“Something is wrong!”
Without Chaya, the rabbi’s world had collapsed. For a few months people invited him to dinner, including Shabbos dinner, and of course the obligatory Shabbos lunch.
And then the calls stopped coming.
“I’m fine,” he would say, when they acted concerned. “Don’t worry.”
He turned and looked at all his papers.
He’d been hiding.
“I’ve been hiding! I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!”
To him it sounded like a scream. Like a burst of emotion had exploded from his gut. He actually felt his body shattering, a thousand points of light.
“I have to get out of here. I HAVE TO!”
The rabbi logged on to the computer.
Three hours later, at 7:00 a.m. sharp, he was sitting on an Amtrak train.
It dumped him into Penn Station, which proved to be about an hour’s walk from the Village.
“Okay. Okay.” The rabbi breathed shallowly as he walked. Yes, he was anxious. He had to let that go.
He was choking. It felt like death.
The rabbi breathed again, hold for eight seconds then release for four seconds then in and then release and then out and then again, doing the mindfulness exercises that the therapist had taught him when Chaya left.
He felt no better.
Somehow he landed in a coffee shop with books. Real paper, not the Barnes and Noble kind but classy paper and the books were a lot of money apiece.
He got a coffee and said the Shehakol.
There, in the corner, he had peace.
What happened to me?
He couldn’t answer his own question.
What happened to Chaya? I don’t understand how she didn’t love me.
His eyes welled up with tears, the tears that a man is not allowed to cry.
I don’t understand. I will never understand.
He sat there in the corner, crying.
“Let it out, baby,” someone was saying. “That’s right, let it all out.”
A strange man was sitting next to him. A strange man in a skirt, wearing makeup, all dolled up with long blonde hair and waxed eyebrows.
“Get away from me!” yelled the rabbi, and with that he scrambled up and out and ran onto the street.
“Baruch atah Adonay Elokainu Melech Haolam borai nefashos rabos vechesronam al kol mah shebarasa lahachayos bahem nefesh kol chai baruch chai haolamim.”
The rabbi made sure not to move as he said the prayer after concluding a minor snack. He wanted to move, because that crazy man lady had really creeped him out. But HaShem said not to walk when you make a brocha. Would you walk around if you were talking to a king?
Chaya had beautiful eyes. Everybody told her so, as he recalled.
But she hadn’t chosen the life of a rabbi’s wife. She hated entertaining.
“Can’t we just go away for the weekend?”
She wasn’t religious, if the truth be told. It pained him to admit it.
Then why did you marry her?
His father had asked him the same question. But not in a nice way.
“How could you be so stupid?” he had said. “Now you’re stuck!”
The rabbi walked and walked through Lower Manhattan.
He passed some bad blocks where he had to put his hands over his wallet. Shma Yisrael, he prayed to himself. Oh G-d please tell them to leave me alone.
“Hey Jew,” yelled one guy, pretty loudly, somewhere in the vicinity of Little Italy.
At that the rabbi turned to look. He was scared, but he looked.
“YEAH, YOU! HAHAHAHA.”
The rabbi looked around at the streets, considering his options for escaping.
“DON’T WORRY, RABBI. WE’RE GONNA PUT YOU IN THOSE OVENS AGAIN, BET ON IT!”
He just started running.
Eventually he saw the lights of South Street Seaport.
It was dark outside now, and the lights at the Seaport twinkled in that very beautiful way that they only do in New York City.
Gratefully he clambered onto the deck and sat down.
The bums sit there, he instantly chided himself.
I know, I know, now shut up, he retorted, to his own head.
He felt empty inside. Like life was meaningless. Like that alone feeling you get when you will never be with another human being again who can really and truly understand you. Or at least, that’s what you think.
He looked over the railing and contemplated suicide. It would be a relief, he thought to himself, gazing into the black, swirling waters. Really, it would be such a goddamn relief.”
Bad language, Aaron, he could hear his first year teacher saying at yeshiva. It seems like nothing, but it’s a something that matters.
“NOTHING MATTERS!” There was nobody else around, and so the rabbi felt free to scream.
WRONG! EVERYTHING MATTERS! The rabbi could hear the words of his teacher loudly now. They were literally ringing in his head.
“It matters,” the rabbi said softly, aloud.
Suddenly, then, the rabbi felt his cellphone going off, vibrating in his pocket.
“Who is this?” he said. He had come to New York to escape, not to pick up the phone.
“It’s Yitz,” said the person on the other end of the line. “I need someone to talk to, and I didn’t have anybody else to call.”
Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. This is a work of fiction. All opinions are the author’s own. Photo credit: Leo Hidalgo / Flickr Creative Commons