"How are you, how are you, Shabbat Shalom!" he said.
The man was fairly elderly--an octogenarian, as it turned out.
We went quickly from the traditional Sabbath greeting...to hearing about how beautiful love is ("it's like two oranges when one half meets the other") to a very detailed self-assessment as to his vigor.
"I'm in my forties here," he said, patting his chest, "But down here (and at this he gestured just enough to make me gag on my kugel) I am twenty years old."
Now, this is a synagogue, it's a House of God, and although the Holy Ark containing the Torahs was upstairs, only a ceiling separated us from it.
The man continued to talk completely inappropriately and offensively, really offensively, in a way that wouldn't have been okay even outside of a shul.
"I'll take my women only till the age of forty," he said, "and they can't have any scars. Even if it's an appendectomy."
It was completely offensive, so bad that we all kind of looked at each other, half-laughing and half-mortified, not knowing what to do except sit there.
Another stranger had joined our table that day, clearly an accomplished journalist who had spent much of his time in the field several decades ago.
"I was there when James Baker said 'F-- the Jews,'" remember that?"
And at that we all nodded, or at least the people "over a certain age" did, because millennials aren't familiar with the kind of classical anti-Semitism that passed as routine among certain spheres of D.C. for a very long time.
The journalist had lots of stories to tell, and we listened intently. This was almost like a graduate seminar, and we were fortunate to learn from the source.
The vulgar man then turned to the journalist. "So you said you speak Hebrew, huh?"
"Yes, that's right," the journalist said.
"So say something to me."
At that, the journalist began to speak in Hebrew that I could understand. Which is to say, it wasn't the rapid-fire Israeli stuff you hear in Jerusalem. But it was decent ulpan.
"I don't understand a word you're saying," said the vulgar man rudely. "Stop."
The journalist got up from the table, shaken. A thin man, he turned to the buffet, and pretended he was going for a second helping.
"Well, it's time to go," my husband said. "Do you want to go?"
"Uh, yes," I nodded. I have a reputation for verbally slugging assholes, but this wasn't going to be the vulgar man's day in court.
My husband tried to be polite. "I guess I'll talk to you next week."
"Maybe you will and maybe you won't," said the vulgar man. "In the end, I really don't care."
All I could think was, wow.
After the service we went home, and as usual I read the news. All they print are negative headlines, of course, and in particular as you probably have seen there are a lot of headlines about religion and child sexual abuse.
It's gotten so bad that my kids are sending me news clips.
So a friend of mine, reacting to one of the stories she had seen, posted this in anger:
"Organized religion is organized crime."
And I thought about what she said. Certainly where the world's children are concerned this is true -- they have been trafficked from pedophile to pedophile, not just members of the congregation but to the clergy at the highest levels. Is any religion exempt?
But at the same time, we do have to be careful. And we have to be careful regardless of whether we're talking about religion, government, education, healthcare, or any social institution upon which people rely.
For while all institutions yield corruption, it is a fact that people create these social structures, and we recreate them too.
I don't buy the argument that "nobody has enough power to make a difference." That's just bull.
If you care enough, and you want to enough (and God is with you, of course) there is no end to what you can accomplish, or the miracles you can wreak out of a landscape filled with tasteless octogenarian vulgarians.
There was a great story on VICE News last night, about a woman who decided that she really, really wanted an Emmy. Her name is Megan Amram; she actually made a show about wanting this award and it got her nominated.
At the end of it Megan said something very profound. To paraphrase: "I want young women to know that they can achieve anything they want. They don't need anyone's permission. Just focus on the goal, follow the rules, and surround yourself with people who believe in you."
Don't let one idiot ruin the shul. You make the shul better.
God has given you a lot more power than you realize.
Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. Public domain.