by Sara Lippmann
I tell my therapist I’m in love with my rabbi. Like the start of a joke only no joke. I haven’t even seen that show about the hot priest. Apparently, my therapist says, it’s more common than you’d think.
I’m not sure what it is. I’m not a spiritual person. Although I wouldn’t actively deny insider scoop, a gateway to nirvana, typically any reach for higher ground involves smoking weed alone in my apartment. Shortcuts have never panned out.
Nevertheless, here I am in this house of worship.
Why does anyone wander into shul on Yom Kippur? Superstition, boredom, loneliness. Check all boxes that apply. An urge to atone – for what? My years have contained no large drama. But, then, it’s always the little things.
My mother froths with joy. Way to get out and meet people! In my day, she says, but it’s no longer her day. Today is all swipe left right from the hull of the couch.
Most of the men here are widowers. Husbands, too, with shiny shoes and shiny wives and children with shiny chins. They sit in the back with me. The front row is arthritic. No kidding about changing times, mom. Gone is the center of Jewish life. What’s left is the temple of death.
Last time I showed up, ladies from the sisterhood tried to rope me into their weekly challah bake, their can collection, but I keep nonperishables to myself. I blew off their book club, though I did throw a little grease into packaging their Emergency Go Kits. Today they congregate in the bathroom – marathon day of prayer, and the annual appeal feels grubby even to the givers. They roll stubby lipsticks, smack blot kiss, address each other in the mirror. What did you think of the rabbi?
This is what we do. Rate the clergy. Judge in our Keds. I didn’t care for his spiel last week. Too political. Not political enough. Couldn’t hear a thing. Pick a lane, already. Who’s he talking to? It’s alienating.
No one can make everyone happy all the time, I say and they frown, which makes me love my rabbi even more.
I return to my nosebleed seat with the other once-a-year faithful. Happy now, mom? My rabbi is on the bimah, at the pulpit in his caftan, kittel – his ceremonial, nearly diaphanous shroud – what the holy wear on holy days, to experience an intimacy unencumbered by clothes, to leave their corporal selves behind.
Oh but his body, his face. Even from a distance, I feel a devout twinge, the Eternal Light glowing down on his scalp like a magic crystal. My legs buckle. Another non-member thrusts me the smelling salts circulating on fast days, cloves jammed into a lemon. It looks like a hand grenade. I inhale, deep.
We ask ourselves: what matters? Why do we fear what we fear?
I’m touched, all the way in the back. He touches me. My rabbi makes me cry. It doesn’t take much. His purity against my sin. Tonight, after the shofar signals the end or beginning, depending on your outlook, when we’ve all been inscribed and had a heel of bread, he’ll offer a hug as I crumble. More like a pat. If you want to talk, you know where to find me. In my mind I’m carrying his dirty plate to the sink, our bodies bridged and woven like Chagall, like we’ve been bound together for ages.
I glance around, flushed – can everyone perceive our heat? – but people are putting on coats, corralling children, rushing off to their own break fast invites for kugel, for bagels and lox. The room empties out.
After the holidays, I start going on Saturdays. Day of rest, but I’m vigilant. I feel his presence behind my ear. Like in high school, when Scott Hill crossed the cafeteria with his hot gravy tray. Slim crowd, so I move up, neck stiff as though I’m watching a movie too large and too close. I save my rabbi a seat, even though he’s on stage. Hello, Elijah. I imagine him leaning against the plush velour pew, slipping off shoes, rubbing his toes along my eczematous arches. There is always a sponsored Kiddush, the synagogue big on buffets, butter cookies embedded with sprinkles. I make him a plate, refill his cup.
He says things like, Good Shabbos. Nice to see you. How was your week?
One time he says, Are you much of a reader?
Yes, I pipe up. Yes, very much. I read and I write.
Good, he nods. Remind me to lend you a book. There’s this story, I’d like to, tell me what you think.
He’s married, of course. A single rabbi makes the congregation nervous, like here’s someone who can’t commit, can’t get anyone to trust him, to stay through thick and thin, to love him forever. That’s never been my issue.
I tell my therapist. My therapist is my mother. Have you met someone? She asks. As a matter of fact, I say. Thank God. She fans herself, farklempt. I knew you’d find love. Love, I echo, though it sounds more like a question. Don’t go jinxing it, she waves me off like a mosquito. Say no more.
At night, he’s in my dreams. Down dirt roads, possessed of blind faith and the soft scuffle of shoes. We’re on the lookout for bears skunks raccoons rabbits! – as we run and pant and listen to our jagged breath, as we follow the cut curves of the earth, step from the shadows into bright prairie light.
Where did you meet him?
Shul, I say.
She claps. What I tell you?
I add Friday to my Saturday routine. He doesn’t always show. Sometimes it’s the assistant rabbi. Mine has other obligations, invitations. He’s a macher. There’s also a new mikveh. My rabbi and his wife now offer ritual bath services in addition to weddings, funerals.
Like a spa minus the shvitz, the sisterhoods tells me. All they need is a Russian masseuse. One sister shovels leftover babka into her purse. She’ll freeze it and thaw it for shiva calls, when sitting for the dead. Why waste what’s perfectly good?
Try it, my rabbi winks. Make a reservation. See for yourself.
I mark my calendar for my next bleed but I’ve become erratic. My eggs have begun to break off and thin, not that I want children. Children are one loss I’m not mourning but still, there’s a feeling, barefoot in the locker room, swabbing beneath my nails, dragging a comb through my hair until all strands fall in one direction, how my body has aged, become a withered apricot-like thing, without the reminder of touch.
The bath is so warm I have to pee. With his wife as witness, down I go, three times, a blessing, bobbing until she flaps a towel to shield me, for my sake or hers, from my immodest ache.
Summer, he wears a yarmulke the size of the sun. It’s one of those rare June days when the sky unfolds without a hint of humidity so we sit on the grass, knees folded like gurus – like the rabbi he is. My rabbi says a prayer over his Ziploc of caps and stems before we eat them, chewing slowly in deference to nature, all living things. Who doesn’t seek enlightenment? Curiosity, magic mushrooms, an endless journey, amen. We close our eyes and lie back without touching, it’s a chaste dream, however real it all feels, our fingertips grazing, my hair spilling out, the ground tilting and spinning beneath us, music playing, heavy on drums, the color trails begin. I say vessel he says shatter. I say Isaiah and he says something something God, something hope in the palm of your hand, prying me open to trace my creases, wrinkled roads into the future. Maybe it’s all a construct, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play along, take whatever scraps we can.
As for sex – the divine promise of transcendence – are they not one and the same? I wonder how my rabbi, all rabbis, navigate the power they lord over their base. Body, mind, spirit. All around are ugly stories.
I flit from shul to shul to test my loyalty. They smell of animal hide and breath. The rabbis drill into me like they’re bearing a third eye. They are fit enough, firm in the chest despite hours mulling over brittle tomes in dim quarters, forgetting to eat, veiny in the wrists from a lifetime wrestle with doubt, of carrying and dancing the Torah.
In Trader Joe’s he wears a concert T-shirt, his biceps popping out of the sleeves. I drop my melon. He picks it up, brushes it off.
Get you a fresh?
It’s fine, I say. I’ll keep the bruised one.
My mother is furious. She’s shopping with me, she’s always with me, tracking my transgressions and impossibilities. This is what you call love? You’re a writer. If you can’t live it, write it, my therapist suggests. All that lies beyond this world. Don’t overthink it, just let yourself go.
Only you’re limited in imagination. In the bearded or butch or freshly ordained. Your rabbi is of rabbinic age. Tall, not stooped, older but not too old, absent of hearing aids and wraparound shades, young enough to stand up sit down hoist the chair for horas. Your rabbi tunnels through you with the elegiac tone of his Unetanah Tokef and lowers to his knees for Aleinu, occupying the sweet spot on the generational divide, straddling the precipice of uncertainty as he sets his gaze on you, in the front, in the back, fiddling with the frayed silk bookmark of your siddur in the middle distance.
You have created him so here he is.
In the rain. Eating grapes. On the path to redemption, to discovery in a field of Queen Anne’s lace, the rabbi you inch behind for a back rub, who presses against your grip as you work him well enough to fit inside you. You write of your choreographed stumble through gravel and pith, side by side, the slip of sweaty hands. The way you say, where have you been all my life? And he says (because you get what you deserve) What life?
You share an ice cream. Actually, he orders a cone. You slurp a milkshake so fast your head burns on his car hood in front of the lake by the edge of your town, watch the sunset strut as if you’re children again.
You write stories like this.
He recites liturgy like lyric poetry in a desert of animal scat, dons a wet suit like a second skin, walks bow-legged with bicycle shoes before snapping in to cycle through your heart with fresh fervor. MAMIL, is the acronym. Middle Aged Man in Lycra. Only he’s not any man. He’s your rabbi. You both wear glasses on your head because eventually presbyopia strikes everyone.
He studies you naked like he sees through to your soul, like you possess a soul. You want him to possess it. You want to say, here. Take. I’m yours.
How many throw themselves at the feet of those professing to know better? How many exploit those prostrate at their feet?
So, the rabbi says. Did you read what I gave you?
Did you? You volley. He smiles.
Rabbi, someone calls, and he says in a minute, his voice hoarse from speaking. By now you’ve seen the inside of his chambers. His speeches, unedited. Like a politician, meaning weakens with each repeat performance.
I read it.
You’re just getting started when someone taps his back. Next time you see him he’ll be surfing down a mountain in a bathing cap, pushing avocado through a mortar and pestle, strumming his guitar for freedom. You’ll buy his ice cream for admission to dream, to keep writing stories, to tell your mother the therapist not to worry, you are enough. You are loved.
This is a love story.
And she will believe you. We all, so desperately, want to believe.
About the Author:
Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press), which was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) and her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Fourth Genre, Diagram, Midnight Breakfast, Wigleaf and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. Find her @saralippmann