The Rabbi

Rabbi Avron Grossman is no fool. Leaving the den when nature calls he notes it is 3:05pm on the wall clock. For a minute, maybe two at the most, he stands over the bowl coaxing a reluctant dribble, washes his hands and returns to the room. The rabbi rolls his eyes: the clock reads 3:30pm.

“This little putz of a bar mitzvah bocher thinks maybe I can’t tell time,” the rabbi mutters under his breath. “If only he knew how much I disliked being here, he would have cut another ten minutes from our miserable Hebrew lesson.”

Despite his petulance, the rabbi pretends not to notice the miraculous time warp. He takes a mint from his tin of Altoids – he is careful not to have his breath stink when he leans over his students to point out the subtle difference between the Cheit and the Hei – and continues the afternoon’s lesson, patiently enunciating the baffling, tongue-twisting vowels of Abraham’s unforgiving alphabet and doing his best to teach his disinterested young charge the Haftorah passage corresponding to the boy’s thirteenth birthday.

Avron Grossman escaped from Berlin a scant three weeks before the exits were permanently sealed. He was the only member of his family to do so. The Grossmans, descendents of Mendelssohn, frequent invitees to the Reichstag and the Jewish community’s leading proponents of Contribution and Assimilation as the politically safe way forward, were swept away by the Nazi tide – Avron’s twin sister found at Ravensbruck dead by her own hand after surviving the camp’s brothel system but not her shame. Years later, Avron still had the look of a refugee uncomfortable in a too-big borrowed overcoat, but clearly a kind and earnest man notwithstanding the faint odor of cooked cabbage and stale perspiration, a survivor’s “perfume” forever embedded in the skin from endless hours locked in sealed closets and hidden attic recesses.

Arriving in America as the war sputtered to an end, Grossman spent his greenhorn years at the Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva on the Lower East Side torn between the traditional studies of the torah and the new liberalism introduced under Samuel Belkin, the Brown University scholar who obtained university status for the yeshiva in 1945. He felt caught between the old and emerging secular worlds, unable to shake the fear that assimilation would once again lead to his family’s annihilation.

In the years that followed, he met and married a second cousin from Chicago, settled in to the less demanding mid-western life style and made a modest living ministering to the growing congregations of Reformed Jews who fled the city’s south side for the burgeoning suburbs. He presided over the high holy days, taught Hebrew to monumentally disinterested teens, and paid dubious visits to ailing bobbehs put in safekeeping at the local Seniors Lifestyles Retirement Center, their ground floor apartments for the ambulatory giving way to the fully equipped hospice on the top floor with a segregated elevator to the Lysol-scented wards.

Grossman suffered his indignities and soldiered on even as his calcifying body indentured him to Advil and the posture of a draftsman’s French curve. Hobbled but not humbled, his ability to dispatch the New York Times Sunday magazine puzzle within the hour was unimpaired and what was left of his pride remained stubbornly determined and unwavering.

“So, Rabbi, how are you today?” Doctor Perlman slaps the rabbi on the back. “Do you know why Jewish divorces cost so much? They’re worth it.” The podiatrist punches Grossman on the arm, “Why do Jewish men die before their wives? They want to.” The rabbi manages a strained smile and ducks the finger poking at his chest.               Perlman the podiatrist is a Saharan wind. He doesn’t mean to be abrasive, he just is. It is his nature; a sudden sandstorm sweeping up its coarse cargo from the Arabian Desert and raking you raw like a 40-grit loop on a belt sander. The formidable personality has served him well. While Perlman himself has not seen a bunion in years, the sizeable profits from his namesake chain of offices citywide and a fast growing inventory of condominiums and commercial properties have made him a rich man.

“Listen, Grossman, your son still without two nickels to rub together?” Perlman leaves no room for the rabbi to answer. “I might have an old suit he could use, expensive wool serge, no more than two seasons out of style.” Perlman’s rolling eyes and smacking lips signal another burst of munificence. “Something from my wife for your daughter-in-law as well, my wife, oy vey, not a size six anymore, if you know what I mean.”

The rabbi’s smallish, on-the-verge-of-corpulence son was married to a Dolly Parton look-alike, fully six inches taller than her husband. Perlman, having seen a photograph of the couple had described them as a set of Hummel figurines entitled “Brunnhilde and the Gnome.” The rabbi’s angry protestations that Perlman see people for the good inside them had bounced off the podiatrist’s retreating backside.

Each week, Perlman drops in at the conclusion of the lesson and gives the rabbi his fee. The money is for work performed earnestly and well, but the rabbi feels the condescension nestled between the two twenties. The rabbi does not believe Perlman is a wicked man but the sting of feeling like a charity case humiliates him. Perhaps it is the threadbare sleeve of his baggy jacket that stabs him in the eye as he shakes Perlman’s outstretched hand. The suit itself is a hand-me-down from the doctor’s closet, double-breasted with lapels like penguin’s wings, a reminder of the portly podiatrist’s switch from Hart, Schaefner, Marx to Hugo Boss, the good rabbi ignorant of the concurrence between his benefactor’s fashion lunge forward and his newly acquired young bride, twenty-five years his junior. “Ha ha, who knew I would fall in love with the shiksa who squirted me with a spritz of Lauder for Men while I was shopping for a tie at Bloomingdale’s?”

The rabbi’s need for the money was balanced by the extent to which he could tolerate the discomfit that followed the weekly tutoring sessions with Perlman’s son. Two Sunday’s prior, the doctor had invited the rabbi and his wife to Sunday brunch at the family’s summer home in Long Grove. Perlman’s car and driver picked them up from their apartment in Skokie, but when they arrived at the doctor’s gabled mini-mansion – “Is it made from marzipan?” Miriam whispered to her husband – they were met by a maid who advised them the doctor and his wife were at their son’s basketball game and would be back shortly. An hour later there was a phone call.

“Rabbi, I got good news and bad news. Shawn’s team won their game this morning. Who knew? They stink. Shawn plays about 90 seconds a game but plotzes if we don’t watch. So we’re stuck here for a little longer. There’s a library full of books. Enjoy. Rosita will get you anything you want. So we’ll change our plans, okay? Dinner instead of brunch.”

Miriam seethed at the indifference she perceived, but the rabbi was more benign, browsing contentedly through the volumes of leather-bound Franklin Mint 100 Best Books lining the shelves, spines unbroken.

“Of course, Doctor Perlman, I’ll enjoy the leisure time. Do take advantage of sharing your son’s sporting achievement,” he replied, despite his wife’s anger.

The rabbi’s patience wore thin, however, when the phone rang ninety minutes later.

“Rabbi, you won’t believe this. The little pisher’s team won again. So, another slight change of plans, okay. No big deal. It’ll all work out. My chauffer will drive you to the restaurant. If it’s not kosher, you’ll eat salad, no problem. We’ll meet you at 8:30, nine the latest. You don’t mind, do you? So, it’s up to you rabbi. The driver can take you home, and we can do this another day, huh? We’d love to spend time with you and… Myra… Myrna… Minnie… No matter, you’re an inspiration, Rabbi. Shawn loves you. No kidding.”

The rabbi watches young Perlman make his way to the bimah at the front of Temple Sholom, the reform temple where the Perlmans occupy front and center seats secured by an annual Yom Kippur contribution that furrows the eyebrows of Perlman’s accountant. Completely befuddled by the Hebrew alphabet Shawn has simply memorized his Haftorah portion using phonetics and an exaggerated singsong drone as substitutes for any actual understanding of the holy texts. Grossman has to admit the kid is a showman. The Hebrew characters on the hallowed scrolls the rabbi unrolled are as incomprehensible to his fuzzy lipped student as Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the boy belts out the memorized passages like a Hasidic at the Wailing Wall.

The big moment comes when a grinning Perlman junior struts to the podium to make the traditional “Today I am a man” speech. For a split second, the soft morning light filtering through the stained glass windows reminds the rabbi that he is in a true house of worship, but it is a fleeting thought. The audience is more Laff Club crowd than hallowed congregation: ladies in fur coats despite the Indian summer heat; gregarious men grumpy without their coffee; skittish teen-aged girls gawking at hormonal boys.   Grossman watches in admiration as Judaism’s newest warrior plays to the front rows, launching into a tear-jerking monologue that brings out the tissues from his aunts’ purses and the checks from his uncles’ wallets. The ritual concludes with the presentation of a bible from the president of the ladies auxiliary and Doctor Perlman reciting a blessing in Hebrew – also memorized – thanking God for removing the burden of being responsible for the son’s sins.

“From now on in the sinning department, you’re on your own,” the beaming doctor cautions his son.

In the temple’s downstairs party room, the new Mrs. Perlman stifles her simmering anger at the cantor’s wife. “Bring me a Diet Coke, won’t you dear?” she had demanded, astonished when the woman took exception to the simple request.

It takes a glare from her husband to remind her she is the hostess for the obligatory post-service spread of sponge cake and Manischewitz sweet red wine, an offering for the congregation’s regulars who attend these feedings as a regular part of their diet. On the periphery of the crowd, Grossman watches Perlman’s petulant wife suck the goodwill out of the gathered guests like a thorny desert succulent.

The lavish spread at the temple is merely a preliminary nosh before the caravan of Lexus LS sedans and STS-V model Cadillac’s are on their way to the ornate dining room of the once-elegant, still retro chic Orrington Hotel in nearby Evanston, where four generations of wealthy North Shore Jews celebrated the rite of manhood with glitz and overkill. Circulating among the strolling accordion player, the tarot card reader and platters of hot canapés, Perlman reigns over a buffet straight out of an abattoir: platters of pastrami, tongue, corned beef, salami, pepper beef, kosher hotdogs, roast beef, turkey breast, brisket… a menu for gargantuan, three-decker sandwiches, prodigious belches, and coronaries waiting to happen.

The rabbi is standing unobtrusively off to the side when the whirlwind that is Perlman approaches, pulling his son behind him. It is clear that Shawn has accepted his father’s admonition and already is taking responsibility for his own sins, greedily slipping gift envelopes into the breast pocket of his new suit while keeping a running tally of the gelt he has collected. The overstuffed corned beef sandwich he manages to munch on at the same time gives testimony that gluttony would soon be added to the list.

The elder Perlman pulls a bulging envelope from his inside jacket pocket and with a flourish, forces the traditional honorarium into the rabbi’s hands. Grossman looks around in embarrassment. “Such a fuss and in front of everybody,” he groans, deploring the scene, feeling more the supplicant than the respected teacher as he shrinks from the glare of the spotlight that follows Perlman the philanthropic podiatrist. For a fleeting moment, the rabbi envisions himself standing up to the irresistible force.

“You know what you can do with your shekels you pompous, impious quack?” he shouts out to the tumultuous applause of a waiting room crowded with patients sporting giant corns and calluses.

Perlman is indomitable. “Look inside, Rabbi. Take a peek. Don’t be modest. You earned every dollar teaching this son of mine.”

The rabbi takes a furtive look at the bills spilling out of the envelope, the office address and logo prominent in the upper left hand corner: “Dr. Isadore Perlman, A Treat For Your Feet!” The rabbi’s eyes widen; he estimates there are a thousand dollars in twenties, fifties, and hundred dollar bills loosely held together by a rubber band. Sputtering in surprise, the rabbi starts to thank his client, who already has spun away dragging Shawn behind.

“Stay and eat, Rabbi. It’s Shabbos. Have fun, live a little,” Perlman shouts over his shoulder as he plunges into the crowd at the buffet table, hurrying toward the harried chef carving a fresh slab of roast beef.

The rabbi tucks the envelope into his pants. “As long as I’m here,” he sighs, eying the astounding buffet.