Authors: Evan Fallenberg
1976 – 1977
HE FIRST TIME
heard of the Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig was in the Talmud study group after Sabbath morning synagogue services on his first Saturday back in Israel, when he was still adjusting to the strangeness of return after three years pursuing a doctorate at Harvard. He marveled at his boys, who, in the few months since they had returned early with Rebecca, had come to seem as though they had never lived anywhere else, never spoken another language. He wondered if they had had time to establish rituals of their own, whether they had found some of the secrets of moshav boyhood or whether those secrets die with each person’s own youth.
One thing was clear and constant to Joseph above all else on that Saturday morning. He could not imagine being anywhere but the Sabbath morning Talmud study group, still led by Rabbi Crystal after nearly thirty years. Even the study room smelled the way he remembered it—the odor of books left to mold in their musty bindings—and Joseph was not at all surprised to find the three-legged chair Rabbi Crystal used for his books propped up under a window, where it had always stood. Joseph himself had broken the fourth leg while decorating the synagogue for Independence Day nearly twenty years earlier, in 1957. What Joseph could not understand was that if nothing at home had changed, then why was it he had to ask people to repeat themselves, did not catch the hidden meanings in their words, had trouble interpreting their exchanged glances? There was a foreignness in their speech and manners, and Joseph was beginning to wonder who had changed after all. Had Sde Hirsch, his moshav, been metamorphosing in his absence, or was it him? Would he fit in here again?
He was sitting in his old seat, pondering the wisdom of their return to the moshav, when Zev Frankel, who always made the blessing over the wine after Sabbath services, mentioned Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig. “That boy’s an
,” he said. Frankel had been Joseph’s Bible teacher for four years in elementary school, and in Joseph’s memory the only other human being ever to have earned the title “Torah genius” from Frankel was the great Maimonides himself. “Rabbi Rosenzweig isn’t even forty years old yet but I’m willing to believe he’ll be the head of the Rabbinical Court or chief rabbi in a few years.” Frankel added with awe, “He knows the five books of Moses by heart.”
“Aw, that’s nothing.” For fifty years Mordechai Kapinsky had been looking for ways to outdo Zev Frankel, ever since he had lost the battle for Fanny’s heart to Zev’s superior education. “I know a dozen guys who can chant the whole five books without a sour note.” He grinned at Zev and Joseph noticed he only had a few teeth left in his mouth, and those were dark and twisted like the blueberry brambles Joseph had grown to love in New England.
“But this Rosenzweig, he’s read every volume of the Talmud a few times and I hear he’s writing a commentary of his own, like he’s back in the fourteenth century or something,” Zev countered. “And he can quote just about everything that’s ever been written about Jewish law. I went to one of his lessons once, his Wednesday evening lecture at the Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem. He was talking about the laws of betrothal and brought in Jewish sources and goyish ones, too—Shakespeare and Milton and some French writers I never even heard of, without a single book in front of him.” He waved one thick finger in the air. “Now that’s what I call an
Joseph lost no time in arranging to be in Jerusalem for Rabbi Rosenzweig’s lecture the following Wednesday. He hoped to have a moment to speak with this young rabbi, barely older than he, at the end of the lesson, to ask for some help in finding suitable texts for the book he was working on. He was having trouble with classical sources and historical background material, and he was sure someone who had such knowledge at his fingertips could be helpful. And, of course, he was curious.
Noam and the twins insisted on riding in the back of the station wagon when Rebecca brought Joseph to the bus stop. Joseph grew irritable and impatient as the boys fought over territory, certain he would miss his bus. But once on the way he relaxed and enjoyed the bus ride to Jerusalem, his first trip to the capital since his return to Israel and his first extended period of time out from under the roof of their small moshav home crammed full with five boisterous boys. The weather had turned cool and a surprise rain shower the day before had summoned some greenery from under the cracked brown earth. Little buds and sprouts gathered into soft carpets that escorted the road past Tel Aviv, past the meteorological station, near the monastery at Latrun, and up to the foothills of Jerusalem, where the road began to ascend. There the forests were thick on either side of the road, green and welcoming, but the abandoned armored tanks strewn among the trees were reminders of a more treacherous era, a period of menace and havoc. Joseph thought about the Yom Kippur War, which he had sat out in Cambridge, then caught himself and decided to prepare the questions he would ask Rabbi Rosenzweig.
The bus arrived at Jerusalem Central twenty minutes late, but the lesson would not begin for an hour, so Joseph was in no rush. He walked down Jaffa Street to the shouts of the vendors at the farmers’ market, stopping to marvel at the brightly colored produce, fresh and ripe and beckoning. In America he had been in awe of the availability of everything all year round—strawberries in winter, avocado in summer, bananas on your cereal twelve months a year—but he had felt cut off from the seasons and feared his children would grow accustomed to the abundance, would not appreciate the taste of the first sunripened orange in December, after swooning from the fragrant blossoms for weeks. He plunged in to the market’s inner alleys, dark and sodden and filled with the smells of fish on ice, coriander, parsley, and mint. Offended by the noise, he passed by several stalls before stopping at the stand of one quiet apple vendor, eager for the crunchy sweetness of a Mount Hermon apple. Joseph selected two pale red apples, each stippled with green, as his mother had taught him that these were the juiciest. He really only wanted one apple but felt obliged to buy an extra, since the market was a place where one bought in quantity. The apple vendor glared at Joseph from beneath one bushy eyebrow that arced the width of his forehead like a parasol and said, as he took Joseph’s money, “Congratulations. Maybe next time you’ll let your wife do the shopping.”
Joseph put one of the apples in his coat pocket and bit into the other as he made his way to the stop for the not-so-frequent #14 bus, which would bring him to the gates of the synagogue.
Blessed are you, o lord our God, king of the universe,
who created the fruit of the tree.
And, since this was his first Mount Hermon apple of the season, his first in perhaps four seasons, Joseph added:
Blessed are you, o lord our God, king of
the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us
to this season.
Outside the market, on the bus that took him through the center of town to the Yeshurun Synagogue, Joseph began to notice how much Jerusalem had grown in his absence. The city seemed to have sprouted traffic lights everywhere, though Joseph could have sworn that only a few years had passed since Jerusalemites had walked to the intersection of King George and Jaffa streets every Saturday to watch the colors change from green to orange to red on the city’s only traffic light. Outside the synagogue Joseph was surprised to find a line of people waiting to get in, and he cursed himself for having wasted his time in the market when he could have been there all along. By the time he managed to enter the cavernous main hall there were no seats left at all, only space for standing, and that barely. The upper galley, where the women sat, was full, too. Joseph found a small alcove near the front of the stage, off to the side, and took refuge.
There was an excited hush in the great hall. Joseph noticed that most of the men wore crocheted
like his own, though there were plenty of ultra-Orthodox men in black hats, as well as secular Jews in shiny satin or velvet skullcaps that would disappear from their heads on the doorstep of the synagogue. He tried to imagine this much interest in a lesson at the university and remembered being offended by a joke that an ultra-Orthodox man in Boston had told at his expense upon learning that Joseph was studying at Harvard: “This great rebbe was on a plane with a Harvard professor”—Joseph recalled the man’s sneer at the academic title, how he had stood too close—“and when the prof complained that things weren’t like they were in the fifties, when the students gave respect to their teachers, the rebbe told him: ‘That’s your fault for teaching them about evolution. My students see me as one generation closer to the revelation at Mount Sinai, one rung higher on the ladder of holiness. Yours see you as one link closer to the apes.’” At the punch line the man had poked Joseph so hard he had had to rub the spot.
Joseph overheard the conversation of two young men standing near him. Their jeans and bright-colored shirts gave them away as university students, despite their large skull-caps and the ritual fringes hanging out over their trousers in the style of the ultra-Orthodox.
“I’ve been following Rav Yoel around since his first Wednesday night lessons in a bomb shelter, just after the Six-Day War,” said the taller of the two. “He’s moved four or five times since then. They always need a bigger place for the crowds. There’s almost nowhere left in Jerusalem for him to grow.”
“Maybe the municipality should put up a building for him!” replied the other.
Joseph spent the remaining time before the lesson thinking about his book, what was missing, what he had left to do. He felt confident about his thesis, that the religiosity of the romantics had informed their poetry, that the rhythm and meter of the language of the Bible had a parallel in their work. He knew the sections on Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley to be solid, well researched, and adroitly written. He envisioned the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah visited by these Englishmen, imagined their stilted conversation. How the Englishmen would have been startled to learn that they understood the biblical prophets not at all! Joseph had met well-meaning Christian Bible scholars overseas whose eagerness and earnestness could not bridge the chasm between the jagged, dusty ancient Middle East and the soft curves and polished shine of twentieth-century America or Europe. The romantic poets would be the same, their self-confidence betrayed by the rough manners and abrupt speech of the prophets. But Joseph was worried about the section on Hebraism and Hellenism, which he had intended to appear right at the beginning of the book but had avoided writing until this last possible moment, so great was his dread at the prospect of straying from his field of expertise. Still, to discuss the rebellion of the romantics against the neoclassicists, he knew he would have to touch on ancient Greece. It was on this point that he wished to solicit Rabbi Yoel’s aid.
At two minutes before the hour, complete silence fell over the vast crowd. By this time all the standing room in the great hall was used up, and people were jammed together, buoyed by one another. Most had notebooks, and Joseph spotted a row of yeshiva boys lined up one behind the other, each preparing to use his friend’s back as a desk.
The rabbi entered through a door at the back of the stage, empty handed. Joseph was quite near him, eye level with the rabbi’s knees. He could see that Yoel Rosenzweig was a surprisingly large man who looked more suited to a life of physical, outdoor labor than to the scholarly and spiritual pursuits that undoubtedly required endless hours of sedentary study. Joseph was accustomed to rabbis whose bodies resembled the punctuation marks at the ends of the questions they were constantly being asked or asking themselves; this rabbi’s shoulders, in contrast, held him straight and tall, his chest broad and solid, his legs thick and sturdy as the young eucalyptus trees in the garden outside the house at Sde Hirsch. Still, he was terribly pale, his skin nearly translucent, his chapped lips a dull dusty rose color. He wore a closely trimmed beard that was mostly the color of coffee with milk but speckled with either blond or gray, Joseph could not tell. He did not wear glasses, and when he stepped to the microphone he did not acknowledge his devoted audience in any way. He merely plunged into his lesson, as though he were sitting in a yeshiva study hall with a group of five or six students.
The rabbi’s voice sounded groggy and reticent to Joseph, but he was captivated by its low-simmering peacefulness, like a rich, dark, mysterious brew. He found it very difficult to focus on the meanings of the words descending on him in a mellifluous flow. He noticed Rabbi Yoel’s long fingers— thick, but not coarse like those of the farmers at Sde Hirsch— as they gripped the sides of the lectern or punctured the air to make a point. For the most part, the rabbi stood still, but at times he swayed to the rhythms of the verses he quoted, and Joseph found himself closing his eyes at those moments, to allow the holy words to penetrate him. He found new meanings there, in phrases he had known since childhood; they pierced and prodded and even consoled him like they had never done before. When the rabbi finished, a short ninety minutes later, Joseph was surprised to find he had drifted into a state of partial consciousness, swaying on his feet and transported.
The silence that followed the rabbi’s concluding words lasted only a few seconds. Immediately there was a rush of excitement, and all around him Joseph saw small discussion groups forming. The audience was not interested in stepping outside the doors of the synagogue back into the everyday world; these people wished to prolong this uplifting experience, and Joseph understood them. Despite his own feeling of awe, he still wanted to seek a word with the rabbi and began to make his way through the throng that now separated him from the stage.
He waited patiently as dozens of men jostled for the chance to ask a question. Then he noticed that the small crowd in front of him was not dissipating, that most of the men were just waiting to hear whatever the great rabbi had to say to anyone about anything. Joseph pushed ahead, eventually reaching the small inner circle of devotees. From there he could see Rav Yoel’s eyes. The sadness in them stopped Joseph short and he found himself searching them out, hoping the rabbi would look directly at him.