Authors: Evan Fallenberg
The rabbi led him down a long corridor, past several large rooms. Joseph saw a grand dining room with a tremendously long carved-wood table and high-backed chairs, a glass breakfront stuffed with silver standing nearby. He had the feeling he had left Israel and was in a European capital of ballrooms and royalty. Some of the people in Sde Hirsch had managed to bring over pieces of furniture from the German towns or Polish shtetls they had left before the war, but none of this elegance and grandeur. He recalled a saying in the Talmud: “A lovely wife, a lovely house, lovely accessories, these broaden a man’s heart and encourage wisdom.” Joseph was wondering whether the rabbi’s wife was a real beauty when the rabbi seemed to read his mind.
“My wife’s father is a wealthy and generous man,” he said as they entered the room at the end of the corridor. “Belgium. Diamonds. My wife and children are there now in fact,” he added quietly. “It was his dream to marry his four daughters to rabbis and support them all forever. Luxuriously. I stopped feeling guilty about it several years ago, because I have to admit I am glad not to be occupied with financial matters. I devote myself entirely to learning and teaching.” He motioned Joseph to a large comfortable chair in a corner of the room. “I’ll be back with refreshments in a moment.”
Instead of sitting, Joseph inspected the room. It was a study, with high ceilings and Persian carpets and an antique desk polished to a bright gleam. But most notable were the bookshelves lining all four walls, full to bursting from floor to ceiling with books of every color and size. From what he could gather, more than one whole wall was taken up by biblical commentary, and commentary upon the commentary, two thousand years of biblical exegesis that made Joseph’s limbs feel heavy. He ran his fingertips over the gold lettering and leather bindings but did not remove a single tome from its place. On the next wall he found several shelves of Passover Haggadahs. He pulled out one oversized volume, an illuminated manuscript with instructions for leading the Seder night in Italian. The third wall seemed to be organized by subject, but here the logic and order of the other two shelves broke down. There were a few series, but mostly there were individual titles. Here he found physics and history and linguistics and astronomy but more than anything else literature and literary criticism, in English, French, Latin, German.
A small volume sitting on the desk caught Joseph’s eye. It was tiny, nearly compact enough to fit into the palm of his hand, and the cloth cover reminded him of thick wallpaper he had seen once in a European castle. It was a book of French verse dated 1629. He understood nothing of the poetry, but was interested in the frantic scrawl in the margins, a bewildering combination of French and Hebrew written in varying shades of ink that had left smudges, stains, and even punctures in the paper.
“You’ve discovered my passion.” The rabbi, so tall he had to duck coming through the doorway, was carrying a silver tray that held a china tea set, fresh sliced cake, and a bowl of fruit. “I am in love with books. And that one’s a personal favorite. It was written by a monk who had taken a vow of silence. The man was tortured by his private thoughts. He spent his life seeking refuge from his mind and his soul.” He placed the heavy tray on a table in front of the chair Joseph was meant to occupy, then straightened to his full height. “He went in for floggings and periods of starvation and had several ‘insignificant’ appendages removed from his body, the better to feel pain and distraction. His one pleasure in life was the writing of these poems, which he did at night, a poem a night in place of sleep. It’s easy to see him as crazy today, but I respect his single-mindedness, the way he tried in earnest to control his passions, the love and sensuality he was so determined to squelch. There are few men of his stature today.”
The rabbi lowered himself gently onto the sofa. Joseph marveled at the grace of such a large man. Rabbi Yoel poured tea for them both and added sugar to their cups. Joseph replaced the small book on the desk and sat in the chair opposite his new friend.
“Were those your notes in the margins?” asked Joseph.
The rabbi raised his eyes slowly to meet Joseph’s. “Some. Some,” he admitted reluctantly. “The others I assume belong to the person whose name is inscribed on the first page, a village priest who lived in Aquitaine in the mid-eighteen hundreds. I did a little snooping around about him once and found out he’d been committed to an insane asylum, where he died by his own hand.” The rabbi cut a wedge from a small tart apple and offered it to Joseph. “He was definitely coming unhinged when he owned this book. He makes comments like ‘delicious,’ ‘naughty,’ and ‘angelic,’ then toward the end of the book he begins filling up the margins, page after page, with verse of his own, in the same spirit as the monk’s, but vile and vulgar. He uses the foulest language of the period; I’ve had it verified. And on a blank page at the very end of the book he wrote a confession of sorts that makes the Marquis de Sade seem tame. The man knew his Scriptures and was determined to desecrate everything written there.”
The two men spoke for hours. Joseph privately rejoiced at this new and rare friendship with a man in whose company he could feel completely at ease and yet challenged intellectually, free to speak Hebrew or English or both in one sentence and free to speak his mind about the rigors and joys of Orthodox Judaism in the same breath as the glories of Western culture. Free to admit that a houseful of small children was daunting and free to hint that being a husband was not quite the joyful experience he had hoped for. Each of Rabbi Yoel’s questions nudged him toward truths lying dormant in his soul, while his own queries slowly unknotted the rabbi’s reluctant tongue.
After they had drained a second pot of tea, the rabbi fetched two crystal shot glasses and a bottle of schnapps. He filled both glasses to the rim. “Here’s to true friendship,” he said, then whispered the appropriate prayer and downed the contents of his glass.
Joseph did likewise, then leveled his gaze at the rabbi. “And what exactly,” he said, his eyes watering from the schnapps, “
true friendship to you?”
Rabbi Yoel—large, gentle, troubled—frowned. “First let me tell you what it is not. It is not students who wish to gnaw at your brains, not colleagues who talk sweetly but shoot malicious glances at you. It is not sycophants who worship you or doubters who wish to trip you up. It is not even one’s children, not one’s wife, not one’s siblings. It is not schoolmates gathered across long years of poring over texts together.”
Joseph’s brain felt as though it were bobbing on a stormy sea. Each time it surfaced, some new face appeared: a bearded rabbi, a small boy with side locks, a wigged woman. He fought hard to quell the effects of the alcohol and pay attention.
“True friendship,” Rabbi Yoel continued, almost oblivious to Joseph, “should be a near-perfect pairing. Of minds and interests. Of caring and willingness to do for the other. A physical ease, too.” He seemed to notice Joseph again and assessed him. “I haven’t experienced the beauty of true friendship. Have you, Joseph?”
Joseph closed his eyes for a moment. His brain was no longer bobbing and the images had disappeared. It was only Rabbi Yoel’s face he saw now, kind and handsome and inquisitive, and when he opened his eyes the man’s expression matched what he saw in his mind’s eye and was awaiting an answer.
“Never,” he said.
Neither man spoke for several moments. Rabbi Yoel filled their glasses. He smiled broadly. “So, friend, why don’t you tell me about that book you’re writing?”
Joseph and Rabbi Yoel discussed
Poet and Prophet
in great detail and the rabbi was only too happy to offer suggestions. And then the rabbi told Joseph about his latest project, a study of the Talmudic expression
“It’s Aramaic, literally means ‘light fell’ or ‘light was sown.’ It’s used in several strange and wonderful stories in the Babylonian Talmud.” He lifted his glass of schnapps, saluted Joseph with it, and downed it in one go. After inhaling deeply and refilling his glass, he continued. “In one story, Rabbi Amram the Righteous, a judge and rabbinical decision maker at the court of the Babylonian Exilarch in Nehardea, is asked to house, in his attic, some Jewish women who had fallen into the hands of gentiles and whose status had not yet been decided—whether, under certain circumstances, they should be permitted to return to their husbands after being freed from captivity. The ladderlike stairs to the attic were removed so that no man could ascend and take advantage of their precarious situation before their fate had been determined. But there was an opening that led to the attic, and when one of the women walked near it,
—light fell—and Rabbi Amram could see that light from below. With the power of sudden arousal he took the stairs, which normally required ten or more men to move, lifted them up alone, and began to climb. Halfway up he spread his legs— Rashi explains in order to stand firmly where he was so as to overcome his lust—and raised his voice and shouted, ‘Fire in the house of Rav Amram!’ The other sages ran over to put out the fire. They said, ‘You have shamed us since it is clear to all what you intended to do!’ To which he responded, ‘Better that you should be ashamed of Rav Amram in this world than in the world to come!’ Immediately thereafter a column of fire lust burst forth from Rabbi Amram’s body and left him.”
“A man of true integrity,” ventured Joseph.
“Mmmm, yes, he certainly chooses the difficult path.”
Joseph was intrigued, and not in the least sleepy despite the late hour. He took a sip of schnapps. “Tell me another.”
The rabbi cocked his head as if assessing his audience. Joseph could see he was making a decision. Once decided, he emptied another glass, moved to the edge of his chair, and spoke as much with his hands as with his mouth.
“When Rabbi Yohanan, head of the yeshiva at Tiberias about sixteen hundred years ago, went to visit his pupil Rabbi Elazar, who lay ill in bed, he saw that Rabbi Elazar’s home was dark and windowless in the manner of the poor. Rabbi Yohanan raised his arm and
—light fell. Rashi explains that his skin glowed and was very beautiful. And with the room thus illuminated by the light cast from the glow of his beautiful arm Rabbi Yohanan could see that Rabbi Elazar was weeping. ‘Why do you weep?’ he asked him. ‘If it is because of the Torah—that you did not study as much as you wanted to because of life’s travails—we have learned that he who studies much and he who studies little are equal in their merit, as long as both direct their hearts to heaven. And if you weep because of your humble finances, we have learned that not everyone merits two tables, one of riches and one of Torah. And if you weep because of your sons who died, this, too, is not a reason to weep.’ Whereupon Rabbi Yohanan produced a bone from the tenth of his sons to die, which he carried everywhere with him.”
“But of course it’s none of those,” said Joseph, who was intimate with Talmudic syntax.
“Naturally,” Yoel responded. “Rabbi Elazar revealed the reason he wept. ‘Because of that beauty’—Rabbi Yohanan’s exposed arm—‘that will wither in the dust when you die; that is why I weep!’ And Rabbi Yohanan said, ‘That is indeed worthy of weeping over!’ And they both wept.”
Joseph remained silent and contemplative but Yoel’s face implored him to respond. “It’s more than just a weakness for beauty. There’s an element of power, even violence here,” Joseph said.
“I’d call it sexual attraction. Lust. A fire raging within.” Rabbi Yoel looked so intently into Joseph’s eyes when he said this that Joseph thought he might feel that same charge he had felt after the lecture. “And I don’t believe that the sages condemn the particular brand of attraction that existed between the two rabbis. They treat it as natural, a divine beauty whose eventual disappearance really is something to weep for.”
“And you plan to write about that? Who will publish it?”
Yoel leaned back in his chair and laughed. “Yes, who indeed?”
“But how . . . how did you choose such a topic?”
The rabbi shifted in his chair, averted his gaze. “I did not choose it; it chose me. Beauty, attraction—my mind has been dwelling on these matters lately. A preoccupation.” He paused, seeming to force himself to meet Joseph’s gaze. “More like an obsession,” he said firmly, but in a whisper.
“Your wife,” Joseph said. “Is she beautiful?”
“No,” the rabbi said evenly. “But she has a certain style.”
“So—excuse me for asking—are you attracted to . . . someone else?”
The room was so silent it seemed as if all creatures everywhere had stopped moving and breathing as they waited for the rabbi to respond. Yoel, however, sat motionless, dazed. Had it not been for the twitch at the corner of his mouth and his gaze—his eyes skittered from object to object in the room, stopping everywhere yet taking in nothing—Joseph would have thought the rabbi was experiencing some alternative consciousness. After several very long, wordless moments, Yoel spoke, his voice soft and full of credulity.
“It’s all been in the realm of theory for me, just ideas based on reading and study, as is all my work.” He stared at Joseph for a moment. Then his lips parted, a look of confusion creeping into his eyes.
Joseph rose abruptly from his seat, feeling that confusion penetrate him as well. “I should probably be going. It’s quite late,” he said. He walked down the long hallway, Rabbi Yoel close behind.
“You’re right. I had no idea,” the rabbi said, glancing at his watch. “Would you care to sleep here? You can see we have plenty of space.”
Joseph felt unbalanced, as if suddenly he no longer knew himself. He was rarely this at ease, especially with someone he had only just met. He longed to stay in this house with his new friend but felt it would be an intrusion. And there was something else, something that made him reticent. “No, really, I must be getting back. . . .” All at once he remembered the card the rabbi had given him earlier. He fished it out of his pocket.
“I’d almost forgotten. These initials, my initials—JL— how did you manage—I mean, I didn’t see you write them. In fact, you didn’t even know my name then. . . .”