Saving Rabbi Jacob
Too dangerous, too weird, maybe illegal. Lying, deceit and vandalism had taken their toll.
We finally got the rabbi we wanted. Rabbi Mendelsohn had been a man for his time, but while he suited the needs of my parents’ generation, many of us found him overdone. He had a Charlton Heston way about him, a stature, an orotund voicethat could fill the football stadium our parents called a synagogue. Lady Sabbath went from the sweet old peasant “Shabbes” to the lofty and forbidding “Shabbat,” finger to lips like a prison matron.
We’re in the suburbs now, integrated, assimilated, and the congregation is small. We went through perspective rabbis like fire. Someone wise, we wanted, someone whose knowledge of Torah was blessed by the knowledge of the heart, someone with a light touch, modest yet forceful, good with the kids and learned with the elders, tactful, generous with the treasure of time. In short, Hillel, Akiba, Mr. Rogers and Sholem Aleichem in a trim, vigorous body. Mazel Tov and Gut Shabbes.
It didn’t happen, but we did get Rabbi Jacob, a boy. To me, by now, everyone is a boy, but this boy had a twinkle. He wasn’t overbearing or pretentious, but he did have one terrible fault, one we didn’t discern until it was too late.
When the Rabbi had his third interview, the four of us sat in. The committee asked many questions: theological, educational, affiliational, social. We figuratively combed his beard and balanced cinderblocks on his most casual word. The committee did not ask the questions that would have revealed the danger, the precipice toward which we were walking. He was hired, and then at his first sermon, on Simhat Torah, he came forward with the horror and showed it to us as though it were a pearl. One thing I liked about Rabbi Mendelsohn was that he always quoted Torah or Tanakh. “As Isaiah says…” “According to Ezekiel…” Rabbi Jacob quoted someone called Eminem and then said, “We have our pleasures. Mine are sailing and caving. I hope to learn to ski.” The motorcycle we saw for ourselves when he rode up on it the night that the bar mitzva class had its first meeting with him.
We four happened to be at the Shop n Save that Monday. The Shop n Save is our agora, our spot for drop-in therapy. I was in a hurry, though. “Ruthie, Laura, get out your calendars—Eve, your Palm Pilot. We have to make a plan to save the Rabbi.” They stared at me. “Many Jews are doing goyish things and getting away with them,” I said. “They go hunting and fishing, they run without a Cossack behind them, for sport. They do scuba diving and surfing. I heard of a Jew on Everest. It’s a dangerous trend and it’s too dangerous for the Rabbi.” Laura gave me a look, Eve shrugged, but we did decide to meet at my house to talk about it.
We weren’t halfway through our first cup of coffee and our first piece of ruggela when Laura said, “What’s the matter with Jews doing athletic things? The old, skinny, sun-starved scholar image is passé.”
“We can’t take any chances,” I said. “This rabbi’s a keeper and we need to watch out for him. All these Jewish people running, climbing, surfing—we’re a small people. We can’t risk one of us just for the fun of it. Life has always been risky enough for Jews. Why raise the odds?”
I don’t blame Laura for being defensive. Her grandson is on a soccer team. Imagine, a sport where the best thing to hit a ball with is your head. Eve likes to be modern and think new thoughts. Ruthie’s son is gay and has just adopted a child from China, a girl, of course. She wants the girl, who will be Chelsea Mei Ling Bronstein Sullivan, to be raised as a Jew. Just saying the kid’s name will outrun a verse of Torah. She wants little Chelsea’s options open.
“It’s up to us to protect our Rabbi from the American Dream,” I said. “From one of them, anyway. Physical fitness? Physical lunacy.”
“How can we do it?”
“There are four of us and we’re four against one. The man doesn’t have a chance.”
The motorcycle business was the easiest. He parked it at the back of the synagogue in the spot marked with his name. I found myself out there two nights later with a pair of pruning shears and I just cut everything that looked like a connection between something and something else. Later, I stopped by a bike shop and got a booklet. All those fittings I learned about have names. The third or fourth time the bike was decommissioned, the Rabbi preached a sermon about it. He looked hard at the teenagers in the congregation, especially the ones who try to convince us their heads are on backwards by the way they wear those caps. I would have felt guilty except that we noticed how relaxed his wife began to look. Soon, his bike was so inconvenient to use that he all but stopped.
The sailing was no challenge. We live in Colorado. He might go once a year to Lake Dillon, which is hardly the Atlantic on a bad day. Our response there was preventive. Every time any of us heard of a sailing accident, an anonymous letter would be sent with a downtown Denver postmark describing the scene in detail. The upside of our tactic was that his normal anxiety would be vigorously engaged because of our concentration on death at sea. The downside was that the Rabbi was on notice that he was being observed.
Skiing keeps its statistics fortunate because its season is short. If we could keep him from starting, we wouldn’t have to resort to more vandalism. “You don’t go skiing for an hour,” Eve said, “so all we have to do is to find out when he has some open time and fill it.”
“How?” Laura asked.
“We don’t want any interruptions to be associated with us,” I said. Laura is unconvinced of the necessity of what we were doing. “There’ll be times he wakes up, sees a clear calendar, looks out at sun on the mountains and no wind plume, and goes. We need to give him work.”
Eve is our techno-marvel. She got a copy of the Rabbi’s general schedule and gave us a structure to work with. He hoped to keep every other Wednesday and one Tuesday a month clear, and they would be clear. “We can’t work e-mail,” Eve said, explaining the process to me for the exhausting fourth time. “The return address would have to be on it and that would sink us.”
We confided in Laura’s friend Sally, the secretary at Our Lady of Fatima. A series of interfaith meetings was set up throughout the ski season, scheduled and canceled, reset, recanceled, and all with excellent interfaith reasons. When the Rabbi called the church Sally ran interference. There were always conferences, seminars, focus and study groups, etc., going on ad hoc and ad naus. Rabbi Jacob never got on those dangerous hills and we congratulated ourselves on time well taken.
The ski season faded in April; it was time for caving. We met at Ruthie’s. “I’m not breaking into his house to steal equipment,” she said flatly.
“I’ve done a little research,” I told them. “I found out all we need to know.”
“I’m not bombing his caves,” Laura said, and I could see that lying, deceit and vandalism had taken their toll on my friends.
“Remember,” I persisted, “we’re doing this for the Rabbi’s good. He’s joined a caving group. They’re called grottoes, those groups, and members of the grotto do trips together.”
“That stops us,” Laura said, “and that’s okay. If he goes in a group, they’ll keep him from getting hurt.”
I reminded them, “In caves there are avalanches, gas pockets and there’s water, and it’s dark.”
I told them my plan. I would do all the research about when and where the trips were going. They would work on the response. “There’s enough lead time on the trips for us to get ready,” I said, “and we’ll even be able to choose our caves.”
I had the grotto’s e-mail address, and I learned that the Rabbi had signed up for a trip to one of the noncommercial parts of The Cave of the Winds, but there was a smaller trip, a three-man expedition, to a recently re-opened cave near Bluebank, an old mine leading to a cave abandoned when the price of silver fell in the 1880’s.
“Luckily the trip is in August. We’ll need to do lots of research. The costumes have to be disguises, also, which in at least two cases include masks,” I said.
“We should all have masks,” Eve said.
“We’ll need sound effects, too,” I said, “recordings and a system we can bring with us, but not too heavy. I’m not Samson.”
So we worked, each on her own personification, and I got the words we needed from a scholar whose tape we recorded over until it was perfect. I got background sounds at the zoo.
We depended on the darkness of the cave. Seen in the light, the costumes and masks looked hokey and overdone, a monster-movie made by a junior high class. When we tried everything on at my house, we looked at each other and our spirits sank.
“This will never work,” Laura said. “It’s too dangerous, too weird, too easy to mess up. If we’re caught, we’ll be laughed at, or worse. Maybe it’s even illegal.”
“It’s not illegal, but it is risky. What’s reward without risk? Hand me those sequins.”
And there was the problem of our voices. Eve’s tended to crack. Ruthie had a New York accent. Laura had a voice that was unique and all too easily recognizable. I wanted my voice basso profundo. “The easy thing to do would be to throw ourselves on the technology, get recordings, a generator, wires, synthesizers, all that. The trouble is One, I don’t know how to operate that stuff and Two, the more complex things get, the more chances there will be for messing up.”
“All right, then, your voice is the lowest and the least identifiable,” Eve said. “You’ll speak for all of us.”
“We need to try for eloquent simplicity. Hand me those rubies.”
We went down a day early. The cave was on land owned by a rancher, a big, hearty man, tolerant of people practising New-Age rites. He saw us on our way with an amused wave of his hand.
“What if he tells them we’re here?” Ruthie asked.
“I don’t think they’ll see him,” I said. “I think it’ll be a smile and a wave if they see him at all.”
I looked around at my fellow conspirators, wondering if our wickedness had altered us. Young criminals seldom show the evidences of their evil, but I think old ones do. I’ve seen TV interviews with the longtimers at the state pen, and there are habits, a beatenness, a tired sorrow that gathers in the wrinkles of their faces. We were new in crime. Had we begun to show outwardly what had altered inwardly, our force to change the Rabbi’s will? We had shouldered his wishes and pleasures aside. I hardened my heart. In our research about caving, we had learned how many accidents and deaths were in the sport, enough to shock us into action, but with Ruthie’s van hidden behind a rocky outcrop and all our equipment unloaded, a lighter side to our endeavors emerged. We had picnic supplies along with our costumes and effects, sleeping bags and air mattresses borrowed from Eve’s camping friends, all the accoutrements of modern living in the rough. We grilled hot dogs and toasted marshmallows and sang camp songs and looked at stars we hadn’t been able to see in years, faded down in the glow a city throws around itself.
It was a lovely evening and a peaceful night, but the next morning it was all we could do to pull ourselves together, stow the camping gear, and set up our boom box and other equipment as deep in the cave as we could go on easier ground. We had lights and three glowing pools of battery operated illumination we had purchased at a magic shop.
We were around the second bend in the cave, dark enough without our equipment. We tried out the tapes on the boom box and found hiding places and clefts from which we could magically emerge. Eve called to us at 9:30. They were coming up the hill, three of them. They were at the entrance of the cave, speaking casually, taking it in. The moment was here, the time was now. Lights. Places. Sound.
“Garm bays loud at Nipr cave
The fetters will snap and the wolf run free.”
We had the chant and the background of wolves baying. They were into the cave and had turned on their lights. For a moment I thought the illumination would be too bright, but there were four of us chanting and the sound, a marvelous whistling echo, coming from still another place stopped them in their tracks. We had solved the voice problem by making the fearful display silent, except for the chant and me speaking and the sound carried beautifully in the cave. I was speaking in a stage whisper, across a drum. I had a script, but would ad lib in need.
From his place at the deepest part of where we stood, Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, rose, crowned with the death-dog’s head and a headdress of pleated gold lamé. “Go back!” I cried for him. “You have no entry here with the gods of the underworld.”
We had them stopped. The mask and robes were very beautiful, and in the wavering light, rising to stand higher than we, he towered. “You…” The god’s arm rose, and a finger, ending in a jewel-encrusted claw, pointed at the Rabbi. “Priest of another god…You have no power here.”
Eve turned up the wolves and for a second or two the chant.
Erishkigel, Mesopotamian Goddess, rose, smaller than Anubis; she stood in white voile that floated magically in the slight breeze. Her long black hair covered most of a chalk-white face, half masked in a silver nose guard. Her jewels were sapphires, the blue-and-silver Eve’s idea. “We gods were all there at the beginning,” she mouthed, as I spoke. I had moved in the dark behind her, in black, unseen. “We welcomed your El, local god of a little people, a mountain god, a god of shepherds and deserts, not of the deeps. Stay away. Stay away, priest of another god.”
I was expecting Rabbi Jacob to run. The three cavers were stopped still, but the two on either side of Rabbi Jacob seemed to intuit that it was with him that we had our business. I thought to make the scene more ecumenical, so I said, “You others, whose god was buried but didn’t stay with us, are no safer from our wrath.”
Hecate, the goddess of the pre-gods, was our big number, three-faced, and her real face none of the above, a girl, a woman, a crone, as much drapery and light as the masks we had made; she wore red. And she stepped forward from behind an outcropping of rock in shelves, so that she was in a set of banded shadows. She held a staff that glowed. We had painted it with luminous paint and the light from the flashlights was enough to cause a weird blue tone.
“Have you ever wondered,” Hecate cried, “why your God’s possessions were so meager? The gods south and north bring gold to their children, and precious gems. They hide black rivers for those they love, the oil that makes all those around your favored place wealthy and secure. The lands your God decrees for you are starved. Your own liturgy gives the reason: ‘Lift your eyes,’ it says, ‘to the mountain.’ Where did your hero, Moses, go for his encounter? To a cave? No; to a summit. Sun and moon presided, stars informed its boundaries. What has the Unseen to do with darkness, and the dark parts of our worlds? Go! Go!” They went.
To their credit, they didn’t run, they backed away. Respectful attention in their faces.
We had won. It would be a long time before Rabbi Jacob dared the goddesses of the cave. Laura began to clear her throat to say something, but I turned the light on myself and put my finger to my lips. They might have emerged into the good Judeo-Christian daylight and thought to wait for us to come out on no pagan winged horse but in an ordinary van, hidden behind a rock formation. Erishkigel tiptoed to the adit of the old mine.
“I don’t see them,” she said. “Yes, now I do. They’re going, they’re moving down the hill.”
“Okay; we can clean up and go to the van.”
“My scalp itches,” Hecate said.
“Uneasy lie the heads that wear the crowns,” I said.
“Your head?” Anubis was rubbing a sore spot. “My mask was stifling.”
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the dog. We were superb, if I may say so.”
It would be pleasant to record that the Rabbi gave up caving altogether. I don’t think he did, but as modern as he is, some of his leisure time has to be spent in study, and even without our help, the life-cycle events of our congregation make inroads on his off-hours. Last week he closed his sermon by saying, “Guidance comes in many forms. I’ve decided to trade the darkness of caves for the brilliance of the daylight. I’ve taken up climbing as a better sport for me. I hope to do many of the off-trail rope and piton climbs on all of Colorado’s fourteeners.”