Fiction: Rabbis On White Horses
Driving with one hand on the wheel, I clutched my morning mocha tightly with the other. I glanced over at the crumpled piece of paper on the passenger seat to confirm the address. The place should be nearby. I made a sharp right down a slushy, not-yet-shoveled side street in my boyfriend’s SUV. The Honda Civic, theone that my husband had made me buy, was in the garage. I hated that car almost as much as I hated him.
Rolling down the window, I inhaled the frosty flake-filled air, trying desperately to catch an address. I peered at the car clock. It was three minutes fast, meaning I had less than eight minutes to get where I needed to be. In one hour from now, my marriage would be officially over. I felt at once exhilarated for me and sad for my girls. Five and seven, preschool and first grade, Barbie and Bratz backpacks. They should be having snack about now, pretzels and apple juice while I divorce their father. Divorce him. I wish I were on my way to kill him. I wish in one hour he’d be dead. Now that would be exhilarating.
I passed what might have been the right street. But it wasn’t. I pictured the advertisement: Almost-SWJF-Seeking-Corner-of-Howard-and-Washtenaw. Washtenaw. What a perfect name for the street where the Chicago Rabbinical Council sits. Washed in Awe. My stomach twirled and gurgled; the coffee was moving south. I’m about to get my Jewish divorce—the almighty get.
Without this seal of approval, I could never remarry under Jewish law and any future children would be considered bastards. And if I don’t get my get, I’ll be chained to that man forever. I wiped off the line of foam from my upper lip with my coat sleeve. Chained. Not anymore. Where was this place already?
“Excuse me,” I honked lightly at the woman in the next car over when I hit a red light. “Washtenaw, please.”
“Back the opposite way,” she said, pointing behind her. She was religious, wearing an auburn wig, and it was slightly lopsided.
“Would you know where the rabbinical council is?” I gambled without risk, knowing she’d know just where it was. This was a Jew-to-Jew inquiry.
“Gray building on the corner. You can’t miss it.” She pursed her lips tightly.
“Thank you so much,” I said. She was probably thinking that I hadget written all over me. Why would I need to see the rebbes? No wig, no wedding band. I was definitely not mikve material.
I gunned a little too hard when the light turned green, on the hunt for Washtenaw’s finest. I was certain without seeing it that the place would be a dump. Skidding up to the corner of Washtenaw and Howard, I wasn’t disappointed. Rising out of the snow-covered concrete was a golem; a five-story, peeling white-and-gray eyesore, a used car of a building.
Four station wagons lined the side of the street; ancient wood-paneled models with a collective age of at least 80. I pulled up behind the last one. Those rickety wheels must belong to the getgranters. Orthodox rabbis wielded enormous power in the community but earned as much money as a fast-food cashier.
I parked, grabbed the documents off the seat and got out. Pressing the file close to my chest, I tiptoed up the shoveled walkway, careful to keep the sidewalk salt from ruining my new suede boots. I rang the buzzer, drew in the cold air and waited. Within seconds, a smiling blonde-wigged woman wearing a brown potato sack of a dress answered the door.
“Hello, Mrs. Stone,” she said, ushering me inside. “I’m Mrs. Blumenthal. Rabbi Weissberg is expecting you. You’re right on time.”
I followed the woman up tweed carpeted steps. Rabbi Saul Weissberg. The man who saved me that awful night before my real—civil—divorce just three months earlier. Weissberg, whom I’d never met, took my 10 o’clock at night phone call. “This is Olivia R. Stone,” I’d said with such puffed-up importance that it might as well have been God on the line. “Rabbi Weissberg, I need you to help me with something immediately. I mean now. It’s an emergency.”
My aggressiveness had not bothered Weissberg. Once he heard all the grisly details, he was determined to help. It was almost midnight when he finished dictating to my shikse lawyer word for word how to demand the get from my husband and how to protect me get-wise in legalese. The civil trial was the next morning. Weissberg understood the urgency and rose to my occasion. And I didn’t even belong to a synagogue.
Weissberg, who probably drove one of those jalopies outside, was determined that I would not be one of those women chained to a marriage by a husband who’d gone AWOL; a coward who cleaned out our family bank account before taking off to Neverland. Saul Weissberg was a man put on this earth to help me. He was my first. And one doesn’t forget her first. Ever.
The secretary led me down a long white corridor with highly scuffed linoleum floors and reeking of mothballs. Along the white cinder block walls were framed stills of dozens of rabbis. They all looked the same, some younger, some older; thick, black unstylish glasses and unkempt beards being the common denominator.
At the end of the hall, she marched me into a boxy brown and orange shag carpeted waiting room, decorated circa 1970, and then disappeared. I scanned the pathetic magazine selection—three coverless beaten-up issues of something unreadable fanned an old IKEA table. I sat on a plastic chair in the corner, hands folded as I crossed and uncrossed my legs.
The secretary returned a few minutes later. “Mrs. Stone.” It was a statement.
“I’d offer you coffee but it will take 20 minutes to make.”
I flicked my wrist dismissing the offer. “Please, don’t worry about it. I aleady had my Starbucks.” It was kosher, but Mrs. Blumenthal was not impressed. She raised an eyebrow and offered up the same knowing pursed smile as the wigged woman in the car. I smiled back evenly. I knew I didn’t fit in here, but what options did I have?
“Anyway, Rabbi Weissberg should be here any minute now.” The woman’s tone was softer than her stare. She was pretty in a plain pretty sort of way. A little liner could do wonders for those eyes.
“Great, thanks.” I resumed the crossing-uncrossing routine.
A man’s voice. Not a statement, but a fact. I looked up and met a dead ringer for my Uncle Bernie, complete with yarmulke and the same gold-wired glasses, a semicircle of gray wraparound hair like a large onion peel and a matching gray beard in dire need of a manicure. My hero, Rabbi Weissberg! He was paunchy and short, but his smile was big and infectious. His teeth were surprisingly white and even like Chiclets. I liked him immediately.
I reached out and grabbed his hand without thinking. “Rabbi Weissberg, hello! I’m so happy to finally meet you.”
“Ahem, er, yes.” Weissberg yanked back his hand. Religious men don’t touch women other than their wives. What was I thinking?
“Thank you so much for your kindness that night. That awful night.” I was babbling now, trying to overcompensate for the hand grab. “I was such a wreck. And you didn’t even know me.”
“Please, Mrs. Stone, don’t mention it. I really mean it.” His face was red as he pivoted on his worn-out, old leather shoe. “And, if you would, don’t shake Rabbi Stein’s hand. Now can you please follow me.”
I dug my hands into my pockets and willed them for Weissberg’s sake to stay put.
One by one, a half dozen rabbis filed into the large, fairly well-decorated library. My guess is that this was the only room in the whole joint that was updated to this millennium. The army of maroon padded chairs actually matched, and the long center table was sleek, shiny, an unscathed slab of chocolate wood. The rabbis all wore different versions of the same ill-fitted suit—one in a seersucker in January yet! And the beards. Long, straggly, timeless. Good for this century or last.
The rabbis slowly seated themselves across from me and drew in my presence. I felt naked under their unwavering, silent gazes. If only I had a potato-sack dress. My pinstriped pantsuit was too well cut against my slim frame—too I’m a Rogers Park rabbi. Too I’m new world; you’re old. Too I’ve been making love all night, and you—whatever you all were doing—were supposed to be praying.
I glanced quickly at Rabbi Weissberg, but his focus was elsewhere. He stood unmoving behind Rabbi Stein’s empty chair, staring at the closed door, waiting in anticipation for the rabbinical council C.E.O. to make his grand entrance.
The rabbis rose in unison as Rabbi Samuel Stein entered the room. His torpid walk was an aching ball-and-chain scrape against the hardwood floor as he approached the table. His flowing white hair and matching beard draped lightly over his surprisingly well-fitted black suit and his crystal blue gaze matched his tie perfectly. And unlike every rabbi in the room, he wasn’t wearing glasses. His handsomely etched face felt so familiar, like I knew him from somewhere. As he sat down in slow, arthritic motion, I nearly snapped my fingers. Paul Newman, bearded and wrinkled!
One of the rabbis handed Stein a pile of documents. I saw my last name printed across the top of the folder in large block letters. Weissberg then handed Stein a pair of bifocals. The rabbi’s shaky, liver-spotted hands began to leaf through the documents. He leaned so far over that his nose nearly pressed against the papers. Were they kosher enough? Could he see that I used to ditch Hebrew school? Would he know that I inhaled? I held onto the sides of my chair, praying I wouldn’t pee on the maroon padding.
Stein muttered a tiny gut, then acknowledged my presence with a nod and a slight smile and immediately launched into a prayer. He then cleared his throat, hocking around a bit, and began to recite another prayer, this time with my name and my ex-husband’s name in it. “Olivia bat Yonaton…Daniel ben Haim.…”
“Amen. Amen,” the rabbis chorused.
“Now Mrs. Stone,” Stein said, not waiting for me to respond and shoving one set of papers in front of me. “Please read this. Read the yellow now.”
I glanced down at the papers. My lines were indeed highlighted in neon. Like a play. I’d acted in high school. I could do highlights. I cleared my throat too, and immediately spotted three typos in the first line alone. “Very good,” Stein said after I’d read my lines. I felt pleased with my performance. Seersucker Rabbi overly nodded his approval. “Now stand,” Stein commanded. “And then stretch out your hands, like this.”
I stood and simulated Stein’s hand stretch. Without warning, he dropped the get onto my open palms. But I wasn’t ready. It missed somehow. The get fell to the ground. “Oh no!” I cried, looking up at Weissberg, who was staring at the fallen document. “Ooh…” chimed the witnessing rabbis. No Amens for you. I was too afraid to move. Too afraid of the meaning of the fallen get. Tears stung my eyes. I willed them not to fall.
Stein gestured to the rabbis to calm down. “It’s okay,” he said turning to me. “It happens. Now, Mrs. Stone, do it again.” Exhaling deeply, I held out my arms for my sole chance at redemption. Stein redropped the document gently into my hands. This time it landed. I cradled the paper as though it were a newborn. Stein then pointed toward the door. “Now, put the get under your armpit and walk there. Don’t look back. Stop at the door and wait. We will witness this, Mrs. Stone.”
What if I do it wrong? What if the paper slides off my moist blouse? But the what-ifs did not matter. At this point I would walk the plank for Stein. I pressed the document to my body and moved slowly toward the door.
“Very good, Mrs. Stone. Now turn around and bring the get back to me.” I turned, practically spinning, then carefully handed the get to Stein, not relinquishing the document until I felt him tug it out of my hands. He then grabbed it greedily with both hands and stabbed an X through it with a pair of sharp scissors that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. The rabbis all recited a prayer in unison. I got my Amens back. Relieved, I peered at Rabbi Weissberg, whose eyes were closed in deep prayer, his body swaying. When he opened his eyes, he smiled. The teeth seemed to glow.
“You are free, Mrs. Stone,” Stein said, motioning the rabbis to bring the prayers to a cooldown. “Begin your life again. We all wish you well. You may go now.”
I picked up my purse and started toward the door. But I couldn’t leave just yet. I stopped moving, turned and faced them. This time I let the tears fall as I held Stein’s gaze. Thousands of years of tradition. This man had the power to giveth or taketh, and he gaveth. “Thank you so much, Rabbi Stein.” I knew better than to touch him.
Weissberg’s eyes were wide open with warning. I probably shouldn’t be talking to Rabbi Stein directly, but I needed some sort of closure. I looked at each rabbi, who appeared genuinely happy for me. “All of you. Thank you.” I stopped in front of Weissberg on my way to the door. He took an instinctive step backward as if fearful I’d fall into his arms. “Good-bye, Mrs. Stone,” he said warmly. “And good luck.”
He signaled toward Mrs. Blumenthal, who was waiting on the other side of the threshold. I moved toward her almost hypnotically. She was suddenly beautiful standing there; a female buoy among a sea of men. “Mrs. Blumenthal,” I whispered, touching her soft arm. “Thank you.”
“Good luck to you, Mrs. Stone.” It was a statement.
I walked out of the building not caring that the boots were getting salted. I could hear my phone ringing from inside my car. I unlocked the door and dove for it. It was my sister. “Well, Liv, did you get theget?”
“Got the get.”
“I hope that bastard gets what he deserves. I hope he’s lying dead somewhere. I hope that he…” She paused long enough for me to fill in the blank, but I was too spent. I sighed deeply. “Where are the girls?” “With Mom. She figured you could use a night with me.”
Her voice lightened. “Red, white or zinfandel?”
I laughed, then clicked off the phone. I gazed at the station wagon in front of me and wondered if it belonged to Weissberg. I wanted to embrace it. I wanted to rub my tear-streaked face against the dirty, rusty yet strangely familiar fender. I am free. Turning on the ignition, I sipped the remnants of my cold coffee, pulled away from Washtenaw and drove forward.
Lisa Frydman is a Chicago-based writer. She worked as managing editor for The Jerusalem Post and Moment Magazine.