Thursday, August 17, 2006

Wagging the Rebbe

by Hank Magitz

It is a widely held Jewish belief that there are no coincidences in life. Everything has a reason and is part of a construct of divine events on behalf of some lofty, arcane purpose. Consequently, when Baruch Katz’s grandmother—an elderly, olive-skinned woman from the old country—put the evil eye on Moshe Herson for mistreating and humiliating her grandson, it came as no surprise when the miracle occurred.

The physical seeds of the miracle were planted one memorable day at shul. It was a Saturday morning and while the skies were overcast, it seemed that we’d be spared any rain. This was noteworthy only to the rabbi and a few of the old-timers. Old-timers wouldn’t ride in the car on the Sabbath, so rain was something they preferred on Sundays or Mondays or Tuesdays and so forth. The rest of the congregation at the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey forgot about the Sabbath the minute they left the building and got into their cars. Most of them had already forgotten about Baruch Katz, too. They knew even less about Chabad’s inner workings than they did about Judaism—indeed, the instrument had not yet been invented that could measure how little they knew about either, so they had no idea what Katz had done or hadn’t done to get himself fired from the organization and besmirched and sent into exile. A small cadre of Russian immigrants from the community briefly petitioned Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and head of New Jersey Chabad Inc., to intervene on Katz’s behalf.

How naïve some immigrants are!

In any event, the incident had been pretty much swept under the carpet as both Moshe Herson and his son, the titular rabbi at the Chabad Center, had anticipated. No one ever went broke underestimating the naiveté of the average Chabad contributor. And the Hersons were far from broke. They controlled properties all over New Jersey.

It was during duchaning—the priestly blessings—when the incident occurred. The ceremony requires men to hide their eyes behind their prayer shawls and meditate upon the melody as the kohanim (or priests) chant the ancient words to the ancient tune with their arms raised and their hands contorted. Every once in a while, some wiseacre—usually a kid—would peak out from beneath the prayer shawl to see the secret fraternity signs. This is how wiseacre Leonard Nimoy came up with the Vulcan salute. And on this particular Sabbath, another wiseacre, namely yours truly, suggested in the middle of the chanting that without Katz, there wasn’t much of a melody to meditate on. With Katz’s conspicuous absence, the only Kohain upon the platform with his hands raised like a Vulcan was an old man who’d lost his voice to a stroke.

Well, it was just at that moment that the screaming began. From outside in the parking lot where Moshe Herson’s granddaughters were playing hopscotch, a cacophony of shrieks cut through the already fractured chanting of that stroke-impaired Kohain. I was one of several congregants to race to the door and out into the lot to see what the matter was. There, before my eyes, was the site that had made the children flee in terror.

It was a small dog. A mutt, actually. With his big, wet tongue hanging out, he had jumped playfully all over the girls.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said, but the girls ran off. They’d learned from their own silly mother that all dogs were to be feared like frothing Cossacks—to run from them like chickens from a fox.

The dog looked at me with baffled, friendly eyes. He was a healthy looking mutt and as I reached out to pet him, he rolled over on his back and, sans irrational fears, bid me to rub his soft doggy tummy. Then he tried to hump my leg. At that moment, a strange lady jogged down the shul’s driveway with a huge leash in hand.

“I’m so sorry!” she said. She was out of breath. “I hope he didn’t frighten anyone. He’s practically a puppy—he doesn’t bite.”

After the lady took her dog home, the incident was forgotten by everyone almost as quickly as Baruch Katz’s dismissal.

At least, it was forgotten for nine months.

Another set of High Holidays rolled around. First came the Rosh Hashanah services punctuated by the titular rabbi’s interstitial sermons. Some congregations are forced to make it through the Day of Judgment without such levity. Not this crowd.

Further, the shul was celebrating another simcha: Moshe Herson’s granddaughter had given birth and there were Mazel Tovs all around. No one was acknowledging the bizarre circumstances by which the young girl had conceived. She was, after all, only sixteen. And still unmarried. And, technically speaking, still a virgin.

The Talmud cites a circumstance whereby a woman can become pregnant after immersing in a tub in which a man has had improper thoughts. But no specific case can be found in the Torah—indeed, in all of Jewish history—for a girl delivering offspring in such a bizarre and unlikely manner.

There were five in the litter.

Now, yechus—having ancestors of note—is very important to most Orthodox Jews. But the collection of ragtag congregants at the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey could hardly be blamed for lacking remarkable pedigree. Most of them settled for an association with any manner of celebrity. The Chabad’s ex-president, for instance (whose wife wasn’t really Jewish) boasted of having once met Sandy Koufax at his Rotary Club Meeting. The current president made no such claims, but his wife—fully Jewish but a little nuch-g’lozt—distinguished herself by having once dated Jewish broadcaster Nachum Siegel. The gabbai, a man named Philip Windsor-Smith who fancied himself a proper Englishman with all the pomp and none of the circumstances, reminisced of how John Lennon had chased him home from Liverpool Grammar School and kicked him in the pants. No one doubted this claim: Windsor-Smith had a thoroughly obnoxious manner that would have raised even Mother Theresa’s foot. If Windsor-Smith had been a Hindu, Ghandi himself would have kicked him.

Yechus was also terribly important to Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc. He had no real yechus to speak of, either, but he took comfort in his stature as dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc. He reasoned that his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren and so forth would boast of descending from him. His image was so magnificent in his own mind that he genuinely expected this self-opinion to be shared by all those who knew him.

This was not necessarily the case. Moshe Herson had acquired less than a sterling reputation, particularly among his peers. The philosophies he publicly embraced—the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who embodied love and kindness and justice and charity and humility and truth and suchlike—weren’t philosophies Herson had much use for privately. At least that was the assumption one made when they saw the treatment of Rabbi Avraham Lipskier, who Moshe Herson fired and besmirched and sent into exile. Or Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Greenberg, who Moshe Herson fired and besmirched and sent into exile. Or Rabbi Baruch Katz who Moshe Herson fired and besmirched and sent into exile. And so on and so forth.

“But all I’m asking for is a proper job description,” pleaded Baruch Katz.

“Your job is to do what I tell you to do,” said Herson from behind his great mahogany desk.

“But I was hired to be a teacher,” said the demure Katz.

“If I tell you to take out the garbage, you take out the garbage,” said Herson. “If I tell you to clean my socks, you clean my socks. That is your job description. Now get out of my office.”

How could such things be happening in the name of a great man like the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Everything has a reason and is part of a construct of divine events on behalf of some lofty, arcane purpose.

At least that’s the theory.

Of course, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was already dead and buried by the time Moshe Herson began to purge the movement of his enemies and those who wouldn’t bow down to him. It no longer mattered if the Rebbe’s reputation was besmirched and sent into exile.

Yes, and yechus being such a cornerstone to his self esteem, it was terribly difficult—more difficult than one can describe—for Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc., to now face his world knowing than his ur-einiklach—his own descendants—had come into the world under less than immaculate circumstances.

“At least they’re not average,” his wife had said in a moment of filial absence. It was all too true. The five children would grow up to have hairier than average backs, and longer than average ears, and wetter than average noses, and cute, fuzzy little tails.

“This is an outrage!” said Philip Windsor-Smith. “How can they expect anyone to support this?”

“They’ll support it,” said the president.

“They’ll support it and like it,” said the ex-president who sat in his usual seat. He liked to have the last word, which was a constant source of annoyance to the rest of the congregation. Fortunately for the rest of us, the ex-president was coming around less often. He suffered from irritable bowel syndrome.

The uproar was over the installation of the new rabbi. Now that the Shemtov brothers had been forced out of Pennsylvania and Michigan, Moshe Herson’s sons had assumed control of those states, too, so the little Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey needed a loyal spiritual leader. Herson suggested his granddaughter’s first born.

“Well, I for one don’t like it,” said Windsor-Smith. “I think this is an outrage! Giving this—this canine creature a pulpit, for goodness sakes!”

“That’s not very nice,” said the president.

“He’s a dog!” Windsor-Smith shouted.

“He’s not a dog,” said the president.

“He’s not a dog and even if he is a dog, it doesn’t matter,” said the ex-president. “He’s a Jew. The mother is a Jew so the son is a Jew.”

“This is preposterous!” said Windsor-Smith. “Don’t we have any say in this?”

“No,” said the ex-president. “This is Chabad. Herson owns the building. It’s his show.”

It was a curious dilemma. Despite the fact that they’d paid to erect the building and given generous dues to the shul and made enormous contributions to the shul’s building fund (earmarked to buy even more buildings), the Chabad congregations in New Jersey had no more say in who their rabbis were than zoo monkeys have in the purchase of bananas. Although Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc., originally sent this community an emissary with an offer to “help” them build their congregation, nothing they’d built nor financed was under their control.

And so it was that a wet-nosed descendant of Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and the head of New Jersey Chabad Inc., came to be the new rabbi of the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey.

The entire congregation gathered that Sabbath day. Some of the old-timers walked to shul; most of the congregation drove. Some of them turned off their cell phones before services began; some didn’t bother. Some would leave the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey after services and go to the Rockaway Mall. Others took their kids bowling and then to Burger King. But they were all there that morning to welcome the new rabbi.

The new rabbi walked slowly into the shul, his huge black Borcelino hat pulled firmly over his droopy ears. He took the stage and stood on his hind legs as he held the prayer book between his paws and led the congregation in a beautiful, heartfelt davening.

When the Torah was removed from the arc, the new rabbi reached out with his paw and kissed the sacred scroll as it passed, then he followed Windsor-Smith onto the platform and made the blessing over the Torah.

In the women’s section, the ladies milled around the young virgin who had given birth to this miraculous being. “Mazel tov!” they said. “Mazel tov!”

And then the Torah reading concluded and the congregation stood as the sacred Torah scroll was again paraded around the shul and finally returned to the arc.

“Everyone may be now seated,” announced Windsor-Smith. “I’d like to call upon the new rabbi to say a few words.”

But the new rabbi didn’t utter a sound. He just stood there on all fours.

Suddenly, there were gasps from the front of the women’s section; moans of exasperation from the men. People in the middle and back rows stood up to view the commotion—to see what the matter was. Several of the old-timers began to leave.

“What happened?” asked Mitch, the shul yenta. “I can’t see a thing! What’s going on?”

“Not much,” said Jed, a self-absorbed attorney who had sat next to Mitch reading Melville throughout the service. “The rabbi just lifted his leg and urinated on the congregation.”

And with that, Jed’s cell phone went off.

(c) 2005 Aardwolf Publishing - reprinted by permission


At 11:45 PM, Anonymous N from Down Under said...

Well written! I enjoyed this very much.

NJ isn't the only place, and Chabad rabbis aren't the only ones, who do this to their congregations.

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Tzvi said...

That was great! I'm still laughing!

At 5:55 PM, Blogger Liorah-Lleucu said...

excellent writing

At 10:48 AM, Anonymous Dan Fields said...

My local Barnes & Noble only had your book god's 15 minutes, which I am thoroughly enjoying. I want to read the others!


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