Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, rabbis came and left my synagogue over the years. Eventually, a lay leader who had previously led the choir adopted the role of cantor and slipped into leading services.
A tall, moustachioed man, the cantor had a beautiful voice, and I loved hearing his deep baritone soar through the pews. He had a special smile for me, and after services on Saturday mornings, he’d come over to wish me and my parents a “Gut Shabbos.”
Sometimes he’d shower me with compliments, and being an awkward teen on the verge of womanhood, I admit I enjoyed the attention.
“Look at that peaches-and-cream complexion,” he’d declare exuberantly to my parents. “She’s gorgeous, your daughter! But why is she drinking Diet Coke, may I ask? With a figure like that, there’s no need for the diet version!”
Which parent doesn’t enjoy hearing their kid praised, particularly by a person who occupies a high rank in the community? We thought nothing of it at the time.
But a couple of years later, after my mother had undergone minor surgery, the cantor paid a house visit and found time to sit down with me for a cup of tea. I remember wondering why he wanted to sit with me, of all people. The answer became quickly apparent.
“Do you believe a young woman like yourself could fall in love with someone much older?” he asked.
The question came out of left field. At 15, I’d never considered the possibility, and it seemed utterly preposterous.
“Never,” I declared, my stomach turning at the thought of his 40-something whiskers grazing my skin. What could I ever want with an older, married man like him?
Young and naive, I figured the subject was closed. I needed a ride down the road that day, and the cantor was glad to oblige. But on the way, as I sat next to him in the passenger’s seat, the cantor placed his large, hairy hand on my thigh. It landed close to the panty line, far too close to be imagined as anything other than a direct advance. For a second, I was stunned into silence. This, I realized, was where the smiles from the bimah, the compliments to my figure and skin tone had been leading. I fled the car and raced home.
When I told my parents, my mom’s face creased into worried concern, but my father’s response shocked and disappointed me. “I saw you smile at him. You asked for it,” he said in a threatening voice. Deep down I knew I’d never asked for anything, and luckily for me, nothing had actually happened. Or had it?
I’ve wondered about that over the quarter century that’s passed. Who should we have told about the inappropriate questions, that transgressing hand on my thigh? Was I the only teen he made a pass at, or were there others who didn’t reject his advances? Did we have a responsibility to come forward, or were we right to bury this in the family and never mention it again?
I don’t know whom we might have told or whether they’d have believed us enough to ensure there were repercussions. But stories about “holy” Jewish men who tarnished their titles with sexually deviant, morally unethical behaviour are coming out of the woodwork these days. By making these stories heard, perhaps we can raise a generation of kids who won’t trust blindly in religious titles, long beards and black garb, and who won’t think prayerful worship is a firm guarantee of appropriate behaviour.
Are there grown women in the community today who bear scars inflicted by so-called “holy men” who abused their trust, took advantage of their innocence? I suspect there are, and it’s high time we heard their stories. Exposure is the best – perhaps the only – form of protection. We owe it to our kids.