The worst rabbi I ever met – Rabbi Jeffery Kalbfleisch – was the rabbi who was originally scheduled to officiate at the bat mitzvah of my oldest daughter, Samantha, but who didn’t quite make it to the event. By then he was gone from the local rabbinical scene, and not willingly, although he made a point of telling anyone who asked that the divorce was actually his idea. In this, to be fair, he wasn’t completely wrong.
The synagogue at which Rabbi Kalbfleisch officiated during his short stint was the one my family considered ours at the time, or as close to “ours” as Jews of our stripe could get: a low-slung modernist structure on upper Leslie Street in Toronto, a couple of blocks from the city’s northernmost boundary. It was called Sha’arei Olam – in English the “Gates of the Universe” – but it looked less like the gates of anything than an elongated World War II pillbox. That was outside. Inside it was modest and homey, especially by Toronto synagogue standards, which in the late 20th century approached the papal.
This was one of the main reasons my wife and I had chosen it. Another was that it was a Conservative synagogue, which meant men and women could sit together, and 12-year-old girls could have bat mitzvahs and read from the Torah. Overall we were a folksy, laid-back congregation, where men occasionally showed up without ties, where children did a lot of improvisational running around, where a woman might wear a prayer shawl one Saturday to say Mourner’s Kaddish (as one already had) and no one would say anything (which they hadn’t). As a place of worship, it was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Rabbi Kalbfleisch was neither. That was the beginning of his troubles. There was also, of course, the fact that he wouldn’t backcheck.
I got my first real taste of the Rabbi’s character about a month after he arrived to take over the post, when I met with him in his office to go over logistics for Samantha’s bat mitzvah. The rabbinical offices at Shaarei Olam were on the parking lot side and presided over by an ageless, razor-sharp multitasker named Doreen, who dressed a bit like Auntie Mame and who could tell you where every single thing you might desire was located in the building.
“He’s waiting for you,” she said when I walked in. “You have a yarmulke with you?”
“Seriously?” I said. “It’s just his office, not the sanctuary.”
“Your funeral,” she said with a little shrug.
The rabbi’s office door was open when I got to it; he was sitting behind his desk, suit jacket on but unbuttoned, tie perfectly tied, his fingers laced on the desk in front of him as he read something. He unlaced them when he saw me and slid them wider on either side of him in a move that could have been a benediction or a signal that it was time to eat, either one. He was a big guy, barrel-chested, with a good head of wavy, sandy hair. There was something of the self-help pitchman in his appearance, although he didn’t seem quite focused enough for the role; his hands were big and meaty, but his gaze was distracted.
“Mark Posen,” he said. “Glad you could make it. I’ve been looking forward to a private chat with you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“I’m flattered, I think,” I said.
“Uh-huh. You seem to have forgotten your kippah, Mark. There’s one in the cookie tin on the filing cabinet behind you.”
I gave him a look, still not believing it. His look didn’t waver. “I prefer it,” he said. Out of the Marks and Spencer cookie tin in question, I took my usual, a standard black satin loaner.
“Better,” he said. “Sit, please.”
I told him that I was pressed for time, I’d just come by to drop off my list of aliyah requests for my daughter’s bat mitzvah – the people we wanted to have come up to assist with the reading of the Torah.
“Speaking of which,” he said, “I’ll need you to take this home with you and fill it out first. Just a brief questionnaire about your honorees. Basic qualifications.” He folded the form he’d been reading and held it out to me. “Everyone will be getting one from now on.”
“No disrespect, Rabbi,” I said, “but the modus operandi here has always been for the parents of bat mitzvah kids to provide four or five names for aliyahs, and then the rabbi – you in this case – just lets them know if there’s room.”
“I’m aware of the modus operandi here,” he said. “You have no idea how aware I am of the modus operandi here. My modus operandi includes a little a priori homework. I find it can help avoid awkward situations later on.” He was still holding the form out.
I took it. “If we’re done here, Rabbi…”
“Unfortunately, we’re not. Please sit down, you’re making me nervous.”
“I’ve got five minutes tops,” I said.
“Who doesn’t?” he said. The irony of it surprised me; it was tinged with a faint weariness. I sat. “Mark,” he said, “have you ever heard of the phrase tikkun olam?”
“Simon Luria,” I said. “Kabbalic visionary in the 18th century, in Spain, I think. Developed the idea of healing the world by restoring order to it. tikkun olam.”
“So the stories about you were true,” he said.
“No,” I said, “I just do a lot of crosswords. And I don’t think Kabbalah is part of the modus operandi around here either, Rabbi.”
“HaShem forbid,” he said. “But I’m not talking about Kabbalah, Mark, I’m talking about the original meaning of tikkun olam, which refers to repairing the world by simply following the rules of Jewish practice and decorum.”
I had the momentary feeling I was being interviewed by a TV talk-show host.
“Mark, it’s come to my attention that a small group of congregants at Sha’arei Olam, present company included, have been reforming the Saturday Shabbat service in a fashion that is not exactly geared toward tikkun olam.”
He was talking, of course, about the Kiddush Klub. More generally, about the fact that although I’d been a regular attendee at services for the past six months, along with half a dozen friends I’d had since junior high school, none of us was remotely close to what anyone would consider an observant Jew. We’d just been trapped by logistics. Synagogue regulations dictated that if your child was having a bar or bat mitzvah, they had to attend Saturday services regularly in the year preceding the event, along with a parent. Four or five of the guys in our group had kids of roughly the same age, now all turning 12 and 13, so our mandated sentences of shul attendance overlapped. Initially, this seemed like a plus; by sitting together we could discuss sports sotto voce and get through the service painlessly. The problem was the Torah reading, which usually started at about 10:45, and was conducted by an 80 year-old gentleman who had such a quiet quaver of a voice that even a civilized whisper was audible over it.
Worse, after the Torah reading came the rabbi’s sermon, which with the rabbi of the day meant 15 minutes of either terrible jokes or political jingoism. In self-defence, a group of us eventually approached the rabbi with a proposition: we could maximize our own preparation for our kids’ transition to adulthood, we suggested, by retiring, during the Torah reading, to the Hebrew School lunchroom in the basement, where we’d hold a study seminar to explore the Torah portion of the week. Our kids, meanwhile, would stay in the sanctuary.
The rabbi was dubious, but agreed; he had his hostages, and we had the Kiddush Klub. For tradition’s sake, we added a bottle of Canadian Club, some herring tid-bits, and the odd pastry. The rabbi made us promise to assign one person a week to prepare an exegesis on the week’s portion, which we did, and which we discussed afterwards, in give and takes that turned out to be surprisingly lively. When the rabbinic changeover took place, we figured that the old rabbi would simply tell the new one what the score was, and the status quo would prevail.
Clearly, we’d assumed too much.
“The Kiddush Klub,” I said.
“The Kiddush Klub,” he said. “Interesting choice of name, by the way. No doubt a source of hilarity to you and your cronies.”
“Hilarity might be a stretch,” I said. “None of us regard the Kiddush Klub as a joke, Rabbi.”
“Really. Two K’s in the name, I presume? Like the Keystone Kops?”
“Or like Kit Kat, the chocolate bar. And that still doesn’t make it a joke. We’ve all learned more about the Torah in the last year than we ever have.”
“So I should be thankful for the Kiddush Klub.”
“That’s up to you,” I said. “We are.”
“Possibly I should recommend it to the liturgical department of the rabbinate. You could franchise it.”
“Rabbi, I get the feeling this is heading somewhere specific. Could we get just get there?”
“I’m shutting it down.”
“I’m terminating the Kiddush Klub. It’s an idea which sends absolutely the wrong message to the congregation at large, particularly our younger members. In the interests of fairness, though, I’m giving your group till the new year to disband. That should be more than ample. As of January first, the Hebrew School lunchroom will be locked on Shabbat. I was hoping you could convey the notice of closure to the rest of the group.”
“The notice of closure? I didn’t know we were in a courtroom here.”
“We’re in God’s house, Mark. It’s never anything but.”
“I have no idea what that means,” I said. “You realize that I’ll have to discuss this with the other Klub members.”
“Naturally. Just make sure it’s a quick discussion. In questions of practice I won’t be entertaining negotiations.”
“Rabbi,” I stood up at this point. I was afraid if I didn’t, I’d crawl across the desk and strangle him. “I really do have to get going.”
I made it as far as the door. “Mark,” he called, “one more thing. I understand that you and some other members of the congregation play a little pick-up hockey during the week.”
“Adult shinny, not pick-up.”
“There’s a difference?”
“Pick-up games are usually closed. Shinny is open to the general public.” Something occurred to me. “Is hockey un-halachic, too?”
“Of course not. But I played a bit myself in high school in Ohio. I was wondering if there’d be any objection to me coming out to the game one night.”
“It’s shinny, Rabbi, like I said. It’s open to everyone.”
“So you’ll run the idea past the group? I wouldn’t want to make waves.”
“He doesn’t want to make waves?” said Avi Sklar. We were sitting in the change room at the Lester B. Pearson Memorial Arena, putting on our equipment.It was two days after my meeting with the rabbi, and I’d just briefed the group. “First he tells you he’s trashing the Kiddush Klub, then he wants to know if he can come play hockey with us?” Avi had been my best friend since Grade 6. He co-owned an interlocking driveway paving company, and could bench-press 250 pounds a dozen times in a row.
“He wants our blessing,” I said. “He believes in tikkun olam; he doesn’t want to rock the boat.”
“Bullshit,” said Avi. “He just wants to let everyone know that he’s a rabbi beforehand, so when he shows up no-one’ll hit him.”
“We don’t hit anyone anyway,” said Ronny Spillman.
“He doesn’t know that,” said Avi. “He’s American. You think they have a clue about the laws of shinny?”
“This is like a priest who wants to play?” said Pietro Bevilacqua. Pietro was one of our regular goalies, as well as a regular in at least six other games at the rink during the week. He was known as the Human Bocce Ball. With his skates on he was maybe five and a half feet tall.
“Kind of, Pietro,” I said. “Except rabbis aren’t celibate and they don’t take confession.”
“I used to play with a priest,” he said. “He was the dirtiest guy on the ice.”
“Kalbfleisch is completely full of s–t,” said Avi. “Believe me.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but maybe he has a point about the Klub, too. Our study sessions have been going downhill on their own lately anyway. Guys are taking huge bathroom breaks, and the quality of the presentations is getting to be embarrassing. We’re always bickering.”
“Hey, that’s what Jews do,” said Ronny.
“Italians, too,” said Pietro. “It’s very similar.”
“Forget the Klub for a second,” I said. “What am I telling the rabbi about hockey? Are we giving him our blessing?”
“If he’s got five bucks he doesn’t need it,” Ronny said.
“He knows that. But he wants to know if he’s welcome. It’s not exactly a crazy question.”
“Can he go top-shelf?” said Pietro.
“Top shelf, please,” Avi said. “The question is, can he stand up on skates.”
“We should say yes,” said Stan Melvin. “We should let him play.”
We looked at him as one. Stan was probably the shiest of all our group, a high school history teacher who usually didn’t volunteer information unless he was discussing the glories of golden Mycenae or professional wrestling. “I’m worried about the questionnaire Mark was talking about. I got mine yesterday.”
“You mean the aliyah questionnaire, for the honorees?” I said. Stan’s son Jerry’s bar mitzvah was two weeks after Samantha’s bat. “It looked like boilerplate to me. The usual questions. What’s the problem?”
“Brenda’s brother Steven is adopted,” Stan said. Brenda was his wife. “And he never had a conversion. I had him marked down for the third aliyah.He has to have it. If he doesn’t, I’ll end up divorced.”
“So why can’t he?” said Ronny.
“Because you have to be Jewish to be called to the Torah,” I said, realizing it.
Stan nodded. “Steven was born gentile, and apparently a gentile baby adopted by Jewish parents has to have a certified conversion to be considered Jewish, which he didn’t.”
“And so technically he can’t be called to the Torah,” I said.
“That makes zero f—–g sense,” said Avi. “He grew up in a Jewish home, right? Brenda’s Jewish, so he’s Jewish. Done. And who gives a s–t if he’s not? He could be 99.99 per cent goy for all I care. No offence, Pietro.”
“None taken,” said Pietro. “I’m a 100 per cent goy.”
“It’s true,” said Matt Joseph. “This is us. Who cares about things like that?”
“Kalbfleisch,” I said.
Stan looked at me again. “The rabbi told me Steven had to have a conversion to come to the Torah, and it couldn’t be a Reform conversion, either, it had to be Orthodox or Conservative. Jordan’s bar is in a month; there’s no time for any kind of conversion. And besides, how can I ask Brenda’s brother to get a conversion? He reads Hebrew 10 times better than I do. She’d kill me.”
“Did you tell the rabbi any of this?” I asked.
“All of it,” said Stan. “He said there were no exceptions to the rule. He said that it was for the good of everyone.”
“And you still think the guy’s not an a–hole?” Avi said to me.
“Stan,” I said, “Wait. If the rabbi said all this, why do you want us to let him play?”
“Because it’s the only chance I have to get on his good side,” Stan said. “We do something nice for him, maybe he’ll do the same for us. For me, anyway. Mark, you get it, right? It’s for my marriage.”
“And now,” said Avi, “we are truly f—-d.”
The Rabbi came out to the game the next Wednesday night. By design, Avi and I got to the rink early, so we could greet any players who weren’t part of our circle and brief them about his joining in, and to remind them to take it easy on him, because he probably wouldn’t be able to keep up. There were a lot of shrugs and whatevers. The most interested comment I got was from a young guy named Walter who drove up to the game every week from downtown: “Can I shoot at his jewels?”
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” I said to Avi, sitting down to get dressed. “Maybe he’ll be better than we think he’ll be.”
“I know exactly how good he’ll be,” said Avi. “He’ll know all the rules, and he probably won’t skate on his ankles. Oh, and his equipment will be new. But he’ll stink. But what really stinks is the fact that he’s coming at all. It’s totally bad form for a rabbi to show up at a hockey game.”
“Pose, you know I’m right.” Pose was Avi’s nickname for me, either that or occasionally “the Pose”. I’d never been sure whether it was a contraction of Posen or poser. “And Kalbfleisch knows it too, I guarantee. He knows exactly how much he’s f—ing up the game by playing with us.”
“I really doubt that,” I said. But I didn’t get a chance to explain why, because at that moment the rabbi walked into the change room.
He was wearing a suit, although without his usual tie, and pulling a rolling hockey bag. At this particular point in history, on the brink of the new millennium, hockey bags with wheels were a novelty, and most seasoned recreational player regarded them with suspicion. If you weren’t strong enough to carry your equipment, the feeling ran, how could you play the world’s fastest game?
“Mark,” he nodded at us. “Avram.”
“Rabbi,” said Avi, a bit too evenly.
“Guys,” I announced, “this is Rabbi Jeffery Kalbfleisch.”
“Just Jeffery, please.”
“My bad. Guys, this is Jeffery Kalbfleisch. Rabbi Kalbfleisch, the guys.”
There was a respectable chorus of heys and hellos from the room. Pietro the goalie actually paused in putting on his chest protector to bow tentatively, a move close to genuflection. The rabbi nodded back, and came over to where we were dressing.
“Is there anywhere in particular I should sit?” he said. “A designated area for rookies?”
“Just take any open spot,” I said. “We don’t stand on ceremony here. Oh, and Rabbi, do you have a black jersey?”
“Navy,” he said. “And a white.”
“Navy’s fine. You’re going dark today.”
The shadow of a smile creased his face. “Why am I not surprised?”
“No symbolism is involved in team-selection here, Rabbi,” I said, “I can assure you. We’re Kaballah-free.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” he said, and took a spot along the wall adjoining ours, between Walter the downtown commuter and Ronny Spillman.
I leaned over to tie my skates, which Avi was already doing. “Avram?” I said under my breath. “Would that be you?”
“F— off,” said Avi.
While we finished dressing I watched the rabbi out of the corner of my eye. He was fastidious in removing his suit, which he hung not on the hook behind him, but on a wooden hanger he took out of his equipment bag; he then placed the hanger on the hook. At least he seemed to know the right order to put on his equipment. The navy jersey he’d mentioned was a bit tight, and Ronny had to help him pull the back down over his shoulder pads. Most of his pads, I noticed, were similarly snug; it was as though they harked from an earlier era and he hadn’t had them on for a while. The over-all effect, along with his heft, was to make him look like a slightly overstuffed, slightly sheepish, boy. It also made me feel twice as responsible for him as I wanted to.
At 10 minutes to the hour I let him know that this was when we headed out to the ice. The Zamboni driver was just finishing up his flood, and as he steered the machine through the big gate at the end of the rink the rabbi made a move to step on the ice. I put my hand on his arm.
“We have to wait till he’s completely off and closes the gate,” I said. “It’s an insurance issue.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll remember.” The Zamboni gate closed, and the rabbi stepped out, and skated toward the far end to take a lap. His style was pretty much as Avi had predicted, slow and more than a bit stiff. We all took our warm-up laps and practice shots on Pietro and the other goalie. Sticks were tapped. Avi shot the game puck into the other end to get things going, and Stan, who had arrived late but dressed quickly, hustled back to pick up the puck and passed it immediately to the rabbi, who was skating carefully up the boards beside him. “Go ahead, Rabbi, take it up!” Stan said, grinning like a crazed cheerleader. Kalbfleisch nodded slightly, a humble man of God. Then he took one longer stride, and put his head down.
Ten seconds later, Pietro was fishing the puck out of the net behind him. Five minutes after that, the rabbi’s dark team was ahead three-nothing, and the universe had shifted.
He was, against all odds, a terrific hockey player. He was great. He had the kind of totally natural talent that’s exhilarating and deflating to watch at once: it uplifts you with the realization of what’s possible in the universe, and drags you down with the certainty that it will never be possible for you. His stiff skating in the warm-up was just a variation, it turned out, on a thoroughbred’s stilted gait before a horse race, a little rabbinical dressage. In fact he had the trick of speed, which in hockey is palpably a trick. Two steps, and he was at top velocity, past everyone. He also had great hands, and an effortless, slingy wrist shot. He could genuinely go top shelf. Avi was built like a concrete block and was by far the best athlete among us, and he wasn’t in the same league as the rabbi. If the pros were the ne plus ultra, the rabbi was a lot closer to them than we were to him.
The game ended with a football score, 14 to 6 for the dark team. n the dressing room the guys on both teams seemed either too star-struck to speak to him, or couldn’t compliment him enough. Stan was one of the latter. The rabbi accepted the accolades modestly, and got out of his equipment with a speed that suddenly looked practised, keeping eye contact to a minimum. He didn’t pause till he got to the door with his wheeled bag. “Thanks for the game, gentlemen,” he said.
“Rabbi, no problem,” said Stan. “And come again, please.”
“If you insist.”
“Yeah, and bring more rabbis!” yelled Walter from the corner.
“That I can’t guarantee,” Kalbfleisch said. The laugh it got him as he went out the door was a lot louder than it should have been.
“So what do you think?” I asked Avi when it died down.
“The f—-r didn’t back-check once,” he said.
A little primer here, for anyone who needs it: back-checking is to hockey what cleaning up is to dinner – a thankless but necessary task that operates on the fringes of the action. It happens when you lose the puck to the other team in their zone, and the play flows back toward your own net, and you have to turn and chase after it. Besides being painful and soul-crushing, back-checking is also something that recreational players aren’t ordinarily expected to engage in – unless you happen to be a ringer, a truly good player who somehow stumbles into an average game. The rules for ringers are immutable: you do your best not to show up anyone on the other team; you pass the puck at least once to everyone on your team, including the lousiest guy; and you never try your hardest, except when you’re back-checking, which for you is mandatory. The one thing you’re expected to do with all your resources when you’re a ringer is back-check, because it’s the one unglamorous thing that makes you momentarily everyone’s equal. For a ringer to fail to back-check in a shinny game in is as much a mortal sin as a strategic one.
So when Avi called me at 12:00 that night, I thought I knew why.
“Avi, it’s midnight.”
“I know, Pose, but this is serious.”
I rolled over to the edge of the bed with the phone, so I wouldn’t wake up my wife. “The rabbi not back-checking might be a lot of things, but serious isn’t one of them.”
“Who said anything about back-checking? I’m talking about Stan. I just left his house. I was there with Ronny and Matt; we had to walk him around his block three times to get him to calm down. He is totally wack, Pose, about this aliyah affair. I’m really worried about him.”
“Why is he still upset? I thought he established some nice rapport with the rabbi at the rink.”
“He established that he was a total ass-kisser. You saw him.”
“But that was the whole point, right? To get to know Kalbfleisch so he could talk to him about his brother-in-law, and get him to change his mind about the aliyah.”
“Right. But now he says he can’t do it.”
“Because the rabbi’s too good.”
“At hockey? How does that change anything?”
“Who can tell with Stan? He said something about his original idea being that the rabbi would be a lousy player, and Stan would offer to help him with his game. The rabbi would owe him something, so he could ask for something in return. But because the rabbi turned out to be so good, there’s nothing Stan can do for him, and no way he can ask him for anything. He says Kalbfleisch is even more perfect now than he was before. He’s says he’s afraid of him.”
“So? So am I.”
“No, you’re not. Or if you are it’s for some weird, Pose-ish reason, like you enjoy being afraid of him. Stan isn’t enjoying this. He thinks it could be the end of his family as he knows it.”
“Why doesn’t he just talk to Brenda already? She’ll understand.”
“No, she won’t. You know Brenda. She’ll just tell him he’s a coward, and then go smoke a cigarette. Then in the morning he’ll find his clothes on the sidewalk. She’s done it before. Meanwhile, why is Stan letting that schmuck do this to him, can you tell me that? Why doesn’t he just fill him in?”
“Because he really is afraid of him,” I said. Avi didn’t answer. I recognized his silence. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
“You’re the man, Pose,” said Avi. “My regards to the missus.”
The next afternoon I left work early so I could get to the shul before five. Doreen wasn’t at her usual post at the reception desk, but the rabbi’s door was open again when I got to it. The rabbi himself was sitting at his desk as he had been before, but this time with his head in his hands. More precisely, his elbows were propped on the desk and the heels of his palms were jammed into his eyes.
“Who is it?” he said, without moving.
“It’s Mark Posen,” I said. “Are you all right?”
“Eye drops,” he said. “I tried using new soft contacts at last night’s game for the first time. The experiment was not successful.”
“You could have fooled me,” I said. “Plus about 18 other guys. How many goals would you have scored if you could actually see?
He dropped his hands and opened his eyes. His gaze on me was teary and bloodshot. “I expected you might drop by again sooner or later, Mark. I didn’t think we really finished our discussion the other day. Second thoughts about the Kiddush Klub?”
“No, I’m here about something else. At least someone else. Stan Melvin.”
“Stan Melvin,” he said. “Stanley Melvin. From the hockey game.”
“Not hockey,” I said. “Aliyahs. I’m here on Stan’s behalf, Rabbi, to ask you to reconsider your decision about the aliyah list for his son’s bar mitzvah, and let his brother-in-law Stephen come to the torah. You’d be doing Stan a huge favour if you did.”
He regarded me for a moment longer through his watering eyes, then pulled a kleenex from the box in front of him, and got up and went over to the office window. Outside, the late November afternoon was turning quickly to dusk, the days shortening toward Christmas. Everything on Leslie Street, the leafless trees, the paper-boxes, even the traffic, was rendered in black and white. “There’s a simple solution. If Stanley’s brother-in-law has a suitable conversion, he’ll be welcomed to the bimah with open arms.”
“Even if there was time for a conversion,” I said, “which there isn’t, Stan couldn’t suggest it without offending his brother-in-law and wife enough that it would probably ruin the bar mitzvah and a lot more.”
“My hands are tied, Mark. Certain laws are like Isaac Luria’s vessels of light. Break one, and you shatter the whole.”
“Except you aren’t a lightkeeper,” I said. “You’re a rabbi at a suburban synagogue where the people can be, okay, exasperating sometimes, I admit it, but also pretty civil. So please, be civil back, Rabbi. Do the right thing. Make an exception.”
“Is that the sum total of your argument, Mark? It’s not exactly talmudic.”
“I’m not trying to be talmudic, Rabbi. I just want you to show Stan Melvin some compassion, and help him out of a jam.”
“My first job here isn’t to be compassionate, Mark. It’s to be constant.”
“Stubborn, you mean.”
“Full of s–t,” I said, amazing myself a bit.
He put his hand on the window pane in front him, just the fingertips. “Is that supposed to shock me, Mark?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s supposed to let you know how far you are from what anybody here considers normal rabbi-like behaviour. Rabbis are supposed to be sage, like Solomon, right? But we actually don’t need you to be sage here; all you have to do is to be a tiny bit flexible, and help out a fellow Jew and human being. I can’t believe that doesn’t fit into your job description.”
“Did you know, Mark, that in the Lurianic kabala the ritual mitzvot are considered as important as the ethical ones? The idea is that they exalt God, who is the agency of healing the broken world.”
“How about Stan’s broken marriage?”
“Aren’t you being a bit dramatic?”
“No. That’s the point. If Stan’s brother-in-law doesn’t get an aliyah, anything could happen. Really. His wife Brenda is a very strong-minded person. I mean you probably didn’t notice last night, but Stan’s back-up stick is a $200 Easton composite, the most expensive stick you can buy. Brenda got it for him for his birthday, and Stan’s terrified of breaking it; he says if he does, Brenda will never forgive him for it. And he’s probably right. That’s why it’s only his back-up stick. And that’s just a hockey stick, Rabbi, not an aliyah for her brother.”
“She could choose to blame me instead.”
“Rabbi, this is Brenda Melvin we’re talking about. She might choose to hate you, but she’ll blame Stan.”
“Exactly. And you can prevent it. Just turn a blind eye to a rule that no one around here ever followed anyway, and life for Stan could go back to the status quo, one-two-three.”
“The status quo is never what you think it is, Mark. Sometimes to make things better, first you have to make them a little worse.”
“Rabbi,” I said, telling myself to breathe, “are you aware that Stan was the person who convinced the rest of us to ask you to come play hockey with us? He was your ticket to the game.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.” He turned back to the window. “I’ll have to thank him.”
“I know how you can.”
He didn’t appear to have heard me. “Tell me something, Mark. What kind of hockey player do you think Isaac Luria would have been?
Breathe, I thought. “Goony,” I said. “He would have spent a lot of time in the penalty box.”
“Elusive,” said the Rabbi. “He would have been impossible to catch.”
I told the group about the rabbi’s response at the Kiddush Klub that Saturday. Stan wasn’t there; his attendance had been spotty since the dawn of the aliyah affair, which was ironic, because discussing the situation had lent a new urgency to our sessions, along with the rabbi’s impending drop-dead date.
“It’s like today’s portion,” said Ronny when I was done. “Mark’s Abraham, and the rabbi’s God. But is Stan Sodom or Gomorrah?”
“How can a guy be such a great hockey player, and such a terrible person?” said Matt. “It isn’t right.”
“It’s humanity,” said Ronny. “The important thing is what we’re going to do for Stan. Maybe we should all talk to the rabbi.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” said Avi. “Kalbfleisch is playing hockey with us now? Fine, let him play. At the next game, I’ll fill him in. You guys can help by aiming him at me.”
“You can’t fill him in,” I said.
“Why not?” said Avi.
“Well, for one thing he’s a rabbi,” said Matt Joseph. “He’s probably non-violent.”
“He’s not a Hindu, Joseph,” said Ronny. “He’s from Cleveland.”
“That’s true,” said Matt. “You know Mrs. Ginsberg, the older lady who wears a talles in the sanctuary sometimes?”
“She does it on the anniversary of her husband’s death,” I said. “It was his prayer-shawl.”
“Last week the rabbi told her she couldn’t wear it anymore,” said Matt. “He didn’t do it in private, either. He told her in the lobby after the service. It looked like he wanted to make sure he had an audience. When she left she was crying.”
“That settles it,” said Avi. “It’s filling-in time.”
But Avi did not fill the Rabbi in. He abstained for one simple reason: I asked him not to. I said it wasn’t fair to rush to judgment, that there might be redeeming factors we couldn’t see that could account for Kalbfleish’s apparent pettiness and prickishness, even for the fact that he was an out and out bully. Why did I take the rabbi’s side? Partly because I didn’t want my daughter’s bat mitzvah to be spoiled by an intra-shul civil war. But mostly because I loved watching him play hockey. He had inserted something into our weekly lives that was dangerously close to beauty. Every Wednesday night, he managed to pull off a manoeuvre that was dazzling but novel, as though it had just occurred to him for the first time. His off-ice style might have been calculated enough that it approached sadism, but his hockey style was so devoid of planning it resembled athletic jazz. In fact, outside of his failure to back-check, on the ice he actually wasn’t an a–hole. He wasn’t even a bad teammate. He gave up the puck regularly, and he didn’t whine or carp like some talented guys I’d played with. He never upbraided anyone for failing to receive one of his perfect passes, or for directing a less than perfect one in his direction. True, he also rarely complimented anyone for making a nice play, but on the ice he wasn’t a blowhard. On the ice he wasn’t a phony. He was just a guy who didn’t back-check.
And my guiltier secret was this: as much as I liked watching him play hockey, I liked talking to him more. Because I could say anything to him. It was the same disjunction: ideologically he was uptight enough to make you wear a skullcap in his office; conversationally he was as permissive as Lenny Bruce.
“Do you believe that people have hidden functions in this world, Mark?” he asked me one afternoon.
“I believe they have one main function: to be decent. A mensch. Which is exactly what I’m asking you to be.”
“I’m not talking about a duty, I mean an ulterior part to play, a secret role. Like Judas at the Last Supper, for Christians.”
“How about a rabbi at a bar mitzvah, say, who relaxes the aliyah rules, for Jews?”
“Very clever. But that’s a bit too obvious, Mark. I doubt it’s in the cards for me.”
“So what part is, rabbi? The hero?”
He made a soft sound like a laugh. “I can’t think of a single person at this synagogue who would consider me heroic. Maybe Isaac Luria himself would, if he became a member. In the Lurianic scheme I might fulfill that function.”
“Really?” I said. “What do kabbalists think about delusions of grandeur?”
“They don’t think they’re delusions,” he said. “And they don’t think they’re grand.” He looked at me. “What do you think, Mark?”
“The truth? I have no idea. Mind you, I have no idea what we’re talking about, either.”
“You need to figure it out,” he said. “And sooner than later.”
That’s what talking to him was like: a conversation that on the surface sounded cogent, but that you never really truly understood while you were having it, possibly because it was half insane. There were only two predictable things about our discussions. At some point, after dismissing whatever new pitch I was making for Stan out of hand, he would issue a prophetic warning about time running out on me and my “cronies” that was worthy of Jeremiah. And every conversation with him also came shrouded in his own fatalism, as though he was convinced he was eventually going to make a morally irretrievable mistake, one everyone would pay for and he couldn’t do anything to prevent. It was like a tale of two dooms.
And then the dooms came together.
It happened at our last game in December, three days before what was to be the last meeting of the Kiddush Klub. Stan had stopped showing up at the Klub completely by this time, but he was still coming out to hockey. In the locker room on this last Wednesday of the year he was there, as usual, getting dressed. For once, though, Rabbi Kalbfleisch was late.
The Rabbi still hadn’t arrived when the Zamboni driver finished our flood, and we ended up going out on the ice without him. We played the first ten minutes or so that way, which felt undeniably strange – ungrounded and centreless somehow. It was actually a relief when I saw him come out of the locker room door, pulling his jersey down as he walked. He apologized, saying that he’d had a meeting that had run late, and that in the rush he’d forgotten his hockey sticks in his office.
“Does anyone have an extra stick I could borrow?” he said.
“Take my back-up,” I said. “We both shoot right.”
“Your stick looks a bit short for me, Mark, thanks. Stanley, yours looks closer to my length. Do you mind?”
Stan looked up, as did most of us. None of us would have ever considered asking Stan to borrow his Easton, even if we needed it. But this was Kalbfleisch asking, and I could see Stan wavering.
“Rabbi, really,” I said, “take mine. It’s got a lot of goals in it.”
But Kalbfleisch had eyes only for Stan. “Stanley?”
“Sure,” Stan blurted. “Sure.” He reached back behind the bench and handed the Easton to the Rabbi. “Just one thing. If you could maybe not take a slapshot with it. I think it might have a small crack in the shaft. If you don’t mind.”
“No problem,” said the rabbi. “No slapshots. I’ll be careful.”
He took the stick and went over to the dark team’s bench, getting there just in time for a line change, when meant he could step right out on the ice. A clearing pass came off the boards as he did; he picked it up, skated over our blue line, and with no hesitation at all pulled Stan’s stick back over his right shoulder, and brought it down in a full slap-shot motion I’d never seen him use before. The stick hit the ice before the puck, and snapped halfway up the shaft. The rabbi came to a stop, still holding the upper half of the stick. He bent down, picked up the remaining half, and skated over to our bench.
“My sincere apologies, Stanley,” he said. “I don’t know what got into me. It must have been an automatic reflex.” He handed Stan the two halves of the stick. “I guess you were right about that crack,” he said. Stan didn’t say anything; he was looking at the remains of the Easton. Someone gave Kalbfleisch another spare stick, and he turned without another word and rejoined the play.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to Avi.
I stepped over the bench before he could say anything and went back into the hallway behind us. Our locker room was the second one down the hall. I went in and walked over to the rabbi’s changing spot, where his wheeled hockey bag was pushed up against the bench. I rolled the bag back a foot or so. Lying under the bench were two white Koho sticks, with the letters “J.K.” printed in magic marker on the taped handles.
I went back into the hallway and opened the nearest gate onto the ice surface. The play was in the far end, and the Rabbi was coasting slowly toward his own blue line, his back to me. I skated as hard as I could at him, and grabbed the too-tight navy jersey just under his armpit, jerking him half-around in the process.
“You did that on purpose,” I said.
“Mark?” His voice was surprised, but his eyes were less so. “What are you talking about?”
“Stan’s stick. You broke it on purpose.”
“That’s ridiculous. Are you even supposed to be on the ice now?”
“You planned it, Rabbi. I was just in the locker room. You didn’t forget your sticks. They were on the floor behind your bag.”
“They were? Unbelievable. I must be even more distracted than I thought.”
“I always knew you were sort of a bastard, and a tyrant, but I didn’t think you were actually a bad person. Not really bad. All the other rotten things you did had a code behind them, at least. But that was just a truly bad thing, all on its own. It was just cruel. Why would you do something like that?”
He let himself lean in closer to me, my left hand still buried in his jersey. His eyes weren’t even remotely surprised, I realized. Just sad. “Somebody had to do something, Mark.” he said. “And apparently it wasn’t going to be you.”
“You prick,” I said. I dropped the glove on my right hand onto the ice. “You want to see me do something? I’ll start now.”
“No, you won’t,” Avi said. He was behind me, his hand simultaneously around my wrist like a vice.
“Avi, let go of me, I’m going to kill him.”
“No, you’re not,” said Avi. I couldn’t have moved my hand, I had the feeling, if I used both arms. “You’re going to come back to the bench so we can finish the game.”
“It’s sage advice Avram is giving you, Mark,” said Kalbfleisch. “Wasn’t that what you were always looking for, sageness?”
“It’s sagacity, you psychopath,” I said.
When we got to the bench Avi pushed me through the gate, and sat me down beside him. The rest of the team was staring, but I couldn’t have cared less.
“Why did you stop me?” I said. “I wanted to go with him.”
“Well, he’s got three inches and maybe 30 pounds on you,” said Avi. “Also, going with people is not your job. This is hockey. We have roles here, Pose. Some guys analyze. Some guys enforce.”
“So enforce,” I said. “I changed my mind. Fill him in. I give you permission.”
“Excellent,” he said. “Let me just pick my spot, and I’ll do it.”
On the ice Kalbfleisch had finished his shift, and was heading back to the bench. “Just one thing,” I said. “No concussions, okay?”
“I won’t touch his head,” said Avi. “I promise.”
“OK,” I said. Kalbfleisch had taken a seat on the bench beside Walter, who was talking animatedly to him, gesturing with his hands. The Rabbi kept his gaze on the game. “Maybe no broken bones, either, or visible marks,” I said. “We have to be holistic here.”
“I won’t touch him at all,” said Avi.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll just talk to him,” he said.
“What are you going to say?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m just going to talk to him.”
Which is exactly what he did. With about five minutes left in the game, Avi took a long pass from Ronny at centre and broke into the clear – at least for a moment. A dark blur went past our bench so quickly it took me a second to figure out what it was: Kalbfleisch was chasing him. He caught Avi at the blueline, lifted his stick from behind, took the puck, and wheeled back in the opposite direction, surprising everyone so completely that he was in on our goal before anyone knew it. Once there he executed a toe-drag deke that was almost apologetic in its ease, a deke that said to Pietro in net, ‘I’m going to start a deke, but with your permission I’m not even going to finish it, because just this slow-motion part will freeze you completely in your anticipation of what is about to come. And what is about to come is the puck going through your five-hole into the net right…now.’ It was brilliant piece of non-deking, a deke sans deke, infinite less making infinite more. It might have been the best goal he scored all fall. He turned to coast back up the ice, and Avi, who’d been following him, met him at the blue line, bumping into him gently and continuing up the rink with him, an attached tandem, drifting the way players sometimes will. They were obviously engaged in conversation, but Avi’s back was to me, and I had no idea what he was saying, or how Kalbfleisch was reacting to it.
The next day the Rabbi resigned from the shul. He was gone by the weekend.
My daughter Samantha had her Bat Mitzvah the following Saturday. She did a terrific job, which surprised me not at all. Despite my misgivings, the fill-in rabbi, a retired insurance agent with rabbinical certification, did a great job himself with the sermon afterwards, noting that Samantha had been a “sweet singer for Israel”. Her friends threw their ridiculous soft candies at her, she ducked and squealed, and we all trooped through the lobby into the banquet hall to eat a variety of spicy egg-plant and chick-pea salads, and give our various speeches. Mine involved baseball, but I still got my wife to cry within seventeen seconds of my opening. When I was done Avi came over and shook my hand.
“Great speech, Pose,” he said. “As usual, I had no idea what you were talking about.”
We got a glass of wine each and wandered out into the lobby, and through the lobby back into the sanctuary. It was deserted except for the candy wrappers on the carpet. I looked at the ark and the gold lions flanking it. The lion on the left really could have used a coat of paint.
“So what did you say to him?” I said.
“Avi,” I said. “Please.”
“I asked him if he believed in God. He said he did. I said he didn’t, and I had proof. He asked me what the proof was. I told him if he believed in God, he’d have faith that God would protect him from what was going to happen to him if he showed up at the rink next week. But I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to show up at the rink. Or even at the shul again. So I was pretty sure he didn’t believe in God, either.”
I waited for him to go on, my best friend. But he took a sip of his wine instead. “So what did he say?” I said.
“That’s the weird thing. He didn’t seem scared at all, or even upset. It was kind of a letdown.”
“Avi, what did he say?”
I looked at him. “He said thank you.”
“Yeah, that’s all. Thank you. Like he was expecting it, or maybe hoping for it. Like he was relieved.”
I looked back at the ark. “Maybe he was.”
“Pose, don’t do that, please. Don’t say things like that unless you’re serious. You really think he was waiting to be faced? To be put down? Like a guy with a fetish? Tell me if you do, it would help. Otherwise I’m just losing my touch.”
“You’re not losing your touch, Avi. But it wasn’t a fetish.”
“Tikkun olam,” I said. “The world made whole.”
He hit me on the shoulder with his free hand, not the one with the wine but the one closest to me, a short little punch that was still incredibly painful. It had always been a mystery to me how he did it. “F— off ,” he said. “Be serious, you prick, I mean it. What do you mean the world made whole? What is that?”
“Who’s Stan having do the aliyahs at Jerry’s bar mitzvah now?” I said.
“The Pope,” he said dangerously. “Ayatollah Khomeini, Hulk Hogan. Anyone he wants now, Mark, you know that.”
“Of course his brother-in-law. Where have you been? That problem’s solved. Kalbfleisch is gone.”
“Kalbfleisch is gone,” I said. “And Stan’s brother-in-law is getting his aliyah. And the Kiddush Klub will reconvene, stronger than ever. And we will play hockey like always, but somehow enjoy it more. And the world is healed. Tikkun olam.”
I waited for him to hit me again. But he didn’t. Instead there was a pause – a Shakespearian one by Avi’s standards. Then he raised his wine glass in a slow-motion semblance of a toast, not to me so much as to the space in general, to the lions rampant and ragged. To wonder. “I must be completely shit-faced. It actually makes sense. The world made whole. And that was one wacked-out rabbi. Couldn’t he have just put it in a sermon?”
There was no point in pushing the envelope, I thought. My shoulder was still tingling. I’d wait till tomorrow to tell him about the brand new Easton stick Stan had found sitting on his veranda, an envelope taped to it, a bar mitzvah card inside, inscribed with nothing but a single, hand-written word: “Regrets”.
“It was a pretty nice goal, though,” Avi said.
“Forget the goal,” I said. “He backchecked.”