Aisle seat, nine rows from the back. I watched him stride down the long red carpet grinning, pausing to greet congregants with handshakes and pats on the back, black robe billowing as he walked.
I hoped to catch his eye. Would he smile at me as he did before I left for Israel, a smile that said, “You’re special!”? I hadn’t answered his letters, not even after he wrote that he missed me “more than he thought he could or would” and signed it “love.” Maybe he was angry with me.
But when he saw me, he beamed and said, “Welcome home, bubbeleh!” with arms outstretched, and I knew he wasn’t. He leaned over and whispered, “Wait for me.”
The last congregant said goodbye. We were the only people left in the sanctuary, now quiet in its majesty, intricately painted columns reaching towards the celestial blue ceiling. He grazed my shoulder with his hand, gently signaling me to turn. “Walk with me.”
We walked behind the pews and down the side aisle. A waterfall of teenage anxiety spilled out of my mouth. “I feel out of place in New York. I miss the people, they treated me like family. I miss speaking Hebrew with everyone, even with my poor vocabulary. I miss the pale Jerusalem stone, the smell of the jasmine, the golden sunsets. It’s too formal here. I have no friends. I don’t fit in. Why did I come home?”
The ceiling lights clicked off.
He placed his hand on my shoulder, the rippled folds of his sleeve draped over my back. He squeezed my tight muscle and slid his hand down, lingering on my shoulder blade with a soothing touch. “Relax. You just got back, of course it will take time to readjust. Ha’aretz is a magical place. You’ll go back. ‘Mi yoday-ah?’ Who knows, maybe you’ll make aliyah someday—after college.”
His words helped, but I kept on spouting. “My parents are already making me crazy—call this one, write that one, see so-and-so. My brother is back at home; they’re fighting all the time.” He listened carefully.
“Don’t worry about your parents, doll. They are who they are. You’ll be off to college soon. You’ll survive the summer.” I sighed with relief. He knew my family so well. He understood me, my passion for Judaism and Israel. He always made me feel safe and good about myself.
I stopped jabbering. As we walked, I looked down at the red carpet and saw the black tips of his shoes peeking out below the hem of his flowing black robe.
He broke the silence. “You didn’t answer my letter.” I started fumfering.
His hand pressed on my back, nudging me up three steps into the rabbi’s private robing room behind the bimah, behind the hand carved gold and inlaid wood ark that cradled the sacred Torah scrolls.
We were in the inner sanctum.
He laughed, “Don’t worry. I love you anyway,” and wrapped his arms around me, black sleeves cascading down my back like a prayer shawl.
The devil’s tallis.