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The Guys in the Rabbi’s Class

My husband had a teacher in his later years, a rabbi who was much too Orthodox for most of us, but so sweet and sympathetic, so learned and easy to learn from, such a light to us Jewish goyim, that we followed him and loved him, especially my husband.

This rabbi—his name was Geduldig. Solomon Geduldig —had no pulpit but mainly taught Talmud, Torah and Ethics at Detroit State, sometimes at the Community College. Also he participated in political movements to relax the practices of the observant. He wanted women to be Orthodox rabbis. He wanted a friendlier reception for converts. He wanted everyone to go to a Jewish camp, even if it wasn’t super-frum, and he showed up at USY and Ramah functions, at Young Tudaea banquets and Habonim kumsitzim, bringing messages of solidarity from the small band of left-of-center Sabbath keepers who actually shared his belief in Klal Yisrael, the unified. Jewish people.

This offended so many other mainstream observant Jews that the rabbi received hate mail. He was a traitor, the letters said. A Spinoza. Go to hell, asshole.

Rabbi Geduldig was about 45—fifteen years younger than my husband. It’s hard for me to tell you what he looked like because so much of his face was hidden behind a dense russet beard. Equally thick eyebrows obscured his eyes—but not their twinkle. He was very short. He had the look of a sweet-natured hairy dog who would never bark except to warn you of danger and would always lead your sheep safely home. His smile, ever-ready, even brightened the days of strangers just passing by. He had freckles. He wore a plain black kipah at all times, and rumpled suits that did not really fit him. His wife was said to be a scholar She taught at a school for Orthodox girls, in Flint, I believe.

Rabbi Geduldig came to our Jewish Community Center in the suburbs as the so-called “Rabbi-in-Residence” and worked with our people there for several years. He taught Jewish history and ethics to the staff—the sports instructors, administrators, nursery school teachers and social workers who tended to the little kids, the old folks, the singles, the two gyms, the three pools, the many reading groups, classes, concerts, lectures, art shows, amateur theatricals and, of course, fund-raising. Many of the staff members did not like to be required to study Jewish history and ethics. They disliked the rabbi; did not feel they needed his guidance; said he acted “holier-than-thou.” But in truth he was holier than they were, holier than all of us.

On weekday mornings. Rabbi Geduldig could often be seen in the halls of our spiffy new building. Sometimes he was wearing one of his shmatah suits; sometimes he was coming from the gym. wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt that said “I Love My Country but I Fear My Government.” He moved with a slow shuffle. At any moment you could stop him, and he would beam his smile and schmooze a while and tell a joke and then go on his way. The jokes always had two punches. The first came quickly and you laughed. The second came later, when you were alone, about to turn out the lights for the night. Then, Rabbi Geduldig’s joke would shine at you again like a little late show.

Hiya Rabbi.

Hello! How are you doing?

Actually not so terrific. I have a cold, I’m going home to eat chicken soup.

Well, you know what our ancestors said. When a Jew eats a chicken, one of them must be sick.

And I laughed because it was funny, but later that night, in my big house, waiting for my husband to come home from work, I thought of the poverty of our grandparents and their hunger.

Part of the rabbi’s job as “‘Rabbi-in-Residence” was to make himself available to counsel the general JCC membership on a drop-in basis for several hours each day. A Herculean task, my husband said, laughing; a lesser man would not even dare to attempt it.

Intense young women came to him straight from their workout, their hair still damp from the shower, their shoulders still rippling with aches and twitches from lifting weights. Fierce business executives, coifed lawyers and accountants, the owners of successful enterprises, even sometimes physicians came to him in the day’s odd hours, with an almost clandestine air, slipping into his cubbyhole office, turning off their cell phones. Hesitant. Deferential. As they approached our rabbi, they seemed to fly backwards through the spirit world and re-enter that murdered era when Jews had respect for their religious leaders, and they mutated, like lions transformed into mice by a time machine.

Have you got a minute, Rabbi? I don’t want to disturb you. But the thing is…you see…I don’t know what to do. Tell me. What should r do’?

The classes that Rabbi Geduldig taught early in the morning to the older guys had a relatively great impact, for these were our gvirim, our big shots, men of substance and influence, and what they learned from the rabbi trickled down to the community at large as wealth is said to do.

I have not personally observed wealth trickling, despite its reputation for doing so. But I am absolutely sure that states of mind trickle down. Malaise trickles down; so does a sense of well being. And that was how it was with Rabbi Geduldig’s class, the one my husband attended. A sense of brotherhood trickled down from that 7:00 AM gathering around the big table with its scattered bagels and paper cups of coffee, a feeling of chaverschaft like that which our grandparents shared with their fellow buttonhole makers or shirtwaist sewers or snow miners in Siberian prison camps. The guys in the class felt commitment, even love for one another as in days of old, and I warmed myself in their connection, I admit that: it felt wonderful.

There were maybe 20 guys in the class, ranging in age from 60 to 80. They were all pretty well off, but you can bet everybody knew who the richest guy was and who was the second richest. Some were board members of our JCC, big givers, builders of hospitals and nursing homes. A few of the guys were retired. Most, like my husband, still labored like horses, mortally engaged by that peculiar American pathology which requires a man to work himself to death to prove that he has lived useful life.

Think, I used to say to him. The mortgage is paid up. The kids are set. You could stop working. If you stopped working, you could go to even more classes. You could study not just Genesis at the JCC but Modern American Literature at the Adult School. You could play volleyball, a regular game. You could hang out in the schvitz with Rabbi Geduldig himself and talk about the President and his advisors and make judgments about their wisdom, you could read the whole newspaper from beginning to end every single day. For god’s sake, isn’t it clearly time to stop working? Don’t we have enough?

One or two women showed up at the class in a valiant display of uniqueness, but I myself—though tempted by my husband’s excitement—never attended. I wanted to let him have his boy’s club. I knew how much it meant to him. I could see his delight in the other guys, his pleasure in the male bastion. It renewed him. Reminded him of those good old times before there were women everywhere, when the patriarchy still had its privileges, when the guys were still all guys. Feeling secure in my feminist achievements, I had broken through my own ideology to a new empathy with my husband’s need to study with men. Had I not been saved as a young girl by being sent to study at a college that was all by and for women? Loving him, I gladly sent him off to splash in his macho puddle, and his reports of the goings on in Rabbi Geduldig’s class made second breakfast on Thursday mornings a weekly delight.

It seemed to me from my husband’s reports that most of the guys in the class were chiefly interested in their own importance. I say that without blaming them in the least; we all get that way with age. A sense of their own importance was the reward these guys received for a lifetime of taking care. They had taken care of everybody for forty years, the span of a full generation, time to wander in the desert and be found. They had put children and grandchildren through school and graduate school, made weddings, bedecked wives, bought houses, cars, insurance, mutual funds. They had greased the wheels of great causes, and now they got to tell it. I endowed this, I built that, I’m on this board, that committee, I gave this much last year and will give so much this year. Self-importance. The viagara of the soul.

I supported my husband in every aspect of his self-importance. I do to this day. That’s your father’s chair, don’t sit there, I say. Don’t sit at his desk. That was his desk.

When did I stop insisting on my share, claiming my contribution? When did I give up all that and decide to just go along, as my mother and my grandmother had done before me?

I remember once waiting on line at the jewelry repair counter of a department store. A man and his wife were ahead of me. They were black people, very well dressed and refined-looking. Here is my mother’s locket, the man said, a gift from my father. It’s gold. The chain is broken. I want it repaired so that my wife can wear it.

The husband was enjoying every minute of this errand. Soon he would put his mother’s gold locket around his wife’s neck, a ceremonial high. The wife was smiling. Restrained, proud smile.

The young girl waiting on them looks at the chain and the priceless locket, and she says: But the thing is, sir, this chain isn’t gold, and the locket isn’t either, they’re just sort of gold colored metal, and it wouldn’t really be worth your while to fix the chain since you could have a whole new chain for the price of the repair.

She’s a kid, what the hell does know? She has no idea why the wife of this man is now screaming at her: You stupid idiot! Cat! ‘t you see that chain and that locket are gold, solid gold?! Now fix them! Just fix them! And her husband closes his eye and tilts himself backwards as though to lie down in the grave with his mother and berate her for pretending to believe that the stuff his father gave her was gold and allowing her son to truly believe what she only pretended to believe and thus triggering this awful humiliation, this loss of self-importance, and the wife is ready to throttle the salesgirl for causing her husband so much pain, and the poor salesgirl, who was just trying to be helpful, begins to cry.

The guys in the class gave a dinner for Rabbi Geduldig at the end of the year in the spring after Yom HaShoah. It was at a kosher restaurant. Wives were invited. The rabbi’s wife too. My friend Martha and I, eager to get to know her, sat as close to her as we could. My husband and Martha’s husband Louis sat on either side of the rabbi down at the opposite end of the table.

Mrs. Geduldig looked much older than we do, although I know for sure she was much younger She was fat and shapeless. Her hands were haggard. She wore not a stylish wig but a plain scarf over her gray hair, and her black eyes took us all in, she knew us instantly. I could see her spotting the richest guy in the class—heir to a windshield wiper fortune, I believe—and the second richest, a big developer, very nice—and putting all the guys together with the stories Rabbi Geduldig had told her about them and then mentally figuring which of us went with which guy.

She stared at the fancy gold rings on the fingers of my friend Martha, then caught me seeing her staring, and looked away.

After a brief encounter with the food itself, the speeches began. Each of the students stood up to say his piece.

A retired manufacturer described his yeshiva background, the stupid vicious teacher, the ruler slapping thwack! on the back of his head and the palm of his hand. He said: “In Rabbi Geduldig’s class, I discovered that learning Torah didn’t have to be an oppression. It could be a wonderful conversation, with mutual respect, with jokes. I loved the joke whose punch line was ‘Lenin is in Poland.’ I loved going home and telling my wife the jokes. I wish to thank the rabbi for making me laugh about being a Jew.”

Louis, Martha’s husband, rose to speak. He’s a good guy, but you can see how he might be intimidating in business, with his cold blue eyes and snow white hair, Donahue Clinton hair. Before he spoke, he screwed up his thin lips, thinking. Martha looked away. She’s a close friend of mine. I knew she could not imagine after all these years that she would hear something new from Louis. She twisted her rings nervously.

“I never thought I had anything to learn from the condition of women,” Louis said. “Then the rabbi talked to us about Sarah. How she couldn’t get pregnant. Abraham made the concubines pregnant. Haggar the pretty Arab, he got her pregnant. But Sarah is like empty. Then God sees her despair and the angel comes and reports that she will have a son in her old age and she laughs. So the rabbi asked us this odd question. What kind of a laugh was it? I said Sarah laughed with joy. And somebody else said she laughed while crying tears of joy. And the rabbi said: maybe she laughed with bitter doubt. The way we laugh when Arafat says okay, now I mean it this time, this time I’m going to put all those bombers in jail.

“And I realized,” Louis continued, “that I had been hearing people laugh just that way for my whole life, whenever I promised them something that I was not going to deliver. It made me feel really bad. But then I eventually felt good just from knowing myself better.” Martha was beaming at him. She had forgotten her rings. “I feel very lucky,” Louis concluded, “to learn something so important at my age, and I want to thank our rabbi.”

The most brilliant guy in the class then got up and made a whole speech in Hebrew. My husband later told me that the Hebrew speaker basically said the same nice things that everybody else said about the rabbi. But mostly he was speaking in Hebrew to show that he didn’t have as much to learn from Rabbi Geduldig as the other guys in the class, that he was smarter than they, that in fact, he was just as smart as the rabbi was.

Arrogant son-of-a-bitch, my husband said.

One by one they rose to say a this or a that. It was all pretty much the same. Heartfelt testimonials. This was my husband’s. “My grandma used to tell us, as long as you have a good teacher, you always feel young. So I am feeling terrific these days. Rabbi, like a kid again, and I owe my new-found happiness to you.”

That was what my husband said.

A lifetime I break my neck pretending that everything that man gives me is solid gold, and he says his happiness is new-found and he owes it all to Rabbi Geduldig.

The dessert came, giving the rabbi and some of us wives too a little time to recover from the speeches. We turned our attention to Mrs. Geduldig.

“How many children do you have?” we asked her.

“Seven.”

“Oh! And you still manage to work outside your home as well! You’re really a superwoman!”

“I would give anything not to work,” Mrs. Geduldig said. “Teaching bores me and exhausts me at the same time. But it’s the only thing I can do, and obviously, we need the extra income. Besides, my dear husband, the progressive, believes that women should be liberated from the monotony of domestic life.”

Her sarcasm penetrated like a wind. We shivered in the thin silk of our prosperity, and backed off.

The rabbi began to speak.

“The reason that teaching Torah must be a conversation,” he said, “is that everyone intersects with revelation at a unique and different point. We are all particles of dust in a sunbeam swirling. We bump into each other by chance, then float away from each other, and it’s okay, it’s okay if we never bump into each other again as long we stay in the sunbeam.

“We have now read Genesis together. So let’s think about our creation story. Was this the story of war, of conquest and kings? Was this a chronicle of epic battles among the forces of good and evil, each riding a demon steed, splitting the sky and the earth and the seas with blazing swords of lightening? Clearly not. Clearly our Genesis is a family drama. Brother against brother, fathers betrayed, wills and bequeathings. The men who wrote Genesis, inspired by God’s power, cared more about fathers and sons than the military division of continents and seas. Surely this must be proof,” our rabbi concluded, “that the People of the Book were meant to be primarily a family and to dance together in the sunbeams of the Torah.”

Myself, I thought it was surely proof that the men who wrote Genesis must really have been some woman, sitting down at the opposite end of the table, and feeling such sympathy for her husband’s desire to be important, to be one of the guys, to stay young, that she wrote the whole story of the Jews about his life, his needs, his dance and his revelation.

When my husband became ill and lay in the hospital bed, stuffed with tubes, at the gates of death, I in my desperation called Rabbi Geduldig.

It was a terribly hot Friday during the following summer. He had been gone from the JCC for some time, fired from his job as “Rabbi-in-Residence” because of the implacable dislike of most of the staff and the secret dislike—no one had recognized it except my husband—of the most brilliant guy in the class, the one who spoke in Hebrew at the class dinner.

At a JCC Board meeting, this man had suddenly attacked the rabbi. The rabbi’s most ardent supporters happened to be absent that night. The retired manufacturer had died. The windshield wiper heir was attending a charity ball. The big developer had gone south to buy a mall, I believe, or maybe he was selling it. Louis had taken Martha to the Caribbean for a vacation to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. My husband was, yet again, working late.

The most brilliant guy in the class told the Board that Rabbi Geduldig was a nice enough fellow but insufficiently scholarly. Our JCC needed someone famous for his erudition whom we could speak about with pride, he said—not a political dreamer who represented at most a tiny minority among the Orthodox. Couldn’t we better spend our money elsewhere?

Before we knew it, a vote was taken and our rabbi was gone and new spiritual advisors were being interviewed for his job.

Could you come? I said to the rabbi’s message machine. Could you come to see my husband?

Erev Shabbos, sweating, his red beard grayer and matted with the dust of the street, he arrived. Our kids were standing around the bed. The machines were clicking and buzzing. Before entering my husband’s room. Rabbi Geduldig wiped his face and tried to straighten his tie. He spoke encouragingly to the children, He left prayers for us to read. He whispered into my husband’s ear: Everybody loves you, everybody wants you to get wellyou have to be strong and get well because we all need you so much. Then he whispered in Yiddish, then in Hebrew.

I paced in the hall outside, my married life ended, my memories like bombs dropping on the bright floor. He came and stood beside me, and I turned toward him, looking for the comfort of his sweet smile.

“It’s the fucking money,” he said, tears pouring into his beard. “The fucking money is gonna destroy us all.”

Susan Dworkin co-authored, with Edith Hahn Beer, the holocaust memoir The Nazi Officer’s Wife (Harper Collins), a documentary version of which appeared on A&E Network last year. Her novels include The Book of Candy and Stolen Goods. Her short fiction has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Moment, The Bellevue Literary Review and The Berkshire Review. She teaches writing at Tufts University.