Read an Excerpt
Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out
A Rabbi Small Mystery
By Harry Kemelman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Harry Kemelman
All rights reserved.
When her husband was preparing a sermon, Miriam was careful to stay out of his way, not for fear of disturbing his train of thought, but lest she give him an excuse for interrupting his work. For David Small, the rabbi of Barnard's Crossing Conservative Temple, did not like to prepare sermons, or for that matter to preach them. He had begun as usual by laying out paper, sharpening pencils, adjusting the lamp — all to postpone the agony of beginning. He was thin and pale, and sitting over his desk, his shoulders had a scholarly stoop. His thin hair, which was beginning to gray at the temples, did not make him more distinguished looking, only older. He wrote a few words, peering down at the page nearsightedly through thick-lensed glasses. He crossed them out, drummed his pencil on the desktop, and then began to doodle, the sermon forgotten as he became completely engrossed in working out a complicated design of straight lines and loops, of circles and squares joined by cross-hatching. He was delighted when the doorbell rang. "I'll take it," he called out from his study.
Hurrying in from the kitchen, Miriam said, "Don't bother. It's probably the newsboy come to collect for the week." But when she opened the door, it was to the pleasant ruddy face of Hugh Lanigan, Barnard's Crossing's police chief.
From behind her, the rabbi greeted him cheerfully. "Come in. Come in, Chief. Miriam was just going to make some coffee. Weren't you, dear?"
Dutifully, Miriam said, "Yes, I put the perc on. Do come in." She could not refrain from adding, "David is working on a sermon, and I knew he'd want an excuse for stopping."
Lanigan smiled. "What's the matter, David? Having tough going with this one?"
"David has tough going with all his sermons," said Miriam tartly. She was small, and in sweater, skirt and loafers she might have looked like a teen-ager were it not that her face with its pointed chin showed maturity and determination. Her mass of blond hair piled on her head, as though to get it out of the way, almost seemed to overbalance her trim little figure.
"That so? I would have thought you'd enjoy it," said Lanigan. "You can bawl them out and they can't answer back. It's a captive audience."
The rabbi grinned. "I don't care too much about bawling out people, especially when I'm all too conscious of my own shortcomings. Besides, it doesn't do any good. The sermon is just a kind of entertainment the rabbi provides to help pass the tedium of the service. Actually, it's not even his traditional function. In the old days the rabbi didn't do it."
"You mean when a synagogue engaged a rabbi, they didn't expect him to preach?"
The rabbi shook his head. "It wasn't the synagogue that engaged him. It was the town or the community. And they engaged him to act as a judge and settle questions of law when they arose. The rest of his time he was supposed to devote to study."
"They'd pay him just to study?"
"Why not? Universities subsidize scholars. Why shouldn't a community?"
"I suppose. And he didn't have to preach at all?"
"His contract called for two sermons a year, on the Sabbath before Passover and on the Sabbath before the Day of Atonement. But they weren't really sermons as you think of them. They were dissertations, like the lectures of a law professor. He didn't exhort the congregation. The kind you're familiar with, against sin, was usually given by an itinerant preacher called a maggid. Of course, nowadays, the rabbi, like the priest and the minister, is expected to give a sermon every week. Some rabbis like the idea. I suppose they have a knack for it. The poorest student in my class at the seminary now has one of the most prestigious pulpits in the New York area on the strength of it. He has a wonderful baritone voice and can bring tears to your eyes just — just reciting the alphabet. We called him The Voice."
"Reuben Levy?" asked Miriam. "The one who explained about the parables?"
The rabbi laughed joyously. "That's the one." To Lanigan he explained, "We were sitting around once, a bunch of seminary students and their wives, talking about sermons, because at the time we were being sent out to small communities for a Sabbath. Levy explained that in preparing a sermon he didn't search for examples and parables to illustrate some point he was planning to make. He worked it in reverse. When he heard a good story, he'd keep it in mind and then build a sermon around it."
"Like the fellow who got a reputation as a crackshot by firing first and then drawing a target around the bullet hole?" suggested Lanigan.
"Exactly!" said the rabbi.
As Miriam went out to the kitchen for the coffee, the rabbi went on. "My own sermons are always of the dissertation type. You see, three times a week we read portions of the Pentateuch, so I tie in my sermons with the portion of the week."
"Then you always have a subject," said Lanigan. "That should make it easy."
"True, but after all these years, I begin worrying that I might be repeating myself."
"Ah, well," said Lanigan as he accepted the coffee cup from Miriam, "have you ever thought that your congregation might not be listening anyway?"
The rabbi smiled sourly. "Thanks."
"No, but seriously, you've been here ten years now?"
"So, if you were to give some of your old sermons, the ones you gave when you first came, who'd know the difference?"
"I'd know," said the rabbi.
"But look here, you say your sermons are like a professor's lectures. Well, they give the same lectures year in and year out, don't they? I mean, a new class comes in and they have to cover the same ground. Now, I'll bet that in the twelve years you've been here, a pretty fair hunk of your original congregation has gone — died, moved away, retired to Florida. And a lot of new folks have come into town. So if what you told your original congregation was important for them to know, it's just as important for the new ones to know."
The rabbi nodded. "That's true enough. It happens gradually, so you hardly notice it, but it's true; there aren't many of the original members left."
"And a lot more of your people have moved into the area," Lanigan pointed out.
"We have almost three hundred families now," said Miriam.
"Three hundred?" Lanigan repeated. "I would have thought there were more than that in town."
"Oh, there are — in town," the rabbi agreed. "Maybe another couple of hundred families, but they're not members of our temple." He smiled. "If Henry Maltzman, our president, has his way, they'll all join up. He's very strong for building up the numbers." He laughed. "He's always talking about finding the right gimmick to do the trick."
"Well, why aren't they members? Now in our church when someone moves into the parish, the pastor or one of his curates calls on him. And if he doesn't show up, they keep after him. I'll bet there aren't a dozen Catholics in town who aren't connected with the church one way or another."
"Your religion is church oriented," said the rabbi. "It's built around the Mass and Communion and Confession, and these involve a priest in a church. Our religion is primarily centered in the home. The Sabbath is celebrated in the home. The Passover Feast takes place in the home. Besides, the financial structure of the two is different. Ours is based on membership, and the annual fees of necessity come to several hundred dollars a year. That's a lot for a young married couple, and that's what most of the new people are. They came because they got jobs in the research labs and automated plants on Route 128."
"And a lot of those are cutting back," Miriam observed, "and some may go out of business altogether."
"You thinking of the Rohrbough Corporation?" asked Lanigan.
"There's been talk of it," said Miriam. "I know some of the wives are worried."
"I saw an article in the Sunday papers," said her husband, "about some big Chicago outfit taking it over."
"The Segal Group?" Lanigan shook his head. "They're not likely to be of much help. The article was mentioned at the selectmen's meeting last night, and Al Megrim who is a stockbroker and ought to know said they were a financial outfit, not an operating company. They trade corporations like kids trade baseball cards. They take over a company and milk it, manipulating the stock while they liquidate the assets, and then move on leaving a bunch of empty buildings." He put down his coffee cup and sat back in his chair. "Did you hear anything about the meeting?"
The rabbi shook his head.
Lanigan shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He cleared his throat and said, "Well, they voted to reconsider setting up the traffic lights near the temple."
"But they approved it unanimously last week," said Miriam, dismayed.
"After spending weeks discussing it," added her husband. "Did anything happen to change the situation? We have children going to the religious school every afternoon and —"
"I know, I know, David. It's probably just routine," said Lanigan.
"Routine to pass a measure one week and reconsider it the next?"
"Well, Ellsworth Jordon — know him?"
The rabbi shook his head.
"He owns some land down there. Hell, he owns land all over town. But that makes him an abutter. He wrote them that he hadn't been notified. So Megrim asked for reconsideration, and the rest of the board went along out of courtesy to him."
"So what happens now?" asked Miriam.
"Oh, they'll take it up again next week," said Lanigan soothingly. "And I expect they'll pass it. But I'd plan on being there," he added.
"How about a delegation?" asked Miriam.
Lanigan hesitated. "No-o, I don't think so. They might feel you were trying to pressure them, and they might resent it. This is New England after all, and the selectmen are all conservative Yankees. They can get stubborn, not to say mulish, against pressure. That's just my opinion, you understand."
She looked questioningly at her husband.
"I think the chief is right," said the rabbi. "But I'll talk to Henry Maltzman. He's coming here tonight."
As Miriam cleared the table of cups and saucers, the rabbi walked their guest to the door. "What's really behind this vote for reconsideration?" he asked. "Is it just that this Jordon is indignant that the selectmen failed to notify him?"
Lanigan halted on the threshold. "In a town this size, you hear things about all kinds of people. And I listen because I find it comes in handy sometimes in doing my job. I have the feeling that he did it because he doesn't like you people."
"Doesn't like —"
Henry Maltzman was a big man. Although he had developed something of a paunch since the days when he had been a captain in the Marines in the Korean War, he still kept his head erect, with the chin in and shoulders back as though on parade. While at fifty, it seemed a little unnatural, like a fat man at the beach sucking in his belly at the approach of a pretty girl, it was generally agreed that he was a fine figure of a man, even handsome, with ruddy cheeks and close-cropped crinkly hair. It was rumored that he had an eye for the ladies, and vice versa. And perhaps there was some indication of his appeal in the very fact of his election to the presidency. For he had been a rank outsider in the temple organization, having served only one term on the board of directors before running for the presidency after the bylaws had been changed to permit women to vote and to hold office.
Maltzman's bulk loomed large as he looked down at the Smalls. He had little blue eyes, which normally sparkled with friendliness, but which could also turn steely when he was crossed and which seemed to protrude dangerously when he was angry. His eyes were friendly now as he shook hands with the rabbi, and he favored Miriam with the warm smile that came automatically for women as she took his coat to hang in the closet. He took the seat to which the rabbi motioned him, but he immediately rose again when Miriam returned from the hallway.
"Oh, you are probably going to talk temple matters," she said, "so I'll leave you."
"I wish you would stay, Mrs. Small," he said. "It's about the temple, of course, but it concerns you, too. At least, I think it does. It's the place of women in the temple service I want to talk about, Rabbi."
"Wouldn't you like some tea or coffee?" asked Miriam.
"No, really. Nothing."
"Nothing for me, Miriam."
Maltzman waited until she was seated before sitting down himself.
"Now that we have women on the board," he said, "there has been considerable pressure to have full equality in the services. And, of course, something like this can't be decided by a simple majority vote of the board. We'd have to have a referendum, or hold a general meeting, to decide on something as basic as that."
"I agree that it isn't anything that should be decided by the board alone," said the rabbi. "So why not hold a general meeting?"
"Because the other side won't abide by the vote," said Maltzman, showing annoyance. "Kaplan, who represents the Orthodox element, as much as told me that if we made the change and permitted women to be part of the minyan and called them to the Reading and all the rest of it, he'd pull out. He and his group would leave the temple."
The rabbi nodded. "Yes, I expect he would. I don't know how many would go along with him, but if there were enough to get another synagogue started, I imagine others would follow."
"That's the way I see it," Maltzman agreed. "So it seems to me that this is the time to show some leadership. Now if the rabbi of the congregation were to push for equality, give sermons on it —"
"Don't count on me, Mr. Maltzman," said the rabbi quickly.
"You mean you're against it? But why?" Maltzman was honestly perplexed.
The rabbi smiled. "Put it down to a natural traditionalism, if you like. If we make so drastic a change, other effects follow, quite unforeseen effects, and some of them undesirable. It's a basic sociological law that you can't change just one thing."
"Then you mean you'd be opposed to any change at all?"
"No, I'm not opposed to change as such. But I'm opposed to unnecessary changes. It seems to me that this particular change is part of the present ferment of the Women's Lib movement, and as happens in the initial stages of any movement, you get all kinds of exaggerated reactions. A men's club must admit women, or it's sexist. You mustn't say 'Chairman,' you now have to say 'Chairperson.' I was present at a lecture when the speaker used the phrase 'every man for himself.' He was challenged by a woman in the audience and had to say 'every man or woman for himself or herself.' Ridiculous! Look here, we are an institution going back several thousand years. Are we to change because there has been a sudden shift in fashion? Would you have us change the traditional Kol Nidre chant because the musical fashion is rock and roll?"
"But there have been changes, Rabbi."
"Sure, when it was practical and necessary. The prosbul of Hillel changed the laws of the sabbatic year when it was necessary to carry on the commerce that had developed at the time. Rabbi Gershom changed the marriage and divorce laws. Not to mention the many laws we changed when they became moot with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Our own Conservative Movement was launched and developed to meet the challenge of the American experience. Changes were made when needed. But only when needed."
The rabbi paused and when Maltzman didn't respond, began again, his voice rising, "They want to be part of the minyan? Why? The minyan is for the purpose of public prayer. It requires a minimum of ten adult males. If any others want to join, men or women, they are more than welcome. But we just barely make our ten every morning, and it is Kaplan and his group of Orthodox whom we count on. No matter what I urge or what the board of directors decrees, if they don't see ten adult males, they will not regard it as a minyan and they won't participate in the service.
"As for the honor of being called to the Reading, that's what it is — an honor. Only a handful at any service are called. Does that mean that the rest of the congregation are discriminated against? It's really more of a social than religious honor, and there are people who have never been called all their adult lives."
Excerpted from Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out by Harry Kemelman. Copyright © 1978 Harry Kemelman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.