Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Second String Rabbi"

In Toronto, as the Jewish High Holidays approached, our fancy synagogue’s Number One Rabbi would sequester himself in his study, sweating over his upcoming sermons, far and away the most meaningful orations of the year.

Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) are Prime Time for synagogue attendance. (Hence the significance of the sermons; you’re speaking to uncharacteristically packed houses.) The most marginal believers find themselves drawn to their houses of worship, as if some spiritual magnet were sucking them out of their secularity and into pre-assigned seating. Their appearance reflects the hope that this once-a-year inoculation of “Vitamin J” will suffice to insure that their names are inscribed in the upcoming calendar’s Book of Life.

(I go ‘cause I like to hear the songs.)

With the head rabbi otherwise engaged, it fell to his second in command to preside over the lesserly considered, more sparsely attended Saturday morning services. The understudy rabbi was younger and less experienced than his superstarish superior. Not to mention a less naturally gifted speaker. To be honest, he was barely ready to perform in public.

The head rabbi and his apprentice were black-and-white studies in diametrical opposition. The assistant was slight in build, where his boss was corporeally substantial. His demeanor was mild, where his superior’s was authoritative. And where his boss’s voice was sonorous and his delivery captivating, the underling spoke in a reedily-thin tone and was yawningly charisma-free.

Everything about the substitute screamed, “No Threat”, a factor you’d have to believe played a determining role in his appointment, especially if the Big Fella (the head rabbi, not God) had a say in the hiring.

Most damaging of all, however, was the content neophyte rabbi’s sermons. In a writing style that can only be described as “apologetic”, he appeared to take back his words the moment they came out of his mouth. The man seemed unable to complete a thought without immediately qualifying its meaning, diminishing its effect to an embarrassing gibberish.

His message was hardly original. During one characteristic effort, he was making the point that the human body – I guess because of the soul, or something – is immeasurably more valuable than the added-up worth of its chemical components. I will not judge the worthiness of his point, only the way it came out. Which was, with minimal exaggeration, like this:


“Science tells us, that the body, or human form – if you will – is made up, or comprised – as it were – of elements, or components – so to speak, whose worth monetarily amounts to two dollars and ninety-eight cents. More or less.”

That’s the way he talked. “If you will”, “as it were”, “so to speak”. For an entire twenty-minute sermon.

My brother and I were on the floor after the first salvo of “so to speaks.” As comedy people, we immediately got the concept, and could anticipate where it was going. My mother, being an adult, but blessed with the family sense of humor, was agonizingly torn down the middle. Remaining straight-faced and looking straight ahead, she angrily barked, “Stop it!” out of the side of her mouth. Closer inspection, however, revealed mirthfully dancing eyes, and a monumental struggle not to collapse in hysterics.

The High Holidays are a time to ask for forgiveness. I belatedly ask forgiveness for guffawing in the face of a man who was simply doing the best he could. My hope is that, decades later, he has overcome his elocultional liabilities, and he’s standing in some pulpit this holiday season, knockin’ ‘em dead. Kickin’ liturgical ass.

So to speak.

Happy “Days of Awe", to all who participate.

To everyone else, have a pleasant week.


Peter Burns said...

Hi Earl;

I'm your cousin Peter Burns, Manny's grandson. I just had brunch with Andrea and her husband Ed here in the Ft. Worth, TX area yesterday. They were in for the Dallas Cowboy game and we got together. She told me of your blog and I couldn't wait to check it out.

She mentioned you've written about my grandfather. Would love to find which dates are about him.



Anonymous said...

RE: Junior Rabbi's
At our son's baby naming, years ago, falling, as it did in the middle of November, the junior Rabbi decided his theme would be "Between Hallowe'en and Christmas...what to tell the children". He rambled on and on about living in the secular world, costumes and gifts....should we or shouldn't we indulge, and so on, until my Zaida (whom you might remember as a 'secular' thinking-man who didn't frequent houses of worship except for special occasions like this) piped up in his booming stage whisper....
"Vot the hell is he talking about?" to the chagrin of my MIL and to the amusement of the rest of us.
L'Shana Tova,