Strength to Stand
Monday, December 11
It came in the mail.
Rabbi Batya Zahav gathered the envelopes from the wall-mounted brass mailbox outside her St. Louis Park rambler and quickly retreated inside, her fingers already stiff from the December cold. There was the usual assortment of bills, advertisements, and appeals for donations, but one handwritten envelope caught her eye. No stamp, no return address. Curious, she turned it over, ripped open the seal, and unfolded the single page. As she stared at the words, uncomprehending, she felt her chest tighten, her heart pounding loudly. She dropped the letter instinctively, as if it had burned her, the paper tumbling onto the dining room table.
Her hands shaking, she backed away and grabbed the phone from the kitchen, pressed the speed dial and listened to a single ring before she ended the call and selected a different number.
“Honestly, I’m not trying to be argumentative,” Ellen Forman said to the rabbi’s secretary, a faint New York accent in her voice. “But my appointment has been postponed once already and now you’re asking me to change it again? I’m starting to get the feeling maybe he doesn’t want to see me.”
“It’s not that at all, I assure you. It’s as I said on your answering machine earlier this morning: something came up and if you’re willing, he’d like to reschedule.”
“I’ve been in class all morning; I haven’t been able to check my messages. If he’s avoiding me, at least he could do me the courtesy of telling me to my face.”
Hearing the voices through his closed door, Rabbi David Cohen set down his pen and tucked the half-written page under a corner of his telephone. He buttoned the collar of his shirt and straightened his tie while getting up, ignoring the stomachache that had plagued him all day. Opening the door, he saw his secretary, Kristen Ferguson, looking flushed with frustration. She gave him a tiny smile of relief.
“I’m not avoiding you,” David broke in, coming up next to Ellen as she turned around to face him. “Something did come up, but clearly it’s more important that I keep our appointment. I’m sorry this has been so upsetting for you.”
Ellen appraised him, as if whatever had come up would somehow be physically apparent. “Not nearly as upsetting as why I’m here in the first place, Rabbi.”
“Come in and tell me about it.”
Ellen made her way into his study, draped her long coat over one of the two ersatz leather chairs facing his desk, and sat. Tall and athletic, she was dressed in a long denim skirt with dark leggings and ankle-high boots. A black turtleneck sweater accented the golden highlights in her shoulder-length brown hair, focusing attention on her intense brown eyes, which were looking directly at him.
He sat down in the chair next to her, momentarily tempted to seek refuge behind his desk. His experience with Ellen Forman in the few months that she’d been a member at Beth Israel had rarely left him feeling like he’d held his own with her.
“What’s going on, Ellen?”
“Have you noticed an entire population missing from shul?”
“Well, there’s everyone who doesn’t come.” Perhaps humor would soften the tension in the air.
“In other words, no, you haven’t noticed.”
Apparently, humor was not going to work. “I’m honestly not sure what population you’re talking about, Ellen. I notice when regulars stop coming, and I notice new and returning faces, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed an entire population missing.”
“Singles, Rabbi. Young adult singles. College students, graduate students, working people. No spouse, no kids. Maybe not yet or maybe never.”
“Aren’t most of the college students active at Hillel?”
“I’m not at the University of Minnesota. I’m at William Mitchell. And yes, there’s a very good Jewish Law Students’ Association there, but it’s not the place or even the time to meet singles. I’d much rather meet other singles when I don’t have to concentrate on school or work. Shabbat afternoon, for instance, is a good time to meet people without pressure. But there are precious few singles in shul to meet.”
“Why do you think that is?”
Ellen shifted diagonally in the chair and crossed her legs, draping one arm over the chair back. “Because synagogues are so family-oriented that they’re practically exclusive. Singles of any age don’t feel welcome. And this synagogue is no different.”
David shook his head thoughtfully. “Everyone is welcome to come to services, classes, other events, regardless of their marital status. I can see where some of the holidays might be more family-oriented, but—”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
David started to speak, then stopped. He let out a small sigh. “I guess I don’t. Please, enlighten me.”
“I did some checking up on you, Rabbi. You came to Minnesota a little over eight years ago, not knowing a soul except for the search committee that hired you. How did you meet people? Socially, I mean.”
“Well, my son was a newborn. We met other people who had babies.”
“What if you hadn’t had kids?”
“My wife met people through the Sisterhood.”
“What if you hadn’t been married?”
David could already see where this was going. “If I’d been single, I’d have come to morning minyan, I’d come on Shabbat and holidays, I’d take classes in the evenings, I’d volunteer at the shul. Inevitably, I’d meet people.”
“Yes, but would you meet other singles? Think about the people who come to the things you just mentioned. Morning minyan, before work, is not a good time to meet other singles. Everyone is rushing off to start their day. Shabbat is one big clique made up of other cliques that all have family in common. After a day full of classes and work, I don’t want to take yet more classes. And I have absolutely nothing in common with Sisterhood women other than being female and Jewish. There’s no one near my age and we don’t share the same interests.”
“What do you want me to do, Ellen? The way I see it, this is partly the responsibility of singles themselves. You have to make yourself available if you want to meet people and you seem to be saying that singles end their involvement in shul activities because they’re not meeting other singles. Of course you’re not going to meet people if you’re not here.”
“Exactly my point, Rabbi. How do we get singles to come back to shul?”
“I suppose you have some ideas?”
Ellen gave him a hopeful look. “That’s why I came to see you.”
Batya felt a thread of relief as the line picked up.
“Shalom, Beth Israel, Rabbi’s office.”
She found her voice. “Kristen, it’s Batya Zahav. Is David around?”
“I’m sorry, he’s in with someone now.”
Batya closed her eyes and pressed the phone against her temple, feeling the smooth plastic, and using the sensation to ground herself. “Is there—?” She sighed. “No, I’ll call back a little later.”
“I can have him call you when he’s done,” Kristen offered.
“No, it’s okay.” She thought about taking a shower; maybe it would even clear her sinuses and warm her up. Not only was it cold outside, even by Minnesota standards, but she’d managed to wake up with a splitting headache and chills.
“Is something wrong?” Kristen asked as if reading the tension in her voice. “If this is an emergency . . .”
“No, it’s really okay.” No need to interrupt someone’s time with David just to feel reassured. “I might not be near a phone, so I’ll call back later.” She thanked Kristen and hung up, determined to wash the fear away with soap and water.
After Ellen left, David found himself back at his favorite spot in the doorway between his study and the outer office where Kristen was working. “I’m sorry you had to take the brunt of Ellen’s frustration,” he said.
Kristen added another envelope to a small stack of other outgoing mail and tucked a strand of her copper red hair behind her ear. “It’s okay,” she said in her slight Texas drawl. “I’m sorry your preparation time was interrupted. When does this have to be done?”
“There’s an interfaith peace service tomorrow night. Rabbi Alan Friedmann was going to speak but caught the flu, so I’m filling in.”
“How’s the sermon coming?”
“It’s not a sermon. Not even a d’var Torah. It’s more of a speech.”
“What’s the difference?”
David unclipped his crocheted kippah, readjusted it on his head, and clipped it back in place. “Sermons usually try to motivate people to act or think differently. Speeches present information or opinions and can be much more impartial.”
“Ah, so you’re going for the diplomatic, non-controversial rabbi act?” Kristen asked, laughter in her green eyes. “I hear that’s a tough one to pull off.”
David couldn’t help but smile. He never expected to have such a close, friendly relationship with his secretary, and he benefited from it in many ways. As soon as he had eliminated the one-up dynamic by insisting she call him by his first name, her personality, humor, and wisdom flourished. Most of all, he appreciated the way she questioned and challenged him. Whether it was her personality, her perspective, or some combination, it was a quality he treasured and frequently employed.
“I’m going to be standing at the pulpit of a church less than two weeks before Christmas, a giant cross hanging behind me, talking to a mostly Christian audience about the importance of creating peace in our community through tolerance, mutual respect, and religious pluralism. I don’t think it’s the time or place to bring up the Jewish stand against assimilation, or how much I dislike the secular arguments for ‘Chanukah bushes,’ or Christmas trees in public places.”
Kristen grinned. “But if anyone can pull it off, you can. You sure you’re not going to be even a tiny bit controversial?”
David looked up toward the ceiling and stroked his chin, momentarily distracted by a whisker he must have missed when shaving. “I might mention some of the things we have to cope with at this time of year: how religious Jews feel in the midst of frenetic consumerism, Christmas decorations everywhere we look, and the assumption that everyone wants to be wished a Merry Christmas.”
Kristen laughed. “Now that’s the David I expected!
The rabbi allowed himself another smile. His stomach, however, was doing nothing of the sort. All joking aside, the last thing he wanted to do was alienate the Christian community just before they celebrated the birth of their messiah: a Jew who, David suspected, would have been one of the first to stand against assimilation.
“By the way,” Kristen interrupted his thoughts, “expect a call from Rabbi Zahav. She called while you were in your meeting and said she’d call back when she was near a phone.”
“Okay, thanks.” He headed out the door, thinking of a can of dried fruit and nuts he’d seen earlier in the kitchen. To Kristen’s questioning look he said, “Writing will require sustenance for fortitude.”
Kristen tapped the bracelet watch on her left wrist. “Remember, tomorrow night is fast approaching.”
The afternoon snack did little to settle David’s stomach and he was staring at the same half-written page, unchanged since Ellen’s arrival, when the intercom buzzed. He pushed the button absently.
“Rabbi Zahav is on the line.”
“Thanks.” He picked up the phone. “Shalom, Batya.”
“Hi, David. I don’t mean to dispense with our usual pleasantries but I have to ask you something.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Has anything . . . unusual happened there? Anything out of the ordinary?” Batya sounded rushed and distracted, typical for a Monday at Temple Shalom.
“Nothing that I can think of. Although I was just informed that the entire singles population has disappeared from the shul. Do you retain any of your post-college singles?”
“Um . . . I’m sorry, David, but I really can’t think about that right now.”
David sat up straight, the receiver feeling sticky in his hand as his palms began to perspire. It wasn’t haste or distraction he heard in Batya’s voice. It was fear.
“What’s wrong, Batya?”
“It’s . . . um . . . it’s probably nothing. Just a couple of hate letters.”
“Sent to the synagogue?”
“The first one was. I found the second one today in my mailbox.”
“Are you at home now?”
“Yes. I couldn’t . . .”
“Have you called Arik?”
“No, and I don’t want to. You know how he is, David. What do you think his first reaction would be if he found out some nutcase was sending me nasty letters?”
David formed a mental picture of the big Israeli-born homicide cop, going door to door in relentless pursuit of the letter-sender. “I won’t push the issue this time, Batya. But if you get any more letters, he should be told. He’s your husband; he has a right to know.”
“I know. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this.”
“It sounds like it’s a big deal already.” David glanced at his watch. Two-forty. “How about if I come over for a few minutes?”
Long silence. “I know you’re busy.”
“Not that busy. I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you, David.”
He hung up the phone and stuffed the rough copy of his presentation and a handful of books into his briefcase, anticipating he wouldn’t make it back to his study today. Tomorrow’s schedule was back-to-back meetings, so tonight he was going to have to break one of his wife’s long-standing rules and bring work home. He hoped Sara would understand.
Kristen looked up as he left his study and closed the door. “Are you going to be back for your four o’clock?”
“No. I need you to call and cancel it, please.” He handed her a large black appointment planner, partially covered with reminders hastily scrawled on yellow sticky notes. “Here’s my calendar; go ahead and reschedule with them if you can. I probably won’t be back in today. And one more thing . . .”
“Have we received any unusual or threatening letters lately?”
“Aside from the ‘Dear Rabbi, please join our church’ postcard, no.”
“If anything should arrive, don’t do anything with it and call the police. Tell Betsy and everyone in the main office to do the same thing. Okay?”
“Sure. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know yet. But I’m going to find out.”
Batya paced the living room. Every time she heard a car, she looked out the windows, half-expecting to see David’s old Plymouth Valiant out front. She shook her head. It had only been, what, five minutes since she’d hung up the phone?
She shivered and pulled her fleece sweatshirt tighter around her. The ibuprofen she’d taken before her shower had worn off, but venturing into the kitchen for another dose meant walking past the dining room table where the offensive letter sat, threatening her. She turned back to the front windows and waited.
David’s car pulled up and parked in the driveway only a few minutes later. She watched him get out, his six-foot frame wrapped in a blue parka. His hood hung unused against his upper back, a multi-colored kippah bright against his dark brown wavy hair. He didn’t have Arik’s muscular build but he was solid, defying the old stereotype of the skinny, frail rabbi, stooped from reading too many books. She could see the white puffs of his breath in the cold air, and she unlocked the door as he made his way up the snowy walk. Before he could ring the bell, she opened the door and ushered him inside.
“Thanks,” he said, touching the mezuzah on the doorpost and bringing his gloved fingertips to his lips in a silent kiss. He slipped his shoes off on a plastic boot tray; small chunks of snow and ice clung to the bottom edges of the soles. “I don’t remember it being this cold last year.”
“I don’t think it was,” she replied. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to shovel the walkway.” Touching her face involuntarily, she realized she must look awful. At least her dark uncombed hair was short and clean. Years ago, when it had been halfway down her back, there would have been no way to hide the tangles.
She noticed David watching her and looked down. He had probably never seen her dressed in sweats before. “I’m sorry; I look a fright.”
David removed his gloves and stuffed them into an outer pocket of his parka. “No, not at all. Actually, you look like you should be in bed with a cup of soup or some hot tea.”
Batya smiled faintly. “I could go for the tea.”
“Sit down,” David said, shrugging off his parka and hanging it on one of the wall hooks by the door. “I’ll make you some.”
She curled up on the sofa as David moved into the kitchen. She was relieved to have him here, grateful that he had dropped whatever he was doing to come. The strangeness of the situation struck her, that another rabbi was paying her a house call, and for a split second, she wondered what Arik would think about David being here. No matter, she’d deal with Arik later. “Thank you for coming,” she said loud enough to be heard in the kitchen.
“My pleasure,” David called, amid sounds of water running and the rattling of the teakettle. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to call Sara and let her know where I am. The last time I neglected to tell her I was meeting with you was a little uncomfortable on my end.”
“I remember. The phone’s next to the basement door.” Batya lingered with the memory. The two couples had met for dinner last summer and it slipped out that years before, she had seen David for weekly counseling sessions at public restaurants over a period of months while she worked on reconciling with her then-estranged parents. She knew that modesty and professionalism were always on David’s mind, but for some reason, he had never told Sara about their meetings. The night she found out, Sara had been hurt that she hadn’t known about it before, but David had looked so tormented, it was as if he’d confessed to having an affair.
A few minutes later, David returned with two steaming mugs of tea. Sugar and cream had already been added to hers; David drank his black. He placed the mugs on a corner table next to the sofa. “Sara says she hopes you feel better soon.”
“Did she ask why you were over here?”
“I told her about the hate letter and that I’d come over to take a look at it.”
“What did she say?”
“She said she’d pay extra attention to our mail when it came. It’s not a problem, Batya. You’re not going to get me in trouble.”
“Good. Is your phone call a substitute for keeping the door open for modesty? We’re not exactly out in public this time.”
David considered the question. “I’m just going to have to trust you, Batya, and believe that in your present state, your true lascivious feminine nature won’t distract me from my obligations to God.”
Batya grabbed a small black pillow off the sofa and threw it at him, aiming for his head. He caught it.
“That is so not you,” she said, trying to look angry but unable to control the laughter.
“I know. Drink your tea.”
“Yes, Rabbi.” She picked up her tea and sipped, sighing as it warmed her from the inside.
David tossed the pillow next to her on the sofa, went into the dining room, and returned a moment later. “Is this the letter?” he asked, holding the offending sheet of paper through a tissue.
“That’s it. I kept the envelope. There’s no postage on it.”
“In other words, it was hand-delivered.”
Batya took another sip of tea to control her trembling chin. “I think so, yes.”
“Any idea when?”
“In the past twenty-four hours. I didn’t pick up Saturday’s mail until yesterday morning and it wasn’t there then. But it was in with the mail I picked up today.”
He sat down on a loveseat perpendicular to the sofa. “Do you normally wait until Sunday?”
Batya put her mug back down, her skin feeling hot and prickly. David’s question had her on edge. “What do you mean?”
“I wasn’t sure if you normally collected your mail on Shabbat and yesterday was unusual. Maybe this guy chose to deliver it on a Sunday for a reason. Make it stand out from legitimate mail. If that’s when he did deliver it.”
Batya arched her eyebrows, feeling a little insulted. “Questioning my observance? Yes, some of us do wait until Shabbat is over before collecting our mail.”
Shrugging, David shook his head slightly. “I don’t mean anything judgmental. Avoiding the mail isn’t something most people associate with Shabbat observance. I’m just brainstorming.”
She took a deep breath and forced herself to think rationally. To some extent, he was right. It was rare outside of Orthodox Judaism to associate bills and sales flyers with an infringement on the peacefulness of Shabbat. He was just wrong about her, and many others who knew that religious observance and the Reform movement were not mutually exclusive. “Like I keep telling you, David, you’d be surprised how much Reform Judaism is changing.”
“So you think this was placed in your mailbox sometime yesterday or this morning?”
“Probably yesterday. I’ve been home all day today. At first, I felt too sick to go into work, and now . . .”
“Were you home all day yesterday?”
“No. I was at a Jewish women’s gathering all afternoon and most of the evening. Arik wasn’t home either. He got home a little before I did.”
David was silent, reading the letter.
“What do you think?” she finally asked.
He returned the letter to the dining room table, then sat back down on the loveseat. His normally gentle blue eyes were filled with anger. “It’s disgusting. It’s hateful. I’m sorry you had to see it.”
“So am I.” She gestured toward his tea. “Drink your tea before it gets cold.”
David picked up his tea and drank. The hot liquid did nothing to warm the icy look on his face. “I still think you should tell Arik. It may be nothing, just an obscene prank, but if it isn’t, he has resources we don’t. Starting with fingerprints.”
“David, if I tell Arik now, he’s going to go overprotective on me. I won’t be able to sneeze without him knowing about it. My schedule’s no different from yours; I can’t function under that kind of scrutiny. Right now, whoever sent that letter is repeating garbage I’ve heard before. He scared me, especially finding it in my home mailbox, but I can’t stay scared waiting for another letter to show up. That way he wins. Besides . . .”
“I’m just . . . maybe you and I are more sensitive to it because we’re religious.”
David’s expression changed and she had a sudden sense that he’d heard far more than she’d said. “What are you really concerned about, Batya?”
“You know how secular Arik is. I mean, he’s not anti-religion; he tolerates it.”
David nodded. “He doesn’t see its relevance to his life. I know. What does that have to do with this letter?”
“What if he thinks I’m overreacting? He deals with murder all day. This is just a letter.”
“What’s going on, Batya? You’ve said you don’t want to tell him because he’ll go overprotective. Now you’re saying he won’t take it seriously. What are you really afraid of?”
Batya’s chills had turned into perspiration and she wasn’t sure how much was due to her fever and how much to their conversation. “I’ve spent my entire life battling the expectation that women should be dependent on men. I grew up in a very patriarchal Orthodox family and I never want to go back to that. I should be able to handle this on my own, without Arik’s protection. But if he dismisses it as nothing, it’s like he’s also dismissing my feelings.”
“I can’t imagine Arik doing that. I think he will see it for what it is and take it very seriously. What did the first letter say? The one delivered to Temple Shalom?”
Batya thought back, resting her cheeks in her hands, her elbows tucked in close to preserve warmth. “It was a lot shorter. Something about the pinnacle of immorality—that would be me—leading the blind sheep into the depths of sin and destruction.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“What did you do with it?”
“Vicki kept a copy for our file and the original was sent to the JCRC. They wanted it when I called to report it.” Batya wondered if she should report this one while David was here. The Jewish Community Relations Council acted as the eyes and ears of the Jewish community in Minnesota and the Dakotas, working together with law enforcement, keeping track of reported incidents of anti-Semitism, including vandalism and hate mail. She shuddered, knowing this letter fell into that category. Reporting it made it all the more real.
“Have you reported this one yet?” David asked.
“No. You’re the only person I’ve told.”
David sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. His eyes were slightly unfocused and he looked like he was thinking hard about something, an artist trying to make sense of chemical engineering. It was a stark contrast to his usual calm, even to his occasional absent-mindedness, when she thought he might be having a personal conversation with God.
“You know what confuses me about this letter?” he finally said.
“Along with all the obscenities about Jews, and Jewish women in particular, he refers to striking down the devil-worshipers. At first glance, I thought he was raising the usual vitriol about Jewish political power, money, that sort of thing.”
“You think maybe he’s a Christian extremist, convinced that our mere existence is an affront to his morality?”
“I don’t know. Christian, Muslim maybe. Something. But I don’t think he’s secular.”
David sat back against the cushion. “People who don’t give God a second thought usually don’t give an anti-god a second thought either. Not like this.”
“Maybe it’s a euphemism. You know, you can play devil’s advocate without believing in a source of evil.”
“Maybe.” David sounded doubtful.
“I think he’s a coward.” Batya put all of her confidence into her voice, unsure of whom she was trying to convince. “That’s why he’s writing letters and relying on two thousand years’ worth of anti-Jewish hatred to scare me. He’s not brave enough to say these things publicly because he knows society won’t stand for it.”
David gave voice to the words she hadn’t dared ask. “What if he’s only getting started?”
Sitting up straight, she felt strength she didn’t know she had. “Then he has messed with the wrong rabbi.”
“I’m glad you’re getting some of your feistiness back, but I’m concerned about this, Batya. He clearly hates Jews and especially Jewish women. He’s targeted you and maybe others, and he knows where you live.”
Batya sank back into the sofa. “I know. I didn’t say I was okay with this, but I’m not going to let this letter turn my life upside down. I promise, if another one turns up, Arik will be the first to know.”
David sighed. “I really think you should tell him. Today. But whatever you decide, report this one to the JCRC. You might not be the only rabbi getting a letter like this, and they’d know about it.”
“I’ll call. I promise. But for now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to take some more medicine and go to bed.”
“I think that’s a good idea.” He went to the door and burrowed back into his parka while stepping into shoes that now sat in small puddles of melted snow. He glanced outside, then at her. “Get some rest. Refuah sh’leima. I hope you feel better tomorrow.”
“Thanks. Be safe and drive carefully.” She let David out and watched to make sure he didn’t slip in the snow on the way to his car. Then, as he drove away, she checked the locks three times before grabbing the ibuprofen and heading for bed.
© Sheyna Galyan