Vanished Jews of Hetta
Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Fiction
by Jason K. Friedman
No one can imagine his own end. And so I had to hand it to the dwindling Jewish community of Hetta, my hometown, when it prepared for the inevitable by making a museum. A physical one in one of the smaller historic homes downtown, a virtual one on the Internet. This project had a valedictory feeling to it. It was downright gloomy, and the publicist in me, which for 37 years was all of me, balked. And worse than the gloom was the crowing about times past, the high points meant to illustrate the community’s finer feelings. It rankled the publicist in me—not to mention the Jew and even, for God’s sake, the man—to read on the museum’s website that Hetta’s Jews fought valiantly on the side of the Confederacy, that the only reason they accepted the Yankees who poured in after the war was because so many of them were fellow Jews, and that a century later the ladies dressed up as Scarlett O’Hara to cohost with their goyishe peers the Planters Ball.
They needed me, Hetta’s Jews, most of whom I had grown up with, but this didn’t contribute to my decision to return. I could have offered my services long distance, from Manhattan, where the firm I had founded made publicity the new advertising and me a multimillionaire. If anything, the naïveté of the Hetta Jews was what I sought when I retired there. My return, they recognized, was the biggest thing to happen in the town in decades. It seemed like a postponement of the inevitable, as if someone with my money and know-how could increment the Jewish population by more than one. But they had no idea what I did for a living. Or what publicity was. They asked at first and I told them; but it never sank in. They had all seen pictures of me with celebrities, and they wanted to know if Elizabeth Taylor was as attractive in person or did Michael Bloomberg, when I prayed alongside him at synagogue, know a word of Hebrew. But even these kinds of questions soon died out and only came up again at dinner parties with out-of-towners. The Jews of Hetta, when it came down to it, couldn’t give a shit that I attended Liza’s 60th or that it was held in Studio 54, restored for the night to its heyday glamour. And I loved them for that.
But I wanted a rabbi. We needed one. And in this area I had no intention of deferring to my landsmen’s defeatism. They had had a full-time rabbi and cantor well into the 1960s. They couldn’t afford to keep the cantor, and when the rabbi finally left, it was supposedly because he recognized that his values didn’t accord with those of the community. For once the Hetta Jews had the good sense not to put this perversely boastful version of events on the museum’s website. I remember Rabbi Ginsberg. He had coached me for my bar mitzvah and he was still there when I went away to college. Beth El, the only synagogue in town, was Reformed, but this applied to its religious practices more than its politics. They were decent people, the congregation, but they weren’t outspoken. It wasn’t by being outspoken that they’d gotten along with their neighbors for more than 200 years. Rabbi Ginsberg didn’t march, but he went to Selma to hear Dr. King speak, and soon afterward he was gone. My father wrote me at college with the news, and I remember staring out the window of my dorm room and crying, as if the man had died.
The congregation managed to rent a rabbi for the High Holidays for a few years. But for the last three decades, services, what services they still had, were led by laypeople, and most folks drove up to the capital or one of the state’s second cities for the High Holidays. Or just made a chicken on Rosh Hashanah. Or ignored the holidays altogether.
This was something I had no intention of doing, although I didn’t consider myself a religious person. And in more spiritual periods of my life, it wasn’t always Judaism I turned to; for several years in the 80s I attended Unitarian services with my ex. When I joined Temple Emanu-El in New York it was for the business connections. But over the years, reciting the prayers and davening in a group reminded me of Hetta, of doing the same in Hetta, though I hadn’t done that since I was a young man. So I kept it up. Now that I was back in Hetta I had no reason to remind myself of the place. And so maybe getting the rabbi was something I wanted to do more for the community than for myself.
“The only thing Jews love more than getting a new rabbi,” I told the other members of the synagogue leadership, “is firing the old one.”
This was how I spun it, my proposal to establish an internship.
“With each rabbi we can have the fun of seeing him come and seeing him go,” I went on. “All within the space of a year.”
The word “we” was spin too. The mere idea of a young person around here made my fingertips tingle, and I couldn’t imagine anything he could do, short of smoking crack cocaine in the social hall, that could make me want to see him go. But I didn’t need the spin. No one could possibly object: I was going to pay for the rabbinical student’s stipend and provide room and board in my own house. The only hesitation voiced was by Ella Messinger, the Sisterhood president. She and her husband were architects, working in historical preservation, which was about the only growth industry around here. They had been in town no more than 15 years, but she at least had fully absorbed the community’s mentality. “What if no one applies?” she asked. “Or leaves before the year is up?”
“Oh come now,” I replied with a smile. “Are we all that bad?”
“And if no one applies,” said David Brody, the treasurer, “then that’ll be money we can put toward the next year.”
My house is one of the mansions on the bluff overlooking the river. As a kid growing up here you take tours of these old places. I never heard a word of what those old docents were saying. Who lived in this house? I wondered. Is it a museum or does someone live here now? And if someone lives here, where are they? And most important, how did they get a house like this? How rich do you have to be to live here?
Not really ultra-rich, it turned out. I hadn’t even planned to move back. It was an impulse buy when the market was at its weakest and I was in Hetta for a pleasure weekend with Dhanush, who had never been there. We stayed at the inn and drank at the bar and ate at the restaurant and walked along the river and looked at antiques—quite pleasurable. The only one of the mansions we didn’t have to pay to get into was the one with the For Sale sign out front. “Don’t buy it,” Dhanush said when we first noticed the sign, before I had said a word. “It’s not practical. We don’t live here.” But once we were inside I could tell he was charmed.
There was a tax incentive available to open it as a museum. But the town already had enough museums, in my opinion; what it needed were more houses for the living. Still, I didn’t intend to live in it year round. I kept my townhouse in Chelsea and just planned to spend a little time down south in winter.
The previous owners, I heard, were leaving town, but not together. They were willing to sell me the house at a bargain price, as long as they could make it a short sale. The house gave the impression of stasis—the owners threw in the furniture, the portraits, the man-size Chinese vases with cotton plants in them on the hearth, all of it exactly as I remembered from school field trips—as well as the feeling that it had been left behind in great haste. After the first meal we ever had in that house, roast turkey sandwiches and a bottle of sauvignon from the general store, I opened the dishwasher to put away the glasses and found it completely full, everything speckled with black mold.
Dhanush screamed but I urged calm. We ran the dishwasher, twice, and though most of what we found inside was tacky, there was a mocha-colored serving dish, partitioned for chips and dip, that charmed Dhanush and inspired him, once he understood what the house’s décor signified, to want to do it all over in a mid-20th-century style. I put my foot down with the front rooms, which were unimaginable any other way. The owner of the house was also the custodian of its stuff, I understood, and to me all that pre-boll weevil grandeur made for a fun backdrop, especially for an interracial male couple. But the back rooms I turned over to Dhanush, and soon enough we were watching TV on an avocado-colored vinyl sofa and propping up our feet on shaggy hassocks, an orange lamp shaped like a daisy hanging over our head. I didn’t mind. We’d first hooked up on Silver Daddies and our flame burned bright for a while. By the time I bought the house we called each other “partner,” formalizing our relationship even as it was becoming less intimate; we slept in the same bed but no longer had sex. If a few strange pieces of furniture could keep him with me a little while longer, I’d purchase and live with them gladly.
But we were both enthusiastic to turn the downstairs into a guest apartment. It had its own door, sweetly tucked between the winding staircases to the main entrance, and there was already a bathroom. Dhanush hired a team of Guatemalans and put in a kitchen. I envisioned meeting friends down from New York at the little airport an hour away, a picnic basket of goodies in the backseat. Dhanush showed little interest in long chatter-filled weekends with these people; he could scarcely manage to exercise his charm for the length of a dinner. But I kept at it anyway, threw myself into it—because this is what I do.
Now, years later, I was offering the resulting beautiful garden apartment to any rabbinical student willing to lead us for a year.
In some kind of a record, our inaugural intern, junior rabbi number one, managed to crush the spirit of the first person who came to see him. It was Lolly Kaminsky, a woman in her 50s, whose reading group read a terrific book with a kabbalah plot. She had grown up in town but couldn’t even remember Rabbi Ginsberg, whose last years with the congregation were when she was a girl. We managed to drag her to the occasional event at the synagogue, but she knew nothing about the religion. It was the first time she had ever consulted a rabbi, maybe the first time she was excited to learn anything about Judaism at all. “Learn first your aleph beit and then we will talk,” said Rabbi Sergey Rabinovich, whose family had moved from Russia when he was ten. Turning away a seeker was just what some of his predecessors would have done—not Rabbi Ginsberg but others before him. Men more than twice his age, who lived in different times. What this kid was doing was mystifying.
Lolly came to me, of course. She was hurt, wounded and confused. When Sergey got home I summoned him upstairs and said, “You can’t afford an attitude like that.” “What attitude cannot I afford?” he asked, genuinely curious. “You can’t afford to turn anyone away, especially not a genuine seeker like Lolly Kaminsky.” “I do not doubt her genuine seekingness. It is her means. I counseled her on better means.” “But the means that interested her, goddammit, was kabbalah,” I said. “It wasn’t like she was asking you to convert her to devil worship or anything. Kabbalah’s mainstream!” Sergey smiled, his eyes blinking closed. “I treated her like congregant anywhere else. First the foundation, I advice. Then you can build. Then we can build together. Should I patronize this lady Lolly Kaminsky because she lives in tiny town?”
And so when Saul Frankel came to interview the following year, the bar was set pretty low. He was short and doughy, with a ruddy beard and sparkling blue eyes, and he looked more like a woodland creature than anything else. He talked too fast. You couldn’t imagine him commanding the sanctuary—but then again the door to the sanctuary had scarcely been open this millennium, and the quorum we sometimes managed to cobble together made even the junior congregation room look big. We didn’t need a commanding individual; we just needed someone in the role.
In his interview Saul told us he did charity work for an organization that counseled young people with gender issues. I took note of this, for personal more than professional reasons; we had no young people in the community. The rest of the board just nodded. No one else had applied; the interview itself was pro forma. But having hired many people in my career, and considering myself somewhat of an expert in it, I wanted to do my due diligence. I told Saul we had a small but disparate group of people in our community. I asked him if he was more of a traditionalist or more of a spiritual kind of rabbi. “The tension between rationalism and mysticism is still playing out in Judaism today,” he said, “but a tension doesn’t mean these forces are opposed. Most of us grow up knowing Judaism as hyper-rational, but if we stay in the religion, it’s only because we find something appealingly mystical in it, some kind of spiritual feeling. And then there are those among us who love the law, the severity and discipline of it, if not the content of it, at least not all of it. They have two sets of dishes—but the reactionary politics and gender roles are a big turn-off. And so as a rabbi you have to recognize the journey that each person is on.”
I was satisfied.
After the interview, I brought Saul back to the house to show him the apartment, where he was going to be spending the night before flying out the next day. He oohed and ahed over it. I left him there. He came back upstairs a few minutes later, without his coat and tie, and he accepted a drink. Cora, my housekeeper, had left us supper in the oven. We ate fish and greens on the good blue and white china, the tapers in silver candlesticks casting a pleasing glow over the room. Saul seemed a little nervous. “You can use the cornbread to mop up the juice,” I told him.
He asked about the history of the Jews of Hetta. Then he asked how long I had lived here and I told him and then said, “So tell me about the kids with gender issues.”
“Oh, they’re great.”
“They aren’t Jewish, are they, these kids?”
He shook his head. “This work is connected to Judaism only in the sense that Judaism is connected to everything else. But no, I don’t try to get them to go to shul unless they show some interest.”
“Gender issues.” I poured us each another glass of wine. “That wasn’t a term when I was coming up. Of course you always had people who didn’t fit in, dating and whatnot.”
“The kids who know they’re gay are better off, in a way, than the others,” he replied, catching my drift. “The ones who don’t feel they fit into their own bodies, they’re the ones with the long road ahead of them. And they know it.”
“So what do you tell them?”
“To stay away from men with knives as long as they can. To know themselves and love themselves before doing anything drastic. Mainly to know themselves—it’s not hard to find something to love or at least tolerate if you know where to look. And sure, if that means finding a spiritual practice, then of course I’m all for it.”
“They’re lucky to have you,” I said. Then I cut to the chase, as much as someone from my generation could. “It must be awfully hard to relate to some of these kids.”
“Not really,” he said. “We’re all human.”
“But I mean with the gender issues.”
He laughed. “I’m pretty much resigned to being a guy. I mean, look at me, right? But I’ve had my own body issues, so maybe that’s how I can relate.”
Perhaps he thought he was still being interviewed. So as we were enjoying Cora’s Carolina trifle, I said, “I hope you know you’ve got the job if you want it.”
“Fabulous,” he replied. “Thank you.”
“And if there’s anything you want to know about the social life here or anything like that, I’d hope you’d feel free to ask me.” I wanted him to know what he was getting into, but I also wanted him to take the job. “It’s a wonderfully open and accepting community.”
This was stretching the truth, but it was always more open and accepting than Dhanush admitted. When we started spending time in Hetta he said people looked at him strangely on the street. “It’s like they think I’m black or something,” he said. “They’ve just never seen anyone as exotic as you,” I told him. “Yeah, I’ll make a hot corpse, hanging from a tree.” He may have felt that way but it wasn’t warranted. People were far nicer to him than he was to them. We got invited to everything but he kept himself aloof, and it was annoying to me how little effort he made to ask folks about themselves, the way they did about him.
But we never talked about our relationship, at least not publicly. We were discreet. This was my way—even straights rub me the wrong way when I see them all over each other in public. But my good fellow citizens who had been exposed to so little, they needed to find some way to associate us together, and they succeeded. My eyesight isn’t so hot, especially at night, and so Dhanush did the driving. At the time I had a champagne-colored Jaguar convertible, and he liked driving it anyway. One night after an event at the synagogue, Ella Messinger said, “I’m so glad you’ve brought your driver down here with you.”
I looked her in the eye. No one had a driver down here—and yet the word had emerged so naturally.
“When you get to be my age it doesn’t hurt,” I said truthfully. “Especially on some of the hills at night.”
“And he’s a nice young man too,” she said.
“Yes, he is,” I said, then changed the subject.
At the general store the following week, Edie Franklin, who owns the place, surprised me in the produce section and put a package of something wrapped in butcher paper in my basket. “For your friend who drives you around,” she said. “You told me how much he loves my roast beef.”
This was the kind of thing you’d do for a dog waiting patiently outside. But I didn’t say that. I just offered to pay, she refused, and I thanked her very much.
Saul moved down just in time for the High Holidays. This was still a new experience for us, staying in Hetta for the High Holidays, and we didn’t expect much. We didn’t open the main sanctuary, out of fear of being upstaged by its grandeur, even what remained of it after so many decades of neglect. About 25 of us—even, wonderfully, a couple of visiting grandchildren—gathered in the junior congregation room. We barely filled it halfway, but there were enough of us to warm the place up.
As Saul stood there before us, I found I was holding my breath. If this rabbi also turned out to be a dud, it would have called into question the whole internship program. I was rooting for him. He had the impossible task of being all things to the various members of our little congregation, and I looked for clues about how he might tackle it—how much of the service was in English, how much in Hebrew, and so on. In his sermons he steered away from politics—wisely, I thought, for a newcomer—and used them instead to introduce himself. He made a couple of jokes, even on Yom Kippur, and got a few laughs. But other than a couple of self-deprecating childhood anecdotes—his family considered him a black sheep for wanting to be a rabbi—he didn’t tell us any more than we’d learned from his résumé.
Despite his reserve, or maybe because of it, people liked him. I saw it in the lobby after services, heard it directly from several congregants. So I was surprised when he mentioned to me, about a month after he’d arrived, that he hadn’t had a single visitor to his office.
After what happened with Lolly Kaminsky and the last rabbi, maybe no one dared. Or maybe it was the opposite—no one wanted to get too attached. It’s hard to know what to do, what to think or feel, knowing you’re going to have a spiritual leader for only a year. I advised folks to think of it first and foremost as filling a position. Now we have someone to open the synagogue and stand up on the altar. Now we have someone to lead us in prayer, not to mention providing the critical tenth body for a quorum. And now we have someone to go to with a religious question. Remember also that this is a stage in the young man’s religious education. He can learn as much from us as we can from him.
But I was still waiting for Rabbi Saul to offer me a mentoring opportunity.
Whenever I had friends over or an event at the house, I invited him up. He usually declined these invitations, and when he did accept, he put in an appearance and left. It occurred to me he thought I was just inviting him to be polite, but even after I told him I enjoyed his company, I didn’t see any more of him. In case he was intimidated by strangers or groups, I told him to come up whenever he wanted. And he did stop by every now and then, but only to borrow a screwdriver or ask where to get his shirts laundered. I gave him a key to the front door but he never used it.
I wondered what he did down there. Studying and preparing for what services we had couldn’t have taken up all his time. He never brought anyone home and rarely made a call. He was incredibly quiet. He didn’t even wear shoes in the house. I heard him coming and going, and that’s about it. Well, when I listened carefully, I could hear a little more. The kitchen timer ringing. The light switch in the bathroom flipping on and off.
Early one Saturday morning, after he’d been here a month, I heard Saul drive off. The synagogue held monthly Friday-evening services but only the occasional Saturday-morning service, and that day wasn’t one of them. Saul never missed a professional responsibility.
He came back late that night. The following morning my doorbell rang and there was Saul, bright-eyed. “Would you like a massage?” he asked.
“Pardon?” I replied.
“I found a place where I could rent a table. I’ve got it set up downstairs.”
“You do massage?”
“That’s how I pay my way through school. I didn’t bring my table with me, because I didn’t think I’d be practicing. But my fingers were getting itchy, so I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Should I get my wallet?”
He shook his head. “You’ll be helping me get back into form.”
Downstairs the dining room table was pushed against a wall, the massage table, covered with sheets, standing in its place.
I clapped my hands together. “This is a use for the space I never imagined.”
“Now get as naked as you feel comfortable getting,” he said. “Lie under the sheet facedown and I’ll come back.”
He went to the bathroom and I took off my clothes. I lay under the sheet shivering, though the heat was turned up all the way.
When Saul came out of the bathroom he had changed into shorts and a baggy tank top, revealing fat little legs and soft hairy breasts. “I get as hot as a furnace when I work,” he explained. Then he undraped the sheet to expose my back. He pressed a palm between my shoulders, then my neck, then along my spine, applying no pressure at all.
“Take a deep breath,” he said, feeling here and there. “Now let it out. Take another. And let it out. Good, breathe.”
“This is impressive,” I said. “Very medical.”
“It’s anatomical,” he corrected.
“Do I need to tell you what I want?” I asked.
“You know, I rarely ask clients that question. I’m always relieved when they don’t say anything. I prefer to listen to their bodies. Muscles always tell me what they need.”
“And what are my muscles telling you?”
“That they’re in pain.”
He wanted to hear me breathing, so I hammed it up for him. But after he’d dug the heel of his hand into the base of my neck a few times, I was exhaling with a genuine sigh, emerging sometimes as an outright groan.
When Saul moved away from this problem area and lower down my back, I started to relax, though he was working just as hard. He used his entire body, not just his arms, to press into me. A drop of his sweat fell into the hollow at the base of my spine, and he wiped it away with a finger.
“So how’d you get into massage?” I whispered.
“The same way I got into being a rabbi. From a book.”
“An ethical will. It’s an artifact in my family. An ancestor of mine wrote it. My great-great-great-great-grandfather—I might be missing a ‘great’ or two. Our family genealogist unearthed it and had it translated and annotated, and I got ahold of it in high school. This man, this ancestor of mine, had no money. He left his descendants precepts about how to live their lives.”
“Hmmm” was all I could manage.
“Breathe,” he reminded me.
Now he was squeezing my left arm between his forearms, which were as furry as their outsides.
“He was incredibly concerned with his descendants’ bodies. How to breathe, when to make love, how not to be so horny, when to bathe, how to eat—even how to touch. He was this very earthy, very physical man, and when I’m giving a massage I sometimes feel I am him, more so than when I’m on the bimah, even though he was a rabbi. The tsadik of his little shtetl.”
“Well,” I said, sounding as melty as I was feeling, “this is a sight he might not have recognized.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”
When he finished squeezing the other arm, he undraped my right leg and ran his clasped hands up and down it. My shanks are nothing to speak of anymore, skinny and hairless, blue-veined, but Saul rubbed me down with such gusto that it seemed like a sign of respect.
“Ethical wills emerged from the mussar movement, which has already made inroads in the Jewish spiritual community,” he went on. “But no one’s combined it with massage the way I want to do.”
“You gotta have a gimmick,” I said.
His hands came to rest on my calf. Suddenly I heard the massage music I had tuned out. I lost the rhythm I had gotten into with my breath, but Saul didn’t start me up again. In constant motion since the massage began, he had come to a complete stop.
“Gypsy,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied. “I can’t imagine you’d have much time for theater in seminary.”
“Are you kidding?” he said. “I saw everything. We got a discount.”
I had long since given up trying to find out if he was gay. My own questions had started to bore me. But now that Saul, as self-absorbed as any other young man, had finally made the connection himself, I got interested again in the subject of his sexuality. He didn’t look any less critterlike to me. It was the connection itself, that sudden rush of knowledge between two men, that electrified me.
Inconveniently, he said, “Turn over now. Slowly.”
There was considerably more activity downstairs now. In his first Rabbi’s Column of our email newsletter, Saul offered his services as a rabbi and a masseur. It had been so long since we’d had a rabbi, at least an approachable one, that we barely knew what to do with him. We didn’t come to him with our religious questions, much less our crises, spiritual or otherwise. But as a masseur Saul had them lined up, though massages, other than the physical therapy kind, were a luxury my fellow congregants didn’t allow themselves. But they went to Saul. His rates were reasonable, and the competence and seriousness he displayed on the altar assured people they would literally be in good hands in the garden apartment. He made outcalls too; he schlepped his table and little case of essential oils in his old Acura.
Lolly Kaminsky, God bless her, was his first client. She came upstairs afterward and told me, skin flushed and wild-eyed, that with each breath she took on the table she saw another letter of the name of God, and that pretty soon these letters rose up and vibrated against the screen of her eyelids, one by one, then joined to form the familiar-looking name. She almost learned how to pronounce it, ineffable though it was. “Maybe with enough sessions you will,” I said.
Saul was working so hard to serve the community in both roles that I avoided adding to his load with a massage for myself. I continued inviting him up for a drink or a meal but he almost always declined. Finally, he said, “I’m going to put you on the schedule for every Sunday night at seven. If you can’t make it, just let me know.”
The following Sunday, when he opened the door downstairs, I was greeted by Bernadette Peters singing “Some people sit on their butts, got the dream, yeah, but not the guts.”
“A monstrous stage mother, telling her own father to bugger off,” I said. “That would be a first for a massage.”
“I’ll put on something more relaxing,” Saul said, humming the tune as I took off my shoes.
“So who were your clients up in New York?” I asked once we’d begun. “All those hot rabbinical students?”
“They weren’t that hot,” he said. “And they didn’t have any money. My clients were mainly gay guys who found me on the Internet.”
“Was that exciting?”
“Not really, thankfully. I managed to make a healing connection most of the time, because I set the right expectations. In my ad I used an even worse picture than I usually take. And I picked over the text like Rashi. I try not to be anyone’s fantasy.”
“But once they walk in—or you walk in—”
“Once they see me, there I am. Luckily, I never had as a client one of the three people in the world with a rabbi fetish.”
“You’re a hoot,” I said. “You should use your humor more in your sermons.”
He was doing this complicated move with my neck, pressing so deeply that the muscle, the nerve, whatever it was felt like it was about to snap.
“Even after just two weeks,” he said, “you’ve got so much tension built up again.”
I opened my mouth—but no words came out, just a creaky old-man’s groan.
“That’s why you’re on the books every Sunday. I don’t want you carrying around so much pain.”
At the next board meeting Ella Messinger said, “We have to do something to make Rabbi Saul stay.”
Outside the window, the azaleas were in bloom, a full month earlier than they should have been. I made this observation every year, and so when, I wondered, was I going to accept this new normal? When was I going to stop comparing this stretch of perfect days to the timelier springs of my youth?
“Why do you want him to stay?” I asked. “Because of the massages?”
The meanness of my comment took everyone by surprise, even me.
“Because of everything,” Ella replied quietly.
“Why wouldn’t he want to stay?” Lolly Kaminsky asked.
“He’s in his twenties,” I pointed out.
“What he needs is a wife,” David Brody said. “Or at least a girlfriend.”
I think I know someone. Who? No, that’s not going to work. Do you have any other ideas? If she didn’t have to be Jewish, we’d have a bigger pool to work with. A rebbetzin who’s not Jewish? Who ever heard of a rebbetzin who’s not Jewish? What about Meyer’s granddaughter, the one with the thing in her nose?
I couldn’t take it any longer. I stood up and announced, “Rabbi Saul is queer,” then added, “And Dhanush wasn’t my driver.”
Dumbstruck, my fellow board members just stared at me.
“Oh, sit down, Phil,” David finally said. “Everyone knew Dhanush was your lover.”
Hearing this word—lu-vah—in an official setting, not to mention a synagogue, made me wince. But I gritted my teeth and held my ground, trying not to shake.
“We just wanted to be respectful of your privacy,” Bob Cohen, the president, said.
“Let’s think of a nice young man then,” Ella said.
Amazingly, the conversation went on exactly as before, except with a boy rather than a girl as the love object.
“My nephew’s brother-in-law is gay,“ Bob said, and we all tried to figure that one out.
“Y’all know Cookie who’s married to my sister Charlene’s son, Evan?” he explained. “Her brother, Barry, is as queer as a three-dollar bill and he only lives in Monroe.”
People came down all the way from the capital to attend the fundraiser I threw for the Museum of the Vanished Jews of Hetta. That was my private name for the museum—it was really called the Hetta Jewish Community Legacy Center, which to me had a creepy Mormon or Scientology ring to it. Better to name it for what it was, though now that we had a full-time rabbi position, I didn’t see the Jewish community of Hetta ending any time soon. I liked the idea of a museum, but not one modeled on Hitler’s Museum of an Extinct Race, for God’s sake. My idea was more along the lines of showcasing the contributions Hetta’s Jews had made to the town and were continuing to make well into the present day. The gala was accordingly fabulous; the museum was packed.
The governor canceled at the last minute, but a senator and two state representatives showed up, and of course the mayor and all the other Hetta bigwigs. I had already pulled in more than $50,000 in the days leading up to the event—before the silent auction and the live auction of a date with the local weather gal and a private tour of the state capitol.
Saul smiled and shook hands with everyone, but I could tell he wasn’t comfortable. If he could get naked with the senator around a massage table, then he’d feel at ease. He was still so young. Once he found his voice as a rabbi, once he found himself, there’d be no stopping him. For now, though, we had a small chance of detaining him for a few years.
Barry seemed even less at ease than Saul, which kind of got my hopes up for the match. Barry was in a corner, fixing his hair from the reflection off a case containing an old Torah scroll. I led him over to where Saul stood before a hugely magnified photograph of Hetta’s first Jewish mayor.
“Saul, Barry, I’d like to introduce you to each other.”
“Welcome,” Saul said.
“Hey,” Barry said, holding up a palm.
“Barry’s from Monroe,” I said.
Saul smiled blankly.
“That’s less than an hour’s drive from here,” I announced, “in a quite bucolic part of the state.”
“Is there a synagogue there?” Saul asked.
“No,” Barry said.
“Then come daven with us sometime,” Saul said.
“I’m not religious,” Barry said.
Afterward, we went to a glorified diner that was the only half-decent restaurant we could go to short of the one in the inn, which was so piss elegant it would have made everyone uncomfortable. When we walked in, Saul didn’t seem surprised to see Barry sitting there at the table between Bob and Leeza Cohen. Ella Messinger and her husband, Rich, and Lolly Kaminsky rounded out our crew.
“Barry works for the historical society,” Leeza said.
“That sounds interesting,” Saul said.
“I don’t know about that,” Barry said. “But we do have an interesting exhibit up now about infanticide and ritual human sacrifice.”
“A historical exhibit, I hope,” I put in.
“The Natchez practiced it,” he explained.
“Now where’s that gal?” I asked. “You can’t get a drink but occasionally they have a drinkable wine or two.”
“I don’t drink,” Barry said.
Saul consulted the menu.
“Barry gets up here quite frequently,” Bob said. “Don’t you, Barry?”
“Next to never,” Barry said.
“Well, now that we have a new rabbi, you’ll have an excuse to, dear,” Ella said.
“Rabbi Saul is so wonderful,” Lolly said. “Look, I’m making him blush, but what I’m saying is the God’s honest truth. He’s taken me to spiritual places I never knew existed, and not just in synagogue.”
“Saul gives massages,” I explained.
“Really?” Barry asked. “I find that interesting.”
“I integrate bodywork into my spiritual and ethical practice,” Saul said.
“What kind of massages?” Barry asked.
“Mostly deep tissue,” Saul said. “I focus on the breath.”
“What are your rates?” Barry asked. “Can I book an appointment online or what?”
“Come join us at the shul sometime,” Rabbi Saul said.
“You have your studio in the synagogue?”
“I mean for an event. We have a book club and other secular activities that might interest you.”
“I could really use a massage,” Barry replied.
When we got home I ordered Saul upstairs. We sat in the den, on Dhanush’s furniture. I didn’t switch on the lamp. Pale light filtered in from under the kitchen cabinets. “Drink up,” I said, gulping my glass of bourbon.
Saul took a sip of his drink, then looked around.
“So what’d you think of Barry?” I asked.
When he finally figured out who I was talking about he said, “I don’t know, he seems lonely. I can understand, living in the middle of nowhere. He might even be closeted.”
“Oh, really? You think he might be closeted.”
“My gadar is notoriously bad, but—”
“He’s a homo, Saul! And that was a blind date.”
A look of utter incomprehension.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you wouldn’t have gone. We didn’t want to prejudice you against him.”
“You were trying to set me up with him?” he asked.
I laughed bitterly. “Yes, him. Barry who wants a massage. And finds Indian infanticide interesting. That was the best we could do in these parts. It wasn’t even my idea. Folks on the board thought that if you met a nice boy, you’d stay. And don’t say ‘You thought I’d stay here?’ or I’ll strangle you.”
“You know how much I love this community.”
“Goddamn you,” I said.
“What? I invited him to come to the shul, twice!”
“Couldn’t you just give the boy a massage? Won’t you accept his money?”
He shook his head. “What he’s looking for, he’s not going to find on the massage table. I try to set expectations—”
“I know. Always the consummate professional.”
“I hope so! I’m a rabbi.”
“Well, you better start acting more like a human being,” I told him, “if you want to be a better rabbi.”
Dhanush had been found dead of a cocaine overdose in my Chelsea house. A female NYPD officer called to let me know. When I told her what my relationship to him was, she was surprisingly solicitous of my feelings. She was as delicate as anyone could possibly be describing a scene that looked like a hastily abandoned sex party. That Dhanush had had a sex party in my house didn’t surprise or even bother me. I was happy about whatever made him happy, even if it didn’t include me. But what I couldn’t get past was that the other attendees of this party would just leave him there, this beautiful boy, when he needed them most.
It wasn’t because Saul’s year was up that I was thinking about Dhanush. The Chelsea house and the city in general were on my mind because Saul said, on his way out, “So when are you getting back to New York?”
My Hetta house had been built with ornamental gardens around terraces leading down the river, and you could practically hear the Gatsbyish party sounds echoing off the water, though the terraces were long gone and the slope was almost completely covered with rhododendron bushes. We were on the narrow path winding through them, Saul behind me.
It was the end of the summer and blazing hot, but a little cooler down by the river. Saul’s car was packed with his massage table and everything else he had brought into my house, and he had wanted to walk down here. He didn’t add “one last time.” He didn’t have to. We stood next to each other in the mud, among the reeds taller than we were, and Saul said, “I can see the West Coast being interested in me, maybe Santa Cruz or if I’m lucky, San Francisco. But I’ll be in New York for at least another year. Call me whenever you’re in town and I’ll give you a massage.”
Young people can’t glimpse the final finality, and so lesser endings don’t register at all. Saul thought we were playing at this farewell, just as, I suppose, he thought we had been playing at living in Hetta, at being Jews in Hetta, he and I. We didn’t really live here, or at least we could escape when we wanted to.
“I didn’t even get up to New York this year,” I told him.
Shvitzing, as he always did in even the mildest heat, he drew his forearm across his brow.
“I’m actually just waiting for the market to turn around to sell my place,” I said. “There’s not much up there for me anymore.”
“You’re leaving New York?” he asked with a puzzled look.
I couldn’t bear looking at his expression, so I said, “We’ll have to come up with something to get you back down here sometimes. A visiting something or other. Or we could just do a shabbaton and you can teach us all spiritual massage.”
Saul hesitated for a second or two before joining me in my retreat into bullshit. “Let’s definitely do something like that,” he said.
“Or we could just have a big orgy.”
“Now you’re talking,” he said, not even sounding like himself.
Back at the top of the bluff, we stood together in the driveway. I was waiting to see if we would say one last, true thing. But we didn’t talk. He embraced me, held me hard and longer than any man of my generation would feel comfortable being held. Then he let go, smiled sadly, and got into his car. I watched it head down the road, under the ancient moss-laced oaks along the bluff, until it had rounded the first curve and was gone.
Jason K. Friedman is the author of Fire Year, which won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. The first story in that collection, “Blue,” won the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest in 2010. Friedman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times, The South Carolina Review, J Weekly, and Mission at Tenth.
Founded in 2000, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction contest recognizes writers of Jewish short fiction. This story is the first-place winner of the 2015 contest. Moment thanks contest judge Jami Attenberg, the Karma Foundation and all of the writers who submitted their stories. Next year’s deadline is January 29, 2016. Visit momentmag.com for guidelines.