Search This Blog

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Short Fiction By Dan Ornstein


Some swore that the building was haunted by ghosts, for the relentless creaking of the wooden beams in its roof would make you shiver and wonder if you were hearing davveners long gone. Bernie, the old hazzan who had been pushed by the congregation into retirement, didn’t have to wonder; he listened to them with aching familiarity. Each morning, before his cool, young replacement breezed into the synagogue office, Bernie shuffled around the darkened sanctuary, where his voice had built a bridge of prayerful melody between God and people for decades. All those spirits of his glorious cantorial past floated by and with him: the bar and bat mitzvah students proceeding haltingly, then confidently, with their parts of the Shabbat service; the tearful, thankful parents at their sons' brises and their daughters’ namings; his late wife, Roberta’s, soprano lilt when she sang in the choir; his own tenor loveliness when he chanted Kol Nidre, and helped everyone achieve God’s remittance of their hasty vows and promises for the coming year, at the beginning of Yom Kippur.

One Sunday before Yom Kippur, he stood alone in that cavernous space that the board members had recently stopped calling a sanctuary. “Too old, stuffy, and alienating,” they had declared. “From now on, we refer to it as our beit kesher, the spiritual connection center.” He chuckled bitterly, thinking about their latest ridiculous attempt to replace religion with religious hipsterism, which was right up there with the open-toed-sandaled rabbi, and with Bernie’s baby faced, guitar playing successor. He stepped onto the bimah and saw himself chanting Kol Nidre the previous year, his final time before the people he had served faithfully betrayed him. Roberta’s voiceless face had appeared before him then, making his old voice creak worse than the roof, and his eyes flood with tears. He had lost his place in the Mahzor, standing in front of the open ark and before a thousand dead-silent congregants.

After the board refused to renew his contract and his lawyer persuaded him that suing them on grounds of ageism was futile, Bernie’s friends tried to convince him to continue tutoring students. He taught wonderfully, so they thought it would be the perfect post-retirement job for him, but he declared that he would never again work for the congregation. The Religious School was in session that Sunday, so the chapel just across the lobby from the sanctuary was filled with students practicing prayers. Angry but unable to curb his hunger for his memories, Bernie snuck outside the chapel door to eavesdrop. A muffled chant wafted into the hall from inside. At first, he assumed it was just the perpetual ringing in his ears, but when it would not stop plaguing him he forced himself to open the door and walk in.

Around a table, his junior colleague struggled to engage twenty bored, restless seventh graders. Near them lay their iPads, iPods, and iPhones, the gleaming armaments of modernity that they reluctantly shed when they entered that holy ground. The young cleric stood in the middle, pressing the clunky REWIND and PLAY buttons of an old tape recorder, and desperately attempting to keep them interested in the retro-toy. Bernie recognized the tape of Kol Nidre he had made years ago for a nursing home resident too frail to attend services. As the kids’ attention wandered to their queer looking old guest, their teacher looked up at him in nervous surprise and said, “Cantor, welcome. We found your old recording in the music library.”

Bernie listened and wondered:

Sh’vikin, sh’vitin, b’teilin u-m’vutalin, lo sh’ririn v’lo kayamin.

“All vows—null and void, no longer valid and binding.”

Should he move towards the table?

(c)2011 By Dan Ornstein



Short Fiction By Dan Ornstein

Peter Katz sits in Dr. Roberts’ office, his eyes puffy from crying through the weekly therapy session.

“I feel almost paralyzed by these ongoing anxieties of mine about whether Linda wants to stay with me. Last night and this morning…I swear, Doctor Roberts, they were about the worst I’ve ever lived through in the four years since she and I got married.”

“Mmm…,” Roberts hums with professional empathy. “Well, what happened?”
Katz pauses to compose himself. “We made love last night with this incredible intensity, but when we were done, she just…went to sleep. No ‘I love you’, no acknowledgement of how she felt about me…about us. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I was up half the night as a result.”

“Maybe she was just tired,” the therapist suggests.

Katz thinks about this and says, “Maybe. I slept so fitfully, but at one point I had this vivid dream, one that made me feel peaceful about our relationship.”

“Go with that,” Roberts says to him.

“In the dream I was looking at an old Far Side cartoon by Garry Larsen. Two romantically involved alley cats are sitting on a fence looking out at a full moon. In the caption, one says to the other, ‘If I had two dead rats, I’d give you one!’”

“How did the scene feel to you as you dreamed it?”

“Well, I could sense that the female cat was the one talking, and that I was the male cat. I get it that Linda and I are the two cats in the dream, which is why I awoke feeling more secure.”

Roberts asks him slowly, “So, then, what happened this morning?”

Katz pauses again, a soft, expanding water balloon waiting to burst. “At breakfast this morning, she wouldn’t look up from her paper and coffee when I kissed her. Five minutes later, she burst out laughing, almost guffawing! When I asked her what was so funny, she told me, ‘It’s the joke- of- the- week in the comics section. What has four legs and chases cats?’ I wasn’t in a joking mood so I just said, ‘I dunno. What?’ Then she gave me the punch line: ‘Mrs. Katz and her lawyer!’”

Katz begins to cry uncontrollably. The psychologist suppresses his urge to laugh while also feeling tears come to his eyes. He sits with his client in silence, as he absentmindedly strokes a stuffed toy tabby, the ragged artifact of a romantic day at a county fair -and a love betrayed- long ago.

© 2011 By Dan Ornstein


To everyone and anyone reading my blog:

My regrets and apologies for such a long hiatus in posting new essays to my blog site. I have been distracted by many things over the past several months, and I am finally getting back to posting new materials on a regular basis. Below is my sermon from yesterday morning's Shabbat service that I was unable to deliver, due to time constraints. I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to sending out more writings soon, including two short stories that I have not been able to get published. All the best,


(Below is my dvar Torah For Parshat Korach, 5771.)

We modern, Western Jews have been deeply influenced by medieval Jewish philosophy, particularly Maimonides, when it comes to imagining Who God is and how God acts. In the first chapter of his classic Code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides begins not with a discussion of law, but a philosophical discussion of Jewish theology, specifically defining the nature of God and God’s interactions with the universe. He writes that, “Once we have established that God has no body, it becomes clear that God cannot be subject to those things that happen to or define the body…including anger, laughter, happiness, sadness, silenced and speech.” (MT 1:11.)

I always chuckle when I read passages such as this one. Even though Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers do a magnificent job of explaining away metaphorically descriptions of God’s emotions found throughout the Torah, those same descriptions remain there, staring back at us in all of their discomfiting post-modern glory. They defy our quest for sanitized, comfortable depictions of God by forcing us to contemplate God’s very human feelings and emotions, particularly God’s intense anger, that the Torah describes all the time.

I cannot survey and analyze with you all such examples in one d’var Torah. However, we will let two distinctly different scenarios of Moses’ appeasement of God suffice for this morning. One is found in last week’s parashah, Shlach L’kha. After ten of the twelve scouts sent into the promised land come back to warn the people not to enter the land out of fear of danger, God threatens to destroy the entire people, who have become rebellious and are attempting to appoint a chief to lead them back to Egypt. Moses, who always intervenes with God when God angrily threatens such things, appeals –as it were- to the divine ego. (See HEH, p. 846, Numbers 14:15-16) “If You then slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’” Moses then asks God to remember God’s own self-description as a compassionate God Who is slow to anger. (This description, I remind you, was given to Moses by God after God threatened to destroy the people because of the Golden Calf incident.) God then relents but makes clear to Moses that the slave generation will never enter Canaan, only their free, desert-born children will.

The second scenario is found in this morning’s parashah, Korach. Angered beyond control by the brazen attempts of Korach and his select group of leaders to grasp priestly and political power that is not theirs, God threatens again not only to destroy them, but the entire people of Israel. Whereupon, both Moses and Aaron plead with God (HEH, p. 863, Numbers 16:22), “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” God once again relents and instructs the two leaders to warn the Israelites to separate from Korach and his friends, whereupon God is able to wreak justice upon these perpetrators alone. Moses’ and Aaron’s reasoning almost echoes Abraham’s reasoning with God when he convinces God to separate the innocent from the guilty before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?” In our parashah, Moses and Aaron criticize God for the way that God wants to act on divine anger by reminding God of the imperative of divine justice. In fact, later Torah commentators are of two opinions as to exactly what they are saying in this one verse. Some of the commentators assert that Moses is telling God, “You know better: You have the wisdom to tell the difference between good and evil people, so use Your divine intelligence and do the right thing!” Others assert that Moses is telling God, “You know better: You know that destroying innocent people along with those who are evil is wrong, so why are You threatening to do this now?” Whichever opinion about this verse one accepts, it is clear that they are taking God to task for potentially not acting justly.

Two different modalities for reasoning with our angry, passionate God emerge from this brief analysis. The first appeals, again –as it were-, to divine ego. Moses appeases God almost laughably by appealing to God’s desire to maintain a good reputation with the nations of the world. The second appeals to the imperatives of divine justice. Moses demands of God courageously, but almost matter-of-factly, that God behave… well… like a mensch. This latter modality presents us with a wildly paradoxical picture of the biblical God being held to a high human standard of justice that has its source in God’s commandments, is not always achievable by human beings, and at least here, is almost not achieved by God, God-Self, Who basically needs a human being to remind God about how to act. Is God testing Moses’ political and moral acumen? This is a nice thought, but it is not borne out by the text. More likely, the commentators on the Torah are on the mark: God, who is our source of justice and morality, at times needs superlative human beings to appease God and to demand good behavior of God. Maimonides’ very static, impassive picture of God is a far departure from the Bible’s descriptions, even if one assumes that the Torah’s narratives are meant only to be taken allegorically or metaphorically.

What does all of this scandalous thinking about God’s relationship with Moses –and by extension with human beings- teach us about this relationship? First, it reminds us that, as we have seen before in the Torah, God grows, along with our thinking about God, and along with us as growing, fluid individuals. As my friend, Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, our relationship with God is never static, because we and God are never static. Second, our Torah passages point out to us an important foundation of moral and spiritual life that is at the heart of the Torah. As Rabbi David Hartman teaches us in his book by the same name, a living covenant with God is one in which we might at times appease the Master of the universe. More likely, however, it is one in which we stand, howbeit respectfully, before God and demand that the Judge of all the earth act justly, just as God demands of us. If we and God can rightly demand this of each other, is it not the most enduring model of what we should demand of ourselves and each other in daily life, as well? Shabbat shalom.