I have always had a crush on rabbis.
The first time, it was my own father. As a little boy, I used to lovingly stroke his round face, his beard. I wanted to be like him in ways both ordinary and sublime. If he liked mustard, I liked mustard. If he liked Chevrolets and baseball, I liked them, too. But it extended to his culture and religion: If he spoke Yiddish, then so would I. If he loved the Talmud and the synagogue, I would, too.
My crush on my father has been complex—painful but also rewarding—and it has lasted decades longer than any crush should. But it was not the last time I had a crush on a rabbi; I would have many more.
When I was 12, I would occasionally visit one of my close relatives, who was not only a rabbi but a well-known Hasidic rebbe who had grown up in Warsaw. At 87, he was diminutive and modest, but definitely a holy man, steeped in Talmudic study and Hasidic thought. It was as though the soft light of an oil menorah shone on his face. My father told me he was close to God. After the hellish ending of a thousand years of Polish Jewry, he helped to ease a broken people into their new American land with soft hands, soft words, and velvet injunctions.
I was his named for his father, Alter Yisrael Shimon, who was himself one of the great rebbes of pre-war Poland. Just carrying his name added several inches to my height. I briefly flirted with the idea of dressing the way he did—in a kapote and a spodek—but for a young American boy, such a thing would have been preposterous.
When I invited him to my bar mitzvah, this sage from another century said the most thrilling words to me I would ever hear: Vos trakht men, du kenst halten mir avek? “What makes you think that you could keep me away?”
Other rabbis I had as my teachers were the objects of my intense gaze and inquisitive love. I observed everything about them. Some wore a fedora, a brim-down hat with knaitches, or dimples, in the crown; others wore a “brim-up” hat with no dimples; some, a homburg. One of my teachers wore a Lithuanian-style kapote with buttons in the back—but they were plain buttons, not the Hasidic-style satin-covered ones. Their shoes: cap-toes, almost never wingtips. On Yom Kippur I would look to see what brand of sneakers they wore. The most pious, aloof from any trend or style, wore plain white Keds.
I first heard the word “crush” from my older sister, Malka, when I was about 7. She teased: “You have a crush on Barbara,” one of the neighborhood girls. I had this strange—to me, incomprehensible—desire to be near Barbara. Of course there were physical sensations, too, but what really mystified me was how Barbara got in my head, my mind.
My crushes on rabbis were different from my romantic crushes, like the one I had on Barbara. They were less pungently felt in the body, but they were deeper and longer-lasting.
These men had magic. (They always had something to say, even when there was nothing to say!) They had knowledge. (They positively leapt over the ocean of Talmud and scripture, always ready with the handy allusion or reference.) I had something blessed going with them: I could please them by being a student and “wanting” to learn, and I could be pleased by them because I allowed them the “pleasure” of teaching me. To be able to please and to be pleased by someone is the building block of the soul. We held for each other a pleasing mirror. If I was a student, then they were rabbis; if they were rabbis, then I was a student. I had a role in life, and in that role I had the power, in a small way, to bestow a role on them.
One of my teachers—one of the rabbis I had a crush on—taught me how to write. When he saw that I wasn’t paying attention to his Talmudic lectures, instead of rebuking me, he asked me to write them down. I did—and I did a terrible job. He went over the work with me many times until he felt that my notes did him justice. Ultimately, he was very pleased, to the extent that he gave me a vigorous bear-hug that I never forgot. “Yisrael,” he told me, “you know how to write.” I was pleased, too. I had acquired a new skill. I was in high school, but I knew then that I would become a writer—because he said so.
I became a scribe—or rather, a transcriber; a recorder not only of the rabbi’s lectures (say, the shav shmaytsa’s interpretation of Talmudical exegesis) but of the words and movements of the teachers themselves. The role of observer was in my bones from the start, but if that weren’t enough, the Talmud itself is replete with stories of how one must traipse after the rabbi—even to observe him in secret in order to learn how to act and behave. (The Talmud relates that one student sneaked into the privy and another hid under his rabbi’s bed to see how his teacher made love; when discovered, he said, “This [too] is Torah and I must learn it.”)
One time late at night when I was 16, in our yeshiva camp, I took a walk. In one of the sheds on the edges of camp, there was a pingpong table, and my rebbe was playing with his friend. They were both brilliant minds who spent all the days of their years in the bais medrash, yet here they were playing pingpong. And they were quite good, smacking the ball back and forth. It was a tied game. My rebbe was a scruffy-looking man—a bear, or a werewolf, with the body hair of an Esau but a disposition that was more like the tent-dweller Jacob. At the end of the match, they embraced something fierce—a kind of male love that I had never quite seen before. Their embrace was vigorous and tender, forceful, libidinal. Decades later and I can still feel the heat. I was shocked at the rawness, the wildness of their freedom. They thought they were unobserved, yet I observed them. It was a wonderful sight for me to see.
It’s not that I thought these rabbis had an ear to God, but that they explained him, interpreted him. There would be an afterlife—they promised it. There would be a resurrection of the dead—they promised it. To me, they were all of the same person—men always, bearded mostly. They did what rabbis do: They studied, they taught, they gave speeches, they delivered moral verdicts. How do we understand this verse, rabbi? They had an answer even where there was no answer. They didn’t invent the Word, but they knew how to interpret the Word. Read it this way; no, read it this way. They had the power to prohibit, to permit, to approve, to disapprove. It is said, Yesh koach b’yad chachamin la’akor davar min HaTorah … rabbis can uproot, even un-write what was written in the Torah.
My love affair with rabbis was so great that when I was a teenager, I remember saying to my friends, “I’m not sure I believe in God, but I do believe in rabbis!”
It was the famous psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott who suggested that the mother is the infant’s mirror and to an extent, the baby mirrors the mother. They see a reflection of themselves. They each have internalized a space for how they look in the eyes of the other. I realized as an adult, when I began to study the great psychoanalytic master, that for many years I had mirrored and mimicked rabbis, their formalities, their archaic and beautiful pronouncements, their sense of (necessary) grandiosity and theatrical flourish as though they had an audience for every utterance.
Over time, I contracted the blessed ills of a “normal” life, for which there was no remedy. I experienced “urgencies,” dire urgencies, to begin a search for my own wildness in matters of love, life, and money. My search for my wildness shook up this neat arrangement as dutiful chronicler and copier of the court. Like Jim Casy, the character in The Grapes of Wrath, “being all full up with Jesus made me want to figure things out on my own.”
Yet I couldn’t quite divest myself of my deep and enduring rabbi-crushes. I wanted to be like them even as I had my own urgencies I couldn’t ignore. When I ventured out to college and eventually work, I still found myself unconsciously mimicking rabbis. I might make a simple statement, but it would come off rabbinic. I might say stupidly to a girl, “If you find yourself amenable to going out on a date with me, I would be pleased to buy you food for supper!”
I would cringe as I heard myself say this, knowing that this was rabbinic language. Rabbis may want intimacy, but they create distance with language, as though they live above the tides of human emotion.
For example, years ago, I knocked on the door of my rosh hayeshiva. Instead of saying, “I can’t talk now; come back later,” he said, “I am not in a posture of readiness to speak with you, but I do want to speak with you; however, you will find that I am not in the usual habit of being available to speak before 5.” Posture of readiness? Usual habit? This was official-speak, the language of eternal contingency, a conflicted intimacy, as if he was narrating his own existence.
Looking back, youthful crushes seemed to have been a shortcut, a kind of quick bridge to another person or emotional destination. They worked at great speed (with or without anyone’s consent) to attach me to someone or something. As a man in middle-age, I look back approvingly at these dramatic connections with rabbis; vestiges of them still reign, even now.
For example, every evening I am part of a chabura, a study group in Talmud in my neighborhood. On Thursday nights, when our leader, a man of my own age, brings us into the deep waters of rabbinical discussion, suddenly, he is aglow. I watch his face, reflected off the fluorescent bulbs, as he dives down 20,000 leagues to bring up a pearl—something never-before-said or heard, a khidush. On this beautiful man with his back shaped like a viola or a cello, with his Russian-Jewish eyes, and a forehead like a challah lightly brushed with egg, I have a transitory crush every week. How could you not?
As a young child, like many children, I had great religious feeling. I spoke to rabbis and to God. I had one God and I had one father, whom I loved and worshipped. Though these feelings were intense—and probably more intense than most other children experienced—I could not avoid noticing that something was missing. In simple terms, I did not have much of a self. I felt it, though, of course, would not have had the words for it at that time. I must have been aware of this starting at age 7. It would make perfect sense, looking back; that it was precisely then I experienced my first crush on a girl. I needed a connection with a girl to reach places I could not get to through attachment to my father and his rabbinical ways alone—though over a lifetime, each would make the other shine more brightly.
Yet it was my early crush on my father and on other rabbinical figures that made for the better use of my later work at psychoanalysis and healing others. Its raw power brought me to the point of intersection with myself, the other and the unknowable between us. It might easily have expired in the suffering of adult life or died in the dubious march toward worldliness and sophistication. I am thankful that this crush on my father survives, and even today raises me up as a thinking Jewish human being.
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