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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 10, Part 3

Upon entering the rabbi’s enlightenment center, Bernie is taken aback

Steve Stern
May 05, 2010

There were framed testimonials from satisfied customers on the paneled walls, though Bernie wondered that the place had been open long enough to satisfy customers. The testimonials were flanked by mounted diagrams of the Sefirot, the kabbalistic Tree of Life, resembling the configurations of painted Tinker Toys. An air-brushed portrait of Rabbi ben Zephyr himself, the bronze plaque beneath it reading simply The Rebbe, loomed above bookshelves bowed from shrink-wrapped sets of the Zohar in its Moroccan binding. A glass display case presented an assortment of Judaic kitsch: ceramic hamsas and amulets with labels advertising their occult powers, bobbins of red thread for warding off demons, Heroes of Kabbalah trading cards and drinking cups—everything tagged for sale at inflated prices. There was also some standard religious paraphernalia: prayer shawls and kippot, phylacteries hanging from hooks like gauchos’ bolas, all marked up exorbitantly. Seated on a stool behind the display case was an attractive middle-aged lady, wisps of iron gray hair peeping from under a lavender turban, her matronly figure enveloped in a matching kaftan like a vestal gown. She looked up from a graphic-novel edition of Tales of the Baal Shem Tov when Bernie came in.

“Can I help you, dear?” she asked, squinting over her bifocals with a simper that seemed to assume he was in the wrong place. Oriental elevator music dribbled from a quadraphonic sound system.

Feeling suddenly self-conscious, the tail of his T-shirt poking from under his windbreaker like a skirt, Bernie hesitated; there was something very wrong about this place. “I’d like to see the rabbi,” he muttered.

The woman informed him in a tone of honeyed condescension that she was sorry, the Rebbe was conducting a transformation-of-self-through-dynamic-stillness session at the moment. “Would you care to wait?”

The answer was no, but Bernie held his peace and continued to shuffle in place. Beyond a paisley curtain he could hear the master’s amplified voice, exhorting the faithful with words and images that the boy already knew by heart: He was citing the significance of each of the four rungs of Jacob’s Ladder, the four faces of Ezekiel’s angels, how the student must concentrate on the letters of Torah until they appear like black fire upon white; there were words whose pronunciation ought to be growled like a lion, others meant to be cooed like a dove. The rabbi told them, himself croaking like an asthmatic frog, to “Be still like the wife of Lot when with salt from the Dead Sea she was encrusted; be lit up like Moses his ponim when he came down from Sinai . . .” They were the same visualization exercises the rabbi had dispensed so offhandedly to Bernie; only now he uttered them with an emphasis that (whether earnest or feigned) made the boy jealous. Why jealous when he knew that Eliezer ben Zephyr was a certified tzaddik, and the tzaddik’s mission was to function as God’s go-between, a conduit between heaven and earth? Bernie ought to be ashamed of himself. But while the receptionist had assured him that no one was allowed to enter or leave the “sanctuary” during a session, he couldn’t stand the suspense. As the turbaned lady resumed her reading, Bernie edged toward the curtain and parted it a hair.

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Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book award, teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.

Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book award, teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.