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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 10, Part 4

Peering from behind a curtain, Bernie sees the rabbi in action

Steve Stern
May 06, 2010

The low-ceilinged room on the other side, most likely a former dance studio, was surrounded by mirrors. In it, sitting on yoga mats before the rabbi, were a score of women, mostly in their middle years, though there were younger ones as well, some as sleek as greyhounds, a couple in the final stages of pregnancy. There were also a handful of men who may have been uxorious husbands dragged along against their will, though they and the ladies seemed equally engrossed. It was an altogether impressive turnout (multiplied to infinity by the wall mirrors) given that the meditation center’s grand opening had been only weeks before—a testament to the success of the marketing campaign underwritten by Julius Karp. Rabbi ben Zephyr himself was seated on a raised dais in one of the Karps’ surplus Naugahyde armchairs, its creases reprising the furrows of the old man’s face. He was wearing a belted white satin kittel, wielding the scepter of a cordless microphone, a fancy pillbox kippah cocked like the cap of an organ-grinder’s monkey atop his dappled gray head. In place of a prayer shawl, a lei of tropical flowers draped his turkey neck; stray flowers entwined the weathered whiskbroom of his beard. The women were dressed in tracksuits and gym shorts, a few in spandex leotards with gauze skirts, their eyes closed in concentration as the rabbi began to warble various prayers. Bernie recognized the prayers as a hodgepodge of penitential slichot, with lashings of the mourner’s Kaddish and the El Mo-lay Rachamim.

Then the rabbi broke into a singsong, chanting the Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”) refrain from the Song of Songs, repeating it over and over like a mantra while encouraging his would-be intitiates to do the same. Bernie, for whom such prayers had become second nature, wondered if the others knew what they were parroting. But while there were one or two faces of a darker Semitic cast, the assembly as a whole didn’t look particularly Jewish. Not that it mattered, since the rabbi’s hypnotic chant apparently required no comprehension to inspire a collective euphoria—as was evidenced by several women who appeared to be in transports, a few showing shadows under their tushies that revealed them to be sitting in midair.

The receptionist came forward to draw the curtain back into place, tugging it with a prim gesture as if to cover up an indecency. But no sooner had she admonished Bernie once again with her zippered smile and returned to her post than the curtain was reopened from the other side. The session was over and the rabbi’s disciples began streaming into the vestibule, most of them still looking half-entranced like an audience leaving a cinema. Some, however, had the presence of mind to pause and browse the display case, purchasing items from the receptionist who doubled now as salesclerk.

“But Hepzibah,” pleaded a pie-faced woman whose tights above her leg warmers appeared to be stuffed with cottage cheese, “you know I don’t read Hebrew.”

Hepzibah, clearly well rehearsed, assured her customer that such knowledge was overrated, if not entirely unnecessary. “As the Rebbe says, ‘Power is in the hands and the eyes.’ You have only to trace the letters with your fingers for their healing power to enter your soul.” When another asked if the outrageous price of a prayer shawl could possibly be correct, she was told that its ritual fringes were colored with an indigo dye derived from the rare purpura snail found only at the bottom of the Aegean Sea. “You can read about it in Numbers 15:38.”

Now that Hepzibah was preoccupied, Bernie took the occasion to duck through the curtain into the so-called sanctuary, which was hung with banners bearing Hebrew characters like an array of military standards. With the aid of a couple of women at either arm, the rabbi was stepping down from the platform, where he was immediately encircled by more adoring ladies, some of whom bore votive offerings in the form of homemade peanut brittle and casseroles.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment of The Frozen Rabbi. Or, to get each day’s installment of The Frozen Rabbi in your inbox, sign up for the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest, and tell your friends.

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.

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