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Wednesday Night Fiction: The Rabbi and the Shark

Dan Grossman
May 3, 2017

by Dan Grossman

from the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

THE RABBI was terrified. Just minutes before Kol Nidre he stood in his office chanting the prayers under his breath, worrying for the twentieth time that his sermon was too high-minded, and flipping through the tall, gold-spined books on his shelf, as if he might cure his dread with a passage from the Midrash or Talmud. Not only was he the youngest rabbi in the history of Beth Shalom, an old and venerable synagogue trying to breathe new life into its dwindling membership, but he was the first openly gay rabbi anywhere in Union County, a fact that provoked as many grumbles as his age. The truth was that he’d never led a full congregation through Yom Kippur, and all week the prospect of catastrophe had sunk its teeth into his mind and his sleep. If he messed up the sermon, if he forgot the prayers, if his voice trembled, would the old guard succeed in ousting him? And what then -- back to his childhood home, the absurd predicament of a progressive rabbi living in his Orthodox parents’ basement?

Through the half-closed blinds he saw the families streaming in through the side entrance, taking programs from ushers, shaking hands, and awkwardly wrapping themselves with tallitot, eager to extract their ounce of holiness before zipping back to regular life -- and here was Rabbi Lumen, who had no children or spouse and only two years as an assistant rabbi on a college campus, to guide them through the Day of Atonement. He looked at his pale, patchily-bearded reflection in the window and once again felt like a fugitive in disguise as a rabbi. If I can’t do this, he told himself, I might as well die.

A knock came on his door and, relieved, Rabbi Lumen said, “Please come in.”

But the man who entered the room was neither the cantor nor the assistant rabbi; he had a square Viking face, a muscular torso pulsing through his white dress shirt, and, inexplicably, a purple-knit kippah over his feathery blond hair. He was beautiful, still, with those cool blue eyes that, the deeper you looked, revealed depths of compassion but that, as you looked even deeper, appeared cold, then again compassionate, and on and on, till you didn’t know if the final stone was heated or frozen — or was that the rabbi’s own heart?

“Anders?” Rabbi Lumen said in shock. “What are you doing here?”

ANDERS GAVE a thin-lipped smile fringed with fear and uncertainty, as if a confession, years in the making, loomed behind it. In his Danish accent he said, “I did not want to tell you, but for the past year I have been studying Judaism. When I found out you’d become new rabbi, I flew in from Copenhagen.”

A hand on his heart, the rabbi said, “I’m shocked, Anders, shocked to find you in America much less in shul. I haven’t seen you since . . .”

“That afternoon in the mountains of Rogaland, but Rabbi, there’s something you must . . .”

“Oh God, that’s right.” The rabbi winced. “Anders, I’ve never had a chance to apologize, but you know . . .”

Anders cut him off. “Rabbi, please listen. There’s no time. Something horrible is happening ...”

“I mean, have you been all right? Where are you . . . living? Are you happy?”

“Rabbi!” Anders brought his hands together, beseeching him. “Something horrible is happening in the sanctuary, something I cannot speak of but must show you.”

“Who sent you? Why are you here?” Rabbi Lumen demanded.

When Anders didn’t respond, the rabbi glanced out the window at the parking lot, which was dark and silent, with ghostly smears of lamplight on the hoods of cars as if drenched from an invisible rainstorm. Had Kol Nidre already begun? But surely someone would’ve come fetched him. He was the rabbi! Panicking, he rushed to check his phone on his desk, but of course he’d turned it off for the holiday. Wheeling around, he nearly cried out at the sight of Anders’ eyes, laser-like with terror and urgency.

“This nonsense is over, Rabbi. You are needed.”

RABBI LUMEN grabbed his tallit and draped it over his shoulders while following Anders out of the office and down the corridor leading to the bema, and all the while his mind felt poisoned: Was there a gunman? A hostage? Was someone ill?

Breathing in Anders’ leathery cologne, which reminded him of light through the apartment in Copenhagen, breakfasts of pastries and nighttime kisses along the Stromma Canal, he hurried through the silver revolving doors onto the bema. In front of him, stretching across the floor, bracketed by grand stone walls and under the famous gold chandeliers designed in 1917 by Reuben Fleishman a year before he committed suicide, sat the mute grid of congregants. As was the synagogue’s High Holy Day custom, water with a depth of eighteen inches (one cubit per the esoteric Book of Shamayim) covered the floor of the sanctuary, fed from hoses that Beth Shalom borrowed at large expense from the fire department. But instead of dipping their toes in the water, “like candles fizzling their sins in the purity of liquid,” as the kabbalist Bamram wrote in the 14th century, everyone had their feet up on the chairs, holding their knees like schoolkids.

“What’s everyone so afraid of?” the rabbi asked, turning back to Anders.

Anders pointed, and after a few seconds the rabbi saw it: a dark gray fin and tail slicing a menacing seam down the center aisle, as if a phantom hand was unzipping the water with a switchblade. The people in front row yelped as it spun around, revealing shiny flesh, round eyes, and five gills as big as air-conditioning vents, and swam to the back of the sanctuary.

A shock spread through the rabbi’s body. It was horrible, inconceivable really, to find a shark in shul, and he wondered if it was act of antisemitism by neo-Nazis -- or maybe a prank by those loudmouths in Level Gimmel Hebrew School. Or was it sabotage against the new rabbi? Yes, that must be it, a test to see how he’d react. Anyway, someone in the crowd must have called the police, who’d show up soon with nets and stun guns.

Unwavering, the rabbi went over to the podium, cleared his throat and said with as much khutspe as he could muster: “It is truly an honor to stand before you all on Kol Nidre, the beginning of the holiest day in the Jewish year. Before I chant the Kol Nidre prayer the customary three times, I’d like to offer a few words about its history and interpretation. The text of the prayer is direct and utterly baffling. ‘All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce,’ goes the first line, and it’s left generations of rabbis searching for explanations. It didn’t help that for centuries Christian authorities exploited it as a sign of Jewish treachery, and for that reason many synagogues, including this one, left it out of their Yom Kippur liturgy. It was returned to our prayer book in 1977 as a tribute to the many Jews throughout history who used it to annul false conversions. And yet while I don’t wish to downplay this historical resonance, we must also engage with the prayer itself and consider it as a model for the Day of Atonement and for our lives in general.”

“Rabbi, won’t you help us!” a man’s voice rang out from the back of the sanctuary.

The rabbi paused for a moment, refused to look up, and went on with what he felt was a very strong performance: “Because if you think about it, there is something strange about coming to synagogue every year and promising to do better. We anticipate failure. Our apologies are frozen in text. We remember that the same pleas for forgiveness have been offered before, and yet we repeat them as new. Unlike in the time of the Second Temple, we have no animal sacrifices, no fumes to rise to the Almighty on our behalf. What we have are words: limited, elastic and powerful words, a trembling lifeline between us and the divine. Words are our temple. So what I’m suggesting is that Kol Nidre is not a strange caveat but a different form of confession, more like a lover’s than a defendant’s, insofar as it registers and reacts to the instability of language, the dangerous power of a vow and the saving power of repetition, the ability to wash off our . . .”

“For God’s sake, can’t you see we’re in danger!” cried an old woman near the front. “Do something!”

RABBI LUMEN stopped talking, and all his foolishness crashed down on him. Act, you coward, act! He stepped off the podium and strode resolutely to the top of the bema, where he sat down, pulled off his shoes and socks and rolled his pants legs up to his knees. Next, he tiptoed down the soft blue steps towards the waterline, dipped in his toes -- it was chilly -- and waded down the aisle of red-cushioned chairs past the first two rows reserved for the Baudenbaums, the sporting-goods family whose son had been arrested for drunk driving, and the Franks, the Holocaust survivors who had lobbied against his hiring. Two hundred eyes followed him, their voices murmuring like the electricity in telephone wires. Above, the chandeliers projected like menacing, upside-down towers, and around him the high stone walls called forth grandeur, entrapment, void.

When the water level had reached his shins, he heard a splash at the top of the center aisle and a silver-tipped tail darting into view. It was two meters, at least, with enough power to rip out huge chunks of his flesh. Was he supposed to take down this monster with his bare hands? He decided to run back and wait for animal patrol, but before turning he caught himself, like someone second-guessing at the edge of a diving board, joggling their knees, holding back, and belly-flopping forward.

The splash was big. His shoes, his pants, his suit jacket, and his tallit were soaked, and water leaked into his mouth, salty. He rose to make sure the shark wasn’t on the attack, but just then a voice rang out on the microphone. The rabbi spun around. It was Anders, gripping the podium like a prophet:

“I have come to tell you my story,” Anders cried out, as Rabbi Lumen stood speechless in the front aisle, the water dripping off his clothes. “Our story. I met the rabbi when he moved to Copenhagen after college. He was sad and lonely in a way I couldn’t resist. We met one night at an art gallery. I remember him looking at a sculpture, the seriousness and vulnerability in his eyes, and I asked him, Why come to Copenhagen? and he shrugged and said, Because it’s not New Jersey. For so long I thought I was too cold and closed-off for love. He changed me. He moved into my apartment and we vowed to stay together. My heart was his, his mine. The first time he told me he loved me came when he was sleepwalking. He did this a lot. I’d hear him fumbling around in the dark, arguing with his family or praying or trying to say something to me in a language that was not quite English or Hebrew or Danish. Then he would wake up, like he had taken a gulp of water, and hurry over to the bed and jump in my arms and press his lips to me like a scared child. Once, as I held him, he said the magic words and I whispered them back. We had only each other, but it was enough.”

In mute agony Rabbi Lumen tried to squeeze the water out of his suit and his tallit. It didn’t work, and his body felt twice as heavy as before, so he took off his suit, shirt, tie, and dress pants. Only his pink boxers, kippah, and tallit covered his goosebumped body. Free, he shuffled along the front row past the faces of shivering kids who buried their heads between their knees, and dumbfounded parents twisted around to locate the shark. If he stayed still, eventually it would find and kill him, but if he went in the opposite direction, he could delay a fight until the authorities showed up. He sploshed over to the side aisle near the big silver menorah and the stained glass windows of a lion laying down with a lamb, and tried to tune out the crowd’s whispers. Why didn’t they do something? Why did they act like the shark was meant for him and him alone?

Anders’ voice broke out, and Rabbi Lumen crouched behind the row of chairs and winced. “One weekend we took a trip to the mountains in Rogland, Norway. The first day it was cloudy, and the skies were gray, but we were excited so we hiked up to a mountain river and went down on the rocks. We sat there a while, holding hands and wondering whether to go in. Finally I jumped in and swam around, but after five minutes the currents picked up and I cried out for help. I couldn’t make it alone, the currents were harsh. Help, I yelled, but the man I loved stood on the bank screaming for others to help, though no one else was there. Save me, I called, hanging onto a rock, but he still didn’t move, the currents driving me away now, the water at my ears, my body carried along in the raging water, thrown against rocks, my skull cracked, limbs broken, bloodied a dozen times and thrust into the water and breathing it into my lungs. What was it like to die? Like waking up at three a.m. from the most beautiful dream, like getting your heart broken a million times, like a compressed minute of impossible, shattering goodbye -- and meanwhile the man I loved hid his face, spoke to the police, and then flew back to America before my memorial, and a month later joined rabbinical school, trying to hide his troubles under that kippah. I have come here today to deliver a message: Rabbi, you cannot hide.”

The water was cloudy enough for Rabbi Lumen to make out his reflection: haggard, weak, small. He waded back to the center aisle.

Now Anders was pointing at Rabbi Lumen and quoting liturgy: “‘On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by drowning? Who by suicide and who by shark?’”

Before he could wail or scream in response, the rabbi saw the silver fin near the top of the aisle. Oh God. As if remote-controlled by Anders’ words, the torpedo-shaped shark raced toward him with its brutal snout riding above the surface. It was out for blood, his blood. That’s why it didn’t attack the others: it was his shark. He understood this now. Instead of running away, he ran toward it, and a voice in his soul knew that it was life or death, rabbi or shark. They were headed for a collision. The congregation gasped. Inches before they met, the rabbi dove forward, bombed into the water and clasped the shark’s neck, but the shark slipped free and circled the rabbi, who rose to a crouch as the shark bit into his leg. The rabbi cried out in agony. But instead of pulling away he kept his leg planted and began to pummel the shark’s back with his fists. This did nothing, so he brought his hands together like a club and swung as hard as possible, screaming and gritting his teeth, as if the strength of his twenty-eight years and all that he’d done and wronged and loved were called forth and expelled in this aggression.

“Die,” he shouted. “DIE! DIE! DIE!”

After the twelfth beating, the shark floated lifeless. Its eyes were like two buttons glued on in a kid’s craft project, its tail like a rubber valve and its teeth limply studded to the rabbi’s leg. It was smaller than the rabbi thought. Or maybe it had deflated somewhat. But it was dead.
No one applauded. The kids covered their eyes and the elderly whispered words he couldn’t hear. And as the rabbi, panting, wiping saltwater from his forehead and out of his eyes, waded half-naked and trembling back to the bema, he wondered if maybe he was supposed to capture the shark rather than kill it. Or maybe he was supposed to wait for the authorities. He knew nothing.

Wet and cold, he ascended the bema, the shark dragging from his leg like a chain that no longer inhibits but still clings. Water dripped behind him like a shadow, and tears filled his eyes for the first time in years. Anders’ ghost stepped back from the podium, and after breathing in his dead lover’s cologne one last time, Rabbi Lumen stared out at his congregants, whose feet were now dipped in water and whose faces were lifted up for repentance.

“I am now ready to chant Kol Nidre,” he announced.

Dan Grossman lives and works as a teacher in New York City. He writes fiction, cultural criticism, and travel essays. Several of his pieces have been published in Jewish Currents. He is presently at work on a novel.