Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Little Beige Tabby Cat, A Shul in the Jersey Hills, and a Torah Saved from the Storm: Student Rabbi Days

            Our first cat, Hofstra, was our baby. We found her wandering the campus of Hofstra University; hence, the name. She was a half-grown tabby kitten, tan with stripes, and so young that her “meow” was only half-in: she would start off “mee—“ and end with a high-pitched squeak. We took her home to our little apartment—the back of a two-family home in Canarsie, Brooklyn—and she became our furry child. She loved to perch atop the hamper in the foyer: it gave her height, and, from there, she could reconnoiter any place in our little doll house.
            We believed that she was the cleverest and most intuitive of cats; when we got Chinese takeout, we always made her up a portion on a little paper plate, which she would eat slowly and gravely; these were her just deserts, after all. Then, she would lick herself all over, and go to sleep, doubtless to dream of Chinese temples and giant bronze gongs summoning cats to worship.
I used to drive B to her job as a resource-room teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant in those days. One day, driving home, I saw another stray, with a near-resemblance to Hoffy; she was slightly more orange. I took her home, and we named her Milton, after the main topic of my English Literature studies—sort of a “dead white poet guy” joke.
            Milton turned out to be far less sweet-tempered than Hoffy; we ascribed this to her background as a street cat, but the two of them got along wonderfully well. And then, there was the matter of my student pulpit. Those were halcyon days for my budding rabbinate; I was uncertain what sort of Jew I wished to be, far less than the sort of rabbi I was to become, and the beauty and freedom of the Academy for Jewish Religion was that it allowed me room to grow, explore, and flourish, under the kindly and gentle tutelage of its principle mentors, Rabbis Stephen Leon yeebadel ba-chaim, and Robert Aronowitz, Ph.D, z’l. Our classes were small, and student participation was a given: it was more collegial than lecture-based; among the group of us, we had more background than your average group of rabbinical tyros.
            My little shtelle-student pulpit in Warren, NJ, numbered fifty families, tucked away amid the hills—they told me that the area had been a stronghold for the German-American Bund during the years leading up to World War II, and it was sweet revenge for our little group of Jews to conduct services in a converted farmhouse with attached garage. The congregation has grown considerably since then, and my influence must have been considerable; almost immediately after my departure, their affiliation switched abruptly to Reform.
            It was a wonderful experience, nonetheless; I can recall my first Friday Night Service, when three beepers went off (this was the blessedly cellphone-less 1970s) during the service, and three Jewish physicians, all on call, went to debate Who Should Have First Dibs at the Temple Phone. It was also bliss to be able to work out my post-Orthodox ya-yas; I remember offering a Creative Service featuring a Responsive Reading cribbed from a T.S. Eliot poem, my way of forcing that anti-semitic High Modernist to do penance for his anti-semitism.
            I also remember tutoring my b’nai mitzvah under the apple trees in the orchard—the place had been a farm once, after all, and it was a blessedly bucolic setting, a far cry from the city. I always looked forward to my visits there.
            The only challenge I ever faced—working in the NYC Board of Education as a substitute teacher taught me that life gives us, not problems, but “challenges”—that means you’re stuck with it, so you might as well grin and bear it—was when we had an actual simcha—joyful event—to observe, usually a bar/bat mitzvah. Since the farmhouse-garage-temple was too small to host an authentic Jersey-style catered affair, the families usually hired the Rolling Hills Caterers for their service and party, using the bridal chapel for the service. I would take home one of the Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls)—we had two, one of which was an Orphan Torah saved from the Holocaust—it was not, strictly speaking, kosher, lacking some letters due to old age and wear, but I favored it, considering all it had experienced.
            I would wrap the scroll in two tallitote (prayer shawls) and put it into the trunk of my Dodge Dart, nestling it gently so it would roll as little as possible. Once home, our cramped, tiny apartment had little room to spare, and I would place the Torah on the old Danish Modern couch we had salvaged from my parents. Hoffy seemed to sense that there was something special about the scroll, and she would lie down next to it, like a small tan sphinx, a Guard of Honor. She would never touch it or lie on top; God forbid! Herself a goddess—the ancient Egyptians had worshiped cats; their cat-goddess, called either Bastet or Pasht, was the origin of our word, “pussycat,” and I was happy that she could share her godliness with a different sacred object. They did make a pair, the little tan cat and the old, battered scroll, but looked oddly spiritual together. I would like to think that God was pleased.