Reuben sighed as he saw his two sons walk into shul, late, of course, and without a care in the world. He felt his frustration sneak out of his hand as he hit the bimah to hush the crowd. Klop! It wasn't just that, from his perch in the middle of the room, he could see that neither of them bothered to put on a tie. Klop! It wasn't just that he had long ago given out all the aliyahs, that he was already preparing for hagba. Klop! It wasn't just that the older one looked semi-homeless, in that modernish way that Reuben could not understand. Klop! It wasn't just so many things. What hurt Reuben to his core-- what shook his soul, and he would mean that phrase literally-- was that his sons didn't care. You could tell just by the look on their faces, the way they carried themselves as they trudged down the long aisle from the back of the shul, up to the front section where Reuben had been dutifully sitting every week, if not every day, for decades. His sons found a way to not care as deeply as Reuben cared about nothing else. Klop! Klop! To not care was a freedom that had eluded Reuben his entire life. Ya'amod.
Reuben waited for years for these boys. He was content to be the most religious and least successful member of a relatively agnostic and exceedingly wealthy community. He embraced this role as soon he moved to the suburbs with his wife, ready to start a family in a town surrounded by kosher bagel stores and seas of interstate. Sure, he didn't make much money or fit in with all the Wall Streeters and their fancy Pesach vacations in the desert with goyishe pop stars. Sure, it would have been nice if the kehila's largesse had included some more shabbos lunch invitations for him and his wife. But Reuben knew their donations kept the shul up and running. And he quickly was appointed gabbai-- no small feat, not that anyone noticed-- and isn't that also a way to keep the shul up and running? Reuben found his niche, enjoying small talk with the congregants, but always reading his cue to leave a conversation when the gossip veered into the vulgar or profane. If he ever tired of his duties, it never showed.
Then came years of hormone treatments, scraping together thousands of dollars for specialists and therapists and small sterile rooms brimming with pornography he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. He was in his forties when his first son was born; the second seemed like a gratuitous miracle. As a father, Reuben could not help but hold his head a little bit higher: he felt as if he jumped a rung in some social ladder he had never noticed before. Suddenly, Reuben was on yeshiva boards and hosting his sons' friends over to study for Rashi tests. His children were a passport to playdates, backyard BBQs and soccer practice. To his surprise, even the wealthiest shul-goers were eager to complain with him about tuition, rising real estate taxes, and how pastrami should never cost that much per pound.Artwork by Chezi Gerin. Click to purchase.
That all seemed like ages ago as he stood up there, meticulously helping some apikores stumble through the haftorah. It occurred to Reuben that he had lost whatever feelings of pride and excitement he first felt when he became a father. As he glanced at his sons, slumped in their seats, not even bothering to open a book and mumble along, he found himself uncharacteristically enraged. Klop! Nu, shush! The more he argued with them, the closer the brothers became, bonding over their disdain for the very rules and codes that ran Reuben's life. Did they think he enjoyed running to shul so early in the morning, rain or shine? Did they not understand responsibility, chiyuv? His wife told him not to take it personally; kids are kids, times are different, life is a river with many turns. If only you didn’t take it personally, if only you could embrace the things they care about-- OK, not the rap stars, but maybe those army video games-- you could find a relationship, or something in common. Be patient. Wait. Life is a river with many turns, she would say, like a mantra.
But Reuben was done waiting. Reuben had waited and waited, and had been disappointed with all the turns that had been taken. Reuben felt cheated, Reuben felt he had been taken advantage of somehow. He looked around his cramped corner of the bimah, the embroidered navy fabric (proudly donated by a white collar criminal) now discolored where Reuben’s elbows had spent hours propping him up in service to God. He was trapped in the center of the room, invisible but raised high for all to see; his corner of the bimah suddenly feeling like a jail cell.
His commitment gone ignored, by God and by man, Reuben suddenly wished he could be anywhere but there, at the center of the space he had always held sacred. He wanted out, to join his sons in the back row, tie-free and slumped over with apathy. Could he actually be jealous of their carelessness? The thought turned into a lump in his throat. Even though the room was dead quiet, Reuben felt himself bang hard on the bimah anyway. Klop.
The author is an attorney by day, writer by occasional nights and weekends, living in New York.
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