As it has off and on for the last ten days, Rabbi Aaron Feltman’s head is thumping with pain.
The discomfort starts slowly, announcing itself as a mere sinus congestion, then spreads inexorably, like lava, causing finally a hammerlike throbbing that makes the rabbi cover his head with his hands. The rabbi lays his head on the desk and groans.
At this point Pearl, the rabbi’s secretary, enters with two aspirin and a glass of water. Pearl’s desk is in the reception area, but she can see the rabbi clearly through a small window between their two offices. Pearl, who is forty-one, wears sexy clothes in defiance of a too-full figure and her conservative surroundings. Completely devoted to the rabbi both personally and professionally, she is impatient and defensive when an infrequent criticism of either the rabbi or a temple function finds its way to her desk.
Pearl, who has never married, harbors a romantic fantasy concerning Rabbi Feltman. She is aware of the impossible nature of her desires. The rabbi has a wife and two children; he is four years her junior. Nevertheless, powerful impulses well up in her and she yearns to embrace the rabbi and declare her love. Fortunately, Pearl is a prudent woman as well as a passionate one, and after five years has learned to sublimate her lust into a maternal facade.
She places the water on a coaster and waits to place the pills directly in his hand. “You should see a doctor,” she says, placing her palm on his forehead. “Maybe it is a nervous condition. Maybe he can give you something to take.”
Without lifting his head the rabbi says, “Why do you say ‘he,’ Pearl? Do you know that 40 percent of doctors are women?” Sarcasm and irony are not the rabbi’s way, but under trying circumstances he employs them and apologizes later.
Pearl frowns, then places the pills in his hand. He throws them to the floor. “They do no good,” he says. In the role of long-suffering mother, Pearl smoothes back the rabbi’s hair, convinced that the gesture will be interpreted as compassion.
“Should I put a pillow under your head?”
The rabbi shakes his head and Pearl leaves. Eventually, the pain recedes and he is somewhat relieved. The attacks come at least once a day, sometimes twice. The rabbi is puzzled, never having had migraines, and until recently, only occasional headaches. The frequency and ferocity of these head-splitters worry him, though he discounts tumors or other serious illnesses. To his mind, life-threatening pain progresses slowly. An educated and thoughtful man, Rabbi Feltman believes his affliction is psychological, though he cannot identify its source.
“Maybe you should go home and rest,” says Pearl, though she would be disappointed if he did. Pearl is happiest when the rabbi is at his desk, on the telephone, talking with parents from the day school, or otherwise conducting business. She looks at him through the window a hundred times a day. When he is out of his office she is fidgety until he returns. When he is gone for conferences or meetings, she is unhappy and her work less efficient. Evenings are for marking time. Though she once had a social life and an intermittent sex life, that is all behind her. Her only interests now are her job and her employer.
For his part, the rabbi treats Pearl cordially and respectfully, as one would a valued secretary. He sometimes throws in a measured amount of warmth. The rabbi suspects Pearl has an interest in him, though he refuses to acknowledge it. Not that the rabbi finds Pearl unattractive. On the contrary, he is frequently excited by her provocative attire, the sexual smell of her. She is somewhat too large, but she has a female shape. Whenever such thoughts intrude, the rabbi quickly puts them out of his mind.
“I must go to the post office,” he announces. Pearl knows there is no reason for him to leave but understands that he needs a diversion. She is comforted by the fact that he has an appointment with Rabbi Minter about increasing the tuition and must return at 3. Rabbi Feltman is opposed to the increase. He feels more scholarships should be granted, the costs covered by fund-raising in the community and a commitment by the yeshiva council to underwrite the project. Pearl knows that Rabbi Minter believes the cost of religious education should be borne by parents. She also knows that Rabbi Minter, by virtue of his position, will get his way.
Rabbi Feltman collects a few pieces of mail, buttons his coat, and leaves. In the garage, a full-length mirror reveals what he already knows — he is sadly out of shape and looks older than his years. He wonders why Jews often look at an athletic body as a frivolity, as if the life of the mind should coexist only with a flaccid body. In high school he had been a linebacker on the football team. When he transferred to the yeshiva high school to start his rabbinical training, he discovered that sports were discouraged, and viewed as coarse and un-Jewish. It was a sad loss, never replaced and frequently lamented. Once a muscular man, he has become soft.
His wife looks younger than her thirty-five years, though her thinness is a result of her nature and has nothing to do with character or denial. Tonight, he is sure, his wife will again criticize him for having no willpower. Her criticisms, he feels, are unfair. She is a woman committed to her orthodoxy. The daughter of a rabbi, she observes all laws of kashrut and modesty, even waiting until after the lights have been turned off to remove her wig. Rabbi Feltman is envious of her commitment, since he himself is often filled with doubt. She is a loving and devoted wife, yet he feels deprived of passion and tenderness. Rabbi Feltman believes his wife is a product of tradition; carnality and abandon are not prized by The Law. He admits to himself that the perceived neglect may be more a product of certain overheated moments of his own than any inadequacy on his wife’s part.
He waits patiently in the post-office line, pleased when others note his skullcap and fringes, the badges of his belief. He is proud of his position, fully aware of the intellectual discipline necessary to have achieved what he has. He expects that others, some others at least, are also aware.
His business accomplished, he returns to the car. It is still early and he decides to have a drink. He feels vaguely guilty, though Jewish law does not prohibit drinking. Still, he drives away from the temple rather than toward it. Soon he is passing unfamiliar streets and feels exhilarated.
He passes bars that he would never enter, peopled by individuals different from himself, darker, less educated, more instinctive. He envies them but keeps driving, finally coming to a hotel that seems suitable. He parks his car and finds the lounge, which is nearly deserted. Mindful of his appointment, he checks his watch. There is time for one or two drinks. If he will be late, he can call. He chooses a table instead of the bar and sits primly, not wanting to be thought of as one who is comfortable in such places.
The waitress approaches, unselfconscious in her short skirt, spiked heels, and revealing top. She is neither young nor old, brusque nor friendly. She glances at his skullcap and at the fringes revealed by his unbuttoned coat.
“What can I get you?” He feels that were he unclothed she would have asked the same question.
“I will have a scotch and soda,” he says formally, surprised at his tone. She is back almost immediately. She lays a paper napkin in front of him, and then his drink. This time she does not say a word.
Rabbi Feltman takes a long swallow, emptying half the glass. He is a practiced drinker and enjoys the effect. He has one or two drinks every evening, sometimes more, much to the consternation of his wife. On this matter she does not upbraid him, but frets silently. He finishes the remainder of the drink in another swallow and feels much better. The headache is under control.
He would like to call his wife but feels foolish at the thought. What will he say? “Raisl, I am having a crisis.” “What sort of crisis?” she will ask, concerned. Rabbi Feltman knows that his wife will not tolerate a crisis, not in him, not in their children, not in herself. To her a crisis must be dealt with in the way one deals with a broken appliance: find out what is wrong, then consult the appropriate specialist for repairs. He knows he is being harsh and apologizes in his mind. He envies his wife’s determination and strength of character and wishes he could be like her.
He is deciding to have another drink when one is placed in front of him. He is surprised and about to say something when the waitress laconically points a finger toward a side booth. A woman sitting alone raises her glass and smiles. This has never happened to Rabbi Feltman before. He is not sure how to react. After a moment he decides to nod in acknowledgment and raises his own glass. He takes a long swallow, puts his glass down on the paper napkin, and stares straight ahead.
He finishes his drink and decides quickly against a third. Being a cautious and responsible man, he is well aware of the consequences of driving intoxicated. How would it look if the spiritual leader of Temple Judea were arrested for such an offense?
The woman has approached his table and placed her hand on the chair opposite. She is tall, his own age, perhaps younger, and dressed in a dark blue suit. A large bag, probably a briefcase, hangs from her shoulder.
“You are a man of faith, I see.”
“I am a rabbi.”
“Yes,” she says, pleased and confident.
“Please,” says the rabbi, rising, “do sit down.”
“Join me,” she says, picking up his glass. “The booth is so much more comfortable.” Ambivalent but not reluctant, the rabbi follows. Once seated, though, he is silent.
“It is not every day one sees a rabbi in a hotel lounge,” she says in an accent he cannot identify. She has high Slavic cheekbones and a pronounced cleft in her chin. A striking woman, the rabbi realizes, though not exactly pretty.
“I have a headache,” the rabbi says by way of explanation.
“Do you often have headaches?”
“May I have your hand, please?”
“Please.” The rabbi complies. Cradling his hand, she applies pressure to the webbed section between his thumb and index finger. “Tell me when it feels better.”
In a few moments the rabbi exclaims, “Astonishing. How does it work?”
“I’m not sure. Unfortunately, the relief is temporary.” She smiles, showing an expanse of white teeth and pink gum. The canine tooth on one side is crowded and slightly protruded. A tender imperfection, thinks the rabbi. He nervously adjusts his skullcap, though it is secured with a bobby pin and will not fall.
“May I ask what you do?”
“I am a representative for several artists, lithographers. I show their new editions to galleries.” She lifts the collar of her silk blouse from behind her neck and lets it fall over the lapel of her suit. The rabbi cannot tell if she is wearing makeup; he doesn’t think so. Freckles are faintly visible across the bridge of her nose and under her eyes.
“Oh,” exclaims the rabbi, “famous artists?” He knows little of art.
“Yes,” she says, naming them.
“Phillipe Landau! Of course,” replies the rabbi proudly. “He is the one who does those small-town primitives.” She nods, smiles, and empties her glass of wine.
“As a matter of fact,” she continues, “his latest work is quite different. A bit more abstract, more like Chagall . . . or Matisse.” She reaches into her bag and removes several brochures. “Look here,” she says, placing them on the table so he can see, “doesn’t this one look different from the others?”
“Why, yes, it does.”
“This one was done eight years ago. See how the trees have changed, the bolder colors, people larger or smaller than in life?”
“Yes, clearly, a definite progression.”
“Or, as we say,” she remarks with a wink, “an evolution of style.” Delightful, thinks the rabbi.
“This must keep you busy?”
“It is good to be busy.” A strand of auburn hair falls over her forehead. She tucks it behind her ear. “Would you like to see the originals?”
“You carry the originals?”
“I carry several artists’ proofs, unframed. They roll compactly.”
“Where are they?”
“In my room, upstairs.”
The rabbi thinks a moment, then laughs. “Is this a version of the ‘etchings’ joke? Come up to my room and see my etchings, said the salesman to the innocent . . . rabbi?” He looks at her brightly, amused but wary. She looks back squarely, cheeks flushed.
“Well, it very well might be. On the other hand, it might be something quite different. Everything we do has risk.”
“You have a very strange way of speaking,” says Rabbi Feltman. “Are you aware of that? Do you realize that you are a most unusual woman?”
She turns her palms up in denial. “You flatter me, Rabbi, but the truth is I am not so unusual. I would suppose you are not a man who has known many women. Is that true?”
“A rabbi is not the most worldly of men.” She waits for his answer. The rabbi pauses, but he knows already what he is going to do. “I have a few minutes.” he says, looking at his watch. “The Baal Shem Tov once said, ‘The appearance of sin is not sin, nor is the appearance of innocence innocence.’ ”
“Did he really say that?” she asks.
“No, I’m afraid he didn’t,” says Rabbi Feltman.
The room is like all other hotel rooms. It has a large bed in the center, covered with a floral spread designed to hide dirt, a dresser, a TV, a mini-bar, a round table with two chairs on casters, all arranged in some space-efficient way. The drapes partially cover a window that does not appear to open, the room being on the ninth floor. Nothing seems out of place, as if the maid has just left, or the room has not yet been occupied. The pictures on the wall have been color-coordinated with the general decor, but are otherwise unremarkable. They have been bolted to the wall. Not a room to live in, thinks the rabbi.
She removes her jacket, revealing a white, long-sleeved blouse that displays an expanse of chest, faintly freckled, and straight but narrow shoulders. She drops the jacket over one chair, pulls out the other and beckons the rabbi to sit. She opens the mini-bar so he can see inside.
“May I offer you something?”
“Oh no, thank you, I’ve already . . . is that a margarita in the corner?”
“Seems to be,” she says, pulling the tab and pouring the contents into a glass. She removes a second can and empties the contents into her own glass, placing them both on the table. Rabbi Feltman quickly drains half of his.
“My dear lady, you must forgive me. . . .” The rabbi is flushed. Beads of perspiration dot his forehead.
“Rabbi, please,” she says, smiling gently, “be assured, your soul is safe.”
“I am happy to hear you say that. You know,” he says, placing his hand on his temple in the old Talmudic pose, “I’m reminded of a story by Martin Buber, chronicler of the sages.”
“Tell me,” she says.
“A Hasid,” begins the rabbi, “who was traveling to Mezbish to spend Yom Kippur with the Baal Shem was forced to interrupt his journey. The next day, to his grief, he was far from the town and had to pray alone in an open field. When he finally arrived in Mezbish after the Day of Atonement, the Baal Shem received him with happiness and cordiality. ‘Your praying,’ he said, ‘lifted up all the prayers that were lying stored in that field.’ ”
“What does this mean?” she says.
“It means,” replies the rabbi, “that situations that appear untoward can be redeemed by prayer.”
She nods, then seats herself opposite the rabbi. “I once heard a story,” she says, “also told by the great scholar Buber. It is about the Great Maggid who did not blow the ram’s horn himself but gave that honor to his disciple, Rabbi Menachem Mendel. Once Rabbi Menachem Mendel was absent and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was asked to take his place. He put the ram’s horn to his lips but when the Maggid called out the first blast, Levi Yitzhak saw a dazzling light and fainted away. ‘What is the matter with him?’ asked the Maggid. ‘Mendel sees much more and he is not afraid.’ ”
Rabbi Feltman feels as if he has been struck in the chest. Who is this woman? A slender, beautiful woman who represents artists and is familiar with the great theologian Martin Buber. Is she a sorceress sent by the Darker Forces to entrap him? Nonsense, says the rabbi, almost aloud. These are not the Middle Ages and I am not a medieval peasant. An unsuperstitious man, a modern intellectual, the rabbi quickly regains his composure. He finishes his drink.
“And what is the meaning of this fable?” he asks.
“I believe,” she says calmly, “that the Great Maggid understands that there is plenty to be afraid of, but that the strong among us resist fear.”
“Charming,” exclaims the rabbi. “May I ask how you come to have knowledge of Mr. Buber? He is not on the bestseller list, shall we say.”
“Nor is he unheard of,” she says evenly, kicking her shoes off and retiring to the bathroom. No, he says to himself, not unheard of, certainly not unheard of. On the other hand, it is the rare individual who has heard of the great thinker, let alone read him. Certainly, individuals engaged in the world of commerce, even attractive, unusual ones, might not be expected to know Martin Buber. He hears the water running and picks up the phone. He hits the buttons automatically and soon his wife answers, as always slightly out of breath. For her the house and children are a full-time job, though there is no prohibition against a rebbetzin working outside the home. She has refused as many electrical aids as she can, for economical and environmental reasons, she says, but the rabbi suspects it is for aesthetic considerations, or something even less well defined.
“Raisl, dear,” he says, halfway between lighthearted and tragic, “I am being held prisoner in a hotel room by a beautiful and tantalizing woman. What should I do?”
“Give in, foolish man, give in.”
“I should?” he says.
“Then don’t give in.” She has no patience for silliness. “Oh, Aaron, I am cooking a marvelous dinner, and I have baked a challah. You will be very pleased. Save your appetite.”
He promises that he will, then calls Pearl. He explains that he might be late, and asks her to call Rabbi Minter. Pearl is worried and wants to know where he is. He says that he has gone for a drive. The bathroom door slides open. He tells Pearl that he will return shortly, and though she is clearly distressed, he hangs up quickly.
Opening a tall cylinder that is standing in the corner, she removes the artists’ proofs and lays them on the bed. No, she explains, they are not more valuable than the other numbered lithographs. The original plates have already been destroyed. Only 150 copies of the Landau exist, seventy-five of the Takao and the Granger. Yes, fewer copies make a work more valuable, assuming the artist has achieved a measure of fame.
Looking at them now, he realizes how beautiful they are. Each is special, though he prefers the Landau. The serene colors in the center, the trees looming dark and ominous in the background. “Why does he do that?” asks the rabbi. “Is it a contrast or a confusion?”
“Hard to tell,” she says. “Probably he doesn’t even know. I would like you to have one.”
“That is generous of you, but I couldn’t accept. Besides, how would I explain? . . .”
“You could say that an admirer gave it to you. That would be simple and truthful. Athletes receive gifts all the time. No reason a rabbi, who is much more heroic than an athlete, should not receive tributes.”
“Heroic, you say. What is heroic about a rabbi?” A form of this question has occurred to him before. “Rabbis are superannuated. They live sheltered lives burdened with daily decisions about legal minutiae. I am speaking of working rabbis, you understand, not ‘spokespersons,’ not those who make political judgments. Ordinary rabbis are not even looked to for spiritual guidance anymore, most people having already made up their minds. Yet they must be models of behavior that even the flock believes to be antiquated and quaint. In short, they are a link to the past, to tradition. Worthless symbols.”
She listens, nodding in agreement. “Yes, Rabbi,” she says, “nevertheless —”
“Nevertheless, my dear young lady, we continue as if we make a difference.” The rabbi remembers suddenly that his hostess is not much younger than he. “I apologize,” he says, “for lecturing you on such matters.”
She is sitting comfortably on the bed, shoes off, legs crossed and stretched out. “That is only sometimes true. Many people admire, respect — even adore rabbis. I’m sure you know that.” The rabbi admits that, yes, there is some truth to what she says.
She smiles that radiant, pink-gummed, high-cheekboned smile and this time seems less cautious with it. The rabbi feels himself to be in grave danger. He is afraid for himself, hoping that convention, fear, and restraint will dictate to his heart. But he is afraid they won’t. A pity, thinks the rabbi, that so much of life is denial.
“I’m afraid I must go,” he hears himself say. “I enjoyed seeing your . . . uh, lithographs. Your hospitality . . .” He knows he is doing it poorly, clumsily. The rabbi is on his feet, but deeply into the room, a long way from safety. He looks out the window. The winter sun is behind him, falling quickly over the horizon. It will soon be dark.
The rabbi buttons his jacket, then drops his hands to his sides. He takes a deep breath, partly for courage, partly to hold himself straight. It occurs to him that being in a hotel room with a sublime woman in her stocking feet is an appealing, erotic fantasy. The rabbi trembles as she approaches.
Moving deliberately, she takes his hands in hers and puts them behind his back. The rabbi does not resist. Her face is inches from his, smiling, teasing. Is there a winner here, wonders the rabbi? If there is, it isn’t me. Her smile softens. It is neither radiant nor victorious. She moves her face even closer to his. I’m a goner, thinks the rabbi. I’m lost.
“I’m lost,” he says. With a tissue she dabs at the perspiration on his forehead and nose. She wipes his neck under his beard.
“On a cool day, no less,” he says, embarrassed. She laughs, kisses him on the mouth softly. The rabbi’s lips relax, he feels his mouth opening. He is still trembling; he cannot feel the floor beneath his feet. She releases his hands, then his mouth. Again she smiles, but with her mouth closed. It is a sweet, warm look, personal and intimate. She speaks his name playfully, “Aaron.”
The rabbi does not remember having told her his name but lets it pass. She backs away, gathers her purse from the night table. Without looking, she reaches in, pulls out her card, and gives it to him. The rabbi looks at it. It says: Sadia Monta, Artists’ Representative. It has two New York phone numbers.
“I travel quite often, and I have regular habits.” The rabbi looks at the card for a moment, then places it in his billfold between his auto-teller card and driver’s license.
“Sadia Monta,” he says. “I’ve never heard such a name!”
“A name like any other,” she says.
He arrives at the temple shortly after 5 o’clock. Pearl leaps from her desk, nervousness and relief combined on her face. She scurries after him. “Where have you been? I’ve been worried. You’ve never done this before. You’ve been gone for hours. I had no idea. . . .”
“Please, enough,” he says. Then, seeing that she is on the verge of tears, he softens his tone. “I had things to do.”
“But you didn’t call.”
“I did call.”
“Only once, and you sounded . . . confused.”
He puts both hands on her shoulders in a comforting gesture. A tune drifts through his head. “It’s okay, it’s all right. Fight team, fight. Fight, fight, fight!”
She looks at him as if he is demented. The rabbi laughs. “Something the high-school cheerleaders used to chant whenever the other team scored. We were then supposed to play harder. It just came to mind.” He embraces her, aware that she is terrified by so many emotions. Unafraid, he pats her several times, kisses her on the cheeks, and releases her when he is finished.
“Oh, Rabbi,” she wails.
“Now, now, Pearl, the day is finished. Let’s go home.”
The children are bathed and in pajamas. In the cold winter months Raisl likes to have them ready for bed by dark but never puts them to sleep before their father is home. They always eat together.
The dinner is truly marvelous. The rabbi loves flanken, but because it is so heavy, Raisl prepares it only once a week. Tonight it is especially soft. She serves it with fresh white horseradish. The plate is garnished with French-cut green beans, sliced almonds, and a small baked potato, all favorites of the rabbi. Margarine and a dollop of imitation sour cream top the potato.
During the meal they chat amiably, sometimes involving the children. The rabbi enjoys the wine, a kosher cabernet from Israel. He remarks how much better the recent sacramental wines are than the sweet traditional ones. Raisl eats much more cautiously than her husband. When he asks for more flanken, she tries to dissuade him but eventually gives in.
While she is putting the children to bed, the rabbi has coffee, the strong Colombian roast that he grinds himself every morning. He feels better than he has all day, no trace of a headache, though he knows it might come up without warning, as it has before, sometimes out of tranquil circumstances. Nevertheless, he is confident. He takes off his shoes and waits for the children to call. When they do, he lies between them, holding the book where they both can see it. He is animated as he reads, personalizing each character. Soon the children are asleep. Raisl places them in their separate beds and leaves the door open. They rarely wake.
Rabbi Feltman and his wife are sitting together on the sofa, he with a glass of sherry in his hand, she by his side. He has removed his jacket and loosened his tie. If guests knock, he will tighten the tie and put on his jacket before answering the door. But it is now 9:30 and no guests will call so late. The rabbi puts down his glass, turns to his wife, and kisses her. She kisses him, too. He becomes more ardent and begins to fondle her, falling to his knees in front of the sofa and burying his head in her lap. She is surprised but receptive. He straightens up, kisses her on the mouth. She caresses his hair. He lifts her dress and presses his lips to her legs. She giggles. “Aaron,” she says softly.
“Open your legs.” She is surprised at his ardor but does as he asks. He continues kissing, higher and higher.
“Aaron.” It is more shock than reprimand.
“I want to,” he exclaims, standing up.
“Now? Here?” This has never happened before.
“Now,” he commands. He unbuckles his belt and pushes down his pants, standing in front of her, erect. She is red-faced and tittery, but she cooperates as he removes her panties, which are large, white, and blousy. He thinks she should have the skimpier kind.
Later, in bed, the rabbi feels with pleasure his wife’s body, warm under a flannel nightgown, pressed against his chest. Soon he will wake her and they will watch the news, which she will only dimly see. Then she will pat him dreamily on the leg and turn over for the night. He thinks of Sadia Monta’s card, tucked away in his wallet between the auto-teller card and his driver’s license.