I only wanted to be a writer.
The fun kind. The one that gets to write about dragons and elves. Magical realism. Maybe even a steamfunk novel or two. And maybe on top of that, a director. Of my own works. Of other works that have never been done quite right. Like The Three Musketeers. (Because it’s actually one of a trilogy. The Three Musketeers. Twenty Years After. The Man in the Iron Mask.) Or King Arthur. (Because Morgaine Le Fay is not the mother of Modred. His mother is Arthur’s other sister, Morgawse.) Or The Ten Commandments. (Because can we finally get a version told from a Jewish perspective? Because honestly, ours is waaay cooler. Wanna see a three-story tall frog? We got you. Pharaoh fighting a sea-serpent in his throne room? Bet.)
Long story short, building a life around discussing racial and religious identity in American Judaism was never intended to be my deal. Being MaNishtana was never part of any plan. Nope, I just wanted to be a writer and film director. And, being both black and Jewish (not to mention Orthodox), naturally I wanted to bring my experience into mainstream consciousness. So I started a screenplay that set out to do just that. I expected it to be a one-shot deal, and then I could spend the rest of my career focusing on all the cool stuff I just named. (Well, The Ten Commandments, aside).
But that screenplay I wrote? The Black-Jewish one?
Was over four hours long.
And it still didn’t touch on everything. And so I decided that I’d gradually bring pieces of my experience to common consciousness, issue by issue, where they could be given due space to be addressed and developed. And that’s how MaNishtana was born. (Other fun fact: The cover to my first book Thoughts From A Unicorn: 100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe, was actually the mock-up imaginary movie poster for said screenplay).
And that was eight years ago.
And in all that time I kept going back to that screenplay. Tweaking. Adding. Adapting. Editing. Reimagining it as a webseries. A cartoon strip. A novel. A play.
But now, because I’m really ready to break out of this incendiary mold people have seemed to paint me into, I’m ready to unleash that screenplay into the world. As a novel. A novel called Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi, to be released this October (iy”H, b”H, and any and all acronyms possible to aid this thing). An excerpt of which I share with you now. And so, without further adieu, Chapter One of Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi:
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
9 Sivan 5776
There was not, Ariel decided, enough booze there for this.
And by “there”, he meant “in him”.
I’m not sure what kind of soulless organization holds a cocktail hour without any actual cocktails, but there Ariel was. And he was anxious. About all the people, not the lack of alcohol. But that didn’t help either. Hell, he’d even have gone for a shot of Spirytus right about then.
Ever heard of Spirytus? It’s a 192-proof vodka that’s essentially 96% alcohol and 4% a voice that legit whispers “You are gonna regret your life tonight” directly into your cerebral cortex.
Ariel’d had Spirytus once, and he never wanted to look at it ever again, because it reminded him of the night that he died and then lived to tell the tale of how he died.
There was wine there though. A perplexing vintage smelling faintly of overcooked raisins wrapped in band-aids, and blending scintillating notes of acetone and a dead human foot. With a spiteful cherry finish. It’s almost sacrilegious what passes for kosher wine out there. And that people consciously drink it. I sure as hell wouldn’t.
At least, for Ariel’s sake, Ellis could’ve been there already. Which meant Ellis’ flask would’ve been there. And also Drunk Ellis, who, quite honestly, was the best form of human Ariel ever wanted to be: fearless, confident, and, most importantly, drunk. Although it was probably better that she wasn’t there yet, because while Ariel might’ve needed slightly (a lot) more social lubricant than a murky glass of Chateau de WTF, it was probably way more sensible to stay sober. Seeing as how at least two people on the guest list had already tried to kill him.
Like, literally with actual murder. “Allegedly”.
Although honestly Ariel was a lot more concerned about the speech he was giving later that night. The one he hadn’t—small detail—actually written yet. Hence him sitting at a table looking like he was deeply engrossed in a text battle on his phone, but actually swiping rambles into his Microsoft Word app. Because he was drawing a magnificent blank right about then.
And if there’s anywhere you don’t want to be drawing a blank, it’s at the podium at an awards event honoring the New York Tri-State area’s most influential rabbis of the year. Because one does not simply get a nomination from the Jewish Leadership Union, nor an invitation to its (33rd) annual gala. Especially when one has no idea how one managed to pull that off in the first place.
Yet, there was that little place card right there on the table in front of him. “Rabbi Ariel Samson” it declared, in swoopy deliberate penmanship.
Yes: “Ariel”. Pronounced AH-riel, just like how that crab does it in that stupid movie, not EH-riel like everyone else does in that stupid movie. And contrary to the popular belief of fish-people, it’s actually a boy’s name. A girl would properly be named “Ariella”. Either way, Ariel wasn’t really sure what a Hebrew name that meant “lion of G’d” had to do with a red-headed half-fish person with low cultural pride, anyway.
Although to be fair, there he was, fitting in as much at this dinner as he did anywhere else, i.e.: not very much. So maybe “Ariels” just naturally tended to be blue-eyed fishes out of water.
Which leads us back to where we began, with our incredulous hero trying to absorb that he was to be a keynote speaker at one of the most prestigious Jewish leadership award ceremonies on the East Coast. And, judging from the sideeyes from the servers and the upturned noses of the attendees, Ariel found himself once again in the unenviable yet familiar position of being too black for the Jews and too Jewish for the blacks.
And all thanks to a little place called Congregation Ahavath Yisroel.
Twenty minutes of writer’s block later, Ariel was outside, hoping a temporary change of location would alleviate the situation. It was chillier than he’d expected for a June evening, but a short stroll around the block couldn’t hurt. In fact, it couldn’t do anything but help.
See, Ariel was powerfully attached to showing up to things on time. “Better never than late” had always been his motto. Which is generally not a good idea when showing up to a Jewish event. Or a black one, for that matter. CPT and JPT are real.
Case in point: Tonight’s event was scheduled for 7:00. Ariel got there at 6:47. And now it was 7:22. Which pretty much means that when only about eight people show up at the actual start time, sooner or later someone is going to try and strike up awkward conversation with you, no matter how busy you may seem. Which is why Ariel was outside now. It was going to be a long enough night as it was, and he really just needed to be in his own head at the moment. Maybe the solitude would spark some kind of creativity.
Although, speaking of “sparks”, Ariel was very interested in what his good friend Miriam Jane had to bring to the table. Some good ol’ borei minei b’samim, if you know what I mean.
Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.
Hey, he might’ve been a rabbi but he was still allowed to be a normal 27-year-old once in a while, right? Prone to the lure of doing stupid things and all that? Alright Mx. Judgeypants, calm down. It’s a growth process. His grandmother said so.
In fact, when Savalava (aka, Savta Lahava) finally headed off to life’s next adventure, she was 93 years awesome and still growing herself. As a person, I mean. And also weed too. But I mostly meant as a person. And when it came to the green, she’d unabashedly declare that she “had glaucoma” with eyes so clear you could see the twinkles in them not giving any kind of expletive that you saw them.
Ariel missed her. Aside from all the obvious reasons, she was his favorite grandmother. And a lot more laidback than his mother’s mom, Grandy Laverne. Grandy Laverne was still more than a little sore about Ariel’s father “stealing” her daughter away to Judaism, so calling her “Savta” Laverne wasn’t ain’t never gonna happen. Grandy Laverne liked her grandkids Christian, with good hair, and speaking English. And one out of three wasn’t bad.
But Savalava would’ve liked Congregation Ahavath Yisroel, Ariel thought.
It was about a fifteen, twenty minute walk from where he lived, just at the edge of Avon Gardens. Assuming, of course, that you knew where to find Avon Gardens.
It was a little-known piece of urban arcana: Avon Gardens, the Jewish neighborhood that never really caught on. A weird isosceles slice that took a chunk out of the more established yiddishe enclaves of Kensington, Ditmas Park, and Midwood to form its own bizarre little Bermuda Triangle—a Berjudah Triangle, if you will—that was the Great Jewish Coexistence Experiment of post-Holocaust 1940’s Brooklyn. Sprinkled with just enough Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews that no one denomination was the majority, and with a negligible amount of WASPy outsiders to unite against, Avon Gardens was marginally successful well into the 1970’s before it quietly faded into obscurity, producing three adequately populated synagogues: Temple Shaarei Tikvah, Beis Hakeneses Hagodol Hachodosh, and Congregation Ahavath Yisroel.
Before the comedy of errors that had led him there, Ariel had never before stepped foot in CAY, but he’d passed its brown-and-grey facade enough times on his way to Hell work—a low, public library-style building modestly nestled in between an apartment complex and a row of faux-brownstone rowhouses.
It’d been built sometime in the 50’s, something fairly obvious from the Saul Bass-esque Hebrew lettering adorning the ark and the translucent salad bowl chandeliers that hung from the high ceiling, suspended by bronze chains caked with half a century’s worth of mildly furry grime. Pale, grey-green carpet—peppered with triangles in assorted colors and sizes—had long since had any of its softness trampled out of it and was worn through in several places, allowing the dirty, generically beige tiles underneath to peek through. Dark mahogany pews were bolted to the floor, sporting a lighter shade of brown around their worn, splintering edges, and fitted with cracked leather cushions that hissed when you sat down and creaked when you got up. And even though today it was very firmly an Orthodox congregation, the huge stained-glass windows betrayed Congregation Ahavath Yisrael’s very firmly Conservative origins, as did the wobbly portable curtain frames dividing the sanctuary into the men’s and women’s sections, a stylistically discordant afterthought that clashed with the general decor.
Truth be told, it was a ghost town of a synagogue. The kind of place where most of the membership wasn’t filling up the pews, but filling out the walls in neat rows of bronze placards with flickering little orange bulbs next to their names. And it was alone. A sole surviving relic of bygone days of lox and laughter.
After all, Temple Shaarei Tikvah, that once-proud cathedral of Reform Judaism, had long since been sold to a Seventh-Day Adventist church.
Beis Hakeneses Hagodol Hachodosh became a daycare. Then a kickboxing gym after that. Now it was a laundromat.
But Congregation Ahavath Yisroel? As the last Jewish titan of Avon Gardens descended gently into that good night, it proudly claimed Ariel S. D. Samson as its rabbi for six glorious last months.
Alright, Ariel decided. He knew what he wanted to write. He was ready to go back in now and knock this baby out of the park.It was morphin’ time.
… Actually, on second thought, Ariel realized he should probably stay outside just a tad longer.
He’d been dankrupt for so long that he’d forgotten how skunky Oded’s stashes were, and heading back inside a room full of white people while reeking like a billowing monsoon of herbal courage would totally defeat the purpose of having avoided the watermelon slices and orange soda at the reception table in the first place.
President Rabbi Isla Isaacs, the draft began. Executive Director Rachel Stein, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: Good evening.
It’s a great pleasure to be invited to address the Jewish Leadership Union Annual Gala tonight, now celebrating its 33rd year honoring the recipients of the JLU Dreidel Leadership Award.
[Hold for applause]
And it’s an even greater pleasure for me to be considered as a nominee for the award itself.
As we all know, each year, the JLU honors four Tri-State area based rabbis who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to progressing social justice, passion for improving interdenominational dialogue, or tireless leadership concerning intercultural community engagement. Four of us here tonight, out of the JLU’s ten finalists, will receive very prestigious recognition of our dedication to acknowledging the dignity of our fellow human beings, and the Jewish belief that every person is created b’tzelem Elokim, a reflection of the Divine Image.
And, once again, I am more than honored to be counted among these finalists…My mother, though, is a slightly different story.
[Hold for laughter]
Yes, she…we’ll say, “kindly”, reminded me that I’ve always had a knack for being a member of uncommon cliques. As a Black man with blue eyes, I have membership into an exclusive club which includes such celebrities as Vanessa “1st African-American Ms. America” Williams, Jesse “I’m Blacker Than Anyone In The World” Williams, Stacey “I’m Whiter Than Anyone In The World” Dash, and James Earl “I’m Darth Vader and Mufasa” Jones.
[Continue through chuckles]
As an English major with a minor in Linguistics, I’m part of a select elite aware that when you are describing something as your strength, the word is pronounced “fort”, derived from the French. But when you’re talking about a section of music that’s intended to be played louder and stronger than the rest, the word is pronounced “fortay”, derived from the Italian.
[Continue through “Oooohs”]
And as an African-American Jew, with two African-American Jewish parents—and being a rabbi, no less—I often find myself, well…nowhere.
[Hold for heavy silence]
One of my earliest memories shortly after receiving my smicha, my rabbinical ordination, was the first time I was called up to the Torah in a new synagogue for the honor of Shlishi, the third portion, when
Here Ariel stopped, because he began realizing that his hair was really deeper in than usual. Like, it almost felt like there was a lot less scalp there than normal? Which was weird because, y’know, it was still acting like a scalp. Well, not “acting”. It’s not like it was Johnny Depp in a play pretending that…Oh. Oh okay. Ariel was realizing that he was high. Okay. This is what we’re doing now. Must’ve hit him sometime between the lemon artichoke chicken pockets and the mini spring rolls. And those were ambrosial, by the way.
Of course, regardless of whether or not he was in a lituation, Ariel would’ve still been quietly chuckling at the server marching past his table, determined not to look in his direction.
Poor guy. His face was still bright red under his floppy blond hair. Was probably still mad—or embarrassed—that Ariel had gotten him vigorously reprimanded by his boss for something that, by the way, was totally his own fault. All the dude needed to do was serve hors-d’oeuvres. But no, he’d decided to go above and beyond the call of duty to snidely inform Ariel that he was seated at the wrong table.
“Excuse me, sir,” he’d begun. “But you can’t sit here. These tables are reserved for the rabbis being honored tonight.”
“I know,” came Ariel’s answer. “That’s why I’m sitting here.”
The golden nametag above the server’s vest pocket read “Seth”. Seth blinked a couple of times, obviously not comprehending Ariel’s answer, and repeated himself. This time very slowly.
“Sir…these tables…are for the rabbis.”
“Yes,” Ariel had replied, just as delayed. Partly facetiously, and partly because the weed was starting to kick in. “I got that. And I am one of them. Hence the here. And the. Sitting.”
“Ah. Ok,” Seth nodded and grinned with this, “Riiiiiight. Gotcha” kind of vibe, and walked off.
Not two minutes later, an older woman—mid-fifties, salt-and-chocolate hair, bound and shackled in costume jewelry, and slathered with overwhelmingly powerful perfume—had swooped down on Ariel, drowning him in apologies. She, as it turns out, was the JLU’s event manager. And a certain server had made a major party foul at her major party. And so that’s how, in the spirit of making amends, Ariel had ended up with a bottle of rancid wine at his personal discretion on his table.
Chateau de WTF, as you recall.
It had been sitting there, undisturbed, for the past forty minutes, yet, surprisingly, it’d managed to be the least nauseating of Ariel’s dinner companions currently occupying his table for the evening.
Because of all the tables, at all the galas, in all the world, the people seated at his table of course had to be Senator Aryeh Rosenstern, Rabbi Dov Ber Guildencrantz, and their respective entourages.
His anxiety duly anesthetized with an emerald haze, and his sense of irony fully engaged, Ariel could only chuckle and be amazed as he sat across from the two people who’d tried to kill him just thirteen days earlier in a fiery blaze.
“Wine?” Ariel offered, unable to keep the silly grin from spreading across his face as they glared back in return.