Subway Rabbi

“What was the sin of Yoseif’s brothers when they threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery?” the young man bellows. “Not that each led his brothers astray, and not that each conspired to have him killed. But if you look into the text –”

“Why you gonna be like that?” demands a girl from the morning commute crowd, not much younger than his oldest daughter, in a business suit — at her first job, probably, and full of fire. “Why you spoutin’ off, thinkin’ the rest of us are some heretics or some trash, thinkin’ you some sorta saint?”

“No,” he says, “that’s not what I’m saying…”

But the lady’s gaining steam, and the other people on the platform are listening. Listening is exactly what he was after, but not like this. He feels embarrassed, his face burning. He fantasized about his long black cloak billowing out behind him, like a superhero or a secret agent, but now he wants to wrap it around him like a blanket, maybe use it to make himself vanish into a puff of air.

“Think you never sinned in your life before, is that what you’re sayin’? You want me to talk to your wife, see if you changin’ enough of your baby’s dirty diapers?”

“No, ma’am,” he says, repressing the truth as best as he can. His youngest is starting at CUNY in fall.

But the quietude of his responses has landed on unenthralled ears. She steps from platform to subway, is surrounded by metal and glass, then disappears, whisked off to congregations far off.

He clears his throat and continues. Much of the crowd has dispersed — it’s nearing the end of rush hour, everyone who has to be at work is already there — but he still has his strength, and the Aibishter is listening, even if nobody else is.

“More than any other violation, Yoseif’s brothers were aver the aveira of lying,” he says. “Just that one single action nullifies two positive commandments. They were aver on lying and aver on honoring their father, to whom they told the lie. How could you think–”

“Get to the point, old man,” bellows a tiny black man, as old and shrunken as the fruit of Eden itself. “You want to preach, if the Holy Spirit moves you to preach, you got to preach. But the people want to say amen, they got to say amen, man! You got to give them something to say amen and sing hallelujah to. You our shepherd, rabbi, and you just got to let your flock know that you are being heard.”

“Well, um, no, that’s not exactly the point of –”

The man looks at him askew.

“That beard real?” he says. “You gonna tell me you’re one of them dirty unhygienic cheap-beer-in-a-can-swelling hipsticks, are you? Are you a fake?”

He protests, letting his voice squeak. “No! I’m not a hipster, I swear!”

“You gonna lie to me? Tell me your pockets are all stuffed with cassette tapes of some silly acoustic guitarists who don’t believe in choruses, whose names I can’t pronounce?”

He shakes his head adamantly, forswearing in body and mind all shoegaze rock forever. He went through a brief period of following it, showed up at music bars, the only one to look anything like he did, instantly alienated before he could speak a word. Now, all he wants is to be here now, to do this.

“Very good, then. Carry on, rabbi. And get to the point soon, I need a good amen.”

He waves his hands in the air as if doing birthday-party magic. “That’s, um, that’s not really how it –”

“Carry on.”

“Okay.”

He thinks of Yoseif. He thinks of being trapped, caught, abandoned by those you love in a pit of scorpions, alone in all the world, feeling so special because, of all the family, your father bought you alone a suit of many colors, but what good’s that when there’s nobody to wear it for?

The old man gets on a train. as it drifts off, he sees him mouthing against the windowpane, You never said amen.

More people come. More people get on trains. More people listen, but nobody hears.

He keeps talking. The words tumble from his mouth, at first Rashi and the rishonim, then the deeper wells, the long commentaries he half-remembers reading from when he sat with them for hours, just him and a stack of books, and the stories of people who’ve abandoned this earth for centuries and centuries before he ever came along.

He keeps going. He does, but not really. The story is unraveling in his words. Yoseif has evaded death and found a job with Potiphar. There was a point that he was building to; there was a reason he was saying the words he was saying. There are only a few straphangers now; it’s lunchtime and whoever wants to eat sure as anything doesn’t want to do it on a subway, or a subway platform.

A woman sits near him. She sits close and she listens. Her hair fills her head; her hair hangs over her eyes and face like a medusa, like a living thing all its own. He can’t see her face. He can see her nod, though; her whole body bobs, and the hair shakes like a pompom being cast into the air and returning to Earth.

He speaks more. Yoseif, Potiphar, his wife. He gets thrown into jail. Yoseif does, he doesn’t, although who knows, maybe ranting and raving like this will eventually deliver him behind bars. He talks to the other prisoners, to the goyim. He discovers a hidden talent: he can see through to the inner meanings of dreams. Within the web of lies that remixes our days, he can see through to the truth.

“The truth!” he bellows. His hands shoot into the air — the hallelujah chorus, midnight on New Year’s Eve, a not guilty verdict. “Yoseif’s time in jail was a repentance for his haughtiness, and his reward was turning his brothers’ lies into the truth that comes from dreams!”

He wants to pull all the people around to him, he wants to rejoice and celebrate and dance. For his preaching has come full circle, and the intent of his sermon has pushed through the muddle of his thoughts. He wants to laugh. He wants to cry. Instead he finds his hands, still extended, being filled by the woman with the feral bobbing hair: it is his wife, who has been sitting there for the better part of an hour, listening to the lost-ness, waiting, even if she did not know it, for just this part.

But of course she does know it: and she has come prepared for victory, with sandwiches, one for each hand, which she presses upon him now.

And he will eat them — oh, yes, he will. As soon as he comes to the end of his sermon. Because there is indeed someone who eats lunch on a subway platform, and, for today at least, it is him.

 

illustration: Rabbi in Shades by Jen Gallardo.