Author introductions for Excerpt stories:
For A Methodist goes to Shabbat:
A Methodist goes to Shabbat was the first of these stories to be written. It followed a weekend visit with my daughter Corielle during her Freshman year at Lehigh University. Thinking we’d been invited to a Fraternity party, we ended up at Shabbat dinner in an Orthodox Jewish home. We were the only Methodist’s in the room, and we learned many new things. Including – handwashing is a special ritual, their song books are numbered backwards, and you don’t shake hands with the Rabbi’s wife.
For A Mid-Life Rodeo:
A Mid-Life Rodeo was one of those things that was sure to make a good story… if I survived the experience. After the fact, my office staff presented me with a tee-shirt (a la Forest Gump) that said, “Stupid is as Stupid does.” I came away with a bruise that extended from my shoulder to the back of my knee, but I did survive, and I hope you enjoy the story.
For Body of Christ:
Body of Christ is one of my favorite stories. Those of you born Catholic may find it hard to appreciate, but attending a Catholic Mass is a confusing experience. When do you stand? When do you kneel? Why do you stop before the end when reciting the Lord’s Prayer? And then there’s that little genuflection you all do before you enter the row and sit down in your pew. Add to that my Mother-in-laws insistence that I join her at Communion, and you have a recipe for disaster.
I was raised a Methodist, in a little one room country church that stood on the banks of a creek that meandered through the valley below our farm. My family sat in the third pew from the back on the right-hand side of the aisle. There were numerous empty pews in front of ours, but Methodists prefer to huddle in the rear of the sanctuary, as if there’s about to be a fire and not everyone will get out. In the Methodist Church, when we sing a hymn, we sing all the verses. We say all the words to the Lord’s Prayer, even the last part, and we take communion on Communion Sunday.
Communion Sunday is a special day, held twice a year, and it involves getting a warm hunk of bread, torn from a freshly baked loaf, and a personal serving of grape juice poured into a small, silver cup and presented on a silver tray.
Then I married Cindy, who, as it turned out, was not a Methodist. She was a Catholic, and although marrying a Catholic did not require that I convert, it did require that I pledge to raise my children in the mysteries of the Catholic faith, which is how I came to find myself attending Mass on Sunday mornings.
One of the mysteries of the Catholic faith, I came to discover, is that every Sunday is Communion Sunday. Week after week, I watched as a line formed and processed down the aisle to receive a thin wafer, stamped out by the millions in a bakery in the basement of the Vatican, and a sip of wine from a shared cup. Communion in the Catholic church, I learned, was one of the Seven Holy Sacraments, and it was made clear to me that I was not welcomed to participate in this ritual, because I wasn’t confirmed into the Catholic faith. But even without that restriction I would have been hesitant to join in, because, as I pointed out before, they all drank from the same cup. Granted, it was a nice cup. It was more of a goblet really, and it was probably too costly for everyone to have their own, but in spite of the fact that the priest rotated the cup one quarter turn after each supplicant and wiped the edge with a little cloth, by my calculation every fourth person had put their lips onto the same spot, and who knew where that person had been? Everyone today knows that if you take communion with one person, you’re taking communion with every person that person has ever taken communion with.
So, I would happily have lived my entire life without taking communion in the Catholic church, but Cindy’s mother was of a different mind. She somehow felt a personal responsibility for the salvation of my immortal soul, and she felt that the best place to begin was at the Cup of Communion.
“Come on Alan,” she coaxed whenever we joined her at Mass, “take communion with me this Sunday.”
“No, Mom,” I demurred. “You know they don’t want me to take a sacrament when I haven’t been confirmed. Lightning might strike me dead.”
Apparently, that was a risk she was willing to take, and Sunday after Sunday, as months grew into years, she kept after me. Finally, a time came when we were all on vacation together in Florida, and we found ourselves in an unfamiliar church in Sarasota.
“Alan,” Mom whispered, “Come up to communion with me today.”
“Mom -” She cut me off.
“No one knows you here,” she continued. “No one will know you’re not Catholic.”
“God will know,” I pointed out.
“God doesn’t care,” she explained. “Only the Catholic church cares, and we won’t tell them.”
Well, that argument made a lot of sense to me. I could almost imagine Martin Luther’s mother-in-law whispering it to him, so I finally let myself be convinced and slid out of my seat to join Cindy and her Mom in the long line heading to the front of the church.
As we slowly advanced, I prepared myself for the administration of my first Holy Sacrament by mimicking the posture of those around me. I bowed my head and held my hands folded and slightly raised in an attitude of reverent reflection.
I watched carefully as those at the front of the line received the Host, and I noted that there were two methods. The first was to hold out the cupped hands to receive the wafer, then transfer it into the mouth and follow with a quick Sign of the Cross, which seemed to be up, down, left, and then right. I had reservations regarding this method because there was the possibility of mishandling the Host.
The second method was simpler, and, at the same time, more traditional. When the supplicant came to the front of the line, the priest held the wafer up for their inspection. They then opened their mouths, and he laid the Host directly onto their tongue. They went immediately into the Sign of the Cross – up, down, left, right – and moved on to the cup, which appeared to be optional and which, in the interest of hygiene, I intended to skip.
As I approached the head of the line, I went over the Sign of the Cross, rehearsing the movements with tiny motions of a single finger of my folded hands. Up, down, left, right. I watched Cindy and her mother take their turns in front of the priest, and then stepped up myself. “Up, down, left, right,” I repeated soundlessly in my head as the priest held the wafer in front of my eyes. I gave it a critical look and opened my mouth. To my astonishment, rather than placing the Host onto my tongue, the priest pulled back his hand and looked at me quizzically.
I had done something wrong! But what could it be?
I watched as the priest once again held the wafer before my eyes.
Perhaps I hadn’t inspected the Host carefully enough, or opened wide enough, so I leaned forward slightly, gave the Host a thorough looking over, and opened my mouth more fully, pushing my tongue out a bit. Again, the priest withdrew his hand and looked at me with reproach. He suspected! Somehow he knew that I was a Methodist and unworthy of the Holy Sacraments of the Catholic Church! And yet, once again he held the Host in front of my eyes, now almost as if he were taunting me with it.
This time I heard him say, as he presented the wafer, “Body of Christ.”
Well, yes, I thought. I knew that was the general idea. This time I leaned forward at the waist and put my tongue out fully, as if I intended to lick the wafer from his fingers, and he stepped back in alarm, keeping the wafer just out of my reach. He looked at me now with his suspicions confirmed.
“Body of Christ,” he repeated more firmly. It occurred to me now for the first time that he might be waiting for a response of some sort; a secret Catholic countersign perhaps, but what could it be?
“Please?” I ventured hopefully, although, with my mouth gaped open and my tongue fully protruded, I suspect I was hard to understand. The priest sighed sadly and finally laid the wafer onto my outstretched tongue. My mouth was so dry at this point that when I returned to my pew the Host still lay in my mouth like a disk of notebook paper.
Cindy and her mother, who had long since returned to their seats and had been watching with fascination and mounting concern as the drama unfolded at the front of the Church, turned to me at once. “What happened?” they whispered. “What took you so long?”
“He knew!” I said through a spray of Host.
“He knew what?”
“He knew I was a Methodist,” I explained, “and he wouldn’t give me the Host! He kept pulling it away. He made me beg!”
“He made you beg?” they asked in unified disbelief.
“He kept telling me it was the Body of Christ,” I said, “and he wouldn’t give it to me until I said please.”
They both dissolved into that silent, quaking laugh that people do when they’re in church or at a funeral. “No,” Cindy finally explained, “He says ‘Body of Christ’ and you say ‘Amen’, and then he gives it to you!”
Well, someone could have told me that sooner, I thought.
“And then,” Cindy’s mom added, “you’re supposed to make the Sign of the Cross. You didn’t make the Sign of the Cross.”
Damn! It’s a wonder lightning didn’t strike me dead.
“Climb on up here Doc,” Brian called out. So I climbed on up.
“Now, straddle the fence,” Brian said, “and let yourself down onto the horse easy, but be careful you don’t touch her with your spurs.”
Brian slapped my hand where I gripped the riggin’. “How do you feel?”
Honestly? I felt like I was about to do something really stupid.
Now, normally, when you’re about to do something really stupid, you can’t recall exactly how you came to be in that situation. Men often get a testosterone induced amnesia. But not in this case. No, I knew the exact moment that this all began.
I was waiting in line to pick up a fish dinner.
The “World Championship Rodeo” was coming to Frankfort, courtesy of the local VFW, and I was excited. I liked rodeos. The event was still a week away, and I was standing in line on a warm Friday night in September, waiting for my fish dinner at the VFW pavilion. Next to me was a poster, in garish yellow and red, featuring a photo of a cowboy riding a Brahma bull. I turned to Cheryl Howard, a friend who was joining us for dinner, and asked, nodding at the poster, “Are you going to the rodeo?”
Cheryl smirked an annoying smirk that is often smirked by people who think something is cruel or stupid. “No,” she sniffed dismissively, “I don’t think so.”
My hackles rose at the tone of her voice. “Well, that’s too bad,” I said defensively, “because rodeos are fun. I just wish there were some way local people could ride in them, because I’d love to do that.” I swear, I was just making conversation, filling the moment with idle chit-chat, but there are people in this world that you can say things like that in front of and get away with it, and Cheryl isn’t one of them.
I picked up my plate and went to sit at an unoccupied picnic table. My fish hadn’t cooled enough for my first bite when Cheryl reappeared with Big Bob Garrett, the VFW commander, in tow. “Hey Doc,” Bob said, “Cheryl says you want to ride in the rodeo?”
I looked up with a startled, deer-in-the-headlights look. I saw Cheryl and knew in an instant what was going on, and I also knew that the next thing I should say was, “Are you crazy?” But when I looked over Bob’s shoulder at Cheryl, who still had that smirk on her face, what came out of my mouth instead was, “Absolutely! Can I?”
“Shoot, anybody can ride in the rodeo,” Bob said with mounting enthusiasm. “You just have to pay your entry fee, and get a Rodeo Rider’s Union card, and buy some insurance. Anybody can ride! Jeez, I wish we’d known you wanted to do this, Al. We’d have put you into the advertising. People would come from all over to see a dentist ride in a rodeo. Hell, you could get hurt!”
Bob gave me a phone number to call the next Tuesday after one o’clock, and he walked away literally rubbing his hands together with glee at the prospect.
Tuesday came all too quickly, but when one o’clock rolled around, I pulled the phone number from my pocket and dialed. A cigarette-roughened female voice answered. “World Championship Rodeo, may help you?”
“Yes,” I quavered, “Is this the place you sign up to ride in the rodeo?”
“Yes, it is. How may I help you?”
I decided to cut right to the chase. “Ok, so what do I do? I’d like to ride!”
The woman hesitated just briefly. “Ok, and what is your event?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess Saddle Bronc.”
The hesitation was longer this time. “And do you have a Professional Rodeo Rider’s Union Card?” she asked.
“No,” I admitted, “They told me I could get a temporary card for this event.”
“That’s true,” she said slowly. “Do you have your own equipment?”
“I have boots,” I answered proudly. “And I can borrow a hat. What else do I need?”
The woman had heard enough. “Sir,” she intoned sternly, “you’ve never done this before have you?”
“Well, no.” I admitted, “But I’m over forty, and I figure there’re only so many ticks left on my clock before I can’t do something like this anymore, and I don’t want to pass up the opportunity.”
She laughed, “Sir, if you’re over forty, your clock has ticked.”
I paused. “I’m going to need to talk to someone else,” I said.
“All right,” she said pleasantly, “but he’s going to tell you the same thing.”
And he did. “I’m sorry sir, but we get this all the time. Men of a certain age call up wanting to ride in a rodeo. We just can’t allow it. Surely, you understand the risks?”
After I hung up, I was overwhelmed with relief. I had tried. And they wouldn’t let me do it. I was off the hook, and it wasn’t my fault. Another couple of days passed before Big Bob stuck his head into my office. He was putting up some last-minute posters, and he wondered how my entry was coming along.
“Sorry, Bob.” I said dolefully. “They wouldn’t let me do it. They said I was too old. I didn’t have my own equipment. A lot of things. It just won’t work out.”
Bob’s face fell. “That’s too bad. Do you still want to do it?”
Now that the pressure was off, my machismo was back in full force. “Oh, yeh! I’m really disappointed.”
“All right then, I’ll see what I can do. When the guys come out to set up the rodeo grounds later today, I’ll talk to them.” And Bob turned and hurried away.
Crap! I had done it again.
Bob returned the next day.
“Hey Doc, how old are you?”
“Forty-one,” I said.
“No, you’re not,” he said with a wink, “you’re not quite thirty. And what kind of shape are you in?”
“Pretty good for forty-one,” I said, “but not so hot, I suppose, for ‘not quite thirty’.”
“No,” he said, “you’re in great shape, and you ride all the time! I talked them into letting you ride Bareback Bronc!”
“Bob!” I said, with a horrified look, “I haven’t been on a horse in years! And I wanted Saddle Bronc. I haven’t ridden a horse bareback since I was a kid!”
“Nope,” Bob called over his shoulder as he left the office, “Saddle Bronc’s too dangerous. They said they’d let you go Bareback. Be there about one o’clock on Saturday.”
That evening I dug out a roller blade wrist guard to wear on my right hand. If I broke my right wrist, I reasoned, I was out of work, and I couldn’t have that. Then I headed to Action Sports to pick out a new athletic supporter, because I had other body parts I would just as soon weren’t out of work either.
I rummaged through the display of athletic supporters for several minutes before I gave up and asked for help. “Excuse me,” I whispered to the young girl behind the counter. “Where do you keep the adult sizes of athletic supporters?”
“There’s none over there?” she asked.
“No,” I said softly, “just youth sizes.”
“Ok,” she said. “HEY MA!” she shouted into the back of the store. “WHERE DO WE KEEP THE ADULT JOCK STRAPS?”
From the back, “WHAT SIZE?”
She, “What size?”
“I don’t know, probably a medium. How do they come?” I hissed in my smallest voice.
“Could be a large,” I amended.
The owner emerged from the back carrying a selection of supporters. “Oh, Al,” she said. “What are you up to? Playing some football?”
“No,” I said with a sheepish grin, “I’m riding in a rodeo tomorrow.”
She looked at me silently for a minute, and then pushed the package across the counter. “This is on the house,” she said softly.
The next day was Saturday, and my buddy Bill Holley picked me up after work. He had agreed to be my “corner man,” and he proudly displayed the small first aid kit he had purchased for the occasion. It held several band-aids and a package of alcohol wipes. “Because you can’t be too careful,” he intoned seriously.
When we got to the VFW, a makeshift arena had been set up with bleachers on both sides and a corral holding the livestock at one end. Big Bob met us at the gate and took us to meet the rodeo manager. I stuck out my hand. “I understand I have to pay some fees and sign some papers?”
“Nope, no fees,” he said. “We don’t want you to pay no entry fee, and we don’t want you to buy no insurance. You don’t need to get a Union Card either. You’re what we’re going to call an exhibition rider, and you just need to sign this waiver that says you understand you could get killed and we’re not responsible.”
“Well,” I swallowed, “I guess that sounds reasonable.”
“Now, over there,” he said, and he pointed to a young cowboy leaning against a trailer, “is Brian Massey. He’s going to tell you what to do. Pay attention to what he says. He’s the number three bareback money winner in the country so far this year, and he knows his stuff.” He pushed a tattered leather and rope contraption into my hands. “This here is your riggin’,” he said, “Brian will help you with that too.”
Minutes later, Brian was looking me slowly up and down, as if I were some sort of curiosity that he had never encountered before. He spit a stream of tobacco juice, and finally looked me in the eye. “They say you’re a dentist,” he said. “That true?”
“Yeh,” I admitted. “It is.”
“Well, what the fuck you want to do this for?” he asked with sincere amazement.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “It sounded like a good idea at the time.”
“Well,” and he spit again, “pay attention, because I’m going to try to save your life. This here is your riggin’.” And he took the straps from my hands. “We belt this around the horse, and you dig your hand into the handle and hold on for all you’re worth. You hitch yourself right up over the handle with your hips, you lever your arm across your leg, and you squeeze for all you’re worth. Every time the horse bucks, you reach out and hook with your spurs and pull with your legs for all you’re worth.” He paused and looked to see if he had my full attention. “Do you think you can remember all that?”
“I believe I can,” I said.
“You got any questions?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “You know how when the ride is over, and they come up beside you with that other horse to lift you off, so you don’t have to jump? How do you do that?”
Brian looked at me in disbelief. “Shit,” he said, “you don’t have to worry about that!” And he turned and walked away.
In spite of Brian’s lack of faith, I was feeling better than I had in days. Truth be told, I hadn’t slept much since Thursday, and, as I lay awake in bed, trying to imagine how a person might stay on the back of a bucking bareback horse, I had come up with almost exactly what Brian had just told me. I suddenly felt that I might be all right.
Brian led me to the bullpen, where the other cowboys were stretching and warming up before their rides, and he pointed out a dappled gray mare in the livestock pen. “That’s your horse,” he said. “She’s a good animal. She won’t try to kill you.”
I studied the other cowboys, and I did what they did. When they stretched, I stretched. When they spit, I spit. After a few minutes they ran the bareback horses from the holding pen into the individual loading chutes, and since my gray wasn’t one of them, I went on stretching, not paying any particular attention now to the cowboys who were preparing to ride. Suddenly I heard a gate crash open, and I heard a noise that I didn’t know a horse could make. It was an angry noise, filled with violence. Like a scream. And then clods of dirt started raining down into the bullpen.
I looked up as the horse pitched, spun, and launched its rider over its head and onto the ground. The horse continued to spin, and its hoof grazed the thrown rider’s head. Men rushed out and lifted him to his feet and helped him from the arena. I will admit that I had held a mental image of my rodeo ride firmly in my head since I had first agreed to do it. It involved a horse that didn’t scream. A horse that even liked me a little. One that gently bucked as it came out of the chute, and I would hold on, or I would fall off, but it was all civilized and gentle, and in the end, nobody got kicked in the head and was dragged, bleeding, from the arena.
What I had just seen was nothing like that. What I had just seen was dangerous. What I had just seen I could die doing. I felt like someone had poured ice-water down my back.
They released the next rider. He had my full attention this time. He slipped backwards onto the horse’s rump and was launched fully ten feet into the air, finally coming to earth with an impact that I actually felt through my feet. His tail bone was the first thing to make contact with the ground, and he limped out of the arena under his own power, but only just.
Brian was next, and he too was thrown, crashing head foremost into the metal fencing that made up the arena’s perimeter.
Bill, my corner man, appeared magically at my elbow. “Hey, Al,” he said, with a concerned look on his face, “everybody sent me down here to talk you out of doing this. Are you still going through with it?”
I looked at him without recognition for a minute, and then, “Yeah, I guess I am.”
He shook his head sadly. “You’re up shit’s creek!” he said, and he walked away, his obligations fulfilled.
The stands had gone quiet, or so it seemed to me. There were a lot of people here who had come to watch me ride, and the atmosphere had been party-like until the first rider went. A betting pool was being run, in fact, by the girls from my office. People drew numbers corresponding to how many seconds, to the nearest tenth, it would take before I was off the horse and in the dirt. But now, suddenly, it had occurred to them that they might all be out of work tomorrow.
Brian limped over to where I clung, white knuckled, to the fence. “Let’s go Doc. Grab your riggin’” I noticed for the first time that they had run in the horses for the Saddle Bronc competition, and my gray was in the last chute. Oddly, that calmed my nerves. At least now I knew when I was to ride. At the end of all the bucking horse competition they were going to have their exhibition ride, and I would go last. I took a deep breath and gathered my riggin’ from where it lay in the bullpen dirt.
Brian cinched it onto my horse while another young rider, the cowboy who had landed so hard on his tailbone, took off his spurs and offered them to me. “You can’t ride without spurs,” he said.
“Climb on up here, Doc.” Brian called.
I climbed on up.
“Now straddle over across the fence and let yourself down easy onto the horse. Be careful you don’t touch her with your spurs.”
I slowly lowered myself onto the gray’s back.
“Dig your hand into the handle like I told you!” Brian said sharply.
I dug in my hand.
Brian slapped at my hand. “All right now! Hitch yourself up over the handle like I told you!” Brian almost shouted. “Come on! How do you feel?”
“I feel fine,” I said. Jesus, I thought, relax Brian. There are five horses yet to go before it’s my turn. Let’s chill out here a little.
“Ok!” Brian shouted, and he slapped again at my hand where I held loosely onto the riggin’. “When they open the chute, dig with your spurs! Now, how do you feel?!”
“I feel good,” I said. And I did. I was relaxed and comfortable.
“Say when!” The voice came from behind me. I turned to look at a man holding an electric cattle prod poised over the flank of my horse.
“Now?” I quavered. I was really just asking. But the gate flew open and the man hit my horse with the electric prod. She whirled sideways and spun out into the arena, and as she whirled, she simply came out from underneath me.
You see, I wasn’t gripping the handle for all I was worth. I wasn’t levering my arm into my leg for all I was worth, and I wasn’t digging with my spurs and pulling for all I was worth. It turns out that “for all you’re worth” is very important, and I had failed to pick up on that part of Brian’s speech earlier. As the horse left the chute, and I stayed behind, one thought filled my mind. After all this lead up, all this hubbub, my new jock strap, and all these people come to watch me ride, the horse was going to come out of the chute naked. The winner of the pool would be the guy who held “zero seconds,” and I was going to dig a hole in the bullpen and pull the dirt in after me, because I was never going to hold my head up in town again.
But I hadn’t come completely off. My left hand locked onto the handle and my left spur hooked the riggin’. As the horse finished her spin and took her first running buck, I was thrown into the air, and landed, miraculously, back on top of the horse. No one was more surprised than me. It took a second to realize that I was still horseback, but when I did, I gathered myself, reached with my spurs, dug, and pulled for all I was worth.
I was still on when the eight second horn blew, and I kicked off into the arena dirt. The crowd went wild! I was alive! And they were as relieved as I was.
I picked myself up, gathered my borrowed cowboy hat from where it had fallen, and used it to knock the dust off my pants. My body was awash with testosterone. You could have scraped it off my forehead and sold it to baseball players. I was an honest to God cowboy, and what was more, I was the only one to ride eight seconds that day. I threw my hat into the crowd, and it sailed into Cindy’s outstretched hands. I walked out of the arena and back into the bullpen, my stride rolling on suddenly bowed legs.
Later, as Bill and I were leaving the emptying rodeo grounds, I saw the manager and went over to say goodbye. “I wanted to thank you again for letting me ride,” I said. “I know you didn’t want to at first, and I appreciate you making allowances.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said. “You did good, Hoss. We didn’t understand how it was at first. We thought you were older. You wouldn’t believe how many guys over forty, you know, having a mid-life crisis, want to ride in a rodeo. We can’t have that.”
“No,” I agreed, “you can’t have that.”
During Corielle’s first year at Lehigh University, I went for a Daddy-Daughter visit. Lehigh’s campus is perched in the hills above Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and as we walked through the tree lined streets, we came upon a group of boys standing outside the AEPi fraternity house. We stopped to chat, and Corielle being that cute freshman girl that gets invited to fraternity parties, we soon found ourselves invited to join them that evening, if we had no other plans, at Shabbat.
AEPi is a Jewish fraternity, but being unfamiliar with the Jewish faith, we didn’t know what Shabbat was. We gathered from their remarks, though, that on this particular evening Shabbat involved eating sushi. Now, I’m a Methodist, or, perhaps more precisely, a lapsed Methodist. Except Methodists don’t lapse. Catholics lapse. Methodists may stop going to church, but we don’t feel guilty enough about it to refer to ourselves as lapsed. But anyway, I’m a Methodist, and maybe it isn’t proper for a Methodist to go to Shabbat, but there was going to be sushi, and I like sushi.
It’s been a long time since my college days, but I still remember the parties. They were always wild and smelled of spilled beer, so I admit to being taken aback when we rang the bell of a well-kept house just off campus, and instead of John Belushi a Rabbi opened the door. He sported a full black beard and wore a broad-brimmed top hat, a neck shawl, and a long black overcoat. Again, and you’ll forgive me, but it’s been a long time, when I was a young man, one almost never found a Rabbi hosting a fraternity party. In fact, I can’t remember a single instance. But this one greeted us warmly, and if he was surprised to find a Methodist at Shabbat, he didn’t let on.
Looking over his shoulder, we saw a formal dining table set up in the next room, with a group of well-dressed young men and women, all wearing yarmulkes, already seated. Clearly this was not the sushi-themed fraternity party we had been led to expect, and we tried to beg off, but the Rabbi wouldn’t hear of it. “No, no! Stay!” he insisted. “Everyone is welcome. We can squeeze in two more chairs! Sit, Sit!” So we sat.
As we settled into chairs near the corner, the Rabbi’s wife came around with trays of sushi for the table, and, because my momma raised me to be polite, I stood and offered my hand. “Thank you for having us into your home,” I said. She looked at my hand as if there were mayonnaise on it and actually took a step backwards.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “We’re Orthodox. I don’t shake hands.”
Oh no! Faux pas! I hadn’t been in the house five minutes and already I had insulted the Rabbi’s wife!
The girl sitting to our right explained. “Orthodox women,” she said, “aren’t allowed to touch the skin of a man other than their husband. In fact, other men aren’t even allowed to see her real hair. She’s wearing a wig.” For the rest of the evening, I couldn’t help but imagine what her real hair might look like, and I must confess, the thought was disturbingly erotic.
Corielle and I were finishing our salads when the Rabbi called for the group’s attention. This was Shabbat dinner, he explained, and as such was particularly holy. We would all be getting up now, he continued, and going to wash our hands before we began to eat. I spit a piece of salad back into the palm of my hand.
We all left the table and washed our hands, pouring water three times over the left hand and then three times over the right using a special two handled cup. I noticed there was no soap involved in this ritual, though, so it seemed to me that Methodists are perhaps even holier around mealtime, but I didn’t bother to point that out.
We sat back down, and everyone tucked into salad and sushi. Corielle and I were being generous with the sushi, because you can get through a lot of that sort of thing without filling up, until the girl on our right leaned in again and whispered, “You know, there are about six courses still to come.” Well, no, we hadn’t known that. In fact, in hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have eaten those twisty rolls that were scattered around the table, which, as it turned out, were mostly decorative anyway.
The Rabbi’s wife was soon back with a platter laden with bowls of steaming Matzo Ball Soup. It is traditional, I learned then, to serve Matzo Ball Soup at precisely 211 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot enough to easily take the skin off your tongue, but not so hot as to boil in warning. I spent the next several minutes with my tongue in my glass of ice water while I blotted soup off the table and apologized to the young man across from me.
After we finished our soup, the Rabbi rose to his feet. “Everyone take up your Shabbat booklet from in front of your plate,” he said, “and turn to page 147. We’ll sing all verses of number twenty-seven, one of our favorites, Shabbat Shalom. Do you all have it? All right, with energy now!” and we all burst into song. Or they all burst into song. I hadn’t found page 147 yet. As it turns out, page number one is in the very back of the book, and the numbers get bigger toward the front. By the time I found page 147, and located number twenty-seven, it came as no surprise that it was printed in Hebrew and there were no notes drawn, yet everyone was belting along as if they were singing The Little Brown Church at a revival meeting.
Corielle and I did our best. We joined in somewhere during the third verse. It actually wasn’t so hard as long as we remembered to pronounce the “ch” as if we were clearing our throats. Every so often, the Rabbi shouted encouragement. “Come on, let me hear those wonderful voices!” and, “Let’s really pick it up now!” By the end, Corielle and I were shouting out unknown lyrics and spraying spit and phlegm with the best of them. I asked the girl to our right if she understood the words to the songs we were singing. “Oh, no,” she replied happily, “not at all.”
And that’s how it went. For the next several hours we ate chicken, and brisket, and something suspiciously like sausage, and between courses, we sang. In Hebrew. With our wonderful voices. Until, after two deserts had been brought out and consumed, we finally pushed back from the table.
As we headed for the door, I whispered to Corielle, “I’m going to hug the Rabbi’s wife!” but I didn’t, because, as I said before, my momma raised me to be polite, and so the evening ended without further incident.
Except I did keep the little hat they’d given me. I didn’t think they’d miss it.