Tales from the Rabbi's Desk - Volume Two by Rabbi Walter Rothschild by Rabbi Walter Rothschild - Read Online

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Tales from the Rabbi's Desk - Volume Two - Rabbi Walter Rothschild

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Tales from the

Rabbi’s desk

Volume two

Published in 2016 by Kulmus Publishing through lulu.com

The moral right of the author has been asserted. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise except under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.

ISBN: 978-0-9880539-6-0

Cover design, cover photograph, image sourcing and book layout - Marc Michaels 5777/2016

epub version


The reception of the first collection of these stories to appear in English was generally encouraging enough to make me decide to present a second such anthology. The question that comes up most frequently is ''Are these stories true?'' To which the answer has to be ''Of course not! I hope I would never be so insensitive, so foolish, so unprofessional as to write down and present incidents reflecting private, even intimate encounters with members of my various communities in such a way as to embarrass them.'' But on the other hand, they ARE 'authentic' – which is to say, I personally can recall the real incidents upon which some of these accounts are partially based, I can recall some of the conversations with colleagues upon which others are based. Some are entirely fictitious, works of fantasy, springing only from my own imagination, but – well, one recognises the landscapes, the type of person, one feels one recognises the situation. A writer of love stories will try to create an impression whereby the reader will think ''I recognise those feelings'' without – one hopes - trying to identify the author's specific individual romantic partners and calculating which individuals are meant.  Such stories can be based upon decades of experience without being specifically autobiographical.

Nevertheless the reader may be helped by the following personal information. I was ordained in 1984 by the Leo Baeck College in London, a very small and impoverished training seminary for rabbis from Britain and Europe who would serve in Conservative, Reform and Liberal congregations. I served as a Rabbi for over a decade in the

North of England, then later for many more years in Western and Central Europe – based much of this time in Berlin but working long- or short-term (or just visiting) in many small communities throughout Germany, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands and the Balkans. The stories reflect partially my own attitudes as a young rabbi who had grown up in post-war Britain in a community with many former European refugees and was now, as an adult, working professionally with the same people. They also reflect the period, in that a specific generation of Holocaust survivors was reaching older years; this was a period (hard for some readers to visualise!) when one did not have smart phones or internet at one's disposal, when  letters were typed on big metal typewriters, when one would set off to drive from home to an office or to drive around an area and be effectively out of touch; one might telephone from somewhere back home or to the synagogue office to find out if anything new or urgent had occurred.

In Berlin I worked for a while from an office and could either wait until people knocked on the door with their concerns or could encounter them out on the streets or at the synagogue or the cemetery. Some things – such as the railway timetable in the story 'Wawel' – have changed considerably since the stories were written. In this respect the authenticity of the stories is also reflected in their cultural and period context.

The main criticism of Volume 1 was that so many of the stories were considered depressing! ''Can you add some lighter ones next time?'' I was asked. Well, the problem is that the experiences that cry out to be worked through and written down - whether in Britain or Europe - tend to be those that disturb one, that leave lingering feelings of doubt, worry or sadness. But life goes on - let this be a comfort. The next generations of rabbis will probably experience different problems, different challenges, even though human nature and communal politics remain sadly constant.'

Having reached a stage where I can more look back on a career than forward to one, it feels important somehow to share these impressions – for this is all they are and all they can be – of rabbinic life in Britain and Europe at the end of the 20th. and the beginning of the 21st. centuries. Whether you, the reader, will agree remains to be seen! There are plenty more such tales awaiting future possible publication.......

Rabbi Walter Rothschild

Born again

The pain had come as he was least expecting it. It was sudden, and crippling, a  heavy bar across the whole of the top of his body, doubling him up with its weight, with the feeling of cramp, of a sudden stop, almost like driving into a wall. Suddenly he could not move forward, was afflicted with a solidness where there should be liquid movement. 

There was a pounding in his ears but, somehow, he could hear the people around him, their voices, their concern. His eyes were closed tight but he could still see, the room was light, there were trees outside the window, and gradually - (but how gradual was it? That he could not remember afterwards) the view changed until he was seeing himself as well, in the middle of the tableau in the room. As he watched he realised that the intensity of the pain had fallen away, he was still resonating with pain but it was as though it were a mere echo of what the He in the picture was feeling, a sympathetic vibration of discomfort that the other was clearly experiencing, lying half on the settee, half on the floor, his arms clutching his chest.

People - his wife, his friend - were running around, someone was on the telephone, someone was screaming something, but somehow now it was all a blur of sound and he could no longer make out the words as he had done at first, there was an increasing sense of, of distance, like the volume being slowly turned down, like the camera on its boom being withdrawn, like going to sleep, like sinking into a warm bath, thoughts came and went, thank goodness his insurance was up to date, why was he feeling so calm?, what was happening, what would happen next, did it matter? And then.....

And then the sudden jerk, the shock, the new pain flooding him, and as he focused he could see faces above him, looking down, and someone was pounding him, hitting him, and there were two men in red jackets and one was holding some pads that JERKED right through him with shock and then he was breathing again, gasps of air, deep gasps, and suddenly the focus became clearer while somehow the edges stayed blurred, and he was filled with two feelings, one of relief and one of - regret, vague regret, but strong, he had been going somewhere, he had had something in mind, and now, like a pleasant dream, it was gone, just the feeling remained, the feeling, he should be somewhere else by now, it was all so, so, warm, so, something, so, no, no, it had gone, he was here, he was here, that was Elizabeth there with her face pale and that was Arnold and these two men, they must be from an ambulance, he reckoned, they were strangers but strong, professional, they  moved in a coordinated way and he could even lie there and observe that with interest, admire their competence, it was like waking from the anaesthetic that time he had had the nose operation, the nurses had bustled but all was so orderly, no rush, no panic, no waste of effort, he had admired that then.

The dream was gone. He was back to reality. Or this reality. Some pain remained, breathing deeply hurt a little but he wanted to, he wanted to fill his lungs, the air felt fresh, smelled sweet. And now he felt like a child in a pram, being picked up, bundled, carried away into a van, half awake, half asleep, helpless but trusting. And then sleep.........

It took a while to hear the story. Steve paused many times, stared unfocussed at the wall, at the vase of flowers on the table at the foot of his bed, but it was clear he wanted to tell it, so I sat there and listened. Bits came out in the wrong order and then he would say that, But no, that was later, and repeat them again in the right part of the sequence. It was on his mind and he wanted to get it out. He wanted me to know. He wanted my reaction, my advice. And what should I say?

‘'these two men must be from an ambulance’

You see, Rabbi, this is what I can’t work out. And I was awake all last night and thinking about it. Sure, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be alive. Elizabeth was round yesterday and she’ll be here again soon, the kids are at school and their grandma will pick them up later today, I think they’ll be allowed to visit me this afternoon and I’m really looking forward to that, too. But why do I have this feeling of regret, too? Like, I’m missing a party.

This man is what my vicar friend calls a Lazarus case, one who has come back from the dead, or at least back from the brink of death. One of the lucky ones, we always say. And he was lucky, Arnold had kept calm and had called an ambulance, it had indeed got there within minutes - not always easy when you live in a converted farmhouse some way out of town -  and now he was under observation and care in what was considered to be one of the better hospitals in town. But we talked several times there, and at his home - quite a way down a windy track, nicely situated, trees and a stream outside, for he had made it, he had achieved the suburban dream of leaving the suburb and having a nice stone house with a double garage and no neighbours. He had worked hard, done deals, raised the cash, walked the walk and talked the talk, built up his business, earned enough to pull himself ahead of the crowd. Though for what, when one came down to the fundamental questions? Elizabeth was nice - I had arranged her conversion - but not exactly an intellectual. The two little girls would have ponies when they were older, they already had rooms filled with little plastic versions. The cars were dark and new and swish and were needed to take anyone anywhere, for without a car one would be marooned, absolutely stranded in this beautiful spot. At least, now one would! I suppose the people who first built here, the ones who lived and worked here, the ones who got up before dawn to walk to where their sheep were huddled, they would laugh at us now, in the gentrified house with the fake Georgian windows and double-glazing and the asphalted driveway and the white lampstands that were also meant to look as though they came from a different century and had once burned gas.

But now he had nearly left all of this behind.  And although he had come back to it, and was determined to enjoy it, there was still this vague niggling feeling that it was only second-best, that he was missing something else. We talked a bit about Near-Death Experiences - I haven’t nearly died myself, thank goodness, but I have read enough articles about people who claim to have been watching themselves on the operating table, experiencing a release from their bodies, going down a tunnel, approaching a light, a warm, shining, welcoming Light. No, he said, no tunnel, no light - but the watching himself and others, yes, that’s what it had been like. He would screw up his eyes and stay silent for a minute or two, and I would wait, and then he would say no, sorry, he couldn’t remember it, he just knew that there was something there, he couldn’t find the words, but there was something, something.... And I would comfort him by taking this seriously, more seriously than Elizabeth, who was still in shock and denial in any case, and blaming herself for having had a row with him shortly before their dinner party. He was grateful that I didn’t laugh, he said. Why should I laugh? I asked. We always talk about a Life after Death, so why should I be surprised?

When he was better, he wanted to get up and say some prayers during the Shabbat service. I thought this a good idea. The "Shehecheyanu blessing thanks God that we are still alive. The Gomel" is said when someone has returned from a dangerous journey or is healed from a dangerous sickness - and he had had both, for his illness had taken him some way on the most dangerous journey of all. And then there is the paragraph in the Amidah, which stresses that God is the one who "Mechayey haMeytim", who revives the dead, who brings the dead back to life..... The shul was filled with friends and colleagues who had come especially to witness this man stand on the bimah and recite - slowly, but nevertheless without too much help from me - these words in Hebrew, words which expressed his gratitude to his maker for what amounted to a second start. It is not only the body that needs recuperation and rehabilitation and exercise - the soul can always benefit from some, too. There is more to recovery than a new diet and more fresh air, even though these do not hurt.

But one cannot save a life just with salads and low-fat margarine. I’m living a second time around, he told me several times - it became a favourite catch-phrase - and this time each minute counted, each day was precious. He sold the business and, being the man he was, he got - or so I gathered from those who know these things - quite a good price for it. The insurance would pay for the fact that he was no longer able to work as he had worked before. He became a regular at the synagogue - something which, as he cheerfully admitted, had not been so important to him before. He had the time to drive the girls to their ballet lessons, and to the Sunday School - they also became regulars, now.

And then, it was maybe eight, nine months later - came the second heart attack. As the doctors had said, it might come, it might not, no-one would take the responsibility of predicting anything, but the tissue had been damaged, and one had to be careful, and..... and it came to pass. This time he was alone when it happened, it seems. Anyway, Elizabeth got home from the supermarket to find that no-one answered the door, and there he lay, and it was all too late. I got the call later that day, after the hospital had made the final decision and started the process of