A few years after my bar mitzvah, our rabbi disappeared. He was supposed to attend Simchat Torah celebrations, but instead, an interim rabbi was shaking hands and leading songs. I was Jewish by culture more than by creed, attending Shabbat services and youth group only for special occasions. So after my rabbi left, my family changed synagogues, and I didn’t give much additional thought to him or religious education.
Now, my older son is approaching the age where I’d like to start introducing him to Jewish life, and my atheist Christian wife, who has agreed to let me raise our children Jewish, frequently and reasonably probes me on why I change the subject every time she asks about my plan.
My rabbi was a kind man. He knew all our names and spoke his long, winding sentences in an expansive slightly nasal voice. At my bar mitzvah, he told me I was now a man, so it was my duty to take the world seriously, to work hard, and to treat people with kindness. It was soon afterwards that the rumors began.
We were fourteen or fifteen, and I remember the feeling when a girl in my Hebrew School class reported in hushed giggles that her dad told her that the rabbi wanted to date her dad’s sister. It made no sense. It was insane. I laughed until I fell down. Everyone was laughing on the floor. It was the best, craziest thing I’d ever heard. Then came the stories about his drinking after a Shabbat service, and it wasn’t so funny, but it was still thrilling. That the rabbi could be so darkly human. I wasn’t ready for it yet, so all I could do was laugh. And then he was gone.
That was just about twenty years ago. In January of 2017, my wife asked me again when we would first take our children to synagogue. This time, I told her about my rabbi and his disappearance. She asked what that had to do with our sons? I told her I didn’t know. She asked if I had to try to get in touch. With him? I laughed. She asked me what was so funny.
So after twenty years, I found my childhood rabbi on Facebook, and he agreed to meet at a bookstore. He looked exactly the same. He was neatly dressed, his hair neatly combed.
“What can I do for you,” he said.
I told him I was confused. I didn’t know why I thought about him as much as I did, why I wrote about rabbis, why I was having trouble settling my children into a religious life.
As he told his story, he fell into something of the sing-song I remembered hearing from the bemah twenty years earlier, and part of me was transported back to the cushioned benches of his temple.
He said he arrived at the temple as a young man in his twenties, that he married, had children, and was a leader in the community. Those were the best years in his life. But then he went through an acrimonious, public divorce and not only lost his wife but relationships with his children, ending up with limited custody in the same month that his father, with whom he was very close, passed away. Being a father was very important to him. Suddenly he couldn’t see his two children and he didn’t have his wife or father to rely on. He lived alone and began to prioritize the rare moments with his children over his work; he left the temple early on the days he had with his children. During the long stretches when he didn’t have access to his kids, he experimented with anti-depressives and marijuana. The temple board implored him to improve his behavior but, depressed, he wasn’t fully in control of his own decision-making.
The last straw was a party he threw at his house. There was drinking, an incident with a college girl who looked older, and an arrest. The temple terminated his contract; he only avoided prison time by agreeing to rehab for the marijuana.
His life has improved immeasurably since. He’s remarried and has a nice relationship with his children. He performs weddings and conducts services on cruise ships—satisfying work that allows him and his wife to travel the world leading Passover and Chanukah prayers. He might not have the prestige of a congregation’s rabbi, but he’s always making new, fascinating friends.
“Still,” he said, “I have dreams of remorse, regret, and sadness from how it ended at the temple.”
I fought an instinct to reach for his hand. I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like if I had to provide counsel and leadership just after my wife left me and took away my two children. Parties, lonely nights, drinking, depression, and drugs were what people had left. I was sure he left out details, but who wouldn’t? That he was so forthcoming made me less eager for the particulars.
Maybe he was comfortable being honest with me, a relative stranger, because he had become accustomed to similar things in rehab. Maybe he felt an urge to connect with anyone associated with the days before his fall from grace. But his humanity and vulnerability surprised and—if I’m to be honest—delighted me. I could see myself in a situation where high school kids were laughing at my moral breakdown, and I shuddered to think of myself as the teenager giddy with news of his humanity and suffering. I expected him to prevaricate or tell me that the rumors were false. When he said that what I’d heard was mostly true, it made me really like him.
The question of whether my rabbi’s experience has anything to do with my own children is still open. I realize that the traditions of Judaism that matter most to me—the rituals, stories, fasts and feasts—occur mostly inside the home, and the lack of a structured moral leadership is what I’ve always liked about reform Judaism over, say, my wife’s family’s Catholicism. But then again, I’m starting to think that the more teachers my children have, the better.
Brian Platzer’s debut novel, Bed-Stuy Is Burning, was recently published by Atria/Simon & Schuster. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Bed-Stuy, and teaches middle school English in Manhattan.