“Just do it,” my wife said, echoing my command. “Now!” We all collapsed and crouched on the floor of our minivan. I counted to 20.
“That should do it,” I said and snuck a peak over the windowsill. “Coast clear.”
It was a Saturday afternoon on West End Avenue, and I had spotted the rabbi walking toward us at a distance of about 100 feet. With my son’s bar mitzvah approaching, we’d recently gotten more involved in our local synagogue, and although I think the world of the rabbi—he’s one of the brightest, most compassionate, most inspiring people I’ve ever met—I just didn’t want him to see us trundling out of a car on Shabbat.
Something had come over me: I had finally understood what it meant to be a good Jew.
It wasn’t the first indication. Just a few weeks earlier, also on a Saturday afternoon, my brood and I were wolfing down lunch at the diner just down the street from the temple and there he was, through the plate-glass window, the rabbi. I think I grabbed an oversized menu out of the hands of an old lady at the booth on the other side of ours and buried my nose in it. Had I been spotted? I don’t think so—I have always been known as someone with quick reflexes.
“What was that all about?” my wife asked.
“The rabbi was walking by.”
“Well, I’m in the Talmud class and it’s Shabbat, and I shouldn’t be, you know—” I nodded to what was left of the burger deluxe on the platter before me and thanked the heavens that I hadn’t opted for the cheeseburger.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
But that was weeks ago. By now, we’d had more pre-bar-mitzvah conversations and had actually gone to Saturday services ourselves once or twice in the interim. We were both seen and noted. Now she was also aware.
“That was close,” my wife said, as we frog-marched our three kids into the lobby of our building after the crouching-minivan incident.
It’s not that I’m in denial; I accept my Jewish identity. It’s just that, well, after an umpteen-year hiatus from anything resembling regular synagogue attendance (actually, an entire life’s hiatus), I was more than a little rusty. For instance, as I said, I’ve started taking my son to shul, as synagogue is called by people who use it regularly, on Saturdays. It’s not easy to get him to sit there for the whole thing, from something like 9 a.m. until around 12:30. So, to break him (and me) in, we head out at about 10 and try to leave as soon as it’s feasible, though even that can take two or three hours. And even then—even after one has decided that a decent interval has passed—it’s no mean trick getting out without being noticed.
The first time we tried to duck out early, I cased the joint pretty good. I was patient; I waited. And finally, during a transition point in the service with lots of hubbub, I grabbed the boy and we fled stage right. But just as we were making our move, all the internal commotion miraculously stopped and our every step seemed to echo through the Moorish arches like the footfalls of William (Refrigerator) Perry. Needless to say, all eyes were on us. I grabbed Noah and we slid into the nearest pew.
The following weekend, I tried slipping out a little earlier and sitting a little closer to the door—after all, we had already done our couple of hours. The rabbi, who was otherwise occupied moving about the various podia, didn’t see us, but an usher gave us a very nasty look indeed. Still, that was progress. We were religiously attending services; that had to count for something.
Then they had a special pre-bar-mitzvah all-day-Sunday event: just a handful of pre-bar-mitzvah parents hanging out, eating pretzels and learning stuff all day long. No place to run. No place to hide. All day long. We shook hands. We nodded. We did the exercises. And the whole time, my son kept whispering in my ear about when and how we would cut out, split, vamoose. My wife was alone with the other two kids: That would be our excuse. And we had done the better part of the morning. And the rabbi hadn’t appeared yet. Then, just as we were about to slip down the elevator: “Hi, how are you.? Nice to see you.”
“I’m just here for a little while—I’ve got a baby-naming, a bris and a Yiddish class or two—but I’m so glad to see you both.”
Caught. We couldn’t leave—not just yet.
“And what’s really great,” the rabbi continued, “we can do a whole thing on putting on tefillin.”
Now let me be clear on this: I do not have anything against the wearing of ritual phylacteries. It is a wonderful, time-honored practice. It’s just that with a fidgety 12-year-old and my somewhat shaky relationship with Jewish ritual overall, at that particular moment it seemed like a mitzvah too far. My son took me aside. He’d met an older kid at the event, a kid who he’d been doing some charity work with. “Dad, can me and Mitchell go, you know, and hang out?”
“What about the rest of the teaching? The learning? This afternoon?”
“Oh, come on, Dad, I know all that stuff, and anyway, Mitchell’s really cool, he’s having his bar mitzvah in like a couple of weeks—he can tell me everything about everything I don’t know.”
“Sure I’m sure.”
I wasn’t so sure, but the swarm of other bar and bat mitzvah parents had moved to the other side of the room, and I saw that if we acted fast, we could make our exit.
“Mitchell, you’re sure you’re sure?”
“Sure, I’m sure I’m sure.”
“O.K.,” I said. “On the count of three, we all go for it.”
“One, two, three.”
And we were running down the stairs, flight after flight after flight. We burst out onto the street. I looked around; the coast was clear. We’d chalked up half a day. Despite a couple of glitches, I had still managed to spend more time in (or about) a synagogue than I ever had before. Even when I wasn’t there, I was thinking about it.
I didn’t feel 100 percent good, but I felt good. Maybe something like 70 or 80 percent good. Which was still pretty good for me.