Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Boy and the Rabbi: Lessons in Wisdom

William was a shy boy, not more than twelve, when he first met Rabbi Katz. He didn’t know much about religion, his faith consisting of an unwavering belief in the Yankees and a futile longing for his father, who died of cancer when William was six. One day after school, the dead chill of winter having finally given way to the first hint of spring, a warm sunshine bearing down on the cracked sidewalks of his Brooklyn neighborhood, William stopped into the corner drugstore to buy some bubble gum and to peruse the latest copy of Sports Illustrated. His thoughts a long way from social studies and arithmetic, he had been eagerly anticipating this issue, the annual baseball preview, with profiles of each team and predictions for the upcoming season.

William immediately spotted the glossy cover on the magazine rack, his heart racing with excitement at the sight of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in Yankees’ pinstripes, both men casually leaning against their bats, smiling and relaxed, exuding a quiet confidence. It was the time of year when baseball fans are filled with hope and optimism, when a clean slate and the freshness of new beginnings erase the disappointments and heartbreaks of seasons past. As William slowly flipped each page, studying the rosters and reading the team profiles, he was slightly startled by an elderly man with a long grey beard, in a black suit and a yarmulke, peering over his shoulder.

It was Rabbi Emanuel Katz, the mysterious leader of the historic orthodox synagogue that lay adjacent to William’s two story brownstone on Washington Lane. William had seen the rabbi many times before, usually wandering on foot through the neighborhood and counseling other men in black suits, who would always appear intently locked onto his every word. The rabbi and his followers seemed very different from the more modern Jewish families William knew from school and little league, and from his mother’s job at City College. Over the years, their neighborhood had evolved from an insular, ethnic enclave of tailors and Talmudic scholars to a gentrified, upper middle class community of young professionals and academics. The old synagogue had become a mere remnant of a distant, more traditional past, of which William had little connection.

Rabbi Katz silently studied William and his magazine for a moment, his face embracing a look of mild bewilderment. He leaned forward and whispered, "This Derek Jeter . . . you like?"

Slightly startled, William looked up at the rabbi. "Uh, yeah, I do. He’s my favorite player."

"What is so special about this Mr. Derek? Has he discovered a cure for cancer?" Rabbi Katz appeared surprisingly tall as he stared down at William. He had a friendly way about him, though, a look of gentle sincerity, and William took the bait.

"Well, no. But he’s a really good shortstop." William believed that this resolved the matter. The rabbi was unmoved.

"Does he make a lot of money, this Jeter man?" the rabbi asked.

"I don’t know," replied William, "I think so. But he is really good. He deserves a lot of money."

"Young man, may I ask you something?"

"Sure. I mean, I guess." William worried about where this was going.

"Who does more good for the world, a scientist who devotes his life to finding cures for diseases, or a man who plays a child’s game – this, stop at short, as you call it?"

"Shortstop. He’s a shortstop. It is the most important position in the infield."

"Yes, whatever, but you did not answer my question."

"Well, the scientist, I guess," William answered. If not for his warm, understanding eyes, this rabbi fellow would be rather annoying, William thought.

"Then should not the scientist, who cures disease and wins a Nobel Prize, make more money than a fellow who plays a game? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we valued knowledge, learning, and scientific achievement more than we value ballplayers and rock stars?" The rabbi looked triumphantly at William, confident he had made his point.

"Did the scientist also win a Gold Glove?"

"What is a golden glove?" the rabbi asked.

"That is the award that goes to the best fielder at each position. Derek Jeter has won a Gold Glove, and he’s helped the Yankees win the pennant."

"What is so special about this, young man?" the rabbi asked with stern disapproval.

William pondered the question, his eyes fixated on his shoelaces. "This scientist friend of yours," he asked, "Can he bring my father back to life?"

Rabbi Katz stared blankly at William's Yankees' cap, seemingly fixated on the classic New York insignia. "I am afraid not," he replied sadly.

"My father took me to my first Yankees game shortly before he died. He told me all about Derek Jeter and the great history of Yankees’ captains. When I watch him play, it reminds me of my father."

The rabbi collected his thoughts, then sighed. "Perhaps I should learn more about this Jeter fellow." Rabbi Katz placed his hand on William’s shoulder and smiled. He took the magazine from William’s hand, paid the cashier, then handed it back to William. "You will teach me someday about this Derek?" the rabbi asked.

"Sure," William replied as he took hold of the magazine. He nodded to the rabbi and thanked him, a tear running down his cheek.

The rabbi walked from the store, glanced back and smiled, confident that he had become just a little wiser.


  1. Very good.

    Rich R.

  2. Mark,

    Just in case you're too modest to brag, I'll do it for you: Congratulations on the publishing of this story at Short Story America.

    Rich R.