Updated: Oct 7, 2020
God comes in many flavors on the island of Singapore. Buddhist Chinese and Thais, Muslim Malays and East Indians, Christians from England and Manila, Hindus from Calcutta and Bali -- and a smattering of Jews who fled their Iraqi homeland in the last century to form a small but prosperous Orthodox Jewish community.
Amen, Inshallah, May Your Rice Never Burn.
My partner Ari plays guitar, I play piano. He, born in Israel to Iraqi parents, and I, California-bred grandson of Russians and Poles, have once again taken the 1:35am Singapore Airlines redeye out of Los Angeles, twelve hours nonstop to Taipei, then after a ninety-minute layover, gotten back on the same plane for the four hour run down to Singapore. This is our third trip from California to the tropics, to play the music for a lavish social event within Singapore’s vibrant but insular Jewish community. 20-year-old Victoria Khunna is marrying 35-year-old Samuel Kersh-Ali, and the Khunna family will spare no expense. They can afford it – Mr. Khunna imports coffee, pistachios and emeralds. For the last big affair he brought Michael Jackson. This year it’s us. Go figure.
Ari and I have played music together for a long time, in many parts of the world, but we are always dazzled by Singapore. Tropical, exotic and opulent at the same time, its best attraction of all is its food – the finest in the world, to my taste.
It is Saturday afternoon and we are dressed in black slacks, jackets and neckties, as we stand in the ballroom of the Kashmir Hotel, a fantasyland structure complete with interior waterfalls and simulated Malaysian rain forest. The formal Shabbat luncheon is about to begin, which will signify the final time the groom will be allowed to lay eyes on the bride until she walks down the aisle, heavily veiled, tomorrow afternoon.
Ari goes for a drink, but I want another taste or two of the appetizers, still circling on trays carried by Malay waiters in white caftans and white caps. A hot Sumatran dumpling has melted in my mouth like a warm marshmallow, leaving an after taste of coconut and ginger and lemon grass, when a woman’s voice says:
“Hello. Do I know you?”
I turn to face the young lady with the Singaporean English accent. She is tall, coffee-latte-skinned, with long black curly hair and deep blue eyes, made bluer by her light green ankle-length dress fastened at the neck with a golden Hebrew letter Chai. I smile, because her beautiful blue eyes and dark hair make her look like my daughter Bronnie.
“No, I don’t believe so,” I say. She is probably a few years out of college. I am a few decades out of college.
“Then why did you smile so?” she asks.
“Oh, because your eyes and hair...well, you don’t often see someone with blue eyes and black hair. Your coloring reminds me of my daughter.”
“Ah,” she says. “You are married, then?”
“I am, and I have two children back in California.”
“America!” she says. “I didn’t think I had seen you before. My name is Elizabeth.” She does not hold out her hand, so I don’t offer mine. If Elizabeth is an Orthodox Jew I know I am not supposed to touch her. Their customs always confuse me so I have learned it’s safer to do nothing.
“Elizabeth, I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Douglas. I play piano. The Khunna family brought Ari Cohen and I to perform for tomorrow’s wedding.”
“Do you know they sacrifice virgins on their birthdays?” she says.
I smile, because I’m sure what she has said is some kind of in-joke, and though I don’t understand it I am probably required to laugh -- except when I look at Elizabeth I realize she isn’t smiling. Quite the opposite, she seems angry, almost ready to spit.
Now, without warning, she takes a quick hop forward, so she is no more than three inches from my face. I realize she is staring first at my left eye, then at my right, then left, then right, like she’s trying to decide between two baubles, each of which looks identical but careful inspection might disclose a fatal flaw. I have no idea what is going on. I try not to blink.
Apparently satisfied with what she has seen, she backs up a few inches, and says: “Virgins are a waste of God’s time. May I take that?”
She lifts my empty plate from my hand, turns and walks towards the bar. As she crosses the room I am taken by how stunningly beautiful she is, with a bearing that is both regal and accessible, another only-in-Singapore combination. These cultural blends, ethnic mixes...my eyes follow her aura of light green as she disappears into the black-tie crowd.
Orthodox Jews are a strange breed to this boy from secular California. I am Jewish, but certainly not Orthodox nor even Conservative -- if there were a category under Reformed that would be me. My wife calls me a Jewnitarian. But standing in this fancy ballroom in faraway Singapore, I am aware of two things, and one is my Jewishness. Every Jewish person in this country may be at this luncheon. Ari has told me being surrounded by one’s own people is a feeling a Jew can find only in Israel. I’ve never been to Israel. I like this feeling.
And two: Elizabeth is clearly bonkers.
A few minutes later she returns, wearing fresh lipstick. She stands facing me amongst the hundreds of guests in the ballroom, but insists on positioning herself closer than a stranger would normally stand. If I back up slightly she moves forward the exact amount. Our distance from one another appears to be fixed, and although I am uncomfortable with how close she is to me, I can’t seem to do anything about it.
And yet she is careful not to touch me as she speaks. “Your wife, forgive me for asking, she is Jewish?”
“No,” I say, looking down, “she isn’t. We are not a religious family.” For some reason this feels like an apology. Why am I apologizing?
“Ah? Then if she is not Jewish, and you are?” --- I nod --- “...then you are not really married.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Our rabbis teach us that if you are not married to a Jewish woman in a proper Jewish ceremony you are not really married. It is very simple, really.”
“I don’t think my wife would agree with your rabbis,” I say. “And what about my children?”
“Your children are the children of you and your wife. But she is not Jewish, so they are not Jewish. You were not married in an Orthodox ceremony, so you are not married.”
“I guess Danny could have held on to that foreskin,” I mumble to myself.
“Excuse me?” she says.
Zealots make me nervous, even beautiful zealots. “Elizabeth, I thank you for your information,” I say, looking around for Ari. “Excuse me, but I really have to...”
“You have to what?” she says, and fixes me with a fist of a blue-eyed glare.
As she locks into my eyes I realize hers are changing colors like a hypnotist’s ball, blue, then black, then green, back and forth, depending on where the lights from the chandeliers hit them.
I don’t know what’s happening but I can’t take my eyes off hers. I am almost…overwhelmed…with the desire to kiss her.
I am fully aware that this would be a religious, commercial and international catastrophe that would certainly get us thrown off the peninsula if not sliced, diced and tossed into the ginger noodles with eggplant.
She has read my mind. She moves forward again, but stops at my ear. “You are staring at me,” she says, and makes a little snort, almost like a laugh, but laughter implies merriment and hers has none. As a musician I would call it C Minor Sardonic. Of course, all my alarms are going off at once so I may have the key wrong.
All the time we have been talking she has slowly been moving me backwards, but now I have run out of room, pinned against a large glass vase filled with golden birds of paradise and purple pandanus flowers. As she has inched us away from the crowd, I have noticed her glancing periodically over her shoulder.
“Who are you looking for?” I mumble. She stares again into my eyes, but this time her expression moves through half a dozen different stages, starting at blank, and ending at blank, but in between I recognize doubt -- reluctance – humor – fear? She backs to a normal distance, turns a shoulder and angles her head towards the dessert table.
Following her glance, I see a lone Orthodox Rabbi, holding a glass of punch. He is staring at us. The Khunnas and Kersh-Alis have invited six Orthodox Rabbis to this party. Rabbis travel in packs. It is very unusual to see one standing away from the others.
Elizabeth says: “R + 1 = C x 2.”
When I don’t respond immediately she says: “You do not know mathematics?”
“R + 1= C x 2. For Every Extra Rabbi The Potential for Chaos is Doubled,” she says.
“Oh! Ha ha, oops.” It’s a funny line and I laugh, but I have to bite it off when I see the teeth-clenched serious look on her face. She glances towards the solitary rabbi whose eyes are locked on her.
Something cryptic, Kabbalah-like, is going on at this luncheon. I feel like there is a hidden camera somewhere. Maybe we’re on Candid Cantor. It’s hard to know what to do -- my mouth just falls open. Elizabeth leans close and whispers:
“Close your mouth.”
I close my mouth. “How many rabbis does it take to change a lightbulb?” she asks.
Oh, Christ, a rabbi joke.
“I don’t know,” I say. “How many?”
“Nine hundred,” she says, and I wait for the punch line. But there is no punch line, or, that is the punch line, disguised as an everlasting, painful, unremitting silence. I feel like I want to scream.
“Nine hundred?” I cry, practically begging for an explanation.
She ignores me. “Do you know how to make a rabbi happy?” she asks, at the same time distractedly running her tongue along her top lip. It’s terribly out of place; still, like everything else she does, it’s outrageously sexy.
What she has said sounds like the setup to another rabbi joke, but it’s not. Nothing she says is a joke.
Maybe I am the joke. I am wearing a business suit, surrounded by hundreds of people in formal clothing, speaking to an almost preposterously beautiful woman who is either coming on to me or is completely insane. My brain says the former is impossible. On the other hand, so is being flown from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Taipei to Singapore to play for a Jewish wedding.
So I look back over her shoulder at the solitary rabbi. His lower lip is curled, his nostrils flared. Man of God or no Man of God, he is furious. But these guys always look furious unless they are praying or dancing. Praying, or dancing, and the rest of the time they’re in agony. Why should studying about God all day be so difficult?
I consider Elizabeth’s question. The fact is I have never seen a happy Orthodox Rabbi. Even when they laugh you know it’s only surface. Down deep they are worrying about the Messiah and how will they pick Him up at the airport if He arrives on Shabbat?
But who is this particular rabbi? His teeth are clenched now, he’s glaring directly at me, and his lips are moving. I hope he’s not praying that I die, because he looks serious.
Before I can ask Elizabeth about him a rush of nervous conversation flutters across the room, and people begin grabbing each other by the elbows and whispering excitedly in what sounds like a polyglot of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Singaporean English. They all begin to take their seats.
It takes Jews a long time to take their seats.
This is the moment Elizabeth picks to whisper in my ear: “He is a terrorist. He wants to kill me.”
“What?” I shout, then cover my mouth and whisper, staring at the rabbi by the punch bowl, “The rabbi? Why would he want to kill you?”
“The rabbi doesn’t want to kill me,” Elizabeth whispers. “He wants to marry me. God wants to kill me. God is the terrorist.”
This time I am truly speechless.
My mouth must have fallen open again. She makes a closed-fingers motion with her fingers, signaling me to close it.
“Stop that!” I say, a little louder, but I do close my mouth. “Are you nuts?” It’s not a question, just a simple statement of the obvious.
“You don’t believe me? You think God doesn’t want to kill me? Or you? Do you think you’ll live forever?”
“Well, no, but I...”
“Do I deserve it? Does anyone? Don’t you know how he will treat me?”
“Nobody knows how God...”
“Not God, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchok Rundala over there. Today is my birthday.”
We are still standing in the back of the room. All the seats have been taken. The rabbis have now been seated at their table in front of the room. Elizabeth is still facing me, but I stare, across the room, towards Rabbi Rundala, who, though sitting down, looks like he is ready to split open like an overripe jackfruit and toss his seeds on the floor. He is one or two stamps away from going postal – but can a rabbi go postal? Maybe he’s just ill. But he cannot approach us, and Elizabeth will not acknowledge him.
“I want to ask you something,” she says.
“OK,” I say. “But first, tell me: is today really your birthday?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Does everyone in Singapore look so sad on their birthday, or is it only you?” I ask.
“Did you believe me when I told you you are not married?”
“What are you talking about, Elizabeth! I AM married! I’ve been married longer than you’ve been alive, probably. Please stop saying that!”
She backs up to normal cocktail party distance. “Good,” she says, softer than before. “Do you love your wife?”
“Of course I love my wife!” I say, too loudly, then softer: “Yes, I do!”
Six inches in front of me, she turns and faces the main banquet room. As she does so,
I feel my hands…running through the back of her hair…not see, feel. I am braiding those thick, black, curly strands, there’s a coconut smell on my fingers, her hair has different texture in different places, and when I raise it from her neck...
“DID YOU LOVE HER THE MOMENT YOU MET HER, DOUGLAS?” Elizabeth interrupts, swiveling her neck around again towards me but not moving anything else. This was far too loud for a hushing room. People close by look up from their chairs. Elizabeth sees none of this. Something in her face has changed.
“When you married her were you...you know...?” She swallows hard, now leans in so she can whisper in my ear:
“Helplessly in love?”
That was a new voice. There was nothing bizarre in it. I can see tears forming in the bottom corners of her eyes. We are standing in the middle of a large banquet room where there are hundreds of other people standing and seated on all sides of us.
I can’t see or hear any of them. The floor could open at any moment and swallow me whole. It is difficult to know how to respond.
“Well... I think I love her even more now,” I say, after a moment. “It’s hard to know. It’s been a long time.”
“That’s good,” she says. “Then I will ask you only one more question.”
But now there is a loud, amplified “SHAHHHHH!” from a tinny microphone. All the rabbis are beginning to pray, loudly, into the mike. Guests must remain silent, standing or sitting, as they wait for each rabbi, as well as each male in both the Khunna and Kersh-Ali families, to take a turn offering a blessing for the bride and groom. The families are extensive and there is status in making the longest blessing. There are six rabbis. Rabbis do not come with an On-Off switch. This will take quite a while.
Rabbi Rundala is sitting at the table with the other rabbis, but has not removed his eyes from me for a second. Dressed in black, with a scruffy beard and forelocks down the side of his face, the one thing that distinguishes him from his colleagues is the burning anger in his eyes. In America that look would be carrying a gun. Here at the Singapore Kashmir Hotel he is staring at me like I am Goliath and he is David, he has a stone in his pocket and I am target practice.
Elizabeth and I stand together, amongst the silent crowd, facing the rabbis. I find myself wondering what will jump from her mouth next? It is clear I have never run into anyone like her. She is probably the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is also less than half my age and as steady as the Titanic. The problem is she may also be irresistible.
Of course I love my wife. Of course I do.
For now, we are joined together in the waiting, the soporific, never-ending, tuneless chanting and praying. No one moves, as heavily-bearded rabbis in black hats, long black coats and open white shirts intone endlessly into the microphone. As each rabbi finishes his prayer, he rises and strolls into the sea of onlookers, where he shakes hands with the men in the community, while the next rabbi or family member moves to the microphone. The more important the rabbi, the longer his prayer. After awhile it’s like being in the car with your kids, and they’re singing Two Thousand Bottles of Beer on the Wall in Hebrew and you’re afraid they’re going to sing every verse.
Elizabeth has leaned towards me until we are as close as two people can possibly get without touching. I can feel the heat from her shoulder, her hip, her knee, each a fraction of an inch from mine. I will myself to stand perfectly still, commanding each hair on my body not to grow. I have no idea what would happen should we touch. My heart is pounding.
Four thousand years pass. The Jews enter and escape Egypt. Enemies keep trying to destroy them but fail. Iraq expels them after Israel is founded. The ship stops in Singapore. All this time has passed and Elizabeth and I have barely breathed.
Finally, the last rabbinical prayer is sent off to heaven, and the crowd applauds gratefully. A low rumble of conversation begins again. People stand, stretch. Elizabeth immediately turns to face me, takes a deep breath, and says very deliberately:
“Do - you - make - her - happy?”
“Of course,” I say quickly.
Her eyes narrow in anger. I answered without thinking, and she knows it. This question will not deflect.
“All right, all right,” I say. “Hold on a second.”
This is a tough question for me. I should be able to answer right away, but...well, I can’t. People who have been together as long as Barbara and I can have trouble finding simple answers to simple questions.
“Sometimes I think I don’t,” I admit. “Sometimes I know I do. So...yes, probably, at least some of the time.”
Elizabeth nods. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
“Oh ha ha ha no, no, no, no, oh ha ha no no,” I lie. Oh, how I lie.
She breaks her gaze, stares down at her feet. My eyes feel lighter without hers hanging onto them so tightly. But I realize I want to carry that weight. I can’t wait for her to stare at me again.
Wild Shmuel Rundala has risen from the table and has returned to his earlier spot by the punchbowl, from which vantage point he can continue to stare poison arrows at me.
“Look at him,” she says.
“Rabbi Rundala? He has very intense eyes.”
“I know. He is my husband.”
“Your husband! But...I thought...”
“I know what you thought.”
I hope to God you don’t, Elizabeth, and I hope God wasn’t reading my mind a few moments ago. She smiles, or at least what passes for a smile from her, a short B-flat completely diminished. This girl carries sadness like a mailman with a heavy package on an endless street with no marked addresses. A part of me feels almost...fatherly towards her. I would like to see her smile, really smile, just once.
All right, I’m lying. I would like to make her smile, that’s what I mean, to verify her lights and darks, to learn where all that sadness comes from. And that coconut.
“Why does he keep staring at me?” I ask her, and she says:
“You have to ask?”
“How long have you two been married?”
“We’re not married. Yet. But he’s the only one left of the proper faith and age. My parents and his parents have agreed. And today is my birthday. Today I must give him my answer.”
”Oh, God.” I remember what she said about sacrificing virgins on their birthdays.
I look back at Rabbi Rundala. If possible, he seems to have gotten even angrier, staring at me with a religious, maniacal fervor. Maybe he’s angry with God, but I think the poor guy is just disastrously jealous. I feel for him. But I’m a man. There’s a part of me that wouldn’t mind crushing his bug-eyed little face with one arm.
“Elizabeth, do you love him?”
She says nothing.
“But you’ll marry him?”
She pounds her index finger into her open palm, once, twice, three times, then stops half way to number four. “I always said I would not marry Shmuel,” she says. “No. I would not. But all this...”
And now something in her breaks. If you weren’t glued to her eyes like I am, you might not notice, but I do. She forces her lips together so she won’t cry. “You couldn’t understand,” she says, through clenched lips, almost in a whimper.
I think I do. This place is doing a little of the same thing to me. To Elizabeth it’s everything at once, the banquet room, her community, her people, once thousands strong but now down to a few hundred, close-knit Arabic-speaking Jews who fled over decades to the end of the Malay Peninsula and then prospered in a land of Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Keeping the community alive is everyone’s priority. Traditions, religion, impossible expectations...she turns, she fidgets, she can’t stand still.
I get this. Being a Jew is not the easiest thing in the world. Either it’s such a major part of your life that you must obey dictates that make no logical sense, like it is for Elizabeth, or it’s little more than your heritage but there’s still that part of you that feels your lack of devotion is letting down your own history. That’s where I live. It can make me twitch too.
Elizabeth starts to speak, but too softly for me to hear. This time I have to lean forward.
“We are taught…we must marry… a boy from our community…to sustain it,” she whispers, “Orthodox…ten to fifteen years older…so he can be established in business already.”
Now she is speaking a little louder. “If he’s a cousin...OK. If he’s somebody you don’t love...OK. Our rabbis...”
She stops. I prod her. “Your rabbis...”
“YOU CANNOT MAKE THEM HAPPY, MR. DOUGLAS!” She stares at me, her eyes practically spitting fire. “Only Hashem can make them happy,” she says, using the Orthodox word for God. To the orthodoxy God is so holy you can’t say his name, nor even the ancient Hebrew name “Adonai” that other Jews have used for thousands of years.
Elizabeth is facing me as she speaks, but as I look over her shoulder I can see Rabbi Rundala. He is now waving. He wants to catch her eye, but she won’t turn. And he won’t walk over. They’re acting like my parents.
“So...Rabbi Rundala is your cousin?” I say, staring at him as I say it.
She shakes her head. “No, but he may as well be. I’ve known Shmuel all my life. He never laughs. Do you want to see something?”
I nod. She turns to look at him and as she does the rabbi nods deliberately at her and makes a fierce motion towards himself with his thumb and two fingers, then slaps his thigh twice, rather like one would call a dog.
“You see?” she says, but she doesn’t seem surprised. The surprise is mine.
“What the hell was THAT?” I hiss and take a step in his direction. My biceps are contracting, my face reddening, my fists clenching. I’m getting ready for battle. The strength of this emotion astonishes me.
“Sha,” she says, turning to block my path. With her back to the rabbi she touches my arm. “You are angry,” she says softly, leaving her finger on my arm for one or perhaps two heartbeats, then removes it.
I stare at her, then at my arm where her finger had been. We have been reduced to a world of mighty interpretations of the tiniest gestures. We’re like the Bible.
“You’re not supposed to touch my arm,” I say.
“No,” she says.
After a pause for a deep breath, I say:
“But you did.”
“Well,” I say. “At least he didn’t whistle.”
“Rabbis don’t whistle, Mr. Douglas,” she says. “They chant.”
And now she stares once more into each of my eyes. Left. Pause. Right. Pause. It doesn’t take her as long this time. Then she sighs. She says, softly: “You have helped me. I am grateful.” She turns and walks towards the punchbowl.
After a few steps I call: “Elizabeth. Wait.” She stops but doesn’t turn around.
“For what?” she says, still facing the other room.
That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? You can take your torah and your talmud and your testaments old and new, and search them until you’re blue in the face and you still won’t be any closer to an answer.
Messages are going through my head like a telegram. I am happily married. Stop. She is gorgeous. Stop. She’s not so crazy. Stop. Are you kidding? She’s loony as a cartoon rabbit. Stop.
She wants me. Stop. If you think that, you’re crazier than she is. Stop. And anyway, do you want her?
Stop, big time. Stop, Stop, Stop.
Nothing I can think to say makes any sense at all. So she says it for me. “You said you love your wife even more now than when you married. It can happen, yes?”
“Well...yes. Time…yes. Yes. It can happen. It has to happen.”
“Good,” she says, and turns to face me, and her expression seems finally lighter. “Then it will, with God’s help.” Not Hashem, not Adonai, just plain old God, in English. And she smiles, a real smile, for the first time. If I thought she was beautiful before I now see how uninformed I was. Her eyes sparkle from some inner paradise. Maybe this is the light the Jews followed down the dark peninsula, all the dark peninsulas, the beacon that has kept them half a step ahead of all the tyrants. I couldn’t speak if I wanted to.
When she smiles, it occurs to me that she is perhaps even younger than I had thought. She walks off with her head high, and doesn’t look back. Twenty steps later Rabbi Rundala greets her, shyly. They do not touch, remaining a respectable distance from each other, as if each is afraid to violate the other’s airspace.
She says something to him. He winces, puts both hands to the sides of his face, and waits. She nods. His face bursts into a smile, his arms jump into the air and he shouts heavenward, aware of the magnitude of the gift that has just been bestowed upon him. But that’s it for celebration. He places his fist to his mouth, as if to compose himself...and walks away from her. Elizabeth follows a step or two behind. When he greets the other rabbis and falls into their circle, they look up and smile great, fatherly smiles. But the congratulations are for him alone. It’s as if she isn’t even there.
Ari walks over and says: “Man.”
“Jeez, Louise,” I say.
“Do you know how old she is?” Ari asks. “Sam Kersh-Ali just told me.”
“23?” When he doesn’t say anything I say: “21?”
“17,” Ari says. “She turned 17 today.”
“17? Elizabeth is only 17?”
This is too much. She’s barely older than my daughter. I hardly know what to think. And to compound things I look up and see the six rabbis now walking purposefully in our direction, Rundala in the lead.
“Oi vay iz mere,” Ari says. “They’re coming to eat us.”
Without thinking about it I stare down at the spot on my arm, the place she touched, the place that all of a sudden feels hot like a burning bush. I wonder if he saw. I wonder if it matters. I wonder if he’ll slap me with his prayer shawl, challenging me to a duel, talmuds at twenty paces.
I wonder if Elizabeth and I just had an affair.
If we did, it was memorable, world class.
They’re smiling, the rabbis. It dawns on me that behind the robes, and the religion, and the cosmopolitan Far East business community with the customs of the 17th century Baghdad village, they’re men, just like us.
They have something to give us.
Rabbi Yakub, the black-bearded Chief Rabbi of Singapore, approaches me and says: “Please. Our colleague has announced his marriage. We will sing. ‘Meshiach,’ please?” I look at all six rabbis, and they are smiling in anticipation of this music about the coming Messiah that informs such a part of their lives. With an enormous WHAPPP! Rabbi Yakub claps his hands once and the room becomes instantly silent. He claps several more times, and picks up a beat with his foot. People grab hands, men with men and women with women, and form circles as Ari and I begin to sing:
“Ani mamin be-emunah shelema.
(I believe with all my heart
The Messiah will come.)”
When we get to the chorus, “Meshiach, Meshiach, Meshiach,” the other rabbis join in singing, and by now everyone is dancing, or if they aren’t dancing, they are clapping their hands to the same rhythm.
“Meshiach, Meshiach, Meshiach
Ai yai yai yai yai yai
Meshiach, Meshiach, Meshiach
Ai yai yai yai yai yai...”
The rabbis have their own circle, as do the other men, and the married women and the unmarried women. Victoria Khunna, still unmarried until tomorrow, dances in a circle with the other unmarried women, including Elizabeth, who keeps her eyes averted as she revolves through the room. When Rabbi Rundala passes in front of me he smiles like Moses must have smiled when God said “Moses! Look! I’m up here!”
Not a rabbi’s smile, not a saint’s, but that of a very happy man. Then he grabs my arm, and someone grabs Ari’s, and we are pulled into the rabbi’s circle.
Rabbi Rundala gushes something to me in Hebrew. I don’t speak Hebrew, but I don’t need to.
“She sure is,” I say.
I can’t dance a lick, but that doesn’t matter either. All our arms are locked around each others’ shoulders, my feet barely touch the floor. Rabbi Rundala, the man who never laughs, is grinning and dancing so hard his long forelocks are actually crashing against the corners of his upturned mouth.
Elizabeth dances by in her circle and smiles at him. Their eyes lock as their circles pass each other. And in that instant I realize I have the answer. I know what makes a rabbi happy.