Photo: Edward Anthony Batres
The Rabbi Who Was Saved By Jesus
By Josh Kail
Not too long ago in the shtetl of Astoria, Queens, a woman walked energetically around her second-floor apartment. Shabbos was fast approaching, and Rabbi Miriam was busy getting all the sources together for that night’s sermon. She had really “phoned it in” the previous week and knew she needed to balance it out with something of substance this time around. As the old rabbinical adage goes, “for every two for the schnooks, write one for the books!”
It was an early spring day in Astoria. The sky had just given up the perpetual gray of winter. There was just enough of a kiss of warmth to the air that she had decided to open a window. Rabbi Miriam lived on the second floor of a two-story row home in the upper forties of 30th Avenue. Her landlords, George and Mary Oikonomou, were an older Greek couple who lived on the floor below. They were kind people who would always turn the heat on in the building early in the season.
As Miriam jostled energetically from her bedroom to her office with a stack of various commentaries of the Tanakh piled high, a gust of wind came in through the open living room window. It was strong enough to tip over the rather wordy and hefty Phonetic Translation. The disjointed stack threw off Rabbi Miriam’s balance to the point of having to stand awkwardly on one foot while trying not to drop anything. Her downfall came the moment the high-gloss-covered Folger’s Torah Commentary with Knowledge Crystals became weight-bearing and everything went everywhere. The sudden release of any semblance of a counterbalance sent the rabbi flying right out the open window.
As Miriam plummeted the one story towards her demise, her entire life flashed before her, including finally remembering where she had hidden the afikomen in 2008. She also looked back at her rabbinical career and was flooded with questions. Was she available to her community as much as she could have been? Did she provide all the right insights? Why didn’t she tell off that lay leader when he called her “young lady” for the twentieth time, despite being two years younger than her? Then, just as she was about to start answering them, she landed.
To her own astonishment, Miriam did not die. She did not even seem to have broken anything. Confused by this unlikely conclusion, Miriam opened her eyes to look around. There she was, flayed out in the open arms of the plastic figurine that the Oikonomous kept in their front garden. Rabbi Miriam had been saved by Jesus.
Mrs. Oikonomou came running out of the house to see what the noise was about. When she saw Miriam laying there, she rushed over to help her. Asking, and then seeing that there were no injuries, she brought Miriam inside and made her a cup of tea. Once Miriam assured Mrs. Oikonomou that all was well, that she did not have any broken limbs, she thanked her for the tea and went back upstairs. Miriam started to wonder what all of this meant. She felt herself hurtling towards a crisis of faith and knew what had to be done.
The Jews of Astoria are a gathering of wandering souls. They had come to New York City from various towns and communities across the United States. They’d ended up there for school or work, or chasing a relationship that would ultimately leave them alone and isolated. Years earlier, a group of rabbis fresh out of seminary decided to divide Astoria into several regions, each catering to one of them. There was North of Steinway, South of Steinway, Astoria Boulevard, Ditmars, and eventually the extension into LIC (after most of the strip joints had closed). Together these rabbis formed a sort of Beit Din, though with so many opinions, things were rarely if ever decided. Usually, they would meet to discuss things like who should get the couch when two roommates decided to part ways. The running gag of suggesting “to cut it in half” never got old. It did go over a few heads when the couch in question was a sectional, though. The Beit Din of the Jews of Astoria was the group Miriam called when she got back to her apartment. This needed the full rabbinic treatment.
Given the gravity of the situation, and despite Shabbos being only a few hours away, all the rabbis showed up at Rabbi Miriam’s apartment within minutes, except for Rav Soloman of LIC. There was construction on the trains again, so he arrived a few days late. But he also was the only one to insist on being called Rav instead of Paul, even with his peers, so they were not entirely upset by his absence.
First to arrive was Rabbi Sheila of the South of Steinway region. Rabbi Sheila was the youngest of the group, having been ordained only a few years earlier, but she had the sort of energy and verve that makes older people at traditional congregations uncomfortable and the younger people love her. She also thought she could sing, which she absolutely could not, but no one had the heart to tell her. Instead, they would import bespoke beeswax earplugs from Williamsburg, which would be taken out discreetly during the final bow of the Amidah, to be sure her sermon would be heard. Despite her atrocious voice, she was beloved by most of her community.
Next was Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi of the Astoria Boulevard region. With a name like that, most assumed he came from a long line of rabbis going back to the old country, but this was not the case. His great-great-grandfather Yossi, as it turns out, had been a pickle merchant in New Jersey. According to the Ancestry.com report, he was not even a very good one. A clipping from the Yiddish newspaper, The Picayune Gazette, quoted Yossi’s pickles as having “the easiest-to-open jars while giving no other incentive to remove the lid.” Rabbi Aaron was older than the other rabbis on the Beit Din, he spoke with a Yiddish accent despite having never crossed any of the bridges out of New Jersey, and had the speaking patterns of wisdom while rarely fulfilling those expectations. Despite this, he was always jovial and in good spirits which were infectious, so he too was beloved by his community.
The last to arrive was Rabbi Rav of Ditmars. Unlike Rav Soloman, Rav was his actual name. He did come from a long line of rabbis. His parents had given him the name “Rav,” in case he ever got confused as to what he wanted to become. He had the most encyclopedic knowledge of rabbinic thought in the group. He was also prone to name-dropping his own family members during any halachic debate. He was more serious than the rest. It was difficult to tell if that was because of earnest thought or the result of his having being taught from an early age how to look at people with disapproval. Because of his knowledge and ability to have a rabbinic answer for any situation, he too was beloved by his community.
When all the rabbis of the Astoria Bet Din had arrived, minus Rav Solomon, they sat around Rabbi Miriam’s dining room table to discuss the situation. Before they began debating the matter, they took turns giving a short drash about that week’s Torah parsha. One hour later, Miriam recounted what had happened to her.
“This is a very interesting series of events,” began Rabbi Rav. “It reminds me of a tale my Zayde Rav Meshugah would tell me about the fish that chopped wood!”
To this, Rabbi Sheila audibly sighed.
“What?” Rabbi Rav asked, looking up.
“Nothing,” said Rabbi Sheila. “Please continue.”
“Thank you. Now where was I? Ah yes, the fish that chopped wood. As my Zayde, the esteemed Rav Meshugah would tell every year on Tu Ba’av, back in the shtetl of Bratislava, there was a peculiar pond with no trees along its shore, only stumps. What made this so strange was that no one admitted to cutting them down. Moshe, the village woodcutter, had no surplus in firewood to sell and reported no sudden decrease in anyone’s weekly order. Even old lady Gluckel, the chicken merchant’s wife who was always cold, no matter the season, could still be heard muttering about how close to hypothermia she was. There were no obvious answers as to who had cut down the trees, so they went to the rabbi, who happened to be my great-great-grandfather Rav Balagan the Chacham!”
“Could it be anyone else?” Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi let out. “Oh, sorry, please go on.”
“Yes, anyway, my great-great-grandfather, Rav Balagan the Chacham, decided to investigate. He ventured out to the pond that very Shabbos after Shacharit. He walked around the pond seven times, investigating each stump, and finally sat down to watch the water. Nothing happened. He did this every Shabbos for seven weeks until it was Tu B’shvat of all days, can you believe?”
“I would expect nothing else,” whispered Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi. To which Rabbis Miriam and Sheila laughed.
“Mm-hmm,” Rabbi Rav went on, without any recognition of the interruption. “On Tu B’shvat, my great-great-grandfather Rav Balagan the Chacham decided he would plant a tree on the shore of the pond. He brought a pomegranate sapling and dug a small hole in the earth with his hands. He placed the sapling in the hole. No sooner had he finished replacing the soil around it than a large fish came flopping from out of the pond with a rusty axe in its mouth. It moved its way to the tree and in one swing cut the tree down! Can you believe that?”
Rabbi Rav gave a sharp look to Rabbi Aaron before he could say anything, and went on. “Before the fish could make it back to the pond, my great-great-grandfather Rav Balagan the Chacham leaped up and grabbed the fish by the tail!
“‘Fish, before I let you back into the water, I must know why you are cutting down these trees,’ he said. The fish tossed the axe from his mouth back into the pond so that he could speak.
“‘Why am I cutting down these trees? Are you kidding me? Every year on Tu B’shvat, people come and plant trees. They plant orange trees and peach trees, they plant plum trees, they plant — what was that? — a pomegranate. We are in Poland! Why are you planting oranges, peaches, plums, and pomegranates? Those aren’t going to live here. They are just going to die, rot, and fill my pond with debris. Stop polluting my pond with poor gardening choices and I will stop cutting down your trees!’
“With that, the fish showed its true strength, freed itself from my great-great-grandfather Rav Balagan the Chacham’s hands, and dove back into the depths of the pond. From that year on, the people of Bratislava have planted only regional trees on Tu B’shvat, and the fish has never cut down a tree again. I think you would find, if you truly listened to that story, Rabbi Miriam, that all the answers you seek are within.” Rabbi Rav rested his hands on his lap, and had a proud and content look on his face.
“Okay, so many questions from that. Where to begin?” Rabbi Miriam said as calmly as possible. “Why did your great-great-grandfather tell that story on Tu B’av? Isn’t Bratislava in Slovakia, not Poland? But most importantly, what does this have to do with my experience of being rescued by a plastic Jesus?”
“Oh!” replied Rabbi Rav. “I thought you said ‘caustic fishes.’ I’m sorry. I’ve been fighting this cold and my ears have been clogged for a week. Such misery you should not know! Yes, I hear what you are saying now. That story probably doesn’t help at all. However, my great-uncle Rav Eliezer would tell a –”
“What direction was it facing?” Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi asked before the next story could begin.
“The fish?” Rabbi Miriam answered confusedly.
“No, no, the plastic Jesus. Which direction was it facing?”
“I don’t know. It’s right below the window. We can go and take a look.”
The four rabbis walked to the window and peered down, although Rabbi Miriam kept a healthy distance as she looked. Simultaneously they all closed their eyes and imagined taking the Torah from the ark, and which way they would be facing in relation to where they were currently facing, and then they started chopping at the air as they turned in a slow circle to the direction that the plastic Jesus was facing in the garden. If a stranger had been watching, they’d have thought the group was rehearsing the routine for a very strange NSYNC reunion tour.
“East!” Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi was the first to declare. “As I expected,” he elaborated while sounding like he was trying to do a Jackie Mason impression. “You see, since the plastic Jesus is facing east, that clearly means that Jesus was facing his Jewish roots. As the Rambam stated, ‘A man whose heart faces Jerusalem carries with him the hopes of the Jewish people.’ Notice how he emphasized ‘the Jewish people,’ for this represents all of the people of Israel, and not simply the individual. When plastic Jesus faces east, it extends to all of Israel. When he caught you, it was with the soul of a Jew. Clearly, there is no need to worry.”
“But didn’t Rabbi Gamliel also say that God is with you when you face the west, for the east is to your back and with it the support of all of Israel?” Rabbi Sheila countered.
“He did,” Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi admitted. “But Rabbi Gamliel was referencing B’midbar, where it states: ‘And Kathubah, son of Girabrel, son of Moctuber, son of Numerdor, son of Steve, son of Tartunika, faced the people of Dror Habarith and their wicked King Garabeth to the west. With the armies of Israel to his back, Kathubah proceeded with the strength of the Lord forward.’ In Rabbi Gamliel’s commentary, he was speaking of a mass of people supporting an individual who was facing west. Since Rabbi Miriam was alone in her apartment at the time of the event, Gamliel’s statement does not apply.”
“But didn’t Rabbi Blythe say, ‘Every time we look southward, we see the face of a stranger, and should love that stranger as our own?’” Rabbi Sheila asked again. “If we look to the stranger as our own, then surely God is with us when we look to the south, not the east. Rabbi Miriam has spent her entire rabbinate welcoming the stranger. If God were with her at that moment, then clearly the plastic Jesus should have been facing south.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi acknowledged. “But Rabbi Blythe is from London. To him, the south refers to France. As we all know, there is a long and embattled history between England and France, in which the Jewish people have often found themselves in the middle. When Rabbi Sacks said, ‘Look at the stranger as our own,’ he meant specifically the post-occupation cultural narratives of Paris. However, we all live in a neighborhood that is predominantly Greek, not French, so if the Jesus were facing south, it would not signify that God was not with Rabbi Miriam at that moment.”
“North!” shouted Rabbi Rav.
“What?” asked Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi, as Rabbis Miriam and Sheila also turned to Rabbi Rav in confusion.
“The plastic Jesus is facing north, not east,” Rabbi Rav explained. “We are on a side street, but it’s facing the avenue. I think we all got a little turned around, but it is definitely facing north.”
“Are you sure? I am fairly confident it is facing east. Remember 30th Avenue bends a little bit past Steinway. Yes, definitely east!”
“North!” insisted Rabbi Rav.
Rabbi Miriam sat at the table, her head in her hands. She was no closer to figuring out the meaning of being saved by the plastic Jesus, and Shabbos was quickly approaching. Rabbi Rav and Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi were still arguing. Rabbi Sheila was consulting numerous texts from Rabbi Miriam’s library. Things were beginning to look hopeless when there was a knock at the door. Miriam went to answer it, and found Mrs. Oikonomou standing there with a freshly-made baklava in her hands.
“I thought I would bring this up to you after that ordeal you had this morning,” she warmly said. “Where should I put it?”
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Oikonomou,” Miriam smiled, temporarily forgetting her troubles. “The table over here will do just fine.”
As Mrs. Oikonomou walked to the table with the baklava, she saw the Beit Din gathered. “Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t realize you had people over!”
“You always are more than welcome, Mrs. Oikonomou,” Miriam assured her landlord. “These are just some colleagues of mine; we were discussing what had happened.”
At that moment Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi looked up from his argument with Rabbi Rav and noticed Mrs. Oikonomou.
“Aha!” he cried out. “Finally, someone who can help us. Mrs. Oikonomou, would you be so kind as to settle an argument my friend and I are having? In which direction is your garden Jesus facing? To the north, south, east, or west? Your clarity on this subject will be greatly appreciated.”
“My what?” she asked, confused.
“I’m sorry,” said Rabbi Aaron ben Avram ben Mutti ben Shlomo ben Yehuda ben Yossi. “I don’t know what the formal name for it is. That plastic Jesus figure you keep in your front garden — which direction is it facing?”
“Jesus?” Mary repeated, still confused. She thought for a moment and then her face lit up. “Oh! That is Saint Phocas the Gardener, not Jesus. I am sorry, though, that I didn’t know which direction he is facing. I hope that helps whatever argument you are having.”
With that discovery, the entire Beit Din let out a sigh of relief. It wasn’t Jesus who had saved Rabbi Miriam, after all. The crisis of faith had been averted. With that, the four rabbis and Mary Oikonomou sat around the table and enjoyed the delicious baklava. But the best thing of all was that Rabbi Miriam finally had an idea for her sermon.