Spring 2003 Contents OAM Home Oberlin Online Home
Feature Stories
Money Matters
Family Tree, Oberlin roots
Operation Internship
[cover story] Fury and the Sound
David Rees Gets His (Bleep) On
Around Tappan Square
Alumni Profiles
The Last Word
One More Thing
Inside Oberlin
Staff Box

The Last Word

Varifiably Single
At the airport they are looking for terrorists. The rabbi is looking for a liar.

Good friends of ours, Lynne and Adam, are getting married. To tie the knot in Israel, Lynne needs two men to testify that she is indeed single. She's chosen me.

It's an unseasonably warm January day when I head to the Chief Rabbi's Marriage Division Office in downtown Jerusalem. I walk the streets, realizing that I haven't been in this neighborhood in years. Not since the bombs started.

I expect to see deserted streets and boarded-up shops. There are some, but also new cafes and the construction of a state-of-the-art light rail system along Jaffa Road. Business isn't exactly booming, but neither is this the ghost town I'd imagined.

The Marriage Division is situated in an old, run-down apartment. Two people are ahead of me--both men, of course. Traditional Jewish law has not progressed far enough into the 21st century to allow women to serve as witnesses. The waiting room offers welcoming literature for new brides and grooms, but no secular reading material. No People magazine, no Modern Bride, no Oprah.

I flip through a brochure in English and learn that soldiers, students, new immigrants, and people on welfare are entitled to a 40 percent discount on marriage registration fees. I guess I missed my opportunity.

Finally, the door opens, and I'm welcomed by Rabbi Shmuel Zalman, a jovial fellow with a long, white beard.

"How long have you known Lynne?" he begins the interrogation, innocently enough.

"Eight years," I say.

He flips through her file. "I see that she was married before."

Uh-oh. "Yes, but that was before I knew her."

"How long ago was that?" he presses.

"I'm not sure."

"Yes, but how long?" he asks again.

"I'm really not sure."

He changes the subject. "Do you know her parents? What does her father do?"

"I couldn't say. But I know her brother. He's a teacher at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies."

"What's that?" he asks. "Under whose auspices does it operate?"

"It's independent." I'd rather not reveal the fact that men and women study together at Pardes. The notion would be abhorrent to Rabbi Zalman, and, I'm afraid, might invalidate the wedding entirely.

"Adam, Lynne's fiancé, teaches there, too," I offer.

"Uh huh," he mumbles. "How long ago was she married, did you say?"

"No, I didn't."

He drops the subject. And I come to the realization that the interrogation is just like the security checks at the airport; Rabbi
Zalman is not really interested in my answers, but rather wants reassurance that I'm a trustworthy source. At the airport they look for terrorists. He's looking for liars.

He then turns his attention to me. "What is your line of business?" he asks. I tell him I manage an Internet site. I keep my answers simple to avoid additional questions. The same strategy as at the airport.

"Oy!" he proclaims, suddenly overtly animated. "What's going on with the hi-tech sector? So many layoffs. What, they don't need people anymore?"

I try to explain it's a global downturn. However, the Rabbi, who's now found a subject he's passionate about, launches into a story about a sermon he once heard by a great sage about the
origin of the Hebrew word for computer. I pick up the basics. "It comes from the words 'moach' and 'shev,'" he explains, which translates roughly to "Sitting Brain." It sounds to me like a Navajo name. "Hello, I am Sitting Brain and this is my younger brother, Standing Tush."

The Rabbi is really enjoying himself now, throwing out insights much too quickly for my comprehension, and in Hebrew, which I speak only in passing. I nod and smile. For all I know, he's pontificating that all computers should
be banned, that the Internet delivers only pornography, that computer users are no better
than pornographers.

"Yes, right, correct," I say.

I'm not upset; I'm sure his is a lonely job, asking the same ques-
tions of people over and over again from his drab basement office. Every bit of interaction likely brightens his otherwise mind-numbing routine.

"All right," he concludes, handing me a pen to sign my name
and identity number. I've made it through the interview and get up to leave.

"You have children?" he asks as I reach the door.

"Yes, three," I answer.

"May you be blessed by them and know only joy."

"Thank you," I say. "I certainly hope so."

As I walk back into the sunshine, I try to imagine this scenario occurring anywhere else. I can't. Some people say my family and I are crazy for living in a war zone. Others applaud us for our devotion to principles.

My response? After 12 years, this is quite simply, home, and Rabbis like Shmuel Zalman are part of the never-ending cast who make life so colorful.

Brian Blum writes the online column "This Normal Life" at www.brianblum.com. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.