The Last Word
airport they are looking for terrorists. The rabbi is looking for
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
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;
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
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
"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
"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
"Yes, three," I answer.
"May you be blessed by them and know only joy."
"Thank you," I say. "I certainly hope
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.