by Josh Lieberman
Once a year the rabbi came to our summer house to play tennis. We were New York Jews, not religious, members of the temple in a nominal way; we paid the annual fees, got bar mitzvahed, attended High Holy Day services. If you asked my father whether he believed in God, he’d tell you that religion was a technology. Yet for reasons I didn’t understand, the rabbi seemed to like my atheist of a father—he was charming, yes, but the rabbi was a man who could not be charmed. Maybe the rabbi was just using my father for our annual tennis match, a festive event in which families from the temple sat courtside and cheered for the rabbi, reverently, as though encouraging some great master, then descended upon piles of lox and whitefish and things in cream sauce as the rabbi took a single trembling shot of vodka before heading off to some appointment.
Each summer the rabbi arrived by taxi from the Montauk train station dressed in a black suit with a black tie, the twisted threads of his tallis hanging off his thin frame like a weeping willow. Set against the summer’s soft lawn and pink azaleas, the presence of the rabbi, this relic of the shtetl, was even more pronounced than usual. The man never smiled, not as he emerged from the taxi into our beautiful yard, not ever; on occasion he would tell a joke, but it was solely for the listener’s benefit, as mirth couldn’t reach him. After getting out of the taxi and shaking the assembled guests’ hands, the rabbi would go into the bathroom to change into tennis whites. Shocking, the first time I saw this.
There were few pleasantries before the game. My father and the rabbi always played on one team against some combination of us four brothers. We played one six-game set, going somewhat easy on the rabbi to keep the game close. This isn’t to say he was bad. Naturally he couldn’t move around like us, but when you placed the ball near him, even with a decent amount of spin, he always returned it. His serve was powerful, almost full of rage. On the very rare occasion when he hit into the net, he muttered something quiet, private.
The year the rabbi turned seventy-two he had a stroke. This happened in the spring. He recovered quickly, almost miraculously, and returned to the temple. Everyone assumed the rabbi’s tennis days were over, but as usual he called my father on June first and asked if we could play a little tennis the following month. Of course, my father said, and when he hung up he asked me if I knew about the lamedvavniks. I didn’t. I was eleven, not exactly well-versed in the Talmud. My father explained that in every generation there are thirty-six righteous people, and that without these thirty-six the world would collapse.
The day of the match arrived. Bagels were purchased, temple members called, chairs arranged. The rabbi emerged from his taxi already dressed in tennis whites. His gauntness no longer seemed to belong to a serious man but to a sick one. He moved slowly on the court. When he swung at my first serve the ball passed him by. The spectators gasped. I sent the ball to him tenderly; if it were an egg it would not have shattered. The rabbi hit into the net. When it was his turn to serve, he double-faulted three times. Gone was the angry, righteous power of his service. Each time I hit the ball to the rabbi I sent him soft shots. Please, he said, don’t. Don’t.
Josh Lieberman‘s writing has appeared in Apartamento, the Paris Review Daily, The Awl, and elsewhere.
Photo: Nimish Gogri via Creative Commons
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