Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Snorkeling Rabbi

Last night we marked Tisha B’Av, the fast on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. The day commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem along with a mixed bag of just about every calamitous event to befall the Jews in the last 2000 years, everything from when the spies gave their damning report on the land of Canaan to Moses and the Israelites in the desert, to the day that World War I started.

The weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av itself are similarly solemn, treated as days of mourning and subject to the same prohibitions: some men stop shaving, weddings are postponed and many avoid eating meat except on Shabbat.

Three years ago, however, as Tisha B’Av approached, my family and I were doing our best to forget the often crushing history of our people.

It was nearly a year into the violence that began in September 2000, and we had gone on vacation with my father-in-law and his wife to Hawaii. A beach-front condo and ten days of lolling on the beach lapping up the perfect waves off the Maui coast were just what the doctor ordered.

We were in desperate need of a break.

And that’s just what we got. We enjoyed glorious sunsets, watched several kitschy hula shows and wolfed down some of the freshest fish we’d ever eaten (with no kosher restaurants on the island, it wasn’t hard to mind the no-meat rule).

Maui was about the farthest place away from Israel – both physically and spiritually – we could imagine.

And you know, we might just have succeeded in our quest to passively assimilate, however briefly, into the tropical landscape if it were not for the Snorkeling Rabbi.

Jody saw him first. It was the morning before Tisha B’Av. We had gone to check out a new beach on the north side of the island. And there he was, climbing out of the water like a moving mirage in goggles and flippers. A vaguely familiar face.

“Rabbi Joe?” Jody gasped.

“Jody? Brian?” he replied, equally dumbstruck.

Here we were, ten thousand miles from home in Jerusalem, and out of the waves comes our Rabbi friend from two blocks away.

Suddenly it wasn’t quite as easy to blend in. We were hanging out with a Rabbi now.

Not that he looked the part. In his funky Hawaiian bathing suit, I imagined he might be feeling just as awkward as we were about being spotted. 

“So…are you enjoying Maui?” Rabbi Joe asked.

“It’s amazing,” Jody said brightly.

I was staying out of it, still trying to look inconspicuous.

“But what are you doing here?” Jody asked.

“Oh we come every year. This is like our second home.”

We talked for awhile about which were the best beaches for snorkeling and where to watch the hang gliders and which hotel to stay at the next time we came.

Then Rabbi Joe said he had to get going. “Tonight’s Tisha B’Av,” he said. “Are you coming to shul?”

“Shul?” I sputtered. “You mean there’s a synagogue here…in Maui?”

“Well, more of a small congregation that meets in someone’s house. But we’ll be reading Eicha,” he said referring to the Book of Lamentations that’s traditionally read on Tisha B’Av night. “You should come. Here, hand me a pen. I’ll write out the address.”

His reached out an arm which was still sparkling from a few yet-to-be-evaporated drops of salty ocean water. “Maybe you can join us for the break fast tomorrow night?” he added.

Now, I’d like to end this story by telling you we made it to synagogue that night and heard the solemn chanting from the Book of Lamentations, buffeted by the sweet winds and the sound of the sea at sunset. And that we then broke bread the next night with a group of Hassidic hippies on the beach.

But we had to pack. We were out of there the next day.

Or maybe it was that we weren’t ready to head back to the harsh reality of our people just yet. We needed one more night of escape…even if it was Tisha B’Av.

Of course we fasted. On the plane ride home, that meant we had to miss out on the scrumptious airplane food (no great loss there). The time change worked in our favor ending the fast three hours earlier than it would have if we had stayed in Maui.

Two days later, after a short stop in Los Angeles, we were on a plane heading back to Israel.

We run into Rabbi Joe all the time now…in Jerusalem. And when we do, we always laugh about that day the Snorkeling Rabbi came in from the beach and gently reminded us where we had come from…and where we were going.

May you have an easy fast…wherever you are in this ever-suprising world.

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