Rabbi Sternglantz showed up one day at my work place, a state-run mental facility called ‘The Hill’. He was looking for a psychiatrist. Not for himself but for ‘Vayehi Or’, which the Rabbi translated as ‘Let There Be Light!’ and which he described as ‘only the second mental health clinic ever to serve the Hasidic population’.
I distrusted him instantly. It was a combination of his limp handshake and his long white beard, which covered the Rabbi’s entire face except for a patch of pallid skin roughly the size and shape of safety goggles. I admit, I have always distrusted those big white beards. They confer instant wisdom and spirituality upon their bearers and as such they often serve as a refuge for scoundrels. But my distrust of Rabbi Sternglantz’s beard was even more intense because of the way his beard contradicted his words, which were a disconcerting mixture of Old Testament parable and New Age psychobabble. The Rabbi used words like ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘empowerment’ and ‘under-utilization’, mental health buzzwords that sounded false coming out of that mystical white beard.
The Rabbi assured me that Vayehi Or was a ‘highly professional’ operation staffed by ‘highly professional’ professionals. It was reassuring to hear that it was not some amateur mental health clinic staffed by amateur professionals. Rabbi Sternglantz further assured me that by early spring Vayehi Or would be moving from its current temporary location on Grant Avenue to its new ‘state-of-the-art’ building on Henderson Street that had been designed by a professional architect who specialized in mental health buildings. Again, it was reassuring to know that the future home of Vayehi Or had been designed by a professional rather than an amateur architect. But in case I didn’t believe him, the Rabbi produced from the pocket of his black coat a brochure on high quality glossy paper. On the front was an artist’s rendering of a stately three-storey brick building sitting on a stately tree-lined street. Both the building and the street looked more likely to exist in Savannah, Georgia than in Brooklyn. The lush landscaping made it look like Paradise.
While God had commanded the Rabbi to create Vayehi Or, the New York State Office of Mental Health was now threatening to take away Vayehi Or’s licence to operate unless it provided at least eight hours of psychiatric consultation per week. The Rabbi needed a consulting psychiatrist, any consulting psychiatrist, and fast.
Probably, the Rabbi would have preferred to find a Hasidic psychiatrist, but unfortunately there was no such thing. There were no Hasidic doctors of any kind since Hasidim were forbidden secular education. There were a couple of ultra-Orthodox psychiatrists in Manhattan, but they were both ‘big doctors’. The Hasidim measured a doctor by the size of his fee, and these doctors were too big to work at Vayehi Or, so Rabbi Sternglantz was offering me the position. My first impulse was to say no. Not only was the Rabbi smarmy, but the Hasidim, I was convinced, wanted nothing to do with me. This conviction dated back to my childhood summers in the Catskills.
‘Ah see dem!’ Jeffrey Bender and I used to yell when we saw Hasidim walking along the road by White Lake, near their bungalow colony. They looked dark and scary, like vampire bats, except that we heard that unlike vampire bats the Hasidim were terrified of blood. That was why the Hasidic women soaked in hot water for ten days every month to remove all the blood. That was why the Hasidic men would not even shake the women’s hands, just in case there was a speck of blood left.
We learned this fact from Jeffrey Bender’s older brother Howard from whom we learned all the secrets of the Hasidim. Howard told us that the men never shaved or got haircuts and that the women shaved their heads and then covered their bald heads with wigs. He told us that the Hasidim never ever took their clothes off, not even to go swimming or to go to sleep. By far the most unbelievable thing that Howard told us about the Hasidim was that they fucked through a hole in the sheet. ‘They’re not allowed to look at each other.’
At the time, my image of sex – derived almost entirely from a pornographic comic book that Howard showed us – was vague enough for fucking through a hole in the sheet to make perfect sense. It seemed safer and more polite to avoid eye contact if you were engaging in something that nasty.
The secrets of the Hasidim, as revealed to us by Jeffrey Bender’s older brother Howard, made the Hasidim even more mysterious to us. It was clear that the Hasidim didn’t want anything to do with me and that made them the centre of my attention. What’s wrong with them? I asked myself. But what I was feeling was, What’s wrong with me? Why do they look at me like I’m dirt?
The more they ignored me, the more time I spent spying on them. I eavesdropped on their unintelligible conversations and I monitored the garbled announcements that came blaring over their loudspeaker. I noted what they bought at the Kosher Korner supermarket across the road and I charted each offspring and which adult it belonged to. I even gave the most interesting of the Hasidim names: there was Smelly Man, Red Beard, Little Head, Pizza Face, names like that. Between Memorial and Labor Day I gathered reams of data, but I learned very little. I was convinced that the Hasidim’s juiciest secrets lay hidden from me behind the towering wooden wall that completely surrounded their bungalow colony.
Jeffrey Bender and I spent long summer afternoons scheming our way around that wall. We tried to peek between the slats, but the spaces were too narrow. We tried to peer over the wall, me standing on Bender’s shoulders, but it turned out we were too short. We hatched a plan to sneak through the front gate at night but it turned out we were too chicken. We planned to drill a peephole through the wall until we realized that we didn’t have a drill. We briefly considered a tunnel, which I thought was too dangerous and Jeffrey thought was too much work.
In the end, the wall surrounding the Hasidim proved impenetrable. And from that time until now, I had learned little more about them beyond what Jeffrey Bender’s older brother Howard had told me.
But now, here was this Hasidic Rabbi not only inviting me to peep through the wooden wall, but actually trying to convince me to peep. There was, the Rabbi promised, a great and pressing need for psychiatric services among the Hasidim; a twenty-year backlog of untreated mental illnesses. Why, just recently, the Rabbi said, he had treated an elderly Hasidic hat manufacturer by the name of Goldberg who had become convinced beyond reason that the mitral valve implanted in his heart years ago was not the plastic valve that the doctors had promised but a pig’s valve. No amount of convincing by Goldberg’s doctors or his family or even the Rabbi could convince him otherwise. Not even a special blessing of the valve by Rabbi Sternglantz himself could placate this Mad Hatter who, after demanding repeatedly that this pig part be removed from his heart, attempted to remove it himself with a penknife and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. The resulting laceration – described to emergency room doctors by Goldberg’s family as a ‘shaving accident’ – required more than thirty stitches to close. And this Goldberg, Rabbi Sternglantz bragged, was only the tip of the iceberg.
I was ripe for seduction. The Hill was feeling flat to me. It was time for a change, a psychiatric side-trip to somewhere exotic, and what could be more exotic than Vayehi Or; Let There Be Light!
My boss at The Hill, Chief Merkin, was surprisingly willing to lend me out to the Rabbi for eight hours per week. In fact, he almost insisted that I take the position. The Rabbi’s locality fell within The Hill’s catchment area and therefore Vayehi Or would be considered an ‘outreach programme’ of The Hill. It was a good PR move, and a potential bonanza of patients. And it was just the kind of innovative programme that might finally put Chief Merkin on the map.
‘I have a good feeling about working with Doctor Feuer,’ Rabbi Sternglantz told me. ‘I have heard only good things about him.’ Exactly what the Rabbi had heard and who he had heard it from he didn’t say and I couldn’t imagine, but it was obvious that the Rabbi and I had widely different opinions about my qualifications to work with Hasidic Jews. It was best, I decided, so there would be no future misunderstandings, that I lay my cards on the table right now.
‘I don’t know anything about Hasidic Jews,’ I confessed – and, except for that business about their fear of blood and the hole in the sheet, this was true. For the Rabbi, my ignorance of the Hasidim was not a problem. In fact, he told me, it would even be an advantage. ‘They will feel less judged by you,’ he said.
‘I’m not a practising Jew,’ I revealed to Rabbi Sternglantz, and to this unsurprising news the Rabbi simply shrugged. Perhaps, I thought, if I spelled out for him exactly what my non-practising entailed he would not be so sanguine about it. Perhaps I should tell the Rabbi how I no longer went to shul, even on the High Holidays, and how I always enjoyed a nice piece of crisp bacon, even on Yom Kippur. Perhaps I should tell him how when I wrote out the name of God I wrote out the entire word, God, instead of G-d; that I had not laid tefillin since my bar mitzvah and that during the sacrilegious Sixties I had used my tallith bag for my pot stash and had used my tallith as a scarf. At last, I laid my trump card on the table. ‘I don’t believe in God,’ I confessed to the Rabbi. He smiled. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is between you and G-d.’
The Rabbi’s unshakeable conviction that I was the only man for the job was inexplicable. (It did not occur to me then that, the Rabbi having had no luck finding any other consulting psychiatrist, I was literally the only man for the job.)
I had my doubts about the Rabbi but in the end I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was probably, I decided, an honest man just trying to do the right thing by his people. I decided to accept his offer. I would begin consulting at Vayehi Or for eight hours each Wednesday starting the following week.
Despite the Rabbi’s promise that he would provide guidance as necessary in Hasidic dogma, I thought it was best that I learn at least something about the Hasidim before I started treating them so that I did not immediately offend them, and so I did not mistake their beliefs and rituals for psychopathology.
The first thing I learned was that the Judaica Bookstore that was once on 22nd Street between Sixth and Seventh was now a Korean deli. The second thing I learned was that while the Religion Section at Barnes & Noble contained hundreds of books on Hinduism and Buddhism and Sufism, there was not one book on Hasidism.
With only a week to do my homework, I decided to consult the most Jewish person I knew. This turned out to be my accountant, who was a ‘Black Hat’, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who wore a broad-brimmed black fedora and was as religious as you could be and still be a Certified Public Accountant. ‘Assume I know nothing,’ I told him, which of course he had already assumed.
He informed me that the Hasidim were the most Orthodox of all the Jews, which I already knew. He also informed me that the particular sect of Hasidim with which I would be working were the most Orthodox of all the Hasidim, and the most insular of all the Hasidic sects. They were the most fearful and disdainful of the outside world, holding Gentiles, secular Jews and even the other Hasidic sects in equal contempt. I should not, my accountant warned, confuse these dour Hasidim with the jumpty-jolly Lubavich (with whom I was already confusing them). The Lubavich were the friendly Hasidim who zipped around the city in Winnebagos blaring peppy Hasidic music. They called their Winnebagos ‘Mitzvah Tanks’ and they parked them on busy streets where friendly Lubavich asked obviously Jewish men if they were Jewish and the obviously Jewish men invariably said that they were not. It was the Lubavich who were interested in saving lost Jews. It was the Lubavich who had that public access cable TV show where, from time to time while channel-surfing in the middle of the night, I had come upon hundreds of them dancing ecstatically and elbowing their way closer to their ancient Rabbi Schneerson who was not just a Rabbi but also the Messiah.
‘These people aren’t like the Lubavitch,’ my accountant told me. ‘They look at the rest of us like we’re dirt.’ These words struck me like a fist in the stomach. I remembered that those Hasidim at the bungalow colony in the Catskills had also looked at me like I was dirt.
Still, there was no reason to panic. I was no longer some little pisher following the Hasidim around spying on them. Now, I was Doctor Feuer, invited to spy on them by their own Rabbi Sternglantz, summoned into their midst to heal their broken psyches. Now they would willingly share with me their deepest secrets. That my accountant would spend twenty minutes on the phone with me at the height of tax season was a testament to how seriously he took my decision to work with ‘these people’.
In the end he offered me two pieces of concrete advice. Don’t do it, and if I did, remember to save my receipts. Gas and tolls were deductible.
I drove into a part of Brooklyn I’d never seen before and immediately got lost. I had sought the Rabbi’s guidance and the only guidance he had given me was to drive down Grant Avenue and look for Schwitzer’s Scientific Shoes on the right. I couldn’t miss it and yet somehow I did. I was in Brooklyn but these streets bore little resemblance to the Brooklyn I knew. They were bursting with activity. The contents of stores spilled out on to the sidewalks and in front of every store were dozens of baby carriages and strollers, mostly double and triple strollers. But unlike Chinatown, where you would see mostly Chinese, these streets were filled only with Hasidim. The men were all dressed in black. They dressed that way, my accountant had told me, to look like eighteenth-century European noblemen. The women were all dressed like fifties Avon ladies. They dressed that way, my accountant told me, to mask their sexuality, and most of them were doing a terrific job of it.
‘Excuse me,’ I called out to a group of Hasidic men who were scurrying along the street. ‘Can you tell me where Grant Avenue is?’ Only one of them even had the courtesy to shake his head No. No, what? No he couldn’t tell me or no he wouldn’t?
‘Excuse me,’ was as far as I got with a group of Hasidic women who hurried past without even looking at me.
I found myself on Henderson Street which, I remembered from the Rabbi’s brochure, was the street where the future highly professional home of Vayehi Or would be located by early spring. This Henderson Street looked nothing like the elegant tree-lined Henderson Street shown in the brochure. At the corner of Henderson and Burns I passed the actual site of the future home of Vayehi Or which was currently a garbage-strewn weed-infested vacant lot and bore no sign of impending construction.
Its present home, when I eventually found it, was a seven-room apartment: seven rooms of gloom. Three of these rooms were piled floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes that were taped shut. Another room seemed devoted to some sort of business activity which involved adding machines and big green ledgers. Then there was my ‘Consultation Room’ which was also filled with cardboard boxes. A space had been cleared just big enough to accommodate a metal desk and a single metal chair.
My ‘Consultation Room’ was no bigger than a broom closet. It had no windows, but its most striking feature was that it had no door. Directly across from my office was Rabbi Sternglantz’s office. It had a door which was shut. The final room served as Vayehi Or’s reception area and waiting room.
There was no one waiting in the waiting room, and the Hasidic girl who sat behind the reception desk made no attempt to receive me. I judged her age to be about twenty, and she was beautiful. She looked more like a beautiful young actress who was playing a beautiful young Hasidic girl than she did an actual Hasidic girl. Her skin was as white and smooth as porcelain, and on her cheeks was a burst of freckles. Her eyes were green, and her luminous red hair, the colour of root beer, spilled on to her shoulders. That’s a great wig, I thought to myself.
‘I’m Doctor Feuer,’ I announced, extending my hand, which she made not the slightest attempt to shake. ‘I’m Ruchel,’ she answered without lifting her green eyes from her cluttered desk, and instantly I realized my mistake. You did not shake a Hasidic woman’s hand. Nice going. I’d been here less than a minute and I’d already offended her.
Rabbi Sternglantz’s office was at least five times the size of mine, or maybe it just looked that way because it was not filled with cardboard boxes. On the walls were several photographs of the Rabbi shaking hands with various politicians. Among them I recognized two former New York mayors and a US Senator. There were also dozens of letters of gratitude, all framed, and an enlarged and framed version of the artist’s rendering of the future home of Vayehi Or.
The Rabbi was sitting behind an enormous wooden desk piled high with important-looking papers. He rose and greeted me with a firm handshake, the same handshake, I imagined, that he reserved for mayors and senators.
‘Anything you need,’ the Rabbi said, ‘my door is always open.’ I told the Rabbi that for starters I would need a door on my consultation room. This seemed a reasonable enough request, but Rabbi Sternglantz looked baffled. ‘Why the secrecy?’ his expression seemed to be asking. What was I planning to do that needed to be done behind closed doors? ‘Anything else?’ he asked. Yes, as a matter of fact, there was. I also needed a locked filing cabinet to keep my patients’ records in, and another chair in my office for my patients to sit on. And it would be helpful if those cardboard boxes could be removed from my office; and what, I asked him, was in all those boxes anyway? ‘Honey,’ the Rabbi told me. He explained that Vayehi Or ran a honey business to help support certain community services. He assured me that for himself this honey business brought no personal gain.
And, as long as the Rabbi was asking, I could also use some patients. I had imagined that I would be greeted upon my arrival by that ‘twenty-year backlog’ of sick people the Rabbi had promised, and yet I couldn’t help noticing that the waiting room was empty. Don’t worry, the Rabbi reassured me. There were plenty of patients, but I should not expect that they would come directly to see me. Instead they would seek the Rabbi’s advice, as was their custom, and the Rabbi would advise them, if he deemed it appropriate, to see me. It was a disconcerting thought that the same man who did not understand the importance of having a door on my consultation room was now going to serve as my triage officer.
After our little chat, Rabbi Sternglantz introduced me to the rest of Vayehi Or’s highly professional staff. Her name was Naomi Kimil, a portly middle-aged clinical social worker who told me that she schlepped five times a week all the way from Borough Park to do ‘psychotherapy’ with these most insular of Hasidim, should any of the them ever decide that they wanted to do psychotherapy with her.
I was careful this time not to shake Naomi’s hand but she reached out to shake mine. ‘I’m Orthodox,’ she smiled, ‘not Hasidic.’
Naomi looked embarrassed as the Rabbi sang her praises to me – her uncommon dedication and her ‘high professionalism’.
After Rabbi Sternglantz apologized for having to run off to an important meeting at City Hall, Naomi revealed to me that she had been working at the Vayehi Or for only three weeks. During that time she had seen only two patients, one of whom did not utter a single word and another who spoke but then never returned.
Like me, Naomi had been lured to Vayehi Or by the opportunity to be part of a programme that was both new and sorely needed. Like me, she had been promised the support of a highly professional staff, but had found herself alone. As a psychotherapist at Vayehi Or, she felt both overwhelmed and under-utilized. The unmedicated psychotics were too much for her and the healthier Hasidim didn’t want to talk to her. She was happy that I was there now even though she was leaving at the end of the week – not because of what she had told me but because she and her husband were moving to Israel. ‘Does the Rabbi know you’re leaving?’ I asked her. ‘Of course he knows,’ she said.
For the next couple of hours I sat at my metal desk surrounded by boxes of honey. Through my doorless doorway I watched a series of Hasidic men, most of them carrying briefcases or folders, enter and then exit Rabbi Sternglantz’s office.
‘I can still get out of this,’ I reminded myself. I didn’t even need to wait till the end of the week like Naomi Kimil. I could just quit and nobody except Rabbi Sternglantz would blame me. It was this thought, which I thought over and over again like a mantra, that relaxed me.
My first Hasidic patient arrived accompanied by his mother. His name was Hershel Nussbaum. He was forty-two years old and he bore the sallow complexion and the sour odour of a chronic schizophrenic. His disorganized thinking and his history, as described to me by Hershel’s mother, confirmed this impression. She described Hershel as a ‘sensitive’ but ‘normal’ young man who, at the age of twenty-two, suddenly became ill. ‘He began to take things too personally,’ was how she understated it. ‘Some days are bad, some days not so bad,’ was how she summarized twenty years of continuous madness. On Hershel’s ‘not so bad’ days he stayed in his room, where he rocked back and forth and engaged in heated arguments with invisible people. On his ‘bad days’ Hershel came out of his room.
Hershel heard voices. Sometimes the voices told Hershel that he was the next Messiah – and sometimes this made him feel good while at other times it made him extremely agitated. He did not want, he told his mother, all that responsibility. Did the voices ever instruct Hershel to do bad things? I asked. A couple of times, maybe three times, Hershel had set fire to his room to drive out an evil ‘golem’. And once, she admitted with difficulty, he had chased his father, Rabbi Nussbaum, around the apartment with a kitchen knife. ‘He doesn’t mean bad,’ Hershel’s mother added quickly. ‘It’s just that he lives in his own little fantasy world.’ She said this as if she were describing some dreamy teenager instead of a floridly psychotic paranoid schizophrenic.
Hershel, I thought to myself, should be in the hospital. Arson, kitchen knives; if I were seeing him on The Hill, I would probably be hospitalizing him right now. But this was not The Hill, and as far as I could tell, Hershel was no greater danger at the moment than he had been for the past twenty years.
‘The Rabbi says there is medicine that can help a person like Hershel,’ Hershel’s mother said, and when I heard this I could barely contain my anger. It was the same anger I felt when I heard about Christian Scientists who withheld antibiotics from their children and allowed them to die of simple pneumonia.
‘There is such medicine,’ I told Hershel’s mother. ‘There has been such medicine for the last forty years.’
The ‘kindling phenomenon’ predicted that Hershel would not respond quickly or robustly to medication. This sick for this long, Hershel’s madness should be hard-wired by now, his neuroreceptor sites welded shut. I warned Hershel’s mother not to expect a miracle. If Hershel got better at all, it would be only partially and only gradually.
I started Hershel on four milligrams of Risperdal, a relatively low dose of a relatively new ‘atypical’ antipsychotic. Surprisingly, Hershel’s mother did not ask me the name of the medication or what the side effects were or any of the other questions that a patient or his mother would normally ask. Perhaps by keeping the medicine mysterious she imbued it with magical power. Or perhaps it was simply not a Hasidic woman’s place to question the actions of a man. Whichever, I told Hershel’s mother the name of the medication and informed her about its possible side effects.
Less than forty-eight hours later, I found a message on my phone from Rabbi Sternglantz. It was urgent that the Rabbi speak to me. It was about Hershel Nussbaum. It could only be bad news. This was already erev shabbos and I knew that Rabbi Sternglantz could not answer his phone again until sundown of the following day.
I used this time to imagine the worst. I pictured Hershel suffering a severe dystonic reaction to the Risperdal that twisted his body into a spastic knot and kinked-off his windpipe. Or perhaps he had suffered a paradoxical agitation that had caused him to chase his father around the apartment with a kitchen knife. Or it could be neuroleptic malignant syndrome that caused Hershel to slip into a deep coma.
By Saturday afternoon I was convinced that I had killed my first Hasidic patient or that he had killed somebody else. How, I wondered, were the Hasidim going to deal with me? Would they let God judge me or would they haul me up before a tribunal of bearded elders? Maybe Hershel’s mother and the Rabbi had already contacted some malpractice lawyer who was already telling them that they had an open and shut case?
I was on death row and had already exhausted my last appeal by the time Rabbi Sternglantz returned my call on Saturday night. ‘Congratulations,’ the Rabbi chirped into the phone. ‘Hershel’s mother tells me that Hershel is already a completely different person.’ According to the Rabbi, Hershel had been, since two days ago, much calmer. He was now only talking to actual people and he was even beginning to make sense. He had accompanied his mother to the grocery and for once Hershel had not viciously attacked the produce. He had accompanied his father to shul and for once Hershel had not loudly proclaimed himself to be the Mechiach. In fact, he had told his father that, while he still did not like the job description of Messiah, at least he now realized that since nothing much was required of him until Judgement Day he could relax.
That Hershel’s neuroreceptors cooperated so fully with a low dose of neuroleptic was just dumb pharmacological luck. But as word of Hershel’s miraculous recovery sped along the sect’s grapevine it conferred upon me the status of Big Psychiatrist, and it conferred upon Rabbi Sternglantz the status of Big Rabbi for finding such a Big Psychiatrist. More importantly, this Big Psychiatrist minded his own business. He didn’t ask you about your dreams or your secrets or your sex life. Like a real doctor, he just gave you pills.
Over the next two or three weeks there was a steady trickle of patients. They were invariably male, invariably psychotic, and invariably I was the first psychiatrist they had ever seen.
And they, in turn, were the first insane Hasidim I had ever seen, and I confess that the very sight of these crazy Hasidim almost made me giggle. Actually, it was more like a nervous laugh than a giggle, more like the time I saw my uptight high-school science teacher Mr Schwimmer get hypnotized at the Science Fair and then cluck his way around the gym like a chicken. Here were these holier-than-thou Hasidim, these epitomes of pious self-control grinning senselessly, talking nonsense, and rubbing their genitals in public.
I dealt with my shameful secret glee by identifying it as ‘negative counter-transference’ and I congratulated myself for being aware of it so that I might use it in a clinically constructive way.
Soon, I felt my anger toward the Hasidim for the way they treated their mentally ill beginning to soften. There was another, more charitable way of seeing things. Those Hasidic family members who accompanied their insane loved ones to Vayehi Or had all seemed genuinely concerned about them. That they had managed them at home for so long, and without benefit of medication, I began to see as a heroic undertaking that required great patience and diligence and self-sacrifice. They took care of their own, and while it was primitive, it was not necessarily inhumane. In fact, I decided that in many ways it was a more dignified and more respectful approach to the mentally ill than that of my own profession. And while it was true that the sect had deprived their mentally afflicted of available treatment, this treatment had probably felt no more available to them than exorcism or santeria felt to me.
It was important to remember, I kept reminding myself, that I was a secular stranger and that my view of the Hasidic community at large was distorted through the prism of my ignorance and my days as a juvenile Margaret Mead in the Catskills. I was seeing only the narrowest and sickest segment of a population that had produced remarkable traditions of religious scholarship and mysticism. One day I hoped I would meet these too. The news of my startling success with Hershel Nussbaum might spread; all kinds of sane and interesting people might knock at my door – when I eventually got one.
But after Hershel Nussbaum, I performed no further miraculous cures. A few psychotic men showed dramatic improvement, a few showed none, and the majority fell somewhere in the middle. Meanwhile, Chief Merkin was already pestering me about a possible journal article. Did I notice an unusually high incidence of any particular pathology among the sect? In what ways was their pathology specific to their belief system? – that sort of thing. The Chief was disappointed to hear, as I had been disappointed to discover, that Hasidic madness was proving no more exotic than the Hispanic, the African-American and the Anglo-Saxon madness that I saw on The Hill. The difference was only in the details – a Jewish God speaking directly to them instead of a Gentile God, a personal message received from the Talmud instead of the TV, a belief that they were the Mechiach instead of Jesus Christ. As far as I was concerned, a Hasidic Messiah did not trump a Hispanic Jesus, and a Mad Hatter was no more interesting than a paranoid librarian.
After several weeks, I began to notice that this steady stream of madmen was being joined by a handful of merely miserable men. The merely miserable tended to arrive at Vayehi Or unaccompanied. The vast majority of them presented physical symptoms – headaches and stomach aches, fatigue and forgetfulness, lack of appetite for food or anything else – for which their medical doctors could find no explanation. And the vast majority of these clinically depressed Hasidic men greeted the news of their clinical depression with surprise and scepticism. Why should they be depressed? No, they were not depressed, but yes, they would take the antidepressant medication if the doctor thought they should.
The rules of engagement with the Merely Miserable were simple. They were willing to talk provided that they did not have to talk about anything personal. They would talk about their symptoms but not about themselves. That depressed Hasidim couched their emotional pain in physical symptoms was not really surprising. What was surprising was that any of them had the courage to come see a psychiatrist at all since the consequences of being identified as a ‘mental’ in the community were enormous. They could slide to the bottom of the shidduch list.
A shidduch was an arranged marriage that was brokered by a professional matchmaker who rated the community’s eligible marriage partners in descending order of their eligibility. A healthy Hasid from a good family who was successful in business or brilliant in yeshiva would be at the top of the shidduch list. An unmarried Mental would be at the bottom. A Merely Miserable could end up feeling a lot more miserable if he sabotaged his shidduch standing by admitting to his misery.
I dispensed medication from a green garbage bag full of free samples that I had lugged over from The Hill. Reaching down into my bag, I felt more like a Red Cross relief worker in the aftermath of some major disaster than I did a psychiatrist. Instead of cholera I was treating schizophrenia and depression. Instead of dispensing antibiotics I was dispensing antipsychotics and antidepressants. But if I was doing no more than a relief worker, I comforted myself in the fact that I was doing no less, either. I was providing relief.
My plan was to use my samples only for those Hasidim who had no health insurance, but as it turned out, all of the Hasidim, insured or otherwise, insisted upon getting their medication from my green garbage bag. None of this medication (even the medication like Loxitane that sounded kosher) was kosher. This meant that Rabbi Sternglantz was required to kosherize each medication with a special kiddush which became impractical as the number of patients grew, so that one day Rabbi Sternglantz popped into my office and kosherized the entire garbage bag. Shazaam! One quick prayer and just like that everything from Prozac to Prolixin became instantly kosher, except for during Passover when all the medication would have to be blessed again.
Whenever it became necessary to replenish my supply of samples, I felt the need to inform the Rabbi. But instead, I just slipped this pharmaceutical traif discreetly into the blessed garbage bag.
It was nearly two months into my stint at Vayehi Or and so far I had not seen a single female Hasidic patient. It was possible that the sect’s women enjoyed perfect mental health, but it was far more likely that they were not being given (or were not giving themselves) permission to seek psychiatric help. The threshold of illness that they had to cross before exposing themselves to treatment was probably much higher than for the men. I imagined that if and when my first Hasidic female arrived she would already be foaming at the mouth – but I was wrong.
Her name was Rivka S. and she was, as I observed in my admission note, ‘appropriate in both demeanour and attire’. The latter was not entirely accurate. Rivka was more appropriately attired for a small-town ladies’ luncheon than she was for a visit to the psychiatrist. She wore a dark-blue skirt down to her ankles and a matching jacket with gold buttons up to her chin. A pillbox hat was precariously perched on top of her obviously synthetic hair. Her fashion goal seemed to be to dress attractively in a way that did not actually attract anybody.
Rivka looked considerably younger than her husband who sat solemnly and stiffly in a chair as far from Rivka as my tiny consultation room would allow. You could cut the tension between them with a knife. I knew that Rivka’s husband was here not just as her chaperone but also as her censor and that if I started digging I would not see either of them ever again. It was Rivka’s husband who had decided that Rivka had to get pills for her ‘crazy business with the blood’.
Rivka’s crazy business with the blood had begun a few months ago while she was in the mikvah, the monthly ritual bath that Hasidic women took to cleanse themselves of all traces of menstrual blood. The mikvah was the most important ‘family purity’ ritual in the ‘eight days of cleanliness’ that followed the five days of actual bleeding and involved the woman ‘checking inside and out’ for even one single drop of tainted blood that might contaminate her husband.
‘What if…?’ Rivka thought as she soaked in the mikvah, ‘What if I’m still unclean?’ What if, despite checking herself inside and out, Rivka had missed a drop of blood? A tiny speck nestled in some crevice, or maybe under a fingernail. What if, after the eight days of cleanliness, she was still violating the most important law of family purity? The horrifying consequence of this began to haunt Rivka. Everything she touched – her furniture, her dishes, her children, her husband – would be tainted.
Rivka’s ‘what if…’ fear that she was still unclean gradually hardened into a conviction. She could soak in the mikvah tank until she wrinkled like a prune. She could wash her clothes, her dishes, her hands three dozen times a day and it didn’t matter. She could still be unclean. The safest thing, Rivka decided, was not to touch anything, and this included her husband.
By refusing to touch her husband, Rivka was violating not only her marital obligation, to satisfy her husband, but also the Talmudic command to go forth and multiply. Already, by the age of twenty-five, she had three children but this was not nearly enough multiplying to satisfy either the Talmud or the Hasidic law, which demanded that Rivka keep multiplying as often as physiologically possible until either menopause or death, whichever came first.
Already Rivka was behind schedule. Already the neighbours were talking and the Rabbi was pressuring. It was highly unorthodox for a fertile young Hasidic woman such as Rivka not to bear fruit for nearly three years. As the Rabbi repeatedly reminded her, Rivka’s youngest child was already almost three. There was not a single day left to waste with this crazy business about the blood. Rivka herself lamented the wasted time – time during which she might have given her husband two, maybe even three more children. She herself wanted once again to be the dutiful wife and the efficient childbearer that he had married.
It might be six weeks or even longer, I told Rivka and her husband, before this medication I was prescribing, Luvox, began to work. Six weeks, they told me, they were willing to wait, but six weeks the Rabbi would probably not wait unless they could get from me a doctor’s note so that the Rabbi would grant them a heter, a special rabbinical dispensation excusing Rivka and her husband from procreating.
I had written hundreds of doctor’s notes in my time, excusing patients from everything from jury duty to turnstile jumping, but this was the first doctor’s note I had ever written excusing a patient from procreating. In my letter to the Rabbi I described Rivka’s illness and the medication she was taking. I also stated that in my professional opinion, the stress of pregnancy at this time would be detrimental to her mental health. I thought about mentioning the fact that Rivka desperately wanted to have more children but decided that that might be gilding the lily a little too much. I thought about mentioning the possible teratogenic effects of Rivka’s medication, but that would be a lie, since there was no evidence that Luvox caused any foetal abnormalities. My note, simple and factual, won Rivka a one-month reproductive reprieve.
Each week, Rabbi Sternglantz poked his head into my office to congratulate me for a job well done and to exhort me to ‘hold down the fort’. Each week he promised that ‘reinforcements were on the way’. Already, the Rabbi told me, he had received dozens of responses to his ad in the New York Times for a clinical social worker to replace Naomi Kimil. He was at this very time, he assured me, interviewing candidates in order to find the most highly professional among them.
None of the briefcase-toting men whom I observed going in and out of the Rabbi’s office remotely resembled a social worker, but what went on in the Rabbi’s office was none of my business. The Rabbi and I had made a deal. I would stay out of his business and he would stay out of mine, and so far Rabbi Sternglantz was keeping his promise. He was not meddling in my treatment, at least not directly. Whether by granting them his consent to see me or by issuing them his command to see me, the Rabbi determined which sick people I ended up seeing, and it was obvious that the Rabbi’s criteria was not entirely their level of illness. A paranoid Hasid who was yelling obscenities out his window showed up at Vayehi Or long before a catatonic Hasid who had been standing frozen for weeks in his room. A moderately depressed Hasid who refused to go to work showed up faster in my office than a more depressed Hasid who had lost twenty pounds over the last month. I was not comfortable with this arrangement, but so far, at least, the Hasids being referred to me by the Rabbi were all in genuine need of psychiatric care. So far I could live with it.
Secretly I had imagined that at some point the community would take me to its grateful bosom. I saw myself some day sitting at their shabbos supper tables, and dancing at the weddings of their children. But it soon became obvious that no matter how many mitzvoth I performed with my medicine, these Hasidim had no interest in instructing me in their ways. Even when I asked, they would simply say, ‘That’s what we do,’ or, ‘We don’t do that.’ Even when I ignorantly violated their laws they would simply ignore me. I could wear a big Jesus on the Cross around my neck or keep a Golden Calf on my desk and they could care less.
All of them except Ruchel the receptionist.
When I brought the patients’ charts to Ruchel’s desk at the end of the day, Ruchel’s cheeks flushed the colour of her hair and she would begin to nervously push around the items on her desk like she was mixing mah-jong tiles. If I were a twenty-year-old Hasid I might have taken this for a crush, but as a forty-six-year-old psychiatrist, I took it simply for shyness.
One day, Ruchel began to do what no Hasidic woman had done before – she began to make direct eye contact with me. At first fleeting, then longer and – it seemed to me – deeper. Eventually, Ruchel began actually speaking to me. Not just asking me what this word or that phrase was that she could not decipher from my handwriting, but asking me questions. Personal questions.
‘How long does it take to become a psychiatrist?’ Ruchel asked me, and not long after that she asked me how many children I had. Ruchel found the fact that I had no children far more shocking than the fact that it took twelve years after high school to become a psychiatrist. Was the problem with my wife? she wanted to know. ‘I’m not married,’ I told her, ‘so I guess the problem is probably with me.’
Not only did Ruchel ask me direct questions, she started answering my questions as well. She was twenty years old, she told me, she lived with her parents and she was studying in a girl’s yeshiva. No, it was not a wig. It was her real hair. She would not have to shave her head and wear a sheitel until she was married, which would have been already if she did not have to wait for her next oldest sister to get married first.
I was now bringing my charts to Ruchel’s desk at the end of each session instead of at the end of each day. Thus, our brief conversations were becoming more frequent. I don’t know how Ruchel saw me, but I saw Ruchel as a valuable source of information about Rabbi Sternglantz. I asked her who all those men were who came and went from Rabbi Sternglantz’s office. Ruchel explained that the Rabbi offered spiritual advice and religious opinion. ‘Those guys with their briefcases?’ I asked. Ruchel explained that they were probably coming to the Rabbi to settle disputes. For example, a man might borrow money and not want to pay it back. The Rabbi would talk to the man.
One day I asked Ruchel whether she felt like having lunch at the dairy restaurant down the block. She looked at me as if I had just asked her whether she felt like having sex on the Rabbi’s desk while he was settling one of his disputes. Nowhere on earth, Ruchel’s look seemed to say, could she and I ever hope to have lunch.
Until that moment I had entertained not a single impure thought about Ruchel. But now I found myself thinking not about lunch but about all those places that no man except Ruchel’s future husband would ever venture. I found myself imagining what Ruchel’s legs looked like above those two inches of white-stockinged ankle. I imagined the shape of those breasts – perfect peaches – and the smell of that radiant red hair that would some day be lying on some hairdressers’ floor. I imagined our entire forbidden courtship. The painful pleasure of our stolen moments, the dangerous thrill of our secret liaisons, the violent response of the sect to the news of our engagement. The difficulty I would have on our wedding night negotiating that hole in the sheet.
I decided to start bringing my charts to Ruchel at the end of the day again instead of after each patient. My fantasies had frightened me. It was time to back off, which I successfully did until the day when Ruchel and I found ourselves face to face in the doorway of Vayehi Or. I was just arriving and Ruchel, I imagine, was just going out for lunch.
‘Shalom,’ I greeted her like I always did, and I stepped aside to let her pass. ‘Shalom,’ Ruchel replied, and she did not make a move. Instead, with her eyes fixed boldly upon mine, Ruchel slowly pressed two fingertips against her lips and kept them there for a long seductive moment. Then, still holding my eyes, Ruchel slowly raised her fingers to touch the mezuzah that was nailed to the door frame.
Without hesitation and without thinking, I followed suit. It felt like hours that we stood there at that threshold, wordless. It felt like our lips were touching, like it would take the Jaws of Life to pry our eyes apart. It felt like that, and then it was over. And it never happened again.
In certain respects, Rabbi Sternglantz had proved to be a man of his word. There was now a door on my consultation room, though the flimsy plywood it was constructed from provided little in the way of privacy. In fact by some acoustical phenomenon it seemed to provide less privacy. There was also now a locked filing cabinet for patients’ records for which I suspected Rabbi Sternglantz was holding the extra key. And the Rabbi did finally bring in ‘reinforcements’ in the form of an Orthodox social worker named Sam W. whose idea of psychotherapy – (from what I clearly heard through my plywood door) – was to try and scold his patients into behaving themselves. Eventually, things between the Rabbi and me began to go sour.
It started with a young Hasidic man by the name of Yitzi Namkin who was openly homosexual and who openly admitted to me that he spent at least a couple of nights each week cruising Christopher Street in full Hasidic garb picking up ‘dates’ whom he brought back to Brooklyn and fucked in the room just above where his parents slept. He preferred, he told me, ‘farm boys’ – blond, corn-fed-looking Midwestern types – who seemed to find Yitzi’s Hasidic get-up a turn-on. Perhaps, Yitzi explained, they mistook him for Amish.
It was obvious that even if he lived in a gay Midwestern farming community, Yitzi Namkin would still have problems. Yitzi described periods of time during which he required no sleep and could barely keep up with his own racing thoughts. It was during these times that he felt himself to be brilliant and invincible, and it was during these times that he often ventured up to Harlem at night and ended up getting the shit kicked out of him, which explained that nasty-looking gash above his left eye. Yitzi had, quite accurately, diagnosed this behaviour as manic and he quite sensibly wanted medication to help control it – preferably medication that would not produce any sexual side effects. He seemed amenable to a trial of Depakote and he seemed amenable to seeing me again in a couple of weeks.
No sooner did Yitzi leave my office than the Rabbi stormed in. ‘I don’t want that sick trash in here again,’ he snarled. He spat the words ‘sick trash’ out of his mouth like they were writhing maggots. At first, I thought the Rabbi was joking and I went along with the joke. ‘You’re absolutely right,’ I smiled. ‘We can’t have any sick people at a mental health clinic.’ But then I realized he wasn’t joking. His face (what little I could see of it) glowed bright red as he explained that Yitzi Namkin was a threat to all the young Hasidic boys upon whom Yitzi preyed to satisfy his depraved appetite.
I felt my own face flush with anger. ‘Don’t worry,’ I felt like telling the Rabbi, ‘your precious little yeshiva boochers are not Yitzi’s type. He prefers young farm boys with tight asses and uncircumcized cocks.’ Instead, I calmly offered my opinion that Yitzi Namkin’s homosexuality posed no danger to the Hasidic community. Homosexuality, I explained, was no longer considered a mental illness by the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Nor was it something that could just be removed by a psychiatrist as if it were a planter’s wart.
I could tell that my defence of Yitzi Namkin put me in the same boat as Yitzi. We were both now, in the Rabbi’s eyes, ‘sick trash’. And that I would take the word of the DSM-IV above the word of God nearly drove Rabbi Sternglantz to the point of physical violence. By sheer force of will, he controlled his impulse to kill me and he somehow recovered his smooth self. ‘It’s just that we have so little of Dr Feuer’s precious time,’ he smiled tightly, ‘and there are so many truly needy cases.’
One of the ‘truly needy’ cases that Rabbi Sternglantz soon brought to my attention was a perfectly healthy young man who had rejected a series of perfectly acceptable shidduchim with the totally unacceptable explanation that these women were ‘not his type’. Rabbi Sternglantz saw this ingrate’s behaviour as indicative of some severe mental disturbance warranting psychiatric intervention. It was clear that medication was indicated. And it was clear that Rabbi Sternglantz did not have a clue as to what a psychiatrist was or what psychotropic medication was for. I needed to nip this thing in the bud.
I explained to the Rabbi that the job of a psychiatrist was not to enforce social customs and that the job of medication was not to control transgressors. I suggested that I was in a better position than he to determine who required psychiatric intervention. Surprisingly, the Rabbi said he understood.
It was not by accident that the Rabbi’s very next referral was a seventeen-year-old male who had been spotted in the community wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. His pathology, it turned out, was that he dreamed of becoming a major-league pitcher. By his own account, he had developed a mean slider and an unhittable change-up to go with his fast ball and his awesome curve. All he wanted was a chance to some day show his stuff to the Yankees. All Rabbi Sternglantz wanted was for me to medicate him.
Once again, I explained to the Rabbi, and once again the Rabbi said he understood. Not long afterward he sent me a Hasidic woman who was rumoured to be taking flamenco lessons. Then there was an elderly gentleman who was refusing to lay tefillin, and a wife who was suspected of being lesbian.
Meanwhile, Rivka’s crazy business with the blood was not budging an inch. This was not so unusual; approximately thirty per cent of obsessive-compulsives proved refractory to medication alone. What was unusual was that, despite my boosting Rivka’s medication – Luvox, and then Zoloft – to well beyond the recommended dosage, not once did she complain of a side effect. Nor did she complain or get any better when I augmented these drugs, first with Lithium, then with Risperdal and finally with thyroid hormone. ‘The same,’ was how Rivka responded every time every two weeks when I asked about her symptoms. ‘The same,’ Rivka’s frustrated husband would echo each time, and each time he reminded me of my initial promise that by six weeks his wife would be cured of her crazy business with the blood.
Like Rivka’s husband, I too was frustrated. I read everything I could get my hands on about recent developments in the pharmacological treatment of OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. I talked to a couple of well-known psychopharmacologists and neither of them could offer more than I was already doing.
I considered the use of behaviour modification therapy, a technique with which I had no experience. But when I described it to Rivka and her husband and suggested referring them to a behavioural therapist they wanted nothing to do with it. They would sink or swim by the psychiatrist’s pills alone. Meanwhile, Rabbi Sternglantz was still granting Rivka her reproductive deferments but only on an ovulation-to-ovulation basis. I was thus required each month to write Rivka another doctor’s note which essentially said this: Dear Rabbi. Please excuse Rivka S. from conceiving this month. She is not feeling well.
Just before Passover, another Hasidic woman showed up at Vayehi Or with OCD. Even though her symptoms were almost identical to Rivka’s, even though she wanted the same medicine that was not helping Rivka, and even though she, too, wanted a doctor’s note, I was not suspicious. And after Passover, another obsessional woman showed up, and then another, and I was still not suspicious. A high incidence of OCD in a highly ritualized culture like the Hasidim made perfect sense. And it made perfect sense that their obsessions would be similar to each other and would be culturally specific. It was known that a great number of Asian males obsessively believed that their penises were retracting into their abdomens, and I had heard that many Scandinavian men were convinced they were shrinking, so it did not smell fishy to me that so many Hasidic women had this ‘crazy business with the blood’. It did not occur to me that Rivka S. might be malingering until the day Rivka confessed to me.
Her confession was sudden and breathless. It took her only as long to confess as it took her husband to rush out to the street, deactivate his car alarm and come back. Rivka explained that she could not bear the thought of having more children. She was worn out and desperate, and her desperation was the mother of her invention.
‘You felt desperate enough to take medicine that you didn’t need for six months?’ I asked incredulously.
‘No,’ Rivka replied, and from under her stylish jacket she produced a brown paper bag filled with six months’ worth of medication. ‘Maybe someone else can use this,’ she offered sheepishly.
‘And the others?’ I asked her, those other women who claimed to have the same problem as Rivka? ‘They do have the same problem as me,’ Rivka insisted. ‘They don’t want more children, either, so, we talk.’
I pictured these Hasidic women talking. Groups of them exchanging notes in furtive whispers, in bakers’ shops and in fabric stores and while their children slept in their strollers and while their husbands were at work or at shul. I pictured Rivka as the reluctant leader of this contraceptive resistance movement. And I pictured myself, the psychiatrist, serving as their shared birth control device.
I wanted to know why Rivka chose to confess now, but Rivka said she couldn’t say. Maybe it was guilt about lying to her husband and to the Rabbi. What Rivka could say for sure was that she did not want any more children and that she did not want me to mention this to either her husband or Rabbi Sternglantz. And, by the way, she needed another one of those letters for the Rabbi.
I wrestled, albeit briefly, with my conscience. What right did I have, as an ignorant outsider, to meddle in this sacred Hasidic law about procreation? What right did I have, as a Jew, to diminish the population of Jews in the world, even by one Jew, even if that one Jew was a member of this most insular sect?
There was a psychiatrist named Anita who thirty years ago wrote many of us letters for the draft board so that we would not have to go to Vietnam. ‘Do you sometimes think people are staring at you on the subway?’ she asked us. Yes, we told her, sometimes we did. ‘Do you avoid stepping on the cracks so as not to break your mother’s back?’ she asked. Yes, we did, and we would get a letter the next week stating that we were too unstable to go to Vietnam. During the week between my interview and my letter, Dr Anita got busted. And even though it was not for writing letters but for distributing amphetamines that she got busted, I now used Dr Anita as my role model in this moral dilemma.
I decided that I would continue to write Rivka letters, and that I would write letters for any other worn-out desperate Hasidic woman who asked for them. It was, I decided, preventative psychiatry. By writing them bogus doctor’s notes, I was preventing them from developing the very real symptoms that twenty years of continuous breeding would no doubt cause them.
By early spring, there was a growing tension on the streets of the neighbourhood. Already there had been some ugly incidents. A teenage Puerto Rican girl had been allegedly fondled by an elderly Hasid in the laundry room of her project building and charges had been pressed. A few nights later, several windows were smashed by rocks. There was already talk that things were headed for full-blown riots between races.
Rabbi Sternglantz disappeared for a couple of weeks and when he returned he was much more reclusive. He did not receive visitors in his office. And when he left his office, which he now rarely did, he was always accompanied by a couple of his Hasidic bodyguards.
The Rabbi wore a look that was neither his usual unctuous self nor his more recent contemptuous self. It was more a look of fear and suspicion.
We had not exchanged a word for perhaps three weeks until Rabbi Sternglantz summoned me to his office where he introduced me to an elderly Hasid named Schmuel R. – the man who had allegedly fondled the teenage Puerto Rican. Schmuel sat silently while the Rabbi explained that Schmuel needed a letter for the court stating that he had a mental problem and with his impulses could not help himself. ‘You could not help yourself,’ the Rabbi flatly stated and Schmuel shook his head No, he could not help himself. This single statement by the Rabbi was intended to be the entire mental status exam upon which I would base my letter to the court.
I refused, but Rabbi Sternglantz was in no mood to take no for an answer. He viewed my refusal as an act of wilful insubordination, tantamount to high treason during a time of war. ‘You write plenty of letters already don’t you?’ he asked. I knew instantly that he was talking about my deferment letters for Rivka and for the others. Still, I refused. I stood my ground; and I saw in the Rabbi’s face that I was now the enemy. I expected he would fire me right then and there, but he did not. I should quit, I thought, right here and now, but I could not.
I am not a quitter, and I don’t mean that in any positive sense. What I mean is that for my own neurotic reasons I have trouble extricating myself from bad situations. Bad relationships, bad accountants, bad barbers, bad jobs – in twenty years I had never fired anyone nor had I ever quit.
That night I dreamed that an evil golem was living inside my mattress. I had no idea what a golem was supposed to look like but my golem was about a foot tall and looked like a cross between Rabbi Sternglantz and Dopey from the Seven Dwarves. All night I fought off this golem’s attempts to inhabit me, to capture my will, and the following morning I decided to tell Chief Merkin exactly what was going on at Vayehi Or.
Like an American diplomat in some war-torn country, I expected that Chief Merkin would pluck me out of harm’s way. He would land his chopper on the roof of the besieged embassy and save me. Instead, the Chief laughed. All those years I had worked in the dangerous environment of The Hill, and now I was afraid of a rabbi?
I arrived at Vayehi Or a few days later to find the door padlocked. A couple of Rabbi Sternglantz’s associates were standing, arms folded, in front of it. The Rabbi was standing just behind them. I got out of my car and started walking toward the building, but the Rabbi’s associates blocked my way.
‘You are no longer welcome in this community,’ the Rabbi called out to me. He said this as if he was pronouncing upon me a holy fatwa. ‘You no longer work here,’ he bellowed.
I felt relief, but I also felt shame at getting fired. I had never been fired before. I wondered what the last straw had been. Had it been that letter for the elderly Hasid that I refused to write, or was it all those other letters I had written? Was I being busted for being the ringleader of the contraceptive underground or was it those impure thoughts I had about Ruchel the receptionist? Who knew? And at this point, who cared?
‘I’ll need to collect my patients’ charts,’ I told the Rabbi. I hoped that at least a few of my Hasidic patients might follow me back to The Hill and I would need their charts.
‘They are not any more your patients,’ the Rabbi hissed.
‘Well, they certainly aren’t your patients,’ I whined.
I sidestepped the Rabbi and was headed for the door when the bigger of his two men snagged me by the upper arm. He held me with the firm painless pressure of a blood pressure cuff. ‘Get your hands off me,’ I demanded, not because I could make him get his hands off me, but because that was what I knew I was supposed to say in a situation like this. The Rabbi spat out some words in Hebrew. I did not understand them but they did not sound like ‘have a nice day.’ Then, like two tugboats, the Rabbi’s men began nudging me toward my car.
I can take the Rabbi one on one, I calculated to myself. He is fat, he has thick glasses and he is, after all, a Rabbi.
The man with my arm seemed to sense what was in my mind. ‘It’s better you should go,’ he advised. There was no particular malice in his voice. It was for him just settling another dispute.
Photograph © gollygforce