The Questionable Wisdom of Solomon
The famous king for whom I am named is said to have had a thousand wives. What I want to know is this: in the name of all that’s holy, why?
Such a quaint custom, naming your kids after the heroes of the Bible. And frankly, a little suprising, in the case of my pork-loving, synagogue-avoiding parents. Maybe my dad (an accountant) and my mom (at the time, a volunteer part-time receptionist at the JCC) saw themselves as a modern-day David and Bathsheba, who, despite their well-documented naughty behavior, became progenitors of the dynasty of Israel.
If, at 35, I’m not all my parents had hoped for, they’re nice enough not to say so. And besides, what’s there to be disappointed about? I may not be the annointed ingatherer of exiles, restorer of the Great Temple, and divinely-selected ruler of Judea, but I do own the largest injection molding operation in Southern California. I ask you: did Solomon ever install his best-selling hot tub in his royal parents’ master bedroom?
No. No he did not.
My friends call me Solly. Rhymes with “folly”. Lila accidentally called me “Sally” on our third date. Realizing her error, her cheeks — already ruddy from the margaritas we’d been knocking down for the past hour — reddened even more deeply for a moment before we both collapsed in laughter. Frankly, she could call me Sally (or, for that matter, Molly, Sandy, Cindy, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar) all night if it got me any closer to finding out what lay within the pink lace border peeking out beneath her blouse.
My Zen-like tolerance was soon rewarded. Less than 90 minutes later, we were back in my studio apartment, testing the structural limits of my waterbed. Was Lila’s long-awaited assent due, in part, to embarrassment over her earlier faux pas? Hard to say. But guilt is a strong motivator for my people.
Lila and I are approaching the third anniversary of our divorce. I believe that’s the “ten percent increase in child support payments” anniversary, if you’re looking for a card. But our meeting today is not to commemorate our failure as a couple, but rather to discuss Rachel’s bat mitzva, just a few weeks away.
In an awkward phone call earlier in the week, the rabbi gently hinted that our normally studious little girl has been falling behind on her preparation—easy to get away with when Mom and Dad can’t make it through a single conversation without yelling for long enough to compare notes on her progress. Rachel gets stressed out pretty easily, and neither Lila nor I want to be the one pushing her too hard. She’s been known to cry, get headaches, even become nauseous if she’s under too much pressure. But the big event is looming ever closer, so the three of us are getting together over lunch to talk things over in a neutral, I’m-OK-you’re-OK, non-judgmental setting.
I wanted to return to the bistro we used to go to as a family, its walls crowded with knick-knacks and its menu with burgers the size of throw pillows. However, facing the impending showdown between her size eight body and the size four dress she has selected for the bat mitzva, Lila has embarked on some sort of macrobiotic low-fat nothing-spicy nothing-sweet nothing-with-any-flavor-whatsoever diet. And so we gather instead at Vegan Valhalla, a local eatery offering an assortment of sprouts and grasses normally enjoyed only by livestock.
To my annoyance, Lila brings along her boyfriend, Ben. (Come to think of it, my annoyance was probably the point.) Ben is a soft-spoken, legitimately nice guy who gets along well with my daughter. As a mature, well-adjusted adult, I am of course pleased that Lila has found somebody who both makes her happy and takes good care of Rachel.
Wait, no… pleased isn’t quite right. Hmmmm… how about smoldering with resentment..? Why yes, that’ll do. At this very moment I’m calculating the optimum trajectory for launching—what are these, peas? beans? whatever—at Ben’s irritatingly pleasant face. But Rachel is sitting between us, lovely and sweet; I can’t risk the collateral damage.
Thoroughly unable to work up any interest in my lunch, which appears to be a cross between tree moss and sea kelp, I figure I may as well get the ball rolling. “Sweetie, the rabbi says your Torah portion is coming along nicely.” I like to open with something encouraging.
“No, it’s not. It sounds terrible. I just can’t get it right.” Rachel is a perfectionist, a trait that combines poorly with her low stress threshold.
“Look, Peanut, I’m sure that — “
“Don’t call me that!”
I’m hurt. I’ve called her “Peanut” since she was an infant; it seems she’s outgrown it. “Sorry, honey. I was just going to say, since it’s coming along so well…“
“I said it isn’t.”
“Well, OK, but for the sake of argument then, maybe it’s time to focus on the dvar. I could give you a hand with it.” I’m referring to the brief teaching the bat mitzva child is expected to deliver during the service. Presumably, standing before your family, the congregation, and God Herself while chanting in a 4,000 year old language isn’t too much to ask of a 13-year-old, so we have them prepare a sermon as well. As religious rites go, I’ve begun to wonder if human sacrifice was not, perhaps, more humane. God knows it would be more entertaining.
Lila, having consumed her permitted two mouthfuls of bark and foliage, chimes right in. “Ben can help her with it, Solly. You know, he spent a semester in rabbinical school.”
Ben doesn’t want to be in the middle of this; I even feel a spark of compassion for the poor bastard. But with Lila, you don’t always get to pick your spots. “Honey, I think her father would be better—“
“Nonsense. Solly’s Jewish education barely extends beyond where to find the nearest deli.”
“Hey!” I object, but nobody’s really talking to me.
Ben tries reasoning with her. I’m surprised he still thinks that approach might work. “Lil, really — “
“Look, whatever. I just think you could work with her, and she’s over at our place most of the time anyway.”
Nothing says “Valley bat mitzva” like a pair of divorced parents tossing thinly-veiled barbs at one another while planning the happy occasion. You have to hand it to Lila: she’s managed to insult me, rub in my face the fact that she spends more time with our daughter, and prevent Ben from completing a single sentence, all in the space of about ten seconds. Amazing our marriage didn’t last.
I switch to offense. “I’m glad you mentioned that, Lil, because I do think it would be good for Rachel to spend a couple of extra weekends with me between now and the bat mitzva.”
Lila refocuses her ire at me. “Forget it, Solly. She’s got school, and she has to study. I know what goes on at your place.”
The tension level at the table takes a leap skyward, and Rachel decides to flee. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
Lila, her voice briefly and uncharacteristically devoid of hostility, nods at Rachel, “Sure, honey. Want me to go with you?”
With a shake of her head and a roll of her eyes, our sweet but fragile daughter makes her exit.
We silently watch Rachel until she’s out of earshot, and the cease-fire is instantly over. I snap, “‘What goes on at my place?’ What the hell are you talking about?”
“Pizza? Ice cream? Late night movies? Any of this ring a bell? What, you think I don’t ask? Maybe if you stopped trying to be her best friend and started being her father — “
She’s expecting me to interrupt, but I’m determined not to give her the satisfaction. I try the silent treatment, ignoring her as I forage the depths of my plateful of lawn cuttings for something edible.
But it’s no use: I’m just working up a head of steam.
I put down my fork and look directly into my ex-wife’s mean little eyes. “What goes on in my house? That’s rich, Lil, that’s really rich. Pizza! Ice cream! Yes, that’s terrible. Inexcusable. I can’t think of anything worse. Well, maybe one thing. Maybe if I were shacking up with some… um, no offense, Ben.”
He just closes his eyes and shakes his head slightly. We’re headed over a cliff; he has no desire to go there with us.
Lila’s voice is taut. “‘Shacking up’!? For your information, Solly, Ben and I are in a committed relationship.”
“Don’t be an asshole. This isn’t exactly a one-night stand. For Chrissake, Ben and I have been together four years next month. Does that sound like…”
Just as I realize that she’s gone suddenly — and suspiciously—silent, the pieces slam into place. Lila and I split up three and a half years ago, followed by a businesslike divorce that became official six months later.
I do the math: she was seeing Ben while we were married.
Ben starts to say something, but I don’t give him the chance. I deliver a response that is, as always, thoughtful, nuanced, and not by any means totally unhinged: “Holy crap! You were fucking him. YOU WERE FUCKING HIM. While we were married. Are you kidding me!?”
Ben looks like he wants to fall straight through the floor. “Guys, please, we’re…”
Lila doesn’t even seem to hear him, her eyes narrowing as she prepares the kill shot. “Oh please, Solly, cut the crap. What kind of marriage did we have, really?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
A malevolent smile crosses her lips, and my heart sinks as I realize I’ve taken the bait. She reels in the line: “You know what I’m talking about.”
Why yes I do, you spiteful bitch. “That was a medical condition!”
“So what? I’m no nun!”
“Now there is an understatement.” I’m trying to put up a fight, but in reality I’m already wriggling on the deck, waiting to be gutted.
Lila brandishes the boning knife. ”So I found comfort somewhere else. With somebody who could get the job done.”
Ben interrupts, trying to keep things from deteriorating further. “Lila, Solly, listen, now isn’t the time…”
Nice thing about Ben, he’s always been easy to ignore. I try to slip Lila’s direct assault: “Did you ever think that maybe I was just not that interested in you anymore?”
Venom drips from her voice. “Why yeah, Solly, I was really concerned about that, right up until the time I started spending every Thursday night with Ben!”
And the blade finds it mark. It’s over. I’m filleted. ”Wait… what!? You… you played Mah Jong over at Diane’s on Thursdays!”
Lila’s smug expression finally pushes me over the edge.
“Really, Lil? REALLY!? Is that how it is? Well, then, if it’s true confessions time, there’s a little item I’ve been dying to share with you.”
Ben tries again to apply the brakes. “No, seriously, listen to me … ” But Lila can’t resist one more flick of the knife.
“Ha! Go for it, Casanova!”
That seals it. I pull the pin on the grenade I’ve been carrying around for a decade and a half. “I MADE OUT WITH YOUR MOTHER THE WEEK BEFORE THE WEDDING!”
My words echo across the restaurant, followed by utter silence. Every eye is on me; leaves and bean-peas drop unnoticed from gaping maws. Ben buries his face in his palms. Lila’s eyes are open a mile wide, her hand clamped over her mouth.
I’m fairly stunned myself. It’s one thing to know what happens when you drop a bomb, but it’s something else entirely to watch it live. Fifteen years hadn’t dampened the explosive power of my guiltiest secret.
At the time Lila and I were planning our wedding, her mom Robin was divorced, 45 years old, and — it has to be said — hot. Seriously hot. A few days before the ceremony, Robin showed up at the apartment to help finalize seating arrangements. Lila was out; some catering crisis, I think. Robin brought a bottle of wine, which we shared. When that one was gone, I opened another.
One moment we were leaning together over the seating chart, savoring the comic possibilities of placing my alcoholic Uncle Floyd next to Robin’s slutty cousin Sylvia, and the next we were all over each other like a couple of teenagers at a drive-in.
Fortunately, it didn’t go too far. As I reached under her bra, her breast fit into my hand in a way that was familiar — too familiar. The enormity of what we were doing finally struck, and with muttered apologies, we pulled apart, never to speak of it again.
Ben is staring, like everyone else. But not at me. I follow his gaze to discover, far too late, why he’s been trying to shut us up: Rachel is standing just behind us, white as a ghost. I want to say something, to comfort her, to assure her that she didn’t hear what she definitely just heard, but I can’t find the words.
Rachel looks at her mother, then looks at me. We lock eyes.
And she pukes all over me.
Chaos ensues. At the tables around us, anybody who isn’t still incapacitated by the train wreck they’ve just witnessed is busily gathering up their belongings, checking for splatter, and decamping at high speed. Lila wipes off Rachel’s mouth, pulls her close, and whisks her away without so much as a glance in my direction.
I grab Ben’s arm, and he hangs back for a moment. I have to know: “How much did she hear?”
“Oh, not much. Just that I’m a home wrecker, her mother is a whore, and her father… Jesus, Solly, I don’t even know what to call that. It’s… it’s biblical.” Shaking his head, he pats my shoulder and jogs off to catch up with Lila and Rachel.
I’m left alone, assaulted in equal parts by vomit, self-loathing, and the disdain of my fellow grazers. I leave a tip that could cover a crime scene clean-up crew, and slink away to my car.
Driving home, windows wide open, I wonder how many years of therapy I’ll be paying for before Rachel will manage to shed the mental image of Dad fooling around with Grandma.
The big day arrives. Rachel has barely spoken to me since the lunch, and I gather from Ben that the same has been true on Lila’s end as well.
With the service about to begin, I decide to make a quick visit to the restroom. In the narrow corridor I run into Barry, on his way into the sanctuary. Barry and I have been friends since college. Following my spontaneous act of self-immolation at the Vegan Valhalla, I called him for support. Instead of sympathy, however, Barry responded with resentment that I’d withheld the salacious tale from him for all these years. I think I may even have detected a soupçon of entirely unsought-after and inappropriate admiration in his voice.
He reaches out to give me a hug. “Solly! Rachel looks adorable. It’s just incredible how grown-up she’s gotten.”
“Thanks, Bar. I know, I can hardly believe it myself.” I step aside to allow Jack Farstein, octogenarian and Saturday morning regular, to get by. He’s not moving any too quickly.
Barry flattens himself against the wall to make room. “You know, I haven’t seen your mother-in-law — “
“Right, your ex-mother-in-law, since the wedding. I’ll tell you what, she’s still got it going on.”
I stare at him. “Bar, what the hell. The woman is sixty years old.”
“So what’s your point? She’s taken good care of herself. Come on, you can’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
I’m speechless. Jack Farstein is as deaf as a post, but I’m certain that as he pushes his walker down the hallway, he’s eyeing Barry with disdain. With a shake of my head, I step over to the men’s room to hold the door open for Jack as Barry returns to the service.
Making my way back into the sanctuary a few minutes later, I notice that Barry has taken the seat next to Robin’s.
Lila and I are in the front row. We’re separated by Ben and an empty seat, occupied by Rachel when she isn’t performing her bat mitzva duties up on the bima. Robin is sitting with my parents, and of course Barry, a few rows behind us. Lila hasn’t looked at her once; it seems clear they’ve had some kind of falling out.
I manage to shake off Barry’s creepy sense of humor (Jesus, he was joking, wasn’t he? Please tell me he was joking) and the palpable tension arcing across the space between my ex-wife and her mother. I remain focused on my beautiful 13-year-old daughter, striking in her new dress and freshly styled hair, as she skillfully, even confidently, plays the role for which she has been preparing for nearly a year. Silver lining: while avoiding her parents these past few weeks, Rachel has been spending a lot of time with the rabbi. The extra work has clearly paid off.
The Torah portion this week isn’t particularly engaging; just some technical details about ancient Temple rituals. But, let’s face it, ninety-nine percent of the congregants have no idea what the words mean anyway. Rachel chants the Hebrew in a soft, warm voice, demonstrating an intuitive grasp of the rhythm and meaning of the text.
Before I know it, it’s time for the dvar. Neither Lila nor I have heard a word of Rachel’s planned remarks in advance. Our daughter is punishing us for our behavior, and we deserve it. We’re just going to have to experience the dvar for the first time along with everyone else.
Rachel stands upright and alone at the podium. To my surprise, she isn’t holding any notes. “My portion this week talks about traditions; specifically, the rituals and traditions of the high priest and Levites in the Temple. Perhaps the most important of these were the animal sacrifices. Today, this custom seems barbaric, and few of us would want that tradition to reappear in mainstream Judaism.
“And yet, although the sacrifices were central to Temple-period observance, the abandonment of that ritual did not mean the end of Judaism, as evidenced by the fact that we are all here today. So it seems clear that, as much as we wish to honor tradition, we also have to honor our decision to let certain traditions slip away.”
I’m spellbound, riveted by her easy grace and poised delivery.
“Sometimes, old traditions exist side-by-side with new ones. For example, we all cherish the tradition of family: parents, grandparents, children. Our family is at the heart and center our lives — whether we like it or not.” Lila and I exchange glances as the congregation politely titters.
“But not every family is traditional. My family is not traditional. If you only knew how untraditional they are.” Lila squirms visibly in her seat; I’m holding my breath.
“I recently…” For the first time, Rachel falters, bites her lower lip. After a moment, she straightens up and refocuses. “I recently discovered some things about my family that were… untraditional.” I hear movement behind me, and turn to find that Robin has jumped upright out of her seat. My parents glare at her, surprised and annoyed. It seems to take Robin a moment to realize that she is standing. She blinks, looks around at the puzzled congregants, blushes, and slowly sits back down. Jack Farstein’s voice bursts through the silence: “What’d she jump up like that for?” His wife shushes him, and all eyes return to the bima.
It takes Rachel a moment or two to find her mental bookmark after the disturbance. “Um, untraditional. Yes. And some of these things disturbed me, even hurt me. Which made me think. Not everything traditional is worth keeping. But not everything that is untraditional is worth doing either.
“What this means to me is that we can use tradition as a guide, as long as we don’t hold onto it too tightly, or stray too far away from it. We spend our lives searching for the balance between the new and the old, between temptation and restraint, between the worthy and the unworthy. And if the people we love don’t get it right every time, well… that’s because it’s not easy. So I guess we just have to forgive them.”
Her words echo in my head as the rest of the dvar proceeds according to the script used, more or less, by every bar mitzva kid throughout history: thanks to the rabbi for helping me prepare, thanks to my relatives who traveled so far to be here, thanks to mom and dad for not killing each other. Lila and I look at one another across the two seats separating us, expressionless at first; but then, slowly, as the “thank you”s issue from the podium, I break into a grin, and in spite of herself, Lila cracks a wry smile as well. Bursting with shared pride in our little girl, we return our attention to Rachel as she comes back and sits between us.
Hours later, the service is complete, and the luncheon—every crumb of kugel, every forkful of fish, every chandful of challah — has been consumed. Most of the rest of the congregation have gone home, as have my parents (probably hoping to spend some time in their spacious top-of-the-line hot tub). Lila and Ben are sipping coffee, and Barry and Robin are chatting with Rachel, who looks like she’s just run a marathon. Jack Farstein, his wife, and a group of the other old-timers sit around a table and gossip loudly. I wander back into the empty sanctuary and face the ark containing the Torah scroll from which Rachel chanted so melodically earlier this morning.
I don’t believe in God, and I certainly don’t believe that God cares about our problems. Why should He? Most of our wounds are self-inflicted. But, in spite of myself, here I am, not exactly praying, but not exactly not praying either.
In her dvar, Rachel called us an “untraditional family”; under the circumstances, that would be hard to deny. Given the choice between — how had she put it?—the “worthy and the unworthy”, we’d made the wrong decision far too often.
Rachel has been the primary victim of this selfish behavior, cruelly buffeted by the turbulence of her parent’s mutual betrayals: Lila’s flagrant infidelity and my “biblical” indiscretion. Our girl would have been well within her rights to become disconsolate, resentful, even rebellious; instead, Rachel has responded with unconditional love and unearned absolution. Like a flattering dressing room mirror, our daughter has offered us a reflected glimpse of our better selves.
I wonder what I’ve done to deserve her. Nothing leaps to mind.
It’s been a long day. I spend a few more moments in contemplationbefore turning to leave the sanctuary. But I pause, and turn back to face the ark once again. I do have one short prayer to offer. Dear God, I begin, my eyes raised towards the heavens. Please, I beg you. It’s too weird. Please don’t let my ex-mother-in-law hook up with Barry.