The Kennedy Rabbi
for my father
The man loitering around the synagogue looked like a bum. He told my sister that he was the rabbi for the Kennedys and that he was hungry. My sister, trained by our parents to be hospitable, brought the Kennedy rabbi home for dinner.
I was alone in the house, practicing the violin, when Nancy arrived with her guest.
“Be careful, this guy is nuts,” she whispered to me, then left for the library to pick up some books for her American history paper.
Greenbelt, Maryland was hot and humid in early September. The guest, dressed in layers of sweater, jackets, and vests, looked hot and sweaty. I brought him a glass of iced tea and some pretzels I found in the pantry.
“Is that the Bach violin sonata in g minor you’re trying to play?” the man asked me. He stood so close I could see the dangling threads on the sleeves of his coat. His sunken cheeks were almost hidden under his tangled grey beard. The only part of him that looked clean and new were the whites of his eyes. He looked at the music on the stand.
“The Fugue? This is chutzpah!”
I had started on the Fugue, but my sense of timing was thrown off by the odd juxtaposition of the dirty, raggedy man and his obvious knowledge of music. My playing sped up; my fingers got all tangled up in the chords.
“Stop, stop!” the man yelled at me. “Let me show you how…” He reached out to take the violin from my hands.
“I think I’d better put it away,” I stuttered. How could I handle the instrument again after those dirty hands and gritty nails had touched it? I laid the violin and bow gently in their case, shut it, and leaned it against the wall.
My mother returned a few minutes later and was appalled to find a strange man in the house with her twelve-year-old daughter. She took me by the elbow into the kitchen.
“Did that man touch you?” she asked, in a barely audible whisper.
“No!” I answered. “He’s hungry, that’s all.”
I didn’t tell her that he had tried to touch the violin—I was ashamed to tell her that he had criticized my playing.
Mom relaxed; the worry lines that had appeared on her usually calm face vanished. She tied a flowered apron over her clean, pressed skirt and blouse and set about cooking a company dinner.
I was putting a fresh tablecloth on the dining room table when Nancy rushed in with an armful of books. She put them down and dragged out the stepladder so she could reach the Wedgwood dishes that were stored in the top cabinet.
“Better not use those,” Mom told her. “Stick with the everyday dishes.”
Mom made her specialty: Hungarian goulash with poppy seed noodles and a big tossed salad. Dad sat at the head of the table. He had removed his jacket and loosened his tie. His face was pink from the heat, and a little of the pink showed through his thinning hair. Before Mom brought in the food he took off his glasses, polished them with his napkin, and replaced them on his nose. Mom tried to make small talk with the guest. She asked him where he was from, but the Kennedy rabbi would not provide a straight answer. He traveled so much, he told us, that he was no longer from anywhere.
“Well,” said Mom, still trying to engage the guest in ordinary conversation, “you must have seen some interesting things in your travels.”
“This is true,” he said. “I once spent Shabbos in a town in Mississippi—the name doesn’t come to me right now. The shul was in an old plantation house, very pretty, with a big porch running around it. After davening, the ladies’ auxiliary had a Kiddush in the social hall—in the basement. Pickled herring, schnapps, like a Kiddush anywhere. And then I noticed two big metal rings attached to the wall. And so I ask the president of the congregation, ‘What are these?’ and you know what he tells me? Do you?”
No one answered him.
“So I’ll tell you what he told me. Those rings were used to hold down disobedient slaves while they were whipped.”
Dad ate his goulash, meticulously cutting the meat into small pieces, piercing them with his fork, and lifting them up to his mouth. He wiped his mouth with his napkin, sealing his lips. Mom chased a piece of tomato around her salad bowl. I joined in the silence.
Nancy, responsible for the man’s presence at our dinner table, attempted to restart the conversation. She patted her curly hair, which had turned frizzy in the summer humidity, with both hands. Her long, skinny legs bumped into mine under the table.
“You told me you’re the rabbi to the Kennedys…”
“This is a well-known fact,” he answered. “I was the rabbi to John and Jacqueline, and to John’s father, Joseph Kennedy.”
“But why would the Kennedys need a rabbi?” I asked. “They’re Catholic.”
The man stroked his beard a minute. “You’ve learned a little Pirkei Avos?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I told him. “We study it every summer in shul.”
“Then you’ll remember it says, ‘Make yourself a rabbi?’”
“If a silly child who plays the violin like a howling cat knows that a person needs to make himself a rabbi, don’t you think that a brilliant leader like Kennedy would know that as well?”
“That’s, that’s…” I said, at a loss for words and gravely wounded.
Dad gave our guest that look of his, over the top of his glasses.
“There’s no call to insult my children,” he said. I beamed at Dad. No stranger could insult my violin playing with my father at my side.
“I meant no harm,” the rabbi answered, “I just wanted to add a little dvar torah to the meal, Mr. Weintraub, that is all.”
Mom busied herself, passing around salad and noodles, urging everyone to take a second serving. But Dad was not to be pacified so easily.
“That’s Doctor Weintraub, not mister.”
“What kind of doctor? Surgeon, heart specialist?”
“Family doctor,” said Dad.
“Well, tell me Mr. Family Doctor, what do you think about this?” The man removed his left shoe, and then his sock. A terrible stink went up around the table. He hobbled over to Dad’s end of the table and held up his left foot so that it was almost level with Dad’s dinner plate.
“You’re missing some toes there, pal,” said Dad. “You diabetic?”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that,” said the guest. He thrust the sock into his jacket pocket, slipped his bare foot into his shoe, and returned to his place at the table.
Years later, remembering the story, Nancy and I had different recollections of the foot. I remembered gangrene in the toes, and I distinctly saw a few maggots crawling in and out of the mess. Nancy remembered his foot as “just gross”, but then, she went on to become a librarian, while I became a nurse.
Nancy and I looked at one another in disbelief. We had never seen a guest in our home behave so badly. Mom was doing her best as a hostess, but Dad’s voice had acquired an angry undertone we seldom heard.
“Would you help me clear the dinner plates, Bill?” Mom stared at Dad when she asked him for help. This was most unusual. Our father never served food or cleared the table, but this time he got up from his chair and carried the salad bowl into the kitchen where Nancy and I could hear him conferring with Mom.
Mom and Dad returned from the kitchen with a strawberry-rhubarb pie and coffee. The guest removed a packet of Pall Malls from his pocket, lit up, and began smoking. I looked from Mom to Dad, wondering who would speak up first.
“We, umm, don’t usually smoke at the table here,” Mom said.
The guest took two additional long draws on his cigarette.
“My wife just asked you to put that cigarette out,” said Dad.
The rabbi jabbed his cigarette into the saucer. (At this point in the story, my mother always added, “I was so relieved that I wasn’t using the Wedgwood dishes.”)
Dad fixed his gaze on the guest. “Time we leave for the bus station, pal.”
Dad returned about an hour later, went straight into the bathroom and washed his hands as if he were getting ready to perform surgery.
“Well, what happened?” asked Mom.
Dad told us that the guest was silent during the ride to the station. When they arrived, my father asked the ticket seller when the bus left.
“The clerk told me, ‘That depends, sir. Where would you like to go?’”
“And I said to the clerk, ‘I’d like a one-way ticket for wherever the next bus is heading.’”
After that, the Kennedy rabbi lost his stink and maggots and rudeness; he evolved into one of the stories that our family loves to tell when we have guests. The Time Nancy Brought the Kennedy Rabbi to Dinner joined The Time Dad Went to the Barber Shop and Left the Baby in the Crib, or The Time Isaac Stern Borrowed Mom’s Violin Bow. We entertained people with the story of the Kennedy Rabbi while Dad served cocktails before Thanksgiving dinner or while lounging on the patio with watermelon and iced tea on a summer evening.
For twenty years the Kennedy Rabbi was nothing more than a story. Meanwhile, Nancy and I graduated from high school, and Nancy went off to New England for college. I was rejected by Juilliard, the only place I had ever wanted to study.
In retrospect, I realize that my violin teacher, Mrs. Lanten, had warned me. But I ignored her suggestions to apply to other colleges or to think of what I might do other than playing the violin. Mom, usually so level-headed, lost her judgment when it came to music. She was entranced with everything connected to Juilliard—the school seal on the envelope that contained the application forms, the little card explaining which subway station was nearest the school, and even the complicated process of arranging an audition. She was waiting for me on a straight-backed chair in the hall outside the audition room, which I fled after playing the opening of the Bach violin sonata in g minor.
“I hope you’re not planning to affront us any further,” the woman judge had said, as the two men on either side of her smirked.
Mom tried to encourage me during the train ride home to Maryland.
“There is always Peabody,” she said, “or Curtis.” She thought I was too humiliated by my audition at Juilliard to apply anywhere else, but that was only part of it. Mrs. Lanten had hinted to me, of course, but the only one to speak in complete honesty about my playing had been the Kennedy rabbi. At night I dreamed about the Juilliard audition, only the woman judge had turned into the rabbi and whispered, “Like a howling cat,” over and over.
I didn’t apply to any other music programs. Instead, I took a year off and worked in my father’s office. The nurse taught me to weigh patients and take their blood pressure and temperature.
The next year I left for North Carolina and entered nursing school.
I learned to like nursing and even married a doctor. I worked for twelve years in a state mental hospital in North Carolina while he finished medical school and completed a residency.
My violin was stored in the back of my closet. From time to time, when no one else was home, I would take it out and play—the pressure of the violin on my neck like the caress of a secret lover. But I never played the Bach sonata in g minor again.
Then we moved back to Maryland, and I landed a position as head nurse of a geropsychiatric unit at Jewish Convalescent and Hospital. I was happy to give up my psychotic, often violent patients and exchange them for elderly people with depression or dementia. The ward in Jewish Convalescent was carpeted, and the walls decorated with Chagall posters—so different from the worn linoleum and chipped walls at the state hospital. The smell was different too; it was a smell of ripe bananas and baby lotion rather than the acrid stink of cigarette smoke and stale cigarette butts.
Dr. Goldberg, the medical director of the ward, called me into his office one morning and told me that he was admitting a rather unusual patient. The State of New Jersey was sending him, and would foot the bill. Immediately suspicious, I asked why the State of New Jersey would pay for hospitalization in a private facility in Maryland.
“He needs a kosher facility,” Dr. Goldberg explained.
“And there aren’t any kosher nursing homes in New Jersey?”
Dr. Goldberg tipped back in his chair. “He’s kind of an unusual guy. He grew up in a Hassidic family in Brooklyn. Apparently he was a musical prodigy and won a full scholarship to Juilliard to study violin. But then he had a schizophrenic break. Now he travels around the country, telling people he was the rabbi for the Kennedys.”
“And he has a few amputated toes,” I added.
I was not happy about the prospect of meeting the Kennedy rabbi again. The information Dr. Goldberg had given me should have made me feel some empathy for the man who would soon be my patient, but all I could think of was that he had won a scholarship to Juilliard, while I had not even been allowed to finish my audition.
The Kennedy rabbi was admitted to Jewish Convalescent and Hospital three days later. The people in New Jersey had done their best to clean him up. He was shaved and his fingernails were trimmed. He wore a bright yellow t-shirt with a picture of a pizza on the front and the legend “Nick’s Pizzas and Gyros” on the back. His black pants were too big for him and the belt bunched up at the waist. The nursing assistant slipped off his worn canvas sneakers so I could have a look at his feet. There were no toes remaining on his left foot, and the little toe on his right foot was beginning to rot.
I restrained myself for the first few days of his hospitalization. On the fourth day, after the practical nurse had finished bandaging his feet, I wheeled him back to his room.
“Do you remember visiting Greenbelt, Maryland, about twenty years ago?” I asked him. “A family invited you for dinner.”
“Yeah, I remember. They had goulash.”
“That’s my family,” I told him.
“Your father bought me a one-way ticket and put me on a bus,” he said.
“We didn’t have a guest bedroom,” I answered.
From that moment on I had no peace from the Kennedy rabbi.
“Your mother’s goulash tastes like shit,” he yelled.
“Your father’s a quack!” he added. But the worst was, “Thinks she can play the Bach sonata… ha, ha, ha!”
I was beginning to miss the amenities of a state mental hospital—the isolation room, the four-point restraints. I had no way of protecting myself from the rabbi’s ugly insults and curses. When I complained to Dr. Goldberg and asked him if he could increase the rabbi’s medication, or sedate him, or anything, he said, “It was very unprofessional of you to tell this patient about his connection with your family. You’ll have to work it out with him.”
We had a sing-a-long later that afternoon. All the patients and staff on the unit gathered in the day-room. Patty Levin, the music therapist, banged out an accompaniment on her electric organ.
“Let’s start with everyone’s favorite,” she said, and began to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The patients adored it. We sang the song twice. The second time around, just as everyone joined in a rousing chorus of, “For it’s one, two, three strikes…” the Kennedy rabbi hit me.
For an elderly, sick man, he was pretty strong. We were in a corner of the day-room when he stood up from his wheelchair and swung his right fist into my jaw hard enough that I staggered back a few steps before regaining my balance.
The hospital administration made a big deal about my injury. The chief medical officer examined me and sent me for an x-ray. We filled out incident reports. The head of manpower telephoned me at home to see if I was okay. The director of nursing sent me flowers.
The next day the rabbi was on a bus, this time with a male nurse as an escort, heading back to New Jersey.
When I returned to work, Dr. Goldberg asked me into his office.
“What exactly happened that day?” he asked me. “Whatever made that patient hit you like that?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea,” I told him. “He came after me, totally out of the blue.”
Dr. Goldberg looked at me like he didn’t believe me.
And with good reason. When Patty announced that we would all be singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” a second time, I had leaned down and whispered into the rabbi’s ear, “This is the only music you’re ever going to hear. Forget about Bach from now on.”
It hurt, when he hit me. It hurt more than I admitted. But it was a small price to pay for getting him sent back to New Jersey. The Kennedy rabbi had insulted my playing for the last time.