There was the time I gave a poop sandwich to my rabbi. It was at the confirmation class picnic in my backyard and I was 16 years old—old enough to know it wasn’t funny. But I thought he would understand. I thought we had connected on some level, in some corner of our minds that no one else knew about. I thought we had seen each other’s souls.
Rabbi Sirkman came to our synagogue the fall I turned 15. He looked like Scooter from the Muppets and he had a thick Boston accent and a beautiful pregnant wife named Susan. I hadn’t been to temple much since my Bat Mitzvah two years before, but my mom brought me one Saturday morning to hear the new rabbi give a sermon. After services she made me shake his hand and introduce myself. Rabbi Sirkman’s eyes were a warm chocolate brown and he told me he was so glad to see me there. He was starting a confirmation class for high school students to continue their studies after Bar/Bat Mitzvah and he wanted to know if I would be interested. My mom said that, yes, I would be very interested, so he told me to come to the Hebrew School library next Tuesday night for a get-to-know-you pizza dinner.
By the next Monday, word had spread about the new confirmation class. Sara M. announced in gym class that she was going. Jim C. and Andy said they were too. David K. said it sounded boring and Craig said he wouldn’t be caught dead there, but the next time I saw him was Tuesday night in the synagogue cafeteria with a piece of pizza and an Orange Crush. David K. was there too. Everyone was allowed to have two slices of pizza and we were each given a folder with a cartoon man on the cover. The man had huge eyes and a big cowlick. His name was Mr. Foof, explained Rabbi Sirkman, and Mr. Foof was going to help us in our exploration. For the next two years, we were going to read Jewish philosophers and theologists and dissect ancient and contemporary texts, hopefully arriving at our own understanding of what it means to be a Jewish adult. He asked us that first night to define God. I squirmed in my seat. David K. said He was an old man with a blue terry cloth robe and a big “G” on it. Tara D. said she didn’t think there was a God. Rabbi Sirkman said they were both right.
Each week we started with pizza and soda, standing sullenly in our proscribed circles. But once we entered the library, the world changed. We analyzed Martin Buber and the concepts of I-Thou and I-It relationships. We read aloud from our books about human passions and the true nature of virtue. Rabbi Sirkman challenged us each to identify our place in the world and to think of our religion not as a finite set of rules, but as a course of open dialogue. He asked us questions about the state of Israel and who had a right to the land. We debated the feasibility of Jewish-Arab reconciliation and tried to decipher when the conflict began. He told us there was no excuse for us not reading the newspaper and one night he refused to speak until we told him why we were at war in Iraq. We weren’t being graded. There were no tests. But somehow it became important to us to show up in the temple library every Tuesday night and know what we were saying—to know ourselves in the context of history.
I didn’t know how to thank Rabbi Sirkman for taking us out from under the high school overpass and bringing us into someplace completely unknown. And I didn’t know how to tell him that I wanted to spend every Tuesday night for the rest of my life with him. As our confirmation got closer, I had more and more trouble looking him in the eye. My teeth felt too big for my mouth when I tried to talk in class and I felt like I might cry on the carpool ride home. I didn’t tell anyone about my feelings. I didn’t know how to explain how much I adored him, how much I yearned for his wide smile, or a wink from behind his wire rimmed glasses. When my mom suggested we throw a graduation party for the confirmation class, I was thrilled with the idea of having Rabbi Sirkman in my house.
The day of the party, my mom laid out bagels, rolls, coffee cake and fancy cream cheeses. I folded slices of deli meat onto a big plate and refilled the ice trays three times each. There were bowls of pickles, herring and chopped liver. My best friend Gabra came over an hour before everyone else and we put on blue eyeliner in my mom’s bathroom. I was so nervous I poked myself in the eye. Lisa Grossman was the first guest to arrive. She came with her mom and they were wearing matching stirrup pants. Matt Hirschorn was next. He brought another coffee cake and I told him we already had one, but my mom said that I should be more gracious and she put it out on the table anyway. Then Andy and David K. showed up. Alissa and Sue came together. Pretty soon, the backyard was full. Mr. Moss and Mr. Moock stood by the barbecue and Mrs. Turner buzzed between the kitchen and the porch, bringing people sodas. And then Rabbi Sirkman arrived. When he came into the back yard, I grabbed Gabra and told her we had to go for a walk. We sat on the rusty swingset down by the wood pile and dug our sneakers into the soft dirt.
“Ew, watch out,” said Gabra, pointing to a pile of dog poop.
“My stupid sister was supposed to pick it up but she didn’t,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“It looks like chopped liver.”
“But it probably tastes better.”
“Gabra…” I thought I was going to break into a thousand little pieces. “What if we tried to convince Rabbi Sirkman that it was chopped liver?”
“You mean like put it on a plate?”
“Sure, or even on a roll!”
Gabra agreed to go along with my hastily conceived plot. I was in charge of grabbing the bread from the basket. She would get the plate and a plastic knife. We would meet back at the swingset in 10 minutes and try not draw any attention from the crowd. Keeping discreet was actually very easy to do. Everyone there between the ages of 15 and 16 was trying not to look at each other. We wanted desperately for no one to notice our pimples, our fluorescent belts and layered socks, our gleaming braces with slick rubber bands. Gabra stood in front of me while I crouched down and smoothed the poop onto the Kaiser roll. The bread was warm from the afternoon sun. Gabra handed me a pickle for garnish. “Perfect,” she declared, as I dug a hole and buried the knife in the ground. Then I put the plate behind my back as we climbed up the rocky path and walked across the backyard. Rabbi Sirkman was busy telling Mrs. Grossman a story. I watched her honey-colored perm shake while she laughed. I wondered if she had feelings for the rabbi too. Finally, she moved back toward the snack table. Gabra pulled me forward.
“Yes, ladies?” Rabbi Sirkman asked, turning in our direction.
“Could we maybe talk to you in private?”
“Sure.” Gabra led us both behind the bushes where we kept the sprinkler.
“What’s going on, you two?”
“Well, we noticed you weren’t eating much so we made you a sandwich,” she said as we both giggled and I pushed the plate towards him. The smell was intense.
“Thank you girls,” he said slowly. He took the plate and studied the sandwich carefully, his eyebrows pulled together. Gabra grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Are you sure this is for me?” he asked. He tried to lift part of his face into a smile, but the rest of his mouth wouldn’t follow. And then our eyes locked. His were wide and watery. They were not amused. I had to turn away. It felt like someone was pressing on my ribs, squeezing out my insides. This was not going as planned. There was nothing funny in this moment at all.
“Go ahead. It’s chopped liver,” I heard Gabra say, but I was already running, running up the porch, past Mr. Moock in between Andy and Peter G. into the house. “Excuse me!” I yelped at Alissa and Tara as I pushed past them and grabbed for the bathroom door, slamming it behind me and bolting it shut. I dropped to my knees and felt my mouth fill up with saliva. I wanted to throw up, but it was all stuck in my chest, this knot of nausea and aching sadness. It was all wrong. I hadn’t meant to hurt him. I needed to explain. I wanted to tell him that we thought it would be funny, or at least charming. Couldn’t he see that we were honoring him by giving him this hilarious gift? Couldn’t he tell from my eyes that I adored him and I wanted only to make him laugh? And then I became terrified that maybe he could see my true intent, maybe he could tell I was hopelessly in love with him and that wasn’t funny at all. By the time I came out of the bathroom, my mom was waiting for me.
“Young lady, you have some explaining to do,” she commanded. “But first you are going to go out there and apologize.” She lifted a single finger toward the back door. Mrs. Turner was collecting empty plates and cups. A lot of people had gone home. Rabbi Sirkman was in the same corner, now with his arms folded, talking with Mr. Moock. And then he was in front of me, just standing there, his hands at his sides. It felt like there was so much space between the two of us. I stared at my feet and whispered, “I’m sorry.” I knew sorry was too small a word for the weight of this moment. I was sorry that I had tried to make him eat a dog poop sandwich, but I was also sorry that I didn’t realize it could never be fun or funny to watch a grown man whom you loved and admired consume a plate of feces. Most of all, I was sorry that I loved and admired him so much. He had given me a sense of time and space and made me believe that I was somehow different, special, but now it was over. I had been confirmed as an adult in the eyes of the congregation. It was time for me to act like one. The SATs were three weeks away. Any day now I knew I’d get my period.