If I'd known they would be looking for volunteers, I wouldn't have taken a chair on the aisle. Sitting in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, listening to the rabbi's lengthy sermon on the day's Torah reading, I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Come on," the elderly gentleman With a blue "usher" ribbon pinned to his lapel whispered, leaning in next to my ear. "You'll make the next aliyah." I wondered if I was being shipped off to Israel. What the usher was asking me to do was really quite simple. I'd go to the pulpit, stand at a table a few steps from the ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept, recite a short Hebrew blessing before and after a portion of the Torah reading, and sit down. No problem.
As the usher ushered me toward the front of the sanctuary, however, my intestines began to roll. Each step jarred loose another hideous memory of the various "mishaps" that have befallen me over the years whenever I've come within chanting distance of a pulpit. Let me be clear. This was not stage fright. I don't have that. And it wasn't a mere phobia. A phobia is an irrational fear of a nonexistent danger. My fear was rational. The danger real. My mother has pictures. Whatever the term for it, the chief symptom is the same: acute humiliation, invariably before large crowds of Jews.
There was, for instance, the time I got stuck in the ark. I was 9 years old, sitting in Hebrew school class. My desk was next to a wooden ark that contained Torah scrolls for student services on Saturday mornings. While the teacher lectured the class on the significance of the Passover seder, my left hand wandered up the side of the ark to meet a small air hole bored in one of its panels. The hole, I discovered, was just large enough to fit my fourth finger. And just small enough to keep it. Once in, I couldn't get it out. I tugged a little. My finger swelled a little. I tugged more. It swelled more. The bell rang. Class ended. Frantic, I called out to my teacher, who, after pushing and pulling, called the principal. Who called the executive director. Who called the custodian. Who tried soap, hand lotion, and petroleum jelly. Students and teachers assembled to watch the proceedings and offer suggestions. Then came the sirens. The executive director, an easily agitated man, had summoned the fire department. And someone had tipped off my mother, who arrived in a panic. The firemen had a chainsaw. They cut a circle around my finger, leaving me wearing a six-inch round of ark wood like a doughnut. One of the firemen put my ringed finger in a vice; with a few delicate hacksaw strokes I was free, and relatively unscathed. The same can't be said for the ark, which now bears a considerably larger air hole.
That was just the beginning. On the day of my Bar Mitzvah, as I stepped up to the pulpit to begin leading the morning service, the contact lens in my right eye popped out. I might have continued one-eyed, but just then the left lens slipped out of place and lodged under my eyelid, causing my eyes to water uncontrollably. After leading me to a chair, my father began scrounging around for the lost lens (he found it), while I poked at my eyeball in an attempt to extract the other. Meanwhile, the cantor stepped in to begin the service. A few years later, I so badly botched the reading of a portion of the Torah during a Saturday morning service that the rabbi turned to the cantor and whispered, "Should we do that one over again?" The next year I was an usher at a cousin's wedding. The ceremony was long. The room was hot. I was dressed in a wool tuxedo. As the rabbi blessed my cousin and his bride, my legs buckled and I passed out on the floor, nearly taking an elaborate flower arrangement down with me. My trusty father once again dragged me out of sight, this time on my heels.
At the time, I began to take my recurring mishaps as a sign that maybe I should ditch my plans to become a rabbi, a career that I seriously considered for a time. For a short while I took to wearing a yarmulke and fringes, attempted to steep myself in Talmud, and enrolled in Hebrew High classes at night. But when both my Hebrew teacher and my rabbi—the same rabbi, incidentally, who'd attempted to pull my finger out of the ark and who'd been present at my Bar Mitzvah—gently suggested that perhaps I should consider pursuing other work, I took heed.
But my affliction continued to dog me even outside the synagogue. Last year, for instance, I was approached by a woman as I thumbed through the fiction section in a Washington bookstore. The woman wore a scarf on her head and carried a large bag over her shoulder. The store was crowded, and I didn't pay much attention to her as I absentmindedly picked up Chaim Potok's novel The Gift of Asher Lev. Moments later, she was angling into my face. "That's an evil book, you know," she said, pointing to the volume in my hands. Her eyes flickered. Usually I enjoy these sorts of impromptu encounters, I know the feeling of not being able to resist unleashing an unsolicited opinion on a stranger. So she wasn't a Potok fan. I thanked her for the tip. Apparently, I didn't get it. She wasn't anywhere near through with Potok. Or with me. "A terrible, terrible book," she said. "He glorifies them." Who? "Potok. He tries to make the Hasidim into heroes." Her voice took on a fearsome edge as she explained, for everyone in the store to hear, how such books as The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev are part of a worldwide conspiracy by ultra-orthodox Jews to kill her. "They want me dead!" she bellowed, snatching the book from my hands and setting it back on the display table. I tried to calm her, but by this time I'd drifted too far past the buoys to swim away. O.K., I asked, why are they trying to kill you? "Because I am the product of Jewish-Gentile intermarriage!" she shrieked, fishing a four-page newsletter from her bag. "The Hasidim want us off the face of the earth!" She handed me the newsletter, the official publication of Pareve: the Alliance for the Adult Children of Jewish-Gentile Intermarriage. (Pareve is the Hebrew word for food that is neither dairy nor meat.) Then she was gone. Embarrassed, I slinked out of the store; Potok lost a sale. A week later curiosity got the best of me and I called the number on the newsletter. It had been disconnected.
There was, of course, no time to explain all of this to the usher as he led me to the front of the room. Instead, I ascended the stairs, recited the blessing, and … nothing. The words came. My voice didn't crack. My eyes stayed dry. The scrolls remained intact. A flurry of tropes and I was shaking hands with the rabbi. Perhaps, I thought, I shouldn't have given up my rabbinical pursuits so hastily after all. Then I saw it. There, in the lower corner of the ark, a roughhewn wooden one with heavy doors, was a knothole. Not a large one; just large enough, say, to fit a finger.