I know we're in trouble when the wooden handicapped ramp leading to the side entrance of the temple disappears -- replaced by a swaying gangplank. The sight of Rabbi Kevin Kapstein hardly relieves my fears -- he's wearing a white yachting cap as he waves the board members off the gangplank and into a transformed Blumberg Social Hall.
It only takes two ahoys from Essie Sue Margolis, Kevin's mentor and my worst nightmare, to convince me I should be home watching Law and Order instead of Kvetching and Chaos, as I've come to call our monthly Board of Directors' meetings at Temple Rita. I gulp down two aspirin tablets before even taking off my jacket. This headache insurance hasn't worked yet, but by now it's a habit.
"My hearties, have I got a surprise for you!"
Ignoring the group shudder, Essie Sue, resplendent in a crisp navy blue sailor suit and hat, reaches for her third metaphor of the night, and we've only been here five minutes.
"Now, voyagers. I'm aware that you probably don't know what I'm talking about, nautically speaking. But you will."
"That's never stopped you before. Get on with the program."
Bubba Copeland has a short fuse and a long memory regarding Essie Sue and her fund-raising efforts. Essie Sue's still trying to commission a solid marble, five-thousand-pound Queen Esther statue in memory of her late sister Marla, who dropped dead on the floor of The Hot Bagel a few years ago. We're all paying for it, in more ways than one. Her latest fiasco, a nationwide sale of reduced-calorie matzo balls, almost killed me last year. Literally.
"All will be revealed, Bubba, before we adjorn to the social hall for navy bean soup in honor of our newest fund-raiser."
That's Mr. Chernoff -- not that he'll sway Essie Sue one way or another.
"Stuff it, Herman. I'm talking originality here. The rabbi has given his blessing to this event. You're going to love it."
I'm feeling queasy already. "So is this event going into the minutes as a done deal, or were we called here to vote on something? You're not planning to do an end run on the temple bylaws again, are you?"
"Please, Ruby -- you and your constitutional concerns. Don't you have any imagination?"
"Yeah, I'm imagining that if this project has already been blessed by you and Kevin, we don't have a chance."
"All right, then I'll do it by the book. Are you ready, Parliamentarian?"
About as ready as Rachel Gettleman will ever be, considering that her qualifications for the job were that her brother-in-law registered voters in Travis County from 1965 to 1973.
"Here's the surprise. I move that our new fund-raising project be a cruise of the Jewish Caribbean, featuring St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Anchors aweigh! Play the tape, Rabbi."
Before Kevin presses the button on Naval Hymns from Down Under, I press a point of order.
"Wait a minute -- there is no Jewish Caribbean."
Essie Sue's ready for me.
"Of course there is. Jews sailed to the Caribbean before Poland ever knew a rabbi. I've researched this, Ruby. Don't think just because you're a rabbi's wife that you're the only Jewish historian around here."
"I'm no longer a rabbi's wife, and I don't know any Jewish historians in Eternal. Do you?" My husband, Stu, was rabbi of the temple before he was killed a few years ago. It took all his energy to keep Essie Sue in check, but she's ruled the roost since Stu's successor, Kevin Kapstein, took over.
"Are you trying to say that Jews lived in the Caribbean, Essie Sue? That's a far cry from -- "
"I'm not going to let you spoil my nautical evening, Ruby. There's a motion on the floor."
I can tell Bubba Copeland's catching my headache -- the vein near his temple is enlarging as he speaks. "There's motion, all right. I'm getting seasick. What's the deal here? Clue us in, Essie Sue, before I move to adjourn."
"I wanted everyone to catch the spirit first, but since you're all so oppositional tonight, I'll have to change my tactics. We need to go into executive session."
Rachel Gettleman doesn't look amused.
"We've never been in executive session before. Speaking as Parliamentarian, just what does executive session mean, exactly?"
"It means we meet without the rabbi."
"That's it? Am I supposed to escort him out?"
"I'll escort him out. Sorry, Rabbi. I was driven to this by extreme lack of cooperation."
"Point of order." Kevin's fighting back. "I want to lodge a formal protest. I rented this outfit."
"No way I'm dealing with a formal protest." Rachel's out of her seat. "Point of parliamentary overload. What do I do now, Essie Sue?"
"Hold it, Rachel. Go check on the anchor carved in ice, Rabbi -- this won't take long. My committee will reimburse you for the yachting suit."
Essie Sue manages to nudge Kevin out the door, squelch the last question from the assemblage, and ease Rachel back into her seat before staring down the room.
"Okay, people. This is serious."
"You're going to have a helluva time talking serious to a background of 'Anchors Aweigh.'"
"I know, Bubba, but that was merely window dressing to make the medicine go down. I'm not just fund-raising here. I'm trying to save the rabbi."
"Save him? From what?" Brother Copeland, younger brother to Bubba -- same substance, different style -- pipes in where Bubba can't go. Essie Sue favors Brother over Bubba, so Brother can get more out of her.
"Gather around, everybody, and don't breathe a word of this. This is board business, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. Just tell us."
"No, Bubba. I want sworn oaths from all of you. Raise your hands."
Curiosity overcomes common sense, and we all dutifully raise our hands to swear confidentiality. Right.
"Do you all swear not to tell, not ever to tell what I'm going to tell you, so help you God?"
This is too much. "I'm not swearing to God on this, Essie Sue."
"Okay, Ruby, so we'll swear on my copy of the Jewish Forward -- it has a national circulation. Good enough for you?"
I refrain from raising my hand altogether, but she ignores me and pulls out a huge file folder from her briefcase at the end of the table.
"People, these are the top-secret results of a questionnaire I submitted to a temple focus group at my own expense. I made copies for everyone. Read it and weep."
"Focus group? Who do you think you are, Dick Morris?" Bubba's reaching for his copy as he speaks, of course.
"This is the way things are done in the modern world, Bubba. We're nothing if not with it here at Temple Rita. I regret to inform you that my survey shows our beloved rabbi's job-approval rating has fallen to an all-time low."
"What did you expect?" Brother yells. "He squeaked by the Rabbinic Selection Committee by a majority of one."
"He did not. He was voted in unanimously."
"Oh, sure, after you made the secretary erase the vote and put in Unanimous on pain of death."
"That was a courtesy. All organizations do it. This poll was scientifically calculated to compute the rabbi's charisma quotient. On the first question, 'Is our rabbi as dynamic as you thought he would be?' Rabbi Kapstein unfortunately scored one percent."
"This is too painful, Essie Sue. Just let us read it to ourselves."
"No pain, no gain, Ruby, but if you insist, I'll give on that point."
I don't think it can get worse, but then I read the sample questions:
Leadership Ability -- If Rabbi Kapstein were to the temple as Moshe Dayan was to the Israelis, would you follow him into battle? Yes: 2 percent.
Intellectual Prowess -- Do the rabbi's sermons pique your curiosity? Not really: 97 percent.
Does the rabbi stimulate our mission as a light unto the nations? Dim: 98 percent.
"Pardon my asking, but just who in the congregation did you focus on for these answers, Essie Sue?"
"They shall remain nameless, Ruby. End of story."
"So what are we supposed to do with this?"
"That's why we're here. The rabbi is obviously not putting his best foot forward."
"I'd say he was putting his foot in it."
"Be that as it may, Brother, the man needs help, and I, for one, feel he's misunderstood. That's why this cruise is going to be his salvation. He'll be our trip guide, showcasing his leadership abilities, and he'll educate us in the history and culture of the Jews of the Caribbean -- that takes care of the intellect thing."
Essie Sue flicks a red-manicured little finger at the Parliamentarian, who reacts in Pavlovian fashion:
"There's a motion on the floor. All in favor, say aye."
No hands go up.
"Does anyone here want to go through the rabbinical selection process twice in three years?"
All hands are up, including, I have to say, mine.
Essie Sue, beaming, goes to the door.
"Ahoy, Rabbi -- bring on the navy bean soup."
Copyright © 2001 by Sharon Kahn
A Ruby, the Rabbi's Wife Mystery
Don't Cry For Me, Hot Pastrami
A Ruby, the Rabbi's Wife Mystery
Essie Sue has conducted a scientific poll that would put Dick Morris to shame, revealing that her beloved Rabbi Kapstein's job approval rating has fallen to an all-time low at Temple Rita. In a last-ditch attempt to improve the rabbi's "charisma quotient" (in answer to the question "Is our rabbi as dynamic as you thought he would be?" Kevin scored "one percent"), Essie Sue decides to showcase his leadership ability by having him conduct a tour for temple members. She learns through the kosher grapevine that a long-lost cousin is currently sailing Caribbean for Bargain Cruise Lines -- Motto: We Pass Waters Where Others Fear to Tread -- A bargain! What could be wrong with that? And when the cruise line is willing to move cabins wholesale for fund-raising purposes, a discount deal is sealed.
Though Ruby loves to travel, this is not the trip of her dreams. The Cruise from Hell begins when Professor Willie Bob Gonzales, the ship's lecturer, dies suddenly in the embarkation area, leaving a laptop full of notes on the Conversos -- Jews who became Christians to escape the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition, and who were known to have emigrated to the islands.
The food is terrible -- Ruby groans from the chef's version of island delights with the flavor of yesterday's Taco Bell, and struggles with the consequences of a bargain voyage -- portholes sealed with bubblegum and nightly entertainment by Elvis impersonators. And to make things perfect, Captain Goldberg has the hots for her.
Ruby manages, as always, to discern the hubris from the humor, but almost pays with her life. The good news is that she finds romance on the voyage. The bad news is that he may be a killer.
Sharon Kahn, a rabbi's wife for thirty-one years, knows the territory.