The Seer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Flash Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A Rabbinical Seminary Placement Officer has some difficulty with a possible candidate.

The Seer


By David Mark


Joey Gottleben’s footsteps echoed down the long, oaken corridors of Samuel Holdheim Jewish Seminary’s legendary Sixth Floor. It smelled like mothballs, old books, and moldy cloth hangings. At the end of the hall, he placed his trembling, sweaty hand on the cold brass knob of the Rabbinical Placement Office. Here was decided the fate of the fifth-year rabbinical students, those who had survived Holdheim’s fabled “Hell Week”: the hour-long Talmud Orals, the three-hour Jewish Law Codes Exam, and the Cantorial Department’s Speed Quiz on Different Torah Cantillation Styles for the various Jewish Holidays: from Rosh Hashana, the New Year, to the Book of Lamentations, chanted on the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, the saddest day in the Jewish year. Joey had, by dint of sheer scholarship, perseverance, and courage, made it thusfar. And now, he was about to face Placement Director Rabbi Dr. Efrem Zeesberg, the “Z-meister,” whose decision would seal his future. With a word and the click of a computer key, Dr. Zeesberg could assign Joey either to an associate rabbinate in a plum pulpit in the suburbs of New York or Philadelphia, there to learn at the feet of a benign, elderly senior rabbi, or, should he find some defect in Joey’s knowledge or “the cut of his rabbinical jib,” as the Z-meister liked to metaphorize, to a pulpit in Nome, Alaska. It was all up to Dr. Zeesberg.

Even worse, Zeesberg preferred not to make appointments with the fifth-year students—“it keeps them on their toes, never knowing when I’m going to call upon them,” he would tell the rabbi-professors at faculty meetings. And so, it happened that Joey was gnawing at his overdry tuna-on-whole-wheat-with-lettuce-and-tomato in the Felix Adler Memorial Cafeteria, when one of the Z-meister’s flunkies, an unctuous, thin-lipped grad student by the name of William Schwartz, had tapped him on the shoulder and pronounced, “No time for tuna, Gottleben. Rabbi Zeesberg wants you, now.” When Joey heard those portentous words, the sandwich became as dust and ashes in his mouth. He rose, dumped its remains in the garbage, mumbled a quick Grace after Meals to the God Whom, he assumed, protected rabbinical neophytes, and hurried off to his Appointment with Destiny.

Joey put his shoulder against the heavy brass-and-copper door. Its large black Gothic letters on a smoked-grey-glass background read, “Rabbinical Placement Office—Rabbi Efrem Zeesberg, Ph.D, Dean & Administrator.” He felt faint; his knees were weak, and small dots of perspiration bespangled his brow. The door groaned, as it had for generations of Holdheim students before him: Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here, it seemed to say.

When she saw the visitor, Mrs. Gladys Hockfleish, Zeesberg’s cronelike secretary of three decades, cocked a wary eye at Joey, and then smiled as far as her wizened lips would allow. She had just a bit of siren-red lipstick on her teeth.

“Dean Zeesberg is waiting for you, Mr. Gottleben,” she said.

Amazingly, Joey felt himself begin to breathe more easily: it was well-known among the students that Mrs. Hockfleish, as Dean Zeesberg’s Cerberus at the Gates of Gehenna, could give a hint as to the tenor of the meeting by her welcoming tone. She was known to have smiled enough to show her dentures perhaps once in a century, and then, only if a student fell dead on the rug in front of her desk. Perhaps things would go well, after all.

Joey opened the door to Dean Zeesberg’s inner sanctum; the Dean was on the phone. He would have closed the door and remained in the corridor, but Zeesberg waggled his fingers and impatiently waved him to a chair, not missing a beat in his phone conversation.

“Yes, well, tell him that it matters not at all to me about his father and grandfather both being longtime members of the Traditional Rabbis’ Conventicle. What the TRC doesn’t seem to realize is that this boy is a complete incompetent—at least, in my judgment.” He paused, listening to the voice at the other end. “No, no, I’m very sorry. That pulpit will certainly not go to him. It will go to a candidate of my choosing, and that is the Placement Committee’s—MY Committee’s—final word on the matter. Goodby—be well, shalom!” He hung the phone up with a decisive click, and turned to Joey, smiling broadly and showing a mouthful of gleaming, capped teeth.

Like a shark’s, thought Joey, and he trembled within.

“Well, Yossel—“ said the Dean, using Joey’s Hebrew name, “I am pleased that we are finally having this meeting. I hear such wonderful things about you from your professors.”

“Thank you, Dean Zeesberg,” said Joey quietly, looking into his lap, “I’ve been doing the best I can.”

“Don’t be so modest, Gottleben!” said the Dean. “Don’t pull that humble Moses act with me. It’s not often that I have students of your caliber in here. Indeed, it will be a pleasure to place you in your first position. I believe that you have a bright future ahead as an alumnus of Holdheim Seminary, and as a member, when the time comes, of the Traditional Rabbis’ Conventicle. And didn’t you fill out on your admissions application that you are leaning toward a pulpit rabbinate, rather than an academic position? A good idea, Gottleben, certainly. We have a great need of men like you in Traditional synagogues today, men who can resist this rising tide of—what do they call it?—post-denominational Judaism. And I believe that you have the skills and the savvy to do it. What would you say to an associateship in Boston, or Philadelphia? I have a few prospects here—“ The Dean began to shuffle through a Rolodex on his desktop.

“If it’s OK with you, Dean, please, I’ve changed my mind about a pulpit rabbinate—I think that teaching might be better for me—perhaps I could continue here at Holdheim, and go on for a Ph.D in Bible, or Jewish Education,” said Joey.

“Goodness—why is that, Gottleben? Why this sudden change of heart? I thought, based on my reading the reports of your student pulpit fieldwork, that you had a gift for outreach and lifecycle interaction with congregants, especially young families. Didn’t you perform a baby naming at Temple Rodeph Keseph just this past Shabbat?” queried the Dean. “Rabbi Stahl, the senior rabbi there, had nothing but praise for your performance.”

“Yes, it all went well,” said Joey, “Except for—the visions.”

“Visions? What visions?” asked the Dean. He leaned back in his tall maroon-leather office chair, steepled his fingertips, and looked down his long Roman nose at Joey.

“It happened when I was naming the girl baby,” whispered Joey, his voice starting to tremble. “Her English name was Samantha, and her parents, Kathy and Steven Koenig, had chosen Shimona, Hebrew for “God has heard us,” as her Hebrew name.”

“Very nice, Gottleben. A good name choice. And then, what happened?” asked the Dean. “I’m sure that you made plenty of opportunities for the family to take pictures, and the young parents were very happy. Did you wear a suit or a robe? A white robe goes well on these occasions, you know—makes a better impression; better in the pictures….”

“I borrowed a robe from a cantor friend—yes, it was going well; I said the proper blessings from my Rabbi’s Manual. But then, something happened. As I was standing with the family in front of the open Ark, with the Torahs and their silver breastplates all gleaming, and the family taking pictures, and the parents so proud—their first baby, and all—suddenly, with all the lights and reflections, I had a strange feeling; a chill went through me, from head to foot. And then, I felt dizzy—the room was spinning around—the people disappeared, and I was seeing something else. It happened when I was reciting “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”

The Dean was not a patient man, nor was he a trained psychologist; he was an administrator to the bone, and an organization man born-and-bred. And he had a busy day, with a full schedule of meetings, and that insufferable idiot cantor from Kansas City coming in just a half-hour, and he hadn’t eaten lunch yet—Zeesberg cast a surreptitious eye at his desk clock, and then returned it to the still figure seated before him, all hunched over and mumbling about visions. It was time to move things along, to get this young man into a place where he could do the Traditional Movement the most good.

“What sort of vision was it, Yossel?” he asked, as gently as he could, which wasn’t very.

“It was as though my eyes were closed, even though I can swear they were open. I—I could see flames, and hear a baby crying. I knew, I was certain, that there would be a fire in the Koenig home in the coming week, and that the baby would—would die. I saw it, but I couldn’t prove it, and I couldn’t warn them—they would think that I was crazy.”

“And what happened after that, Yossel?” asked the Dean, leaning forward on his elbows. The chair creaked. The clock ticked.

“That Sunday, I went home, back to the dormitory here,” said Joey, “It was late; I was tired—more tired than usual, for some reason, even though the baby-naming really hadn’t been such a big deal. I was hungry, and went to the snack machine in the dorm lobby to get a bag of chips, when I walked by the TV in the student lounge—the news was on. I saw that it was a report from Cullington, Connecticut, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s funny: that’s the town where the Koenigs and Baby Samantha live.’ Then, I saw flames on the TV screen: there had been a terrible fire in the Koenig home, and the parents, Kathy and Steve, were lucky to escape with their lives. I borrowed my friend Steve’s cell phone to call them up, to see if Baby Samantha was OK. But the baby was dead. They couldn’t save the baby—the baby—“ Joey began to sob.

The Dean came around his enormous mahogany desk and patted Joey on the shoulder.

“Yossel, there is no way that you could have warned those people. As you know, prophecy does exist in Judaism—Jeremiah, Isaiah, Moses especially—but Maimonides in the eleventh century tells us that the Age of Prophecy is over.”

“You don’t believe me. You don’t believe that I had a vision,” said Joey, raising his tear-streaked face to the Dean.

“Of course, Yossel, of course I believe you,” said the Dean, “But I don’t want you to blame yourself. These things happen—tragedies are part of life—but there is no way you could have prevented this one. And if you become a pulpit rabbi, you can comfort families going through crises. It’s all one of the satisfactions of the job. That’s why I want to get you started as soon as possible, under the tutelage of a seasoned senior rabbi who can coach you through occasional tragedies like this one. Let’s find you a pulpit!” He circled the desk and began to scroll through his Rolodex again.

“You don’t understand, Dean,” said Joey. “That wasn’t the only time it happened.”

“Tell me,” said the Dean, and he returned to his seat, leaning back again, and trying to stifle a yawn. How long was this nonsense going to go on? He felt drowsy; he picked up his Jewish-starred coffee mug, but it was empty. His stomach growled.

“We were supposed to get experience doing funerals,” said Joey. “I was out in New Jersey, taking information for a eulogy from a family that had lost their father, their grandfather. It was sad, but, after all, he had lived to be eighty-nine.

“I had all the information I needed—where he was born, how much school he had had, where he had served in World War II, even the names of the survivors, and the charity the family wanted donations sent to in his memory. I had borrowed my roommate’s car, and it was late; it was time for me to leave. I told them I would come back at 10 am the next day; the funeral was at noon. We and the funeral director figured that would be plenty of time. Everyone was sad about the death, but happy I was going to give the eulogy. Everything was going as well as you could expect, considering how sad a funeral is.”

“Very good, Yossel—that’s why I believe you’ll do a wonderful job as a pulpit rabbi! You’ve got the right stuff—the compassion and empathy to work with families in a crisis situation!” prodded Dean Zeesberg.

Let’s move this along, he thought.

“Well, yes—you could say that. One of the sons—his name was Mike--walked me to the car, and stood next to it while I unlocked the door. It was hard for me to get the key to work; I remember my roommate, Shimmy Feld, telling me the door needed some WD-40. Finally, after a lot of jiggling, I got the door open. I turned to shake the son’s hand one last time.

‘Thanks, Rabbi Gottleben,’ he said to me.

“Suddenly, a film came over my eyes—as though they were tearing. I figured it was because we had walked down a dark lawn in front of the house, and then into the street, where one of those big, bright arc lights was lighting up the entire neighborhood in that spooky way that they do. I looked at his face, my vision cleared, and—I almost screamed.”

Joey’s face had grown deathly pale, and he gripped the arms of his chair, as he leaned forward to stare directly into Dean Zeesberg’s face.

“I saw it—the way he looked,” Joey stammered.

“What did you see?” demanded Zeesberg.

Joey took a long while to reply, and, when he did, his voice was low, as though he was speaking from the bottom of a well: a voice of doom; the voice of a man who has looked death in the face, and wishes to see no more.

“Mike’s face was all torn and bloody, and the skin was ripped away from the bones. I could see his tongue poking through the sides of his mouth, and a huge tree branch—bark, leaves, wood--stuck into the top of his head. But the strange thing was, he just kept on talking, as though there were nothing wrong. Only, his voice, his voice—it was all hollow, and deathlike. He had no eyes at all; I could see through the sockets, clear back into his skull.”

“What did you do?” asked the Dean, beginning to wonder about Gottleben’s sanity.

“I—I couldn’t talk. I just jumped into the car and drove away, as fast as I could,” said Joey. He turned dreamily, and looked out the window. “And, wouldn’t you know it, what happened? As soon as I got back to the dorm, my roommate told me I had had a phone call. The family wanted to postpone the funeral. It seems as though the son, Mike, had had an accident—while he was walking back to the house, a tree branch had fallen, and pierced his skull, making him fall onto some rocks, which crushed him above the neck. I never saw him in death, but I didn’t have to. I know how he looked. I saw him. He talked to me.”

“Have you been in to speak to Dr. Rappaport, our staff psychologist, Yossel?” asked the Dean. “It might be a good idea. Have my secretary call his office before you go. Perhaps you’ve been working too hard. Perhaps you could use a rest—or some medication….”

“Don’t you believe me, Dean?” asked Joey, lifting his head. The Dean started; Joey’s eyes were dead and lifeless. Still, Dean Zeesberg was a practical man; he believed only in what he could taste, and smell, and feel, and swallow. This visionary thing was nonsense; it had to be. He felt the room growing hot, and reached behind him for the radiator valve below the tall window, which was stuck, as usual. All the plumbing in Holdheim dates back to the 1920’s, drat it! He thought.

“Perhaps you had better go, Gottleben,” he said, brusquely, looking at the clock again, openly now. “You need some rest. A leave of absence might be of help. I still believe that a pulpit rabbinate is the place for a young man of your talents.”

“Not academia?” asked Joey, forlornly, “Where I could do less damage?”

“Damage!” scoffed the Dean, “Nonsense. Go and lie down. We’ll speak more about this next week, when you’ve finished your exams. I absolutely refuse to let a wonderful student like you retreat into the book stacks when we need men like you in the pulpit. You may go. Lord, it’s hot in here—now, if I can just get this window open—“ He stood up, turned his back to Joey, put his hands under the jammed, ancient window frame, and bent forward, putting his full weight against the glass and wood.

Joey rose. “Thank you for your time, Dean Zeesberg,” he whispered, “Careful with that window.”

As he left, he felt a brief whisper of thought cross his line of vision: seeing the  jammed window break, and watching the shower of tinkling glass; hearing Efrem Zeesberg’s screams as the window-glass shattered, hurling his lanky form six full stories down the narrow airshaft, into the filthy alley between Holdheim Seminary and the back of Zunder’s Grocery, and breaking his neck against the WE-RE-CYCLE Dumpster. Joey had tried to warn him; but then, the Dean had not believed. 

Submitted: August 10, 2015

© Copyright 2022 diem. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:


Suzanne Bertussi

You've got my attention! Looking forward to seeing where this story goes.

Mon, August 10th, 2015 6:06am

Suzanne Bertussi

I just realized I'd selected flash fiction. The story is complete by itself, but could also be the beginning of a novel. I should have said I'll look forward reading more of your work.

Mon, August 10th, 2015 6:09am

Lionel Walfish

Beautifully written !

Great ending!

Wed, August 12th, 2015 10:59pm

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