the SOCIETY FOR THE BETTERMENT OF MANKIND

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I got to be Dave's girlfriend by default. I mean, he would not waste his time with a woman in a million years. His greatest regret is that he wasn't born Jewish and he's dedicated his life to becoming the first Gentile rabbi. But since I hang around him, everyone thinks we're a couple.

We met in our Principles of Theology class. There's no assigned seating in the sloping lecture hall, so after half a semester of sitting behind him and not being able to concentrate, I decided to make the bold move of taking the seat next to him.

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the SOCIETY FOR THE BETTERMENT OF MANKIND

Submitted: July 25, 2009

I got to be Dave's girlfriend by default. I mean, he would not waste his time with a woman in a million years. His greatest regret is that he wasn't born Jewish and he's dedicated his life to becoming the first Gentile rabbi. But since I hang around him, everyone thinks we're a couple.

We met in our Principles of Theology class. There's no assigned seating in the sloping lecture hall, so after half a semester of sitting behind him and not being able to concentrate, I decided to make the bold move of taking the seat next to him.

I don't think he noticed me for the first week since the topic was the Hebrew and Greek names for God and he took pages and pages of notes. Finally, one day after class, I just turned to him and said hi.

Then we started talking after every class about whatever had been discussed in the lecture although, granted, he did most of the speaking since he was the one who had the opinions.

Sometimes I honestly think he just likes me for my name, Ellen Waller, since El is one of those names for God. (That's his blasphemous streak, though, because the ancient Hebrews were terrified to even say the name of God never mind casually calling their friends "Lord", even in jest.)

Right now, in Principles of Theology II, we're in the book of Leviticus covering the ritual sacrifices and I'm getting nothing out of it but Dave loves it. He takes notes with a fanatical glint in his eyes as if he's on the verge of building an alter right there, slaughtering a goat, and making an offering.

"Hey Dave!" I slip into the seat beside him.

"El," he looks up briefly from his leather-bound Bible.

"Whatcha doing?"

"Seeing how many sacrifices Joshua offered."

"Good," I nod. I've learned to take everything Dave says as casually as if it's a comment about the weather.

"I was reading more about the sacrificial system last night in the library," says Dave. "I really don't think we're covering it adequately in class."

"But why even worry about it," I say. "We don't have to make animal sacrifices anymore because Christ is our ultimate sacrifice."

I'm rocking the boat, I know. Dave lives and breathes the Old Testament. But I've got to let him know I'm capable of analytical thought.

"I'm going to do a study into my genealogy." He hasn't even heard me he's so busy flipping through his Bible. "I'm sure I've got Levitical blood."

I almost paraphrase the apostle Paul, "Don't waste your time with vain genealogies." Waste your time with me.

After class I ask him what he's doing this weekend.

"Probably working on my bike," he says. His motorcycle is his only interest outside of theology.

"Really?" I project maximum enthusiasm and interest into the word.

"Yeah, I've got to replace the shocks." Dave is carefully putting his Bible into his Mediterranean satchel. An import from the Holy Land.

"Wow, that sounds like fun." Not an ounce of sarcasm in my voice.

"Wanna help?" he says.

"Yeah, I'd love to."

"How about Sunday afternoon? I'll be in the parking lot."

Dave keeps the Sabbath instead of Sunday so he's never free on Saturday.

"Maybe we can go for a ride too." This comment of his own free volition. It gives me hope.

"Shabbat Shalom," I say getting up to go to my next class. Dave deliberately didn't schedule any classes for Friday afternoon so that he could prepare for the Sabbath.

"Hey El!" he says. "Yeah?" I turn back.

"Ummm, I need a woman."

My heart hurdles.

"It's like, I haven't been keeping the Sabbath properly because I don't have a woman to light the candles."

Why should I have thought it would have been anything else?

"You want me to light candles?" I say.

"Yeah."

"OK," I say. "When should I come over?"

"Sun sets at 6:32 and it's got to be done eighteen minutes before sundown. Come over at 6:00."

I exit the lecture hall and make my way across the common, my heart pounding, a dazed but happy look on my face.

The common is a rose brick piazza with white metal tables and chairs and it reminds me of something you might see in the middle of an Italian village. On a reasonably warm day like today, students outnumber the ants ten-to-one, most of them with tons of books that remain unopened while they catch up on their quota of social interaction.

The majority of students at Union are business majors, and even before I met Dave I was never much into business, so consequently when I look around I only know one girl who was a roommate my freshman year. I slip on my sunglasses to avoid eye-contact with anyone and head for my next class.

At dinner I see Dave in the dining hall sitting surrounded by girls, all staring at him and laughing everytime he says something funny. He's got quite the following mainly because of his wavy blond hair and his theological intensity that's often taken personally by women looking for a sign that he likes them.

I'm at my worst when he's with other girls so I go and sit with Ted Stevents, who rumour has it, likes me. It's reassuring to talk to someone who treats every word I say as revealed knowledge.

After dinner I go back to the dorm and to the reasonably messy room that I share with Judith, my roommate and best friend, who is a jazz fanatic and composes music for the piano. Every morning we wake up to the radio set on a jazz station and for the rest of the day I've got Wynton Marsalis's trumpet solos running through my head. To add to the impact, she has a life-sized poster of Harry Connick Jr. on her side of the room.

I've never kept a Sabbath before so I don't know what to wear and Judith walks in when I'm trying on the tenth outfit.

"Where're you going?" she says.

"To keep the Sabbath."

"Oh." She understands my unorthodox relationship with Dave.

"What are you doing tonight?" I ask.

"Tom and I are going to a movie." She says it as if Tom is taking her to watch pigs mud-wrestle.

"What's the matter?" I ask. I've finally settled on a navy blue sweater and a black skirt.

"I dunno," she says listlessly. "It's like there are so many other things we could do."

I run a brush through my long brown hair. Judith and I are often mistaken for sisters, with our dark hair and pale skin.

"What do you want to do?"

"I want to go to New Orleans."

We're in Ontario.

When I arrive at his dorm, Dave has set up two candles in the lounge and is wearing a muted woven shirt that makes me think of an Israeli shepherd boy.

"So what do Jews do when there are no women to light the candles," I say.

"Oh, a man can light a candle. But it's better if a woman does it. More traditional."

I'm wondering why it's taken him this long to ask me. But Dave's not a man who operates on an obvious schedule. Other couples start going out and after a couple of months are doing everything together. Dave, he sort of moves according to the Spirit.

"Do you have something for your head?" he asks.

"What?"

"Your head has to be covered. Just a sec." He disappears through the door into the bedroom and comes back with a bandanna. "Here. Use this."

He looks at his watch.

"OK. We've got ten minutes. When I tell you, you're going to light the candles and then say, `Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.'"

"What?!"

"It means Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us in His commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath light."

"How'm I going to remember all that?" I say.

"I think I've got it written down somewhere." He opens a messy notebook that has been sitting on the floor and starts pushing papers around.

"Here." He hands me a torn half-sheet of paper that has Hebrew writing and the translation.

At exactly 6:14, Dave gives me a box of matches and we both stand up. Since I'm the type of person who has difficulty starting a fire with a woodpile and container of kerosene, it isn't until 6:15 and after four matches that the candles are lit.

"Baruch Ata Adonai," I read.

"Wave your hands," Dave interrupts me.

I look blank.

"Wave your hands over the candles."

"Elohenu Melech ha-olam," I say, trying to read and move my hands at the same time. I nearly set the piece of paper on fire.

"Asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat."

"OK, cover your eyes with your hands, then uncover them and look at the candles."

I cover my eyes, then uncover them.

"Amen," says Dave.

"Amen," I say.

For some reason we stay standing. The solemnity of the ceremony is over, I sense, so I ask a question I've been wondering about for awhile.

"Hey, Dave," I say. "What do you think of traditional Christianity?" If your boyfriend were an accountant this would be a weird question, but you've got to understand that Dave thrives on this type of thing.

"There's a lot of people with a lot of questions," he says nodding his head as if, yes, that's a valid inquiry. "It satisfies some people."

"Would it satisfy you?"

"Probably not." He smiles. "Too much New Testament."

"Why don't you believe the New Testament?"

"It's not that I don't believe it," he says sitting down on one of the orange and brown fabric couches. The men's dorms are decorated in virile earth tones and the rugged wood and tweedy furniture gives you the feeling of being in a hunting lodge. "I'm sure there was a man named Jesus. It's just that I don't discard the Old Testament. I like Judaism. I like the Jews. I like their conviction and their endurance. Judaism is a lifestyle. Maybe if Christianity were more of a lifestyle it would appeal to me."

Sitting down beside him I think about this because obviously Christianity can be a lifestyle. All you have to do is pick up a Baptist Bulletin or Campus Life to see that. Judaism must have been a calling for Dave otherwise I don't understand his total commitment.

Loving Dave is not a matter of impressing him with my strong convictions -- of which I seem to have none since all I have is journalism which is something I do, not feel -- it's a matter of trying to keep up with him. If anything, my commitment is to love boldly and to never regret it.

"Listen, Dave."

"Yeah?"

"Do you like me?" This question takes more courage to ask than you will ever know.

"Of course."

"No, I mean, do you like me? You could get anyone to light candles for you. Why'd you ask me?"

"`Cos I thought you'd want to do it."

"But am I important to you? Do you love me?"

"Sure I love you," says Dave sincerely, putting his arm around me. "You're my neighbour, aren't you?"

I sigh. I have an idea for the Almighty suggestion box. Make love feel good.


Hadassah Kaufman is sitting Indian-style on the faded blue-carpeted floor amidst rows and rows of books. She's supposed to be working. In fact, when she applied for the job in the library and her supervisor asked her what her greatest weakness was, she replied, "I'm a budding workaholic." What she didn't bother to mention was that she was only a workaholic when the work interested her. Today she's supposed to be working on reference questions and searching out the answer to how many urban Peruvian men die of cancer each year doesn't interest her.

There's a rush of air behind her, a whiff of cologne, and she feels the back of her neck being kissed.

"Stop it!" she says turning to Eddie Prince who's crouched down behind her. "I took a vow of chastity."

"To who?"

"To myself."

She pushes him away with one hand as he tries to kiss her again, her eyes still on her book.

"What're you reading?"

"A History of Jews in Christian Society."

"But you want to be a nun." He stands up -- an instant giant from Hadassah's vantage point.

He's very attractive, thinks Hadassah as she looks up at him. Reminds her of Peter. Maybe that's why she enjoys torturing him so much.

"I know, but I'm still Jewish."

Eddie sighs and randomly picks a faded, yellow-covered book off the shelf called The Blue Room Murder.

"You have a major identity problem," he says.

"So?"

Eddie returns the dusty book to the shelf.

"Doesn't that ever bother you?" He stares down at her.

"Of course it does. But so does knowing that, as we speak, people are killing each other in Afghanistan."

Eddie keeps staring at her. It's his way of trying to make her feel uncomfortable, as if she has said something that was logically-flawed. He admitted this to her once.

"Do you know what this is?" she says. "If this were a movie, it would called: The Library: A Story of Mad Passion Amidst the Volumes of Waugh, Wilde, and Woolf, Not to Mention, an Extensive Collection of Outdated Light Fiction."

"You're too postmodern," says Eddie, abandoning the staring strategy. "You know you're going to get fired if you don't do anything."

"Is there a law of physics for that?" she asks, getting up with her book. Eddie is taking a physics class that he hates. "Like the rate at which one works is directly proportional to an employer's vested interest when all the variables are consistent?" She's walking through the aisles of books with Eddie behind her.

"Actually, I think it's more Biblical," replies Eddie. "I'm sure there's a parable about a lazy seed sower."

"I'm sorry, I wouldn't know, that sounds New Testament to me." She is deliberately being difficult. She knows the New Testament better than the Old.

"But you want to be a Catholic nun!"

"I want to be a Jewish nun," she corrects him.

Hadassah's story, if it had a name, would have been called Breakfast By the Sea, a heading she had seen in a New King James New Testament.

The ocean, Hadassah had thought when she was sixteen, was quite sufficient. If she could live in a convent by the endless waters she would be infinitely content.

Peter Cairns agreed. When it came time to join a monastery, he wanted to be by the ocean that he had been raised near.

Hadassah and Peter had met at high school in their small eastern Nova Scotia town and had been drawn together by a mutual need to commit to a force greater than themselves. It would not be enough, Hadassah felt, to lay down her life for a suburban brick house with an adjoining garage that held a Toyota mini-van and a brood of children to fill them all with. She needed to be clutching a crucifix and dedicating herself to hours of prayers, offering her virgin body as a sacrifice to God. Any earthly desire she had, she squelched. She loved Peter with a Godly love and told herself it was not his wavy black hair or emerald green eyes that was so enticing, but his pure soul.

For his part, Peter was not taken by Hadassah's long chestnut-brown hair or creamy skin, but by her deep convictions.

Their carnal school-mates took it as a given that they were a fleshly couple. After all, they had been best friends since ninth grade and they were still together now in their final year of high school. The truth be known, Peter had only held Hadassah's hand when they were manoeuvring the craggy rocks of the Nova Scotian beach that they liked to meditate by.

"God being love," said Peter one day, as they were seated, leaning against a large rock facing the water, "would imply that if God is omnipotent and omnipresent, so is love."

"So do you think that there's love in the ocean?" asked Hadassah leaning forward.

"Yes, I do, because it doesn't swallow up the shore. I believe that it was love that shaped the earth."

Hadassah wrinkled her forehead.

"That's pretty powerful."

"In fact, Hadassah..." Peter was really getting into his point. "It's love that bridges the physical and the spiritual and will help us to understand the mind of God."

Both leaned back, taken by the depth of this new thought. In addition to bodily sacrifice, both were fervently dedicated to understanding the mind of God.

"But how do you love with that kind of love?" asked Hadassah.

"You act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly," replied Peter. "We're human and we look at love from a human standpoint. But God looks at love from a spiritual standpoint. He's interested in whether we love Him enough to follow what He says."

"It's as simple as that? Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly?"

"What more could God want?"

"It's times like this that I feel in harmony," said Hadassah leaning her head back against the rock. "There is nothing negative in me, only peace."

If they didn't go to the ocean, Peter and Hadassah spent many hours at one of the red-and-white checkered tables in Hadassah's uncle's small seafood restaurant, drinking Darjeeling tea, doing homework, and talking.

"When are you going to try to get into the monastery?" asked Hadassah one day after they had finished a series of complicated matrix problems and were eager to think about something else.

"When I turn twenty," he said, leaning back so that the armless red vinyl chair was perilously propped on only two metal legs.

They were both seventeen.

"I'd like to travel a bit first."

"I'm wondering if I should join a convent as soon as I graduate," said Hadassah thoughtfully. "I want to remain as unworldly as possible."

"Are you afraid of temptation, Hadassah?" asked Peter, smiling.

"No, I just want to be perfect."

"But is your perfection worth much if it hasn't been tested?"

Hadassah contemplated this. Certainly perfection was worth more if it could stand up to carnality and the baser side of man.

"Christ was perfect and He lived in the world," said Peter.

"OK, I can see that," said Hadassah running her fingers around the edge of her teacup. "But how do I test my perfection?"

"You don't," said Peter. "You let God test it."

That night, kneeling by her wooden-framed bed, hands clasped on her white cotton crocheted blanket, Hadassah prayed that God would test her perfection. She figured that once it had been proven that she was strong she could get on with her life and devote herself to her prayers.

"Listen," said Peter, the next day after school. "I read about a monastery that's about 50 kilometres east of here and we can get to it by bus. Do you want to check it out tomorrow?"

"Sure," said Hadassah. She had never actually been to a monastery, only once to a convent when she was little.

The next morning Peter and Hadassah boarded the Greyhound bus that would take them to Fine Point, Nova Scotia. Hadassah had packed some food so that they could eat on the way and not waste valuable time looking for a lunch spot once they had arrived.

Peter described the convent as he had read about it. Then, since they both agreed they were hungry, they pulled out the food. Although Peter and Hadassah had lunch together everyday in the high school cafeteria, Hadassah had never actually noticed the way Peter ate before. They had always been divided by a wide chestnut wood- imitation table and distracted by the din of a busy lunchroom. Now they were side-by-side, and Hadassah found herself really noticing Peter for the first time.

"Oops!" Peter dribbled mustard down his chin and they both giggled as he wiped it off with his fingers until Hadassah could find a serviette.

After the sandwiches, he pulled out one of the passion fruit juices, twisted off the cap, tossed back his head and downed half of the bottle.

"His neck moves when he drinks," thought Hadassah and suddenly she felt warm, almost feverish.

"Could you open the window? I feel strange," she said.

"Oh sure," Peter replied. "Here, do you want to sit by the window?"

As they were trading places, their bodies were forced against each other and a strained look appeared on Hadassah's face. She hung her head out the window until she began to feel a bit cooler. She also had to cross her leg towards the window so that her thigh didn't touch Peter's. Peter didn't seem to notice her condensed body position as he was involved with his guide book to the region around Fine Point.

When they arrived and disembarked from the bus, Hadassah was very happy to be able to move freely again and to feel the cool air on her body. The scenery in the distance was ruggedly hilly and the town in the foreground was a well-kept main street of a couple of white wooden stores and a church by the waterside.

"Excuse me," said Peter to an elderly lady about to go inside one of the Puritan buildings. "How do we get to the monastery?"

"Just follow the coast about two miles in that direction," she pointed.

As soon as they were passed the main street, the only way up the coast was a three-foot wide footpath precariously close to the water's edge. As they continued to walk along the tree-lined path, it became apparent they were going up, and what had initially been only about a two-foot drop to the water was becoming somewhat of a cliff.

Knowing that Hadassah was prone to vertigo, Peter took her hand. Hadassah started to feel dizzy anyhow.

"Don't be silly," she told herself. Peter was on the side of the cliff and she barely noticed the edge if she just concentrated on the path. Then she became aware that the dizziness wasn't originating in her head. It was coming from the right hand that was clutching Peter's and it was slowly spreading throughout her entire body.

"Let's talk!" she blurted out suddenly.

"What?" he sounded startled. They had been walking along in comfortable silence for the last twenty minutes.

"I mean, I think it's great that we're going to actually see this monastery," she said. "I mean, this is what you've always wanted and here we are going to look at it."

"You know Hadassah, I'm wondering if there aren't other ways to serve God?"

"What?" she said. She almost stopped walking. "You mean, like not in a monastery?"

"Yeah, I mean, you can pray and stuff. But how can you really help other people?"

The look of panic on Hadassah's face caused him to slightly retract.

"Oh, I'm not saying I'm not going to enter a monastery. I've just been thinking about the many ways that you can live to please God. That's all."

"But to devote your life to God as a living sacrifice must be the most pleasing to him," said Hadassah.

"I don't know. I mean, traditionally, sure. But what good is it to have the love of God and not to do something with it?"

"But you are doing something with it. You're giving it back to God."

"Yeah, but God must have made human beings for a reason. Not everyone can go into a convent or a monastery so there must be other ways to please him."

"Like what?"

"Oh, I don't know. Missionary work?" He laughed and then seeing the expression on Hadassah's face looked serious again.

"Don't worry," he said squeezing her hand. "We're still going to look at a monastery today, remember?"

Something inside of Hadassah was ripping apart.

"Why am I panicking?" she thought. "Why am I panicking? I'm still going into a convent. I'm still going to worship God. It doesn't matter what Peter does."

The monastery was standing placidly at the highest point on the cliffs.

"Just a little bit more to go," said Peter. They had come out of the trees and were now in a grassy area. The footpath had disappeared and it was a matter of trudging up the hill. Peter let go of her hand.

Fifteen minutes later they stood at the front doors of a large but simple square stone building which disappointed Hadassah who had been expecting more of a castle or a fortress. They rang the doorbell and waited.

A greying middle-aged man wearing a long dark robe answered.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"Uh, yeah," said Peter. "Can my friend and I have a look around? I'm planning on joining a monastery someday and I was thinking about this one."

The man looked at Hadassah pointedly.

"She's going to join a convent," said Peter.

"This isn't a convent," said the man.

"Yes, I know," said Peter.

"You can come through. I'm afraid your friend will have to go around and meet you in the back."

Peter looked annoyed.

"Is that OK?" he asked turning to Hadassah.

"Oh that's fine," she said. She desperately wanted Peter to be able to get inside and feel the spiritual fulfilment that no doubt must permeate the walls of the building.

"I'll just walk around."

The door closed behind Peter and the man. Hadassah started around the building. There was no path, as it was quite apparent that most people did not bring their female friends along to the monastery. The grass was tall and Hadassah couldn't help but notice that there were no flowers or shrubbery. She wondered whether the men ever came outside to appreciate the scenery.

Behind the building Hadassah climbed up some decaying wooden steps onto a small patio that overlooked the water and had a stunning view of the curving coastline. She could see Fine Point and if she looked hard enough, she thought she could see the town that she and Peter lived in.

The back of the building was deserted and Hadassah wondered how the men could stand to stay inside on such a beautiful day. There were windows on the back wall, but most of the curtains were drawn. Something inside Hadassah was twinging. Yes, this was a monastery, but it didn't feel like a monastery. She had expected cobblestone paths and men in brown, hooded robes walking along in lines to mass with some Gregorian chants in the background, maybe bells pealing in the distance to announce prayer time. She expected to feel a holiness in the air, but all she felt was a slight shiver from the brisk sea air.

After about fifteen minutes, Peter emerged through the single back door without the man.

He smiled when he saw her.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," he said. "You wouldn't believe the number of rooms in that one building."

"Rooms for what?"

Peter stepped up onto the patio and joined her by the rail.

"Mostly study rooms. Bedrooms, of course. A small library."

"What do people do?"

"All the men I saw were studying."

"Do they pray?"

"Yes, they have prayer rooms."

"Is it like a chapel?"

"Oh, no. It's nothing like the movies where the monks have an ancient cathedral with stain glass and a choir. They just have little rooms where they can say their prayers."

"That seems kind of..." Hadassah didn't want to say, "disappointing".

"Yeah." Peter understood. "You've got to really be committed to just studying and not doing much else."

Suddenly Hadassah realized that whenever she thought about a convent, she always pictured the one in The Sound of Music. That's what was wrong with this place. It had the hills, but it didn't have anyone running out into the fields to sing at the top of his or her lungs. She had a tight feeling in her chest that she felt could only be relieved by a good cry or a piercing scream.

"Oh God," she said holding her head.

"What?" said Peter, sounding concerned.

She started breathing more rapidly and her body started shaking.

"Oh God," she said again running a cold hand through her hair.

"What?" Peter put his arm around her. She pushed him away and started to run. Flying around the building, she kept going until she was running as hard as she could through the fields in front of the monastery. She kept going until finally she just collapsed on the ground. Peter, who had only been a few feet behind her, was going too fast to stop, tripped, and fell beside her. He reached out his arms and before she knew she was crying on his chest.

"Oh Peter! Oh Peter! This isn't at all what I expected!"

"I know! I know! It's OK!"

He let her cry until there was nothing left inside and they could get up and go home.




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