Rabbi Ruben wore his long and difficult career on his face like so many cuts and bruises. He was a big man, tall in stature, large in the belly, and his thick gray beard was the length and color of a man in his late fifties. When the rabbi glanced at Gabriel, a potential future congregant, he had an intense look in his eye, like that of a diamond appraiser. The look was softened by another expression, an air that said the big man under the dark hat had a soul that was forgiving in its conclusions.

This rabbi would not allow Gabriel to remain anonymousGabriel was alone when he wandered into the small synagogue in Ramat David in the north of Israel wearing a Yankee baseball cap. He was not dressed for synagogue, but wore a typical American outfit of safari-colored shorts, a white t-shirt and sandals. It was still hot and humid in late September and Gabriel did not care to be uncomfortable. He was in his early sixties and had long ago stopped trying to impress strangers with clothes or money, preferring to remain anonymous while he traveled and gathered material for his books.

But this rabbi would not allow Gabriel to remain anonymous, stopping him on his way out after services.

"Are you alone?" the rabbi asked in perfect English.

Gabriel was hoping to walk past the imposing rabbi and disappear into the night, but the rabbi used his girth to block the doorway. When he saw the warmth that lay behind the brown eyes of his inquisitor, Gabriel relaxed and then shrugged.

"Yes, I am alone," Gabriel confessed.

"Why don't you join me in my sukkah?"

Gabriel gave in to the invitation, even though there were other places he would have preferred to go, one of which was a pleasant air-conditioned restaurant a few blocks away that served gourmet pasta and fine desserts, and wasn't fussy about Shabbat observance and kosher.

It was a clear night in Israel and the sky was filling up with stars. While they walked to his home, the rabbi plied Gabriel with questions. Yes, he was an American. No, he was not a businessman; he was a writer at the top of his career, which was almost the same thing. Yes, he had a family back in the States, and no, they were not religious. Yes, he was divorced, and no, he was not looking for a replacement. Yes, loved the Holy Land, but no, he did not want to live in Israel; America suited him just fine.

It was the third night of Sukkot, the holiday of the booths, and the rabbi's sukkah was large enough for twenty.

"My wife and seven children are visiting relatives in Kfar Adumim," he apologized to Gabriel. "So tonight I am alone, because I can not desert my congregation on Shabbat, although it appears my congregation has deserted me for their own sukkah's."

The rabbi said this with such humility that Gabriel found himself feeling sympathy for the large man beside him.

"Perhaps you would you like to wash up before dinner?" Rabbi Ruben asked, showing his guest to the restroom.

"Why are you being so nice to me?" Gabe askedWhile Gabriel took advantage of this host's hospitality, the Rabbi removed two loaves of fresh bread from the kitchen, a small bowl of honey, a bottle of wine, a bottle of vodka, and brought them out to the sukkah. He went back into the house and gathered a kiddush cup, silverware and plates, and brought his guest back to the sukkah along with them. The rabbi sat at the head of the long empty table, and Gabriel sat to his left. After the rabbi made kiddush over the wine, they both got up once again and went inside to perform the ritual washing of one's hands before eating bread.

"You would think it would be more efficient to wash our hands before sitting down," Gabriel complained under his breath.

"Yes, but there is efficient, and then there is holy. Sometimes we have to sacrifice greater efficiency for greater holiness," the rabbi answered. This response was met with a rolling of the eyes from Gabriel.

Rabbi Ruben and Gabriel returned silently to the sukkah, as was customary, and the rabbi uttered the prayer over the two challah loaves. He tore off a large piece of challah for himself, dipped it in honey and took a bite, and then he tore off another large piece for Gabriel and dipped it in the honey. Gabriel nodded when he tasted the homemade bread – it was delicious.

"My wife baked it before she left, along with enough food for a crowd, so I hope you brought your appetite with you, Gabriel."

"Please call me Gabe, Rabbi."

"If it pleases you, I will call you Gabe. Would you like to join me in a l'chaim [a toast] on vodka… Gabe?" the rabbi asked as he opened the bottle.

"Why not?" Gabriel said raising his empty cup. The rabbi filled his guest's cup.

"Whoa there, Rabbi!" Gabriel said. "I still have to drive back to my hotel."

"No, you will not have to drive back to your hotel. You will stay here, tonight, in our guest room."

"Why are you being so nice to me?" Gabe asked, regretting his accusatory tone as soon as the words were uttered.

"Because you are a Jew, and I am a Jew, and I am alone and you are alone, and you are a stranger. It is a mitzvah to show kindness to a stranger, as we were once strangers in the land of Egypt."

"And slaves, Rabbi."

"Yes, that too. I see you have studied our Torah."

"No, I have just listened to too many Passover seder's."

While Gabriel sipped on his vodka, the rabbi left the sukkah and returned with a tray that contained homemade gefilte fish and two bowls of soup. Both smelled wonderful and Gabriel remembered that he had not eaten since breakfast, and it was now 7PM in the Holy Land.

Sometimes a marriage involves compromise, no?" the rabbi asked "I think you will like the fish, Gabe. It is a recipe that goes back to my wife's mother. She is no longer with us, but her gefilte fish still is." The rabbi looked up and smiled when he said this. "Perhaps I should write down my recipe for the omelets I make for my family before the holidays. It might be my only chance at immortality, other than the children I leave behind."

Gabriel started tentatively on the homemade fish. After the first taste, it proved to be all the rabbi said it was, and more, so he set about finishing every part of it, except a few bones. The rabbi interrupted the silence to ask, "So what are you writing about in your book, Gabe?"

"I have been commissioned to write a book with lots of pictures so it can be placed on the coffee tables of wealthy Jews."

"And what is this picture book to be about?"

"It is about synagogues around the world, how Jews construct them, and then pray in them. I spent the last month traveling around America gathering material and photographs. I have planned to spend two weeks in Israel, followed by Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and a final stop in South America."

"You are used to such worldwide traveling?" the rabbi asked while he nodded his head.

"Yes. I think it was the reason my marriage ended. I liked to visit new places, and my wife preferred staying at home." Gabriel became sad after he answered.

"Sometimes a marriage involves compromise, no?" the rabbi asked.

"Sometimes happiness requires we do what we must do, even if it means doing it alone," Gabriel countered.

There was now a heaviness in the sukkah until the rabbi asked, "Do we pray any differently in Israel than in America?" While he waited for an answer, he helped himself to another portion of the fish. "Here, have another piece," he said, placing a large portion on Gabriel's plate without asking permission. Normally, Gabriel would have objected, but the fish tasted so delicious that he did not mind. It reminded him of his Bubbe's homemade fish from over a half-century ago. Finally, they moved on to the soup course, while they continued their discussion.

"Do we pray any differently in Israel than in America?""So far, the only difference I see," Gabriel said between spoonfuls, "is a greater intensity when the men pray here. There is less talking by the congregation and less pounding on the dais for quiet – but there is still pounding."

Rabbi Ruben smiled and nodded his head in agreement.

"Perhaps you will allow me now to ask a question, Rabbi?"

"Of course."

"How long have you been here in Israel? Your English is too good to have been born here."

The rabbi smiled. "I lived twenty-seven years in the United States, in Brooklyn, and the last thirty years in Israel. The first five years I lived in Safed, where I studied and obtained an Israeli rabbinical license. After that, I spent twenty-five years here in Ramat David as the chief rabbi."

"Why did you decide to come to Israel?"

"I did not decide to come to Israel. It was not my decision. I was sent to Israel by my Rebbe. He informed me and three others that if we wanted to go at all, we should leave within five days."

"What was the hurry?"

"Who knows? When a Rebbe says you must leave in five days, a chassid, a follower, does what his Rebbe says. I am such a chassid."

"So you are very obedient."

"When G‑d puts such a person on this earth, someone so holy, then yes, I listen to such a person. Even when my own choices are different, I obey."

Gabriel studied his host.

"Go ahead... ask," Rabbi Ruben commented.

"Though we may be two Jews, we are from two completely different worlds""I was wondering if we could speak honestly, or if we should just pass the time being friendly and happy. Though we may be two Jews, we are from two completely different worlds, like the salt and pepper shakers on your table."

"Who is the salt and who is the pepper?" the rabbi asked.

"Well, I am wearing white and you are wearing black," Gabriel answered.

The rabbi picked up his napkin and wiped his lips and the surrounding beard while he laughed at the joke. "You know, Sukkot is supposed to be a joyous time," he said. "G‑d commands us to be joyful. I have a feeling that there may be joy on the other side of your questions, Gabri-el, so go ahead … ask."

"That's Gabe, remember."

"No, I think I will be a little disobedient now, just to show you I am not some robot, and call you by your Hebrew name, Gabri-el," the rabbi said, splitting the name into two parts once again. "The root, the shoresh, 'Gaber,' means man, and 'el' means of G‑d. Therefore your name means 'man of G‑d,' and since we are in the Holy Land, and you have a holy name, then it is proper on this holy night that you should be addressed in this manner." The rabbi narrowed his eyes and then said, "Do you understand my answer?"


"I am granting you permission to ask any question you wish, Gabri-el, whatever questions you have, and I will answer them as truthfully as I am able. The truth and I are old friends, I can assure you."

Gabriel studied the rabbi and opened his mouth, but then shut it once again.

"Go ahead, ask," Rabbi Ruben repeated.

"Well, with your permission," Gabriel started, "I was wondering… if, well… you are happy being a rabbi?"

Rabbi Ruben burst out laughing, and it was such a contagious laugh that Gabriel joined in.

"Do I not look happy, Gabri-el?"

"No, Rabbi Ruben. Honestly, you don't."

"Are you going to answer my question with a question, Rabbi, or with an answer?""Well, then I will try to explain just how I feel… but first, before I answer such a complicated question, I will need more strength, so excuse me, Gabri-el, while I clear the table and bring the main course."

The rabbi took away their dishes, while Gabriel remained at the table, sipping the excellent vodka. Rabbi Ruben returned shortly with broiled chicken, sliced brisket, seasoned string beans, broiled potatoes in olive oil, and fried eggplant. He placed the serving platters on the table and then piled up a plate high with food for Gabriel.

"If you keep forcing me to eat like this, I will return to the states twenty pounds heavier," Gabriel said, patting his stomach.

"It is one night, one holy night, so why not elevate it with fine food and drink," the rabbi said, patting his midsection. "There is plenty of time to diet on the days that follow."

The rabbi sat down and both men charged into the food. Gabriel was not sure if it was the vodka, the night, or the Holy Land, but it was one of the finest meals he had ever eaten, and he had eaten in the best restaurants around the world. At one point, the rabbi caught Gabriel staring at him.

"So?" Gabriel asked.

"You still want to know if I am happy being a rabbi? I hoped the food would make you forget such a question."

"Not likely."

"Why would you ask me such a question?"

"Are you going to answer my question with a question, Rabbi, or with an answer?"

The rabbi smiled and laughed out loud, once again.

"I can see you are up to the tricks that we rabbis use when we are afraid an answer will upset someone. Okay, I will answer your question, I promise, with more truth than even you bargained for, but first you must answer me a question, Gabri-el."


"Are you happy being a Jew?"

Gabriel looked sternly at the rabbi and said, "My answer is this – being a Jew neither makes me happy, or unhappy. It carries no more importance to me than the color of my eyes."

The rabbi studied Gabriel and then shook his head.

"What?" Gabriel asked.

The rabbi studied Gabriel and then shook his head"Such a pity. At the very least I hoped being a Jew made you unhappy, but to have such little importance, almost none at all, well, that is a sin."

"A sin? Who says it is a sin?"

"I say it is a sin, and I, Rabbi Ruben, am the chief rabbi of Ramat David, a city of 10,000 people, and not just any people, but 10,000 Jewish people, and not just any Jewish people, but 10,000 Israeli Jewish people, and these people are the most difficult people to lead in the world. I am the chief religious leader of such a community and such a people, and when I say something is a sin, usually 9,999 of these 10,000 Israeli Jewish people disagree with me, because they believe they know better than their chief rabbi, even if they have studied one tenth of the time he has. However, there usually is one Jew, one blessed Jew, who agrees with me because he either did not understand the topic, or is too kind to doubt me."

With that, Rabbi Ruben burst into laughter, and Gabriel joined him. When they stopped laughing, Gabriel surmised:

"So you really don't like being a rabbi."

"I did not say that, my friend, Gabri-el."

At the mention of the word "friend" Gabriel winced.

"I am sixty-two years old, Rabbi Ruben, and I have learned that a man is not blessed with many true friends in this life. Am I really your friend, Rabbi, or just another guest you want to impress?"

"Yes, it is true I want to impress you, Gabri-el, so now I will do something that will least impress you."

The rabbi did something that shocked Gabriel, so unexpected, out of character, and without guile or deception it was. Rabbi Ruben began crying. Large, watery tears sprang from his eyes, streamed down along his cheeks, and became lost in his thick beard.

"You wonder why I am crying, and I will tell you, Gabri-el. I wanted to be a great leader, but instead I became a mediocre one… no, worse… I became a poor leader. I have brought very few people, people like you, back to G‑d's ways. And why is such a thing so important to me? Because I love G‑d's ways, and I know they will bring a full and satisfying life to a Jew that chooses His way, yet my talents are too limited to be able to transmit my love to others. So you see…" Gabriel cut the rabbi off.

"Rabbi Ruben, please, I am sorry. You do not have to answer any more of my impertinent questions. Let's change –"

"No, I want to finish answering your question, and I do not want you to interrupt me anymore. Do we understand each other, Gabri-el, man of G‑d?"

Gabriel stared back at the rabbi, not liking to be ordered around. But when he once again saw the tears streaming down the rabbi's face, tears he felt responsible for, his anger dissipated. He nodded back to the rabbi, and the rabbi continued.

"I was even nice when my people spat at me; they spat at the words of Torah I used, spat at my customs""A wise man once told me that the secret to being a good rabbi is to just be nice to people. So I have been nice. Very nice. I was even nice when my people spat at me; they spat at the words of Torah I used, spat at my customs, some even spat right in my face when I made a ruling that went against their one-sided sense of 'justice.' I wiped away their spit and continued. After all, I had my Rebbe, I had our Torah, and I had our G‑d, for comfort."

Rabbi Ruben took a long drink and drained his glass.

"I bit my tongue so much that it became stuck to my teeth," the rabbi continued. "I kept my judgments and opinions to myself unless asked, and even then, I judged gently, because I did not want to judge others harshly. I put on a happy face, told jokes and funny stories, trying to bring joy into lives that resisted joy … even resented joy … some even hated joy. Through it all, I remained pure in my beliefs, without ever forcing my beliefs on others. No, I wanted to teach the most difficult, yet most rewarding way, by example. I waited for others to follow that example. I have been patient, waiting, waiting, and then waiting some more. And when I felt I could not wait another minute, I waited another minute, then two, then five, and then an hour, and then a day, a week, a year, until it added up to twenty-five years. And I am prepared to wait another twenty-five years, G‑d willing."

Rabbi Ruben stopped in mid-sentence and looked to Gabriel.

"And until then, you will be unhappy," Gabriel surmised.

"Unhappy? Gabri-el, each day I look in the mirror and I see a failure, a man who loves being Jewish too much, and cannot pass that love along. Instead, I see a man who passes along cold teachings, tepid blessings, and empty sermons. I see a mentsch who can not transmit even one percent of the love he feels in his heart for our G‑d, and for G‑d's blessing of Torah. And I see a chassid who has failed his Rebbe."

The rabbi filled their glasses once again.

"Tell me, Gabri-el, have you ever loved someone or something that much?"


Tell me, my friend, Gabri-el. Would you like to learn some of what I love?Gabriel felt himself losing control then. His eyes burned, and suddenly, tears were streaming down his clean-shaven cheeks. He did not hide his tears, like he was taught to do as a boy.

"Tell me, my friend, Gabri-el. Would you like to learn some of what I love? Do you think that on this holy night, you could indulge me a little time to teach you something… just a little something?" the rabbi pleaded.

"Yes," Gabriel answered.

When Rabbi Ruben passed from this world, the entire community of Ramat David attended his funeral, every one on them, and in some cases, three generations. At first there was great sadness, but upon the telling of anecdotes by the congregants who knew him best, there was laughter and joy.

There were also hundreds who came from other parts of Israel, Jews who, after learning with the rabbi, became more observant. When Gabriel interviewed them, he discovered the rabbi told each of them the same story he told Gabriel, and used the same tears to ease them onto their return to G‑d's ways.

Gabriel recorded it all, along with pictures, because something very precious had been taken away and needed to be preserved – a friend, and a teacher.