After several rejections, he applies for the position of rabbi at a temple in Central-Bella. The congregation is hesitant. Flowers is young and arguably unconventional. Even so, they decide to give him a chance, despite varied opinions in regard to his "modern ways." Once on the job, Rabbi Flowers realizes military service was easy; his time at war barely compares with the ins and outs of a Jewish congregation, torn between past and present policies.
Even within the temple environment, people are still just people. There are arguments, affairs, and scandals, even within the guidance of God's law. The rabbi's values are put to the test as he fights to keep Central-Bella from falling apart. Even he is still just a man, but with the aid of the Lord, he might have a fighting chance to bring peace to the temple and to his own questioning mind.
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Read an Excerpt
The Affairs of Rabbi Flowers
An Intimate Look into Clergy-Congregant Relations A Novel
By Ted Pailet
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Ted Pailet
All rights reserved.
Three hundred congregants huddled inside the 250-pew sanctuary. Some had been sitting there half an hour or more; their loud chitter-chatter reverberated excitedly. Precisely at the announced time, the door to the right of the ark opened. Instantly—abrupt silence and all stood. The four scheduled to participate in the service walked solemnly out onto the pulpit in a single file: Jacob Berlin, Dorothy May Rosenwall, and Rabbi Conrad B. Flowers, followed by Alvin Lansky, who closed the door behind them. The first three stood in front of their assigned chairs. Lansky headed straight to the podium and said softly into the microphone, "Please be seated." Everyone sat down, some on folding chairs. Lansky led the service and sang the prayers, accompanying himself and the choir on the old pipe organ, just as he had been doing for the past several years.
Dorothy May Rosenwall, vice president of the temple, approached the podium immediately after the Mourner's Kaddish (the prayer that praises God in memory of the deceased). She introduced Rabbi Flowers by reading the biography he prepared at their request. The thirty-year-old rabbi, after thanking Mrs. Rosenwall for the gracious introduction, delivered his sermon. He never looked down at his notes; instead, he methodically scanned the audience, making eye contact with each individual.
Immediately following the sermon, Jake Berlin, the president of the congregation, wearing his customary double-breasted navy blazer, light gray slacks, rep tie, and cowboy boots, swaggered up to the podium. With his lips too close to the microphone, in a strong authoritative voice, he began, "Welcome to Central-Bella, Rabbi, and thanks for your interesting sermon.
"Okay now, everybody, after the closing prayer, which I'm asking Rabbi Flowers to deliver instead of Alvin; I want all of you to come to Sophie's for a cocktail supper and to meet the rabbi. See you there. Rabbi?"
The young rabbi was taken aback at being asked to deliver the closing prayer out of the blue. Nevertheless, he ad-libbed a touching prayer and even sang a familiar closing hymn, a cappella. The women and most of the men in the audience were fascinated. After regaining their composure, the congregants wished each other a good Shabbas (Sabbath), hugged and kissed whoever was near them, then hurried to their cars, vans, and pickup trucks, and then drove off to Sophie's.
Rabbi Flowers was physically impressive, but at the same time, his appearance was disturbing to some. At five feet ten inches tall, 168 pounds, and with an erect posture, he looked like the wholesome jogger he was. Clean shaven, he had a head of thick black hair, large blue eyes, long lashes, and a slight cleft in the middle of his chin. His clothes, however, detracted from his appearance. Frugal by nature, he saved his money rather than spending it on himself, which made his clothes look unkempt and shabby; the seat of his trousers was shiny. His speaking voice added to the distraction. The professors at the New World Rabbinic Seminary (NWRS) criticized his high-pitched southern accent as being unrabbinical. They had him put marbles in his mouth and read passages as loud as he could. This forced him to bring his voice from deep in his throat. The exercise lowered the pitch of his delivery. Since then, he carried marbles with him and practiced frequently (provided no one else was close by).
This was the rabbi's third on-site interview since being discharged from the navy. In all, he had answered twelve "Rabbi Wanted" ads. Five congregations rejected him because he was not a member of the North American Universal Rabbinic Association (NAURA). Two rejected him after telephone interviews, and two did not even respond to his applications. Quite obviously, he did not interview well. His first interview was to succeed an assistant rabbi at a large, affluent congregation located in the Northeast. The interview was a disaster. The search committee showed no mercy on him during their interrogation. He answered their probing questions honestly; Conrad Flowers knew no other way. The senior rabbi of the congregation sat in on the interview for the first ten minutes, and then he left. The second interview was for a professorship to teach comparative religion at a university in the Great Lakes region. He showed no enthusiasm about that position. No matter, he received a courteous rejection form letter by mail only three days after the interview.
Rabbi Flowers hated the rejections. He would mope and stay awake at night, trying to analyze what he did wrong. It made no difference to him that there was an overabundance of rabbis looking for placement at this time; someone other than him was selected.
The former navy lieutenant had saved a nice nest egg during his two years of active duty, so he did not actually fear running out of funds anytime soon, but he knew he had to find a position before long. The last thing in the world he wanted was to go back to Mobile and work for his father's wholesale produce business.
* * *
Jake Berlin lived in a two-story, lavishly renovated, six-columned, two-story antebellum manor house. His late wife, Sophie, had spent three weeks in Europe with her interior designer, selecting the furnishings and decorations: period European antiques, Venetian crystal sconces and chandeliers, nineteenth-century oil paintings, and oriental rugs. Colorful gardens and one-hundred-year-old oak trees surrounded the mansion, which was situated on a knoll in the center of fifty manicured acres. The swimming pool was heated and the tennis court, lit. He referred to his home as "Sophie's." That was his way of memorializing his late wife, who had died seven years ago. He lived there with Tracy, his adopted nineteen-year-old daughter. A staff of eight ran Sophie's: Mamie the housekeeper, Bertha the cook, Annie the assistant cook/laundress, Shirley the upstairs maid, Mattie the downstairs maid, and three men. Jake referred to them as "my boys": Jordan, Ray, and Jefferson. His boys kept the grounds and the gardens; they parked the cars; they bartended and served as waiters. On a regular schedule, Jake sent his boys to the temple to do the landscaping and janitorial service. All the staff wore uniforms with "Sophie's" embroidered across from the left breast pocket.
Jake had never before invited the entire temple membership to Sophie's. Naturally, they all came, not only to meet the man who was applying to become the first full-time rabbi of the temple, but also to see the interior of Sophie's. There was a lot of oohing and "Would you look at that!"
At the reception, some of the members roamed around, just looking. Some went straight to one of the several bars. Others went to the food stations and filled their plates. Some surrounded Rabbi Flowers and asked him questions, and he patiently answered each one.
"Yes, sir, I did answer one of the temple's 'Rabbi Wanted' advertisements."
"Ma'am, this is only my third on-site interview; I haven't had a chance to make up my mind yet."
"Yes, sir, my navy assignment was extremely rewarding. I am proud to have served my country."
"Yes please, Jordan, I'll have a Jack Daniel's and soda."
"No, sir, I didn't see combat; I served as a hospital chaplain."
"Yes, sir, I would have gone to Vietnam if ordered."
"No, sir, I did not volunteer."
"Thank you, Jordan."
"No, ma'am, this would be my first congregational pulpit."
"No, ma'am, I have a longtime girlfriend, Dinah Abrams, but we are not engaged."
"Yes, Jordan, I would love a refill."
Other members had different comments.
"I know several beautiful young women who would love to meet you.
Just let me know if you are interested. My name is Sadie Wise; here's my card."
"I understand you were born and raised in Mobile, Alabama. I have a niece who married a young dentist in Selma, Alabama."
"I bet your parents are proud of you. Are they from the Deep South, also?"
"To tell you the truth, I didn't realize there were Jewish people in the Deep South, much less a rabbi."
Rabbi Flowers continued listening and answering.
"Rabbi, I really enjoyed your sermon tonight. It was so appropriate for the occasion. I never realized there was so much to the Ten Commandments."
"Sir, I appreciate your saying that. My goal is to inspire and, hopefully, to encourage positive behavior.
"Thank you, Jordan."
A short, pudgy, but distinguished-looking gentleman, who had been standing nearby, approached the rabbi stroking his goatee.
"Rabbi Flowers, I would like to introduce myself. I am Dr. Phillip Golden, a seventh-generation temple member and a two-decade-long member of the board of trustees. My family settled in Central-Bella before the Civil War. They opened Golden Outfitters, by far the most prominent department store within a hundred miles. They were amongst the founding members of this congregation. I graduated from Dartmouth and have an MBA from Harvard. I listened with interest, I might add, to your responses to those questions and I read your bio ... thoroughly. I have a question: What was your course of study at the University of Alabama?"
"Well, thank you for introducing yourself, Dr. Golden. I appreciate that. My undergraduate major was history and my minor was English. I also took courses in comparative religion, philosophy, and Hebrew."
"One other question: From where did your family come to settle in, of all places, Mobile, Alabama?"
"My forebears were farmers in rural Austria. They left during a severe drought to find a better life in America. They saw promising economic opportunity in Mobile, which had recently been annexed into the United States, and they knew of its reputation for religious tolerance."
"I won't bother you any more tonight," Dr. Golden said. "I notice you've been drinking one Jack Daniel's after another, and on an empty stomach. I asked Jakie to include me on the search committee. Not surprisingly, he rejected my request. I'll have to rely on the search committee's report and their recommendation to the board, so I'll have other opportunities to express myself. Good evening, Rabbi."
After the last member finally left, Jake and Rabbi Flowers had another drink, ate some food, and drank a cup of coffee, and then they reviewed the events of the evening, which both agreed was a success. As the rabbi was getting ready to head upstairs to his guest room, Jake said, "Rabbi, you can have breakfast anytime tomorrow morning. The terrace is nice this time of the year. Just tell Bertha what you want and how you like it fixed. But be ready to leave at nine. I'm gonna give you a tour of Central-Bella before we meet with the search committee."
Suddenly, like an explosion, the front door flung open, bouncing violently against the door stop. Jake's daughter, Tracy, burst in, crying and screaming, "Fuck, shit, fuckin' shit—shit, piss, and fuckin' shit!" She flew up the staircase two steps at a time, smashing her purse against the wall.
As her bedroom door slammed shut, Rabbi Flowers's jaw dropped. With raised eyebrows and outstretched arms, he asked, "What was that, Mr. Berlin?"
"That, my friend, was my daughter, Tracy. My guess is she and Peter had another one of their knock-down, drag-out fights. Don't be shocked, I gave up trying to deal with her screaming fits long ago. Let's hit the sack; it's been a long day."
The rabbi awoke at sunrise, put on his jogging clothes, and went out for a cross-country jog, following the perimeter fence around Jake's fifty acres. He ended up on the terrace, where he sat at one of the tables set for breakfast. Bertha appeared and said, "Good morning, sir. What would you like for breakfast?"
The rabbi answered, "Good morning to you, Bertha. I would like two soft-boiled eggs, a glass of orange juice, and whole wheat toast with strawberry preserves, if you have some, please."
"No coffee, sir? I have some freshly brewed."
"Bertha, you talked me into it. I'll have a cup ... just black."
While the rabbi was sipping his coffee, his thoughts turned to his upcoming appearance before the temple's search committee and how he should present himself. Be natural, Conrad, he thought to himself. Be yourself. Hide your anxieties and fears of rejection. Speak up. Don't let them intimidate you. Thank God Jake didn't put that Dr. Golden on the committee. He scares me. He looked over to the house and said to himself, Looks like I'm going to have some company.
Tracy and another young lady, both barefoot and dressed in skimpy bikinis, came out of the house and headed toward the terrace. When Tracy saw the rabbi sitting there, she called out, "Hey, are you the new rabbi?"
As the young ladies approached his table, Rabbi Flowers stood, as was his custom.
"Not quite; I'm here applying for the position. You are Tracy, right?"
"Yep, and this is Edith. She's an exchange student from France ... Lyon. Jake always has one staying with me. He's hoping I'll get a little classiness. D'ya mind if we sit with you for a few minutes?"
"Of course I don't mind."
"Bonjour, monsieur," said Edith in her cute, little, provocative way. Rabbi Flowers nodded with a big smile. Trying his best to pronounce the French correctly, he replied, "Bon jour, mademoiselle."
Edith responded, "Merci beaucoup. Comment allez-vous ce matin?"
"Oh, oh, you got me there, Edith."
Tracy came to his rescue, explaining, "Rabbi, she asked, 'How are you this morning?' Just say, 'Je vais bien, merci' ... I'm fine, thanks."
He obeyed Tracy and then kissed Edith's hand. But before he could take Tracy's hand, she cupped her hands on either side of her mouth, creating a megaphone effect, and yelled, "Bertha! We're out here!
"Edith and I do this every morning when we're here at Sophie's," she explained to the rabbi. "We drink a glass of orange juice, swim some laps, dry off in the sun, and then come back and have a big breakfast."
After a few more minutes of pleasant small talk—about jogging and swimming, about life in Lyon and Central-Bella—the rabbi pushed his chair back, stood up, and said politely, "Tracy and Edith, it was very nice meeting y'all. Unfortunately, I have to excuse myself. Your dad is taking me on a tour of Central-Bella, and I have to get ready."
"Whoop-de-do," Tracy said. "What fun that's gonna be. Hey, if you're still around tomorrow morning, why not join us?" He gave them a thumbs-up as he left. As he walked into the manor house, he thought, What an attractive young lady—at least physically—especially with that pretty tan. Boy, what a body! I don't know about her personality, maybe she's showing off in front of Edith or perhaps for my benefit.
Jake loved Central-Bella almost as much as his business. He lived his whole life on the same property and rarely traveled. He grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. He developed his persona, his values, and his ethics during those impressionable years. Jake had a compelling determination to be rich. He dropped out of Mid-Continent Academy (MCA), the local college, after his sophomore year to go into business with his father, whose health was failing. Jake's grandfather had bought the business during the late 1920s, two years before the stock market crash. He and Jake's dad struggled during the thirties and early forties. They developed frugal habits and learned to sacrifice in order to survive. But after World War II, when farm equipment began to be manufactured again, together with an incredible work ethic, the business began to thrive. Jake kept his private life to himself. If he had a female companion since Sophie died, no one knew about it. His social life centered on entertaining his employees at Sophie's. His current hobby was running the temple his way.
Jake, wearing his Stetson and chomping on his cigar, never stopped talking while they waited for one of his boys to bring his Lincoln Town Car. "Rabbi, first I'm gonna drive you past my place of business. It is the joy of my life. To be honest with you, if it had been up to me, I never would have joined a congregation, but Sophie wanted Tracy to have a religious education; shit, a lot of good that did. Sophie passed away when Tracy was twelve. Do you have any idea what it's like to raise a teenage girl? Difficult? You betcha sweet bippy. I began bringing in foreign exchange students to live in the house in hopes of giving Tracy some class. I decided to become president of the temple the year before Tracy was confirmed, because I wanted her to be proud of me. I've been president ever since, because I'm by far the biggest dues giver. Frankly, I don't give a rat's ass about the religious part of it. I like running the place my way—guess I'm a control freak—but that's okay. It's like my hobby. I just don't take it as serious as the others."
Excerpted from The Affairs of Rabbi Flowers by Ted Pailet. Copyright © 2013 Ted Pailet. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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