Rabbi Julie Take One
“What should we call you?” I tell them my name is Julie, but they can call me whatever they want.
Do they want to call me Rabbi Pelc? I don’t feel like Rabbi Pelc. It sounds like someone old, someone wise, someone male. Many of my colleagues would choose to be Rabbi Julie, a nice compromise. But this begs the question — if I were a man, even a male student, would I still flinch when they called me Rabbi? Or would I shyly smile, knowing the title will be mine soon enough?
This article appeared in our August 2003 issue.
I tell myself that I am being reverent to the training of my profession, since I will not rightfully be called rabbi for three more years, when I finish my graduate studies. But behind the reverence and humility lurks a deep-seated fear of owning the power of the rabbinate — owning the power of my own authority.
On the airplane, high above Las Vegas, headed toward Lubbock, Texas, I try on my profession for size for the first time. I am practicing my Torah reading, matching the ancient words with their musical cantillation — reading, then singing under my breath until I can chant the Hebrew without looking at the page. This week, the Torah portion includes the story of Noah. I glance over my sermon, describing God’s plan to eradicate humanity because of its corruption and immorality.
Seated in my row, three attractive young men loudly discuss their weekend plans. The one closest to me is especially good-looking, and I pause every few verses to listen to the animated debate. They are arguing about whether the guy in the window seat would be cheating on his girlfriend if he were to inspire another lady’s affections on vacation.
Perhaps noticing my interest, the dark-eyed man across from me asks what I do for a living. I pause. I imagine simply telling him I work in big business — I do work for the Boss. I know he saw the pages of Hebrew script on my tray table and heard me muttering strange chants. I tell him I am studying to be a rabbi. The other two men stop arguing long enough to hear my admission.
“That’s it, it’s a sign from God,” exclaims the semi-bachelor. I shrug. Which one of us is God?
“It’s not a sign from God,” argues one of his pals.
“God sent her,” he insists. “I can’t do it.”
I am now officially a symbol. I pipe up on behalf of womankind. “Maybe it’s your girlfriend who sent me.” I smile, trying to make light of the situation. I imagine being superwoman, traveling near and far, intervening on behalf of women everywhere just before the men in their lives do stupid things to hurt them. I can tell the two friends are less than thrilled at their friend’s newfound fidelity.
The flight attendant announces the plane’s final descent. In Lubbock, I will serve as the community’s rabbi for the weekend, and eight more weekends during the coming year. As the plane heads for the runway, I shift in my seat, fold up the pages of Hebrew and stuff them into my red backpack.
The former president of the temple picks me up at the airport. The evening before, when we spoke on the phone to arrange the details of my visit, he asked how to recognize me. I told him I wear glasses and look Jewish, with dark, curly shoulder-length hair. And a red backpack. Yep, that’s how you find your rabbi. Your spiritual leader. Your wise old man. The former president doesn’t notice me as I walk past him. I wander outside and look for the sky-blue Chevy Blazer he described. He follows me outside, explaining that he saw the backpack, but didn’t know it was me. Their rabbi. I wonder whether I would know to look for a 26-year-old girl in a maroon sweater set, either.
“What should I call you? Ms. Pelc?”
This is the worst option yet. This sweet middle-aged man reminds me of my dad. He has two teenage daughters, and seems unsure how to relate to the young woman lugging a heavy bag into his truck. He does not want to offend me, but he does not know what to call me, either. I pretend that I am just like any other guest rabbi visiting Lubbock, Texas.
He asks about my trip. I do not tell him about the three attractive young men. As we drive, he narrates an informal tour of Lubbock. Country music plays softly on the radio as we pass cotton fields and strip malls.
At the hotel, I unpack and review my clothes. I will need something dressy for Friday night services; Saturday and Sunday will be less formal. What does a young woman rabbi wear? A suit? A dress? I had decided against suits as too formal and too male. For Friday night, I brought a flowered dress that falls to mid-calf. Conservative, sophisticated, simple, perfect for Lubbock. I have not worn it since I bought it, three years ago.
I look in the mirror. I feel like a little girl. I change clothes three times before I am ready to leave the room. I sit in the lobby, lean over, and realize that more leg shows than I had anticipated. I long for jeans and comfortable shoes, for my seat in the back of the congregation where I can whisper to my friends and critique the rabbi from below.
The former synagogue president and his wife pick me up. I reach for the rear door, but I see his wife in the back seat. A guest rabbi would sit in front, even when husband and wife are both present. I am a hired professional, not someone’s daughter, niece, or cousin from out of town.
At the temple, people want to shake hands and say howdy to the new rabbi. Everyone asks what to call me. What prevents me from meeting their eyes, smiling confidently, and answering, “Call me Rabbi”? I am unsure whether I want to be their adorable granddaughter or their competent spiritual leader.
I am told that all of the members of the temple’s entirely non-Jewish choir wear long white robes. I see the robes hanging on a coat rack in the office, and wonder aloud whether I should wear one.
“Naw, you’re dressed up so pretty,” Christina, the choir director, tells me, as I try one on over my flowered dress.
“But do I look more like a rabbi in the robe?” I ask her, pushing up the long sleeves so I can use my hands.
“You do what you want, but I think you don’t need it,” she tells me. I imagine wrapping a big white prayer shawl over the robe and drowning in white fabric. I leave the robe on its hanger.
The choir and I ascend the steps to the bimah platform. Rows of blank faces look at me curiously. My nervousness and self-consciousness fade. I have waited my whole life for this moment, to stand before a congregation and sing my soul — to connect with the ancient words of our tradition and to reach out to the people who have come to share this sacred moment.
I hold the Kiddush cup and bless the sweet Sabbath wine. I carry the heavy Torah around the sanctuary as the choir sings, proclaiming, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” — Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. I chant from the Torah and teach the congregation about Noah. As I recite the names of our ancestors in the central prayer, the Tefilah, I add the names of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the matriarchs, and smile.
Afterward, we gather in the social hall for homemade desserts and coffee.
“Thank you for coming, Rabbi, sir,” says one elderly man, before adding, “Ma’am, or, Miss.”
Some tell me they loved the sermon. One congregant tells me it was “very accessible for the children.”
The children ask whether I am married, whether I am a vegetarian, and which is my favorite Torah portion. They call me “the rabbi” — talking about me in the third person to their parents, though I am in the room. I wonder if they sense that this is what I really want.
“The Rabbi taught us the bathroom prayer,” announces one, after I explain that tradition provides an opportunity to praise God even after using the facilities.
“The Rabbi said it’s okay to give her a hug!” another exclaims.
“The Rabbi is coming to our Sunday school classes!” I nod, letting them know that I will be here for them as the rabbi all weekend.
For the children, I tell myself, it is important for me to be the rabbi. Not student rabbi. Not Ms. Pelc. I want these kids to know they can ask about their tradition, and trust me to give them a sense of being links in the chain of the Jewish people.
A woman slowly approaches after most of the others have left. Her eyes are swollen. She asks whether I do spiritual counseling. She is crying.
“My dad died two weeks ago. I can’t work, I can’t sleep. There was no formal mourning. He was cremated.” She is the same age as my mother. She calls me Rabbi. I tell her I would be glad to meet with her, to listen, to allow space for her tears. We agree to meet after Sunday school. I look at her looking at me. I am a 26-year-old child — and I am her rabbi.
For the first time all weekend, I know who I am.