blackbirdonline journalSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Inside the Envelope

My brother wants to see the show. He can’t resist. Not like: Well, that’d be fun, I guess I could try. More like: That’ll be a great show, you know, Phil and Friends in the middle of Times Square, AMAZING SHOW! He buys tickets as soon as they go on sale, buys one for me too. Then he waits. Time passes; work keeps him busy. His wife and kids fill what little time he has away from his demanding job. And he feels grateful for his family, wishes he had more time to spend with his wife, with their son and daughters, who are growing fast. But when the day of the concert finally arrives, a chilly autumn Sunday, Steve leaves his temple in Baltimore in the early afternoon, and instead of going home, he drives north, alone, toward New York City. Blaring music the whole way, the car stereo is a cascading fountain of old shows, legendary jams from the years when Jerry Garcia was still alive. Really alive, like in the 1970s, the early ’80s, before the Coma Years. Listening to the music makes traffic on the Jersey Turnpike seem almost friendly. My brother drives, eventually makes it to Brooklyn, parks near my apartment, and comes inside, strains of guitar still echoing in his head. When I greet him, I notice how much silver is showing through his neatly trimmed beard; my older brother is pushing into his midforties now, no longer the youthful assistant rabbi he was when he took his first pulpit job in the Baltimore area a decade ago.

We briefly hug. My brother is now, generally speaking, a hugger; I can’t remember if this started before he became a clergyperson or if it’s more like an occupational hazard, another part of his job that seeps into Steve’s daily life, like his habit of enunciating carefully when he speaks to a group of three or more people. Setting his backpack down on the floor of the apartment, my brother explains to me hurriedly that we’re a bit pressed for time. Before we get to the concert, he has to meet with a divorced woman who lives on the Upper West Side; “I have to deliver a get to her,” he tells me.

“A what?” I say.

“It’s a traditional Jewish divorce document,” Steve says, disappearing into the guest room, where he will crash later, after the show, mind abuzz with song. My brother arrived in the outfit he wore to his temple that morning—a neatly pressed button-down shirt and new-looking, chocolate-brown corduroys. When he comes back out of the guest room, he’s wearing blue jeans and a vintage Grateful Dead T-shirt emblazoned with a vaguely Native American image, some sort of red-and-blue mask with feathers hanging from its sides. Steve throws on his green waterproof hiking jacket and grabs a large, flat envelope out of his backpack, and we rush out to the subway. I notice as he takes the stairs ahead of me that he’s still wearing a kipa on his head. I am not yet entirely used to seeing this—my brother out in the world, the everyday world, covering his head, disclosing his religion. One of his religions, at least.


As we sit on the N train, burrowing through Brooklyn on our way to Manhattan, to the heart of the city, Steve tells me about the divorced couple. “The guy’s a member of my congregation,” Steve explains. “He appointed me as his representative, so when he did that, delivering the get became my responsibility.”

I’m surprised to hear that members of Steve’s temple would insist on gathering archaic religious documentation of their already-painful secular divorces; that my brother is entrusted with this sort of business feels especially strange to me. Sitting there on the N train to Manhattan, I try to picture the mystery divorcée we’re going to meet. In my mind she is a meek, undernourished woman, modestly dressed (the hem of a dark skirt reaching down to her ankles, I suppose), a woman who cannot erase a look of resentment from her face. I imagine that she resents her ex-husband for abandoning her (although I really have no idea if this is the case; maybe she abandoned him; maybe abandonment is entirely the wrong word). I also suspect that the divorced woman may feel anger toward my brother for associating with her former spouse. As our train comes out into the open and screeches over the Manhattan Bridge, Steve checks his phone and finds that the woman left him a message minutes before. “She’s going to meet us at the bar,” he announces. “That makes it all easier.”

“Really? She’s coming to the bar?”

“Yeah, it’s nice of her to do that,” Steve says. “I’ll have to call her with directions when we get off the train.”

I look at my brother. In his jeans and his green waterproof jacket, he looks like he’s about to go on a hike through the woods—as far as I can tell, not the proper attire for any kind of divorce proceeding. I know, too, that once we reach the bar, some amount of inappropriate clowning is more or less guaranteed. We are meeting a friend there, an old college buddy of my brother’s—a lovely guy, likable, but very loud, an irrepressible prankster who has already left Steve more than one message about the fucking amazing drugs he’s carrying with him to the concert. In my brother’s hand, the get, an official religious document pertaining to the solemn matter of divorce; in our nameless friend’s pocket, a bag of weed and a small pipe, an instrument of an entirely different kind of annulment. Soon, when we reach the pub, we find that our merry friend is in full form already, a mostly drained pint of beer in one hand, his free hand waving in the air as he expounds to the bartender and a fellow patron about the day’s NFL scores. This is the red-faced Prankster: a modern-day Falstaff, all his hedonistic appetite and jolly verbiage covering up the vulnerability of someone who’s seriously afraid of his own adult responsibilities—a wife, a child, a law career. But why talk about jobs and families? Now our most pressing order of business, as far as this friend is concerned, is that my brother and I should have our own pints of beer as soon as possible.

As we drink, I notice a young woman in a sweatshirt—the kind that zips up the front and has the name of a city or a neighborhood or a team emblazoned across the chest—standing at the bar, looking at my brother. The woman is short but curvaceous, what the rabbis of yore might have termed zaftig if they’d paid attention to such earthly concerns. She seems to be glancing at the top of my brother’s head, trying to divine the presence (or absence) of a yarmulke. Before I can tap Steve’s shoulder, the woman steps toward him and says, “Rabbi Schwartz?”

She’s not the angry, anemic divorcée I’d pictured in my mind. The wide-hipped woman is smiling tentatively; she seems at home in the bar, an experienced sensualist, so much so that it’s hard to picture her in formal attire, in a synagogue. And I realize how foolish I was to expect her (or anyone) to have only one persona, to be a strictly pious person who rarely sets foot in bars, clubs, movie theaters, or outlet malls.

Steve brings the woman over to a table near the bar’s entrance. Because he needs two neutral parties—preferably Jews—to witness the delivery of the document, he asks me and our friend the Prankster to join the group. (The Prankster happens to be Jewish, although on more than one occasion I’ve heard him pester my brother with an atheist’s skepticism—Come on, I know it’s your job and everything, you chose to become a rabbi for some reason, but do you really believe that shit about, like, God?) As the last wash of late afternoon sunlight filters through the front windows of the pub, our gathering sits at a table by the door that leads out onto Thirty-Sixth Street. My brother has carried his beer over to the table with him; now he sets the pint of beer down and gently pulls the get out of its plain manila envelope. The document itself is unremarkable except for the fact that it’s written in Hebrew. The divorced woman, self-conscious but still smiling, sits down across from Steve. I find a seat between them.

We settle into our places at the table. Steve looks directly into the woman’s face. I’m impressed by my brother’s way of meeting and holding her eyes; there’s something fearless in it. He understands that the moment is burred with difficulty but seems to trust in the woman’s ability to overcome her own discomfort. I’ve been a guest in Steve’s synagogue many times over the years, watched him work a crowd of hundreds from his pulpit, but I’ve never seen my brother like this—half-man, half-rabbi, trying to relax and be himself at the same time that he’s serving as a spiritual guide to a single individual sitting right across from him.

“This is your get,” he says, showing her the document. He explains a few different parts of the contract, then continues, “When we’re done here, this will essentially indicate that your first marriage, according to Jewish law, is officially over. So if you want to remarry someone else in the future—”

When I remarry,” says the young divorced woman. “I’m definitely getting married again. I mean, at some point, I hope.”

“Right,” my brother says. “When you get remarried. That’s right. So I’m going to hand you the document, and when I give it to you, you’re supposed to take it and lift it up and down, move around with it a little, to signal that you’re receiving it and you know what it is, what it means. Let’s stand up, I’ll show you.”

Steve stands, holding the get in both hands, and swivels a little at the waist, cradling the document like a child, almost rocking it. So Jewish, I think: treating a page of text with such tenderness. My brother gives the paper to the woman. With an awkward grin, she imitates Steve’s gentle swaying then hands the document back.

My brother then turns to me, extends the get in my direction. He also hands me a pen. I’m supposed to be a witness, an official watcher of this complete stranger’s divorce ritual, a kind of Jewish notary. I take the pen. “In English?” I ask.

“English is fine,” my brother tells me. He knows without asking that, for me, writing out my Hebrew name would be an awkward, time-consuming challenge. I don’t know the Hebrew language beyond basic phonetics, the sounds and symbols a relic of my bar mitzvah at the not-so-rigorous Reform temple my family (very occasionally) attended when I was a boy. Once upon a time, before his post-college spiritual awakening, my brother had been the same way as me, but then he became not only conversant in the language of our ancestors but fluent—a PhD in rabbinic literature, a pulpit rabbi, the whole megillah. At any rate, after I’ve put my regular signature on the proper line—the line my brother has pointed out to me—I hand the document back to him.

“All right, we’re done,” Steve says to the woman as he tucks her get back into its envelope. “I’m going to take this back to Baltimore with me; if you ever need a copy, let me know.”

“Thanks,” the divorced woman says. “Thanks for doing this, Rabbi Schwartz.”

“No problem—thanks for dragging yourself out to the pub. Can I buy you a beer?”

She looks at him. Who is this guy with his kipa, his concert tickets, his pint of beer? A rabbi—really?


Almost showtime. The Prankster, my brother, and I are just about ready to leave the bar and walk over to the theater. Several blocks away, I can imagine Phil Lesh, legendary bassist formerly of the Grateful Dead, sliding elasticized, terry cloth sweatbands over his wrists, tuning his electric bass, reminding himself to talk to the audience about the importance of being an organ donor (Lesh received a liver transplant when he was in his late fifties and takes a moment at every show to remind his screaming fans that without a stranger’s unaccountable generosity, he’d be a dead bassist, not the Dead’s bassist). At the bar on Thirty-Sixth Street, my brother has delivered the get and said goodbye to the casually dressed Orthodox woman who, according to Jewish law, is now officially divorced. To celebrate the fact that Steve has discharged his rabbinical duties for the night, we order one more round of drinks.

The Merry Prankster, although he willingly participated in the Jewish ceremonial portion of our evening as a witness, now can’t resist raising questions. “Come on, man,” he pesters my brother, “what does God have to do with divorce?”

“For an observant Jewish woman like that,” my brother answers, “that piece of paper, that little ceremony in the corner of the bar will help her get on with her life.”

“All she really needs is a good lawyer.”

“She needs that too,” my brother concedes.

As the three of us walk through Times Square, its cold, electric sky crowded with signs and screens showing a pantheon of false idols, the Merry Prankster puts his arm around me and directs a stream of verbiage at my ear: “Seriously, the shit I brought tonight is so mind-blowing, you’d be so crazy not to try it, I have it all worked out, I have a system when we get to the theater, don’t wuss out on me, just enjoy it, all right?” When we’re inside the theater, my brother goes to the bar to buy us a round of beers, and the Prankster takes my arm and leads me to what he considers a safe zone for smoking dope in that crowded public place.

I think only briefly about why I’m doing what I’m doing—because it’s fun and because it’s so important to the Merry Prankster that someone from my family gets high with him, and I know I can distract his attention from my brother. Steve doesn’t need my protection, but these days I feel protective of him anyway: if the rabbi makes an impulsive decision, smokes pot, gets caught, it’s a spate of tabloid headlines waiting to happen. I don’t want anyone to get in trouble, especially my brother. So as I smoke, I tell myself I’ve turned the tables, I’m performing a ritual for my brother that he himself cannot complete. Somehow, me lighting a pipe in a men’s room stall at a Times Square music venue has become comparable to my brother walking onto the altar at his temple in the suburbs and leading a gathering of hundreds in a call-and-response prayer.

By the time the show starts, I’m already in an altered state. Steve hands me a beer—he’s either unaware that I’ve been smoking or well aware and simply amused—and I start drinking to wash the feeling of live embers from my mouth. When the show starts, though, I begin to suspect I’m in trouble. The band plays a fine version of “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” and I feel overwhelmed by the way the performance both fits in with and challenges the many other versions of the song I’ve heard over the years. A few jams later, Phil and Friends launch into “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” and I feel myself start to dance—not just sway a little, not the kind of bend-at-the-waist davening I can see my brother doing a few feet away from me—I’m dancing. The band follows with “Bird Song,” a song with the oddly demanding lyric: Tell me all that you know. Now I’m jumping. I’m not sure where my beer is—I think I may have dropped it or set down the mostly empty cup and then kicked it accidentally. Which would explain why there’s so much beer on my shoe and pant leg.

Tell me all that you know, I’ll show you  . . . snow and rain.

Something about an experience like this, a concert like this: what one knows makes no difference. What one knows is obliterated. What one knows is beside the point, less important than what one feels, how much one is willing to feel. What would we be without experiences like this? Individuals soberly explaining themselves to other individuals, convinced that connection can only happen when people are like-minded and superficially simpatico.

The music dies down, and Phil Lesh takes the bass guitar off his shoulder and sets it in its stand on the stage. He approaches the microphone, lit by a single spotlight. “I want to tell you about a man I never met,” he tells us, and a hush descends on the theater as we all begin to listen. “A man who took the time one day to check a box on his driver’s license, legally indicating, Hey, I want to be an organ donor.”


The Merry Prankster corners me again after the first set. “Listen,” he says, “does your brother’s rabbi act ever get to you? Does it bother you? I have to ask because I know your family’s story, I know how you guys grew up with no religion, practically, and then your brother had his awakening or whatever it was after college, and you can give me a straight answer because I’m assuming you don’t believe in God. Do you believe in God?”

Why would he want to know this about me?

“I’m talking to you!” the Prankster shouts. “No thinking! No qualifying! Just answer me yes or no. Answer the question! Do you believe in God?”

I look into his flushed face and answer him. Didn’t he hear what Phil Lesh said in there about donating parts of your body to another human being? You think that’s all science? You think there’s no religion in that choice—just a box of ice, a special piece of meat, a hurried drive from dead to dying to alive again? Just surgeons and nurses and machines, the tools, the cutting open and stitching closed? No: there is the donor, the act of giving, helping to extend another human being’s life and thought and experience. There is the respectful removal from one human envelope, the even more delicate insertion into another. There is the hope that your life will reach into another life. There is God.

But I can’t talk so well, so I slur out a single word: “Yeah!”

And the Merry Prankster is so upset by my answer that he leans away from me, rolling his eyes, pressing his lips together—shutting his mouth, the one time I’ve seen him speechless. He’s almost disgusted. I don’t care; he asked, didn’t he?

“Whatever,” he says, walking away. “You’re trashed. Enjoy the second set.”

I do. I’m at the peak of my high—more stoned than I’ve been in ten years—and the band begins to play a group of songs that seems like a musical reconstruction of my youth. In other words, if I had to build an autobiography out of Grateful Dead music, these would be crucial building blocks: “Samson and Delilah,” “The Music Never Stopped,” “Throwing Stones”—then the opening guitar strains from “St. Stephen” carry me to the base of the attic staircase that led up to my brother’s room in the house we lived in as kids—I can see through my child-self, looking up, wondering if Steve is up there, straining to overhear the music through my older brother’s closed bedroom door, a young boy wondering if the mysterious, devout teenager in that room might be willing to turn down his stereo and talk to me.


For me, my brother’s impassioned example calls to mind the following lines by poet and memoirist Mark Doty: “Isn’t the part of us that desires, that loves, that longs for encounter and connection—physical and psychic and every other way—also the part of us that knows something about God?”

The best kind of worship attempts a connection not only with God or with a particular tradition but with other human beings. That is part of the give and take of life, of being present in the wider world, as opposed to being lost in self-involvement or narrow religious agendas.

That night at the show, I danced for hours. Even when I began to feel more calm and sober, I kept moving. I never felt tired or embarrassed. Whenever the lights shone out on the audience, I shouted as loud as I could; when the band led up to a chorus and then stopped playing so that the crowd could fill in the words, I knew exactly what to sing. I was never a Deadhead, never will be, but the band’s music is part of my definition of family. At the show, the music connected me to myself, to my own memories, and to my sense that so much of the present is worth remembering. And whenever I looked over at my brother that night, I could see him moving too, in a more controlled way, focused, bending at the waist in jerky time with the music he knew so well, like an old Jewish man praying in his corner of a sanctuary filled with hundreds of chanting believers, listening as he prayed, knowing every word, making sure each word arrived in its proper place, so the cordon of belief that bound us all together at this moment would not be broken.  

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