Marvin Kessler’s Shoes
Marvin Kessler’s belief in God set him apart from his family and most of his friends. Life was serious stuff to him and needed an organizing force. In the spring of 1953, his search for meaning led him to ask for guidance from Rabbi Hyman Plotkin, as learned a man as there was in Albany Park—perhaps in all of Chicago. Rabbi Plotkin, fat, balding and a lover of cheap cigars, responded with an instructional on shoes. “First you put on your left shoe, then the right. Then you tie your right shoe and then the left.”
“Yes?” Marvin. “Then what?”
“That’s it,” said Rabbi Plotkin, attempting to relight the saliva-soaked stub of a cigar that hung from the corner of his thick lower lip. He leaned back in his dark green leatherette office chair at Beth Jacob Nussbaum, the small synagogue a block from Marvin’s apartment house, named for its benefactor Lyle Nussbaum, a furrier, now deceased, and his wife, Selma, now of Miami Beach. “This simple act, performed with reverence for God, is the secret of leading a spiritual life.”
“And how could this be, Rabbi?” Marvin asked this question not in a sarcastic way, but in an effort to understand.
“Ah ha,” said the rabbi, leaning forward, flopping his forearms flat against the top of his faux mahogany desk, “that’s an entirely different kind of question, Mr. Kessler.” He always referred to the boys in his bar mitzvah classes as misters. “You asked me a what question and I gave you a straightforward answer. How and why questions, those are much more complex. They’re not so much to be answered as approached. Over many years, through serious study. I can tell you this Mr. Kessler: The fact that our Talmud should concern itself with how an insignificant pisher like yourself or, indeed, a learned rabbi like myself, should put on our shoes in the morning is just one indication that Judaism sees the potential for spirituality in the most mundane of acts.”
At least that’s the way Kessler remembered it. His friend Stuie laughed. The old fart’s playing with you. “Sounds like the Hokey Pokey. If all you had to do was put your shoes on in the right order, what’s the sense of Hebrew school? Why do we have to go through this bar mitzvah crap? Why go to services?”
These why questions weighed on Kessler. He was a Jew for the same reason he was a Cubs fan: He was born into it. It’s the home team. And if the manager sticks with Dee Fondy as the leadoff hitter after the schmuck strikes out five times in one game or if the rabbi says that putting on your shoes in a certain order will lead to a spiritual life, well then, no matter how crazy it sounds, you accept it.
The shoe thing, as Stuie referred to it, became a religious act for Kessler. Other than an occasional visit to a synagogue on important holy days, it was, for him, the religious act. Each time he put on his shoes he thought of Rabbi Plotkin, of God (who in Kessler’s mind looked very much like Rabbi Plotkin, only larger and with better-quality cigars) and the spiritual importance of what he was doing.
So now, seven years after the ordeal of his bar mitzvah, lying naked on a flowered day bed in the basement of the home of Morris and Shirley Sonnenfeld (owners and operators of seven Mo Sonnenfeld Dance Studios), with their zaftig eighteen-year-old daughter, Inez, and having just completed the sex act—his first, her umpteenth—Kessler, the rapture subsiding, realizes he’s going to have to get dressed. And getting dressed includes putting on his shoes.
Inez, who got a running start on the sexual revolution, is cooing, calling him Big Boy, softly guiding her fingernails down his back. Kessler, sitting on the edge of the bed, is wondering whether putting on his shoes in the prescribed order under circumstances such as this would be a profanation of God. Advice from Rabbi Plotkin is out of the question. He reaches a compromise with himself and leaves with his shoes on but untied. “Inez, I’ve got to go,” he says. “I’ll call you.” Once outside in the chilly darkness, he ties his shoes, first right, then left, before the eight-block walk to the apartment where he lives with his parents, exhilaration and guilt, the yin and yang of Kessler’s young life, dogging him all the way.
* * *
Stuie is attending college downstate and, thus, unavailable for day-to-day consultation regarding important life cycle events. But screwing Inez Sonnenfeld is such a seminal milestone that Kessler decides a long distance call is warranted. “Stuie, it happened. Inez and I did it in her basement.”
“Who is this?” Stuie says.
“Don’t be a putz.”
“Calm down. I’m delighted for you, Kessler. You now join a long list of losers who broke their cherries in Inez Sonnenfeld’s basement. I think she has an honor roll posted somewhere down there. How was it, champ?”
“Wonderful, actually. Except afterward when I was getting dressed, I got to thinking about Rabbi Plotkin and felt . . . guilty.”
“Guilty? It’s the shoe thing, isn’t it? Plotkin, that fat son of a bitch, has put a curse on you, Kessler. It needs to be exorcized. Maybe a few more trips to the Sonnenfeld basement will do the trick. Or better yet come down to Champaign—you would not believe the tail walking around here. It’s 1960, Kessler. Get with it.”
“You’re probably right. I don’t know.” Kessler is conflicted. There is embedded in him a need to do what is right. “You forgot to charge me for the Coke,” he’d tell the waitress. Or he’d refuse to let another student copy from his science report. But also inside Marvin are certain hormones that lay down a heavy fog along the path of righteousness. This is especially evident while in the company of Inez Sonnenfeld, with her ample breasts and wild enthusiasm. What could be wrong with doing the dirty with Inez? He probably should have phrased the question differently. But he can’t stop thinking about her. In class, at home, sitting on the Ravenswood elevated train. “Big Boy,” she had said. He finds himself smiling and then feeling guilty about it. He decides to step back, to keep temptation at bay, at least for now. He’ll wait a while before calling her.
Three weeks later, Inez calls him. “You said you’d call, Kessler.”
“I’ve been busy, tied up with stuff.”
“Look, Kessler, you owe me and I need a favor.” Her parents are throwing a dinner party, and they’d like her to have a date. “I need a respectable Jewish boy, and you’re one of the few respectable boys I know.” Inez doesn’t mean this as a compliment, and Marvin doesn’t take it as one. “Friday night, about seven. Wear a tie.”
“So we hear you’re headed for law school,” Mr. Sonnenfeld says, as the maid places the salad plate in front of Kessler.
“Yes sir, as soon as I graduate from college.”
“The law is a fine profession,” says Mr. Sonnenfeld. “Fine profession. Our Inez is becoming quite the student as well. In addition to her junior college courses, two nights a week she takes instruction in Judaism from Rabbi Plotkin. Can you believe it, the most learned rabbi in Albany Park, perhaps in all of Chicago, comes to our house, and the two of them go down to the basement and go at it: Torah, Talmud, Mishna, you name it. He’s even teaching her Hebrew.”
Kessler looks at Inez who demurely lowers her eyes. Visions of Inez and the learned rabbi fornicating on the same flowered day bed in the very same basement in which he had, only weeks earlier, experienced, for the first time, sexual fulfillment, speed through his mind.
“I imagine she’ll be fluent in no time,” Kessler manages to say.
“Of course, I make it worth his while,” Mr. Sonnenfeld continues. “I recognize that such personal attention from a man of his stature doesn’t come cheap.”
On the walk home, Kessler asks himself whether it is actually possible for Rabbi Hyman Plotkin to be schtupping Inez Sonnenfeld in the basement of her family’s home under the pretext of religious instruction and getting paid for it. Twice a week! On the one hand, this is one of the most respected religious leaders in the community, a recognized scholar, to say nothing of being a fat, balding old man. On the other hand, it would probably take Inez all of three minutes to seduce him.
“Inez? Are you screwing my rabbi?” Marvin confronts the issue a few nights later.
“Depends on who your rabbi is, Kessler.”
“I’m serious, Inez. We’re talking about a man of God.”
“Jealous?” she asks. Jealous? Could that be it? Marvin asks himself. Jealous of Rabbi Plotkin? Of Inez? Or maybe he’s just pissed at both of them for screwing with his worldview. Marvin’s faith flags. He turns once again to his friend Stuie.
“For a fat old geezer like Plotkin, Inez is a home run. No doubt about that. But what does she see in him?” Stuie asks rhetorically. “I’m not sure I buy it. I’m not saying it’s impossible—Inez would hump the Horn of Africa given the opportunity—but Plotkin? It’s not the way to bet. Anyway, Kessler, walk away from it. Get your ass down here. I’m telling you the pussy here will make you cry. A weekend in Champaign and you’ll forget all about Inez.”
Marvin, his faith in God and Plotkin strained, accepts the invitation and spends a string of weekends downstate amongst the willing coeds introduced to him by his long-time friend. “Linde Lou, this is my friend Kessler. He’s going to be a big-time lawyer some day.” Boom. “Maryanne, meet Kessler. He was just admitted to Northwestern Law.” Boom. And just like that, Marvin’s pain fades. There are even a few sexual liaisons so powerful and satisfying that afterward, while getting dressed, he doesn’t think of Rabbi Plotkin.
* * *
During his third year in law school and while still living at home, Marvin receives an engraved invitation from Mr. & Mrs. Morris Sonnenfeld to the bat mitzvah of their daughter, Inez, on Saturday, the Tenth Day of Tamuz 5724, “corresponding,” the invitation says, “to the Twentieth Day of June, 1964, at Congregation Beth Jacob Nussbaum. Luncheon to follow.”
A blurb in the neighborhood section of the newspaper notes that Inez, now twenty-two and a graduate of Kent State, will be the first woman allowed to have a bat mitzvah at a Saturday morning service, and the first to read from the Torah, at Beth Jacob Nussbaum. For several years, the article said, Rabbi Hyman Plotkin has been instructing Ms. Sonnenfeld in Jewish law and in the Hebrew language.
“Times are changing,” Rabbi Plotkin is quoted as saying, “We are living in a more egalitarian society, and it is fitting that our synagogue recognize this by allowing women to read from the Torah. And no one is more deserving of the honor of being the first such woman than Ms. Sonnenfeld. During the time I’ve worked with her, she has shown a remarkable aptitude for learning and a devotion to her faith that is unusual in this day and age. In the years to come, we hope many more young women will follow in her footsteps.”
This is a very different Inez, Marvin thinks. “The invitation, after such a long time, was a surprise,” he explains to Stuie, who is now working at a Merrill Lynch office on LaSalle Street and insists on being called Stu. “And the article, well, I may have misjudged them both.”
“I tried to tell you the two of them balling in the basement made no sense to me,” Stu says. “You weren’t listening, chum. But you and Inez are ancient history. Why torture yourself, Kessler? I’ve got tickets to see the Cubs and Phillies that Saturday. Go with me.”
But Marvin decides to attend the bat mitzvah. “Her invitation came first.”
Inez’s chanting of the Torah portion is flawless. Her voice, deep and assured. Her mastery of the ancient trope, amazing. The congregation is bedazzled. Inez then addresses the congregation:
“Two women die in this week’s Bible reading. Miriam, the older sister of Moses and Aaron, dies and is buried without a period of mourning.” She contrasts this with the mourning for Aaron after he dies. The other, Inez points out, is an unnamed young woman who is sacrificed in praise of God after a military victory.
“Today, I stand before you as the first woman in the history of our congregation to have a Shabbat bat mitzvah, to read from the Torah—not as a twelve-year-old girl, but as a twenty-two-year-old woman. I pledge to you and to women everywhere, I will remember Miriam and mourn her loss. I will remember the daughter of Jephthah and mourn her unnecessary death. I will fight to see that women take their rightful place both in our history and in our future.”
Kessler is so moved by her skill and the depth of her emotion, he’s close to tears. He knows this is the beginning of something. And as he remembers his lewd assumption about Inez and Rabbi Plotkin in the basement of the Sonnenfeld home, he feels shame.
“I’m glad you came,” Inez says to him, holding her glass of red wine with both hands just under her chin. She has lost weight since Kessler last saw her and in her tailored grey woolen suit and black high heel pumps, he thinks she looks lovely. Beautiful, actually.
“Thanks for inviting me. You were fantastic. Your comments were incredibly moving.”
Inez blushes. Kessler leans in close, kissing her on the cheek. Mr. Sonnenfeld approaches.
“Stay in touch,” she says, blowing him a kiss as her father takes her arm and guides her toward an aunt who has flown in from Detroit for the occasion.
As he watches Inez greet her aunt and then move on to other friends and family members, Marvin smiles. Such elegance, such grace. His carnal thoughts of Inez have changed to. . . . To what? he asks himself. Someone taps him on the shoulder.
“We don’t see you here very often, Kessler,” the rabbi says. “As I recall, you were one of my better students—bright, serious. Someone with potential. Where are you praying these days?”
“Law school, Rabbi Plotkin. Studying for the bar takes up most of my time.”
“And your shoes, Mr. Kessler,” says the learned rabbi, “I worry about your shoes. Are you putting them on in the proper order?”
* * *
Marvin arrives during the top half of the third. He finds his friend in the right field bleachers, shirtless, holding a beer, the Wrigley Field sun in their faces.
“So?” Stu asks.
“She’s a different person, Stu. You wouldn’t believe it. She chanted Torah like a cantor. I never knew she had such a sweet voice. And her d’var torah was amazing. You really should have been there. Rabbi Plotkin asked why I wasn’t showing up for services anymore. Where are we?”
“Down two,” Stu says without taking his eyes off the field. “Without Brock, we’re shit. Cannot believe we’re sticking with the coaches. We need a manager. The geniuses have Banks leading off. What is that about? Did you tell the jag off to tie his own fucking shoes for a change?”
“I told him I’d been busy, but that I’d see him at shul next week. Inez said to me, ‘Stay in touch.’”
Inez has her own apartment in Old Town and manages an art gallery on Clark Street. They meet for lunch and end up spending the afternoon walking through Lincoln Park. They talk of many things, of this and that. But there’s something they never talk about.
Is she ashamed? Marvin wonders. And then he realizes he’s the one feeling shame. He treated her as an object. Sure, he wasn’t alone. But he knows her now as an intelligent, caring person. Am I falling in love? he asks himself. The image of the two of them naked in the Sonnenfeld basement now makes him queasy.
“If the romance continues,” he moans to Stu, “before long she’ll want to do it.”
“And you, Marvin? You’re telling me you don’t want to get her in the sack?”
“Of course I do. But that’s when it’s going to come up. One of us will have to say something about the fact that we’ve been there before.”
“And this is a problem why?”
“Because it’s a reminder of the two of us at our worst. What do I do?” Kessler is confident that his friend will come up with the answer. Okay, this is what you’re going to do. . . .” he anticipates Stu saying.
But this time, all Stu says is, “Hmmm. Toughie.”
* * *
Inez invites Marvin to the symphony. He takes her out for dinner. They walk down Michigan Avenue. He takes her hand. They begin attending Friday night services together. He buys her flowers for her birthday. She hints that it’s time. He ignores the hints, hoping to put off the inevitable until he’s figured out a way to erase the memory of their first liaison.
“I am on a mission,” Rabbi Plotkin says on the phone. Marvin finds himself later that day in the same small office at Beth Jacob Nussbaum where he once stood seeking guidance from Rabbi Plotkin about the meaning of life. The rabbi is sitting in the same dark green leatherette office chair.
“Mr. Kessler,” he begins. “You’re seeing Miss Sonnenfeld, I hear.”
“We’ll have a frank discussion, you and I. Man to man.” He smiles, leaning forward.
“Sure,” Kessler says, not knowing what the rabbi is getting at.
“Embarrassment is not a weakness, Mr. Kessler. It’s a strength. An insincere person is not embarrassed. A cruel person is not embarrassed. Embarrassment shows sincerity, kindness.”
Marvin is growing uncomfortable. “Has Inez talked with you about . . . about us?”
“Inez? No. A man named Stuart Marcus was here to see me. A friend of yours, I’m told.”
Marvin is flummoxed. Is it possible, he wonders, that Stu, unable to help with my dilemma, enlisted the aid of the one person he has belittled all these years?
The rabbi continues: “He told me after your youthful tryst—if I may call it that—with Miss Sonnenfeld some years ago, he wasn’t sure whether you were blushing with pleasure or shame. And now that you and Miss Sonnenfeld have developed an attachment as adults, this misstep is causing you some difficulty.”
And so the rabbi and his congregant talk. The older man telling the younger about the importance of sex in Jewish law, and though it is permissible only in the context of marriage, it is nonetheless essential for rabbis to recognize that young couples will do what young couples will do.
“I’m no fool, Mr. Kessler. I knew Miss Sonnenfeld’s reputation when she was in high school. That’s why I took her under my wing. I saw she was better than that. That with encouragement, she would find her true self. There was a spark there similar to the one I saw in you when you were in my Hebrew class.”
The rabbi encouraged Kessler to speak frankly with Inez about the past. “Those two people,” he said, “are not these two people. Put the past behind you and enjoy each other as adults. You will thank me.”
Out in the fresh air, Kessler takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He decides not to tell Stu he knows about his visit with the rabbi. He calls Inez. They have a long talk about the past and the present. The air, he feels for the first time in months, is clear. They go to dinner at his parent’s apartment. The four of them, Betty and Leon, Inez and Marvin, sit around afterward telling stories—laughing to beat the band.