But the summer I turned 38, I freaked out about the approaching Four Zero — which was old even for the nonreligious world — so I went to Israel, where I had lived in my 20s, to visit old friends and figure out where my life had gone wrong. On my last day there I ran into the mother and father of my best friend from high school. Without prompting, my friend’s mother insisted I go see the rabbi she’d entrusted with such weighty matters.
“He told me exactly when both my daughters would get married,” she gushed, writing down the phone number on my newspaper. “He also saved my husband from death,” she added, gesturing at him.
As she told me the story of how doctors had given her husband only days to live until the rabbi prayed and cured him, the man himself — 60-something and in seemingly good health — stood next to her, rolling his eyes and literally snorting in disbelief.
He was like many Modern Orthodox people who consider themselves to be very grounded and rational (aside from the whole Creationism thing, the Moses-Parting-the-Red-Sea thing, and the God-Giving-the-Ten-Commandments-on-a-Mountain thing). They don’t believe in anything bordering on the alternative, like kabbalah, especially rabbis with supernatural powers.
I might have stopped being Orthodox, but its indoctrination had left me with the sense that nearly anything — God, spiritualists, healers, psychics and witches — might be equally possible. Thus I found myself in an airless Jerusalem classroom with this old rabbi, who had a white beard so long I couldn’t see his mouth and glasses so thick I couldn’t see his eyes.