July 07

In Vincoli

Jeffrey M. Green

“Divorce her! Divorce her! He told him, but he said she was sick and she needed him. He's the Jewish chaplain on an air force base in Germany, and she's a nymphomaniac, sleeping with all the officers, and he won't divorce her.”

As an only child, surrounded by adults, I learned to pretend I wasn't interested in conversations they thought I couldn’t understand. My father was in our narrow kitchen telling my mother about an anguished phone call he'd gotten from Abraham Katz, one of his clients, the owner of an insurance agency. I was reading in the dining alcove next to the kitchen, and I don't think he noticed I was there. It was typical of my father to have his clients confide in him about their personal problems, even though he was their lawyer, not their psychologist. That was before lawyers billed their clients by the quarter hour for their phone calls.

It must have been in the mid-1950s, when I was around twelve and becoming interested in the discovery that adults had sex with each other. I already knew what “divorce” was, because the parents of a girl in our class had gone through an acrimonious divorce a few years earlier. I had also heard about “nymphomania” in smutty conversations with other boys. I recognized the client's name, because every year he gave us a desk-diary, which we kept next to the telephone. The pages on the diaries were unlined and mainly blank, two days per page. One of my parents always doodled on them, drawing silhouettes of faces. I think it was my mother, because she was the more artistic of the two, but I never found out who it was.

When people hear that I grew up in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, they imagine someplace free and open. I guess it was, compared to the rest of America at that time, but my parents were by no stretch of the imagination bohemians. We lived in a staid sixteen story building on Washington Square, with a doorman and elevator men, in an apartment that would rent for a fortune today, despite being small, badly laid out, and dark. I was not an adventurous child. Then as now, I was a reader of books and an eavesdropper on conversations.

I never met Katz, but I heard a lot about him, because my father got a kick out of him. He was gruff and aggressively Jewish in a way that made my father, a restrained man, gleeful. Katz once told my father about a tour he'd gone on to Italy with a group from his Reform temple. In Rome, the guide took their group to see the statue of Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli. The guide explained to the group that Michelangelo had put horns on Moses' forehead because the Hebrew word for “rays of light” can also mean “horns,” which is correct. But Katz called out, “Don't give us any bull! He put horns on Moses, because the goyim thought that Jews had horns.”

Voices from the phone or the radio always conjure up images of their owners. I had answered telephone calls from Abraham Katz several times when he 'd called to speak with my father, and I saw him as a heavy, imposing man, a swarthy and bearish, with hairy arms. I visualized him with the group in Rome wearing Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, smoking a cigar and speaking loudly with a New York accent, deceptively coarse, because in fact he was smart and well-read, not caring what the Romans thought about him. In his office, I saw him wearing a rumpled blue suit and a white shirt with a loose tie and an open collar, sitting behind a massive desk with two or three phones on it, talking loudly on one of them. Abe Katz, a vigorous and self-confident man, would have divorced a wayward wife immediately.

When I was in college, I went to Rome one summer and saw the famous statue myself. I was surprised by the obscure setting of the church and the statue, surprised that it was something you had to go out of your way to see. Moses' horns reminded me of the anecdote that Katz had told about himself. I wanted to free my experience of the statue from that anecdote, but I couldn't. Because of it, though I'd seen pictures of the statue, I expected the horns to be shocking or grotesque, but they looked entirely natural, not like a deformity but rather like a sign of awesome wisdom. If Katz had been there with me, I would have argued with him: the horns don't prove that Michelangelo was an anti-Semite, and in any event, there were Jews in Rome in his time, and he would have known that we don't have horns.

- - -

My father was usually discreet about his clients, as befits an ethical attorney, and he never told my mother or me stories about their legal problems. But Katz wasn't discreet about himself. He told my father about his brash response to the guide because he was proud of it. He was also indiscreet about his daughter-in-law's behavior. He must have known about it from painful letters and phone calls from his son, who couldn't have wanted his problems to be aired with his father's attorney.

Though I'd never even heard his voice, I imagined Rabbi Edward Katz a plump man with fair, delicate skin, thin hair that lay on his head lifelessly, and thick glasses. All the officers on his base were tall, athletic men with crew-cuts who laughed at him openly. The scandal of his marriage was the most lurid story I overheard from my parents when I was a child. The elder Katz evidently confided in my father because he was sure there would be no gossip. Though the two men were fond of one another, the Katzes lived somewhere in Brooklyn, and our circles didn't overlap. In fact, my mother and I never met Abe Katz, his wife, or his children. He was just one of the colorful characters whose stories my father occasionally brought home from the office to the dinner table.

Another one, whom I got to know, was a fellow lawyer who spoke like someone out of a Damon Runyan story. At the closing of a complex real estate deal, in which he was representing the buyer, the seller's lawyer gave an unnecessary half hour disquisition about the contract, in a transparent attempt to impress his client and justify his fee. When the man had sat down, with the satisfied look of someone who loves the sound of his own voice, my father's friend turned to him, without rising, and rasped: “So you won’t talk, eh?”

There was also a man from Long Island who designed industrial bakeries and who became a family friend. My father was representing him in a nasty lawsuit. The client's brother had broken off from the family business , begun to compete with it, and then sued his brother for stealing trade secrets. My father was pained by the brother's vicious distortion of the facts and gross ingratitude and was gratified when he finally won the suit. While this was going on, the client's daughter died of a brain tumor and not long afterward his son died during elective surgery to remove a benign bone cyst that would otherwise have disqualified him for military service. The client was a religious Catholic, and my father couldn't understand how he maintained his faith. “He's like Job.”

Like the others the story about the chaplain's “nymphomaniac” wife caught my mind, but unlike them it aroused my adolescent imagination. I pictured the wife with bright red hair, in revealing clothes, seducing the other officers on the base. With more maturity, when I reflected on the story, I felt sorry for her long-suffering and solicitous husband, who had the probably thankless task of serving as the Jewish chaplain on a US base in Germany. Assuming that Katz' father's story was in any way accurate, the young rabbi's isolation must have been deep and many-layered: the isolation of a Jew in post-war Germany, the isolation of a not-particularly military Jewish officer in the American army, the isolation of a husband whose wife shamed him by openly having affairs. Were I in such a situation, I would have sunk into desperate depression. I might have confided in a father as discreet as mine, but I can't imagine I would have breathed a word to someone like Abraham Katz.

I started thinking about Rabbi Edward Katz again because of an English movie I saw, about a man whose wife has an affair, but who loves her too much to divorce her. The plot of the movie gives the husband plenty of opportunities to get revenge for the betrayal, even to have his wife sent to prison for killing a cyclist in a hit-and-run accident, but he chooses to see her behavior as a reproach to him, so it seems, and he loves her even more after she has spent a year and a half with her lover, while he was dying of cancer. I thought of the film as a peculiarly Christian film about the redemptive power of love. It made me wonder whether Rabbi Edward Katz got angry at his wife, whether he fantasized about killing her and her lovers, or whether he really did, as his father told mine, think of her as a sick woman, whom he was obliged to help with patience and counsel.

In the 1970s, some time after I moved to Israel with my wife, new friends of ours took us to see paintings by a painter named Nola Katz, a friend of theirs. We drove out to see her work at their house in Ein Karem, a rustic neighborhood on the western edge of Jerusalem. It was a restored Arab house, with olive trees and tall cactus plants in the garden. My wife and I were thinking of opening an art gallery, and we wanted to see what kind of painters were around. Nola Katz was in her late fifties, and we were a little over thirty. She was plump and sexy, with curly dark hair, and her paintings depicted fleshy, nude figures in the dry landscape of the Judean hills. The colors were bright and harsh, and the figures were intentionally awkward. There were naked children running and displaying their immature penises and hairless vaginas, couples making love under olive trees, a naked teenage boy and girl mounted bareback on a horse. They seemed to be about affirming sensuality and libido in a stony, arid place that denied it. After we saw her pictures, we sat down for coffee and cake with Nola and her husband, a tall, bald, and wiry man with a thin face and a short graying beard. He seemed strong and confident, at ease in his life.

While Nola was making the coffee, we sat at the table with Edward. We were new to Israel then, and the Katzes had been there for fifteen years or more. To make conversation, Edward asked us where we were from, and why we had decided to move to Israel – the kind of questions one almost always asked on such occasions. He told us he was from Brooklyn and had been ordained as a Reform rabbi, but he'd never actually worked as a rabbi except in the American air force. He had become a businessman in Israel, exporting kosher foods. I said it seemed strange that a rabbi should go into business, and he told me that it was in his blood. His father had owned a big insurance agency.

I felt an excitement I couldn't reveal. I had finally met Abraham Katz' cuckolded son.

“This is a wild coincidence,” I said. “I think your father and mine were friends.” I told Edward that my father was a lawyer and mentioned his name. Edward recognized it. Then I reminisced briefly about the desk diaries we got from Abraham Katz every year, spiral notebooks bound in black with “Abraham Katz, Insurance Agency” embossed in gold letters on the cover.

Edward smiled. “Sure. I used to have a ton of them. I kept notes in them at college”

I had spoken about the desk diaries, but I was thinking about the perplexing and painful story about their troubled marriage. Looking at Nola Katz, the sexy mother of three teenage children, it wasn't hard to imagine her as a troubled young chaplain's wife on an air base in Germany.

My wife fell in love with one of her paintings: olive trees in the Judean hills with two naked girls of eight or nine reclining on a bright red blanket under them, and we bought it that very afternoon – one of the first acquisitions in our collection of contemporary Israeli art, though we never did open a gallery. Nor did we ever become friends of the Katzes. The age difference and the story, which I never told my wife, stood in the way. When I look at the painting, I often think about the scraps of private information about us that may hover in the ill-defined space of rumor and speculation, disconnected from our lives and so impossible to understand. Twenty years after we had last seen the Katzes, dinner guests of ours admired Nola's painting it and recognized her style. They told us they had met her in England. She and Edward were divorced by then.


Images: Two untitled works by Alon Ochana


Jeffrey M. Green has been living in Israel since 1973. He has translated many important Hebrew writers such as Gnessin, Mendele, Agnon, and Appelfeld.