The first time these “guys” came down to fish, I was a little pensive.
Let me ask you something.
Did your shorts ever get a little tighter when you were a little kid and you found out your teacher, priest or minister was coming to visit…or to dinner…or sat at your table at the pancake breakfast or scout meeting?
There are certain people in life’s journey who occupy a special pedestal. Being a good Catholic kid, priests and teachers, nuns and lay teachers in my case, come to mind.
I mean…you’re little. You were down here close to the floor. Then there were your parents. Then there were these unassailable folks waaaay up here on levels where you tread lightly.
I was a pretty outgoing kid, but around these particular individuals, I was slack-jawed and goofy-brained. I would scuff my shoes around and never ever make eye contact!
Heck no. They could fix you in those tractor-beam eyes and then you’re done. Or something could happen.
They thought I was rude or shy. I was just scared!
So, in those social events that we all go through like school festivals, Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners, Christmas pageants and the like. It was giggle-and-point time to see such esteemed personage chowing on barbecue; dressing down in regular-people-clothes; picking up a bat at the softball game (and clubbing it) ; or bringing their spouse to the PTA dance.
Hard to believe they did “normal people things!”
“Hey, Sister Mary Paul is eating a real hot dog!”
“Mrs. McNulty is here with her (gasp) husband!”
“Father Flynn is wearing shorts and a t-shirt in the dunk tank!”
So, it was with some apprehension many years ago when Rabbi Bernie booked his group of other rabbis and members of his congregation to come down to fish. Including the clergy, it also included Jewish lawyers, Jewish accountants and Jewish executives. All from the same temple.
This would be interesting.
Back in the day, I actually used to go to the airport to pick up our clients and wasn’t sure what to expect.
I knew they were not Hassidic so I didn’t expect the long black robes, hats and beards, but as they arrived through the terminal, I admit I was relieved to see shorts, sandals and Hawaiian print shirts and baseball hats! Whew.
And each of them greeted me with the biggest hug and told me how glad they were to be there, as if we were old friends!
The next few days dispelled any anxiety I might have had.
At dinner that evening (I made sure there was no pork), it was nice to see them sip a beer. Put their feet up. Relax.
As one of the rabbis told me before headed to bed, “It’s nice to decompress. Nice to not be under a microscope. Just like normal dudes!” Dudes? Did he just say “dudes?”
The next day on the pangas, I was out there with Rabbi Bernie. He wasn’t exactly fishing too hard with a lot of energy.
I was trying to imagine this man in his temple vestments. Today, he was “styling” with Ray Ban sunglasses; a pirate-print bandana and a very loud red Hawaiian shirt.
He leaned back against the gunwale with his feet up, “You know, I don’t care if I catch a fish or not. Out here, there’s no phone. There are no emergencies. If I want to belch or have an occasional beer or have Rabbi Jerry pull-my-finger, I don’t have to worry that someone might see and judge me.” He laughed.
I never thought of it like that.
He then started to softly sing a Hebrew song in a wonderful resonant voice that had graced many a congregation. His voice swelled.
As water will do…his voice carried to another panga. And the song was picked up by the rabbi and the lawyer in that panga.
As I was told later, it was a biblical song about prophets finding an oasis in the desert of Israel. How appropriate.
It was picked up by another voice… then another. Beautiful manly voices carried across the water. Glorious. Uplifting. Spiritual. Every fisherman on every panga stopped to listen!
And then it stopped. A moment of silence. And then one-by-one, there was a hand clapping. And another. And another. And soon a dozen captains and their fishermen blended their applause and cheering!
“That was cool!”
And then the craziest thing…
The rabbi broke out into the rousing Broadway tune “OKLAHOMA” from Rogers and Hammerstein! Four others joined in and we had rip-roaring-deck-stomping a-capella going! With gusto!
“OOOO-kla-homa where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…!”
“…and when we say…YEEOW! A Yippie-yo-kai-yay…”
It was an incredible treat for everyone who witnessed it. And heard it.
At the end, again the applause and hoots!
Rabbi Bernstein sat down on the panga bench seat with the biggest smile. He shrugged like it was no big deal. He winked.
“Several of us were theater majors in college as well as theology students, “ he revealed off-handedly with a laugh as he tossed a new bait into the water.
“God can be glorified in many ways… in many languages and I’m sure he likes a lively Broadway tune now and then!” He laughed again. And so did I.
I have no doubt that God also smiled on us that day.
Later at dinner, one of the rabbis said, “Jonathan…Before we were ever members of the clergy, we were all guys. Regular guys. And we did guy things. Trips like this are an opportunity to be regular guys again, and that’s why these fishing trips to Baja are so special. Thank you for having us.”
It was I who was grateful.
Shortly after, I saw a half-dozen 50-and-60-year-olds start a spit-wad fight with straws and wadded napkins.
In the restaurant.
You never heard such laughter. Boys will be boys. A guy has to do what a guy has to do. And when a target presents itself…I grabbed a straw and joined in. I hadn’t done that since 2nd grade! Duck!
When they left after 3 days of fishing, Rabbi Bernie pressed a little note into my hand. He had scribbled…
“Sometimes it is better to sit in a fishing boat thinking about God than to sit in a church thinking about fishing.”
Shalom Jonathan. Peace.
I never forgot. And to this day, I remember the words to “Oklahoma too.” And a special day in the Baja sunshine