Joe Biden, The Rabbi and Me

Some times the headlines come knocking at your front door. Such was the case last week. I had lunch with a rabbi I’ve known for close to 25 years, almost since she graduated from the seminary. Don’t miss the identifier there, it’s key. The word she.

Vice President Biden’s touchy-feely problems had been all over the news. I found for the two days preceding the meeting that I was becoming perplexed on how to greet this old friend–verbally? a handshake? a hug? a buss on the cheek? I began to fret with my indecision. Had this been a first meeting, no problem.  However, I was at the ceremony installing this woman, then young woman, as a congregational rabbi. I was at her first sermon. We talked about life during her divorce, especially life for clergy when life doesn’t work out the way one hopes. There were programs together. She was an applicant to become a chaplain in the program I ran for the sheriff’s department. We discussed the robbery of her house, her fear of guns, and her eventual inability to overcome those very real fears–fears especially powerful for a single parent.

Now to me. I’m 75. I come from what in Brooklyn we call a “kissing”  family, and I was taught by a proper mother what the proper way to comport myself was. Unfortunately, young boys don’t kiss many rabbis, especially then when female rabbis were almost unheard of. Came the meeting over lunch and I did “what comes natchurly,” I bussed her hello, as I’d so often done, and she accepted it, something, by the way, I would never do inside the synagogue or at any time she is performing official duties.

Part of what clergy do is listen to problems so I thought it “natchural” to share my discomfort. It was an interesting discussion. Not surprisingly she told many a tale about the  “kissing/touching” issue from the perspective of a woman who was clergy. There were the men who took it as their right to try and kiss her. There were the even older men who looked at her more like a daughter or grand-daughter so of course, in their minds, they should kiss her. Some others had wandering hands; some had awful breath. Some she flat out didn’t like. Then too, she did a lot of work with the youngsters in the congregation. Not only did she not want to get sick for her own sake, she didn’t want to be picking up and passing along germs to the little ones bu being an open target for dozens of pairs of lips every Friday and Saturday.

What struck me was that she needed a “defensive strategy” every time a man she knew approached her. That’s wearing, but unavoidable unless she were to wear a “Do Not Kiss the Rabbi” sign around her neck. Not practical, not professional, nor should it be her problem.

Did we solve the problem? No. But working on it was interesting. She admonished me for my being perplexed. “Bill, I’ve known you almost my entire professional career. Of course, when meeting casually you can greet me with a kiss.” I thanked her but I am still processing this and now am not so sure. Her space should be her space; her cheek should belong to her husband and children. We’ll see where I come out on that one.

My “solution” was this. Unless she was blind-sided by someone, when she saw a man approaching her to whom she knew she had to greet with more than a passing “hello” or “shabbat shalom” then she should stick out her hand well enough in advance that there is no question about how the approaching male congregant should greet her. For a variety of reasons, including health, this should be done with women also.. For the persistent who try to bull-doze past the hand, the position can easily and subtly be changed to a flat hand that presses against the intruder’s chest and keeps him/her at bay.

Another interesting problem is that there are some women, in general, but in particular on the synagogue’s staff who like being kissed, hugged, flattered, and flirted with. Our protagonist does not. Those kiss and hug me women cause problems for the “please don’t” women because of the mixed signals given. Nor do I think that age increases one’s “rights” when it comes to this stuff. Just because you’ve lived long enough to lose a few teeth doesn’t increase one’s right to handle the clergy or anyone who isn’t part of your family and friends network.

Conclusion? There isn’t one. Guidelines, expressed or understood, they should be some hammered out at staff meetings. Bottom line? The problem is caused by men. The resolution of it, for now anyway, falls as a burden to women–at least from my perspective.

Back to the serious in this column, Bill Gralnick publishes his blog “At least from my perspective” most every Sunday. The blog appears here, on Linked-in, and is also linked into Facebook.

His two books, the third coming out this summer, a coming of age in Brooklyn memoir, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales From Brooklyn” can be found on his website, “http//”

Wishing he had a parrott to teach how to say this, Bill reminds you again–and again–“Read! It’s good for both of us.”

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