Just back from a fabulous almost 2 week vacation. Yes, it is important to get out of the office, although email blurs exactly what ‘getting away’ means these days. But for a rabbi (or I imagine pretty much any clergy person) it is also important, every once in a while, to simply not be recognized. To be able to walk down a street, go to a restaurant, or a bar, or a store, and be fairly certain that you are not going to run into anyone you know. (This is also, by the way, good for the rabbi’s spouse!)
This is one of the dilemmas of being a public figure. And it is a good problem! People want to say hi, to check in, to touch base, to reach out. And their intentions are genuine, and they are genuinely nice people, and the truth is I am a friendly person and enjoy running into people and the quick 2 minute how are you? good to see you. I really do.
But there is something to be said for being under the radar every once in a while. And when I travel I tend to travel, rabbi-wise, incognito (from the Latin – ‘in’ (not) and ‘cognitus’ (known). An example. On airplanes, when sitting next to a person I do not know who asks me what I do for a living, I will often parry the question by saying “I work in human services.” Why? Because I know from experience that once I say I am a rabbi all sorts of bizarre conversations can ensue, and I don’t want to spend my entire two hours on the airplane talking theology with someone I don’t know. That simple.
So for almost two weeks now I haven’t been ‘the rabbi.’ And here is the paradox: in not being the rabbi, I can simply be Steve; in simply being Steve, I am ultimately a better rabbi.
That being said, one quick anecdote. Some years ago I traveled to Scotland with 5 of my closest friends from college. We had a wonderful time, toured distilleries, played cards, fished for salmon, played golf. One round of golf played on a very rustic links course outside of Dufftown (in the Highlands for you whisky enthusiasts) ended with two of my friends and I sitting at the clubhouse bar having a pint. The gentleman who ran the course (and the bar) was a gregarious fellow, engaging us in conversation. Of course it didn’t take long for him to ask us what we did back in the States. My one friend sells insurance. The other was in the real estate business. And I told the truth – “I am a rabbi,” I said somewhat hesitantly.
I will always remember his response. He looked at us thoughtfully for a moment. Then he said this, looking at us each in turn: “I’d buy insurance from you, a property from you, and I would come to hear you preach!”
We are still waiting!