It Only Hurts To Pray

RODNEY IAN Birnbaum’s purple-trimmed prayer shawl slices through the early morning Jerusalem air with a vengeance. God only knows when, if ever, he’ll be this close to the source of all creation. Even among the world’s most devout he stands – or more accurately, sways – apart. Every Friday morning for the last five years Birnbaum has made the hour-long trek on noisy, steamy, green buses from his hovel in Har Nof, proud home of Jerusalem’s largest graveyard, to the Western Wall.

Anyone raised in an Orthodox Jewish home who has spent tens of thousands of hours in prayer can immediately spot a Johnny Come Lately like Rodney. And so he is. Rodney’s Jewish roots are about as deep as spit on a rock. His dad was an itinerant carpenter who never strayed from the fold – mainly because he had never joined the flock in the first place. Last Rodney heard from his pop, the old man was up in the Western Cascades of Oregon, cutting down pine trees by day, reciting Hindu chants as part of a commune by night.

Rodney now climbs the first rung on the celestial ladder, softly but fervently singing from Psalms 30 and 67. His thoughts drift to a mocha-skinned girl named Naomi Blue. It’s 2007 all over again. Birnbaum met Blue 13 years ago while he was still living  in Los Angeles. They locked eyes during a Zionist Organization of America young professionals’ mixer at California State University, Northridge’s Oviatt Library. They vibed, went out for drinks,        impressed each other with obscure facts about the Oslo Accords, got drunk at a dive bar they both loved – Scotland Yard on Sherman Way – and stumbled back to Rodney’s place warbling the Israeli national anthem.

As the sun came up over Birnbaum’s San Fernando Valley bedroom window, he felt altogether at peace. He had momentarily lost all memory of the slow-motion train wreck his life had become. A week before he and Naomi chatted the night away over a bottle of White Zinfandel in his apartment on Zelzah Avenue, Rodney had been let go from his job as one of five deputy editors at the Los Angeles Daily News. He was also three months behind on his rent. And let’s not forget his prized 2003 Honda Civic DX, which had been recently repossessed. In LA, the only people you’re likely to see walking the streets are the homeless, clinically insane or the odd method actor losing himself in a role.

Meanwhile, Naomi had bought a one-way ticket to the Land of Milk and Honey and was flying out in a couple of days. Ms. Blue looked good naked, smelled good always and had an easy charm about her. So, it was a no-brainer what Birnbaum’s answer would be when she popped the big question: “Want to fly to Israel with me?”

A back spasm jolts Birnbaum back to the here and now, right during the Shema, where he’s supposed to be contemplating God’s greatness and oneness. Rodney was a star fullback for the not-so rough and tumble El Camino Real Conquistadors, a school that excelled in academic decathlons, not athletics. But he messed up his back after the final snap of the final game of his high school career.

He slowly healed, and now only feels pain when he prays. In some weird way, standing and bowing inside a synagogue or at the Kotel replicates the movements of a running back being taken down by a hard charging lineman. The chiropractor who drew this comparison between prayer and pig skin, one Dr. Rafael Ben Rafael, got his training from a Cyprus-based online medical school. It’s worth noting that Dr. Ben Rafael is currently standing trial for the role he played in a scheme to defraud the Israeli Health Ministry out of millions of shekels.

Winter in Jerusalem turns bones brittle, so it cuts like a knife this last time Rodney prays at the retaining wall built around the Second Temple by that wicked and wily King Herod the Great. But this time, the intense throbbing is dulled by the happy text he had received a few minutes earlier, as he crossed St. James Street into the Jewish Quarter – right above the Cardo. His mother Myrna had come around. After months of agonizing ambivalence, she agreed to let him crash at her place in Tarzana until he landed a job as an urban planner with the city of Los Angeles.

He completes the prayer session, folds up his tallit, kisses it and gently places it back in its clear plastic bag covering. He managed to stay on Israel: The Ride for over a decade, far more than any Los Angelino he’d met here. Naomi Blue, the girl whose pretty laugh had lured him across the world’s second largest ocean was long gone. She met and fell in love with an Israeli fighter pilot who was neither. But he was a bonafide psychotic, so Naomi fled back to the West Coast a decade ago. She eventually married a well-mannered, well-groomed and well-spoken human resources executive named Weisberger.

Rodney boards the big blue and white flying machine that will magically transport him back to the Dodgers, Sepulveda Boulevard and non-Jews. The sharp stabbing sensation in his back suddenly ceases. He can’t help but wonder whether this is because God has decided to throw in his support or abandon him altogether.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Report, September 2020.       

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