Curious George Finkelstein
A former rabbi-teacher of mine has been accused of molesting students. So, why can’t I stop thinking of the good he did?
The abuse of power, said the artist Jenny Holzer, comes as no surprise, and it certainly never has to me. I spent my childhood beneath the omnipotent thumb of the omniscient God of the Old Testament, and nobody abuses power like Yahweh abuses power.
Do what I say, proclaimeth the Lord, and nobody gets hurt. I might even turn you into a great nation.
Jehovah wasn’t the only one in my universe, though, to abuse his position of power. There was my father, to begin with, who abused alcohol and then, when the alcohol was gone, abused his family. There was the vice principal of my yeshiva grade school, who invited the seventh- and eighth-graders to play racquetball at his health club and then go to his home to sit—in various states of undress—in his private Jacuzzi. There was the head of an Orthodox summer sleep-away camp I attended a year later, who used the excuse of nighttime “bed checks” to reach beneath the blankets of the boys he fancied and fondle their genitals.
So when, a year or so later, I arrived at Yeshiva University High School and heard all the stories of Rabbi George Finkelstein taking students into his office and wrestling with them—and we all heard the stories—I wasn’t exactly taken aback. The abuse of power, rabbinical or otherwise, comes as no surprise. Frankly, the wrestling bit seemed refreshingly Greco-Roman. At least there were rules, at least it involved fighting and anger and rage; you could, with enough effort, pin the piece of shit. No, what bothered me more than the wrestling was something common in the minds of the unabused: What bothered me most was that he never wanted to wrestle with me.
What’s wrong with me? I wondered. Why is he wrestling David and Ari and Eli and not me? I wasn’t the best-looking kid in the world, sure, but I wasn’t hideous. I mean, if I were a weirdo rabbi who liked wrestling kids, I’d totally want to wrestle me. I’d be all over myself.
But George didn’t wrestle me. He didn’t rub up against me, or massage my shoulders. It was worse.
He encouraged me.
He supported me.
He was kind to me.
And that’s what makes this whole sordid tale so personally difficult. Because while my other rabbis encouraged me to be observant, to be a Good Jew, George encouraged my interest in art. He encouraged me to draw, to go to museums. He encouraged me to write, and to read, and to write some more. He encouraged me to not let my friends keep me from my goals, to not let myself get dragged down by the others around me.
Of course I did have what my mother back then proudly called proteczia—protection, in the form of my uncle, who was the president of the yeshiva. There’s abusive, after all, and then there’s just stupid; my uncle was George’s boss’s boss, and even the horniest rabbi wouldn’t risk rubbing his throbbing Covenant with God against his boss’s boss’s nephew’s ass.
Proteczia would explain why George never wrestled me. It would explain why he might have stayed away from me, ignored me, smiled politely but safely had nothing at all to do with me.
But it doesn’t explain, to my mind, why he supported me. I smoked pot, I smoked cigarettes, I walked around the halls wearing pseudo-philosophical Jenny Holzer T-shirts I’d shoplifted from the Museum of Modern Art gift shop; I was hardly a believable witness. Even if George had wrestled me, who could I tell who would have believed me? Cain had a better shot of getting a fair trial than I did.
And so I’ve thought of George now and then over the years, wondering whatever became of him. Because somewhere along the way I’d come to the conclusion that if I had to make a list of all the rabbis in my life I could genuinely admire, rabbis who seemed like decent people and not just Good Jews, the list would be exactly one rabbi long:
And then, a few weeks ago, the “Did you hear about George” emails began, and all the old stories about his wrestling and the yeshiva’s failure to protect the students were new again, and my first thought, again, was the very childlike, “Gee, why didn’t he ever wrestle me?”
And my second thought was the very adult-like, “Fuck.” Because the Rabbis I Actually Admired list was now down to zero.
There’s something to be said for hitting bottom, I guess.
Unless there’s a horny rabbi lying on top of you.
George was … curious.
He spoke in a curious manner, he walked with a curious gait. He was fastidious, almost antiseptic, his hair always in place, his beard always trimmed. My friends and I were certain he was gay, but we were teenagers, and we were certain everyone we disliked was gay.
Most students hated him.
Some tolerated him.
Nobody liked him.
Except, secretly, me.
Because George was curious.
Because he was vice principal of the high-school yeshiva, it was one of his responsibilities to convince the students to continue their education at the yeshiva college, and he made the case for it whenever he could. I had taken an interest in art and was reading about artists whenever I could. One day George saw me in the cafeteria reading a book on Picasso, my favorite artist at the time.
He walked over and looked down at me.
“You know,” he said, “the yeshiva college has a very good art program.”
I looked up at him.
“No, they don’t,” I said.
He threw his head back and laughed.
“No,” he said. “No, they don’t.”
He asked me if I was considering Parson’s School of Art. I told him I was thinking about Cooper Union, but that it was tough to get in.
“You’ll get in,” he said with a confidence in me I’d never heard before. “You’ll get in.”
Then he glanced at his watch.
“Ten minutes to Talmud class,” he said. “Get moving.”
I didn’t mind Talmud class—it was pointless arguing, but I liked arguing. It was the daily prayers I hated the most. I hated God and didn’t feel like praising him; if anyone should be asking forgiveness, it was fucking Yahweh. So, each morning I sat in the back with my friends and talked. Loudly. Usually, George let it go. But one morning, he didn’t; he was in a bad mood, and so was I. He stormed over to us and told me to keep quiet. I told him I wasn’t praying anyway, so what was the difference. My friend laughed. George’s face reddened, and he told me to get out. He followed me outside to the crowded lobby.
“And don’t come back,” he said loudly. The other students turned around. He held up three fingers. “Three days.”
“You’re suspending me?”
I felt the room spin. I didn’t care about missing yeshiva, but I knew what would happen when my father found out. So did George, though; I had not kept my family’s dysfunctions a secret from him, and he could see the terror on my face. He stepped toward me and spoke quietly so the others wouldn’t hear.
“I’m not calling home,” he said. “I don’t care what you do, or where you go, but don’t let me see you here, not even for a minute.”
He walked away, turning back at the stairway door and holding his three fingers up again.
“Three days,” he said loudly again, the anger in his face still visible. “Three days.”
I spent the next three days at the Museum of Modern Art, with occasional stops at the peep shows in Times Square.
George never called home.
When I returned to yeshiva three days later, he asked me where I’d gone.
“MoMA,” I said.
“I prefer the Met,” he replied with a smile.
George was curious.
Three weeks ago, thanks to the reporting of the Forward, I found out what happened to George: He’d fled, like so many other Jews who find themselves under a cloud of suspicion, to Israel. He fled there, as Rabbi Naked Jacuzzi had, and as Rabbi Under the Covers Bed Check had. It’s no surprise that NAMBLA is changing its slogan to “Next Year in Jerusalem.” (You can use that joke, by the way, but I totally want credit for it.) I’m certain this is not what God had in mind for his Promised Land. “And you will reach the land that I promised you, and you will settle there, and you will bring with you there all your perverts and all your molesters, and all your murderers and all your embezzlers, and all your tax cheats and all your white-collar criminals, to live in freedom from all charges and fines and legal authorities that pursue them, and you will be for me a less-than-great nation with questionable ethics and perverted morals, but I’ll take what I can get. PS: no cheeseburgers.”
So, what is all this then, Auslander? What’s with all these positive reminiscences of a clearly troubled man? Is this some kind of defense of a rabbi accused of physically and emotionally hurting countless number of yeshiva students? Is that what this is about?
It’s not about a defense.
It’s about monsters.
The strange thing about monsters is that, as children, we believe in them and the adults tell us they’re not real, that there are no such things and we should just go back to sleep. And we believe them. But later, as we grow up and become adults and we see the world in all its misery and suffering and injustice and cruelty and shit … we decide to believe in monsters again. Because monsters help us to make sense of the world. Monsters help us feel better about our obviously non-monster selves.
There are monsters, after all, and then there’s … us.
If only all the monsters were full-time, green-skinned horror-show monsters. If only they were ogres top to bottom, demons start to finish. If only they had pointy horns and red eyes and razor-sharp claws.
But they don’t.
They have ties and jackets and jobs.
And some have beards.
And some wear yarmulkes.
And sometimes they do good.
And sometimes they do bad.
And sometimes the bad they do nullifies the good; in my case, looking back now on the situation, I am even more disillusioned than before, which is no small feat. Disillusioned with rabbis, religion, people, men, with the whole goddamned planet. If I were God, I’d fucking flood it.
So, trust me—I’d love it if George was a monster. Because George (allegedly, Ms. Attorney) did a lot of bad. But he also did some good.
He was curious.
Just like birth, and life, and love, and death, and all the unbearable and barely bearable moments in between.
Very, very curious.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
As immigrants revive the German city’s historic community, new ideas emerge about Jewish engagement