Melissa Steiner

The Rabbi under the bridge

There is a Rabbi under the bridge near my house.

Although this sounds like the beginning of a Shel Silverstein poem, or an amusing anecdote involving wise fools in Chelm, trust me. It isn’t.

I don’t honestly remember when the Rabbi first appeared. I know it was after the mayor evicted the squatters in the Eastern part of Givat Shmuel, and before Rosh Hashanah. It was definitely during Operation Tzuk Eitan.

One morning as I was walking to the bus, I noticed some tables and couches in what had otherwise been an empty patch of dirt. “Huh”, I said to myself, “someone’s doing some renovating”.

The next day, an Aron Kodesh, complete with a Torah, was there. I know this because the Aron was wide open at 6:30 in the morning. Each day there was something new to this setup: siddurim, sefarim; chairs; a mechitza, first from plastic and now from wood. One morning there was a mattress on the ground with the body of a prone teenaged boy. Recently he upgraded to a tent.

I guess he’s the security detail. I guess they want to keep the cats away.

Cat pee could only enhance the holiness of this place, right?
Cat pee could only enhance the holiness of this place, right? (courtesy)

In the mornings it is empty, and quiet. In the evenings there are lines of people, both men and women, waiting to see the Rabbi and ask for supplication (I guess). There are food and drinks, and for the most part everyone is just hanging out. Never mind that the entire sidewalk is impassable and so I need to go into the street to get home, which prompts many people to yell at me for endangering my life.

There are young, middle-age, and elderly men and women. Some come in groups, others come alone. Some are religious, but most are not. There are a few from Bnei Brak, but I don’t know if they are supplicants or relatives – although it is possible to be both. Many are repeat customers, but you can always tell when there’s a first-timer. They are the ones who think this setup has an address. Let me just clarify, it is not No. 1 Rechavam Ze’evi Street.

My husband and I jokingly refer to him as the Bridge Rabbi.

In the fairy tale with the Billy Goats Gruff, there is a troll living under the bridge who threatens to eat anyone who crosses. The three Billy Goats must cross the bridge if they want to survive, as there is no more food where they currently live. The two smaller goats manage to cross by telling the troll “to wait for a bigger goat to cross, which will be much more satisfying for him to eat”. Naturally, the troll thinks this is a great idea and waits for the biggest goat of all – who ends up kicking him over the bridge and into the river. The troll, though still living under the bridge, is never seen or heard from again.

Walking under the bridge is how I get to and from home each day. The presence of this pop-up shul slash Beit Midrash slash clubhouse leaves a very off-putting taste in my mouth. It’s not like my neighborhood is lacking in any of those regards – four additional shuls are currently under construction – and it seems strange that the Bridge Rabbi was unable to find a suitable home on the other side of the bridge, in Bnei Brak. It irks me that this Rabbi, in all his learned glory, has to resort to squatting under a bridge that has graffiti on the support columns.

What bothers me most of all is that everyone, from the mayor to the supplicants to the Bridge Rabbi himself, seems to think that this is okay. That this setup is a win-win situation for everyone (except me, what with the walking in the street and endangering my life bit).

In the fairy tale it is clear that the troll is the villain. Aside from our collective-conscious idea of a troll’s appearance, the troll does threaten physical bodily harm on anyone who crosses the bridge. The Billy Goats are the clear protagonists, using guile and trickery to outsmart the troll and get what they want – greener pastures on the other side.

But we don’t know how the troll ended up under the bridge in the first place. Was it by choice? Was it by force? Was it due to his (apparent) appearance?

Maybe that spot of land belonged to his family for generations, and then a village sprung up and the villagers decided to build a bridge connecting their village to the pre-existing one on the other side. Maybe he was thrown out because the other villagers were racist and didn’t want “his kind” to live among them.

But maybe the troll, like many other villains in fairy tales and moral stories, was simply misunderstood.

I’m still not sure, after months of walking by, if the Bridge Rabbi is the troll. I don’t know what type of Billy Goat he is waiting for, or why he feels that no-one should be allowed to cross the bridge, or walk under it, without feeling threatened. I’m not sure if he was knocked under on purpose, or if he chooses to be there.

I’m still not sure, after months of walking by, if the Bridge Rabbi is one of the Billy Goats – acting as a lure for the troll to come out so he can knock him down, where he will never be seen again. I don’t know if he is acting as a sentry, to prevent other trolls from taking over.
I don’t know why the Bridge Rabbi felt the need to come to this place and set himself up, of if he found himself there by happenstance. I don’t know how long this setup will remain.

In the meantime, I still walk under the bridge. I still feel weird walking by the Aron Kodesh at 6:30 in the morning. I still find it strange that there are lines of people waiting outside, in this weather no less, to see him.

And I still wait for the pews to arrive – at least then I can walk on the sidewalk in peace.

About the Author
Melissa is a bohemian artist trapped in the body of a responsible adult. She traded the cold of suburban Chicago for the smog of suburban Tel-Aviv, and doesn't miss it at all. (maybe a little) You can follow her periodic ramblings at her blog,