Is Gossip Kosher? Notes from a Former Cantor’s Wife

I’ve had the very great pleasure in recent days of reading Strength to Stand by Sheyna Galyan, the newest installment of a three-book mystery series. The story follows the journeys of two (and sometimes more) rabbis who are central to the plotline.

I’m not going to give away more than that, other than to say you WILL love these books if you read them and have a hard time putting them down. (I’m not even a mystery lover, but you don’t have to be.) More than a whodunit, the book explores the complexities inherent in Jewish communities and being Jewish; and also shows us how extremism can poison any community.

Another thing resonating deeply with me is Sheyna’s innate grasp of clergy—their doubts, struggles, and how congregations sometimes react to their spouses and kids. The book made me recall an incident that happened when I was new to the Cities and my former spouse’s congregation. He was a cantor at a local synagogue and we had arrived in warm weather. Though I wore long skirts (and we’re talking ankle length here) I was not wearing hose with my sandals. Just before a brunch with friends, I opened a letter with a brief note:

“Dear Madam,
At this Temple, we wear stockings.”

It was unsigned, but the handwriting, according to the rabbi, made him believe the note was written by an older person from another country. Whoever it was never came forward, though she (he?) did succeed in making me cry.

Over the years, I received other critiques, some well meaning, others not. I overheard the president of the synagogue say something about how I dressed on Rosh Hashanah. (Why she was so worried about that on a Day of Awe is beyond me). Others criticized me for not volunteering more; and still others had their opinions about my son and whether he should be allowed (or not allowed) at services.

Do we really need gossip in places where we’re supposed to be connecting to God?

But nothing anyone said while I was married compared to what they said when I was in the midst of a divorce. According to various gossip hounds, I was returning to New York and leaving (or taking) my son because I was overly ambitious; I didn’t like being married; I hadn’t wanted children. Of course, people had plenty to say about their cantor, too.

Some years after the divorce, I attended my son’s bar mitzvah at his dad’s synagogue with my current husband. Many people came up to greet us warmly, and that made me feel a bit more comfortable, though I am sure some continued talking about us.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is the only synagogue in the world where gossip occurs. We all do it—sure. But do we really need gossip in places where we’re supposed to be connecting to God? How exactly, does that make things better for us or our kids?

Gossip photo

Courtesy S Packwood

In Hebrew, we call gossip la-shone ha ra—literally meaning “evil tongue.” To me, that means that what you are saying will leave a bad taste not only in your mouth, but in the mouths of people hearing your words. Yet, isn’t this one of the easier behaviors that we can change? When it comes to what we say, don’t we have a choice? If something bugs us about a friend, you can share it with that friend (hopefully, respectfully). So, why not try it with our clergy? Can we possibly imagine they want to make congregants happy—and they’re just as human as the rest of us?

This is what Sheyna Galyan shows us so brilliantly in her book. She allows us to see the people behind their roles in our synagogues (and their husbands, wives and children).

I hope more people will enjoy Strength to Stand for its many-layered complexities—and think twice before they badmouth their rabbis and cantors—and their husbands, wives and children, too.