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The Curse of the Aspiring Messiah

"The Aspiring Messiah"

[A scene cut from Karen Bender's novel, Like Normal People]:

It would take God himself to convince Rabbi Sofstein that I was the Messiah. I imagined He would come during the Rabbi’s free discussion hour, when the Rabbi invited the congregation to confer with him about Jewish thought. God would not make an appointment; he would sweep down, white-robed, past the secretaries, walking unannounced through the Rabbi’s door. Rabbi Sofstein would not notice God at first, fervently scribbling this week’s sermons. And though he had spent his career reassuring his anxious Reform Jewish congregation that yes, one could be a good Jew without believing in a specific God, Rabbi Sofstein would eventually see the large, glowing figure standing in front of him. And he would know. “Joseph,” God would say, sitting down in front of the Rabbi, “I’ve sent the Messiah. She’s one of yours.” Rabbi Sofstein would sit, trembling, as God described me. One of the eighth graders. Shelley. There was something about me. He wasn’t sure what. I, Shelley Boxman, would be the Messiah, the savior of this earth.

As a rabbi who had dismissed the Messiah as a basic mother urge, I imagined it would take some convincing to make Rabbi Sofstein believe that the Messiah was, in fact, a member of the Religious School’s eighth grade. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe Rabbi Sofstein had sensed it in me, too, the way a parent can sense artistic talent in a child. Maybe the reason I felt so alone was because everyone sensed it—an oddness about me, a specialness, something that set me apart from the rest of the world. “I tell you,” said God, feeling chatty, “I didn’t think it would be a girl, for one thing. Or someone under 21. But I tell you,” he’d say, his eyes getting shiny, full of me, “She’s just a natural Messiah. She just had to be it.” And when He headed for the cloud, there would be no doubt.

Then Rabbi Sofstein would send me a summons.

The year I was 13, I kept waiting for someone to tell me that I was the Messiah. This was what I imagined:

It was a warm September day, the day I found out that I was the Messiah. I was in my Sunday School class, “Was Jesus the first Anti-Semite? Persecution of Jews through the Ages.” My teacher, Yakov, was trying to show us a slide show on shtetls, which we had already seen in our third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes. He read: “Shtetl life was very difficult. Food was always scarce. Women had to carry water from a central well back to their small, cramped homes.” The boys were doing wheelies with their desks and slamming back to the floor between slides. “Yakov, Yakov,” said Aaron Horwitz. “I have a question. Why do all the refugees look like Bruce Springsteen?”

“Look,” said Yakov. “You guys. Cut it. Shtetls are important. Shtetls are your ancestors. They are the cultural basis for your present life—“

“Can we go on to Cossack raids or something?” asked Aaron.

“No,” said Yakov, snapping off the projector. He got the summons. “Shelley Boxman. VERY URGENT. Please report to Rabbi.”

“Ooooooooh,” rose up like steam from my classmates.

And I went. I loved imaging my walk—I saw myself, small and dark, moving toward the Rabbi’s office, each step taking me away from my place in the world.

Rabbi Sofstein’s office was small, about the size of a bomb shelter. One wall of his office looked like a travel agency, with posters of Jerusalem and Masada, golden sun setting behind both of them; the other was covered with posters calling for nuclear disarmament. On top of his desk, cluttered with papers, was a flour and water map of the State of Israel that the third grade made every year. Rabbi Sofstein sat, rubbing his forehead. He was a man who had interpreted the Torah to support his crusade for a nuclear arms freeze; I imagined dealing with something as spiritual as the Messiah might be hard to swallow.

“Shelley,” he said, shaking my hand. “Have a seat.”

I did.

“School going well?”


“How are your sisters? Your parents?”


“Shelley,” he said, “God was just in here.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. I never imagined that meeting God would be very good for Rabbi Sofstein. I imagined that he’d look pale. A little embarrassed. And annoyed, perhaps, that the Torah was not just a work of literature—that it was, in fact, the truth.

But as the saviour of the world, I took the news differently. I smiled, understanding the confusion of a mere mortal like Rabbi Sofstein. I stood up and patted him on the back.

I waited for Rabbi Sofstein to tell me what I should do as the Messiah. I imagined that I’d have some sort of plan to save the world, but I never could quite envision what that plan would be. I could imagine Rabbi Sofstein rushing around his office, grabbing a map. “Well,” he said. “The Mideast is pretty bad. And of course we all know about the missile stockpiling. And then there’s the ozone—“ He stopped. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You probably know all that.”

I laughed, a kind Messiah laugh.

He stepped forward, a little shyly, then took my hand and shook it. “We’ve been waiting for you,” he said.

Rabbi Sofstein did not want to immediately inform the world that I was here to save it. For one thing, he wasn’t sure who to tell. “The American Association of Rabbis,” he suggested. “I’ll present you at the convention next month.” But he didn’t want to wait that long. The press, perhaps? The editor of the Los Angeles Times? “The Pope,” he said, grinning. But, finally, Rabbi Sofstein decided to start small. He would introduce me to Beth-Em’s synagogue.

I imagined Rabbi Sofstein springing the news on the temple during Rosh Hashanah, the one night of the year when the whole congregation showed up in force. I pictured myself sitting outside the synagogue and watching all the families park their cars and stride across the parking lot. Rosh Hashanah brought in most of the once-a-year Jews, and they walked slowly, cautiously toward the synagogue. Beth Em was built during the 1960s and resembled a space ship, capable of extraterrestrial (if not divine) communication. The members moved toward it, looking at its walls. Some of them eyed the synagogue with the same wary look one might give a mental hospital. Others walked quickly toward it, heads bent as though against a strong wind. But once their cars were firmly stowed in Beth Em’s parking lot, no one turned and went the other way.

I wasn’t mentioned in the program. Being introduced as the Messiah would be, I thought, very different from a Bat Mitzvah or piano recital; I wouldn’t have to do anything, I could just be. So when Rabbi Sofstein stopped in the middle of the service and nodded at me, I sat, surprised at how calm I was.

“Congregation,” said Rabbi Sofstein, “This is a very special night. This is a night that will go down in the history of the Jewish religion.” He took a deep breath. “Tonight,” he said, we will introduce the Messiah.”

The congregation sat patiently, awaiting, I guess, a page number. Rabbi Sofstein, nothing little appreciation for his announcement, leaned forward.

“The Mes-SI-ah,” he said. “And when the Messiah comes,” he said, “Peace will spread across the earth. The dead will rise and dance. And there will be harmony across this earth.”

My mother yawned. “What do you bet,” she whispered to my father, “This is going to lead into a talk about Israel.”

“The Messiah,” said Rabbi Sofstein, leaning over his lectern, “is one of you.”

“Oh, god,” my sister Adina hissed, “It’s probably one of those sixties ethics games.” But the rest of Beth Em’s congregation buzzed excitedly as Rabbi Sofstein began to walk slowly by each pew. And as he walked, something happened to Beth Em’s congregation; every member began to hope that the Messiah could be her (or him.) Women patted their hairdos; men reached up and adjusted their ties. I could see their desire in the way their hands were knotted. I could see it in the way they leaned forward. And I could see it on the way each face softened, eyes never leaving Rabbi Sofstein as he prepared to tell them who was the savior of this earth.

Rabbi Sofstein walked down one aisle and then another. The congregation was so still that all we could hear were the soft sounds the Rabbi’s feet made against the carpet. And then he stopped. “The Messiah,” he said, his voice so full it seemed to contain all of us for a moment. We were all suspended by Rabbi Sofstein’s voice, all of us aspiring Messiahs; for one moment we were all the same. And then the rabbi was, perhaps for the first time, the center of attention in this synagogue. For the first time, we were all listening.

Then he pointed to me and said, “It’s you! Shelley Boxman, it’s you!”

The 459 members of Beth-Em who were not the Messiah fell back against the pews. At first I thought that my being the Messiah had done something terrible to them; then I realized they were just depressed.

Then Rabbi Sofstein waved his arm and I began my walk to the bima. I walked down the center aisle. Everyone wanted a good look at me. The ones standing right on the aisles touched me and put their hands to their lips, as though I were a Torah. The farthest ones jumped on the pews, trying to see my face. The idea of me just brushed through them, like wind through a field of corn. I heard my name whispered over and over. “Shelley,” I heard. “She’s in my carpool. Shelley. Did you go to her Bat Mitzvah? They served lasagna. Shelley. She brought donuts for snack to Hebrew School—“

And then I heard my name spoken aloud.

“ShelllLEEE?” wailed Aaron Horwitz. “No way. That is totally unfair.”

His mother, a pale, slight woman who always looked vaguely sleepless, shook him. “Aaron,” she said.

“Right. What a joke,” said Aaron. “Like you’ve ever listened to Rabbi Sofstein about anything. Like this is a total plan to get her out of Sunday School.” He stood up on the pew and yelled, “Like why the hell is it HER?”

And then Beth Em’s congregation began to do what they were best at: they began to doubt.

Arnold Silverman called, “Rabbi. Are you sure? I mean, really sure? Can we have some evidence?” Mrs. Hoffman stood up, clutching her daughter Ellen’s hand as though she were a prizefighter. “Rabbi. Rabbi!” she called. “It’s got to be Ellen. There’s been a mistake. MY daughter is the Messiah—“

“Shelley,” Rabbi Sofstein said.

And I rose. Higher than Rabbi Sofstein, higher than the Eternal Light, I rose up until I could see the entire congregation.

Their faces bloomed up at me, blank with shock. Then Rose Lowenstein, who was head of Sisterhood, shrieked. “It is the Messiah!” she yelled. “I’m going to have to see my sister again. No! Please! Keep her dead!”

“Wait a second,” called Joshua Epstein, a second-year law student. “Where are the ropes? Come on, Rabbi, where are the ropes?”

I floated across the room.

“Come on, Shelley,” called Ellen Hoffman. “Truth or dare. Raise some of the dead.”

I glowed bright blue, then orange.

“Mirrors,” called someone.

“Can we get on with this?”

I turned into a hawk.

“That was in Star Wars,” said Aaron Horwitz.

“Be Andy Gibb!” called a girl.

“Raise the stock market!” called a father.

“Oh, Messiah,” called a couple boys, dropping to their knees. “Make Valenzuela pitch a no-hitter.”

I snapped my fingers. And it happened, quickly. Wigs sprouted from the women’s heads. Tallit wound around the men’s waists, sidecurls sprouted on the sides of their faces. The men’s suits grew into long black coats. And this was how I convinced Beth Em’s congregation that I was, indeed, the Messiah—I turned them into Chasidic Jews.

When the members of Beth Em’s congregation opened their mouths, all they could speak was Yiddish. And then they began to shriek. They began to run, beards flying, arms raised toward me. I flew from one end of the synagogue to another, followed by Beth Em’s congregation. “Shelley!” the yelled, “We believe!” Only when I saw they were convinced of me—only when I saw they thought I was important—I changed them back.

The beard melted into the air, the shawls vanished. The women got out their brushes and combed their hair. Rabbi Sofstein leaned against a wall. The sight of his congregation transformed into Chasidic Jws was, I think, somewhat draining; he looked unsure whether he should continue the service or not. And finally there was my family standing proud, astonished. “I have birth to the Messiah!” my mother yelled. “I am the mother of the savior of the earth!”

I floated; I still floated. “Come,” I told them. “Follow me. I am here to bring peace and harmony to the world.”

The Curse of the Aspiring Messiah

These eight pages were my curse. They were the pages that strangled me in my obstinate desire to use them, the pages that took me down endless artistic dead ends. They were the eight pages that ultimately cost me years.  

I wrote this short scene, “The Aspiring Messiah,” when I was 24, trying to figure what to write about, wanting to figure out what was meaningful to me as a writer, trying to decide what was “good.” It was set in a world I knew and loved for its pure zaniness—the world of 1970s Reform Judaism in Southern California—it delved into an idea that I loved—that a 13-year-old girl imagined herself secretly as the Messiah. At that time, I was very shaky about my own decision to “become” a writer (as though one “becomes” a writer or has it thrust onto you in a crashing, inevitable way) I determined myself fit for this role by gauging other people’s reactions to my work. Hoarding their words of approval might be another way to describe it. I wrote this scene and turned it into my fiction writing class at the Writer’s Voice, a smart and somewhat cranky bunch of jaded, literate New Yorkers. There was much applause. I turned it in to my class at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, an even crankier and hyper-literary bunch—they liked it, too.

“What are you going to do with it?” they asked me.

“It’s the beginning of a novel,” I said, which made me sound like I had a plan.

At that time, I took writing workshops (partly) to receive acclaim from my fellow students. It was a sad and misguided goal, one I now warn my students against, though I was a prime perpetrator. I wanted to be one of the stars of the workshop; I wanted to get through without being assaulted, whispered about, maligned. I wanted that most terrible (and basic) thing as a writer: to be liked. It was so hard for me to actually sit down and get something down, to feel I was making some sort of progress, I didn’t know what to do but throw out sections to my group of readers that I felt would be well-received.

At the time, putting forth pieces that I knew people would like was how I kept my head above water, trying to get a grip on the idea that I could actually be a writer. But I was putting my focus the wrong place—outward, not in. And then in my desire to keep this piece in my novel, The Aspiring Messiah became a curse.

I did start a novel, but it was a far different one from the 8-page scene of The Aspiring Messiah. But I felt I had to somehow fit The Aspiring Messiah, and the world that it involved into my novel. I tried to make one of my main characters in my novel, Shelley, into the Aspiring Messiah. I spent pages, chapters, months, trying to fit her into this idea. The characters that I actually wanted to explore, the ones I truly could dig into, were different from the Aspiring Messiah.  When a reader timidly suggested that Shelley did not fit in with the rest of my novel, I was outraged.

How could I cut Shelley floating above Beth-Em’s congregation? This was, for god’s sake, the part that I knew that many people liked!

The problem was, in a way, my own messianic urges as well—I wanted my novel to contain everything. I did not know how to choose. So as my novel evolved and ultimately deepened and the scene that had been the Aspiring Messiah became less relevant, I had to cut it. Finally, five years into my novel, I finally did. 

The lesson: Do not try to be liked. Learn to relinquish. Let a novel become what it becomes.

Now, when I read this scene, I find it funny, but also simplistic, a bit young—in any case, an idea. Perhaps it is an idea that I will develop some day, or perhaps it will simply be this one scene whose life exists only on the typed page. Perhaps that was part of my fear of losing The Aspiring Messiah, too—I did not want to forget her because I did not want any part of myself to be forgotten—especially a part that people seemed to enjoy. But, ultimately, becoming an artist is not about being liked--it is learning to express. And if the Aspiring Messiah simply floats amid these eight pages, she is worthy, simply because she is what I wanted to say.  


Karen Bender is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the Rona Jaffe Award. She is the author of the novel Like Normal People, which was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and a Barnes and Noble Discovery Book for 2000. She teaches in the creatrive writing program at The University of North Carolina — Wilmington.

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