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mong the initial questions this 25-year-old rabbi was asked when he arrived at his first pulpit were inquiries about Hebrew equivalents for secular names. Mothers wanted to know the Hebrew names for Nicholas, or Wayne, or Ralph. They usually called the day before the bris, because the mohel needed to know. My favorite was, “Rabbi, what’s the Hebrew name for Clete?”

Now, for the benefit of those readers who are abysmally unaware of America’s national pastime, Clete Boyer was the popular third baseman for the New York Yankees. He usually batted .300, had gone 52 games without an error in the field, signed every autograph with a smile, was a unanimous all-star pick, and was one of the most popular athletes in the US. So it goes without saying that, among Jewish parents, Clete was the nom de choice for their newborn babies. And I was the rav de choice for finding the Hebrew name for this Irish Catholic third baseman.

Clete: I remember how depressed I was. For this I had studied Yoreh Dei’ah, Tractate Chullin, the involved laws of kashrus, Rambam, Rashi, and the Rishonim? What a waste my yeshivah education was! All that study had ill-prepared me for the real rabbinate.

But I was young, and, appropriately, game. “Sure, Mrs. Shapiro. Let me give it some thought and I’ll get right back to you.”

“Thanks very much, Rabbi. The bris is tomorrow and the ‘mole’ wants to know right away.”

Clete. Clete. A Martin would be Mordecai, a Leonard would be Leibel, a Barry would be Baruch — but Clete? I wracked my brain, but to no avail. Finally, as if from Heaven, a brilliant solution like a thunderbolt was granted me from above. Clete, thy name shall henceforth be Kalman, which retains the K and the L sound.

Henceforth, of course, meant that he would be Kalman only four times in his life — at his bris, his bar mitzvah, his wedding, and his funeral. At all other times, Clete was he born, and Clete shall he remain. Welcome to the rabbinate.

(I was wrong. Clete grew up to go to day school and yeshivah and is now a learned Jew. Everyone calls him Kalman.)

This was only one among many situations for which I was completely unprepared. A very nice lady once asked me to prepare a funeral service for her dog, whom she was burying in her backyard. She was very fond of this dog (his name was Isaiah!), he had been her faithful companion for years, and she wanted to give him a good send-off. She understood that I could not actually “officiate” at her dog’s funeral, but said she’d appreciate it if I could prepare some appropriate readings for the assembled guests — something about how G-d loves all His creatures, even animals.

I assured her that G-d does love all His creatures, that we are not permitted to cause pain to animals, but that I was unable to come up with appropriate readings. She was very disappointed, and undoubtedly wondered what kind of rabbinic training was given to this rabbi if he could not even suggest suitable material for dog funerals.

Over the years, the questions became more serious, reflecting the gradual Jewish growth of the community. The Waynes and Nicholases gave way to Velvel and Nechemiah, and the inquiries dealt with mitzvah performance, kavanah in prayer, and basic Jewish beliefs.

But life did not become easier for the rabbi. Even in later years, some requests were quite discomfiting. During my rabbinate, for example, I was very friendly with a Catholic priest. He was a genuine ohev Yisroel and went out of his way to help Jewish causes and to support Israel. He was a fine person, and we would often share experiences of our — not entirely dissimilar — vocations. When his aged mother died, he asked me to attend the memorial service in his church. When I told him I would visit him at home but could not be present in the church, he found that hard to understand. “I wouldn’t have a problem coming to your synagogue — why can’t you come to my church?” he asked. “I’m not asking you to participate, just to be there.”

My explanations were unconvincing, and although we remained friends, that encounter created an invisible barrier between us — which was painful, but nevertheless inevitable.

Clete, dogs, priests: solid yeshivah education is profound and far-reaching. It is foundational, and is indispensable for a life of Torah and service of G-d. But it does not prepare you for the immediate vicissitudes of ordinary life — at least not directly. Only real life prepares you for real life.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 714)