It might have amazed Rabbi Baumgarten’s congregants to know this, but before the day Mel Crandall went missing the rabbi had never been in a casino in his life. He had served as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Jacob in Ventnor for the past 27 years, just a stone’s throw from Atlantic City, but he had never set foot on a gambling floor. Truth be told, he hadn’t been in A.C. at all in over five years, since he gave the keynote address at the rabbinical enclave at the Boardwalk Convention Hall in 2010, but since then he had avoided “America’s Playground” like a biblical plague. He could do his shopping in Marlboro and Ventnor, thank you very much.
That was what made his standing in the lobby of the Taj Mahal so strange. The casino floor was just off to the right, and he could see all the flashing lights and hear the bells and whistles of the slot machines. A huge sign read SLOTZILLA, with a small line at the bottom that said: Gambling problem? Call 855-222-5542 24/7. It was surreal to be standing there, but he would do whatever it took to help a congregant in distress—especially one as prominent as Mel.
He had gone missing two days ago. His wife didn’t think much of it at first, as Mel could be a bit, well, eccentric. But when he missed his Tuesday massage appointment at the spa, Mildred knew something was up. Mel never misses a massage. Never.
They got a tip that he had been seen wandering the boardwalk in A.C., and friends and family fanned out to find him, but there were no Mel sightings. The rabbi had stopped to buy a bottle of Coke from a stand in front of the Tropicana when his cellphone rang.
“Try the Taj.”
“Who is this?”
“Room 1506. Registered under Frank Sinatra.”
“Who is this? Mel?”
And the line went dead.
That call was what left the rabbi standing in the lobby of the Taj Mahal on this sunny Wednesday, in front of the main elevator bank. There were no windows in the casino—Rabbi Baumgarten had read somewhere that this was planned so that gamblers wouldn’t know the time—but the lobby glittered from the bright fluorescent light from the ceiling. The rabbi felt himself surrounded by cheap, plastic Far Eastern décor, like someone had attempted a tacky simulation of India. The elevator slid open, and the rabbi pressed 15 and ascended.
Mel Crandall’s history was a little murky. Did he make his money in nursing homes? Was it real estate? Was his wife’s family the source of their lavish lifestyle? No matter. The Crandalls were big financial supporters of the synagogue and generous with their time as well. And every community has its unique characters. Very unique, actually.
The door creaked open when Rabbi Baumgarten knocked. He stepped into the suite, and there in the living area sat Mel Crandall, in a Trump bathrobe and Hawaiian-style bathing trunks—aqua palm trees on red shorts—smoking a cigar.
“Who were you expecting, the chairman of the board?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m glad you asked, Rabbi. I’ve been meaning to talk with you, because I’m here on a mission.”
“Mel, Mildred and your family are worried sick. Can we first let them know you’re O.K.?”
“Yeah, yeah. I already texted them. They get the picture. But right now the person I need is you.”
Rabbi Baumgarten sat down on the wicker chair next to the personal Jacuzzi (did I mention that this was the presidential suite?) and looked Mel Crandall in the eye.
“What is it, Mel? What is so important that you’ve worried your family and half the community half to death?”
“Let me tell you, Rabbi. It’s about Atlantic City. I’m a little worried it has to go.”
“Yeah, you know. Disappear. Be gone. The big 86.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Well, I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, and I came across this bit about the ir hanidachat, the Misled City. You know, God says that this city is filled with—” Mel pulled a Chumash out from the drawer next to his bed and began to read—“Yatzu anashim bnei bliya’al mikirbecha vayadichu et yoshvei iram laymor nelcha vina’avda elohim acherim asher lo yidatem. Lawless men have emerged from your midst, and they have caused the dwellers of their city to go astray, saying ‘Let us go and worship the gods of others’ that you may not have known. I can’t think of a better description of A.C. than that, can you?”
Rabbi Baumgarten just stared at Mel agog, his mouth half open.
“Let me tell you, Rabbi, the end of the story isn’t good. I believe you’re supposed to kill the residents of the city by sword and burn all their belongings. This is clearly a serious situation. I mean, I’ve grown up in this area my whole life, and I really don’t want to see anything untoward happen to my compatriots.”
“And that’s why you’ve been wandering Atlantic City the past few days?”
“Well, I would hardly call being holed up at the Taj as wandering, but yeah, I guess that’s pretty much the idea. I want to find a way to save A.C. from destruction.”
“And why would you think Atlantic City is an ir hanidachat?” the rabbi asked, having recovered the gift of speech.“Are you kidding? There’s gambling, there’s drinking and there’s, well, let’s just say there’s stuff going on here I’m not comfortable discussing with my rabbi. Know what I mean?”
“Yes, I see your point. But I would like to respectfully point out that A.C. is definitely not an ir hanidachat.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“In the first place, there’s no true idol worship going on.”
Mel smirked. “Rabbi, you never know what goes on behind closed doors. And whatever happens in A.C.—”
“Let’s just say it’s very unlikely. Also, an ir hanidachat can only be in a city of Jews.”
“So you’re saying A.C. isn’t a Jewish city? Did you know Steve Wynn’s name is really Steven Weinberg? And ‘The Donald’ may not be Jewish, but Ivanka converted to Judaism and took the name Yael. And who’s appearing at the Borgata tonight? Could it be Jerry Seinfeld? Scratch the surface here in A.C., Rabbi, and you’ll find a Jewish town.”
“Yes, I’m sure there’s a lot of Jewish influence here, but an ir hanidachat can only occur within the borders of the Land of Israel. Plus, it is written in the Talmud that an ir hanidachat will never truly exist.* It is merely theoretical. It is in the Torah to teach us not to mislead others and to teach communal responsibility on a city-wide scale. In his writings on the ir hanidachat, the Rambam emphasized the opportunity for its residents to repent, even after the sentence has been passed on the city. So, essentially, the ir hanidachat is included in the Torah for us to study it and learn from it.”
“Hmmm. So you’re saying there is absolutely no risk of Atlantic City’s imminent destruction?”
“Nothing of a biblical nature. I can’t speak for hurricanes or other natural disasters.”“That’s great news, Rabbi. Thanks.”
“So then you’ll go home to your family?”
“Eventually. Now that the danger’s gone I have an appointment with a craps table downstairs. But that’s just between us, right, Rabbi?”
Rabbi Baumgarten shrugged. “Mel, in this case, whatever you tell me in A.C. stays in A.C.”
“Now you’re talking.”
By Larry Stiefel