It is always with you.
In the very earliest part of my career, I served a small congregation in a town with a much larger temple. The rabbi had spent his entire rabbinic life there, from the 1940s onward. Everyone called him "rabbi," including his wife whenever she referred to him. "Rabbi and I were talking yesterday," she would say.
Almost as a reaction formation, I insisted that people call me by my given name -- Jack. To be sure there were many who found it difficult, but overwhelmingly, throughout my career, I was "Jack." I explained that I didn't need reminding that I was a rabbi; I needed reminding that I was still Jack.
But even people who became my personal friends have a hard time separating me from my title. It would emerge at peculiar moments that they probably didn't even think about. When I was introduced in a social situation (and even when my wife was introduced), my title was introduced as part of the package. In moments of disagreement with long-time friends, the "rabbi card" was often played, and not by me. When other people were insufferable, it was because of their personality flaws; when I was insufferable, it was because I am a rabbi. Even my pharmacist insists on labeling my prescriptions as "Rabbi Jack Moline," something that made them harder to retrieve until I figured it out and explained to the clerks who knew not what a rabbi was that it was my title, not my first name.
Too late, probably, I realized there was no pretending I could escape it. I might want to think otherwise, but there is no time in my life I am not a rabbi. Hassidic stories speak of acolytes who observe how their rabbis tie their shoes or chop wood, and it is meant, I think, to show students that there is holiness in every aspect of life. But the story instructs the rabbis as well: you can never just tie your shoes.
I stepped out of congregational life a few years ago -- I am certain I will write about it -- and took my books, papers and title with me. "Rabbi" is bestowed gently, but rests heavily. Like the marks that constant eyeglass use leaves on either side of the nose, the weight has left imprints I cannot erase. I like to think that all those years of being "Jack" kept me grounded, but the truth is that 35 years later I am no more successful in separating myself from the title than anyone else.
I said to someone the other day that rabbis are a peculiar combination of competence and insecurity. That's what these columns will be about -- sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.
One thing I won't ever do is violate the confidentiality I promised to those who sought my counsel. If you recognize yourself in these columns, you will be wrong, unless the circumstances are very public already. On the other hand, if you recognize yourself, you will probably be right. People are not as different from each other as they like to believe.