Yankel walked up the stairs in the dormitory, to light the Chanukah menorah.
He lit a match but it blew out. He lit another one. Outside, came down a rain-snowmix. Inside, the ancient cast-iron radiator hissed. Chanukah was late this year – the end of December - and the forced mirth of the holiday, inseparable in his mind from the unremitting din and lights of the Gentile holiday, made him feel even sadder and darker than he might, as if the whole oppressive season were imposed on him.
He could still remember the day that he set foot in Yeshiva fifteen years ago. Fifteen years! The loneliness! It didn’t help that his friends were all married with one or two children, while he, Yankel, spent his days in the Yeshiva, surrounded by an ever-younger crop of young men in their late teens and early twenties studying the Talmud. While twenty-eight might sound youthful in some circles, in the Yeshiva it practically qualified him for social security payments and a pension. But even more than that, with his suit and tie and hat-with-no-pinches, he hearkened back to an earlier time. His eyeglasses were circa 1970 and he trudged around in rubber-soled shoes with the bulbous cap toes.
Just then he heard someone call out his name from down the hall. “Yankel, there’s a phone for you.”
At first he thought it was his father, but he realized that his father had gone to Israel and it was unlikely that he would be calling at this hour, unless…
It was Miriam the shadchan’te. He recognized the soft, authoritative voice of the matchmaker immediately.
Although he had been out with many young women, many of them arranged by this fine matchmaker, everything always came to naught. He knew he must marry, but it was like looking at the vast ocean from the shore, waiting for a ship that he couldn’t be sure even existed.
“Yankel, I have someone for you. She is a good person and you will like her.”
Good. It wasn’t “good” Yankel wanted, but something different, infinitely more complicated and much darker than “good,” though he could barely admit this to himself.
“She is a girl from a God-fearing household. They are not distinguished, at least in the classic sense, but they are very good people – very fine, baalebatish, the better folk.” The shadchan’te dove into the family history: “The father is Hungarian, a survivor, maybe from Transylvania or Rumania. He makes or sells caps. He has a store in Williamsburg, but he lives in Flatbush. She is twenty-three, very smart – book smart. I think you will like the way she looks, too. Can I give you her number?”
“Sure,” Yankel answered, though his answer was an automatic one – an answer from a man who had no choice and no answers. “Hold on.” He let the pay phone receiver hang while he got a pen and a piece of paper. “What is her number?”
“Seven one eight, three three six, forty eight twenty. Call tomorrow after nine at night. Her name is Leah.”
As he dialed the number the next evening, Yankel had the sense that the numbers were random, as though the phone were a slot machine. Life is a lottery, Yankel told himself. One must continue to play (even if he had never been and never would be “lucky.”) This was the way he rallied himself on such occasions.
“Hello. This is Yankel Rosenberg calling to speak to Leah.”
“Hah - llo,“ an accented female voice answered. “I will get her.”
Yankel stared at the telephone numbers written on the wall on top of other notices – a flyer for Hatzoloh, the Jewish ambulance service, and signs warning of the spiritual dangers of studying secular subjects and going to university. This time it was Touro College the flyer was rallying against. The year was 1985 and the zealots of Brooklyn were in full swing, ready to denounce the slightest adjustment to modernity, urging everyone to march back into the 12th century. Even within the austere, rigorously-Orthodox confines of the Yeshiva, everyone knew these zealots to be kooks.
Such was Yankel’s reverie the first time he heard Leah’s voice which was just the-right-amount high and girlish – an attractive voice. But Yankel, after many years of dating, had trained himself not to pay attention to voices. A man must not marry a woman until he sees her, the sages in the Talmud said, even if both sides agreed to it - as sometimes happened in ancient times. Even 2000 years ago, the sages insisted one must lay eyes on the woman at least once before he marries her. It was not a business deal. Seeing was the point. From seeing comes affection, love.
And Yankel couldn’t have agreed with the Talmudic rabbis more because what little Yankel allowed himself to see never quite agreed with him. It’s not that he was what some would call picky as though he were holding out for a “looker.” On the contrary. To hear him say it, all he wanted, no - needed (for once!) - was to look into a girl’s face and not have it cause him conflict, upset. But what to do? He had to get married. Bachelorhood was no option for a Jewish man, certainly not for a rabbi. And he was already twenty-eight!
A man who lives without a wife lives without joy, without blessing and without goodness. This is what the Talmud said. Alas, he felt he just couldn’t. Of the dozens of women that he had met, he couldn’t think of one with whom he felt at ease. He would try to explain it to himself: I look at her; I get queasy. Then, naturally, I have to look away. Then I try again. I look once more. No respite. His rabbis had urged him to talk about his problem with a psychologist, but Yankel refused to accept that there might be something wrong. A man has to like the woman’s appearance, he told himself: This is not pathology. Still, given his age and lack of success, every so often he thought perhaps there was something wrong with him. In any case, it was all a painful mystery to him that engulfed his heart in a chronic sickness.
But there was a silver lining. The shadchan’te, Miriam, who was the wife of an older colleague, did actually seem to like him. It surprised him that he felt at ease in her presence when he met her the first time and then when they spoke on the telephone.
In fact, she never seemed to tire of setting him up. She had introduced to him no fewer than twelve girls at last count. Problem was that the girls she set him up with, even those who did like him, reported back in pained tones. “I sense there’s something just a little wrong, a little off about him.” One perceptive woman told Miriam, “He sees, but he doesn’t look, and when he looks he doesn’t see. It’s strange. It’s like he can’t do both at the same time.”
Truth is, she was right. He had long ago made up not to “look” when he was on a date. Because when he did look, whatever he did see, beauty, ugly or anything in between, might render him on extreme occasions, mute and even terrified. It was easier that way to not look. Such was his torment. Where other matchmakers might have criticized him for this, or at least tried to instruct him, there was not even a hiccup of disapproval or judgment from Miriam the shadchante, and for this alone he was inhumanly grateful to her.
“Not the one,” he might report back to her after a date.
“Did you look at her, Yankel?” Miriam might ask him. “She was a beauty.”
“I looked plenty – with one eye, but not with two. With one eye I saw enough to know that she was not the one.”
“Not the one,” the shadchante would echo. “No worries,” she said. “When it will be the right one, we will both know.” And that would be that until at some point, not too long, there would be another suggestion, another young woman who might be for him. Yankel felt at loss to explain the shadchan’te’s goodness. She must be the patron saint of lost causes to be busy with me, he mused, but everyone knew that she was the most ge’shikt, most able of all the amateur matchmakers in Brooklyn.
And so after perfunctory small talk, a meeting or an appointment was arranged. He would meet with one Leah Spielman, (he scribbled this into his small appointment book), daughter of Abe and Helen Spielman, refugees from East Flatbush and the Old World. “Appointment” was how Yankel’s Rosh HaYeshiva, the dean of the rabbinical academy, used to call it – never a date. A Ben Torah, a Torah scholar, doesn’t go on a date.
Two days later Yankel held the piece of paper in his hand on which he had written her address. It was Saturday night, just after Shabbes, and Yankel borrowed his friend’s car – a Buick station wagon with grease-stained upholstery and jumper cables in the back. Yankel felt somewhat ridiculous driving this behemoth, but it was better than taking a bus. It offered protection from the cold and the rain, and they could go to nearby Weiss’s, a familiar dairy haunt in Flatbush or some other such place for tea. For driving a car like this, one could be forgiven, Yankel assured himself, as he buttoned his jacket and walked up the steps to ring the bell.
Spielman, the father, answered the door. He was a short man, clean-shaven, still in his Shabbes suit, but having taken off his tie. On the dining room table Yankel could see the remains of Havdalah, the burned-out stub of a twisted candle, a half-empty silver goblet, and a bottle of inexpensive Kedem wine, that had been used to mark the end of the Sabbath.
“Guteh Voch,” Spielman greeted him, with the customary wish for a good week.
“A Guteh voch un a gut yahr,” Yankel answered back. A good week and a good year.
“So from where did you come?”
“From Avenue ‘K’ and 13th,” Yankel replied.
“Nisht vait,” Spielman said. Not far.
“Nisht vait,” Yankel agreed.
Spielman led him into the living room. Yankel took in two armchairs covered in protective plastic and a bowl of candy and fruit on the coffee table. Yiddish newspapers were neatly placed over one of the chairs, with a pair of bifocals on a chain resting on them.
“So, from where are you parents?” Spielman asked.
Yankel hated that question even as he knew it would always come. He understood the question wasn’t so much informational as it was a way that both he and his father and his family could be placed in a schnit, a familiar category. And, in actual fact, his father couldn’t be placed. His father was born in Luboml, a small Polish shtetl, but at the age of two came to the United States. He had not a trace of an accent and was Americanized in every way - he’d gone to a well-known American Yeshiva, then was drafted into the US Army, worked for the public schools - except in the manner of his ardent Zionism. Yankel’s father’s obsession with the land of Israel and his obsequious devotion to a progressive brand of Orthodox Judaism was a constant source of embarrassment to Yankel. In fact, as of this hour, his father was in Israel, probably on a moshav, some cow-milking collective in the hills of Judea, listening to someone playing the guitar. His mother, long ago divorced from his father, lived a small life in an apartment in Bensonhurst. None of this was a pleasure to talk about.
“My father was born in Poland and came here very young,” Yankel quickly said.
Spielman seemed to take a second to comprehend this.
There was a light noise, footsteps on carpet, coming from above. The two men looked at each other; as if in silent agreement to let the conversation die a natural death. And just then Leah came down the stairs.
Yankel in his self-imposed modesty looked slightly away, but even in this half-second of non-looking, it was as though he was brushed by the faintest of sound waves, as far as he could make out, a positive vibration.
“I will let you two go,” Spielman announced hurriedly and motioned to leave. He turned slightly to say, “It was good to meet you,” as he went up the stairs. Yankel bent slightly and nodded in return.
And so the two went out into the light rain together.
Yankel made sure to open the car door on Leah’s side. Oddly, although the car was ancient, it was advanced for its time. It had power windows, but owing to its age, the driver’s side did not work. In any case, Yankel was nervous. A simultaneous feeling of dread and anticipation dug in. It was all he could do to concentrate on the road while a cold rain that got heavier, fell. The windshield wipers valiantly struggled to do their job, but they were worn and ineffective, streaking and smudging the window rather than wiping it clean.
“Oh my goodness, how can you see?” Leah said. “Do you want me to go out and clean the blade? I know a trick!”
This jolted Yankel. A woman who knows how to clean a wiper blade! He barely knew how to put a key into a lock. “Please don’t trouble yourself, I can see just fine,” he said, horrified at the thought of his date doing roadside assistance in a winter rain.
Yankel kept driving on Kings Highway.
“You sure you can see?” she timidly asked.
“Of course I can see!”
They rode on in silence except for the futile sound of the incompetent windshield wipers. Even without looking directly at her, he could sense her disquiet in the car. Clearly, she was in deep thought.
“What’s a girl to do?” she said out loud. “Should I let myself be killed for the sake of a man’s pride? Especially for one I know only five minutes?” She paused. “You know what? I am perfectly willing.”
Yankel was startled, but within a few seconds, he got it. He pulled the car over. He got out and wiped the windshield clean with a rag from the cargo area. Sheepishly, he said, “Leah, do you really have a trick for the wiper blade?”
“I sure do,” she said. “First, you must use a clean tissue,” and she took a few from a pocket pack inside her purse. “Then you take it and slowly squeeze it against the blade twice as I am doing now. It gets the gunk off the rubber.”
They both got back in the car and Yankel resumed driving, this time with a clean windshield. “This is what they call starting with a clean slate,” he said, although he wondered: What else did she do better than me? Learn a Rashba? A ketzos? Or even more obscure Talmudic commentaries than that?
“How do you know Miriam the shadchan’te?” Leah asked. This was a standard question, but irritatingly banal. After politely answering, Yankel felt compelled to fire back with a banality of his own. “How long have you lived here?” A question that was dead on arrival because he already knew the answer (Miriam had told him).
“Your father is a greener?” Yankel asked, giving it another try.
“Yes, he is from Romania – Transylvania actually.”
“A survivor?” he bleated, almost certain that he was one. He turned the big car onto Ocean Avenue.
“Yes and no. He was in a labor camp in Bessarabia then in a concentration camp for a short time. Somehow he managed to escape to Curacao. It is very confusing to me. This is how he got into the cap business - in Curacao.”
“What school did he send you to?” Yankel felt obliged to ask, already sensing the need to keep this falling kite aloft.
“The usual boring ones: Bais Yaakov for elementary school, Prospect Park for High School…I didn’t start to really apply myself until I was in seminary.”
Yankel nodded absently. The car’s heating system begrudgingly sent a few warm vapors, and Leah loosened her scarf. “Who chose your Yeshiva for you?” she asked.
“Actually, I did. My father wanted me to go to those more liberal Yeshivas like Yeshiva of Flatbush or even MTA at least. But I wanted no part of this. He is, my father, an ardent Zionist, in a loud flashy way that has always embarrassed me.” He felt his cheeks redden a little. Why was he talking about his father, a sore spot if there ever was one and here he’d just met her, but from the moment she’d fixed the wiper blade, he’d felt something might happen, he might even surprise himself and say something new.
They had pulled up in front of the restaurant. Even while still in the car (they had not rushed out). they were already bathed in the restaurant’s fluorescent light. He turned to Leah, but did not look at her, yet he saw the contours of one side of her face which shone like the glint of a half moon. Something about Leah’s face arrested him. He could feel the usual machinery that went on inside him, come to a half-second halt, a blink, a chink - something stopped. He could feel it. Yet even as he noticed this, he put it in the background.
When they settled at their table Leah began: “What is your father’s relationship like with God?”
She sat facing him in some colorful thing, something fuzzy it seemed. His eyes roamed the room and then settled back on his tea mug. But now with this surprising question, his hands which had been wrapped around his mug, broke apart. “Excuse me?”
“Yes, with God. What kind of relationship does he have with the Ebershter?”
This question made Yankel angry though he couldn’t say why. He had never before thought of such a thing. Perhaps because he didn’t think much of the Ebershter as she called Him at all. He felt humiliated by this question.
“I suppose it’s a legitimate question,” Yankel stumbled, “but…” he grasped for words and then somehow miraculously he found them: “I believe for my father, Israel, the State of Israel, is his God.” This was a shocking statement. Yankel was surprised that he said something like this. He never expected to. “Eretz Yisrael Shleimah,”Yankel went on. “The Greater Israel, the shtachim, the settlements, young men with tanks, guns, with flying tzitzit, tefillin, Nimrod sandalim…this is the God of my father.”
Yankel looked broodingly into his tea mug. It never before occurred to him in such stark terms, that his God and the God of his father were not the same. In fact, they were very different.
Leah fell silent and fidgeted with her purse. She looked abashed as if to say, had she really asked that question? Had she really gotten that answer?
Leah excused herself to the washroom, but he noticed that she went to the payphone. Who would she be calling up, some kind of cupid, a confidante perhaps? Women were inscrutable. He hated himself for caring so much what was on these girls’ minds. It was its own kind of torture. Thoughts of recent dates came to him. All of them humiliations; one after the other. There was Mindy just last month who told the matchmaker that he was “a good guy” but that he ran the date like a Keystone cop. (So what if he forgot his keys at the restaurant and had to walk back a few blocks?) Then there was Yocheved a week or two ago, who kept asking him why his mother was so old when she had him. “Forty is not old,” he nearly snapped at her. Word got back to Yankel that she told the matchmaker that he was “testy” and “crabby.” It is true that women could bring out impatience and surliness in him, but were they such angels? And yet now with Leah, even as he felt uncomfortable by the conversation, he was, strange to admit, comfortable with her.
He watched as she hung up and returned to the table. He noticed how she smoothed her dark hair. Her hair was quite beautiful. To him it looked like a surfer’s wave.
“That was a pretty neat question,” Yankel said in a way that surprised him, and for the first time he looked at her directly across the table. “I liked it very much. Why not let’s take a short walk. I think it stopped raining.”
Barely two hours after he had first come to Leah’s door, Yankel parked the Buick in front of her house. In that short amount of time at the restaurant and during their walk, what had happened? All they did was talk of this and that and the other, but it was different. Something had changed, something was happening between them. He could feel it like a cold or a virus coming on, but in this case it was the opposite – something good. He struggled to discount it; feelings like this one he had before only to have it fizzle on the runway of desire before it could take off. He felt all of a sudden desperate to keep this feeling going, to nurture it along. But how?
“I had a nice time,” Leah said in a hesitant voice as they walked up the steps to her door. He wanted to say something, anything, but he didn’t know what to say so he said nothing at all.
The next morning Yankel woke up with discomfort. He simply did not know what to make of what happened. Why on earth hadn’t he said something – the truth: He did have a good time! Why on earth? Maybe he did need to see a psychologist. It was the 20th century after all. A man had where to go to feel better or at least to set himself straight. Mostly though, he felt ashamed for his incompetence.
It was Sunday morning, still Chanukah. Much of the Yeshiva had gone away, but where did Yankel have to go? To a mother living on Bay 8th street in Bensonhurst in a tenement that smelled of yesterday’s supper; dull fluorescent lighting in the hallways, an elevator with a round window and big black buttons to push? By this time on Sunday mornings, one could see a procession of elderly and not-so-elderly people shuffling along with their laundry carts, a plastic jug of liquid detergent nestled on top of the laundry headed down to the room in the basement with the washing machines and dryers. In the lobby of the apartment building would be an electric menorah with orange bulbs next to a Christmas tree and a light-up Santa. No, it was better to be learning Talmud in the study hall, in the bais medrash… any bais medrash.
Even though Yankel was still a bochur, a single man, he had a seat at the married men’s table at breakfast – a sign of the esteem in which he was held. In fact, though he did not give a full-fledged lecture, he did lead an informal study group. Today, there were few people even among the full-timers. It was Chanukah break, after all. He decided to forego the special French Toast Chanukah breakfast. Instead, he grabbed a hard-boiled egg, ate it, and went straight to the Talmud.
One of the younger fellows in the bais medrash, an illuyish’e kid, a genius full of life and mischief and love of learning, came over to Yankel. “Let me learn with you this morning,” he said. “There’s no one here.”
This youngster couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but one look at him and you had to figure that the whole world of learning Talmud had to have been created especially for him. Not only did he have a sharp head, but he looked like the best of the pre-war Roman Wishniac photos – cheeks that were round as oranges, and freckles sprinkled lightly under his eyes like frosting.
There they were: the oldest man in the bais medrash and the youngest - in the empty room; around them books piled high – the Ran, the Rosh, the Shulchan Aruch, medieval explicators of the Talmud. Does doing one mitzvah exempt you from doing another? This was the Talmud’s discussion. The boy had nicknamed Yankel the “snow plow” as Yankel moved through the Talmud thoroughly and with all deliberate speed like an ice-breaker in the Northwest Passage. He could do this. An hour or two passed this way until they went downstairs to munch on jelly donuts set out in honor of Chanukah.
Slowly, though, Yankel’s feelings of desperation returned and the morning’s enthusiasm waned, at first slowly, then more rapidly. Later that night, Yankel was again in the grips of an agonizing loneliness when the shadchan’te called.
“I haven’t heard from you,” she said flatly. “I don’t know what to presume.”
“It was a strange experience,” Yankel said.
“Well,” he lifted his shoulders in a modest shrug. “I don’t know how I feel.”
“Did you feel like continuing your conversation with her?”
“I don’t know. I have trouble answering that question. She is very smart and resourceful…she knows how to fix windshield wipers.” This part he threw in for want of anything better to say.
She chuckled. “So what is the matter?”
He paused, swallowing, his mouth dry. He could still taste his hard-boiled egg from breakfast. “I felt like an idiot. I didn’t know what to say to her at the end of the date.”
“Now I don’t know. I’m confused.”
“Shall I tell her then to move on? I will suggest to her someone else.”
He felt a quickening inside him. “No, tell her…tell her I will call her tonight.”
It was with a mixture of dread, self-coercion, and dare he say anticipation, that he again dialed the number, only this time Leah answered the phone. “Hello.”
He tried to picture her but for the life of him couldn’t remember how she looked. A flash of pale skin, dark hair, brown eyes, or were her eyes green? How could a man sit in front of a woman for two hours and not remember her face? He had a moment of panic and papered it over with a formal tone. “A frelichen un a lichtege’n Chanukah,” he said. A happy Hanukah.
“Oh my goodness you sound like my father with your Yiddish! Where did you learn to speak Yiddish?” she said in a bright voice.
“I’m just being myself really. That is the way I way I speak, with a little Yiddish here and there.” If she only knew the rest of what was inside of him, thought Yankel, that she “is impressed by my Yiddish.’ How tormented he was by his thoughts!
“But your words sound so nice!”
“It’s no big deal, really. I don’t know much. If we get to know each other, you will find out. Speaking of which,” he cleared some moisture from his throat, “would you be available this Motzoei Shabbes?” Saturday night was a big time dating night. He hoped he had given her enough notice.
“I am available,” Leah said brightly.
“Good,” he said, feeling an inborn, cellular resistance to her enthusiasm. “I will see you at eight o’clock?”
This time Yankel was able to borrow a different car. It was an almost-new Oldsmobile 98 Regency.
“Beautiful car,” Leah said when he picked her up that Saturday evening.
Yankel was of course deeply embarrassed by it on account of its fanciness. His friend practically forced it on him. “Make an impression,” his friend said. “It’s the kind of impression I don’t want to make,” he’d said back. Yankel was concerned about setting the right tone. What was the point for a poor scholar like he to pranz arum – prance around in a fancy car. Some did, but it wasn’t for him. “Oh for Heaven’s sake,” his friend said. “Just this once,” he dangled the keys, “live a little.”
“It looks like it’s brand new,” Leah said.
“It’s a late model,” Yankel begrudgingly conceded. In fact, Yankel was well aware that it was showroom new – 400 miles on the odometer. A brand new car. Anyone could see that. It even smelled like a new car. Would it kill anyone if he came right out and said it?
Sensing his discomfort, Leah said. “Well, you must have good friends who let you use their cars.”
“There are people who want me to succeed,” he offered somewhat mysteriously.
“Oh,” she said, “I’m a little jealous. It’s great to have people who want your success,” Leah said and looked at him. She flashed a modest smile revealing small white polished-pearl teeth. To see them sent a fright through him.
“They don’t really want me to succeed,” he said. “They want the pleasure of seeing me succeed. That’s not the same thing.” Yankel stared a little too intently at the road in front of him as though afraid of going astray.
“That’s a deep idea,” Leah said. “They want the pleasure of seeing you succeed,” she repeated, “but somehow I don’t think that’s all there is.”
Strangely, he didn’t feel the need to argue with her, as he did with every woman. Her words went down his windpipe and lodged themselves there. And then surprisingly, they seemed to dissolve warmly and settle in his stomach. This was entirely unexpected. He was, truth-be-told, a wreck with women, alternatively combative, or weak and uncertain and pedantic. He was ashamed of his ineptitude, but somehow this evening – a clear, cold moon and starry night whipped gently by wintry winds - gave him the faintest hope that he, things, might be different going forward.
“You know, Leah,” he said, glancing out the car window. They were in the “ditch” now, the part of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway that dips down before rising to a glimpse of the polished lights of Manhattan one sees from the Brooklyn Promenade. “Your question last week about my father’s relationship with the Ebershter really threw me, but it also got me thinking.”
“I was just being silly maybe or provocative. I really didn’t mean to be, sometimes I can’t help it. I apologize.” Her head made a curtsy.
“No, nisht da farvos, really you have nothing for which to be sorry. I think you were being serious. You don’t have to play the know-nothing innocent with me,” he said, lifting a hand off the steering wheel as if to wave away the thought. “You have a right to be serious, too.”
Leah nodded, as though she felt understood by that. Perhaps this is exactly how she wanted to be seen: a serious person with just the tiniest hint of trouble-making. It was still cold in the car and she buttoned up the top button of her coat. She looked out the window.
“When do you think it will be the first snow this year?” Leah asked.
Yankel frowned. Such a banal question, he thought.. “Why is this important?” He asked this with a touch of impatience.
“Oh, it’s just a game I used to play with my sister. Whoever had the closest guess would win the right to sit in the front seat of my father’s car on all family trips for the year.”
“Did you ever win?”
“Never. I always ended up in the backseat.”
“To win is not a very Jewish thing,” Yankel declared. “A Jew doesn’t win. A Jew does the right thing. That is winning,” he said, but even as these words slipped out, he was already hating himself for having said them. He sounded pompous. He had valuable things to say sometimes, but he was aware that the world did not always see them as important and he could easily be seen as the buffoon. But at the same time he felt he had no control over this.
He dug in further. “Did you ever notice the happy faces of lottery winners splattered all over the New York Post and other schmatte newspapers? A few months later you find out that their marriages fell apart; this one is not talking to the other. Such is the way of the Gentiles and the non God-fearing Jews.”
“All the same, but I like winning,” Leah said simply.
“Well,” he sheepishly confessed “if it makes you feel better about your sister, I have never won anything,” and she let out a light laugh that made him forgive himself for his earnestness.
By now they were on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. They seemed to glide over every bump and pothole in the new Oldsmobile. It felt like a chariot. He saw it had not passed Leah’s notice that there were wire-spoke hubcaps and silver mud-flaps. (She had given them a lengthy side-long glance before they got in the car.)
Yankel adjusted the brim of his hat. “Leah,” he said. “Perhaps it would please you if we could go to the Empire State Building to the observatory?” Again, he listened to the way he sounded, and cringed. Why was he so formal?
Leah answered him in kind. “I would love that. I have never been there.”
It was a popular night spot and the elevator was crowded as it rocketed toward ever-higher floors. He tried to not to study her but did so anyway, from the side. He struggled. A man must be able to look at a woman, he thought finally. She was not displeasing. Her coat was a soft blue, fashionable, but not too fashionable. Her face had a brightness to it. Good complexion, he thought. This was all he would allow himself to discern. Even still, he was aware that something inside him blinked, like a lightning flash.
On the observation deck the world in every direction – north, south, east and west - seemed to unfold in twinkling lights the color of red, amber and burnt orange. Yankel fished a coin out of his pocket and put it into the binoculars.
“Give a look,” he said to Leah. The island of Manhattan seemed like a world unto its own, an electric world, but not dangerous now.
“I could look at these lights forever,” Leah said, turning away from the binoculars and looking back at him.
Yankel nodded in mild agreement, and then put his face into the binoculars, but abruptly stopped.
“There’s still time on the quarter,” Leah said, “why waste it?”
“It’s beautiful, but I’ve seen enough,” Yankel said. In truth he couldn’t look at anything for too long. This is how he later explained things to the shadchan’te: One looks quickly and then turns away. If one looked at anything too closely, too long, a person could go insane. Could one stare even at a Van Gogh or a Picasso forever? There was a tale in the midrash about a near-sighted man who prayed for good eyesight, but then he saw every pore on his wife’s face, every blemish on his children and on the food he ate, and he prayed for God to take away his acute vision.
An interesting story, perhaps. But still, it was strange that afterward, when he was back in his dormitory room, going over the evening in his mind, he could not even remember the color of Leah’s eyes. He might have trouble recognizing her from a photo and this was after two meetings. It was a good thing not to look, though. The only thing that could be looked at forever, were the stars and the sky and the Talmud.
He took up this thread when he called Miriam the shadchan’te the next morning. “I am still not sure about the way she looks,” Yankel told her. “I have no way of knowing. I can’t even remember from date to date what she looks like. I don’t think I could pick her out of a line of women.”
It was quiet. Miriam was a good ten years older than Yankel. Feminine, she possessed the calm judgment of Esther and Deborah, the prophetesses and matriarchs of ancient days; warmth and craft served the same master.
“Leah is an unusually beautiful girl,” she finally said. Now her voice took on a firmness. “Her appearance – whatever she looks like to you,” she said, speaking in a rabbi-like cadence with spare words as if rendering a legal pronouncement, “cannot be a factor going forward. You either find her looks acceptable or not.”
Yankel felt annoyed. It seemed an attempt to pigeonhole him, to box him in, but she was just trying to do her job, he quickly reasoned. She wanted to make a sale. One could even admire this: the scholar’s wife with notes of business-cleverness about her, too. She trades potatoes and radishes at the market with Ivan the peasant for bales of cotton and rolls of silk which she re-sells quickly to the mill for double the price. This was not wrong for Miriam to push him like this, and maybe this was for his good, but it made him feel cold.
But perhaps the cold eye was needed to get the work of the world done. Yankel was unsure. On the question of Leah’s appearance, he was not repulsed by her, far from it, but how could he know if he was attracted? Abraham and Isaac did not seem to notice their wives’ appearance until much later. Of Abraham it is written, ”Only now I realize you are a beautiful woman,” - now that he had to worry about they Egyptians wanting her for themselves. Jacob, on the other hand, loved Rachel at first sight on account of her beauty.
“Let me think about it,” he tried to say. But before he could say anything, the shadchante pre-empted him. “Let me tell you, Leah is going to go fast. If you’re so unsure, I’m going to recommend other men for her.”
He heard Miriam take a deep breath. “One more thing. I am going to level with you,” she said. “Leah was concerned. She enjoyed being with you, but you hardly looked at her, she said. A woman needs…”
Yankel, pained, felt himself a little dizzy. How hard he tried not to offend. A lingering, leering look offends. And now, not enough looking offends, too? He could not do anything right by women. “I get it,” he said, exasperated.
“Yankel,” Miriam continued, “you must really like the way a woman looks, but this is not something you think about. It’s something you feel, you know…” She coughed. “I believe you know the answer. This must be established.”
“Enough!” he muttered. ”No lectures please! I well understand the importance…”
Although this could not be seen over the telephone, Yankel made all kinds of involuntary gestures while standing in the payphone room with his hat still on his head, tilted to the side, nervously adjusting the brim, opening and clenching his hand, a Jew in mild despair. In his mouth a toothpick stuck between his teeth.
If he went out again, it didn’t mean he had to marry her, did it? Although he knew of some in his yeshiva who had become engaged after a fourth or fifth date he shook away those unhelpful thoughts. A date is not a commitment. “Tell her she needn’t worry,” Yankel said hurriedly. “I would like to see her again. I will call her.”
Yankel’s dorm room was on the third floor directly above a storefront grocery. Sometimes he would not eat with the Yeshiva, but rather take something up to his room and eat it there. Occasionally, he would stop in there to buy a loaf of rye or a seeded roll. He had, after many years, earned the privilege of having a small fridge, the only one in the dorm allowed, for which he paid the yeshiva seven dollars a month for the electric. In this tiny cold box, he kept a small tub of whipped butter and a couple of slices of cheese and a pint of milk. The Gentile girl in the store would make small talk with him.
“Cold out there?” she asked when he came in for his seeded roll.
“One dresses for the cold and it’s not so bad,” he replied.
He noticed that she wore a flannel shirt and a down coat. He could not help but notice the color of her eyes. They were a dark green set against blond hair. Her whole face suggested a dirtied up version of those ubiquitous (and disgusting by his lights) Ralph Lauren ads: People posed in rumpled, but inhumanly clean clothes sitting in a hayloft or on an old farm truck, staring ahead with silos and Kansas wheat fields in the background.
“I picked out the freshest one for you,” she said, handing him the roll.
“Thank you,” he said, in a hurry to end the connection.
Look how easily this Gentile woman gave friendship. For a flash he saw how he, they, together, might have looked in the poorly lit store, she, in a yellowed brightness, and he, rabbinically-hatted, suited and coated, his back toward the daylight blocking some of the outside brightness. And yet he couldn’t help but wonder. Her, he could see, her, he could recall the color of her eyes.
He said thank you again unnecessarily, and rushed out of the store. When he went up to his room, he reviewed the facts of his life. He was late to marry - either because he hadn’t met the right one or because there was something wrong with him. He held modest promise in Talmud. He was the youngest man in Brooklyn to give a chabura, a class in the tractate Moed Kattan to men in their forties and fifties, yet. But he was unhappy by nature and he was sure that he spread mostly gloom.
Now a young woman had taken an interest, but was he interested in her? Perhaps she was only interested in herself? She wanted to know what he thought of her “looks”? This wasn’t so bad, but he was going out with her, was this not enough? What other unspoken needs might she have? These needs of women, they seemed to him -although he knew they weren’t - sadistic tricks to expose his inadequacies. By any other name, some other measure by which to fall short.
He could only deal with the present, he reasoned logically. He must continue the conversation with the woman. How else was one to know? Presently, he put down his roll. Her number – he patted his shirt and jacket pocket for it. Never mind, somehow, he knew it by heart. It was Sunday morning, she would be home. He went to the payphone again. “Leah, it’s Yankel.”
“Good, I was hoping it was you.”
“I had a nice time last night.”
“You did?” she said.
“You sound surprised,” he said gloomily.
“Well, it’s just good that you did.” She threw in, “So did I.”
“How about we meet Wednesday night of this week?” he asked quickly.
Yankel hung up the phone feeling lighter. Always his worries seemed heavier than reality. He returned to his room. He had no need to finish the roll with the heavy butter. Often, he scolded himself for wanting so much “cream.” Life could be cream; one doesn’t have to eat it. Though never overweight, and lean by nature, a decade and a half of inactivity combined with a steady diet of white flour and sugar, gave Yankel a slight girth. Not vain in the least, this still bothered him, as though he wanted his stomach to be respectful, to obey, by being flat. Of late he had resolved to tame it.
He carefully wrapped the roll and put it into the mini-fridge though he hated to call it that - anything with the word mini disturbed him. Yankel walked down the block to the bais medrash, the study hall. He was on time for the morning learning session. Slowly in dribs and drabs, white-shirted, black-pants clad Yeshiva students filtered into the white-washed, square-shaped room, casually talking.
The topic in the bais medrash was a “shas” topic – a central theme appearing at different points in the Talmud: nosein taam lifgam. A minute amount of pig falls into a pot of kosher meat. Is it nullified by the majority amount of kosher meat? If the pig-meat gives off a bad taste, it is permitted, but what if the taste is off, but not so bad? Is not-so-bad also considered ‘bad’?
This was the issue of the moment, with the Jewish lights of the Middle Ages fighting it out on ancient tomes, while the later Eastern European rabbis of the last two hundred years wrote dazzling interpretations to reconcile theories, corollaries and biblical derivations. An older man who came to the study hall every day now approached Yankel with a question. He had what could best be described as a yellow beard that was wild and bushy, and a cigarette - lit or not - dangled from his lips. His hat was different than anyone else’s – it was more like a derby than a rabbinical hat. No one knew how he made a living. He was an odd man, not yet old enough to be retired, but way too old to be a student. Apparently, he was just another one of those mysterious people that often make up the world of the bais medrash.
The man with the yellow beard offered Yankel a cigarette but Yankel demurred.
The man kept flirting with lighting the cigarette as he formulated his question. He would get a word or two out, and then raise the lighter to his cigarette only to put it down again. “If I have a vat of fifty gallons of milk, and I throw in ten gallons of pig’s milk. We know that if it makes the taste worse, then the milk is kosher. But what if it makes it worse but not bad, not inedible. Is it still kosher?”
Others heard the question and within a few minutes a small crowd had gathered ‘round. “Bring me a Ran (a medieval commentator) and the Tur Shulchan Aruch,” Yankel called out to someone. He squinted at the tiny print in the margins. Eighty-five percent of the students here wore glasses. No wonder. “You see there are different ways to see these things…” Someone dragged a chair over. The man with the yellow beard began to play with the flame of his lighter, flicking it on and off. More people came to listen. “What this boils down to is the fundamental question of what is the nature of the prohibition of eating non-kosher. Is it the action of eating that is forbidden or is it a matter of deriving pleasure from the mixture that is forbidden? True, you drank the milk, but since the taste of the kosher milk was degraded by the non-kosher milk, the pleasure was non-existent. It’s all about the pleasure,” Yankel said, “at least according to the Ran.
“But the volume of milk increased,” the man with the yellow beard protested. “You had 50 gallons of milk, and now you have 60!”
Yankel smiled a smile of satisfaction: He was ready for this. “Very good, my friend! The Rashba, a rival commentator, disagrees with you – we’re not talking about gain – we’re talking about pleasure. Gain and pleasure: two different things.”
Yankel enjoyed this exchange; and as evidenced by the smiles in the room, so did the others. But at the same time he wondered about what he had just said. The very words he used rang out in his mind: pleasure vs. gain. Pleasure and gain were two different languages. Could that be what the world was in a tizzy about? It was good, useful, gainful to get married, but is it pleasurable – did it make for happiness? And yet what about the Torah itself? Torah was good…had to be. The rabbis said so – it was both gainful and pleasurable. He could feel it now. The whole room was happy. But what good was all this happy, pleasurable sophistry to him when he could he not know his own mind? Well, maybe he was beginning to know it…finally. He put some of the large tomes back on the shelf. Perhaps this is how one came to know oneself, slowly in stages, through conversation, not with the Torah, but with a woman! Didn’t the first human being Adam, not know his own name – Ish, man - until he named this new creature Isha, woman? Only then, through conversation with a woman, he was able to deduce that he was an “ish” a man, was he able to know what he waS.
And perhaps this is what women had to offer. Maybe this is what Leah had to offer: a chance to know himself. And so he eagerly awaited his next meeting with her. Here it was Sunday, but he kept thinking about Wednesday.
Appropriately suited once again, Yankel arrived at her doorstep at the stroke of seven. Leah was waiting. This time he noticed her appearance, taking a full second or two. She wore something light-colored. It looked like a thick cable-knit sweater that covered her neck. Yankel took this as a bad sign. Was she covering something up? A scar? Immediately, he felt a bolt of shame. What did he have business there?
She was shorter than he, but not too short. They looked well together, he decided, as they walked down the steps to the car. She carried a small pocketbook – it looked like a patent leather type of material. It had a gold chain. Minute to minute he was bombarded by stimuli: he liked her, didn’t, liked her, didn’t. The way she walked with small steps, as though tentative. It could excite him or drive him to madness.
He could take the certainties in life, birth, death, taxes, but the uncertainties: God spare him. He stumbled, trying to find the keys to the car. Again he had borrowed the Oldsmobile. He let her in the car first and she leaned over to unlock the door for him. Did she know there were power locks in the car? And still she leaned over. This to Yankel was a good sign. That is, of course, if she was the one.
He paused just for a moment before starting the car, and Leah spoke: “Your friend lent you the car again, I see. Both of you treat us well. Thank you”
“Of course,” he said. “This is an important meeting. I mean we should be comfortable as we get to know each other.”
The engine started silently and the heat rose without effort, almost by magic, through the car. (The seats themselves were heated. He had figured out how to use it – an amazing feature.)
Leah exulted in the rapid warmth.
“I see you appreciate luxury.” Yankel said.
“I do, but I can get by with very little. Our own car is a rattletrap – it runs perfectly, but nothing like this. This is a far cry from our 1972 Dodge Dart, a model T.”
Yankel chuckled. Once again they were talking about cars. “It’s only natural to like nice things,” Yankel said. “We grew up with very little on account of my parents’ divorce. The money picture with my father was always very murky. He pleaded poverty, but he always seemed to have money. Not for us, though, but for his business, his travels. His favorite line was ‘Don’t worry, I have you well taken care of,’ but when it came to what you needed today, he was forever short.”
“A complicated man,” Leah observed.
Yankel confidently steered this gilded creation of General Motors onto Coney Island Avenue. “How about we get something to eat? May I recommend some really old-style cuisine?” Ordinarily, a young man like Yankel would have very little money to spend, but the economic condition of a yeshiva bochur was a complex matter. Some had rich families while others did odd jobs and managed to put some money away if they were careful. Yankel had a few thousand dollars put aside from tutoring younger boys and a few summers as camp counselor. If there was a time to spend, Yankel would spend it now on these dates.
“How about Gottlieb’s in Williamsburg?”
“The famous Gottlieb’s? The pastrami! The corned beef! The stuffed cabbage! Wait, is this the place with the famously rude waiters?”
“I don’t know. “ He smiled. “We should be so lucky.”
At Gottlieb’s, Yankel ordered a pastrami and a beer. Leah ordered steamed tongue and Dr. Brown’s Cel-ray soda. The conversation, as they say, flowed.
While they waited for their food, he told her a joke. “Oh,” Leah said, listening, opening her mouth a little wider than might be expected and moving her head back.
Yankel gazed now, mildly alarmed. It was clear to him that he was having some kind of effect on her. He could not recall ever having experienced this with a woman before. It frightened him. Most women regarded him from a distance if they regarded him at all, but it was clear even to him that she was deeply interested in everything he had to say. He couldn’t understand why. Did Cupid lurk behind the scenes sending arrows in their direction? Such a goyishe idea, but for the first time he understood why such a myth made sense. How else to make sense of the senselessness of love – the immediate bestowal of high value on another person for no good reason?
And so they continued to talk even after their food came.
“Can I have a sip of your beer?” Leah asked, pointing to the bottle of Heineken on the table.
“Of course.” He poured it against the rim of the glass so as not to create too much foam – a trick he learned from his father.
“I bet you could tell me something from the Talmud about the beer you are drinking right now,” she said, lifting her mug slightly, taking a sip.
“Well, I can, actually. In truth,” Yankel explained, adjusting the brim of his hat, “Rav Pappa one of the Talmudic rabbis would drink the beer of the Gentiles, but only on the doorstep of the saloon, without going inside.”
“Why?” She took another sip.
“Because just as drinking wine leads to marriage – intermarriage that is; beer does too, but less so. Therefore, it is forbidden only when socializing with Gentiles. Unlike wine, the beverage itself is okay.”
“So drinking wine and beer leads to marriage,” she said, a little buzzed from the beer.
“So we better drink up,” Leah said, raising her glass to him.
Yankel lifted his reflexively (but limply) in return.
Wow, that was forward, Yankel thought. He could feel himself draw back involuntarily. He was used to people who, like himself, stayed inside their boxes. He liked this forwardness, but still, this was a little wild and he was not sure what or how to respond.
For a moment their conversation stopped and they cast about trying to regain a rhythm as though cold water had been splashed on hot toast, making it sogggy. The waiter came over. He spoken in Yiddish-inflected English, but he looked like a mixture of Russian and Japanese with a beard that came down in two distinct directions. He had a winged back and a Fu Manchu mustache and wore a big shluf kappele, a sleeping cap on his head. “Nottink else..?”
Momentarily, Yankel was unable to answer the waiter’s question. Perhaps he should end the date here by saying “check please” or perhaps he should order something else. The waiter stood over them in what seemed mild disapproval. Yankel waved the waiter to the side. “We’re undecided. Come back in a few minutes.”
The waiter frowned and left in a mild huff as if he were being asked one more time to bear all of the world’s ambivalence. In the meantime, Yankel tried to make sense of his feelings. It was unbelievable. Leah really liked him. Perhaps she wanted to marry him. Clear as day, there it was! He felt it in his body – the warmth, the blood pumping - and yet, how could this be – and how reckless was this? He was frightened. He hardly knew her and she hardly knew him! He needed time to think. Many a shidduch and date were ruined by too much talk, too much intimacy, too much knowledge too fast. Yet many a match was also ruined by too much thinking. What should he do? He thought of calling the shadchan’te Miriam, but that would be too awkward.
He turned to Leah. “Would you like dessert?”
“I don’t know. I can’t think right now, because,” looking at her watch, she said, “I have to make a telephone call. I promised my mother…” and she ran off to the pay phone near the restroom.
Yankel became nervous, very nervous at the table by himself. Calling her mother in the middle of the date? Was she telling her mother she had snared her man? Was this a ruse and was she calling someone else? He dug his fingers into his forehead, trying to suppress a groan. A man can drive himself mad with injurious speculation.
He sat against the large storefront window. The delicatessen steam against the cold glass had built up condensation. The neon orange and purple lights flickered in the letters: deli, pastrami, glatt kosher. He looked around him; plates of steaming meats and soups, French fries. Did anyone even need this? Society was out of control, he ruminated. One needed to say no. More good comes from “no” than from “yes.” Such were his thoughts.
Just then Leah returned, smoothing down her skirt.
He asked again, “Would you like some dessert, Leah?” He startled a bit as he said her name, as if in doing so, he’d crossed a boundary.
“I could go either way, but I wouldn’t mind having some tea.”
“Tea is a good idea,” he decided.
He motioned to the waiter: “Tea with lemon” - and then impulsively, “bring me the chocolate cake, the chocolate mousse cake – with two forks.”
“Wow,” Leah said, her brows lifting. “How did you know that was my favorite?”
“Just a guess.”
“A good one.”
As though to make them atone for this pleasure and indulgence, (an unconscious reflex over which he had no control) Yankel turned slightly away from Leah and adopted a slight indifference – an information-gatherer’s pose.
“Tell me, Leah, what is it that you are looking for in life, in a marriage?”
Leah folded her hands. “My father always wanted me to marry a talmid chacham – a scholar. Nur a talmid chacham - only a scholar, he’d say.” She paused. “I want that, but I want a man of character above all. This is what’s important to me.”
He was surprised by her self-possession. Here she seemed smitten by him and yet she was confident. She could just as soon leave him as take him. She would coolly cast him aside if he didn’t make the grade. It frightened Yankel and reassured him all at once. Yankel’s head moved up and down while he puzzled over things.
Just then, the waiter came with the chocolate mousse and set out two plates and tiny dessert forks then he quickly returned with tea mugs and an elegantly-rounded white tea pot. They silently observed the sulky waiter as he poured tea first into Leah’s cup and then Yankel’s.
“What, what goes through your mind now?” Leah asked after the waiter had left. “You’re thinking something.”
Yankel was sheepish. “It’s just that men don’t think so clearly.”
“Really?” Leah asked. “How do men think? Tell me.” She put her head into her open palms, arms rested on the table, revealing an elegant gold watch.
“It’s hard for us to think at all, sometimes,” he intoned. “A man’s needs when it comes to women are so primal, so primitive, so physical, that he is like a drunk who stumbles in the alleyways after a night of drinking, he needs help to find his way home.”
Yankel threw his hands up in the air. “This is the way we men are most of the time.”
“How did your father choose your mother?” Leah asked.
“Like a drunk man.” He cut off a corner of the mousse cake and put it on his plate. “I have no idea whatever brought them together. Looking at them now, I would have to say that they are so totally unlike each other. From the get-go she was ready to plotz and he was ready to tantz. Though they are roughly the same age, he seems fifteen years younger than she.”
Yankel described his mother’s “small” life in an apartment building on Bay Parkway, a narrow overheated apartment, a rabbit ear antenna on a lace doily atop the television set in the living room. Bi-focals – hosiery drip-drying in a shower-curtained bath tub.
This, Yankel felt was the obligatory exchange of parental narratives. How he had told and heard so many stories about parents on dates. This one’s grandfather was killed in the Warsaw ghetto. Another one’s ancestor had opened a dry-goods store for Union soldiers in the Civil War and then made a fortune. This one was in the Battle of the Bulge. He had grown to both hate and love these stories. They evaporated when the relationships disintegrated as they always did. It was a chore to talk about his mother and father and lately it had become a terrible chore to hear about anyone else’s parents. He was getting to be too old.
“You describe things so well,” Leah offered generously. If only she knew how practiced I am at this, thought Yankel, but as if spurred by her compliment, he could not resist continuing, inspiring him to this new rhetorical flourish:
“My mother’s life is a suffering one. I heard once that suffering makes even the common man a poet for his mother.”
Leah’s eyes grew wider and she nodded her head. “You really do speak well.”
“What about you?” Yankel quickly added, somewhat embarrassed by Leah’s admiration. He struggled with whether to tell Leah that the line about suffering was not his own. He had read it somewhere once, but couldn’t remember where.
“My mother is no longer young. In fact, when I went to make a call before it was to remind her to take her new heart medication. She had me when she was forty-three which was a rare thing in those days. My parents married a little later comparatively- owing to the war.” Leah gestured slightly away with her shoulder as if toward the somber past. “My mother was in the camps and that has a lot to do with her personality. She is very frugal, careful and cautious.”
Leah placed the tea mug lightly against her cheek. “She worries a great deal and keeps away of any kind of excitement. She doesn’t plan for anything, and basically lives by the day. She gets the monthly checks - weidergutmachengeld from the German government. By now, she has squirreled away quite a bit. It took my father forever to convince her that we could afford to move out of East Flatbush to a small house here in Midwood.”
“It is, but my father gives most of the spark. He likes to get up and go and do things and he drags my mother along. He’s been ten times to Eretz Yisrael; he’s very proud there and feels at home.” Leah set down the mug – it had left a rosy mark on her cheek which looked actually quite lovely, Yankel thought.
“And your father?” she asked, scooping a clump of mousse onto her plate.
“My father! My mother’s life is sad; my father refuses to be sad. He is positively giddy. He doesn’t stay put – we joke that he lives in some kind of electrostatic field between here and his favorite place – Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. He has this adulation – a huge reverence for anything Israeli and modern Orthodox. He worships the Rav.” For a split second, he thought about stopping to ask if she knew that he was referring to the renowned Rabbi Soleveitchik, but as though asking such a thing were a terrible delay and imposition, he simply plowed on. “Really, Zionism for him is the Messiah as though the God of the shtetl where he was born, transformed. He is just so overjoyed that weak-kneed, near-sighted Jews get to play with goy toys of war – military equipment: Tanks, fighter jets, rifles, mortars. It’s a way of allowing or giving sanction to practice what he in his Diaspora mentality has wanted to do for generations: knock the daylights out of all our enemies – especially the Arabs. To his thinking, God is now the god of warfare and tanks, not the god of shtibls, storefront synagogues and - to him - miserable rabbinical court cases.”
Leah listened between taking tiny bites, as if not only taking in his words, but his tones, the way he spoke. “Wow,” she said. “Your father sounds unusual. And you understand him so well, it seems.”
He let out a dry laugh. “He’s unusual, all right.”
Yankel drove Leah back home. He went out of the car to walk her to her front door. Just when they got out of the car, out of nowhere a dog charged at both of them. Yankel was never easy around dogs. Truth be told, he couldn’t stand them. He couldn’t stand their “animal” nature and they in turn were very tense around him, snarling and snapping. Yankel could scarcely have predicted this, let alone planned it, but he stared down the dog. Holding his hand up and his finger pointed straight ahead, he commanded the dog to “git” and the dog which looked like it could do damage (a mixed breed black German Shepherd) stopped his charge dead and sulked away.
Leah who’d been standing tensely beside him, let out her breath. She was extremely impressed, and in truth, so was Yankel. He could scarcely believe what happened. He was shaking, but he also felt relieved. “I am actually quite frightened of dogs,” Yankel explained, “but strange and corny as it may sound, I think being with you might have given me strength.”
Slowly, it dawned on Yankel after Leah went inside, that the life as he knew it for these last many years might, just might be drawing to a close. After what seemed a long lifetime in Yeshiva, he had been given his own room in the dorm, a much-coveted prize. Perhaps soon this room would be passed on to someone else. Life was a progression. It only seemed like we were standing still. Things were always on the move. One gets married sooner, the other later. One lives for a time and then one passes on.
But this was to say nothing of the infinite complexity of the universe of the human being. Here a man is petrified of dogs and then he stands one down. A woman and a man, they have a rapport with each other and then before you know it – they are a fact. They are a fact creating other facts. And in all this is…is like Leah suggested, the Ebershter, or to say it like L eah’s father, the Basheffer, or simply God. These were his thoughts as he returned to his dorm room and put away his Shabbes shoes and blew a speck of dust off his hat.
Just then his father called on the dorm payphone. “Nu, Yankel,” he boomed into the receiver, “ma inyanim, what’s the good word?”
There was something about his father’s use of the Israeli idiom ma inyanim that grated on Yankel. Did his father really expect him to answer back in Hebrew? True, he was the playful type, but his father was almost a compulsive salesman. With every word, with every gesture, he was out to prove that his way was right, that his ideology, the superior one. Ma inyanim was also an advertisement: a breezy reminder that he was doing quite well, without all the rabbinic garb and yeshivishe’keit thank you very much and really it’s a minor tragedy every minute that Yankel doesn’t wise up, see the light, set aside the Talmud, and join him in Israel. “I am coming back next week,” his father said in his alternating deep and nasal voice (it really did change, like colors in the sun). “I would like to visit with you. I have something to share with you. I shall save it for when we meet in person.”
Nu, Yankel thought. My father has something to share with me! It’s usually the son that has something to share, but not in this family. Yankel shuddered to think what it might be. There were remembrances of divulgences past: the time his father announced that he and his mother were getting a divorce, delivered in such a manner as though everyone should be happy for him, Yankel remembered thinking. We were having churban bayis shaini, our temple was destroyed, our house, but we should be happy for him that he can go goosing around the world now free as a bird, while mother sits shiva at home. Yankel recalled another big announcement his father once made: They were moving to California. Why? Because he could no longer tolerate the “atmosphere” in Brooklyn – too much heat, too much cold. (Ultimately, they did not move) Who knew? Maybe now he was coming to say that he’s getting married now…probably to a twenty-five year old girl from a Kibbutz. Yankel wouldn’t put it past him. At 64, his father was going to live forever. His desire for life, his unfiltered enthusiasm for it, was an embarrassment.
The next time he met Leah, he splurged and took her to Shmulka Bernstein’s. a Lower East Side deli and favorite among the younger crowd. They were getting to that stage when they might no longer need the shadchante to parlay messages back and forth. At the end of the date, he almost asked her out directly. In fact, the shadchante even chided Yankel when he called her. “I no longer need to be your go-between, You are already attracted to each other. There is no greater power on this earth.” And for good measure she added, “You know that Leah likes you.”
The words ‘you know that Leah likes you’ filled Yankel up so high, he felt he was ten feet tall. But he halted himself, as he always did. “Even if Leah likes me, I still want you to be the go-between. I feel with you in the mix, I am less likely to mess things up.” And even if Yankel wouldn’t ruin it, something else might. That was his life’s story. Having the shachante as middle man would serve as talisman to ward off the proverbial disaster that must lurk at every corner. And is if to prove it, his mind glommed on to an ever-present source of worry: his father. What “news” would his father bring? Why now, of all times, did his father have to reappear? This was the way Yankel lived his life, even as he knew this was not the Jewish way of thinking at all. One must deal with problems. One must not be depressed. He had fallen into such depressions before. What good were they, these ‘blues,’ and they were sinful too – in their own way, an indulgence. Mara Schoirah, a black, sinful depression.
But how could he be anything but depressed? There was the matter of asking his father for money too which he needed especially if he were going to get married at some point, probably sooner than later. One could expect, judging by the past, that any request would be met with declamations of absolute poverty I am broke, broker than broke then the run-around The money is not liquid. It is tied up in real estate and various trusts. And then outright rejection and degradation: I cannot support you forever; I am not a money tree followed by distant promises. Don’t worry. I have you well taken care of when the time comes. Such was the way he would try to reassure Yankel, but Yankel never did feel reassured.
Yet with his frequent gallivanting and globe-trotting his father always seemed to have plenty of money, even as he claimed that he was broke. It sounded awful to Yankel and made him feel terrible to admit this, but the idea of his father coming to see him filled him with dread.
But his father was coming and coming and coming. If there was one thing that he had learned in his life, his father would be coming. He would never go away permanently. Why didn’t he just stay in Israel? Some people even as they professed undying love for the land of Israel, just couldn’t stay there for too long. There were these types like his father, floating all around Flatbush and Queens, who shuttled back and forth between Israel and their New York neighborhood haunts. They would show up in their blue-striped prayer shawls at odd synagogues, jacketless usually with cuffed sleeves rolled up and khaki pants, hiking shoes, singing happy tunes instead of the eastern European prayer dirges that the rest of New York Jewry sang. For these Israeli wannabes, gloom was unacceptable even if they had to hire Satan himself to play and make merry at their weddings and bar-mitzvahs. For his father, gloom was the enemy and this created for Yankel, unremitting gloom.
All too soon, a mere week later, Yankel’s father hugged him as he got out of his cab. Although he was just an inch or two taller than Yankel, he carried himself like a very tall man. Yankel hadn’t seen him in six months. Every time he met his father he looked somewhat different. His forehead had grown more generous (had his hairline receded farther?), and his eyebrows were thicker - they grew like shrubbery. Still, his shpitz bord, his goatee, was more or less the same, gentle like lightly mown grass, and still miraculously dark – he swore he used no dye. His ears were pointed at the top and he did not need eyeglasses except for reading. He was ebullient and buoyant as always.
“Let me get you something to eat,” his father said and they went to Weiss’s.
Over a plate of smoked whitefish his father said, “I know you are wondering about my announcement. I will tell you: your father is going to get married again.” He beamed at Yankel, his pale blue eyes blinking as if to dispel dust. “Yes, I met a wonderful woman in Israel and she is willing to share my life with me. Her name is Gila and she lives in Romema. She is positively wonderful and she looks forward to meeting you and your sisters.”
Yankel felt the breath knocked out of him, even as he had been half-expecting this. “I am very happy for you, Abba,” he managed to say as the South African waiter brought perogies to their table.
I know you are happy for me, and I know how you struggle here,” his father said with a serious look in the eye.
“Struggle..?” Yankel nervously eyed the South African waiter who was now setting glasses of water in front of each of them. What was Abba getting at?
“Yes.” His father nodded and took a small bite of his smoked whitefish. “And I would give anything to make life easier for you.” Yankel nodded to himself – sure, sure – as he sliced his perogie down the middle. ”I know things have been hard for you since the divorce,” Yankel’s father continued. This came out muffled as his father was still chewing his food. “I think I tried my best, but I left everyone in the lurch. Perhaps such things can’t be avoided, but it couldn’t have been easy.”
Yankel bore down so hard while slicing his perogie that his knife made a clink sound on the bone china. Could Abba actually be apologizing for …everything? He shrugged.
“Here, I brought you something.” His father reached toward his travel bag. This surprised Yankel. Abba wasn’t big in the present department. He removed various items and finally extracted a talis, a prayer shawl with an atara, a silver collar. Yankel didn’t know what to make of the gift. It was a time-honored custom for a bride to buy this item for her groom. Well, his father was not his bride, and nor was Yankel a groom – yet. But surely his father could not have known about Leah all the way from Israel. Impossible. And yet he didn’t put anything past his wily father.
“I know this is not in keeping with custom, for the father to buy his son a talit – rather it is for the bride’s family, but who knows when your time for marriage will be?” His father gazed with hope at him. “Hopefully sooner, but it may be later and I want you to have this tallit,” his father said, pronouncing tallis with a “t,” with Sephardic emphasis, reveling in his Israeli-ness. “I even got it with the dreary black stripes that all the sad Jews in exile like to wear. I want you to have it. “
Yankel supposed he should be glad, but why couldn’t Abba wait as custom dictated until he was actually engaged? It was just like him to break any custom that didn’t fit his whim.
“Well, actually, Abba, I met someone who I think may be for me. It’s still early and I don’t want to talk about it too much yet, but…” He stroked the gleaming silver on the tallis. It did have an Israeli freshness to it.
“Then don’t,” his father said with a flourish of his hand. “Keep it quiet. Surprise us.” He leaned forward, giving Yankel a youthful conspiratorial wink. “This is what I do,” he said, tapping his collarbone. “Don’t announce until it is final. In the meantime I want you to meet my kalla, my new bride. Gila.”
It made the gorge rise in Yankel, the way his father liberally shared his dating advice. And worse, to hear his father say “Kalla.” It felt sometimes that all the people of the world were his father’s playthings. “Where is this lady, this Gveret Gila?” said Yankel.
His father smoothed down a stray hair of his goatee, as if anticipating his bride to show up any second. In fact he said, “She is here now in the US with me. I would like to call her and tell her to come over and meet us here.”
“Here? Right now?” Yankel sat up. His stomach made a disagreeable noise. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”
“Ready? What’s to be ready? The world is a river of surprises. Don’t swim upstream, I say,” his father threw his arm upward as if tossing daisies. “The moment is now. I am just warning you that you shouldn’t be shocked.” A small smile appeared on his lips. “She is a little on the young side.”
Yankel’s head had been drooping. Suddenly it lifted. “How young?” he asked.
“Well, younger than me.” He pronged another bit of smoked white fish.
“Fifty-five?” Yankel hedged.
“Eh…a little younger than that…” His eyes dropped, evading Yankel’s.
“Fifty?” Yankel frowned.
Yankel said tensely, “She’s not younger than forty is she?”
His father gave a rabbinic shrug. “I don’t like to discuss ages with precision…”
“Abba! She’s thirty!” Yankel blurted.
“Well, thirty-six or thirty-seven actually, this week!” he finally let out, but with a gusto, as if expecting to hear “Happy Birthday!”
Yankel looked into his plate of food, trying to hide his feelings of turmoil. Different images fired through his brain – his father standing next to his blooming, youthful bride, his father holding a child, his very own, the child of his old age. Yankel could feel his legs shaking, his hands and wrists, and quickly removed them from the table and buried them in his lap. What next would this man do, his father? He forced himself to take a breath, then another. ‘Calm down,’ he told himself. After all, who was he to begrudge his father. Baboker zra es zarecha v’laerev al tanach yadecha. Didn’t the rabbis say: A man must have children when he is old as well as young, and a man is after all a man. Even in his sixties he has needs still, if he is healthy that is, but such a young woman! It was like a scandal even though it wasn’t really, Yankel thought, and gloomily picked up eating what remained of his perogi even though it seemed to be upsetting his stomach.
He remembered once meeting a contemporary of his father’s a few years back. This man, Singer, a luggage salesman, had been with his father in the early days of Torah Vodaas, the school his father had attended back in his youth in Williamsburg. “Your father was a vilder chevra mahn,” the man said. A vilder chevra mahn, a ruffian! My father, thought Yankel, is still a vilder chevra mahn. If only he the son could accept that and be done with him. He was a strange and wild bird, his father. So what of it? The community always put up with characters like him even in the old country, people who were strange, who bucked the norms but whose hearts were essentially in the right place. Is it uncommon that a man takes a bride half his age? Yes, but if he puts on tefillin, learns a mishnayos or other simpler holy texts even for a few minutes in the morning then he is a Jew, a strange one to some, but nevertheless…
Yankel continued with these deliberations: He could recall in his mind just now, literature from the old world that was filled with these types. Here a man ups and leaves his family to join a Yiddish acting troupe in St Petersburg, or like Babel or Jabotinsky from Odessa to join the Cossacks or the Zionists or perhaps he flees his ancestral home in Boibirik to take up permanent residence in Pripitchik. Such types were tolerated even enjoyed if only as a spectacle and topic for gossip. But it was no picnic to have a man like this as a father. Where in heaven’s name did he think he was? In Paris? In Rome? With his entire being and soul Yankel felt like walking out, but can one walk out on one’s own father?
So, reluctantly, he agreed to meet her.
His father ran to the pay phone near the bathrooms. “Don’t go anywhere,” he exclaimed. He was jubilant. Maybe he was even the happiest man in Brooklyn or perhaps the entire five boroughs of New York. After he made the call – “She’ll be here in fifteen minutes!” the South African waiter was summoned: “Boston Cream Pie - three portions please!” (His father had ordered this without consulting Yankel – who detested pie.)
“How come you’re not eating,” his father asked him after the waiter brought them their portions.
“You don’t remember. I don’t like Boston Cream Pie.” Yankel then pointed out, with a touch of sharpness, “It is your favorite.”
“Oh yes, it was your sister Ruthi’s favorite too. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Yankel grazed the frosting with a spoon.
“What’s not to like,” his father asked. “It’s chocolate, it’s cream.”
“Not all confection and cream go down well with me,” Yankel said. He took a gulp of water.
Yankel would get out of there as soon as he could. What was there to linger for? Did his father want his approval? Was he supposed to say she was a catch, pretty, even? What if she wasn’t? At any rate, he would not look at her directly. It was a moment, he told himself. He had to get through it. It was kibbud av, the fifth commandment. Honor Thy Father. It is not an easy mitzvah to honor one’s parents. It had never been easy with his father.
Just then, he realized he could not do it. No, he would not do it. “Abba,” he said. “I cannot meet your friend…this Gila. I just can’t do it now.” His voice came out in flat, dry pellets. “Mazel tov to you. I am happy for you, but I really, I just can’t do it. I won’t do it. You will have to forgive me.”
“But in one more minute she will be here,” his father begged, his pale eyes creasing.. He held out a hand. “Hob rachmanus.” Have compassion.
“No,” Yankel said and he let his fist drop hard on the table. He got up and walked out into the cold. His head was spinning. A thousand needles were pricking his forehead. The sickly sweet taste of frosting burned in his throat. He had to get his balance. He kept walking.
The cold air slapped his cheeks and throat. He felt dizzy. He was a few blocks away from Yeshiva but he did not want anyone in bais medrash to see him in this state. He would go into Landau’s shul. He would clear his head with a page of Gemara and then pray Maariv, the evening service. There one could lose oneself in a sea of worshippers. . Dozens of men, survivors some of them, like Leah’s father would wrap their prayer sashes around their ample girths and say Yatzmach Pirkunay V’Kurev Mishichei” a liturgical deviation in the old way of Galicia. There were the beggars there too: most of them odd ducks. They would come to the late maariv service begging for money or for scraps of attention. He took off his coat made himself a cup of tea and settled down with a volume of Talmud.
But for once he couldn’t concentrate on the tiny black print. There was a pounding in his ears, a pressure on his chest as if something heavy was resting on it. He kept trying to piece together what had happened. All these years he had tried to maintain a normal semblance of a relationship with his father. He put up with his extravagances and eccentricities, his curious combination of neglect and misguided care. But something broke tonight. The contract between them was broken. Yankel sat there, sick to his stomach, his kidneys like an ulcer, a cancer, God forbid.
Finally, he gave up any hope of studying and walked out again into the cold. The temperature had dropped and the wind had picked up. It was January after all and Coney Island Avenue was like a wind tunnel. Yankel closed his coat at the top and hung on to his hat. But where to go? He just kept walking, his legs freezing now; but it helped him think more clearly. He would eventually have to face his father again probably tomorrow, but he felt free now just in this moment in the cold as if he had gone to the South Pole and could not be reached by anyone. His eyes had tears from the wind and he took gigantic breaths.
He could think only one thought: he must call Leah, but it was already ten o’clock at night - just on the other side of too-late-to-call. Then he must call Miriam the shadchante – he must speak to someone – better a woman.
He fairly galloped upstairs to the payphone in the dorm. “Rebbetzin, it’s Yankel,” he said breathlessly, in an attempt to recover his composure. “Uuh, I just want to update you. Things seem to be going well – with Leah, I mean.”
“Good,” she said in her quiet, composed way. “She told me to tell you that she is going away for the week, but she will see you the following week.”
“Going away???” Yankel gazed out wildly as if he’d heard of earthquakes and other impossible events. “But where?”
“Oh, it’s something work-related. She has a very important job – did she tell you?”
“Well, yes, sort of, but I would have thought she might have told me that she was traveling,” Yankel mumbled. He could hear footsteps on the stairwell. The students, the Yeshiva bochrim were coming back to sleep for the night. Soon someone would be banging on the door, wanting the telephone. “Tell her I would like to see her again,” he told Miriam. “I need to see her,” he said, now surprising himself with an ardor.
The next few days were terrible ones. He was tormented between thoughts of his father and questioning Leah’s intentions. Why hadn’t she told him she was going away? Wouldn’t it have been the right thing to do? Maybe she wasn’t that interested in him at all, maybe it had all been imaginary like most everything else had been in his life. Misery was the only certainty.
Yankel passed the days in dread. He could feel himself slipping into moroh schoirah, that immobilizing, sinful depression the rabbis of old had spoken of and decried. It was the dead of winter and to make matters worse, many of the neighborhood men who prayed and studied at the Yeshiva were on vacation. Yankel taught these men two evenings a week in a side room off the main study hall. There was seltzer on the table and sometimes a plate of cookies or cake. The men would come in for a nibble of food and food for thought. Some of them stayed and became regulars. In the best of times, the class had five or six men, but of late, the momentum had sputtered with only one or two steadies. It was a complex area of the Talmud to be sure, the laws of mourning.
Tonight, things had reached their nadir. He was left with only one man, Binyamin, to study with, a strange fellow, who Yankel thought was as they say, “a bit out to lunch.” Binyamin sat with his Talmud open to the wrong page and stared straight ahead as though he were looking at a point on the wall behind Yankel. Binyamin had spent most of his life barricaded behind the thickest eyeglasses known to man. He had a phlegmatic body type, reed-thin, so thin in fact, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down – like Reb Chanina’s son of the Talmud who sustained himself on a single portion of carob from one Sabbath to the next.
Yankel pretended not to be affected by Binyamin and started to read the text - it dealt with the laws of mourning - but Binyamin’s un-relatedness was so pungent that deep depression was unavoidable; a depression so penetrating there might as well have been a wall sixteen foot high.
And yet who could blame Binyamin? His father had been a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, a survivor from the war, an ill-tempered man with rotten tobacco-stained teeth, who was more like a box of pre-recorded messages than a human being. Yankel had known of him years back. Binyamin’s father had spent months at a time in a poultry plant cutting off the heads of chickens, his slaughterer’s apron stained with brains, chicken waste and blood. It was said that he was one of the sonderkommandos during the war, in charge of extracting gold teeth from the Jewish corpses before they were thrown into the crematorium. He could talk about nothing but slaughter, how many chickens he killed, what they were like when they were slaughtered. With such a father…murdered in soul and spirit, to the son, Binyamin – practically a deaf-mute – a man even more whipped by the winds than he, held together with spit and glue - it all made perfect sense.
Just then, with all forward movement impossible, Yankel asked Binyamin what he was thinking. Binyamin’s face recoiled slightly: a mild startle. It was as though someone had knocked gently on the door of his soul for the first time in his life and for the first time he answered.
“In truth,” Binyamin said bashfully, “I am thinking of the 1976 World Series when the Yankees were swept by the Reds.”
Yankel had not expected this answer, but then again, he had not known what to expect. A thought, any thought, was as good as any other perhaps, but it was isolated, cut off. Binyamin was an island. But so was he. Two islands, they were, in the dead of winter and a volume of Talmud to share between them – a discussion of mourning, no less. And in the way of mourners, though they may each grieve for a different sorrow, they instinctively reach out to each other, so too did Yankel reach out to Binyamin. “Yes, that was a sad moment,” Yankel said.
Binyamin seemed to stir to life. “Wasn’t it? I can’t believe a rabbi like you could also see that it was sad like me. I had so wanted them to win.”
“It had been a long time since the Yankees won,” Yankel observed after a pause. “1964.” Baseball facts, Yeshiva boys knew cold for some reason.
“Yes,” Binyamin said in a gravelly undernourished voice. “I didn’t feel like taking a haircut or cutting my nails for a month after that.”
Yankel deftly seized an opportunity. “Let me ask you, Binyamin: The Gemara here mentions cutting one’s nails in a time of mourning - in the first seven days and then thirty days. The commentators make a distinction between doing so with a clipper, a scissors, or simply biting them off.”
“I always bite my nails,” Binyamin said, and he showed his hands with chewed up fingernails.
“But how about your toenails? Those you can’t bite off.”
“Is that permitted during the days of grief and mourning?” Yankel asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Of course not - how could you know? The Talmud itself is completely unclear on this.”
Binyamin beamed. “You’re right. How could I know?”
Yankel had his attention now and smiled. “You want to know the answer? Sure you do.”
“Of course I do,” Binyamin said, brightening.
“We need to see how the poskim (adjudicators of the law) rule. Would you please bring me that volume of-” Yankel pointed.
Binyamin went to the bookshelf and retrieved a large tome – shulkhan arukh – the Code of Law. “You see here, it records…:”
And for the first time Binyamin looked in the volume with his finger on the right spot.
Yankel had felt a sense of accomplishment and Binyamin must have felt it too. Instead of just closing their books at the end of their session, they strolled out together into the street. Binyamin lit a cigarette, a cigarette of satisfaction, Yankel surmised.
Was that all it took? Yankel wondered, a little gentle, a little nudging for a man to see what he could not see before - a light knock on his door in order to wake him up?
Together they walked out of the Yeshiva building and on to the street, Kings Highway. Whereas previously Yankel would have thought the street noisy, he now suddenly saw it as lively. Down the block at the corner of Kings Highway and Coney Island Avenue, rowdy, short-skirted young girls were getting into a small sporty car with boys, the windows tinted, fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror. A little while ago he might have thought: hooligans! Now he thought: of course. They were gentiles to be sure, but they were going about their business, the business of Life, the business of their lives.
Binyamin offered Yankel a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke,” Yankel said.
Binyamin stuffed the cigarette back into his pack. It had begun to rain again, but there were snow flakes mixed in. After a few minutes it became all snow and it fell steadily. They continued walking, first to the train station. A little further to the right of the train station there was an embankment. Binyamin knew a way through someone’s backyard to climb up the embankment and sit under an elevated porch on two small oil drums. In the heavy snow they watched the trains come through.
It was all he could do to wait until he saw Leah the next week just after Shabbes ended to tell her what happened with his father. Yet despite his great desire to do so, he went back and forth in his mind about whether or not he should share this. He oscillated between what would she think of me? To: Why would Leah care anyway? To: Will she judge me? And yet, the whole incident pressed on him unbearably; he didn’t think he could hold back when they met. But by the time it came for the date he was no longer sure of Leah. She had left him. She should have told him.
Then again, what expectations could he reasonably have? He had made no commitments to her nor had she to him. They were free agents. Perhaps this was a good thing; a man has no claim on a woman without a commitment, and even then. And yet unreasonable expectations were the fabric of life. Perhaps his father with all his irrational exuberance, his overblown reverence for the medina, the State of Israel, was correct: It may have been God who redeemed us, but without that brazen, unreasonable, mamzerishe chutzpah we would have nothing! For a thousand years we lived in huts on the edge of some Polish landowner’s property. His father, in stilted over-formalized language, taken straight from an Israeli propaganda film, would spout: “Staggered we were by the winds of war and persecution, we nursed a hope in poetry and prayer that we be redeemed – sent back to the Land of Israel.” He would say this practically to whoever happened to be near him as though he were explaining his own life story. Indeed. where would we be without unreasonableness?
And it didn’t matter how many times his father said it. It was always with the same musicality, his inflection, sunken cheeks, jowls that were youthful at sixty, as though all that jetting around kept him young. His cheeks were not the least craggy. He had the smooth back of a young school boy. He was always extolling the virtues of one vitamin or another that promised eternal youth. The Bible spoke to him directly and enchanted him with power. At family gatherings, he would turn to Yankel in a voice louder than conversation: “It has happened just as the psalmist said!” To social norms, of course, he owed nothing. Here his father’s voice would crack - a tingle must have traveled through his nose which was thin and needle-like. With a checkered handkerchief he would dab his beak and then his eyes. Like dreamers we were, when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion. He kept this verse on his person at all times. It was folded on a piece of paper in his wallet. For his father, it was like a hallucination, a mirage – Jewish soldiers holding guns, guarding the place where the Temple once stood, the in-gathering of the exiles.
Ach, his father was like water on his brain, drip, drip, drip, forever boring a dent.
Finally, the day of Yankel and Leah’s next date arrived. This time they had agreed to go by subway to Manhattan. Leah would meet him at the Avenue “J” subway stop. Just outside, the vendors hawked newspapers in the cold. The headlines of the New York Post screamed “World’s First Test Tube Baby Born” – a grim thought by Yankel’s lights. Slowly, it seems that “people” were getting phased out. The world seemed to get more strange and contradictory every day.
Just now Leah walked into the station. She wore a Shabbes coat with a faux fur collar and patent leather-middle-of-the-road high heels. She was chipper. There was a click to her walk, her heels happily tapping the pavement, telegraphing her good mood as she came toward him.
“How have you been, Yankel?”
Yankel didn’t answer right away. “Okay, I guess.”
As if sensing reproach Leah offered, “I told Miriam to tell you where I went and why I had to go. Did she explain?”
“No,” he said flatly, but then added: “Well she did say something but only after I called her, but she didn’t give me the whole story.”
A man with a fedora brushed quickly past him while a Spanish woman hoisted her umbrella stroller over the ancient turnstile.
“They needed me to fly out to Texas to rescue a big company’s computing system. It was sudden. I didn’t know that when I saw you last. I wanted to call you, but Miriam said that would not be a good idea. She said she would reassure you.” Leah stopped, looked at him. “Did she?”
Yankel put two tokens into the turnstile for both their fares. “She did not,” he answered as they made their way up the stairs to the train platform.
“Oh, I am very angry at her.” Leah moved her head from side to side. “She didn’t tell - intentionally. She wanted to keep you waiting, hungry. She is crafty. But this was cruel.” Again she shook her head.
It buoyed Yankel in ways he couldn’t have imagined that Leah had “blasted” Miriam. Miriam was a trickster who wanted to stoke his fire by withholding information. It had “worked” but it took a certain type to torture another even lightly, as she did. “I am a shadchan” she was fond of saying. “A matchmaker, not a social worker.” Yet Yankel knew there was a profound decency mixed with her craftiness. It was a complicated world, the world of women.
They waited in silence for the train to glide into the station. When they got on the train Leah said, “I missed you.”
Yankel took a second. He couldn’t believe his ears. Warmth rushed through him like he had just drunk wine. “I have been waiting all week to see you. It was hard.” He cast his eyes down to the platform for a second and then looked back up at her. It was strange. There is no doubt that he was getting used to seeing her, but every time he would see something else. He was screwing up the courage to take a longer, more lingering look when the train slid into the Avenue J station.
They stepped back and when the doors opened, Leah said “Wait, can you believe what is happening? We are getting into each other’s bloodstream.”
He bent his head shyly in assent, and they alighted onto the train. A cold rain had begun and streaked the windows. The train hummed along the rails.
“Let’s go to the front car,” Yankel suggested. “I want to show you something. I bet you have never seen this.”
They moved in between cars to the front of the train, although walking between the cars was forbidden. More than one New Yorker had stumbled and lost his life that way, but of course people did it anyway. Yankel strode to the front and invited Leah to stare straight ahead in the tunnel. There in the path of the powerful front-car headlights, they saw rats scurry and dart ahead of the oncoming trains in between the pillars and posts. The subway made its trademark NewYork squeal, the metal wheels on steel rails so loud it could pierce the soul. Yankel and Leah stared out together.
“There’s a whole world down here,” Leah breathed out. “A subterranean world.”
Eventually, the train crawled onto the Manhattan Bridge. Now the city was in a cold drizzly fog, but the lights of the bridge, the cars and all the buildings blinked through - a promise shrouded in mist. “I know a café you would like,” Yankel said, when they got out at West 4th Street.
But apparently it had gone out of business and Leah wasn’t that hungry anyway – she only wanted tea – so he took her to another café, a small crevice near 16th street. It had no charm and there were day-old black and white cookies wrapped in plastic for sale. A poster hung from the wall of Israeli soldiers with their M-16s guarding one of the gates to the Old City of Jerusalem. A lonely, older man, probably an Iranian Jew, sat behind the register at the counter.
They sat facing each other over a yellowed Formica table.
“I have been waiting to tell you about something that happened last week,” Yankel said. They were the only ones in the tiny café, so he felt he had to whisper. “It’s embarrassing and yet it seems somehow significant and important to tell you.”
Leah leaned in, excited to be taken into confidence. “Tell me. I want to hear,” she said.
“My father is getting re-married.”
“That’s great. Mazel tov. When did this happen?”
“Well, he came to me last week and took me out to dinner – to Weiss’ and then he told me of this woman, Gila, her name is, an Israeli, whom he met and is ‘perfect’ for him.” The words came out in a rush. “He asked me if he could ask her to come over and meet her right there.”
“So, what did you say?”
As she spoke Yankel found himself noticing things about Leah against his will, it seems. It was as though his head were being intentionally pointed like a camera. His eyes, telephoto lenses forced to zoom in on one part of Leah or another. Now they close-upped on Leah’s lips. They were plump and red. “Lippelech vi karshelech in friling” he said as if a demon forced these words to his own lips.
“What?” Leah asked.
Yankel embarrassed, said “Lippelech vi karshelech in friling. – like the old Yiddish song – your lips are like plump cherries in springtime.”
Leah took a deep breath. “No one has ever said that to me before.” It took her a moment to recover. “I thought you Yeshiva guys weren’t supposed to notice such things,” she sweetly chided.
He usually took great pains to hide this part of himself – from the world and from himself, too – the eye that wasn’t supposed to look. Now he just shrugged. “But I did.”
Outside, he could hear the urban noise and siren sounds on the avenue.
“So your father, he invited you to meet her. What did you say?” Her cheeks had a brightness and she was still smiling in a struck way, as though her mind still hadn’t – couldn’t – leave the aura of the compliment.
Yankel quietly thrilled to be able to have such an effect on her.
“Go on,” Leah insisted, “I want to hear the rest.”
“Well, my father told me that this Gila woman was thirty-six or thirty-seven years old – and who knows she may have even been younger.” He couldn’t help making a face. “Quite frankly, I think the age he gave for her is an approximation. In fact,” he said, his eyes narrowing, “I have a feeling she is younger by a few years. Anyway, he wanted me to be happy for him, but there was something so crazy about the whole thing. I was overcome with embarrassment and even” he flushed, “a little bit of hatred. My father is just so socially strange sometimes – sometimes I feel like I have trouble breathing in his presence.”
Talking with Leah now, he felt his agitation subsiding. “Well after a lifetime of putting up with his fanciful stories, his strange and awkward ideologies, his deceptions, evasions and self-delusions, I said: ‘enough.’ I walked out on him. I just got up and walked right out of the restaurant.”
The lonely man behind the counter called out, “We’re closing soon.”
“You did what?” Leah said, open-mouthed.
“I walked right out on him. This was before Gila came, of course.”
“Oh my goodness. Just like that.” She snapped her fingers.
“Yes, I did. I really did. – and don’t think it felt good at all.” In fact he felt a queasy sensation right then. “But I couldn’t just sit there.”
“Why not?” she asked in a mild tone.
“I can’t stand my father. And after many years, I couldn’t put up with his “surprise” announcements.”
“You couldn’t?” Leah took a sip of water with lemon.
“I know it was not ois gehalten, it was not proper, but there are times one must be a man – a gavra.”
“I see.” She gently touched a napkin to her lips. “So a gavra walks out on his father?”
“What, Leah.” He stared at her through hurt eyes. “You talk as though you’re not on my side!”
“I am on your side and that is why I am going to tell you exactly what I think.”
“Nu… I’m all ears.”
She picked up the plastic placemat, wiped off a few crumbs and then put it down. “I think you need a little help, seriously. You father is” she moved her head gently from side to side “a tipus – a type. This is all he is - a nudnik perhaps, but nothing more, nothing less. Big deal! Don’t make him to be bigger than he is. You’re going to walk out on him every time he pulls something like this? Is this a good way to handle a difficulty?”
“But,” he sputtered, “all his life he is pulling these stunts – these—“ he groped to find the right word “these surprises on me.” He said that word like it was filth.
“—and he will be for many more years to come.”
Yankel moved back in his chair in exaggerated shock. “I can’t believe what you’re saying.”
“This is reality. There will always be somebody you don’t like or doing something you don’t like. You can’t walk out. What will be with us when there is a problem? Are you going to walk out on us?”
Leah’s boldness shocked Yankel in every way. She had used the word “us”. He was speechless. “No, I would not walk out on ‘us,’” Yankel stammered out at last.
Though he couldn’t put his finger on it exactly, it had occurred to Yankel that Leah had won him over with femininity more than reason. In fact, although she had used words, she had spoken ‘womanhood’ - it wasn’t reason, even though it was reasonable. It was like hearing a message from a guitar or some other plucking musical instrument - better than reason Why, Yankel wondered, had the Talmud said of women, daatan kalos – they are light-headed. Were they really so? Not Leah, that was for sure. But what would such a young woman be interested in or need him for? He was about to wander off into that familiar rabbit hole of doubt and self-torture but just then caught himself for once. He felt happy, he had to admit.
Some music played. Oddly, it was an old Simon and Garfunkel tune, Scarborough Fair.
“By what force have you come to me, Leah?” He leaned forward, both hands flat on the table, as if his entire body and being were leaning toward her. “You speak as if you know me - know what’s good for me…maybe better than I know myself – “
“What do you mean ‘by force’? Should I know what force brings people together?” She gazed at him, her with the cherry lips. “I don’t know, Yankel. How should I know? We are together. This is what I know. I do not know how this comes.”
There was a quiet between them. A smoky, hazy but fertile quiet. Babies come from this kind of quiet, Yankel thought. He noticed Leah’s hands. They were lovely like a child’s but frightening to him nonetheless. He shuddered and then shook his head as though tossing away a thought.
“The Talmud says,” he began.
Leah put up her hand to stop him. “Tell me what is in your heart Yankel. Forget the Gemara for a second.”
“My heart is with you,” he said
And so they left the restaurant, more and more certain of their union.
Saturday evening just after Shabbes, he put on his robe and walked to the dormitory hallway leading to the shower, clutching his bar of Ivory. It had become all but a ritual for he and Leah to trek together to Manhattan every Saturday night. It was strange to Yankel, this routine. After all, no words of commitment to each other had officially been spoken so were they even a true couple? But like everything else in Jewish religious life, Yankel had long ago observed, most doubts were quelled with yet another ritual, only this time it was produced by two, not done by one.
He walked to and fro in his thick royal blue bathrobe (a gift he had received from an aunt who was fond of him). At just before seven pm, still early in the evening, he was in no particular rush as he bowed his head into the shower spray. The water rained forceful and hot in the relatively clean stalls but Yankel couldn’t help but notice the soaps of American capitalism – a variety of them, that bochrim left on the shower floor and in the soap dish: Irish Spring, Ivory, Dove, Dial the American civilization of endless abundance displayed in toiletries. He wondered if Leah too was showering precisely at that moment. He squeezed a smidgen of Liquid Prell into his hand and he soaped up his scalp vigorously as if to shake away this impious thought. He lingered for a minute under the shower head: the little pleasures one was permitted, he thought, as the agreeably warm water flowed down his face.
He grabbed his towel and eyeglasses which were already steamed beyond intelligent use, put on his bathrobe and walked back to his room. He checked the clock (he was running on time) and started to dress. In the closet hung a fresh white shirt, but then he thought better. His shirt from Shabbes was on the bed; he solemnly surveyed it. Why, it was still quite wearable, hardly creased at all. Why not use it? An economy; to which one is obligated. His arms pushed through the sleeves of his white shirt with speed and purpose. Now Yankel hoisted his belted suit pants (with the faint pinstripes) to his waist. Tonight special, he made a tie with a dimpled windsor knot.
Hat on his head, Yankel walked a brisk step to Leah’s house. His thoughts kept him lively company, and the twenty minute walk felt like five. Leah was waiting at the door. He noticed the glint of her earrings and then looked away.
“No car today?” Leah asked.
“I thought we could take the subway.”
Leah went back into the closet and grabbed an extra scarf for warmth. “I like the subway,” she said.
At the Newkirk station a funny thing happened. When the train pulled in, they saw an express parallel, waiting. Quickly, they dashed out the door across the platform to catch it. Just before the express opened its doors Leah realized, as she stood between two trains, that she had left one leather glove on the seat of the local D train. She tried to run back into the train to retrieve it, but the doors started to close. Thinking fast, she threw the other glove back in the train.
Yankel stared in disbelief. What was this?
“What good is it for me or anyone to have one glove?” Leah explained as the train took off. “Now someone else in that train car will find a pair of gloves and use them.”
Yankel shook his head in delighted surprise. “Clever, clever, clever is all I can say.” This woman was far cleverer than he. It was unsettling.
A cold gust of New York City winter rushed to greet them as they emerged from the subway. Their heads bowed slightly down and toward each other to defend against the wind. “Brrr,” he thought he heard Leah say. The traffic was loud and Leah had muffled herself with a scarf. He could see her breath in the air between them.
“Let’s watch the skaters,” she said, pulling the scarf down.
They walked over to the rink at Rockefeller Center. There were a few skaters in the middle doing figure-eights, and jumps and all kinds of acrobatics, svelte men and women.
“You ever think, Yankel, of these people getting old - like in fifty years they won’t be doing this?”
“What puts that thought in your head?” Yankel asked.
“My father told me that before the war he was a good skater Now he is an old man. It makes me think: what happens to youth?”
“Youth is wasted on the young. Isn’t that what George Bernard Shaw said?” Yankel offered.
“We are young now,” Leah said. “I want to spend it well.”
There was a break in the skating to clean the rink, and they moved on, wrapping themselves up against the cold. They stopped at bookstores and browsed. Leah picked up the large coffee table books on art or decorating and then moved to the back of the stores to find old maps of New York and photograph collections.
“Yankel, look at this one!”
It was one of those black and whites where the adults and children have coal eyes that peer at you from across the sea of time, suffering eyes, deep and blank all at once.
“And another one.”
It was a Jacob Riis: Lower East Side children smudged with dirt, like street urchin playing on a stoop while a vendor with a filthy derby and a coal miner’s face looks on. There was a sign with the faintest Yiddish lettering in the background.
They stayed out late, walking and walking and talking.
“You like to be in touch with the past, Leah - with those pictures.”
“You could say so,” Leah said. “I don’t know why.”
Yankel took something out of his pocket and threw into the trash can from afar and scored. “There’s someone I know like that in Yeshiva. He got a hold of an old map of the town of Mir in Lithuania - pre-war - and he memorized every street - including where the gas station was.”
“Mir? Where the famous yeshiva was! A gas station? I had no idea!”
“Apparently, there was a gas station - a tiny one in the 1930s - or so he says.”
They walked in the cold all the way down to 34th street. By the time they got on the subway, even the late Saturday night crowd had thinned. Yankel and Leah moved closer together, generating a warmth between them even though they didn’t touch. The city had begun to prepare for sleep. There were still plenty of people, but they were spread throughout the car; the shiny, empty, orange and yellow “D” train seats. At such moments even a New York City subway car could provide a bit of intimacy. They had a corner all to themselves.
The train made its way across the Manhattan Bridge. To the North and South were to Leah’s eyes, magical views of a Manhattan on the lip of water. The subway neared the Brooklyn side. It picked up speed and began to move with a bit of a shake and a roll.
Yankel turned to Leah: “A shuckle,” he said, using the Yiddish phrase for the mild movement one makes in prayer.
Leah made a face. “I suppose that’s funny.”
“I think so,” Yankel said.
Leah got up from her seat to look through the windows on the car doors. Yankel followed her and they could see dimly, their reflections against the glass even as they saw the outside.
“Yankel, I want to ask you something: it’s going to come as a bit of a shock, but I want to ask you, anyway.”
Oh no. Would this be some kind of test? Yankel wondered.
He braced himself. “Go ahead.” They were still looking straight at the glass, but Leah studied Yankel’s reflection.
“What do you think of love, Yankel?”
“Love?” Yankel asked, as if some random creature had just dropped from the sky into the subway.
Outside the sound of raindrops - a freezing rain -could be heard on the metal roof of the car. It had begun to rain and sleet. They looked at each other now.
“Yeah, like love in the everyday romantic sense, like you hear in those songs, the Gentiles.” She ducked her head. “You know.”
Yankel made a wave of the hand and snorted. “Oh; that kind of love…”
The subway train entered into the DeKalb Avenue tunnel now. The clickety-clack of the train came to a roar. They left the window and returned to their seats.
Leah mouthed some words, but above the din of the speeding train Yankel could not make them out.
When the noise got quieter Leah repeated herself. “That kind of love, you say?” she mimicked Yankel. “You ever think about that kind of love?”
“No, actually, I don’t.” Yankel silently regarded his hands resting on his lap. “Bei unz, by us suitability is the main thing. Love flows from what is suitable.”
The train screeched on the rails. “It sounds so dull,” Leah said.
“Suitability is actually a deep thing,” Yankel said. “I don’t make light of it. It means suitable in the eyes of God as well as in our own eyes. Nisht kein kleinekeit. No small thing, no small thing I tell you. It takes courage to love what is suitable, to love what is right.”
Leah smoothed out the front of her coat. “It’s not about love that I am really asking. There’s a deadly dullness to cliches like it’s tzu gepast, or it’s bashert, ordained. I like the messiness of life - that’s what I envy about the goyim - their freedom to make a mess - to have it rain and snow and everything in between,” she said, gesturing to the outside.
The train pulled into the station and the doors opened. People now boarded the car and an older couple sat near them. The woman gave Yankel a nervous smile.
Self conscious in front of the couple, he motioned to Leah to change seats to a more “private” corner of the car but even after they sat down, Yankel did not answer. Not that there was a question, really. Leah wasn’t asking anything, She was just talking and yet Yankel could sense with increasing clarity that this was a test he dare not fail. The idea of suitability could make sense to her, but could it be that she was deciding that it shouldn’t by dint of will or defiance? For a while, he looked only straight ahead. Slowly, tentatively, his gaze returned to her. He would double down.
“I think we are tzu’gepast – right for each other. I have no doubt. That’s no kleininkeit, I tell you.” His chin went down deep for emphasis. “But you are talking about messes? I have never heard of this, but I think you are saying that you don’t want to be spoken for.”
The train started to move and the couplings between cars compressed and made a loud popping sound.
Leah’s eyes expanded; the green in them seemed greener now. “I want surprises in life! Yes, I don’t want to be spoken for or my life to be spoken for. I want a life that keeps me and everyone else guessing.” Then she looked at Yankel intently. “But I do like you, Yankel.”
“Es s’keygentzeitik, it’s mutual,” Yankel quickly said.
At the last stop, Atlantic, a man in a bow tie and a chesterfield coat had gotten on and sat across from them. When he heard Yankel use a Yiddish word, he stood up and walked away..
Yankel and Leah looked at each other as if to say, “What’s the matter with him?”
Leah seemed deep in thought He noticed her forehead for the first time - it was white and soft and smooth. “I wonder what’s happening in there.” He pointed tenderly to the top of her head.
“Maybe,” Leah said, “you should be pointing here,” and she gestured to her heart. I wish sometimes I could read my own heart well.”
“Leah,” Yankel said in a slightly pedantic tone “What is in the heart is always a tricky matter. You know that, Leah. On the one hand we are supposed to love God with all our hearts but on the other hand, ’What is in the heart is not what matters’ It is to do the will of God,” he said, quoting the Talmud.
Leah rolled her eyes, slid away from Yankel an inch or two on the subway bench while moving her head back in mild mockery.
“You’re a sincere person, Yankel. But you’re playing a game. You know as well as I do that life is more than just ‘doing His will.’ What is in my heart and your heart-” she pointed at Yankel’s chest, “is also His will.” She let her statement settle in the air and now she passionately snapped shut her pocketbook.
Yankel moved closer to her. “I believe our hearts play some role, but not much. Everything is pre-destined, anyway.”
Leah let out a laugh. “For Heaven’s sake. Listen to yourself. Either you mean it, which is bad enough, or you’re just spouting a line, which is even worse. It’s downright frightening the way you speak! Bist du gemacht fun holtz. Are you made of wood?”
The blue lights that lined the tunnels blurred past quickly. Again, he turned to her. “Do you give everyone such a hard time?
Leah laughed a little, but she was still emotional. “You don’t understand, Yankel. This is a hard time? We’re just talking!”
“I don’t want you to be angry with me. I would do anything to please you. Anything! But,” and here he waved his hand up and down,”if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re talking shtus – you’re whipping up a drama over nothing. S’iz gornisht mit gornisht.”
“It’s not ‘nothing.’ The more you make it into nothing, the worse it is.” She shook her head and sighed. She was not unhappy, not exactly unhappy anyway, but clearly she was dissatisfied, a mild despair.
There was a long and dry pause between them. Yankel had attempted to placate her, though deep down he resented that he had to, then he had tried to oppose her. This too did not ‘work’. By his lights, Leah was being excessive and unfair to him. After all, he had only said what was correct and proper - everything happens because it is meant to be. Everyone knows that. Why does a man have to get persecuted? This is the kind of ‘torture’ between man and woman he had witnessed all through growing up. His father used to say, “Die Eberhster hot geshikt tzu mir a fro vos in ganzen tut nisht fashteien mir. God sent me a woman who doesn’t understand me. Yet Yankel hadn’t see it that way back then. In fact, he had always taken his mother’s side, had seen her as the victim - married to a self-centered man. But now he wondered. A certain amount of bad between people was unavoidable. It wasn’t pleasant what he was feeling with Leah now. He had a stinging sensation at the bottom of his heart.
It was late and the steady movement of the train itself seemed to lull them into a stupor. It rocked back and forth rhythmically like a cradle. After about ten minutes of this, Leah’s body began to relax and she started to drift into sleep. Yankel turned to her amid the din of the train, “Die Bahn is dokh a vig’l,” Yankel said. The train is a cradle.
Leah lifted her head and life came to her eyes. “I can’t believe you knew that Yiddish word!” She smiled. “That is why I must be with you. It’s your Yiddish - my father’s language.”
“Yid’l mit’n vig’l” Yankel said – a pun on the Yiddish film, Yidl mit’n fidl.
Leah relaxed more and so did Yankel.
It’s all in the words, he thought. A change of phrase here and there, and suddenly a new day.
“It will be all right then?” Yankel asked.
“Yes, it will be all right,” she said with just a tinge of weariness. The train was moving fast now and they sat together for another few minutes in silence. Yankel felt a great relief though he sensed there was more to come. Soon, they were back at Avenue J.
The next time Yankel went to Leah she sat him down on the living room sofa, an embroidered pillow between them. He again noticed the glint of her earring, temporarily blinding him even more than last time. There was an air about her in the way she sat It was close but at distance at the same time, as though she were leaning away. He felt his own body brace and stiffen, but he didn’t know why. He had heard once that the body “knew” everything. It could even sense a danger or a betrayal was imminent. He had heard this and he believed it.
Leah put her hand through her hair. “I had been talking with my father and something came up. He of course is very curious about you and us.” She tried unsuccessfully to clear her throat, but she pushed on. “He wants me to find out -” her voice gave out a little and she again cleared her throat. “He wants to know what you think you might do for a living, you know, besides just studying in Yeshiva. I mean, do you have a plan?”
Yankel was a bit pained and puzzled by this question. Surely, Leah was familiar with the way things were done in the Yeshiva world. She had to know that this was a complicated matter. Most people did not have a “plan” at all. Rather, something evolved, developed over time. After all, it was expected that a young man in Yeshiva would continue his studies for a few years after marriage. For the first year or two, a couple’s expenses could be kept quite low. They might live in subsidized housing and the woman of the house, as Leah was to become, was often able to hold down a good job at least until the children came. Along with wedding gifts, a small student stipend from the Yeshiva and a simple lifestyle, this was not a bad existence, economically speaking. Leah had to know all of that.
Of course. not everyone lived so precariously. For example, if the young man had prospects, a wealthy family, a business that he might go into after spending some years in Torah study, or even if he could aspire to a position in the rabbinate, this would be so much the better. But Yankel had neither money nor prospects. And Leah knew that!
“A plan?” Yankel asked. “One can’t plan too far ahead. We still have time.”
Leah grimaced. “I know everything will work out, but sometimes it’s good to have a plan.” She gently kneaded the sofa pillow she had in her hand.
“The plan is to muddle through – like everyone else.”
Leah put the pillow down suddenly and with a degree of force. “I don’t want to ‘muddle through.’ This is not a plan. I want a plan for progress. I want to be able to tell my father something.” She stopped and looked over at him. ”Isn’t there something we can say to him?”
“Yes, progress is extremely important,” Yankel said, but in this sudden glare of inspection on him, his head throbbed. The ease that had been developing between them was fading, he could sense it, as though now he were on the deck of a ship that had begun to list. None of this did he have the presence of mind to put into words. Instead, he mounted a defense: “I do plan to make progress - in Torah study. Making progress in Talmud is not” he flicked his finger as if dispelling a speck of dust - “nothing. It’s no small thing. Your father must know this.”
“Yes, Yankel. He knows this and he loves that you are going to be a Talmid chochem, a scholar.”
Yankel winced at the words, going to be.
Leah noticed this. “That’s not to say that you aren’t already, but you know what I mean, Yankel. You are already a substantial rabbi,” and she motioned with her hands as if to smooth his ruffled feathers. “All I’m saying is to humor him. Tell him you’re going to be an accountant or something. Anything.”
“So you want me to lie?” Yankel asked, surprised.
“No, I mean, tell him that you’re thinking of taking professional courses in accounting or computers or something like that – a profession as a backup. Tell him at least that you’re considering it.” Leah went on, “I myself told him that things have a way of sorting themselves out, but he is the nervous type. Also, he’s a little bit right. He doesn’t want me to be one of those mothers with ten children with no money and no plan except maybe to take in boarders.”
Yankel unsuccessfully tried to suppress a sneer with a smile. He couldn’t help but turn away from Leah. He knew of those types like Leah’s father: sunshine patriots – they were all for Torah study, but in secret, they worshipped the Golden Calf! - the Almighty Dollar. It wasn’t scholarship or “Torah” they wanted at all, but comfort and success! But Leah! He hadn’t figured her to be one of those. By virtue of her going out with him, he assumed that she had already given her consent to his way of life.
“You, Leah, what do you want? I thought you wanted what I wanted, but now I see maybe not. You know there will be struggle, but maybe you don’t think the struggle is worth it. Maybe you don’t think we’re worth it.”
Leah blinked back a tear. “It’s not that at all. Think of it. If I were to start having children, I would want to be a stay-at-home mother. I won’t work, but then what do we have to rely on?”
“God,” Yankel said simply and stood up. “One has to have bitachon, trust in God.”
“Bitachon means using your head and working hard, that is what my father always said.” Leah looked away from him for a second and stared at a family portrait on the wall.
Her father did have a point, Yankel knew. Didn’t the Talmud say, ‘He who prepares for the Sabbath will have what to eat on the Sabbath” ? Of course one wasn’t allowed to rely on miracles. That had never been his intention. He said now, “We may not have money, but we will never drown. I guarantee that.”
“That is not good enough – not for my father.” Leah lightly tossed her pillow at the place where Yankel had been sitting.
Yankel gently moved it aside and sat down again. “But is it good enough for you, Leah? For you?”
Leah shook her head. “I don’t know.”
By Yankel’s lights, he could not understand why this was coming up now. It was true that he had no plan to make money. One could get by these days. Perhaps he could teach in a high school, though he felt he had no talent for that, but maybe he could learn how. It was a profession these days to be a teacher of Torah studies. One had to go for training. The Talmud was replete with stories about the difficulties of making a living. Some rabbis were rich, others starved. One was a tanner, another, a blacksmith. Such was the way.
But what was with Leah now that she should want all of a sudden he should have a plan? What plan did anyone have when they came to this country? Maybe Leah wasn’t the one for him, if she had to please her father so much. Nothing’s done until it’s done. Everyone knew that. It’s not that it wouldn’t surprise him, because the Talmud says, “There’s no marriage contract written without a pitcher or two being thrown.” In other words, squabbles, even reneging, was the norm. Maybe it would come to that here, too – after all, they weren’t even engaged yet. The whole thing could go up like a puff of smoke.
Finally, he said. “Leah, when all is said and done you have to know who you are and who I am.” He stared at her intently and with tenderness. “You know that feelings cannot be bought. My feelings for you and your feelings for me cannot be traded at the market.”
“Yes, but they can’t be used at the market to buy things, either.”
“You are your father’s daughter, I see.”
Leah pushed air hard out of the side of her mouth sending part of her bangs up in the above her forehead. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You mean that it’s wrong for me to want,” she said flatly.
“Not wrong, it’s just that it’s materialistic – it’s not spiritual. It’s concrete. Not everyone can wear the crown of Torah.”
Leah became flush and red – perhaps out of anger, but Yankel didn’t know. She went to the kitchen to get a glass of water and brought one for Yankel too. “I know you think I have to please my father, but I don’t think you realize that I also want to please myself. I think that’s okay for me to do that – even though you don’t think so.”
Leah’s words sent a shock wave through Yankel though he scarcely knew why or just how revolutionary her thinking was. ‘It was okay for her to please herself.’ What a concept and what a strange concept to Yankel who just didn’t think in those terms. He always had to please someone else.
“I see your point,” Yankel said slowly, “but maybe it’s best we leave this alone for now.”
Leah took the drinking glasses away, untouched. “I agree,” she said.
However, he knew that this was a big problem that could not be solved so easily.
That night he thought about the things Leah had said. Perhaps she was not for him if she wanted a more material life. It was just a bit of a surprise to him. He hadn’t figured. Women were unreliable and their unreliability would yet ruin the world. And now Leah had managed to get at his Achilles heel – but for heaven’s sake, she could even be right. After all, didn’t the old-timers say, der ikar iz. m’darf tzu-frieden-shtellen di fro - the main point in life for a man is that he must be please the woman. Perhaps his piety was really just a way of avoiding the world – of becoming a man.
Such were this thoughts back at the dorm as he bludgeoned himself into a rabbinically-ordained sleep (one must get at least 6 hours, according to the Talmud).
In the morning Yankel had his hands full. His father, for the first time ever, showed up in Yeshiva, unannounced, of course. Yankel had been studying in the bais medrash and someone came to tell him: “There’s a man outside who says he’s your father.”
What could my father want that he should come to visit me here? Yankel wondered. His mind raced through a series of possible tragedies - something with his mother, his sister - other relatives possibly, but he quickly discounted them. He had just spoken with his mother and his sister last night and they were both fine. If anything had happened to anybody else his father would not deem it important enough for him to make a personal appearance. A frozen-ness overtook his mind - he couldn’t really think or feel at all - even as his body sped down the stairs to greet the man. He wouldn’t put it past his father to show up on a whim, completely disregarding anybody’s social conventions’ except his own. Certainly, he regarded the Yeshiva as a philistine universe - unworthy, whose norms were far beneath any serious reckoning on his part.
At the bottom of the long staircase stood his father in an electric-blue shirt, dappled in the strong winter sunlight that came through the side windows. His pink-smooth cheeks reminded him of a healthy pig’s, but at the same time - from where he did not know - he felt a rush of love for the man. “Abba!” They embraced. “What brings you here?” He almost mumbled an apology, a regret about how he had walked out on Gila. But for his father, any reflection or grudge-bearing or memory of slights oppressed him. The main thing was to be on to the very next pleasure.
Father held on to his son’s hand for a brief moment. “I was passing by and I was seized by the urge to see this place. I hadn’t planned on disturbing you, but I was recognized by one of your yeshiva bochur friends who insisted on fetching you.”
“Well, good of you to come, Dad,” Yankel said with somewhat less than a full heart. “Now that you’re here, let me show you around.”
He walked a few steps ahead of the older man and thought: Oy, did he have to wear that loud shirt? Nevertheless, a bit haltingly, Yankel began to throw himself into the role of earnest tour guide. “Let me show you the library of old books near the washing station and then the dining room.”
The library was locked so Yankel took him to the handwashing station adjacent to the dining hall. It was mid-morning and a few stragglers were having cornflakes and milk in plastic bowls on the long tables. One young bochur was meticulously peeling a hard-boiled egg.
His father gazed at them, his hands clasped behind his back, with an air of a visiting dignitary, a politician perhaps, a congressman or senator - aloof even though he was kin. “I guess these guys must have had a late night on the town,” the older man said, lifting his thick brows with the slightest touch of derision.
Much as it pained Yankel to admit, he knew his dad was not far off from the truth. There seemed to be in every Yeshiva a percentage that was just ‘out of it’ - young men who were trying and failing to match their inner world to the outer world of the Yeshiva. Yankel knew of one young man in the dorm who never managed to make it to classes at all! He lived in a universe of his own - never waking up before eleven in the morning - and all he had every day to eat until night was a black-and-white cookie and a can of Diet Pepsi. Occasionally, he would show up for supper and then meander back to the dorm with an obscure book on Jewish thought on whose margins he scribbled notes. Such a young man was always studying but never progressing. No, his father was not wrong about this aspect of Yeshiva: it was, for some, a haven for losers, for people with no prospects or who were asleep in some way. For a moment he could see how there was a humiliating passivity to all, at least by his father’s lights. No wonder getting his father to pay the Yeshiva tuitions had been like pulling a plow on rocky soil.
He led his dad past the vending machines and the bank of payphones to the entranceway of the great study hall. It was a magnificently large room - the size of the playing field of a colloseum - a sea of black and white and a low but deafening roar of testosterone subjugated, yoked to the study of Talmud. Yankel’s father stood in the doorway, watching, silent. The sheen on his cheeks, that natural ebullient glow, faded a little. He seemed overwhelmed by something - a wave. He didn’t stand so high, he leaned in even as he tried to regain his footing.
“Yankel,” he asked, his hand moving somewhat tentatively over his still dark goatee, “what are they studying?”
Yankel cocked his ear to the crowd. “They are discussing - what happens if you find a piece of gold somewhere. Can you transmit ownership to your friend by just thinking: I want this to be for him.”
Upon hearing this the older man perked up. “Mego d’zakhi…” His blue eyes seemed to reflect the bright light of the bais medrash. Yankel’s father had remembered the relevant passage in the Talmud from his own long-ago days of Yeshiva study, and his pink pig cheeks glowed again with self-satisfaction. As he walked out of the room, he clopped his forehead. The complete phrase had come to him: “Mego d’zakhi l’nafshe, zakhi nami l’khavrei!” If he can get the gold for himself then he can get it for his friend, too. His father clapped his hands together softly, so pleased he was with himself.
Yankel was impressed with his father’s prodigious recall, but he also couldn’t help thinking: Would Abba get the gold for him, his own son, when the time came for his wedding? Although who knew if that would even be, Yankel thought with a pang of gloom in his chest.
Yankel’s father abruptly and somewhat ceremoniously looked at his watch. “My goodness. It’s later than I thought. I have to get going.” He patted down his goatee, his expression already fixed on his next appointment. “Thank you, my son, for a wonderful experience.”
Yankel walked his father out to the street. Just as they were about to part ways, the older man said above the Coney Island Avenue traffic, “Maybe now you will come to meet Gila - she is my future, you know.”
Good grief Yankel thought. Just like his father to think of his future. Yankel shrugged. “A gezunt oif dayn kop, Tatteh.” You should live and be well.
With that he decided to detour back to his dorm room to get a drink, feeling the need to settle himself after his father’s impromptu visit. What could Abba be up to, he wondered. Maybe that is what he had in mind all along - getting him to visit Gila. He was both crafty and crude in his self-interest. Or maybe Yankel was judging him too harshly.
Someone knocked on his door, his buddy, Reuven. “There’s a young woman outside the building in a car” he jerked his thumb streetward “and she says she wants to talk to you.”
Yankel stared, stupefied. Could that be Leah? What did she want? As he hurried down the stairs, he didn’t feel like his usual self . A little bit not all right in his stomach - like he was flying downwind on a roller coaster - what with his father and now Leah. Was it possible that she regretted what she had said the night before? Or perhaps she was regretting the whole relationship and it was over. Such a thing wouldn’t have been a surprise to Yankel. Life had taught him to expect reversals - and mostly the negative kind.
He flung open the building door. He looked here, there, and his gaze fell on a purple Dodge in the street. He saw her looking straight ahead, her dark curtain of hair nearly obscuring her face. He felt his blood rush in excitement as he went up to the car. Catching sight of him, she rolled down the window.
“What a shock!” he said, putting both hands on the window ledge. In fact, he felt stupid with shock. Yankel had never in his life been as surprised as he was at that moment.
He hunched low so their heads nearly met. The cars were whizzing by. Had she changed her mind? Had she been panicked into submitting? It didn’t appear that way. She had all her usual poise, but she seemed a little ridiculous, like a wide-eyed little animal in that rattletrap Dodge, sitting behind that gigantic steering wheel. Even though Yankel didn’t know much about cars, he had to take notice: this car was primitive! It was a 1972 Dodge Dart with no air conditioning and just an AM radio - basically, a hand blender.
“Yankel, I am sorry.” She looked at him then glanced away. “I didn’t want to disturb you in Yeshiva, but I tried to reach you in the morning, and when I didn’t hear back from you I thought you were mad.” She gazed into her lap, her elegant purse in the adjacent seat.
A big truck rolled down the street, and Yankel placed himself flat against the car door. After the truck passed, he moved back again. He could hardly believe his ears. She had been worried enough to come all all the way here to find him. He felt a great sense of relief.
“You’re smiling,” Leah said. “Are you happy that I came?”
“Yes, very happy,” he said, grinning foolishly at the sight of her.
She touched her hair self-consciously. “Is there something on my face? Why are you grinning like that?”
He merely smirked.
“Well?” she persisted.
“It’s just that-” he coughed “well, there’s something funny about you in that car.” “Funny, as in…strange?”
He shrugged. “Funny, like a big clown riding on a tiny bicycle - your sophistication is contrasted with this very simple, hickish car - like a spoof.”
Leah feigned tossing a coffee cup at him. Yankel was concerned that people should see this kallus rosh, this sweet lightheadedness between them. It wasn’t proper to be standing in front of the Yeshiva talking in this way with Leah.
“May I remind you, young lady,” he said with mock seriousness, “that it is not the place for us to…”
“Yes, I get it. Go back to your studies - and thanks for making fun of me, by the way,” she said sarcastically. “But I suppose you’re right. It is a ridiculous car.”
Yankel put both his hands up. “Don’t be mad. You know I’m kidding. Let’s talk later tonight. I’ll come over at eight.”
As he walked into the bais medrash, the smile on his face was so wide and permanent, it seemed the whole world would somehow “know” what he had been up to. But later, when he thought of the “talk” he would have to have with Leah tonight, he sobered up a bit.
What good was this ‘talking’ going to do? The way he saw it, one of them would have to give in - or end it. Leah’s insistence on a plan could torpedo the whole thing. She had to know that. She had to know that one can’t get everything. (Women would yet bring the ruin of the world!) So what good was it to talk? On the contrary, a man of faith talks little and does a lot. His actions always exceeded his words. And yet, there are times one must talk in life. That much he knew, but what to say?
Now at Leah’s house, staring at the old family photos on the wall, he tried to center himself, but every time he looked in Leah’s direction and caught sight of her face, her dark hair, and the way she looked at him, he thought himself liable to agree to anything just to keep it going with her. But one must try anyhow. And so he began: “I know we have taken to each other, but it’s possible that you might want a different life – with a different type of man than me – someone who is a bit more ‘success-driven’ than me.”
He could see her slender throat moving as she swallowed. He had her attention, of that he could be sure. “Leah, it’s not that I want to talk you out of ‘us’, but for goodness sake, I have to be real. It’s not for me or for us to sell out and pedal falsehoods as an antacid. This is a serious thing.”
Leah put her hand up. “It’s not so great for me to have this conversation here.” She motioned upstairs. “People could overhear.” Instead, Leah suggested they go to one of their old haunts to have tea.
They walked over together in relative silence. All the while Yankel thought of what to say. When they sat down at the small cafe table, he looked at her looking at him again. He squeezed his lemon and began to sip his tea. What words could he offer? Who was he kidding? Could he make money - enough money to please her? His friends, those lucky enough to have family money, made it somehow, when they eventually left Torah study to pursue a living. And even those who didn’t - this one became a school principal, the other one a fundraiser for a Yeshiva. Some, like his friend, Moishe, a very tall handsome man, became a pulpit rabbi in a rich community somewhere on Long Island. He had charisma. What lay ahead for Yankel? A man must imagine the worst and then work from there: The lowest form of occupation in the religious world available to a man like him was a kashrus supervisor at a catering hall, a restaurant or even a factory. He shuddered to think of himself in the future, a stooped man bent over vats and pots in a foreign food plant, trying to ascertain what ingredients some man from China put in their packaged noodle soup and if they were kosher. Yankel knew such a man who flew all over the world to bubble gum factories in Asia, won ton soup makers in Vietnam or Cambodia or some other such place. He was hobbled and overweight, plagued by sciatica and high blood pressure, forever living with air tickets crumpled in his briefcase, making frantic phone calls to a Lower East Side travel agent – get me a transfer in Kuala Lumpur with a lay-over in Stockholm.
Yankel set out these thoughts for Leah and watching her face as he spoke, he knew he had to give something more. It wasn’t money. It was something that can be confused with money – sometimes. It was soul.
He set down his cup of tea. “I know what is good enough for me will not be good enough for you – materially, and maybe your father thinks of me as a nice guy but a luftmensch, someone with low expectations who will never put in any sweat into anything, but zayt moichel, forgive me,” his gaze directly met hers, “your father misjudges me.”
Leah’s hand had been hovering near the sugar packets. Now she straightened her back and her mouth opened as if to speak something, but she put her hand over it. Yankel went on but with force - his chest seemed for the first time to converge with the rest of him - he was talking with his whole frame, all of him pushing out, chin forward: “I offer you something, and potentially us - something different – a real Jewish life of learning. I know it speaks to you otherwise you wouldn’t be with me in the first place. It may seem dry to some people, a lot of people, maybe nearly all the people in the world or almost all – what if a drop of milk falls into your meat stew – who cares? Throw it out, don’t throw it out. But when I go through all of the opinions, kosher, trayf, proofs, postulates, corollaries, I hear God speaking to me – not the way you might think - a thundering voice. No, I get a small rush, a vibration, like the first time I met you. It’s almost like a wink from God, He is with me and when He is with me I feel like I have all the money and security in the world.”
Leah’s eyes welled up.
Yankel continued, “Your father is right to press me for a plan, but remember, Leah, your father couldn’t go to Yeshiva on account of the war. It’s possible he might even be jealous of what I have and happy for what we might have.” Yankel mimed a motion to take Leah’s hand over the cafe table. “It will be all right. But if it’s not all right, I will work and work till I make it all right – if I have to wash cars, I will make it all right.”
Leah put her hand to her mouth again only this time she spoke. “I have never in my life been moved by such words. My God! You are the one for me.”
A rush of electricity, a charging of ions through the air. Yankel closed his eyes. He was soul to soul with this woman. As if from a distance he heard her say, “I - we don’t need to make up any stories for my father, but just the same, even if God speaks directly into your ears, we are going to need a plan.”
His eyes opened blearily. There was something unrelenting about this woman. Just when he thought he had her won over. she came back with her point, unconquered. She still wants a plan! Why did it irk Yankel so, her refusal to be subdued, as though a woman must give in! She frightened him a little, but he respected her for it, too. From where did people get such powers?
Leah may have wanted a plan, but that didn’t stop her from asking, “When am I going to meet your mother?” And so it was arranged that the next Sunday Yankel and Leah drove over to Bay Parkway in Bensonhurst to meet his mother. The lobby of her apartment building was inexplicably painted green and had fluorescent lighting installed during the Depression. The combination of the two gave off a ghost-green fun-house glow. Though it was close to February, a Christmas tree stood in a corner of the lobby, and beside it on a ledge, a lit menorah.
Leah looked at Yankel. “I guess they like to hold on to the holidays here.”
Yankel nodded apologetically as though he had to answer for these time-challenged, backward Bensonhurst people.
Into the elevator they went. She pushed the big round buttons. Yankel’s mother lived on the top floor. Yankel studied Leah as the elevator climbed its way up. “Nervous?” he asked.
“You’ve no reason to be. My mother is not the type to make anyone nervous.”
The elevator stopped at the third floor and a sixty-ish woman in curlers with a laundry basket came in.
“Going down?” she asked.
“Up,” Yankel said. The woman demurred. “I’ll wait for it to come down.”
“You know nothing about women,” Leah continued when the elevator doors closed. “How mean they can be to each other.”
Leah wore high heels and a Navy pea coat and navy stockings and gold earrings. A beautiful woolen sweater wrapped her body. She looked, even by Yankel’s habitual unawares about the ways of women, fashionable. But something in her set jaw made her look as though she were spoiling for a fight. Was this how women fought – outdoing or intimidating one another with their clothes? A woman wears her armaments on her body – a quote Yankel remembered from the Talmud.
The elevator rose reluctantly, achingly, like the cranky inhabitants of the building. Leah as though reading his thoughts looked up at Yankel and said, “It’s a Jewish elevator, you can hear it krechtz, you can hear it groan.”
Yankel grinned. Leah was beginning to sound like him.
Finally they reached the sixth floor. It was warm in the building yet bleak. Every few steps an apartment, each one more or less the same as the other, but the lives of those inside were different: Jews and Gentiles; Italians, Poles, Pakistanis, Russians and Indians. Yankel remembered once when he was a child, a man died in one of the apartments down the halls. He was an older man, Italian. The police came. It was a Saturday. They said he died in the bathtub. Yankel remembered how he kept wishing the police to revive the man. An ambulance waited outside. Surely, they could do something with their uniforms and pistols, but of course dead was dead. Nothing you can do about that.
At the door of 612J they knocked. His mother, a diminutive woman, peered through the sight-glass wordlessly and then they heard the door locks being unlatched and turned. She motioned them to come in.
They were hit with the smell of supper - chicken with rice on the stove. A small table in the kitchen held a napkin holder (plastic of course), stuffed with notes, bills and what-not. Yankel looked at the two of them: his wife to be (who was herself not very tall) towering over his very petite mother.
In the dining room, all three sat at an oval table. Yankel took another look at Leah. She truly looked glamorous, he had to admit. Her shoes were patent leather and there was again the flash of the gold earrings. How come he never even noticed how women dressed before?
Meanwhile the older woman studied hard the younger from a distance. It was bizarre for Yankel to watch his mother stare to the point of crudeness. He could follow his mother’s gaze: the chin, the cheek bones, the lips. After a minute or so, said the older to the younger: “You are very pretty.”
And then as if she had resolved something for herself and for her world, she walked over to the mantle and picked up two framed black and white photographs. “This is my mother and father. This one is my grandmother. They came from Tarnopol.”
Leah held the two frames and then looked at Yankel. “You look like your grandmother. She was beautiful.”
Yankel’s mother stretched her hand out and reached up to Leah’s cheek and turned toward Yankel: “‘May the Lord make the woman who comes into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel.’” She turned now to Leah. “You will be my flesh and blood, fleish and bloot, Bassar v’dam.”
The older woman put out some sugar cookies and tea. Leah made small talk. “Where did you get those beautiful leichter?” she said, gesturing toward the mantle.
“Those candlesticks are all that I have left from my mother. They are from der alter heim, yes, from the old country. My grandmother bought them in Warsaw in 1865 They are the only beautiful thing I own.” His mother’s eyes looked down. “You have to tell me what kind of candlesticks to buy for you. This is the custom, you know, to buy candlesticks for the bride. Tell me and I go to Thirteenth Avenue to the silversmith to buy them.”
Leah was shy to answer. Instead, she nodded and then began a new topic:
“Mrs. Feigenbaum, your son has told me a lot about you.”
“He has?” she said, looking over at him. “I didn’t think…”
“Oh yes, he speaks about you a great deal.”
“I am an old woman.”
Yankel patted her wrist. “Ma, you’re not old.”
“My son does not like me to speak this way,” she said, waving him off with her hand, “but in truth, one’s days are numbered.”
“Let me speak.”
Leah nodded sympathetically to the woman.
On the table an egg kichel lay on a plain white plate, and nearby, Cornell seltzer bottles. “I waited many years for this moment. And I see my son has picked someone special.”
“I am lucky to have been introduced to your son. He is a-”
The old woman cut her off. “I know who he is. You don’t have to embarrass him. I wish you many happy years together. You will see now that I am a woman who gets straight to the point.” She motioned to the candlesticks on the mantle. “You see those? They are yours. I want you should have them. And I won’t take no for an answer. You will leave here with them tonight.”
They made more pleasantries, they ate, they embraced and they left. As soon as the elevator doors safely closed, Leah blurted out, “Wow, that was very dramatic.” She tucked the candlesticks further into a shopping bag stuffed with newspaper.
“I was surprised that my mother did that…totally unexpected.”
They walked to the car carefully. There was ice and snow around and you could hear the crunch underneath their feet. Yankel gallantly leapt over a small snow drift to open the door for Leah. He then got in on his side and started the car.
“Wait,” Leah said just before she buckled her seat belt. “Before we go anywhere, I have to catch my breath. Your mother just gave me – us – I am holding these candlesticks from 1865.”
You could see their breath in the car. It was that cold.
“Yeah, that was something.”
Yankel could see Leah tearing up. “What, Leah?” Had he said the wrong thing?
Perhaps he was stupid, he thought, a clod.
Leah shook her head. “It’s okay. It’s just that this is a moment – a big moment and you just shrug it off with yeah.”
“You’re not going to get into an argument with me now, are you? I am not a person who feels so much. You’re beginning to find this out.”
Leah did up her coat more tightly. “I guess we don’t have to think and feel the same things always.”
“But I want to, Leah, I want to. I want to be with you.”
“You’re a good boy,” she said with a slight wave of her hand.
“I’m older than you,” Yankel reminded her.
“You’re older than me, but you’re young,” Leah said. Then she quickly added, “I still want you, don’t worry.”
She took out a small orange from her purse. “Take this. It will protect you against the cold.”
Yankel felt the pulpy orange with his hand. He held it; then pinched it. “What’s this, Leah, a peace offering?”
She handed him a napkin. “Eat it, Yankel, it’s good for you. Let’s not talk anymore.”
Yankel was puzzled. He was young, he was old. It didn’t feel like a compliment either way. Now he wasn’t to talk about it – but they were full steam ahead anyway. He wondered whether their impending marriage was one of those “bargains” that people made that come back to haunt them? Such a bargain he was certain is what his parents made thirty years earlier. They had never gotten on together. Maybe that was the problem. They had made no bargains at all. They were just in each other’s way until they moved each other out of the way.
And he never got on with his father either, small wonder. But he would have to get money out of him since he felt that the day would come very soon for them to get married. No easy thing, no easy thing. The thought of him talking to his father about anything brought him to despair.
Leah wiped the passenger window of condensation. “I know you’re thinking about us visiting with your father now.”
“Yes, I am,” he said. What a mess, Yankel thought. He turned on to Bay Parkway. He was greeted by a sea of headlights. The radio said it was nine degrees. Exhaust poured out of the tailpipes of the cars. End-of-January Bay Parkway looked like a nighttime soup - with lights – a watercolor image of red brake lights and yellow, green and red traffic signal lights. In the frigid air people still went out to walk their dogs and get groceries. The turn signal of the Oldsmobile was stuck in the “on” position; an annoyance. He fiddled with it, but to no avail.
“Tomorrow will be snow,” Leah said. “A big one.”
Yankel looked at Leah. “You must be hungry. I saw you didn’t eat much at my mother’s.”
“I was too nervous,” she admitted.
“Would you like something to eat? There is a place right here along Kings Highway.”
Over a bowl of mushroom-barley soup Leah said, “I confess I am both dreading and looking forward to meeting your father. I want to meet the man who made you – or didn’t make you – is a better way to say it.”
Yankel was twisted in knots, sitting small and scrunched up in his chair. A young woman swept the restaurant floor.
“Your father is a shadow that comes over you back and forth. Now he’s in you and then he’s not.”
Yankel nodded. “It’s my trouble, not yours.”
“That’s very gallant of you, but the fact is, we’re in this together.”
“Nice words, but no one can really help me with him.”
“That’s nonsense and you know it.”
The waiter, a portly man with a dark complexion came. “Is there anything else?”
Yankel shook his head no and then looked at Leah. “I don’t want anything.”
After the waiter left, Leah persisted. “You need something from him. He has to give it to you. He’s not a reptile, for goodness sake.”
“You shouldn’t need anything from him,” Yankel said as he buttered his onion roll.
“I’m sure whatever he is, he wants to do right by you, by us.”
“Good luck. No one in the family has ever gotten a cent from him.”
“And your sisters’ weddings? Who paid for them?”
“My grandmother had left a few dollars for them, in trust. My father refused to supplement. It was a major embarrassment.”
“Then you have nothing to lose by asking him.”
“Just my pride.”
“Pride? You sound like a child! What’s the worst thing he can do to you? Say no?”
“He’ll laugh at me.”
“So? We’ll laugh together at him.”
Yankel smiled wanly. “We’ll see.”
It was a foregone conclusion that Yankel would have to see his father if only to introduce Leah.
Yankel’s father invited them to his apartment in Queens. His father was there alone without his fiancée and no mention was made of Gila. Perhaps it was designed this way, but the meeting was kept short; only about three quarters of an hour. He said he had an “engagement” to go to. Probably some right wing pro-Israel rally or dinner, Yankel thought with a scowl. This was only the biggest moment so far in Yankel’s life, but his father had a “pressing” meeting! The apartment held all of the afternoon sunlight, a hot house of hanging plants, with parquet floors and terrariums on the shelves. Small plates of almonds, raisins and walnuts and hummous rested on the table. The bookshelf consisted of various Hebrew books and books about Rabbi Soloveitchik, the father of modern Orthodoxy.
Yankel could not recognize anything of his in his father’s apartment. No mementos of his youth, no memories, no scrapbooks, no pictures of Yankel or his sisters, nothing. It was like being in the apartment of a stranger. At the end of the meeting his father hugged him and placed a check in his breast pocket of this jacket. “This is my down payment,” he told Yankel.
Yankel gave him a quick hug. “Thanks, Abba.”
His father excused himself. “MaZal tov,” he said with an Israeli accent, “maybe soon to all of us. I hope to be seeing much more of you.”
When they left Leah said, “He asked nothing about me, nor did he ask even whether we were going to get married.”
Yankel spread out his hands. Typical. This is exactly what he had expected.
“What did he give you?” Leah asked.
Yankel fished out of his breast pocket, the envelope. He handed it to her.
Leah opened it and she gasped: “A check for $500.”
Yankel felt a twinge, almost to cover for his father’s cheapness. “He ‘said’ it was a down payment. You could wait for a summer’s day in January for that downpayment to come. In other words never.”
Leah shook her head. “We can’t let this slide.”
“He goes back to Israel in two days,” he added.
Leah thought fast. “Call him tonight. Tell him you must see him before he leaves. Tell him you want to meet his Kalla.”
It would be difficult to describe Yankel’s state that night. He went to sleep fitfully. On the one hand he was glad, elated to have Leah on his side. But his bad angels took control that night: Your father cannot be vanquished, they told him. Leah was naïve to think she could outwit the old man! He never had been subdued. It was true that his father hung on to him like a dybbuk. What a strange and twisted thing relationships were! If that weren’t bad enough, the bad angel hammered on: And even if your father could be made to surrender, who’s to say that Leah was not the new dybbuk? One goes, the other one comes. Such was the way of the world. Yankel sat up in bed, recoiled in disgust, and then reproached himself.
And then another thing: It had seeped into him by now that Leah was in fact beautiful. Everyone said so. But what made for beauty in a woman - the shape of her face, the body, her eyebrows, her eyes? What did he know? He had seen pictures of ‘beautiful’ women in advertisements all the time. Yet he did not find them attractive in the least. And when he was with Leah, there were moments where something came over him and he wanted to run away. It could be anything, like another pretty woman temporarily blinding him, or maybe looking at Leah from a different angle - and a panic would set him - maybe he didn’t like her enough? Could be he did need a psychologist.
Leah on the other hand might say when they were together, “Look at the handsome man or beautiful woman.” She didn’t stare, but she seemed to enjoy the universe just as it was, but for Yankel this was serious business. The whole thing, the way people looked, if he thought about it, felt like an attack of some kind – an attack of the senses.
In fact, just that morning he’d gone in to buy his usual seeded roll. Something about the Gentile woman again caught his eye. Her hair was a kind of reddish blond, and wisps of it fell down the side of her face. She was pretty with her milky-white skin. He had never noticed anything about her in detail before nor for the most part in any woman. It was as if the veil on the world of women had been lifted, and this disturbed him greatly. He noticed the woman next door and even the woman down the street. Even his friends’ wives – Heaven forbid! The other day his eye caught hold of the shape of the lips of his friend’s wife. What would it be like to kiss those lips or Leah’s lips? What would it feel like for him, for them? Oy! One who looks at even the little finger of a woman it is as if he has seen her nakedness, says the Talmud. A man who does this may even forfeit his share in the world to come.
These were Yankel’s thoughts as he got himself up to go to the payphone to dial his father. It’s amazing that none of this fear -of the purgatory punishment that awaits one who looks at women too much - seemed to trouble his father at all. It is as if this whole part of the religion which governed him didn’t even exist for his father. For his father, it was all one big pleasure trip – within certain boundaries and limitations, but a pleasure trip nonetheless.
“Good morning, Abba,” he said into the receiver. “I must see you before you go. You know I was sorry about the way that I acted witth Gila, and I do want to see you and her before you go back to Israel,” he forced himself to say. This was a lie, but he felt he needed a pretext to ask for another meeting.
“You are my son. I want to see you, but my schedule is such that…I am quite overwhelmed now. Of course, I will see you, but wait one moment. There is of course Gila as well. I don’t know her schedule, but why don’t you meet us both in Brooklyn tonight. We will both be at the restaurant near the Yeshiva at 9 o’clock. I will tell her you are coming.”
Now Yankel would have to demand the money in the presence of this woman – his father’s wife-to-be whom he had never met. There was no way that he could concentrate on his studies today. Instead, he kept thinking about the hour of the evening he would meet his father.
Finally, at 8:30 he started to walk toward Weiss’ restaurant. What if he were not his father’s son, he fantasized. He had never felt that he was. What if it turned out that he was adopted and maybe not even Jewish? What would he do? Would he rejoice? Would he chase down some Gentile girl?
Soon he found himself in the protective steam of this kosher eatery – an eatery of the Jewish people – with smells of noodles and cheese, and blintzes and sour cream, potato pancakes with the clink-clink of spoons plunking down apple sauce on hard white industrial china.
At a corner table sat his father and Gila. He had a small planning book open and she was turned away slightly with her small red pocketbook on the table. Nothing could have prepared him for the assault on his senses that he experienced. It was like a nuclear flash. Gila was a woman who looked like, well he couldn’t exactly say what she looked like – it was just an assault - an amphibious assault as though she were an aquatic creature. She was tall and statuesque (she rose to greet him) she looked like a stewardess on El Al but also but there was something maritime about her too – large eyes – a cross between a Cyclops and a mermaid.
“Shalom,” she said, standing before him. “How wonderful to meet you.”
A kettle boiled inside Yankel. Blood throbbed at his temples and at the top of his head, a heat so powerful that his fedora might just blow off like from the force of a spurting geyser. He must have blushed. He could not remember what happened next because it was like a shell had landed near him and had momentarily knocked his hearing senseless and his mouth mute.
He glanced at Gila again for a moment. How could he not look at her, though it was taxing to do so? She looked nothing like any woman he might meet on the street. Whatever she was wearing seemed more like a wrap or a fruit peel than clothing. He couldn’t even remember what color it was, but her whole being seemed to be a flash of Mediterranean blue.
His father put a hand on his jacket sleeve. “Come sit down, my boy, you look flushed.”
Yankel tried valiantly to get his bearings, but his head was swimming. Amid the
clamor of the restaurant, he cast about, mentally trying to catch his breath. Finally, he took a big gulp of water. He still couldn’t hear anything. The blood still throbbed heavily. He had never before been so overcome.
“Pardon me,” Yankel said. “I have come down with a terrible cold – a sinus infection. I am totally not myself and a little dizzy. Just give me a minute.”
Yankel’s father and his bride-to-be looked at each other.
“Perhaps you need a tea. Something hot,” Gila said sympathetically, with an Israeli accent, but he could tell she spoke English very well.
Yankel put up his hand. “I will be fine. Just give me a minute.” He shook his head slightly from side to side as though tossing something off. “Gila, how nice it is to finally meet you. My father told me that you are from Romema in Jerusalem. Is that where you were born?”
“Actually, my parents are from elsewhere. My father is from Iraq and my mother is from Taiman – Yemen.”
“You speak English so well. Where did you learn…?”
“Thank you, but my English is really not that good, but I studied at Hebrew University.”
Yankel looked at her again. He was no expert on women, but she couldn’t be older than thirty-two. She was no thirty-seven. Had his father lied about this, too?
“Why don’t we all order something?” Yankel’s father offered genially. “The cheesecake here is outstanding…blueberry cheese for you, Yankel?” With a flourish, Yankel’s father gestured for the waiter. “Three blueberry cheesecakes here, please.”
Yankel took another gulp of water. “Well, it looks like we are celebrating two marriages.”
Gila leaned slightly forward: “Yes, your father told me. You may get married soon.”
“Actually, we will announce the engagement officially tomorrow night.”
“Mazal tov.” She arched her brows high as she said this.
He couldn’t make up his mind if this was beautiful or ugly. Women, the torture of women! He could not stop staring at her. It was embarrassing. He could see her eyebrows were plucked, again like she was in an advertisement for Sabra liquer. Now in his mind’s eye he saw her with a beret in a poster for the Israeli military: a smiling brunette, fresh, eye-lids sparkling with the dew-drops of youth, a Galil rifle slung over her shoulder. How different these women were from those he knew here in Brooklyn. Were they even of the same tribe?
“You know, Yankel,” his father said. “Gila’s great-grandfather was the Ben Ish Chai , the great 19th century sage from Bagdad.”
“It’s true,” Gila said. “My father’s grandfather.”
“Zera kodesh,” Yankel said. “Holy seed.”
Yankel’s father beamed and nodded approvingly.
Yankel began nervously, “I know you are going to be leaving tomorrow.”
Gila and his father looked at each other.
“By the time you come back, the plans for my wedding will be well underway and…” Yankel glanced at Gila for a fraction of a second.
As if reading his mind she said, “I see someone over there that I want to say hello to for a second.” Gila stood up again and turned her back to the two men. Her hair was tied in a pony tail. When she stood up she had seemed to tower above both of these sitting men, but of course she was wearing high heels.
Whatever he felt, he still had no words for. At least not yet, but later, much later that night long after the meeting, it dawned on him that in Gila’s smile, he saw a tiger’s fangs. She was his father’s proxy, he concluded. His attack animal to finish off what he didn’t dare to: the complete annihilation of the ways of Eastern Europe. Maybe she had been one of those kind of Sabras that helped holocaust survivors off the boat from Cyprus after the war, that one he saw in the old newsreels, but wherever she grew up, Yankel surmised that she must have been taught to scorn his type - to hate all the old ways of Yeshiva men – the weak knees, the poor eyesight, Yeshiva bochrim walking around at 25, 26 looking as if they were pre-diabetic, diets consisting of white potatoes, white bread, foods bleached of all nutrients. People who were of weak character too, they refuse to serve in the army – no doubt as she had probably served.
Yankel leaned toward his father at the small round table. “I know that you gave me a present on Sunday, but it’s possible, very likely – though nothing’s been decided for sure - that a wedding for me is coming up and I need money.” He stopped a second. “More than you gave me.”
Yankel’s father’s face reddened and some veins around his the corners of his eyes burned blue. “You know that my money is tied up. And here you are not even yet engaged. Why not wait a bit? I will come through for you, you know that. I always have. Zorg nit mein kind. I have you covered for two lifetimes.”
Yankel shook his head. “That hasn’t been my experience. When I need something, the first thing that I get is pushed away, and then only then, will you release a few dollars.”
“I resent that.” Yankel’s father seemed to turn up his nose slightly into the air. . “I have always been giving.”
“To a point,” Yankel shot back.
The older man now stammered. His eyes searched for Gila who was at the other side of the restaurant talking animatedly. “I have always given, but there is a limit. I myself don’t have much. Never did.”
A busboy cleared the plates, while a waiter handed him the check. The older man put on his bi-focals and took a moment to study it.
“For yourself you have,” Yankel snorted.
“Look Yankel, I did not choose your path for you. It was you who chose to be a Yeshiva bochur.”
“So I must suffer for this.”
“Suffer? God forbid! I supported you all this time. Just last week I sent a check to your Yeshiva.”
“How much was it?”
“It wasn’t much, but I am no Rockefeller.”
“This is silly. I promise you that I will help you as much as I can.”
“I need to know that you will pay for the wedding.”
“Such a thing is impossible. A wedding for you Yeshiva boys costs, six or seven thousand dollars.”
“Actually, ten. I need ten thousand and I need it tonight. In fact, I am not leaving this restaurant without it.” Yankel resolutely folded his arms.
“The chutzpah.” Yankel’s father laughed. “How I wish I had it.”
“You have it all right. If I have to beat it out of you.”
“This is the way a son talks to his father!!! A yeshiva bochur no less.”
“That’s what this is all about.” Yankel’s face reddened with anger. “You can never forgive me for being a yeshiva bochur! If I were some colorful yarmulke-wearing modern Jew with multi-colored tallit, then all would be well, wouldn’t it?”
Gila returned to the table. Calmly she said, “May I have a moment alone with your father?”
“Give him the money,” she said, putting her hand on his. “Give it to him.”
Although they spoke quietly, Yankel heard everything.
“But, I don’t have…”
“Give it to him.”
“Five thousand is all I have.”
“Give it to him – all of it.”
“Okay, nine thousand. I swear I have no more.”
He sat down and wrote the check for nine thousand carefully and slid it across the table.
Yankel felt a throbbing in his ears. For the rest of his life he would remember this moment: the calm writing of the check, the deliberate filling in the number amount. It was surreal, but there it was. Just like that. Yankel folded the check, put it in his pocket and stood. He might have kissed his father, but they were both trembling from the exchange,and he thought it better just to leave.
By degree he began to recover himself with every block he put between himself and the restaurant. What a strange world, he thought as he braved the cold wind. This was so far away from the certain uncertainties of the Talmud, a dairy knife, clean and cold falls into a chulent pot, does the food become treyf, unkosher? What happens to the knife? Here, Gila, the unknown, got his father to write him a check. Okay it wasn’t ten thousand, but it was nine thousand. Nine thousand more than he thought he would ever get. And it was the women, Gila and Leah who managed to do it.
He went to the nearest payphone: “Leah, guess what? I got the money. Not all of it, but nine thousand. Yes, I have the check right here.” He patted his breast pocket.
He could hear her suck in her breath. “I have to hear the whole story – every word of it.”
“Well, I could go into it, but I am calling you from a pay phone and it’s freezing cold.” His teeth chattered and you could hear him shiver over the phone.
“Oh my goodness, you can’t stand out there. Can we meet somewhere then?”
“Well, I really have to get back to the bais medrash.”
“You mean you’re not going to come meet me now and tell me everything?” Her voice struck the register of exaggerated injustice.
“Yes, I would, but I am still part of the Yeshiva,” he said, stating the dull and obvious. “They are expecting me.”
“My chabura - the group of people that come to learn with me,”
“Your chabura? The last time you told me that there was only one person there, someone who could barely understand where he was, let alone what you were talking about.”
Yankel was hurt by Leah’s remark, only more so because it was true. The Chabura was a motley, rag-tag crew. To even call them a chabura was an embarrassment. As learners they were no more serious than the old men who played on the stone chess and checker tables on Ocean Parkway. He mounted a weak defense: “Yes, a lot of people were away last time, but tonight they’re back.”
“I still think we should see each other tonight.”
Yankel felt something in his body when she said that. It worried him. What did she want? They were already spending too much time together as it was. A man and a woman should enjoy each other, but there was a time and place for that. Truth was, it made him uncomfortable. He thought of saying something about it, but that would make it even more so. But could he say no to Leah? She had just helped him get nine thousand dollars.
A blast of cold air blew through the exposed phone booth and Yankel shivered. Just now as he was about to tell Leah he had to go, Yankel heard in his mind improbably, a mimic-muse, an unkind echo of his own words: ‘I have to be in Yeshiva’. Why, shouldn’t he be with Leah now? Had he not waited his whole life for Leah and she for him? And yet he had a one-track loyalty to the Talmud as if it were his only friend. A noble loyalty perhaps, but a stunted one! For as long he could remember, Talmud study seemed the only logical thing for him to do – like a square frame for his square figure. There wasn’t much struggle about it for Yankel. He had settled into the yoke like an ox, from an early age. Many people had to be tamed to sit and study. In fact, there were such people in Yeshiva, who were by temperament suited to athletics maybe even acrobatics, bull fighters, men of adventure. One of the greatest rabbis of all time, Reish Lakish, was a horse thief, who for the love of his friend’s sister, repented and spent a lifetime immersed in holy learning. Not Yankel, he was practically born to toil. One could say he was good for nothing else. In an instant, Yankel lifted his square shoulders high against the cold and punched hard the air. “I must give the chaburah; whether you understand or not. We can meet after Maariv.” Evening prayers.
“But that will be too late,” she said glumly.
Finally, he said, “Can’t we get together tomorrow night?” .
Leah was silent. Yankel could sense that she was unhappy and didn’t quite know what to say. “I can’t take you away from your learning. But I am not happy. Just call me after Maariv. I want to hear everything that happened.”
Later that night from the dormitory pay phone Yankel filled her in on most of the details about the heated words and his father’s ultimate surrender. “It turns out that Gila was quite helpful,” he went on.
“Gila?” Leah asked. “Tell me about her. What is she like? What does she look like?”
Yankel stammered a bit. “Well, she seemed like an intelligent woman. “
“Yes, Yankel, but what did she look like? Was she tall, short?”
Yankel made some faces as he was standing at the payphone – could he really tell Leah how she looked. If he was too detailed, it would create a complicated feeling for everyone. If he were evasive, then he would look like an idiot and a simpleton. “She looked like, well, she looked like a woman – a tall woman,” Yankel quickly added.
“How tall?” Leah asked.
“Taller than your father and you…?”
“What did she wear, Yankel?”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Really? Come on. Did she wear a skirt or a dress?”
“I don’t remember. It was blue. Yes, and she also wore a scarf around her neck, a small one.”
“Yankel, there’s more that you’re not telling.”
“You’re right Leah, who has the head to remember all these details. I don’t want to notice or remember such things. You will have the time to meet her; you will see everything with your own eyes. The important thing is that we got the money.”
“Yankel, I know that you’re going to think this is crazy, but my father and mother would like to spend some time tomorrow night – just a few minutes – a shmooz.”
“Fine, mit grois fargenign, with pleasure.
When Yankel arrived the next evening, he noted that the place seemed to have been fussed over. Everything was put to extra cleaning – the walls had been whitewashed and the living room freshened up. For goodness sake, the plastic was removed from the upholstery on the couch and the chairs.
Leah’s father, short and bald, but still somehow with the face and body of a little boy, wore a vested suit – a watch with a golden band. On the table rested a bottle of whisky – Crown Royal with some homemade rugelach pastry.
He put his hand on Yankel’s shoulder – Shalom Aleichem – welcome. Yankel could see the creases in the old man’s face. Not a terribly complex man – with the tehillim, pocket psalms and prayer book folded in his pocket at all times – a wish for calm above all else.
“Mach a bracha, eat something,” said Leah’s father with his schoolboy’s face.
Yankel knew it was an old European “trick” to bring out fruit compote to the prospective groom. This was a backhanded way to check if he was a scholar. Compote was a pottage of cooked fruits in a sweet cinnamon-y liquid. The trick was, since it contained so many fruits and vegetables, it was hard to ascertain the proper blessing. If it had apples then the blessing would be: “He who blesses the fruit of the tree” and if it would be made of rhubarb then the proper blessing would be:“He who created the fruits of the ground.” However, what if there were both ingredients, but neither of them recognizable?
Luckily, Yankel was prepared for this eventuality and had refreshed his knowledge of the laws. But even still, he felt silly doing so, as though it were all contrived, almost a joke. He had also heard of a custom in the old country to give the prospective bride a thick rope tied in a knot to see if she would keep her composure while under pressure. But maybe all it proved was, that she had skill in unloosening knots? Some Jews had a habit of looking for “signs” rather than substance. Shtick, he called it. Cute stuff, not real. Even being well-versed in the Talmud could be its own trick. There was a guy in Yeshiva who knew the first half of the Talmud by heart. Every prospective father in Flatbush wanted him for his daughter. But he was a terrible person. It didn’t help that he also couldn’t drive a hammer into a nail, couldn’t make a living, and didn’t even understand the Talmud, to boot! But he sure could recite the Talmud verbatim. In the end he was flat broke, and no one paid attention to him. But at the time, they thought his Talmudic memory was some feat of wonder and everyone came clamoring for him. The poor girl now was ten years married, unhappy, the both of them. And this comes from looking for “signs” shtick.
Yankel sat down in the armchair opposite Leah’s father. Again Leah’s father urged him to eat, and as if on cue, Yankel said, “I cannot eat until I know what’s inside the compote so I can make the proper blessing.”
Leah’s father, abashedly said, “In the old country we made the blessing of ‘He who created the fruits of the tree,’ but now I am sitting with a Talmid Chuchem, a real Talmudic scholar – I will learn something new.”
Yankel looked at Leah and just then, looking at his beaming and beatific, nearly martyred father-in-law-to-be, a confusing mix of impulse came over him. One impulse: to give the man everything he wanted, to please him to the point of non-existence, and the other, the opposite - to disappoint him - anything to relieve himself of this man’s ungodly expectations. By the look on the old man’s face, you would think the Messiah has come to their home in the human form of a son-in-law. And now you want to know from me what kind of blessing one makes? Yankel could give a lecture, a discourse on what blessing to make in the bais medrash in an academic setting, but here in the overheated home of this penguin-like man with his stomach-turning goodness, he was queasy. Then he looked at Leah again through the rough, crashing waters of his mind, and said simply, “One who fears heaven must make a separate blessing first, first on the fruit of the tree, and then a separate one on the fruit of the ground, and in this way one can eat the compote with a glad and full heart.”
He could never have pulled this declaration off with a straight face if he were not quoting directly from the Talmud and its commentators. Once he got rolling, he figured he might as well go whole hog, so to speak. “’The humble will eat and be satisfied,’” Yankel pronounced, quoting from psalms. This was too much earnestness even for him. Leah mimed a vomiting gesture with her fingers. All of this was lost on the older folks.
The older man smiled now and filled his shot glass and Yankel’s. “L’chaim,” he said.
They ate together around a small table. Leah’s mother had recently joined them. In such close quarters, Yankel was forced to study Leah’s mother. She wore thick eyeglasses with black frames hung around her neck with a chain. Yankel could see himself reflected in the glare of her glass lenses. She wore heavy stockings and an even heavier sweater. Leah had told him that she had lived in Krakow as a girl until the Nazis came. Yankel had the sense she might hang on for another year or two, then fade. She didn’t look too well.
Leah’s mother got up from the table and went to the kitchen at which point Leah’s father took out an envelope. In it were Leah’s birth certificate and old photos of her as a baby and a savings bank book with twenty-three thousand dollars.
“I put a thousand dollars in every year since you were born,” he said with a melting look. “You are twenty-three now and now you have twenty-three thousand dollars plus interest.”
Yankel could see that Leah was not overjoyed. When her father got up to go to the bathroom, she pointed a finger at her throat; another vomiting gesture.
It was hard for Yankel to comprehend just what was happening. Here a father, the very opposite of his own father, wanted to give a daughter money and this seemed to make Leah mad in a strange way; an annoyance that dulled the edges of gratitude.
“I can’t stand the way he puts himself down,” Leah said.
“But he wants to give to you,” Yankel said. “It makes him happy,” he added somewhat helplessly.
“It would be very hard for you to understand how I feel, I hardly understand it myself.”
It was rare for Yankel to see Leah in this confused moment and it caused him disquiet. “Try me Leah, I really want to understand.”
“It is awful, Yankel. It is like choking on a sweet candy. This might not make any sense to you, but I am so sickened by him and his need for me – to be something for him – a compensation, a comfort - something.” She halted a few times. “You know how they say parents have to sacrifice for their children? It would be far better for him to have sacrificed less for me. Always with the same words: I want you should have, always with the envelopes with cash - as if the only way that I could have anything is if he suffers. He gives me thousands while he drives a Dart Dodge.”
“You mean a Dodge Dart, don’t you?” Yankel asked.
“You know what I mean. I can’t enjoy his gifts.” Leah slapped her forehead. “Oy! How can I be saying these things about my father? He was always my best friend!”
Outside there was the noise of trucks and cars. Leah lived close to Kings Highway. As Leah spoke this way, Yankel escaped into a mild reverie. He thought that the world was not really the world. These trucks moving across the borough, unloading their haul and returning for another one, until the driver or the truck gets too old. All rivers run to the sea.
Leah looked at Yankel, her face contorted and upset, trying to digest an indigestible truth: her complicated feelings about her father. “What are you thinking?” she asked him as she brushed aside a lock of hair from her forehead.
“A person, a daughter is allowed to be upset with her father,” he said.
For whatever strange reason, he could see Leah felt relieved by those simple words. And this feeling of relief even seemed to make her feel amorous.
“I did have you misjudged,” she said coquettishly. “You’re more than I thought you were.”
“Because I said something smart?”
“No, because you are smart. In fact, I decided you are so smart, we don’t need a plan right now. I told my father that you know how to get things.”
“I’ll always be smart for you,” he promised her.
“No, you won’t. No one is that smart”
“I will be.”
“You see, there you go again, saying things that are not smart.”
“I am not smart,” he obliged her.
Leah handed him a piece of paper.
“I heard from one of your friends that you are a calligrapher. Write me something.”
Yankel had a beautiful handwriting. He took out a fine point marker and drew letters in cursive form. It was quite stunning. He drew lines with a pencil and began to sculpt letters on the page. He wrote Leah’s name in Hebrew, her full name which was Leah Yocheved and he wrote his name next to hers.
Then out of a small bag Yankel took out a diamond ring. “This ring is for you, Leah. Please wear it for me.”
Leah’s eyes got big. “I love the ring.”
“You really love the ring?”
“Yes, I love the ring.” She slipped it on her ring finger, and fanned out her hand. It fit perfectly.
He had used some of his savings and now his father’s money to pay for it. It was elegant, that was for sure, but not ostentatious. Besides, Leah would respect him for his restraint. He must not let her think that he would rely on her savings to get them through. “The man said you would love it. I told him all about you.”
“What did you say?”
“I said that you were a beautiful and intelligent girl.”
“I’m no girl, Yankel.”
“Yes you are. You’re more than that, but you still are a girl.”
The minute they became engaged, Tradition, with its velvet-gloved fist, took over. They had to have a vort, an engagement party, and Leah’s father “demanded” a date for the wedding. But even before that, Leah’s father “demanded” that he allow them to make a l’chaim – an almost impromptu celebration that very next night. Yankel’s mother was invited (his father had already gone back to Israel), and then of course, there were Leah’s friends and a few of their close relatives. Someone had told the Rosh HaYeshiva, the dean of Yankel’s Yeshiva, and he was expected to come, as well as Miriam the shadchante, who had brought this match about.
There was work to do. Leah motioned to Yankel to come to the kitchen where trays of cakes and cookies filled every inch of counter space. “These are in reserve,” Leah said with a wink. “There’s tons of stuff already out there, but we have to be prepared.” Yankel took a knife and started to slice a jelly roll that was still intact. In setting down to work, Yankel had put his rabbinical hat on one of the chairs. Leah, who had just set a platter of cinnamon rugelach on the table, playfully lifted his hat and put it on her head, and turned to smile at him. Just then, a knock on the door registered. She quickly put down the hat. Yankel’s friends from Yeshiva and his Rosh HaYeshiva entered.
The Rosh HaYeshiva made long, purposeful, Moses-like strides into the room, taking up space as if he were a volume of Talmud himself. The room parted ways for him in the overheated house. Black and white cookies had been artfully arranged on silver platters. Glass bowls held rum balls or cubes of cantaloupe and melon. Slices of pink cake was placed in a circle around the fronds of a pineapple to suggest a blooming flower. And there, near the bowl of strawberries and blueberries were Leah’s favorites, chocolate-covered almonds.
A place for the Rosh HaYeshiva was made at the head. Somebody brought him a plate with fruit and rugelach. Yankel motioned to someone to pour him a glass of seltzer.
“Baruch ata. Blessed are you, creator of the universe,” and the Rosh HaYeshiva drank. There was total silence to the extent that you could hear the Rosh HaYeshiva’s gulps coming from his throat. A magnificent man. No airs, yet full of importance - leavened and unleavened, a man of pride and yet of no pride at all, as though he knew his place in the firmament, the place where big meets small, earth and sky. A square-shaped man, compact, not tall, eyes that were big. He wore large thick-framed glasses. By his bearing and smarts alone, he might have been one of one of those politician/generals: a man of both war and peace with the cunning of a chess player, a sense of timing for the master stroke. Yet to be with him, though he was surely a man, meant to know there was a god, too.
The Rosh HaYeshiva looked around the room. “Yankel, mach a bracha; es eppes eat something.”
Yankel scooped up some chocolate-covered almonds in his fist. He made two blessings, one on the chocolate coating, “It was all created according to His word” and the other on the almond itself “blessed is the creator of the fruits of the tree.”
The Rosh HaYeshiva nodded in approval “Yankel hot zich b’kius in brochos.” Yankel has expertise in the laws of blessings. The Rosh HaYeshiva poured himself a shot of whiskey. He raised his shot glass and motioned toward Yankel in front of him and Leah who was standing in the corner “You will be as Yakov and Leah from the Torah. L’chaim.” He wished them mazel tov and walked out.
It pleased Leah’s father that the Rosh HaYeshiva had accorded him with such respect. He was beside himself with pleasure.
Shortly after the Rosh Hayeshiva left, the shadchante, the matchmaker walked in. Although she did not make a grand entrance like the rabbi, people took notice. She was after all, the most geshikt, the most able of all the matchmakers in Brooklyn, but that was not all. It was said she had “powers” to see more than the others, to get to the person’s personality - after all, if she could get Yankel, the alte bochur, the old bachelor married, then she must have something.
Both Leah and Yankel rushed out to greet her. But others took their notice, too. How could you not? She was tall, elegant. Her navy coat seemed more like a cape to Yankel. Her blond wig grazed the felt collar of her coat. Had she not been a religious woman of that neighborhood she might have been a patrician or an aristocrat - someone who knew how to ride a horse elegantly, even to jump over hurdles in the English countryside, without getting dirty or working up a sweat.
“Mazel tov!” a number of people murmured.
The shadchante bowed her head slightly. She was not a woman for crowds, Yankel realized. One-to-one she ran the show, but with the multitudes, she shrank. They led her to a seat, but she demurred on Leah’s offer of taking her coat. “I can’t stay long,” she said apologetically.
Yankel’s father-in-law went over to her with an envelope. “Fein getohn, well done,” he said, beaming. The older man was well aware of the importance of paying the matchmaker. It was said, that the “match” could be looked upon unfavorably by Heaven if one neglected the shadchante.
“Batzolte vie a tateh”, the woman said under her breath as she placed the envelope in her pocketbook. Only a father pays, goes the Yiddish expression. Yankel felt a twinge when he heard that. He had wished his father had that attitude, but regrettably this was not the case.
Yankel gave the matchmaker a sideways glance then looked away. She ‘knew’ it would work with Leah and Yankel, but how had she known? Some genius propels certain people. A genius not found in the Talmud, a feminine genius perhaps, that lets them ‘know’ things.
One thing Yankel did notice in his sidelong ‘flash’ glance. She seemed slightly out of breath as she lifted a cup of water to her lips.
Leah whispered to Yankel, “Zee is a ge’trage’ne, she is with child.”
Yankel passed down to her a plate with cookies. With some reticence Miriam took one and then furtively, another two before rising to leave. Leah’s father drank to her, raising his shot glass and then walked her out the door. Just then a friend of Leah’s entered huffing and puffing a little, bearing a platter of linzer cookies. Everyone crowded around to admire them. They were shaped like hands, the right finger with a band of white frosting, and a huge chocolate ring emerging from the center of the platter. Leah, laughing, applauded and hugged her friend. There were are a few more rounds of drinks and toasts and singing before the party petered out.
Yankel stayed past midnight until his father-in-law-to-be had dutifully packed up all the leftovers and straightened out the chairs and the living room was thoroughly vacuumed. It was a heavy hoover so Yankel insisted on doing it - the old man shadowed Yankel and used the attachment to get at any crumbs that fell behind the cushions.
It helped that Yankel really liked the older man. He was generous, earnest. There was something holy about him, too. And for all of Leah’s nausea at her father’s cloying love, Yankel saw it as a man’s protectiveness of his daughter. Leah’s father was a survivor from the war, no less. He was protective in a motherly way while still being a father. Yankel had heard once that male penguins protect their offspring while they are still eggs. They huddle en masse for warmth for months at a time in the arctic cold, while the male penguins guard their eggs, gently passing it between their skin flaps under their wings.
Of course, Leah’s father became obsessed with the wedding plans. Every day he would say, “We need to plan, we need to plan.” He wanted her to go with him to see various halls and caterers. Instead, Leah asked Yankel to accompany her father to speak to a caterer in Queens. She had been to weddings there and she liked it. “Go with without me,” she said. “It’s good for you and dad to spend time with each other. I’m sick of his happiness. Besides, maybe you can stop him from making a bad deal.” She put her hand to her face. “He is shrewd, but he can also be played for the fool.”
It made Yankel a little queasy to hear Leah talk of her father that way, so bluntly. But he had to admit that she was right. She could see the truth in people and yet still be with them. He shuddered to think about how much truth she could see about him. But he put that thought out of his mind when he met Leah’s father on a Sunday afternoon to go to Queens. Yankel knew of the caterer, a landsman, from the Old Country. In fact, he spoke with the same halting lilt that Leah’s father did. But unlike Leah’s father, he was a man about whom there were whispers that he was a bit of a shyster and worse.
Leah’s father surprised Yankel by asking him to drive. “C’hob a kop veitig” - I have a headache, better you drive.” The old man promptly went to sleep as Yankel glided on to the Belt Parkway. The red speedometer needle quivered in the way of the old Chryslers, throbbing.
About midway, Leah’s father woke up. “Put on the radio,” he asked Yankel. The station on the AM radio was set to WEVD – the Yiddish station. The famous Yiddish radio announcer Zvee Scooler, the Andy Rooney of the Yiddish world had died earlier that week and they were playing his favorite broadcasts going back fifty years. The topic was “nothing.” With the windy vitality of a Broadway actor Scooler talked about “nothing” - the world was nothing, the atom bomb was nothing. The beauty of nothing. The earth hangt oif gornit – the world hangs on nothing. December 26, 1947. Truman was president then, the atom bomb had been dropped. Peace had been promised, but Vos vet zein, Scooler asked, “What will be? Will be ‘Nothing’.”
Leah’s father reached over to turn down the radio and broke in. “I heard this the first time I came to the United States. I went to Williamsburg and had a pastrami and eggs, first time in my life. I was in a taxi from the boat place. A greener picked me up. He had on the radio this man who spoke in Yiddish. He was hilarious. He made me laugh. He spoke with a goldener tongue. I had nothing. Nothing. I was nothing. My family was dead, parents killed. I had an uncle that I never met. I had nothing in my pocket. New York was very busy. There were so many people. The Jews, the young people had dances. These were places to meet even heimishe girls. I put myself in the garment business. Caps. I knew from caps. In those days the caps were made in Curacao and other things like it, pens. I knew some of the wholesalers and I thought I could get them cheap and started selling here.”
He wiped his forehead. “I had nothing when I met my wife. I promised her nothing. I had nothing, gornisht mit gornisht. From this gornisht, I have two daughters, Rochel and Leah. Now you have Leah and from my nothing I give you something.”
Yankel wanted to say, “Wait a minute. Not everything is ‘nothing.’ He who knows nothing knows something. Shlomo Hameilech, King Solomon, the one who wrote ‘all is nothing’ is the very same one who wrote ‘Song of Songs’.” But there was something so pure about Leah’s father talk, his version of life, that Yankel would have spoiled it with quibbles. Instead, Yankel was quiet and hoped the older man would continue and he did.
The older man turned to Yankel and said, “You know something about basar v’chalav, mixing milk and meat, eh? When I was in cheder the war broke out. I can learn a little mishnayos a passik mit’n rashi, but I was stopped by the war. That’s why you run where I crawl. I don’t know from the Talmud. But I know from other things.” The greener stared at the blue water through his window as they drove. He marveled at the Verrazanno Bridge which you could see in the distance. “I can’t believe how the world has changed since I came to America.”
Just then, Yankel almost lost control of the car as he swerved to avoid a pothole near Knapp Street. The car began to make funny noises and vibrate. “It feels like the wheels need to be aligned and balanced,” Yankel said as he clutched the large Dodge steering wheel with both hands.
“Ah,” the old man said dismissively. “This always happens. Faster than 50 miles per hour, the car is toig nisht, worthless.”
Leah’s father yawned and sat up and banged a hand on the dashboard. “This car, zul’n zein a kapara – should be an atonement for all my sins. You know when I bought this car? Just before Yom Kippur. That’s when I bought it and it’s been a groiser orange from the start, from the beginning.” And he tapped lightly on the dashboard for emphasis.
“An orange?” Yankel asked, “Do you mean a lemon?”
“Yes, a lemon. That’s the right word…a lemon.”
When they arrived at the caterer in Queens Yankel could see right away that this man too was a survivor of Auschwitz, a man famous for his cheapness. Yankel knew all about him. He had catered one of his sister’s weddings. In fact. during the ‘50s he ran a catering hall on Empire Boulevard in Crown Heights. It was said that he made a living on scraps, and little rip-offs here and there. He would give you a rock-bottom price and then all of a sudden charge you for the meals of the band members or the coat-check girls’ overtime or for the ‘extra’ cleaning help. Over the years he had become quite rich but he still looked like a hunted Jew from the Warsaw ghetto.
He took one look at Yankel and Yankel could feel his hatred. “A yeshiva bochur,” he sniffed. Despite the caterer’s hatred, Yankel knew well enough a tortured soul when he saw one. He was still in the camps, this fellow, working himself to the bone. It’s the only thing that kept him sane. Yankel had heard that this man had two sons. One a rabbi, and the other became a doctor, but he would have no nachas, no satisfaction The doctor-son was 39 and still not married, a Columbia cardiologist. He was a homosexual, at least that is what was whispered. His other son was a rabbi in Smithtown, Long Island. The synagogue was the architectural equivalent of a baked potato and the people Lilliputians. They said they had no idea how to hold the siddur, the prayer book. Most of the people in his synagogue just held it upside down.
Leah’s father looked at the menu. “I want two soup choices: vegetable and mushroom barley.” He looked at Yankel. “What do you think? Maybe you want vegetable and chicken? Ach-” He made a face and waved his hand. “How about something better?”
The crafty caterer perked up in his chair: He knew he had a fish on the line. Yankel could see it all, with his new eyes that took in everything these days. This man with ice blood in his veins, a bit like the Jewish grim reaper, was going to take his prospective father-in-law for a ride, a soaking. And for what? The caterer could be counted upon to put down a piece of gefilte fish with a carrot on a plain white plate with a leaf of grieving romaine lettuce that was as tired as your grandmother.
Yankel marveled at Leah’s father’s naivete. How could a shrewd man be so foolish? Didn’t he know this man wanted to draw blood? Maybe the old man wanted to be drained. Well the caterer was going to fleece him, all right. Yankel could see it in the survivor’s face. His mouth was watering. “I have a potato leek soup and pumpkin, but it costs you $5 a person more. On account of the fact that I have it made special. I have a cook a heimishe, one of our own, I knew him in Europe.”
‘One of our own’ all right. Yankel had heard of this cook – rumor had it that he was a Kapo in Bergen-Belsen and Yankel felt nauseous in his stomach at the thought of eating his food.
The caterer went on, “You know, he makes the usual stuff, but this man, from Manhattan, he’s a chef,” he kissed his bunched fingertips “I could have him make the whole chasunah for you, but I am sure this is more money than you want to spend. How much? He’s too expensive. I wouldn’t even suggest…” The caterer was even more animated now.
“How much is it, you ask? Twenty-five dollars more per person. He’s the very best. I have nothing here for you to taste. He makes only special. I don’t have his stuff lying around, but I’ll have supper delivered to your house tonight. You can taste for yourself. Worth it every penny.“
“Mr. Spielman.” Yankel turned to face Leah’s father. “For what do you need to spend this money? It’s not worth it. Leah doesn’t care about this, and neither do I.”
Spielman raised his right hand. “I waited to spend this money my whole life.”
The caterer smiled with broken teeth – Yankel saw in him a greedy devil, but to Leah’s father, he was a generous benefactor. Spielman couldn’t have been more pleased. He was elated as he walked out with Yankel. Host du vissen? Er is doch a frumer yid, noch als. “Did you know? He’s a pious Jew to boot!”
“Got’s gonnif is auch a gonnif,” Yankel said. A pious thief is also a thief.
On the drive back Yankel was beside himself. He had wanted to stop his future-father-in-law, but he couldn’t. He was going to drop another five or ten thousand on this wedding for no reason at all. How different Leah’s father was from his own father. Mr. Spielman worked hard, scrimped and saved too. Buys for himself a Dodge Dart, worse, he wants now to buy himself a Plymouth Aspen, but makes a wedding now and begs to get fleeced. To each his own, perhaps. Still, it was embarrassing to watch. He kept thinking that Leah was going to blame him. Perhaps this is why she asked him to go along, as though he could stop the old man.
Far from being perturbed, on the way home the older man seemed to go into a dream state. Yankel glanced at him every now and then, taking his eyes off the road. He had the physique of a young boy, maybe the young boy he was when the war broke out. There was modesty to him, no question. Yankel saw a man who was entitled to nothing, but in his own way, he was willing to have everything. Also, something of the grandiose, it had to come out in every person – maybe that is why so many survivors were making these grand monuments everywhere and these big celebrations. Just a few years ago, the Holocaust became a business. Memoirs, novels, museums were appearing everywhere. Yad Vashem was the monument that all heads of state who visited Israel paid homage to. Kurt Waldheim, the Nazi, was even asked to put on a yarmulke and had to go kneel at the shrine of persecution. It was human to do these things, but these were not men of faith, these museum builders, not serious men of the Talmud. They didn’t do silly things like this. It was the sentiment of the plain folk, the rabble – even the rabbis knew there were times it had to be indulged. So we light candles at Temple Emanuel and listen to a constipated choir make believe they are Protestant. Ronald Reagan lights a candle and then makes a speech about Bitburg. It has all become an ugly show. There is no business like Shoah-business. Yankel wanted to find out from the mouth of a survivor what he really thought: Were these things really heartfelt or just dark theater.
“What do you think of these Holocaust ceremonies?” Yankel asked his father-in-law.
“You can’t imagine, you can’t imagine. Your generation can’t imagine.”
“But,” Yankel asked, “what about the ceremonies in New York, Temple Emanuel, Yad Vashem?”
“You don’t know,” the older man said and he waved his hand. “You can’t imagine what we went through. You don’t know.” He simply tuned out and abruptly changed the conversation. “Zait azoi gut, Yankel, could you be so kind as to come with me to Kings Highway to buy fruit?”
Leah’s father was a regular at a fruit store called Fruits-a-Plenty. He sprinted out of the car and grabbed a shopping cart into which he promptly placed watermelon, a cantaloupe and pounds of grapes. He passed by the blueberries. “These blueberries are from Chile and the grapes too, but we’ll take them. M’darf haben trauben un yagades, grapes and blueberries.” He also put apples and oranges into the cart together with eggplant, sweet potatoes, avocadoes and onions. “In Romania we used to eat the onions raw. An apple is besser vi kichele, an apple is better than cake. Besser machen a hoetz vi a mezonos, better to eat fruit than wheat.“ He flashed a smile with a young boy’s uneven teeth.
One evening Yankel got off the train at the Avenue M subway stop, a hat box in hand and a new suit in a garment bag flung over his shoulder. He had just come from Williamsburg where he had bought these items for the wedding - now only a month away. Though he had made this trip dozens of times before, something felt a little different as the train pulled away from the elevated platform. Yankel headed toward the steps to exit, noticing that he was the only one on the platform. Out of nowhere three or four young men in their late teens with high tops and sweatshirts came at him. One screamed – he couldn’t hear what - while the other grabbed his hat box, opened it and tossed the brand new hat on to the tracks. A third one in a green track suit grabbed the garment bag while the screaming one put his hands through Yankel’s pockets and took his money and wallet, spit at him and then punched him in the face. Yankel felt a sting and a warm, salty taste in his mouth.
The track suit guy clenched him in a vise-like grip. Yankel felt as though he was going to black out yet, he was hyper-aware of everything. As if in a blur, he saw on the other side of the platform, a city-bound train pull into the station. (It was doubtful anyone could have seen what was happening,) The track suit guy turned his head for a second or two distracted and Yankel seized the moment to strike the guy’s chest hard with great force and break free . He started to run but saw he would collide with the one who took his wallet. Without thinking, he dove down and grabbed the man’s sneakered foot and upended him. Now they were both down on the platform,. Yankel’s hat partially cushioned his descent, but seeing it ruined this way, his fear turned to fury. He started to scream at the top of his lungs and hit the man hard in the face. By this time, a ruckus was created and cops patrolling nearby ran up the stairs and drew their weapons. Two plainclothes officers gave chase.
Yankel had never before been physically assaulted. He was out of breath and overcome with adrenaline. One of the policemen helped Yankel down the subway stairs. He sat him down on a chair and spoke to him.
“Are you okay, buddy? You got roughed up. Maybe you should get checked out.”
But Yankel refused medical attention. He shook his head and tried to dust himself off.
One of the women from the kosher bakery nearby recognized him and shrieked. “Animals! Who did this to you? Are you alright? Come into the store, we’ll bring you something to eat.”
Another man, a shoemaker,also recognized Yankel. “He’s a good man,” he told the cop. “He is a rabbi.”
A plainclothes officer came down the stairs walking behind two men in handcuffs behind their backs.
“Dese people are scum,” the policeman tending to Yankel said, shaking his head back and forth. “ You got a scare, buddy, maybe you need a lift home. You’re cut up in the face bad. You want us to call someone? You sure you don’t wannus to call 911 EMS?”
Yankel nodded. He was sure. He started to get up, but the cop motioned to him. “Easy, Rabbi. Let us take you home at least in the squad car. Where is home, buddy?”
For a moment Yankel thought. Home is with Leah, but not yet. He put his head in his hands. He imagined being so embarrassed. People from Yeshiva would just stare at him and want him to tell the story a thousand times and maybe he even wanted to tell it. Already, he was trying to retrace what happened. How it happened. What he did. He was sore on his side and the side of his head throbbed with pain. He was sure he was all right, but still something had happened, and he had fought back. Not that he knew how to fight, but perhaps it was an instinct, after all, an instinct to fight, maybe not to win, but to fight.
As Yankel might have expected, when word got out that he had been attacked, quite a fuss was made. One of the bigger young men of the bais medrash came to visit him in his dorm room. “Who were these punks? We’ll break their bones.”
“The police already have them,” Yankel said.
“They’ll be let out in a day, a month, not longer,” said the young man. “There is no justice. The city is a ghost ship.”
Outside as if it had been staged, one could hear sirens. There was nowhere that felt safe, but Yankel strangely felt safer now that he had for once in his life waged a battle.
In fact, the beating had an oddly cleansing effect on Yankel. He wondered inside why the body was often the way to the heart. So much was said about the soul, the neshama, the spirit, one must subjugate his body, his desires, but perhaps it was really the other way around – the body was the gateway to the soul. He had seen it, felt it now. What else did the body have to say? Perhaps he had missed the point all these years. His father! It was all biology. He was a piece of him. But the body causes so much trouble! And yet maybe that was the point. It is supposed to cause trouble. Suddenly, the world, its inscrutable-ness, its complexities, seemed clearer.
There was a knock at the door. The dean of the yeshiva had come. Yankel by reflex tried to stand out of respect, but it hurt him. The older rabbi motioned him to sit down.
“I came as soon as I heard.” The rabbi struggled to attune himself to the situation. He was silent. “We are at the mercy of hoodlums now. This is the way of the exile. Perhaps if we didn’t have the Torah, we too would be hoodlums. These people are high on crack or something else. And everyone ignores. It’s like Berlin 1938, the brown shirts and the black boots.”
“With the rabbi’s permission,” Yankel began, the older man nodded his head. “These were just young people with nothing better to do. It’s not anti-Semitism – it’s just a tohu v’vohu – lawlessness. One can even pity them. I gave them a good shot of something I didn’t know I had – a physical strength I did not know. Perhaps we should be strong ourselves and not just rely on the outside world to save us. They’ll be back on the streets in a day or two.”
“It isn’t a bad idea to be strong,” the Rabbi considered. “It is not a sin to have physical strength. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, was a warrior and so was Joshua. M’kem men shlogen zich – a Jew must fight, too.”
Yankel, bandages and all, limped over to the window. It was still cold, and the wind flogged Coney Island Avenue without mercy, the air whistling through the cracks in the window sash. “Perhaps my father is not wrong, looking for strength in tanks and guns.”
“Your father’s position is understandable, Yankel,” the rabbi said, “but a believing Jew puts no real stock in the weapons of war.”
Yankel knew this deep in his marrow even as he had come to doubt it.
The rabbi continued, “What did Martin Luther King say? One must meet brute force with soul force, but a shlog on the head is sometimes the only way.” The rabbi put his hand on Yankel’s sore shoulder. “Get some rest. I want to see you in the bais medrash.”
Yankel decided not to tell Leah. He was all right. No sense getting her worked up. For all the horrors a beating conjures up, he would be fine. He slept a long and deep sleep.
By the next morning of course, Leah had found out. She got special permission to visit him in the dorm. Yankel’s room was quite small, with the bed one side and a chest of drawers on the other - a lot of wood.. It reminded her of a colonial bedroom for children. There was a chair at the foot of the bed and she sat there, while Yankel sat up but leaning against his pillow.
“How are you?” She picked up a Yiddish newspaper that had been on the table. It was strange to have her here.
“I am all right,” he said. “I fought a good fight.”
“You fool,” she said. “How can you take on all those people?:
“ I did what I had to do. I knew I could not win, but I did it anyway. I think now that I was fighting for my pride.”
“I feel so guilty. I was in my living room while you fought for your life.” She closed her eyes, took a breath. “How do you feel,” she kept asking. “I brought you a heating pad.”
“Quite frankly, I feel terrible, but also great. I had always felt old, but now I feel young even though it feels like my body has been broken into two. Fighting was maybe the best thing that I ever did. I felt alive, alive with violence. It was weird that way. You can plug away at something, like the Talmud, but no one is interested at least not viscerally, but people want to see is a fight, a fire – something.”
Leah nodded. It was clear to Yankel that she understood. “The Rosh HaYeshiva
hedged though,” Yankel went on. “He doesn’t believe in this kind of physical force.”
Leah seemed to take this in. “It’s a Jewish idea to fight – to squabble anyway. It’s like we fight, but we don’t use our fists.” Leah continued, “But it wasn’t always that way. Dovid HaMelech was a real fighter, a killer – and yet for that reason King David, was not allowed to build the temple because he had blood on his hands – two hundred foreskins of the Philistines, two hundred foreskins!”
“Yes, Yankel said, “but need I remind you that David won the daughter of Saul with those two hundred foreskins.”
In mock solemnity Leah pronounced. “I hereby accept the arrest of these subway hoodlums as the price for my dowry; you don’t need to bring me their foreskins.”
After a day or so went by, Yankel was out and about, having largely recovered from the subway fracas. Leah asked him to bring some things to the apartment to start setting things up. A friend of hers had a reclining chair in near-perfect condition that she no longer needed. Leah tossed Yankel her car keys. “Could you pick up the chair and take it over to the new apartment?” Yankel put the key into the ancient car and the small, primitive machine at once came to life,
The chair was on the other side of the neighborhood and Leah’s friend was waiting for him on the porch. “The chair is upstairs. It is a bit heavy, but I think you can carry it. From what I just heard you’re a pretty strong guy. Aren’t you the one who beat up the guys on the subway?”
“Well,” Yankel said, absently touching the butterfly bandages on the side of his forehead. “Don’t believe what you hear. It was nothing.”
“That’s not what I hear on the grapevine. They say you roughed them up pretty bad,” she said. “I have been a friend of Leah’s for a long time. My name is Raizy,”
Yankel dodged her friendliness. “Don’t believe the gossip mill.”
Raizy wore a free-flowing skirt and her hair tied up in the back. She was making aliyah with her new husband, a computer programmer named Shlomo. That is why she was giving away the recliner.
Yankel motioned upstairs with his head. “It’s in the living room?”
“Yes. Raizy answered. “That was the problem with these second floor walk-ups. You’ve got to get the furniture upstairs when you move in and downstairs when you move out.”
Yankel strapped the chair to his back and started to descend the stairs. Raizy shepherded the chair out the door with him and on to the porch. “I’ve got it,” Yankel valiantly assured her. For all he knew she could be pregnant.
“You are strong,” she said. “All this from sitting in front of the Talmud? I have got to encourage my husband. He just sits there in front of the computer.”
“The Torah is good for the body too, I suppose,” Yankel felt obliged to answer.
“How was it,” Raizy asked, “to fight back that way?”
Yankel was surprised by the question. It was a little forward. He hadn’t expected it, but then again, now he was a minor celebrity. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t think about it too much. I was fighting for my life – not because I was going to die, but it was for my life – sometimes you just pull something from inside you – something you didn’t know you had.”
Raizy nodded slowly, a soft, inviting smile came to her lips. Perhaps she thought of him as a swashbuckler. Yesterday, a shnook, today a hero. A man can become anything in a woman’s mind at the drop of a hat. He rested there on the porch leaning a little on the arm chair. It was an unseasonably warm day for late winter. It was as though Brooklyn were set back fifty or sixty years – pre-war. He imagined old cars and white picket fences in Kensington and Ditmas Park. Trees towered over the houses on that block. Every one had been power-hosed and washed. There was something about her too. His body registered the lightest of welcome intrusions – her fragrance lingered with him. Impossible thoughts invaded Yankel’s head. Why, Raizy had flirted with him – she wanted him to be thinking about her – if only for a moment – he was sure of that. Perhaps this was the price of the chair. Women were hungry, Yankel realized, but does conversation, banter like this satisfy them? A feminine selfishness, a demand for attention from men that somehow felt strangely generous to Yankel.
He shrugged off the thought, put the chair in the car, and drove off in the ancient, rusty machine.
More and more Yankel was noticing women he had never noticed before: the young and the old, the fast and the slow, the restless, the bored, the fat and the skinny. They seemed to call to him and though he did not answer their call, he did stop to look
Sometimes when he was with Leah he would notice all the other women as well. They all seemed leaning out for love – or something. He was afraid that Leah might notice a change in him, as though she could read his thoughts.
One warm day on a walk near Ocean Parkway Leah turned to Yankel and asked him: “Have you ever wanted a woman besides me?” Yankel was stunned. Could she know what was going on inside him?
He stammered. “Leah, I have never been more attracted to you…”
“’Fess up, Yankel. Have you ever wanted a woman besides me?”
He was frightened. Had she discovered his roving eye and heart?
“Oh, it’s natural,” Leah said. “You don’t have to be afraid to answer me.”
He turned red. “Yes, well, no. Not exactly. Leah, where is this question coming from?”
“Well, I just want to know how does a man- a man like you, well, deal with his desires?”
“A man is a man.” Yankel said. “He is always tested.”
Leah persisted. “What do you mean he is tested?”
“Well, the yetzer hora, the devil inside a man, is always lurking.”
“That sounds like a line to me,” Leah said with obvious dissatisfaction.
“I really don’t know what you’re after, Leah.”
Yankel paused as though to ponder or measure his words. One could see in such moments the Eastern European rabbi in him. The white shirt with a floppy collar, the black suit, gray-patterned tie - the seriousness of Everything. The Brooklyn metropolis contained thousands like him, serious men, who weighed their words, who defended the faith against all manner of encroachment, even in their own living rooms and bedrooms. He exhaled. Finally, “What should I tell you? There are temptations. For some more, some less. A man must deal with…”
“With what?” Leah asked impatiently - “with a temptation to do bad things? Do you want to do bad things, Yankel?”
“Of course not, well I mean, of course I do. I am a human being! Leah, what are you after?”
“I wonder about you. I have so much desire, but you, you seem to have so little. You’re so damn in control of yourself all the time. I sometimes wonder.”
He had not expected this answer. This felt dangerous to Yankel. Who knows where this conversation could lead? If he had too little desire, he was damned, too much, then…what exactly was too much anyway? It was better as the sages said, not to talk too much with women, even with one’s own wife. He was silent now as they walked back and forth along Avenue J.
“My father told me that during the war, they felt little urge to you know…” she continued.
“They were so hungry?”
“They were hungry and distracted,” Leah said. “Can a man distract himself?”
“Not too well,” Yankel answered.
“Yankel! Can you distract yourself from me?” She gave him a pleading look as though he alone possessed some life-altering secret.
“Not unless I wanted to.”
They stopped walking.
“I can’t distract myself from you,” Leah said. “But I am not sure it is just you, it is about everything. It is also about us. I can’t distract myself from my curiosity about us, what it might be like to…you know.”
“Leah, you’re making me nervous.”
“I hope so.”
The next day it was Yankel who returned to the subject matter.
“So you can’t distract yourself from me, yes?”
“I learned to,” Leah said.
“Well, you taught me – I am a quick study. I said: if you can distract yourself from me, then I can from you.”
They walked together. The weather had gotten warmer. Ocean Parkway was budding leaves. A loud motorcycle passed by. Amid the intense tailpipe noise, Leah could see Yankel’s mouth move, but she couldn’t hear his words. Instead, she put a piece of chocolate in his mouth.
Yankel spit it out onto the pavement. ”What are you doing Leah? I didn’t even make a bracha!” He shook his head, animatedly, but full of disgust. He put his head into his hands and then walked over to the bench.
Leah sat down near him. “I’m sorry, Yankel. It was a dumb thing to do. It’s just that I wanted to, I wanted to…”
Yankel could feel the blood rush - down there. “It’s not the way, Leah.”
“Why do you have to be so good, Yankel? It’s not that you’re not right, but why do you have to be so good?”
“Believe me. I’m not good. I’m filled with terrible thoughts.”
“We’re all just terrible,” she said with a certain light-heavy irony.
Just now a young man and a woman strolled past them. They were holding on to each other at the waist very tightly.
“It’s terrible,” Yankel said, shaking his head. “He was wearing a yarmulke!”
“I don’t think it’s terrible, “ Leah said petulantly. “In fact, I wish they had someplace to go.”
“Feh,” Yankel said. “As if that will help them.”
“Help them? They’re in love! They need a place to go.”
“I don’t get you, Leah. You think they’re in love? They’re in lust!”
“Who’s to say what love is?” Leah said.
Yankel got up from the bench. In his rabbinical garb, the white shirt, the gabardine, he filled his suit nicely, his body somehow appearing as if mildly wishing to break out. Yankel thought for two whole minutes. Ocean Parkway was doing its thing, waves of cars – in each wave, a civilization – the buildings, apartments, private homes, some rich – new with big windows and terraces, others old, with grime caked on mortar, successive generations on top of one another – an archaeological excavation.
“It’s the yetzer hora,” Yankel pronounced. The Evil Inclination.
“Like fire, Leah. It creates and destroys.”
“I like fire.”
“Me too, Leah, but everything in its time.”
“Oh, you’re so rational. I don’t know if you’re even human.”
“I’m human, believe me.”
Leah walked away from him.
“What’s gotten into you, Leah?”
“I don’t know,” she said and bowed slightly; a hint of shame. “It’s just that you remind me sometimes of my father. A man who will deny himself, sacrifice.”
“Your father is a good man.”
“That’s the point. He is obtuse. He lives in a world of goodness on one side and blackness on the other. It’s almost as if one is always playing off against the other. They, the Germans, were so bad, so we have to be so good. It’s sickening.”
“You find that sickening? Try my father’s world. He lives in a world of badness, though it’s cloaked and laundered in the lily-white virtue of Zionism.”
“Did you ever think that your father was right?”
“No, about life?” Leah said.
You mean that he leaves one wife, and goes with a woman half his age – our age?“
“And why shouldn’t he?” Leah said “One only has so many years. She is probably a beautiful woman.”
“Leah, what are you saying? A man should live like that with his desires?”
“I’m saying that a man has a right, a woman has a right to Life, not just to live.”
“Leah, I didn’t know that I was marrying a French philosopher.”
Leah made a face.
“What’s the ‘face’ for Leah?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said. “You’re a wise man and also a foolish man, Yankel. That is all I have to say.”
“You think I’m foolish? Well you’ll have your chance to judge for yourself. My father and Gila are coming back to the States soon to meet you.”
“You heard me. They’re coming. And from what I hear, Gila really wants to meet you.”
“Ich vart mit un-gedult,” I wait with impatience,” Leah said, tilting her head back with a laugh.
The faithful were streaming to the evening service in the various shtibels, house-shuls, that saturate the boulevard from beginning to end. Yankel shook his head and then looked up to the sky as though silently joining their prayers. “Nisht git, not good,” he muttered to himself. Leah proceeded to ignore Yankel, and picked up her pace ahead of him by a beat, now with a springier step as if she were hearing her own confident music.
One day Leah asked Yankel to meet her in Manhattan where she worked. Leah’s company, a computing firm, was on the 37th floor of the Woolworth building which Yankel had learned, was once the tallest in the world back when it was built in 1913. The lobby was spectacular and stately. It still, after all these years, had the ability to impress. When he got out of the elevator at the 37th floor, Leah was already waiting for him. In the presence of this concrete ode to commerce, Yankel, although dressed in a suit, felt somewhat backward and provincial. His suit was ill-fitting and wrinkled. His pants were not cuffed and his shoes didn’t seem quite right either. Leah, on the other hand, looked like any of the women who worked in the building, only slightly more elegant. She wore a three-button skirt suit with navy suede shoes.
During the split second they waited for the down elevator, Yankel looked at her shoes.
She said, “You like them?” They had gold buckles over the toes.
“I don’t know anything about shoes, but they look stylish to me.”
Leah smiled. “Shoes are everything. Why, if the company doesn’t like your shoes, they can fire you.” The elevator dropped to the ground floor in what seemed like a second.
They stepped into the lobby. Soon they were outside and they walked south on Broadway. “You walk the streets like you own the place,” Yankel said.
“The whole city feels like a playground to me.” She looked up toward the sky from the downtown canyon. “I love it here, even if back in Brooklyn they think of it as Sodom and Gomorrah.”
A shudder went through Yankel when he heard that. She likes the city – a place of gentile and Jewish tumah, impurities! He had to admire it in a way. She didn’t feel responsible for her ideas and she could fling them all into the wind and could care less what would come down where.
It was a winter day, sun-dappled, but windy. Leah tightened her coat against her body. Yankel walked with a downward look.
“What are you thinking about, Yankel?”
Yankel was self-conscious going about on these streets in the middle of the day. For years he had only known the inside of the bais medrash, the four walls. It felt like he was playing hooky. “I’m thinking about two things: one is my shoes. Now that you mentioned shoes are important, I feel mine look a little bit like a loser’s. They have that cap toe, a little bulbous, with the heels worn down – and I am also thinking about a Gemara I am learning.”
Leah looked at his shoes. “They’re not so bad…they’re not cap toes. They’re wingtips.”
“The man told me they were cap toes.”
Leah made a face. “You should go back and tell him he sold you the wrong shoe. Where did you buy them, in Boro Park?”
“Yes, I bought them in Boro Park,” he said with a drop of sarcasm, as if to say in jest, I apologize for my provincialism. “In a million years,” he continued, “I couldn’t go back to him and ask him for a refund. Cap toe, shmap toe. It’s a shoe.”
“If you say so,” Leah said.
“You know,” Yankel said, “there’s a Gemara about what makes a shoe a shoe.”
“There’s a Gemara about everything. I bet you’re thinking about a Gemara all the time!”
“Only when I am not thinking about you,” Yankel said.
Leah gave Yankel a look. It would have been hard for him to describe the look that she gave, but her mouth moved open and her eyes looked like they would fill with tears. She seemed to compose herself.
“Which Gemara are you thinking about?” Leah asked.
He stopped walking. “We can skip over this, but your face told me something.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay, we can drop it, but I wish we didn’t have to.”
“We have to,” Leah said. They walked a little further and the closer they got to the tip of Manhattan, the more clogged the street became with traffic.
Leah turned to Yankel. “It’s obvious.”
Yankel shrugged. “What’s obvious?”
“You don’t understand anything,” Leah said in mock disgust.
“Believe me it wouldn’t do us any good if I did.”
They continued walking until the moment had passed.
“But you really were thinking about a Gemara, though, weren’t you?” Leah asked.
“Yes, when I am not thinking about you.”
“Here we go again.” Leah rolled her eyes.
“Okay, okay. When you were looking up at the sky before I was thinking about the Gemara of how high a sukkah can be – because after a certain height, the walls of the sukkah provide the shade, but not the sukkah itself.”
Leah looked up again. This time he noticed the whiteness of the skin of her neck. A mild shock went through him – a small wave. He let it pass. “The Gemara is right – you can see straight up to the sky but there is no sun because of the buildings.”
They crossed the street, moving between the buses and cars.
“Watch out!” Yankel pulled Leah back lightly by her coat. She had not seen the motorcycle darting between cars. It almost hit her.
When they made it to the sidewalk, she said, “You saved my life. But I also saw you looking at my neck,” she chided him.
He looked away sheepishly. “I…I.”
“It’s natural for you to look – you’re a man. You must look at a lot of women.”
“Why, they are all like white geese to me,” he said with a wave of the hand. He cracked a smile, too.
“Yeah, right.” A large truck went by and Yankel could not hear what more Leah had said , but as soon as it had passed, Leah repeated it. They are all like white geese to me. “You are stealing a line from the Talmud!”
“You got me.” Yankel had quoted one of the rabbis who once boasted to his colleagues that women had no effect on him at all, ‘Why,’ he told them, ‘I could look at them all day. They appear to me as (nothing but) a flock of white geese.’
In front of the bull at Bowling Green, a street band of Peruvian Indians from the Amazon played. They wore traditional dress, tasseled ponchos and painted faces. One sang while two blew flutes and danced in place.
“The music is gorgeous, but it sounds sad.”
Yankel nodded in agreement. “It fits my mood a little.”
More people gathered around. Leah then turned to Yankel and asked, “Why are you sad?”
Yankel put his gloved hands together. “My father and Gila, they invited us to a…:well, I’m ashamed to say it, a Knicks’ basketball game in Madison Square Garden.”
“That’s a little unusual,” Leah said, “but could be kind of fun.”
“Fun? To see a bunch of shkatzim tossing around a basketball?”
“Yeah, actually, it does seem fun. A bunch of super-tall men with a ball - it’s kind of like ballet. Why can’t we enjoy that?”
“Because it’s not my place - Madison Square Garden, me a yeshiva bochur with a hat.”
“So don’t wear the hat. It’s a lark. I’ve never been to a Knicks game – I heard a lot of celebs go – like Woody Allen.”
“Woody Allen? A shvantz, a jerk.”
“I agree with you that he’s a jerk, but so what!”
The music continued to play even more hauntingly.
“Do you have any idea what they are singing about?” Leah asked.
“I don’t,” he said a bit curtly. “Probably about some kind of loss.”
“You never felt bad for these people? Thrown off their land? Hunted down like water buffalo.”
“Never thought too much about it, Leah.” Yankel was slightly irritated by the question. It seemed that so much of what Leah did was to tip the applecart if ever so slightly – to upend him. He had a lifetime of that from his father.
“There’s a lot of sadness in the world, Leah,” he continued. “Should I feel bad about the mouse that gets eaten by the cat or the fish that gets eaten by the shark?”
“These people are human, Yankel. Just like us.”
“They’re not just like us, Leah, and you know it!”
Leah knew just when to leave a point alone. “Forget it,” she said, “Just, let’s enjoy the music.”
She swayed ever so slightly to the beat - to Yankel’s annoyance. He could feel, just feel that she, with her striking beauty had caught the eye of other people there, men and women that had encircled the band. Some threw coins and dollar bills into the open bag which was positioned by happenstance directly in front of her.
“You know, I heard,” Leah said, “that according to their culture, only the men are allowed to play instruments. The women are not even allowed to look at them.”
“How in the world would you know that, Leah?”
“I read it somewhere. The women can only hear the music but it’s forbidden for them to see the men or the instruments.”
Yankel looked around, then northward on Broadway. The buildings on either side made it look like a canyon. Again, he thought, what it would be like to put schach, the makeshift roof, between the buildings, in other words to make Broadway into a giant sukkah, a Jewish hut. They really were in a canyon or like a valley between two mountains as the Talmud says.
Leah poked Yankel out of his reverie. “Makes you wonder, Yankel. Doesn’t it? They have laws just like us!”
“What are you getting at? They are not like us and their laws are not like ours!”
A chilly wind blew in a gust. There was a break in the music and the crowd started to walk away.
They found a café nearby and sat down.
Leah shook the hair away from her head.
“You know,” she said, “I really don’t think it’s such a bad idea to go to a Knicks game. It will be a first for both of us.“
“Some firsts I can do without.”
“Is it really forbidden, such a thing? I don’t take such a dim view of your father, as you know. Yes, he’s impossibly cheap and self-centered, but he wants to live. Why go to a fuddy-duddy restaurant to meet? He’s got this model-girlfriend and he wants to do some showboating? What of it? Don’t worry. In the end, you’ll outlive the the mamzer, the bastard.”
Yankel shuddered, He wasn’t use to Leah’s using that language – and about his father no less. But he also couldn’t suppress a smile.
“Hah! I’m right,” Leah said. “You’re in competition with your father – to see who is better – who picked the better woman! That’s why you don’t want to go the Knicks game!?”
The waiter brought a pitcher of ice water and glasses. Yankel took a glass and drank. Just outside the window the band was starting to play again and a small crowd of spectators was forming.
“D’oh, okay! Maybe it’s true a little that I’m in competition, but it is forbidden to go to a basketball game, it’s the antithesis of what we stand for as religious Jews, for me as a man of learning. There’s nothing wrong with it and everything wrong with it!”
Leah took a sip of tea and then put her hand to her mouth and paused. Now she spoke carefully:
“I used to just think about my father all the time: what made him go, what made him. – a mystery – my father, he’s on automatic pilot, God bless him. He just wants to be good. For my father, there is no forbidden – he wants to be far away from it. I need to be near what is wrong.”
Leah put a hand on her lap. “I know that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. I know for the love of God we’re supposed to stay very far away from ‘sin’ but I cannot live that way. I have to be closer to the edge.” She moved closer to him as she said this.
Yankel thought about Leah’s words. He recoiled inside, but not completely, which surprised him. This was not the way his mind worked at all. This is not how he thought of God or his responsibilities in life. “Leah, I am alarmed by what you say.” He cleared his throat. “You know the Talmud says that what led King David to sin was that he asked God to test him. He too wanted to be near danger. He thought too much of himself and led him to the sin with the Bathsheba. Is that what you want?”
“David is David and Bathsheba is Bathsheba. I know who I am.”
“I am opposed to this.”
“To this way of thinking.”
“You mean you’re opposed to me.”
“No, stop that.”
“It’s the truth. Yes, you are opposed to me.”
“No, I am not. I am just going to have close my ears sometimes when we’re married.”
“And I will close my mouth – sometimes.”
“And I will close my eyes,” Yankel said.. “Sometimes.”
After Yankel walked Leah back to her office, he wandered the streets. How can one talk this way? But then look around you! People sinning all the time! Here a go-go bar, there a strip club. Perhaps it would be easier if one were struck by lightning after a sin, but what made things so confusing is that you weren’t. You were left to contemplate a sin in a universe that didn’t seem to care one way or the other. The universe was indifferent to sin. Sure he was all worked up now, but was he deep down indifferent to sin as well?
He struck his chest with his fist. Oy. There is a Judgment - and a Judge who knows and sees everything. Yankel had to talk about this to someone, but to whom? Naturally, he thought of his mentor, the Rosh HaYeshiva, his rebbe, but he didn’t want to speak badly about Leah or about their relationship. And who knew? Leah was perhaps “too much” – maybe not for him. If a wrong was about to be done, it must be righted. The match itself might be in jeopardy.
And so, with misgiving, he approached the Rosh HaYeshiva. “Come to my house this evening before dark,” he told Yankel.
The Rosh HaYeshiva’s slender fourteen-year-old daughter answered the door. “I will get my father. Sit here,” and she motioned to the dining room table. The walls were painted light blue. In the house was a bookcase that stretched to the hinterlands: massive tomes of Talmud and its explicators. Yankel sat on a chair with plastic covering on the seat.
There was something bracing about being in the Rosh HaYeshiva’s house. Such was the power the dean had over him and so many others. The Rosh HaYeshiva with his calm wisdom, his total command of the Talmud and its commentators, his command over himself, every word uttered precisely, as though each syllable were a judgment on the whole world. Here was the nerve center of a small universe – his universe, the furnace where the steel of the culture is made – the cur habarzel. Here too is the transition point, the switch between heaven and hell. Yankel looked at the floor, as if one could fall right through right now to hell – pischa d’gehennom - as though it were a lid on a pot.
The Rosh HaYeshiva walked in. He was as usual, a mixture of warm and curt, a manic devotion to formality – an authority without apology, without remorse.
How could one be human, Yankel wondered, be vulnerable enough to say what was on one’s mind here? To betray the human stain that is within? And yet, Yankel promised himself that he would do just that. He would say what was on his mind whatever it took - frankly. He knew the Yeshiva world was a place that allowed for tortured and stretched interpretations and elliptical meanings and statements. There was wisdom to that. But the pain of the Yeshiva world is also silent. His grandfather, a shochet, once told him that cows when they’re slaughtered make no sound. Perhaps they were all sacrificial cows.
“Gut Ovent,” the Rosh Hayeshiva said. Good evening. He was quite well-spoken in English, but he preferred at all times to speak in the jargon – the old world Yiddish. He was born in 1938 in Lithuania and had come to the United States at the age of nine in 1947, having spent the war years in Shanghai with his mother. His father was killed, but he was “suckled” in Talmud by his father’s brother, a rabbi of great renown.
The rabbi had a small veranda that overlooked Ocean Parkway. Together they walked out. The rabbi offered him a fruit as he opened the sliding glass door.
Yankel demurred. “I am concerned,” he haltingly said. “Leah, my kalla, she speaks sometimes like she is ready to throw off all burdens of the Torah!”
The rabbi showed no reaction when he heard this. It was almost as if he had told him the time for prayer services at the synagogue down the street. “What is your concern?” the rabbi said after a long minute.
Yankel perhaps for the very first time studied the face of his mentor. It was soft and hard at the same time. The features still fine – bushy eyebrows, plump lips, hair short, perhaps he still resembled the boy he once was in Shanghai. The eyes were large and brown. The house contained the smell of Jewish domesticity, a soup on the stove – holdovers from the last generation when food always had to be prepared manually. In the kitchen: probably a mixing bowl and a carton of eggs on the counter – the plasma of a Jewish life. Cars drove by and little boys on bicycles played in the courtyard.
“Is she physical with you?”
“No, nothing like that, G-d forbid. But she comes close.”
“Sometimes it takes that to wake up,” the rabbi pronounced. He shook his head and again asked, “What is your concern?”
“I feel as if something has changed with me. Maybe she has woken me up. Women for most of my life didn’t count. I barely knew of their existence. Now, it seems, I look out now and I see an ocean of women…”
“A woman is a woman not for nothing. They desire. Perhaps more than we do. They are trying to wake themselves up or us. It is not the way, but remember: they want to please us too.” He adjusted his belt. “More than you think,” he continued as he pulled his belt in more tightly. “She will tempt you, but there’s no malice. She wants to ‘win.’ This is not a transgression. On the contrary, it is important. You have to let her. Besides, there are moments when a man is powerless. This too is a fact. And right now, just for right now, don’t try to change her. This would be foolish. You will grow together. You will see.”
“I understand,” Yankel said and with that he took leave.
Oddly, he felt stronger when the Rosh HaYeshiva confirmed his powerlessness. The ways of the Torah are strong. They would ultimately prevail over Leah, over himself, over both of them. He was sure of that. A man, a woman, lose sight in passion, but a lost balance can be regained. These were his thoughts as let himself out of the Rosh HaYeshiva’s house and on to Ocean Parkway.
In truth, Yankel felt relieved, rescued because in the end he would submit to almost anything. He was smitten. He knew that. He was in her hands.
The next day Yankel awoke and he did not go to prayers as he usually did. He had to reckon with something inside him; a force almost against his will acted on him to review his life. He shook his head silently. It was all nonsense, incomprehensible nonsense he felt: his life with his mother and father, his lonely years in yeshiva. It was all rising in him now, like unwanted viscous, goopy liquid, that moved up through his body to his face. He could feel nothing, or if he could, then it was incomprehensible to him.
He called Leah. “I need to see you today,” he told her. “Can you get off from work? I need to talk to you – this morning. Don’t worry – it’s no catastrophe. I just need to be with you.”
Leah had her coat on when she met him at the door. “Let’s go for a walk,” Leah said and got a jump start on Yankel. Unsteadily, as if he didn’t recognize his own gait, he followed her, but then he caught up. But Leah walked even more quickly now, outpacing him by more than half a step. Neither of them looked at each other. The air outside was bracing cold. They walked and walked headlong into the biting wind first on Kings Highway and then on to Ocean Avenue. After about two miles Leah cast him a sideways glance and broke into a smile. Cars and trucks passed them as always, but for Yankel it felt surreal. He had been studying Leah in her beautiful pea coat, her small heels and feet perfectly tapping the pavement in front of him. It was as if the world had momentarily become elastic, watery. She was beautiful. This was an inescapable truth. Perhaps he shouldn’t notice, but it was a fact. The leaves rustled in the breeze and there was light now in his mind where there had been none. It was a pretty world, picturesque, but unstable – almost in a free fall, a delicious free fall.
He had wanted to talk. But Leah was not going to stop. “We’re going toward Boro Park and then to the Brooklyn Bridge,” she said.
“That’s crazy,” he said, but she didn’t hear him and if she did, she didn’t even look back. She was going. It was late March, but a cold front had moved in and it was back to winter.
The wind didn’t stop lashing them. Yankel thought now of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes. The wind goes round and round, whirring in circles, it never stops. And all rivers run to the sea, but the sea never fills. He often thought of the whole of Ocean Avenue as a wind tunnel – that kicked up the dust of eras past in a vortex: every piece of asbestos-dust and toxic dust and grime from the Brooklyn of bygone years, of old tenements and the heartbreaks in them. In this reverie Yankel felt suspended for a moment in time. The tenements faded into the background as they reached the edges of Prospect Park. Yankel was freezing, but if Leah was cold, she didn’t let on. But now as they reached Park Slope and moved closer to the Brooklyn Bridge, the wind picked up with a numbing ferocity.
Across one of the streets Yankel spotted a store still selling winter scarves. Without telling her, Yankel dashed across and quickly bought two. Now she was ahead by a full block and a half. Against the wind in short powerful bursts he caught up to Leah and tenderly put up the collar on Leah’s coat and handed her the scarf. And so they went out in the world together.