Photo Credit: Jewish Press

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!”

“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 kibud 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 went into Landau’s shul. He would clear his head with a page of Gemara and then pray maariv, the evening service. Here 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 father’s 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, G-d 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.

(To be continued)

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