Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Yankel passed the days in dread. He could feel himself slipping into maroh 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 Shabbos 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 feet 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 that mourners, though they may each grieve for a different sorrow, 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 rule. Would you please bring me that volume of –” Yankel pointed.

Binyamin went to the bookshelf and retrieved a large tome – Shulchan Aruch, 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 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 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 onto 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 snowflakes 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 Shabbos ended to tell her what had 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.

(To be continued)

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