Photo Credit: Jewish Press

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 medinah, the State of Israel, was correct: It may have been G-d 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 schoolboy. 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. The world seemed to get more strange and contradictory every day.

Just now Leah walked into the station. She wore a Shabbos 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 New York 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.

(To be continued)

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