Photo Credit: Jewish Press

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 onto 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 had taken 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 with their hands 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 wannus 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 the 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, that 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, and the older man nodded his head. “These were just young people with nothing better to do. It’s not antisemitism – 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 Rabbeinu, 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.

(To be continued)

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