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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 to be reaching 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 hara, 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, 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.

“Since yesterday?”

“Well, you taught me – I am a quick study. I said: If you can distract yourself from me, then I can from you.”

“Oh boy.”

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.”

Leah paused.

“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 hara,” 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?”

“About Zionism?”

“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.”

“They’re what?”

“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 saturated 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.

(To be continued)

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