Something about Leah’s face arrested him. He could feel the usual machinery that went on inside him come to a half-second halt, a blink, a chink – something stopped. He could feel it. Yet even as he noticed this, he put it in the background.
When they settled at their table Leah began: “What is your father’s relationship like with G-d?”
She sat facing him in some colorful thing, something fuzzy, it seemed. His eyes roamed the room and then settled back on his tea mug. But now with this surprising question, his hands, which had been wrapped around his mug, broke apart. “Excuse me?”
“Yes, with G-d. What kind of relationship does he have with the Ebershter?”
This question made Yankel angry though he couldn’t say why. He had never before thought of such a thing. Perhaps because he didn’t think much of the Ebershter, as she called Him, at all. He felt humiliated by this question.
“I suppose it’s a legitimate question,” Yankel stumbled, “but…” He grasped for words and then somehow miraculously he found them: “I believe for my father, Israel, the State of Israel, is his G-d.” This was a shocking statement. Yankel was surprised that he had said something like this. He never expected to. “Eretz Yisrael Shleimah,” Yankel went on. “The Greater Israel, the shtachim, the settlements, young men with tanks, guns, with flying tzitzit, tefillin, Nimrod sandalim… this is the G-d of my father.”
Yankel looked broodingly into his tea mug. It had never before occurred to him in such stark terms that his G-d and the G-d of his father were not the same. In fact, they were very different.
Leah fell silent and fidgeted with her purse. She looked abashed – as if to say, had she really asked that question? Had she really gotten that answer?
Leah excused herself to the washroom, but he noticed that she went to the payphone. Who would she be calling up – some kind of Cupid, a confidante perhaps? Women were inscrutable. He hated himself for caring so much what was on these girls’ minds. It was its own kind of torture. Thoughts of recent dates came to him. All of them humiliations, one after the other. There was Mindy just last month who told the matchmaker that he was “a good guy” but that he ran the date like a Keystone cop. (So what if he forgot his keys at the restaurant and had to walk back a few blocks?) Then there was Yocheved a week or two ago, who kept asking him why his mother was so old when she had him. “Forty is not old,” he nearly snapped at her.
Word got back to Yankel that she’d told the matchmaker that he was “testy” and “crabby.” It is true that women could bring out impatience and surliness in him, but were they such angels?
And yet now with Leah, even as he felt uncomfortable by the conversation, he was, strange to admit, comfortable with her. He watched as she hung up and returned to the table. He noticed how she smoothed her dark hair. Her hair was quite beautiful. To him it looked like a surfer’s wave.
“That was a pretty neat question,” Yankel said in a way that surprised him, and for the first time he looked at her directly across the table. “I liked it very much. Why not let’s take a short walk. I think it stopped raining.”
Barely two hours after he had first come to Leah’s door, Yankel parked the Buick in front of her house. In that short amount of time at the restaurant and during their walk, what had happened? All they did was talk of this and that and the other, but it was different. Something had changed, something was happening between them. He could feel it like a cold or a virus coming on, but in this case it was the opposite – something good. He struggled to discount it; feelings like this one he had had before only to have it fizzle on the runway of desire before it could take off. He felt all of a sudden desperate to keep this feeling going, to nurture it along.
“I had a nice time,” Leah said in a hesitant voice as they walked up the steps to her door. He wanted to say something, anything, but he didn’t know what to say so he said nothing at all.
The next morning Yankel woke up with discomfort. He simply did not know what to make of what had happened. Why on earth hadn’t he said something – the truth: He did have a good time! Why on earth? Maybe he did need to see a psychologist. It was the 20th century after all.
A man had where to go to feel better or at least to set himself straight. Mostly though, he felt ashamed for his incompetence.
It was Sunday morning, still Chanukah. Much of the yeshiva had gone away, but where did Yankel have to go? To a mother living on Bay 8th Street in Bensonhurst in a tenement that smelled of yesterday’s supper, dull fluorescent lighting in the hallways, an elevator with a round window and big black buttons to push? By this time on Sunday mornings, one could see a procession of elderly and not-so-elderly people shuffling along with their laundry carts, a plastic jug of liquid detergent nestled on top of the laundry headed down to the room in the basement with the washing machines and dryers. In the lobby of the apartment building would be an electric menorah with orange bulbs next to a Christmas tree and a light-up Santa. No, it was better to be learning Talmud in the study hall, in the bais medrash… any bais medrash.
Even though Yankel was still a bochur, a single man, he had a seat at the married men’s table at breakfast – a sign of the esteem in which he was held. In fact, though he did not give a full-fledged lecture, he did lead an informal study group. Today, there were few people even among the full-timers. It was Chanukah break, after all. He decided to forego the special French Toast Chanukah breakfast. Instead, he grabbed a hard-boiled egg, ate it, and went straight to the Talmud.
One of the younger fellows in the bais medrash, an illuyish’e kid, a genius full of life and mischief and love of learning, came over to Yankel. “Let me learn with you this morning,” he said. “There’s no one here.”
This youngster couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but one look at him and you had to figure that the whole world of learning Talmud had to have been created especially for him. Not only did he have a sharp head, but he looked like the best of the pre-war Roman Vishniac photos – cheeks that were round as oranges, and freckles sprinkled lightly under his eyes like frosting.
There they were: the oldest man in the bais medrash and the youngest – in the empty room, around them books piled high: the Ran, the Rosh, the Shulchan Aruch, medieval explicators of the Talmud. Does doing one mitzvah exempt you from doing another? This was the Talmud’s discussion. The boy had nicknamed Yankel the “snowplow” as Yankel moved through the Talmud thoroughly and with all deliberate speed like an ice-breaker in the Northwest Passage. He could do this. An hour or two passed this way until they went downstairs to munch on jelly donuts set out in honor of Chanukah.
Slowly, though, Yankel’s feelings of desperation returned and the morning’s enthusiasm waned, at first slowly, then more rapidly. Later that night, Yankel was again in the grips of an agonizing loneliness when the shadchante called.
“I haven’t heard from you,” she said flatly. “I don’t know what to presume.”
“It was a strange experience,” Yankel said.
“Well,” he lifted his shoulders in a modest shrug. “I don’t know how I feel.”
“Did you feel like continuing your conversation with her?”
“I don’t know. I have trouble answering that question. She is very smart and resourceful… She knows how to fix windshield wipers.” This part he threw in for want of anything better to say.
She chuckled. “So what is the matter?”
He paused, swallowing, his mouth dry. He could still taste his hard-boiled egg from breakfast. “I felt like an idiot. I didn’t know what to say to her at the end of the date.”
“Now I don’t know. I’m confused.”
“Shall I tell her then to move on? I will suggest to her someone else.”
He felt a quickening inside him. “No, tell her… tell her I will call her tonight.”
(To be continued)