She swayed ever so slightly to the beat – to Yankel’s annoyance. He could feel, just feel, that she, with her striking beauty, had caught the eye of other people there, men and women that had encircled the band. Some threw coins and dollar bills into the open bag which was positioned by happenstance directly in front of her.
“You know, I heard,” Leah said, “that according to their culture, only the men are allowed to play instruments. The women are not even allowed to look at them.”
“How in the world would you know that, Leah?”
“I read it somewhere. The women can only hear the music but it’s forbidden for them to see the men or the instruments.”
Yankel looked around, then northward on Broadway. The buildings on either side made it look like a canyon. Again, he thought, what it would be like to put schach, the makeshift roof, between the buildings, in other words to make Broadway into a giant sukkah, a Jewish hut. They really were in a canyon or like a valley between two mountains, as the Talmud says.
Leah poked Yankel out of his reverie. “Makes you wonder, Yankel. Doesn’t it? They have laws just like us!”
“What are you getting at? They are not like us and their laws are not like ours!”
A chilly wind blew in a gust. There was a break in the music and the crowd started to walk away.
They found a café nearby and sat down.
Leah shook the hair away from her head.
“You know,” she said, “I really don’t think it’s such a bad idea to go to a Knicks game. It will be a first for both of us.“
“Some firsts I can do without.”
“Is it really forbidden, such a thing? I don’t take such a dim view of your father, as you know. Yes, he’s impossibly cheap and self-centered, but he wants to live. Why go to a fuddy-duddy restaurant to meet? He’s got this model-girlfriend and he wants to do some showboating? What of it? Don’t worry. In the end, you’ll outlive the mamzer, the bastard.”
Yankel shuddered, He wasn’t use to Leah’s using that language – and about his father no less. But he also couldn’t suppress a smile.
“Hah! I’m right,” Leah said. “You’re in competition with your father – to see who is better – who picked the better woman! That’s why you don’t want to go the Knicks game!”
The waiter brought a pitcher of ice water and glasses. Yankel took a glass and drank. Just outside the window the band was starting to play again and a small crowd of spectators was forming.
“D’oh, okay! Maybe it’s true a little that I’m in competition, but it is forbidden to go to a basketball game – it’s the antithesis of what we stand for as religious Jews, for me as a man of learning. There’s nothing wrong with it and everything wrong with it!”
Leah took a sip of tea and then put her hand to her mouth and paused. Now she spoke carefully: “I used to just think about my father all the time: what made him go, what made him – a mystery. My father, he’s on automatic pilot, G-d bless him. He just wants to be good. For my father, there is no forbidden – he wants to be far away from it. I need to be near what is wrong.”
Leah put a hand on her lap. “I know that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. I know for the love of G-d we’re supposed to stay very far away from ‘sin’ but I cannot live that way. I have to be closer to the edge.” She moved closer to him as she said this.
Yankel thought about Leah’s words. He recoiled inside, but not completely, which surprised him. This was not the way his mind worked at all. This is not how he thought of G-d or his responsibilities in life. “Leah, I am alarmed by what you say.” He cleared his throat. “You know the Talmud says that what led King David to sin was that he asked G-d to test him. He too wanted to be near danger. He thought too much of himself and that led him to the sin with the Bathsheba. Is that what you want?”
“David is David and Bathsheba is Bathsheba. I know who I am.”
“I am opposed to this.”
“To this way of thinking.”
“You mean you’re opposed to me.”
“No, stop that.”
“It’s the truth. Yes, you are opposed to me.”
“No, I am not. I am just going to have to close my ears sometimes when we’re married.”
“And I will close my mouth – sometimes.”
“And I will close my eyes,” Yankel said. “Sometimes.”
After Yankel walked Leah back to her office, he wandered the streets. How can one talk this way? But then look around you! People sinning all the time! Here a go-go bar, there a strip club. Perhaps it would be easier if one were struck by lightning after a sin, but what made things so confusing is that you weren’t. You were left to contemplate a sin in a universe that didn’t seem to care one way or the other. The universe was indifferent to sin. Sure, he was all worked up now, but was he deep down indifferent to sin as well?
He struck his chest with his fist. Oy. There is a Judgment – and a Judge who knows and sees everything. Yankel had to talk about this to someone, but to whom? Naturally, he thought of his mentor, the Rosh HaYeshiva, his rebbe, but he didn’t want to speak badly about Leah or about their relationship. And who knew? Leah was perhaps “too much” – maybe not for him. If a wrong was about to be done, it must be righted. The match itself might be in jeopardy.
And so, with misgiving, he approached the Rosh HaYeshiva. “Come to my house this evening before dark,” he told Yankel.
The Rosh HaYeshiva’s slender fourteen-year-old daughter answered the door. “I will get my father. Sit here,” and she motioned to the dining room table. The walls were painted light blue. In the house was a bookcase that stretched to the hinterlands: massive tomes of Talmud and its explicators. Yankel sat on a chair with plastic covering on the seat.
There was something bracing about being in the Rosh HaYeshiva’s house. Such was the power the dean had over him and so many others. The Rosh HaYeshiva with his calm wisdom, his total command of the Talmud and its commentators, his command over himself, every word uttered precisely, as though each syllable were a judgment on the whole world. Here was the nerve center of a small universe – his universe, the furnace where the steel of the culture is made – the cur habarzel. Here too is the transition point, the switch between heaven and hell. Yankel looked at the floor, as if one could fall right through right now to hell – pischa d’gehennom – as though it were a lid on a pot.
(To be continued)