Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Yankel asked again, “Would you like some dessert, Leah?” He startled a bit as he said her name, as if in doing so, he’d crossed a boundary.

“I could go either way, but I wouldn’t mind having some tea.”


“Tea is a good idea,” he decided. He motioned to the waiter: “Tea with lemon.” And then, impulsively, “Bring me the chocolate cake, the chocolate mousse cake – with two forks.”

“Wow,” Leah said, her brows lifting. “How did you know that was my favorite?”

“Just a guess.”

“A good one.”

As though to make them atone for this pleasure and indulgence (an unconscious reflex over which he had no control), Yankel turned slightly away from Leah and adopted a slight indifference – an information-gatherer’s pose.

“Tell me, Leah, what is it that you are looking for in life, in a marriage?”

Leah folded her hands. “My father always wanted me to marry a talmid chacham – a scholar. Nur a talmid chacham – only a scholar, he’d say.” She paused. “I want that, but I want a man of character above all. This is what’s important to me.”

He was surprised by her self-possession. Here she seemed smitten by him and yet she was confident. She could just as soon leave him as take him. She would coolly cast him aside if he didn’t make the grade. It frightened Yankel and reassured him all at once. Yankel’s head moved up and down while he puzzled over things.

Just then, the waiter came with the chocolate mousse and set out two plates and tiny dessert forks then he quickly returned with tea mugs and an elegantly rounded white tea pot. They silently observed the sulky waiter as he poured tea first into Leah’s cup and then Yankel’s.

“What, what goes through your mind now?” Leah asked after the waiter had left. “You’re thinking something.”

Yankel was sheepish. “It’s just that men don’t think so clearly.”

“Really?” Leah asked. “How do men think? Tell me.” She put her head into her open palms, arms rested on the table, revealing an elegant gold watch.

“It’s hard for us to think at all, sometimes,” he intoned. “A man’s needs when it comes to women are so primal, so primitive, so physical, that he is like a drunk who stumbles in the alleyways after a night of drinking; he needs help to find his way home.” Yankel threw his hands up in the air. “This is the way we men are most of the time.”

“How did your father choose your mother?” Leah asked.

“Like a drunk man.” He cut off a corner of the mousse cake and put it on his plate. “I have no idea whatever brought them together. Looking at them now, I would have to say that they are so totally unlike each other. From the get-go she was ready to plotz and he was ready to tantz. Though they are roughly the same age, he seems fifteen years younger than she.”

Yankel described his mother’s “small” life in an apartment building on Bay Parkway, a narrow overheated apartment, a rabbit ear antenna on a lace doily atop the television set in the living room. Bifocals, hosiery drip-drying in a shower-curtained bathtub.

This, Yankel felt, was the obligatory exchange of parental narratives. How he had told and heard so many stories about parents on dates. This one’s grandfather was killed in the Warsaw ghetto. Another one’s ancestor had opened a dry-goods store for Union soldiers in the Civil War and then made a fortune. This one was in the Battle of the Bulge. He had grown to both hate and love these stories. They evaporated when the relationships disintegrated as they always did. It was a chore to talk about his mother and father, and lately it had become a terrible chore to hear about anyone else’s parents. He was getting to be too old.

“You describe things so well,” Leah offered generously.

If only she knew how practiced I am at this, thought Yankel, but as if spurred by her compliment, he could not resist continuing, inspiring him to this new rhetorical flourish: “My mother’s life is a suffering one. I heard once that suffering makes even the common man a poet for his mother.”

Leah’s eyes grew wider and she nodded her head. “You really do speak well.”

“What about you?” Yankel quickly added, somewhat embarrassed by Leah’s admiration.

He struggled with whether to tell Leah that the line about suffering was not his own. He had read it somewhere once, but couldn’t remember where.

“My mother is no longer young. In fact, when I went to make a call before it was to remind her to take her new heart medication. She had me when she was forty-three which was a rare thing in those days. My parents married a little later comparatively – owing to the war.”

Leah gestured slightly away with her shoulder as if toward the somber past. “My mother was in the camps and that has a lot to do with her personality. She is very frugal, careful and cautious.”

Leah placed the tea mug lightly against her cheek. “She worries a great deal and keeps away of any kind of excitement. She doesn’t plan for anything, and basically lives by the day.

She gets the monthly checks – wiedergutmachengeld from the German government. By now, she has squirreled away quite a bit. It took my father forever to convince her that we could afford to move out of East Flatbush to a small house here in Midwood.”

“Sounds grim.”

“It is, but my father gives most of the spark. He likes to get up and go and do things and he drags my mother along. He’s been ten times to Israel; he’s very proud there and feels at home.” Leah set down the mug – it had left a rosy mark on her cheek which looked actually quite lovely, Yankel thought.

“And your father?” she asked, scooping a clump of mousse onto her plate.

“My father! My mother’s life is sad; my father refuses to be sad. He is positively giddy.

He doesn’t stay put – we joke that he lives in some kind of electrostatic field between here and his favorite place – the land of Israel. He has this adulation – a huge reverence for anything Israeli and Modern Orthodox. He worships the Rav.” For a split second, he thought about stopping to ask if she knew that he was referring to the renowned Rabbi Soloveitchik, but as though asking such a thing were a terrible delay and imposition, he simply plowed on. “Really, Zionism for him is the Messiah as though the G-d of the shtetl where he was born, transformed.

He is just so overjoyed that weak-kneed, near-sighted Jews get to play with goy toys of war – military equipment: tanks, fighter jets, rifles, mortars. It’s a way of allowing or giving sanction to practice what he in his Diaspora mentality has wanted to do for generations: knock the daylights out of all our enemies – especially the Arabs. To his thinking, G-d is now the god of warfare and tanks, not the god of storefront synagogues and – to him – miserable rabbinical court cases.”

Leah listened between taking tiny bites, as if not only taking in his words, but his tones, the way he spoke. “Your father sounds unusual,” she said. “And you understand him so well, it seems.”

He let out a dry laugh. “He’s unusual, all right.”

Yankel drove Leah back home. He went out of the car to walk her to her front door. Just when they got out of the car, out of nowhere a dog charged at both of them.

(To be continued)

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