Yankel was never easy around dogs. Truth be told, he couldn’t stand their “animal” nature and they in turn were very tense around him, snarling and snapping. Yankel could scarcely have predicted this, let alone planned it, but he stared down the dog. Holding his hand up and his finger pointed straight ahead, he commanded the dog to “git” – and the dog, which looked like it could do damage (a mixed-breed black German Shepherd), stopped his charge dead and sulked away.
Leah, who’d been standing tensely beside him, let out her breath. She was extremely impressed, and in truth, so was Yankel. He could scarcely believe what had happened. He was shaking, but he also felt relieved. “I am actually quite frightened of dogs,” Yankel explained, but strange and corny as it may sound, I think being with you might have given me strength.”
Slowly, it dawned on Yankel, after Leah went inside, that the life as he knew it for these last many years might, just might, be drawing to a close. After what seemed a long lifetime in yeshiva, he had been given his own room in the dorm, a much-coveted prize. Perhaps soon this room would be passed on to someone else. Life was a progression. It only seemed like we were standing still. Things were always on the move. One gets married sooner, the other later. One lives for a time and then one passes on.
But this was to say nothing of the infinite complexity of the universe of the human being. Here a man is petrified of dogs and then he stands one down. A woman and a man, they have a rapport with each other and then before you know it – they are a fact. They are a fact creating other facts. And in all this is… is like Leah suggested, the Ebershter, or to say it like Leah’s father, the Basheffer, or simply G-d. These were his thoughts as he returned to his dorm room and put away his Shabbos shoes and blew a speck of dust off his hat.
Just then his father called on the dorm payphone. “Nu, Yankel,” he boomed into the receiver, “ma ha’inyanim, what’s the good word?”
There was something about his father’s use of the Israeli idiom ma ha’inyanim that grated on Yankel. Did his father really expect him to answer back in Hebrew? True, he was the playful type, but his father was almost a compulsive salesman. With every word, with every gesture, he was out to prove that his way was right, that his ideology, the superior one. Ma ha’inyanim was also an advertisement: a breezy reminder that he was doing quite well, without all the rabbinic garb and yeshivishe’keit, thank you very much, and really it’s a minor tragedy every minute that Yankel doesn’t wise up, see the light, set aside the Talmud, and join him in Israel.
“I am coming back next week,” his father said in his alternating deep and nasal voice (it really did change, like colors in the sun). “I would like to visit with you. I have something to share with you. I shall save it for when we meet in person.”
Nu, Yankel thought. My father has something to share with me! It’s usually the son that has something to share, but not in this family. Yankel shuddered to think what it might be.
There were remembrances of divulgences past: the time his father announced that he and his mother were getting a divorce, delivered in such a manner as though everyone should be happy for him, Yankel remembered thinking. We were having churban bayis shaini, our temple was destroyed, our house, but we should be happy for him that he can go goosing around the world now free as a bird, while our mother sits shiva at home. Yankel recalled another big announcement his father once made: They were moving to California. Why? Because he could no longer tolerate the “atmosphere” in Brooklyn – too much heat, too much cold. (Ultimately, they did not move.) Who knew? Maybe now his father was coming to say that he’s getting married now… probably to a twenty-five-year-old girl from a kibbutz. Yankel wouldn’t put it past him. At sixty-four, his father was going to live forever. His desire for life, his unfiltered enthusiasm for it, was an embarrassment.
The next time he met Leah, he splurged and took her to Shmulka Bernstein’s, a Lower East Side deli and favorite among the younger crowd. They were getting to that stage when they might no longer need the shadchante to parlay messages back and forth. At the end of the date, he almost asked her out directly. In fact, the shadchante even chided Yankel when he called her. “I no longer need to be your go-between, You are already attracted to each other.
There is no greater power on this earth.” And for good measure she added, “You know that Leah likes you.”
The words “you know that Leah likes you” filled Yankel up so high, he felt he was ten feet tall. But he halted himself, as he always did. “Even if Leah likes me, I still want you to be the go-between. I feel with you in the mix, I am less likely to mess things up.” And even if Yankel wouldn’t ruin it, something else might. That was his life’s story. Having the shadchante as middleman would serve as a talisman to ward off the proverbial disaster that must lurk at every corner. And as if to prove it, his mind glommed on to an ever-present source of worry: his father. What “news” would his father bring? Why now, of all times, did his father have to reappear? This was the way Yankel lived his life, even as he knew this was not the Jewish way of thinking at all. One must deal with problems. One must not be depressed. He had fallen into such depressions before. What good were they, these “blues,” and they were sinful too – in their own way, an indulgence. Mara Schoirah, a black, sinful depression.
But how could he be anything but depressed? There was the matter of asking his father for money too, which he needed especially if he was going to get married at some point, probably sooner than later. One could expect, judging by the past, that any request would be met with declamations of absolute poverty: I am broke, broker than broke; then the run-around: The money is not liquid. It is tied up in real estate and various trusts. And then outright rejection and degradation: I cannot support you forever; I am not a money tree; followed by distant promises:
Don’t worry. I have you well taken care of when the time comes. Such was the way he would try to reassure Yankel, but Yankel never did feel reassured.
Yet with his frequent gallivanting and globe-trotting his father always seemed to have plenty of money, even as he claimed that he was broke. It sounded awful to Yankel and made him feel terrible to admit this, but the idea of his father coming to see him filled him with dread.
But his father was coming and coming and coming. If there was one thing that he had learned in his life, his father would be coming. He would never go away permanently. Why didn’t he just stay in Israel? Some people, even as they professed undying love for the land of Israel, just couldn’t stay there for too long. There were these types like his father, floating all around Flatbush and Queens, who shuttled back and forth between Israel and their New York neighborhood haunts. They would show up in their blue-striped prayer shawls at odd synagogues, jacketless, usually with cuffed sleeves rolled up and khaki pants, hiking shoes, singing happy tunes instead of the Eastern European prayer dirges that the rest of New York Jewry sang. For these Israeli wannabes, gloom was unacceptable even if they had to hire Satan himself to play and make merry at their weddings and bar mitzvahs. For his father, gloom was the enemy, and this created for Yankel unremitting gloom.
(To be continued)