When he went up to his room, he reviewed the facts of his life. He was late to marry –either because he hadn’t met the right one or because there was something wrong with him. He held modest promise in Talmud. He was the youngest man in Brooklyn to give a chabura, a class in the tractate Moed Kattan – to men in their forties and fifties yet. But he was unhappy by nature and he was sure that he spread mostly gloom.
Now a young woman had taken an interest, but was he interested in her? Perhaps she was only interested in herself? She wanted to know what he thought of her “looks?” This wasn’t so bad, but he was going out with her – was this not enough? What other unspoken needs might she have? These needs of women, they seemed to him – although he knew they weren’t – sadistic tricks to expose his inadequacies. By any other name, some other measure by which to fall short.
He could only deal with the present, he reasoned logically. He must continue the conversation with the woman. How else was one to know? Presently, he put down his roll. Her number – he patted his shirt and jacket pocket for it. Never mind, somehow, he knew it by heart.
It was Sunday morning, she would be home. He went to the payphone again. “Leah, it’s Yankel.”
“Good, I was hoping it was you.”
“I had a nice time last night.”
“You did?” she said.
“You sound surprised,” he said gloomily.
“Well, it’s just good that you did.” She threw in, “So did I.”
“How about we meet Wednesday night of this week?” he asked quickly.
Yankel hung up the phone feeling lighter. Always his worries seemed heavier than reality. He returned to his room. He had no need to finish the roll with the heavy butter. Though never overweight, and lean by nature, a decade and a half of inactivity, combined with a steady diet of white flour and sugar, gave Yankel a slight girth. Not vain in the least, this still bothered him, as though he wanted his stomach to be respectful, to obey, by being flat. Of late he had resolved to tame it.
He carefully wrapped the roll and put it into the mini-fridge, though he hated to call it that – anything with the word “mini” disturbed him.
Yankel walked down the block to the study hall. He was on time for the morning learning session. Slowly in dribs and drabs, white-shirted, black-pants-clad yeshiva students filtered into the white-washed, square-shaped room, casually talking.
The topic in the bais medrash was a “Shas” topic – a central theme appearing at different points in the Talmud: nosein taam lifgam. A minute amount of pig falls into a pot of kosher meat. Is it nullified by the majority amount of kosher meat? An older man who came to the study hall every day now approached Yankel with a question. He had what could best be described as a yellow beard that was wild and bushy, and a cigarette – lit or not – dangled from his lips. His hat was different than anyone else’s – it was more like a derby than a rabbinical hat. No one knew how he made a living. He was an odd man, not yet old enough to be retired, but way too old to be a student. Apparently, he was just another one of those mysterious people that often make up the world of the bais medrash.
The man with the yellow beard offered Yankel a cigarette but Yankel demurred. The man kept flirting with lighting the cigarette as he formulated his question. He would get a word or two out, and then raise the lighter to his cigarette only to put it down again. “If I have a vat of fifty gallons of milk, and I throw in ten gallons of pig’s milk – we know that if it makes the taste worse, then the milk is kosher. But what if it makes it worse but not bad, not inedible. Is it still kosher?”
Others heard the question and within a few minutes a small crowd had gathered round. “Bring me a Ran and the Tur Shulchan Aruch,” Yankel called out to someone. He squinted at the tiny print in the margins. Eighty-five percent of the students here wore glasses. No wonder. “You see there are different ways to see these things…”
Someone dragged a chair over. The man with the yellow beard began to play with the flame of his lighter, flicking it on and off. More people came to listen. “What this boils down to is the fundamental question of what is the nature of the prohibition of eating non-kosher. Is it the action of eating that is forbidden or is it a matter of deriving pleasure from the mixture that is forbidden? True, you drank the milk, but since the taste of the kosher milk was degraded by the non-kosher milk, the pleasure was non-existent. It’s all about the pleasure,” Yankel said, “at least according to the Ran.
“But the volume of milk increased,” the man with the yellow beard protested. “You had 50 gallons of milk, and now you have 60!”
Yankel smiled a smile of satisfaction: He was ready for this. “Very good, my friend!
The Rashba, a rival commentator, disagrees with you. We’re not talking about gain – we’re talking about pleasure. Gain and pleasure: two different things.”
Yankel enjoyed this exchange; and as evidenced by the smiles in the room, so did the others. But at the same time he wondered about what he had just said. The very words he used rang out in his mind: pleasure vs. gain. Two different languages. Could that be what the world was in a tizzy about? It was good, useful, gainful to get married, but is it pleasurable – did it make for happiness? And yet what about the Torah itself? Torah was good… had to be. The rabbis said so – it was both gainful and pleasurable. He could feel it now. The whole room was happy. But what good was all this happy, pleasurable sophistry to him when he could he not know his own mind? Well, maybe he was beginning to know it… finally.
He put some of the large tomes back on the shelf. Perhaps this is how one came to know oneself, slowly in stages, through conversation, not with the Torah, but with a woman! Didn’t the first human being Adam, not know his own name – Ish, man – until he named this new creature Isha, woman? Only then, through conversation with a woman, was he able to deduce that he was an “ish,” a man, was he able to know what he was.
And perhaps this is what women had to offer. Maybe this is what Leah had to offer: a chance to know himself. And so he eagerly awaited his next meeting with her. Here it was Sunday, but he kept thinking about Wednesday.
Appropriately suited once again, Yankel arrived at her doorstep at the stroke of seven.
Leah was waiting. This time he noticed her appearance, taking a full second or two. She wore something light-colored. It looked like a thick cable-knit sweater that covered her neck. Yankel took this as a bad sign. Was she covering something up? A scar? Immediately, he felt a bolt of shame. What did he have business there?
She was shorter than he, but not too short. They looked well together, he decided, as they walked down the steps to the car. She carried a small pocketbook – it looked like a patent leather type of material. It had a gold chain. Minute to minute he was bombarded by stimuli: he liked her, didn’t, liked her, didn’t. The way she walked with small steps, as though tentative. It could excite him or drive him to madness.
He could take the certainties in life – birth, death, taxes – but the uncertainties: G-d spare him.