The next time Yankel went to Leah she sat him down on the living room sofa, an embroidered pillow between them. He again noticed the glint of her earring, temporarily blinding him even more than last time. There was an air about her in the way she sat It was close but at distance at the same time, as though she were leaning away. He felt his own body brace and stiffen, but he didn’t know why. He had heard once that the body “knew” everything. It could even sense if a danger or a betrayal was imminent. He had heard this and he believed it.
Leah put her hand through her hair. “I had been talking with my father and something came up. He of course is very curious about you and us.” She tried unsuccessfully to clear her throat, but she pushed on. “He wants me to find out – ” her voice gave out a little and she again cleared her throat. “He wants to know what you think you might do for a living, you know, besides just studying in yeshiva. I mean, do you have a plan?”
Yankel was a bit pained and puzzled by this question. Surely, Leah was familiar with the way things were done in the yeshiva world. She had to know that this was a complicated matter. Most people did not have a “plan” at all. Rather, something evolved, developed over time. After all, it was expected that a young man in yeshiva would continue his studies for a few years after marriage. For the first year or two, a couple’s expenses could be kept quite low. They might live in subsidized housing and the woman of the house, as Leah was to become, was often able to hold down a good job at least until the children came. Along with wedding gifts, a small student stipend from the yeshiva and a simple lifestyle, this was not a bad existence, economically speaking. Leah had to know all of that.
Of course, not everyone lived so precariously. For example, if the young man had prospects, a wealthy family, a business that he might go into after spending some years in Torah study, or even if he could aspire to a position in the rabbinate, this would be so much the better. But Yankel had neither money nor prospects. And Leah knew that!
“A plan?” Yankel asked. “One can’t plan too far ahead. We still have time.”
Leah grimaced. “I know everything will work out, but sometimes it’s good to have a plan.” She gently kneaded the sofa pillow she had in her hand.
“The plan is to muddle through – like everyone else.”
Leah put the pillow down suddenly and with a degree of force. “I don’t want to ‘muddle through.’ This is not a plan. I want a plan for progress. I want to be able to tell my father something.” She stopped and looked over at him. ”Isn’t there something we can say to him?”
“Yes, progress is extremely important,” Yankel said, but in this sudden glare of inspection on him, his head throbbed. The ease that had been developing between them was fading, he could sense it, as though now he were on the deck of a ship that had begun to list. None of this did he have the presence of mind to put into words. Instead, he mounted a defense: “I do plan to make progress – in Torah study. Making progress in Talmud is not,” he flicked his finger as if dispelling a speck of dust, “nothing. It’s no small thing. Your father must know this.”
“Yes, Yankel. He knows this and he loves that you are going to be a Talmid chacham, a scholar.”
Yankel winced at the words, going to be.
Leah noticed this. “That’s not to say that you aren’t already, but you know what I mean, Yankel. You are already a substantial rabbi,” and she motioned with her hands as if to smooth his ruffled feathers. “All I’m saying is to humor him. Tell him you’re going to be an accountant or something. Anything.”
“So you want me to lie?” Yankel asked, surprised.
“No, I mean, tell him that you’re thinking of taking professional courses in accounting or computers or something like that – a profession as a backup. Tell him at least that you’re considering it.” Leah went on, “I myself told him that things have a way of sorting themselves out, but he is the nervous type. Also, he’s a little bit right. He doesn’t want me to be one of those mothers with ten children with no money and no plan except maybe to take in boarders.”
Yankel unsuccessfully tried to suppress a sneer with a smile. He couldn’t help but turn away from Leah. He knew of those types like Leah’s father: sunshine patriots – they were all for Torah study, but in secret, they worshipped the Golden Calf! – the Almighty Dollar. It wasn’t scholarship or “Torah” they wanted at all, but comfort and success! But Leah? He hadn’t figured her to be one of those. By virtue of her going out with him, he assumed that she had already given her consent to his way of life.
“You, Leah, what do you want? I thought you wanted what I wanted, but now I see maybe not. You know there will be struggle, but maybe you don’t think the struggle is worth it. Maybe you don’t think we’re worth it.”
Leah blinked back a tear. “It’s not that at all. Think of it. If I were to start having children, I would want to be a stay-at-home mother. I won’t work, but then what do we have to rely on?”
“G-d,” Yankel said simply and stood up. “One has to have bitachon, trust in G-d.”
“Bitachon means using your head and working hard, that is what my father always said.” Leah looked away from him for a second and stared at a family portrait on the wall.
Her father did have a point, Yankel knew. Didn’t the Talmud say, ‘He who prepares for the Sabbath will have what to eat on the Sabbath”? Of course one wasn’t allowed to rely on miracles. That had never been his intention. He said now, “We may not have money, but we will never drown. I guarantee that.”
“That is not good enough – not for my father.” Leah lightly tossed her pillow at the place where Yankel had been sitting.
Yankel gently moved it aside and sat down again. “But is it good enough for you, Leah? For you?”
Leah shook her head. “I don’t know.”
By Yankel’s lights, he could not understand why this was coming up now. It was true that he had no plan to make money. One could get by these days. Perhaps he could teach in a high school, though he felt he had no talent for that, but maybe he could learn how. It was a profession these days to be a teacher of Torah studies. One had to go for training. The Talmud was replete with stories about the difficulties of making a living. Some rabbis were rich, others starved. One was a tanner; another, a blacksmith. Such was the way.
But what was with Leah now that she should want all of a sudden he should have a plan? What plan did anyone have when they came to this country? Maybe Leah wasn’t the one for him, if she had to please her father so much. Nothing’s done until it’s done. Everyone knew that. It’s not that it wouldn’t surprise him, because the Talmud says, “There’s no marriage contract written without a pitcher or two being thrown.” In other words, squabbles, even reneging, was the norm. Maybe it would come to that here, too – after all, they weren’t even engaged yet. The whole thing could go up like a puff of smoke.
Finally, he said. “Leah, when all is said and done you have to know who you are and who I am.” He stared at her intently and with tenderness. “You know that feelings cannot be bought. My feelings for you and your feelings for me cannot be traded at the market.”
“Yes, but they can’t be used at the market to buy things, either.”
“You are your father’s daughter, I see.”
Leah pushed air hard out of the side of her mouth sending part of her bangs up in the above her forehead. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You mean that it’s wrong for me to want,” she said flatly.
“Not wrong, it’s just that it’s materialistic – it’s not spiritual. It’s concrete. Not everyone can wear the crown of Torah.”
Leah became flush and red – perhaps out of anger, but Yankel didn’t know. She went to the kitchen to get a glass of water and brought one for Yankel too. “I know you think I have to please my father, but I don’t think you realize that I also want to please myself. I think that’s okay for me to do that – even though you don’t think so.”
Leah’s words sent a shock wave through Yankel though he scarcely knew why or just how revolutionary her thinking was. It was okay for her to please herself. What a concept, and what a strange concept to Yankel who just didn’t think in those terms. He always had to please someone else.
“I see your point,” Yankel said slowly, “but maybe it’s best we leave this alone for now.”
Leah took the drinking glasses away, untouched. “I agree,” she said.
However, he knew that this was a big problem that could not be solved so easily.
That night he thought about the things Leah had said. Perhaps she was not for him if she wanted a more material life. It was just a bit of a surprise to him. He hadn’t figured. Women were unreliable and their unreliability would yet ruin the world. And now Leah had managed to get at his Achilles heel – but for heaven’s sake, she could even be right. After all, didn’t the old-timers say Der ikar iz. m’darf tzu-frieden-shtellen di fro – the main point in life for a man is that he must be please the woman. Perhaps his piety was really just a way of avoiding the world – of becoming a man.
Such were this thoughts back at the dorm as he bludgeoned himself into a rabbinically-ordained sleep (one must get at least six hours, according to the Talmud).
(To be continued)