Photo Credit: Jewish Press

It helped that Yankel really liked the older man. He was generous, earnest. There was something holy about him, too. And for all of Leah’s nausea at her father’s cloying love, Yankel saw it as a man’s protectiveness of his daughter. Leah’s father was a survivor from the war, no less. He was protective in a motherly way while still being a father. Yankel had heard once that male penguins protect their offspring while they are still eggs. They huddle en masse for warmth for months at a time in the arctic cold, while the male penguins guard their eggs, gently passing each one between their skin flaps under their wings.

Of course, Leah’s father became obsessed with the wedding plans. Every day he would say, “We need to plan, we need to plan.” He wanted her to go with him to see various halls and caterers. Instead, Leah asked Yankel to accompany her father to speak to a caterer in Queens. She had been to weddings there and she liked it. “Go without me,” she said. “It’s good for you and Dad to spend time with each other. I’m sick of his happiness. Besides, maybe you can stop him from making a bad deal.” She put her hand to her face. “He is shrewd, but he can also be played for the fool.”


It made Yankel a little queasy to hear Leah talk of her father that way, so bluntly. But he had to admit that she was right. She could see the truth in people and yet still be with them. He shuddered to think about how much truth she could see about him. But he put that thought out of his mind when he met Leah’s father on a Sunday afternoon to go to Queens. Yankel knew of the caterer, a landsman, from the Old Country. In fact, he spoke with the same halting lilt that Leah’s father did. But unlike Leah’s father, he was a man about whom there were whispers that he was a bit of a shyster and worse.

Leah’s father surprised Yankel by asking him to drive. “C’hob a kop veitig” – I have a headache, better you drive.” The old man promptly went to sleep as Yankel glided onto the Belt Parkway. The red speedometer needle quivered in the way of the old Chryslers, throbbing.

About midway, Leah’s father woke up. “Put on the radio,” he asked Yankel. The station on the AM radio was set to WEVD – the Yiddish station. The famous Yiddish radio announcer Zvee Scooler, the Andy Rooney of the Yiddish world, had died earlier that week and they were playing his favorite broadcasts going back fifty years. The topic was “nothing.” With the windy vitality of a Broadway actor, Scooler talked about “nothing” – the world was nothing, the atom bomb was nothing. The beauty of nothing. The earth hangt oif gornit – the world hangs on nothing. December 26, 1947. Truman was president then, the atom bomb had been dropped. Peace had been promised, but Vos vet zein? Scooler asked, “What will be? Will be ‘nothing.’”

Leah’s father reached over to turn down the radio and broke in. “I heard this the first time I came to the United States. I went to Williamsburg and had a pastrami and eggs, first time in my life. I was in a taxi from the boat place. A greener picked me up. He had on the radio this man who spoke in Yiddish. He was hilarious. He made me laugh. He spoke with a goldener tongue. I had nothing. Nothing. I was nothing. My family was dead, parents killed. I had an uncle that I never met. I had nothing in my pocket. New York was very busy. There were so many people. The Jews, the young people had dances. These were places to meet even heimishe girls. I put myself in the garment business. Caps. I knew from caps. In those days the caps were made in Curacao and other things like it, pens. I knew some of the wholesalers and I thought I could get them cheap and started selling here.”

He wiped his forehead. “I had nothing when I met my wife. I promised her nothing. I had nothing, gornisht mit gornisht. From this gornisht, I have two daughters, Rochel and Leah. Now you have Leah and from my nothing I give you something.”

Yankel wanted to say, “Wait a minute. Not everything is ‘nothing.’ He who knows nothing knows something. Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, the one who wrote ‘all is nothing’ is the very same one who wrote Song of Songs.” But there was something so pure about Leah’s father’s talk, his version of life, that Yankel would have spoiled it with quibbles. Instead, Yankel was quiet and hoped the older man would continue and he did.

The older man turned to Yankel and said, “You know something about basar v’chalav, mixing milk and meat, eh? When I was in cheder the war broke out. I can learn a little mishnayos a passik mit’n Rashi, but I was stopped by the war. That’s why you run where I crawl. I don’t know from the Talmud. But I know from other things.” The greener stared at the blue water through his window as they drove. He marveled at the Verrazano Bridge which you could see in the distance. “I can’t believe how the world has changed since I came to America.”

Just then, Yankel almost lost control of the car as he swerved to avoid a pothole near Knapp Street. The car began to make funny noises and vibrate. “It feels like the wheels need to be aligned and balanced,” Yankel said as he clutched the large Dodge steering wheel with both hands.

“Ah,” the old man said dismissively. “This always happens. Faster than 50 miles per hour, the car is toig nisht, worthless.”

Leah’s father yawned and sat up and banged a hand on the dashboard. “This car, zul’n zein a kapara – should be an atonement for all my sins. You know when I bought this car? Just before Yom Kippur. That’s when I bought it and it’s been a groiser orange from the start, from the beginning.” And he tapped lightly on the dashboard for emphasis.

“An orange?” Yankel asked, “Do you mean a lemon?”

“Yes, a lemon. That’s the right word… a lemon.”

When they arrived at the caterer in Queens, Yankel could see right away that this man too was a survivor of Auschwitz, a man famous for his cheapness. Yankel knew all about him. He had catered one of his sister’s weddings. In fact, during the ’50s he ran a catering hall on Empire Boulevard in Crown Heights. It was said that he made a living on scraps, and little rip-offs here and there. He would give you a rock-bottom price and then all of a sudden charge you for the meals of the band members or the coat-check girls’ overtime or for the “extra” cleaning help. Over the years he had become quite rich but he still looked like a hunted Jew from the Warsaw ghetto.

(To be continued)


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