The minute they became engaged, Tradition, with its velvet-gloved fist, took over. They had to have a vort, an engagement party, and Leah’s father “demanded” a date for the wedding. But even before that, Leah’s father “demanded” that they allow him to make a l’chaim – an almost impromptu celebration that very next night. Yankel’s mother was invited (his father had already gone back to Israel), and then of course, there were Leah’s friends and a few of their close relatives. Someone had told the Rosh HaYeshiva, the dean of Yankel’s yeshiva, and he was expected to come, as well as Miriam the shadchante, who had brought this match about.
There was work to do. Leah motioned to Yankel to come to the kitchen where trays of cakes and cookies filled every inch of counter space. “These are in reserve,” Leah said with a wink. “There’s tons of stuff already out there, but we have to be prepared.” Yankel took a knife and started to slice a jelly roll that was still intact. In setting down to work, Yankel had put his rabbinical hat on one of the chairs. Leah, who had just set a platter of cinnamon rugelach on the table, playfully lifted his hat and put it on her head, and turned to smile at him. Just then, a knock on the door registered. She quickly put down the hat. Yankel’s friends from yeshiva and his Rosh HaYeshiva entered.
The Rosh HaYeshiva made long, purposeful, Moses-like strides into the room, taking up space as if he were a volume of Talmud himself. The room parted ways for him in the overheated house. Black and white cookies had been artfully arranged on silver platters. Glass bowls held rum balls or cubes of cantaloupe and melon. Slices of pink cake were placed in a circle around the fronds of a pineapple to suggest a blooming flower. And there, near the bowl of strawberries and blueberries, were Leah’s favorites, chocolate-covered almonds.
A place for the Rosh HaYeshiva was made at the head. Somebody brought him a plate with fruit and rugelach. Yankel motioned to someone to pour him a glass of seltzer.
“Baruch ata. Blessed are you, Creator of the universe,” and the Rosh HaYeshiva drank. There was total silence to the extent that you could hear the Rosh HaYeshiva’s gulps coming from his throat. A magnificent man. No airs, yet full of importance – leavened and unleavened, a man of pride and yet of no pride at all, as though he knew his place in the firmament, the place where big meets small, earth and sky. A square-shaped man, compact, not tall, eyes that were big. He wore large, thick-framed glasses. By his bearing and smarts alone, he might have been one of one of those politician-generals: a man of both war and peace, with the cunning of a chess player, a sense of timing for the master stroke. Yet to be with him, though he was surely a man, meant to know there was a G-d, too.
The Rosh HaYeshiva looked around the room. “Yankel, mach a bracha; es eppes, eat something.”
Yankel scooped up some chocolate-covered almonds in his fist. He made two blessings, one on the chocolate coating, “It was all created according to His word,” and the other on the almond itself, “Blessed is the creator of the fruits of the tree.”
The Rosh HaYeshiva nodded in approval. “Yankel hot zich b’kius in brochos,” Yankel has expertise in the laws of blessings. The Rosh HaYeshiva poured himself a shot of whiskey. He raised his shot glass and motioned toward Yankel in front of him and Leah who was standing in the corner. “You will be as Yaakov and Leah from the Torah. L’chaim.” He wished them mazel tov and walked out.
It pleased Leah’s father that the Rosh HaYeshiva had accorded him such respect. He was beside himself with pleasure.
Shortly after the Rosh HaYeshiva left, the shadchante walked in. Although she did not make a grand entrance like the rabbi, people took notice. She was, after all, the most geshikt, the most able of all the matchmakers in Brooklyn, but that was not all. It was said she had “powers” to see more than the others, to get to the person’s personality. After all, if she could get Yankel, the alte bochur, the old bachelor, married, then she must have something.
Both Leah and Yankel rushed out to greet her. But others took their notice, too. How could you not? She was tall, elegant. Her navy coat seemed more like a cape to Yankel. Her blonde wig grazed the felt collar of her coat. Had she not been a religious woman of that neighborhood she might have been a patrician or an aristocrat – someone who knew how to ride a horse elegantly, even to jump over hurdles in the English countryside, without getting dirty or working up a sweat.
“Mazel tov!” a number of people murmured.
The shadchante bowed her head slightly. She was not a woman for crowds, Yankel realized. One-to-one she ran the show, but with the multitudes, she shrank. They led her to a seat, but she demurred on Leah’s offer of taking her coat. “I can’t stay long,” she said apologetically.
Yankel’s father-in-law went over to her with an envelope. “Fein getohn, well done,” he said, beaming. The older man was well aware of the importance of paying the matchmaker. It was said that the match could be looked upon unfavorably by Heaven if one neglected the shadchante.
“Batzolte vie a tateh,” the woman said under her breath as she placed the envelope in her pocketbook. Only a father pays, goes the Yiddish expression. Yankel felt a twinge when he heard that. He had wished his father had that attitude, but regrettably this was not the case.
Yankel gave the matchmaker a sideways glance, then looked away. She had “known” it would work with Leah and Yankel, but how had she known? Some genius propels certain people. A genius not found in the Talmud, a feminine genius perhaps, that lets them “know” things.
One thing Yankel did notice in his sidelong “flash” glance. She seemed slightly out of breath as she lifted a cup of water to her lips.
Leah whispered to Yankel, “Zee is a ge’trage’ne, she is with child.”
Yankel passed down to her a plate with cookies. With some reticence Miriam took one, and then furtively another two, before rising to leave. Leah’s father drank to her, raising his shot glass, and then walked her out the door. Just then a friend of Leah’s entered huffing and puffing a little, bearing a platter of Linzer cookies. Everyone crowded around to admire them. They were shaped like hands, the right finger with a band of white frosting, and a huge chocolate ring emerging from the center of the platter. Leah, laughing, applauded and hugged her friend. There were a few more rounds of drinks and toasts and singing before the party petered out.
Yankel stayed past midnight until his father-in-law-to-be had dutifully packed up all the leftovers and straightened out the chairs and the living room was thoroughly vacuumed. It was a heavy hoover so Yankel insisted on doing it – the old man shadowed Yankel and used the attachment to get at any crumbs that had fallen behind the cushions.
(To be continued)