The Rosh HaYeshiva walked in. He was as usual, a mixture of warm and curt, a manic devotion to formality – an authority without apology, without remorse.
How could one be human, Yankel wondered, be vulnerable enough to say what was on one’s mind here? To betray the human stain that is within? And yet, Yankel promised himself that he would do just that. He would say what was on his mind whatever it took – frankly. He knew the yeshiva world was a place that allowed for tortured and stretched interpretations and elliptical meanings and statements. There was wisdom to that. But the pain of the yeshiva world is also silent. His grandfather, a shochet, once told him that cows when they’re slaughtered make no sound. Perhaps they were all sacrificial cows.
“Gut Ovent,” the Rosh HaYeshiva said. Good evening. He was quite well-spoken in English, but he preferred at all times to speak in the jargon – the old-world Yiddish. He was born in 1938 in Lithuania and had come to the United States at the age of nine in 1947, having spent the war years in Shanghai with his mother. His father was killed, but he was “suckled” in Talmud by his father’s brother, a rabbi of great renown.
The rabbi had a small veranda that overlooked Ocean Parkway. Together they walked out. The rabbi offered him a fruit as he opened the sliding glass door.
Yankel demurred. “I am concerned,” he haltingly said. “Leah, my kallah, she speaks sometimes like she is ready to throw off all burdens of the Torah!”
The rabbi showed no reaction when he heard this. It was almost as if Yankel had told him the time for prayer services at the synagogue down the street. “What is your concern?” the rabbi said after a long minute.
Yankel, perhaps for the very first time, studied the face of his mentor. It was soft and hard at the same time. The features still fine – bushy eyebrows, plump lips, hair short – perhaps he still resembled the boy he once was in Shanghai. The eyes were large and brown. The house contained the smell of Jewish domesticity, a soup on the stove – holdovers from the last generation when food always had to be prepared manually. In the kitchen: probably a mixing bowl and a carton of eggs on the counter – the plasma of a Jewish life. Cars drove by and little boys on bicycles played in the courtyard.
“Is she physical with you?”
“No, nothing like that, G-d forbid. But she comes close.”
“Sometimes it takes that to wake up,” the rabbi pronounced. He shook his head and again asked, “What is your concern?”
“I feel as if something has changed with me. Maybe she has woken me up. Women for most of my life didn’t count. I barely knew of their existence. Now, it seems, I look out now and I see an ocean of women…”
“A woman is a woman not for nothing. They desire. Perhaps more than we do. They are trying to wake themselves up, or us. It is not the way, but remember: They want to please us too.” He adjusted his belt. “More than you think,” he continued as he pulled his belt in more tightly. “She will tempt you, but there’s no malice. She wants to ‘win.’ This is not a transgression. On the contrary, it is important. You have to let her. Besides, there are moments when a man is powerless. This too is a fact. And right now, just for right now, don’t try to change her. This would be foolish. You will grow together. You will see.”
“I understand,” Yankel said and with that he took leave.
Oddly, he felt stronger when the Rosh HaYeshiva confirmed his powerlessness. The ways of the Torah are strong. They would ultimately prevail over Leah, over himself, over both of them. He was sure of that. A man, a woman, lose sight in passion, but a lost balance can be regained. These were his thoughts as let himself out of the Rosh HaYeshiva’s house and onto Ocean Parkway.
In truth, Yankel felt relieved, rescued, because in the end he would submit to almost anything. He was smitten. He knew that. He was in her hands.
The next day Yankel awoke and he did not go to prayers as he usually did. He had to reckon with something inside him; a force almost against his will acted on him to review his life. He shook his head silently. It was all nonsense, incomprehensible nonsense, he felt: his life with his mother and father, his lonely years in yeshiva. It was all rising in him now, like unwanted viscous, goopy liquid that moved up through his body to his face. He could feel nothing, or if he could, then it was incomprehensible to him.
He called Leah. “I need to see you today,” he told her. “Can you get off from work? I need to talk to you – this morning. Don’t worry – it’s no catastrophe. I just need to be with you.”
Leah had her coat on when she met him at the door. “Let’s go for a walk,” Leah said and got a jumpstart on Yankel. Unsteadily, as if he didn’t recognize his own gait, he followed her, but then he caught up. But Leah walked even more quickly now, outpacing him by more than half a step. Neither of them looked at each other. The air outside was bracing cold. They walked and walked headlong into the biting wind first on Kings Highway and then on to Ocean Avenue. After about two miles Leah cast him a sideways glance and broke into a smile. Cars and trucks passed them as always, but for Yankel it felt surreal. He had been studying Leah in her beautiful pea coat, her small heels and feet perfectly tapping the pavement in front of him. It was as if the world had momentarily become elastic, watery. She was beautiful. This was an inescapable truth. Perhaps he shouldn’t notice, but it was a fact. The leaves rustled in the breeze and there was light now in his mind where there had been none. It was a pretty world, picturesque, but unstable – almost in a free fall, a delicious free fall.
He had wanted to talk. But Leah was not going to stop. “We’re going toward Boro Park and then to the Brooklyn Bridge,” she said.
“That’s crazy,” he said, but she didn’t hear him and if she did, she didn’t even look back. She was going. It was late March, but a cold front had moved in and it was back to winter.
The wind didn’t stop lashing them. Yankel thought now of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes. The wind goes round and round, whirring in circles, it never stops. And all rivers run to the sea, but the sea never fills. He often thought of the whole of Ocean Avenue as a wind tunnel that kicked up the dust of eras past in a vortex: every piece of asbestos-dust and toxic dust and grime from the Brooklyn of bygone years, of old tenements and the heartbreaks in them. In this reverie Yankel felt suspended for a moment in time. The tenements faded into the background as they reached the edges of Prospect Park. Yankel was freezing, but if Leah was cold, she didn’t let on. But now as they reached Park Slope and moved closer to the Brooklyn Bridge, the wind picked up with a numbing ferocity.
Across one of the streets Yankel spotted a store still selling winter scarves. Without telling her, Yankel dashed across and quickly bought two. Now she was ahead by a full block and a half. Against the wind in short powerful bursts he caught up to Leah and tenderly put up the collar on Leah’s coat and handed her the scarf. And so they went out in the world together.