Yankel went to the nearest payphone. “Leah, guess what? I got the money. Not all of it, but nine thousand. Yes, I have the check right here.” He patted his breast pocket.
He could hear her suck in her breath. “I have to hear the whole story – every word of it.”
“Well, I could go into it, but I am calling you from a pay phone and it’s freezing cold.” His teeth chattered and you could hear him shiver over the phone.
“Oh my goodness, you can’t stand out there. Can we meet somewhere, then?”
“Well, I really have to get back to the bais medrash.”
“You mean you’re not going to come meet me now and tell me everything?” Her voice struck the register of exaggerated injustice.
“Yes, I would, but I am still part of the yeshiva,” he said, stating the dull and obvious. “They are expecting me.”
“My chabura – the group of people that come to learn with me.”
“Your chabura? The last time you told me that there was only one person there, someone who could barely understand where he was, let alone what you were talking about.”
Yankel was hurt by Leah’s remark, only more so because it was true. The chabura was a motley, ragtag crew. To even call them a chabura was an embarrassment. As learners they were no more serious than the old men who played on the stone chess and checkers tables on Ocean Parkway. He mounted a weak defense: “Yes, a lot of people were away last time, but tonight they’re back.”
“I still think we should see each other tonight.”
Yankel felt something in his body when she said that. It worried him. What did she want? They were already spending too much time together as it was. A man and a woman should enjoy each other, but there was a time and place for that. Truth was, it made him uncomfortable. He thought of saying something about it, but that would make it even more so. But could he say no to Leah? She had just helped him get nine thousand dollars.
A blast of cold air blew through the exposed phone booth and Yankel shivered. Just now as he was about to tell Leah he had to go, Yankel heard in his mind, improbably, a mimic-muse, an unkind echo of his own words: “I have to be in yeshiva.” Why shouldn’t he be with Leah now? Had he not waited his whole life for Leah and she for him? And yet he had a one-track loyalty to the Talmud as if it were his only friend. A noble loyalty perhaps, but a stunted one!
For as long he could remember, Talmud study seemed the only logical thing for him to do – like a square frame for his square figure. There wasn’t much struggle about it for Yankel. He had settled into the yoke like an ox, from an early age. Many people had to be tamed to sit and study. In fact, there were such people in yeshiva, who were by temperament suited to athletics, maybe even acrobatics – bull fighters, men of adventure. One of the greatest rabbis of all time, Reish Lakish, was a horse thief, who for the love of his friend’s sister, repented and spent a lifetime immersed in holy learning. Not Yankel; he was practically born to toil. One could say he was good for nothing else.
In an instant, Yankel lifted his square shoulders high against the cold and punched hard the air. “I must give the chabura, whether you understand or not. We can meet after Maariv.”
“But that will be too late,” she said glumly.
Finally, he said, “Can’t we get together tomorrow night?”
Leah was silent. Yankel could sense that she was unhappy and didn’t quite know what to say. “I can’t take you away from your learning. But I am not happy. Just call me after Maariv. I want to hear everything that happened.”
Later that night from the dormitory pay phone, Yankel filled her in on most of the details about the heated words and his father’s ultimate surrender. “It turns out that Gila was quite helpful,” he went on.
“Gila?” Leah asked. “Tell me about her. What is she like? What does she look like?”
Yankel stammered a bit. “Well, she seemed like an intelligent woman.”
“Yes, Yankel, but what did she look like? Was she tall, short?”
Yankel made some faces as he was standing at the payphone – could he really tell Leah how she looked? If he was too detailed, it would create a complicated feeling for everyone. If he were evasive, then he would look like an idiot and a simpleton. “She looked like, well, she looked like a woman – a tall woman,” Yankel quickly added.
“How tall?” Leah asked.
“Taller than your father and you…?”
“What did she wear, Yankel?”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Really? Come on. Did she wear a skirt or a dress?”
“I don’t remember. It was blue. Yes, and she also wore a scarf around her neck, a small one.”
“Yankel, there’s more that you’re not telling.”
“You’re right, Leah… Who has the head to remember all these details? I don’t want to notice or remember such things. You will have the time to meet her; you will see everything with your own eyes. The important thing is that we got the money.”
“Yankel, I know that you’re going to think this is crazy, but my father and mother would like to spend some time tomorrow night – just a few minutes – a shmooz.”
“Fine, mit grois fargenign, with pleasure.”
(To be continued)