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IN THE COURTYARD OF THE KABBALIST – RUCHAMA KING FEUERMAN

December 14, 2017

ITVOTKI was reading this during the fallout of President Trump’s assertion that Jerusalem should be the capital city of Israel.  This book captures well the oddness of the city and the way in which many people peacefully co-exist.

She describes well the nightmare of a crowded police cell.

Isaac, 43, a haberdasher, has led a life of “almosts” – almost getting married, almost becoming a rabbi, almost starting a school of his own. After his mother dies, he leaves the Lower East Side and moves to Jerusalem, where he ends up as an assistant to an elderly kabbalist and his wife who daily minister to the seekers who gravitate to their courtyard.

One day on an errand, Isaac happens upon Mustafa, an Arab janitor who works on the Temple Mount, holy to both Jews and Muslims. Mustafa suffers from an extreme case of torticollis – his head is turned painfully and permanently to one side. He has been cast out of his own village – a mutant – unloved even by his own mother.

A month after his mother died, Isaac Markowitz, forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side, sold his haberdashery at a decent profit and took an El Al flight to Israel. At the Central Hotel, the most pious-run hotel in all of Jerusalem, he stumbled upon a pamphlet shuffled in with the tourist brochures, a veritable Yellow Pages of saints, zaddiks, rebbes, kabbalists, and other holy men. Rebbe Yehudah’s name stood out—a kabbalist  described as having a gift for analyzing difficulties of the soul. It didn’t hurt that Rebbe Yehudah’s address was within walking distance from the hotel.

Isaac went searching for him in the alleys and byways, Ezekiel Street, Hosea Court, Isaiah Avenue, lost amongst the prophets until he arrived at a shabby stone-floored courtyard on Ninveh Street that fronted a two-storied cottage.

Somehow, the luckless haberdasher from the Lower East Side has finally managed to heal someone’s wounded spirit, in this case, Mustafa, and the two men enter into an intense and fraught friendship.

Though rejected by his family, Mustafa longs to return and be respected by his village. Isaac yearns to find his place, in the courtyard (where he is forever the assistant), and in the romantic realm (he goes out on innumerable blind dates to seek a wife), and is thwarted on both counts by his own anxieties and memories of past betrayals. When a beautiful young woman in the courtyard, Tamar, becomes electrified with feeling for Isaac, he is too frightened and prudish to respond.

Mustafa, wishing to return Isaac’s kindness, finds an ancient shard on the Temple Mount whose value may exceed anyone’s imagination, and brings it to Isaac in gratitude. That gesture sets in a motion a series of unexpected events that land Isaac in the company of Israel’s worst criminal riff raff, put Mustafa in mortal danger, even as Tamar struggles to save them both.

Whose holiness matters? Whose claim on the land is longer, more lasting, more vital? Whose God is best? These most vexing of questions, which trap otherwise smart and even liberal-minded people in boxes they can’t seem to get themselves out of, emerge from this one spot in this one city.

But what if, Feuerman wonders, a Muslim would offer irrefutable evidence of the Jewish presence on the mount? And what if a religious Jew would open his heart to save the life (and soul, presumably) of the Muslim? Could the boxes be broken?

What if the answers lie right beneath our feet?

Feuerman asks these most delectable questions in the form of a fable (the form, it seems, dictated by the place and the subject), infected, like the novels of Meir Shalev, with a kind of Jewish mystical magical realism. She is a wonderfully empathetic and perceptive writer sensitive to the psychology of people particularly who choose to move to Israel. “I’d be riding on the bus or walking along Jaffa Road, and I’d feel the most amazing sensation,” says Isaac. “That I was fulfilling my destiny—not only my personal destiny, but God’s plan for the Jewish People. It’s an extraordinary feeling.”

The only dreamy romanticism lies in Mustafa’s imagination. The idea of being kohen-like has taken hold of him, and he begins to try to act the way he imagines a priest would, and to hungrily watch the priestly blessing at the Western Wall, peering from his perch above. We feel profound pity for Mustafa, rejected by his mother, overlooked for promotion and mistreated by his boss, Sheikh Tawil, and lacking any real friends. It is within the breast of this unfortunate that we find, beyond his outbursts of knee-jerk nationalism and religious dogma, one of the true gems of the book: a living human heart that is drawn to the American Jew against common sense and beyond reason. With such a heart, he cannot live a mindless and numbed life, which in his circumstances might have been a blessing. And so we pity him all the more.

‘Was he ever free?’

Isaac, on the other hand, judgmental, insecure, dull-spirited and constantly itching, is rather less likable; though, truthfully, he too has not had an easy ride. While the Mustafa narrative flows smoothly and delightfully, the Isaac story gains and loses momentum. At times we are totally engaged, at others we do not much care what end he meets. (Perhaps because he does not care sufficiently for himself?) His most noble and compassionate voice appears primarily in his meetings with Mustafa; the rest of the time his character is plodding and non-committal. As much as Mustafa engages his heart and its desires, so Isaac avoids his. “Was he ever free? He always managed to find one prison or another, didn’t he? Never free to take, to claim what could be his. As if to take, was to take away from others.”

Isaac takes action only when forced to, rising reluctantly to the occasion when a bunch of tattooed prisoners decide to crown him their rabbi. He expects to be completely swept away when it comes to love, and absent that, finds himself at a loss – and so we, the poor readers, must wince our way through the scenes where he almost fouls up the best thing that has ever happened to him: the entry of the young, wild and beautiful Tamar into his life. She is clearly, and inexplicably, ready to love this damaged man far more than we. It is only toward the end that we finally warm up to him, as he transforms into an active agent within his life. Having chosen to bring such a character into the foreground, perhaps the author could have done a little more to elicit our sympathies rather than our irritation, especially as she does such a good job with Mustafa.

As for the old kabbalist and his wife, they are constantly surprising us by overturning any stereotypes we might hold about Jewish mystics and their spouses (if, indeed, such preconceptions exist). Take the Rebbe’s statement, delivered with a wink and grin: “You know who miracles happen to? Pragmatists, realists. Come up with a business plan. An idea. Lay the groundwork. Then come and I’ll be happy to give you a blessing for success.” The rebbetzin, for her part, has a little secret that Isaac only discovers later in the book.

Feuerman’s novel recognizes as well the complex, difficult nature of human spirituality. Isaac’s Judaism and Mustapha’s Islam are allowed to develop without a sense of chauvinism or superiority. Their friendship, the human need for love, and the relationship between men and women are developed in a non-dogmatic manner. The relationships in the story get developed in too nonsexual a way. The book moves slowly and the plot sometimes creeks. The story cannot be told without a political dimension. On the whole, Feuerman describes the politics of Jerusalem well but sometimes the story gets in the way of the characters.

The author realistically describes the politics in Israel, the religious Jews disallowed to pray at the Temple Mount, the Jewish government squeezed between Jewish factions, the religious and the secular, and the enmity of the Arabs demonstrated by riots with any mention of Jewish claim to the Temple Mount, as Arabs scavenge the precious antiquities and artifacts of the Temple.

The author: “I once met a great kabbalist and heard him laugh. We actually laughed together. For years afterward, whenever I needed a lift, I would remember the rebbe’s laughter – our co-mingled laughter – and it sustained me. Sometimes I think I wrote In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist in order to relive that laughter.”

Researching the novel led Ruchama to kabbalists, Israeli ex-convicts, Arab laborers, archeologists, Temple Mount police men, connoisseurs of Israeli prison slang, and soup kitchens, among other places. One of the most transformative experiences was her time spent at a Jewish funeral home in New Jersey where she observed a ritual purification for a scene she was writing. Afterward, she volunteered at the Hevra Kadisha burial society for three years.

Rachel Leal: Could you tell us a little about your background? You were born in Nashville and raised in Virginia and Maryland. These places seem very different, culturally, from Israel. Were you raised in an Orthodox household like the one in your novel?

Ruchama King Feuerman: It’s complicated. When I was growing up, my father was gravitating toward something that was solid, traditional, true, and more often than not it looked like Orthodox Judaism. He loved the life of the synagogue and developed something of a crush on rabbis. Slowly, the family drifted along with him toward religious observance. When I was 15, I made my own commitment to Orthodoxy. The center of my influence was no longer the home. I guess I developed my own crush on rabbis, and on rebbezins, too.

RL: Both Isaac and Tamar of In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist are transplants from America looking for spiritual or religious renewal. You bought a one-way ticket to Israel at 17 years old—a courageous act for a 17-year-old. What was your goal and what where you seeking?

RKF: Moving to Israel was just a natural expression of everything I had been learning my whole life. Israel, God, the Torah—it was all of a piece. It had always been my father’s deepest wish to live there, and his dream became mine.

I thrived in that spiritually-soaked atmosphere, and how easy it was to meet scholars, mystics, holy men, and wise women. You could just take a bus and knock on some kabbalist’s door. Back in the States, whenever I said a blessing over food in public, I’d cover my mouth and pretend to yawn, so no one would see and think I was weird. What was I seeking? To feel at home when I walked down the street, at home with my Jewishness and in the universe. To not have to apologize for making blessings. In Israel, even people who know little about Judaism will understand that when you exit the bathroom, you’re reciting the after-bathroom-blessing and not mumbling something psychotic under your breath.

RL: The characters in In the Courtyard are very relatable to an audience outside the Jewish and Arab world. Was it important to you that you reach a secular or non-Jewish audience?

RKF: I’m glad you found the characters relatable. Yes, I did want to reach a wider audience. For me, the kabbalist’s courtyard and the goings on at the Temple Mount—they’re a literary gold mine. I had to capture these worlds, the holy parts, the ridiculous, the diversity, and layeredness, for want of a better term. I did fear someone else might get there first and only see the ridiculous parts. (Sometimes it feels like some literary map is getting colonized.)

By the way, I always write with a non-Jewish audience in mind. It stimulates me, sharpens me, forces me to engage in an intimate way. I have to be brain to brain with this imaginary audience, eye to eye, human to human.

RL: The novel is set in 1999. What is the significance of that year?

RKF: The late nineties were basically a confluence of several storms. The Israeli government had changed from right-wing to left-wing, and there was serious talk about giving back the Temple Mount. The Oslo Accords were on their last gasp, and suicide bombings were happening every other week. The largest mosque in Israel, the Marwani Mosque on the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, was getting built at the time, and major excavations were taking place, pretty much without regard for the site’s archeological relics. Also, the country was still nursing psychic wounds from the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a Sephardic religious Jew. There was a tremendous backlash against the Orthodox community. Both the left and right factions thought the other side was delusional, dangerous, each hoping the other faction would disappear. It seemed at the time that a lot was at stake, a pivotal moment. Still, I’ve yet to encounter a year in Israel which didn’t seem pivotal. All these factors influenced my choosing 1999. Also, I like the sound and look of it.

RL: Your character Isaac is riddled with self-doubt and weakness, yet he’s likeable and the reader is hopeful for him. How did you balance this?

RKF: I’ve been with Isaac for so long, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when I was pre-Isaac, plotting and devising his character. He’s the kind of man I might have seriously dated myself, say in my twenties, when I was drawn to compassionate men with a high quotient of angst. Isaac is someone who doesn’t know his own desire, his wants. It appears like a weak pulse, there and not there. Think of the emotionally constipated valet in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The reader can’t help but ache for the valet to come in contact with his own desire. Isaac isn’t afflicted as strongly as that poor guy, but he is afflicted. It’s a kind of exquisite torture to watch someone come close to what he really craves, then bury this awareness, out of fear and ignorance, and rediscover it again, even if only by acquiring a sliver of self-knowledge. Because there’s a world in that sliver.

RL: There is a complex and diverse cultural mix of not only Arabs but also Jews in Jerusalem in In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist: Yeshiva students, orthodox Jews, secular Israeli Jews, ba’al teshuvas, black-hats, kabbalists. Isaac makes note of these throughout the novel. Is this a reflection of Isaac as an outsider who would be more sensitive to these differences? Or is this a reflection of his inability to assimilate himself fully into any group? How does this compare to the Jerusalem you
experienced?

RKF: I don’t see Isaac as an outsider, struggling to fit in. He simply notes the differences among the various groups that others notice. All of these differences, the cultural mix you mentioned, are of enormous significance to others, but not to Isaac. Part of Isaac’s appeal is his ability to be unruffled. (This quality also has a negative side in terms of women—there, he needs to be more rufflable.) But he has that magnificent quality that some Jewish men have: the ability to be unruffled and effective with many kinds of people.

I experienced Jerusalem as a united city, despite itself, and a divided city, despite itself. You know that Freudian concept, “the narcissism of the small difference”? You end up feeling aggrieved or threatened by the person who differs from you in some small way, rather than the person who is hugely dissimilar. You can see this sort of dynamic in Israel with everyone crowded together. All these groups of Jews who desperately need to maintain a separateness from each other. And so there’s a divisiveness that flares up to the point of becoming enflamed. Sometimes the only thing that can soothe and lower the tribal tension is a parent figure who loves everyone, because when you feel utterly loved you can accept the minor differences between us all. The kabbalist functions as a proxy father who can love everyone, still the savage beast within.

RL: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist features a woman who has been studying the Torah. Has this caused you any criticism?

RKF: I’m a little confused by the question. Women studying Torah in the Orthodox community is pretty much the norm these days. It wouldn’t engender criticism but praise. Do you mean the fact that one female character studies Kabbalistic texts? It’s possible that could raise a few brows. The study of kabbalah isn’t exactly encouraged—for men or women. I’m not referring to Madonna-style kabbalah study where you pick up cool concepts at a lecture but serious and direct engagement with the text. Why is it discouraged? It’s a whole topic. I think because it needs to be approached as a whole and mature person. You wouldn’t give away nuclear knowledge just because a country wants it. It has to be a mature and responsible government. Kabbalah is one of the treasures of the Jewish people. It can’t be held too preciously but it can’t be given away just because it glitters.

RL: In an article you wrote, you described the lengths you went to research bathrooms on the Temple Mount. Is this dedication to research common in your writing process? Is there one character more than any others that required more research?

RKF: I came across this line somewhere: “I didn’t let my lack of research get in the way of writing my book.” For me, I feared too much preliminary research just might turn into a detour, yet another reason not to write. So I researched as I wrote. Even though this caused me a little trouble—when I discovered, say, that the ancient pomegranate relic I’d based my novel on turned out in real life to be a hoax—I was glad I took that route.

The characters I researched most were Mustafa and the kabbalist. They were the most elusive to me. For Mustafa I needed to get a quick education in Islam, Arab culture, and what it’s like to be a menial Arab worker in Israel, and with a deformity, no less. I read books, chapters within books, spoke with people, Googled like a mad woman, but I’d hardly call my research exhaustive. I cherry-picked the information I needed and ran with it.

Researching the kabbalist was a hoot. I spoke with many people about their encounters with kabbalists (although I easily could’ve relied on my own experiences). People kept telling me miracle tales, amazing things that this or that kabbalist had predicted and had come true, but the more I heard, the more, well, impatient I got. None of these miracle stories were what I wanted—and I had no idea what I wanted. All I knew was that they didn’t bring me closer to my fictional kabbalist. Finally I learned to narrow my questions: What did the kabbalist’s beard look like, how did he gesture with his hands, what kind of small talk did he make with his wife or assistant, what did he like to eat for lunch? What color were his socks? That sort of thing. Slowly, a kabbalist began to emerge. I’m in love with details.

Also, in order to authenticate a scene, I showed up at a Jewish funeral home to witness how a body is ritually cleansed and purified for burial. It seemed too ghoulish to nail my scene and then run off, so I stayed on as a volunteer at the funeral home for a couple of years afterward. They did need an extra pair of hands. You could say that my novel wrote me as much as I wrote it.

RL: You returned to the United States to pursue a degree in writing. How do you think writing in the U.S. has made you a different writer than you would have been in Israel?

RKF: There’s a New Yorker cartoon: A writer sitting before a computer says, “It must be winter because my characters are starting to wear mittens again.” All the time I was immersed in writing this novel, I thought I was in Jerusalem, because my characters were praying at the Western Wall, dodging bombs, and spitting sunflower seeds. So in a way, my feeling of being exiled from Jerusalem was a big factor in making me want to write about it. Maybe if I’d lived there, I wouldn’t have felt the same deep-in-the-marrow urgency. Maybe each writer needs his or her own exile—that place to write from.

RL: Could you tell us about any writers who influenced or mentored you?

RKF: In college, I was lucky to have as my teacher the author Allen Hoffman (Small Worlds), who writes brilliantly and from a place of great knowledge of Torah. I saw it could be done, not just by the Yiddish writers of 70 and 100 years ago, but today. He planted a seed.

As for writers who influenced me, I do think Rohinton Mistry, Graham Greene, Chaim Grade, and Monica Ali’s

Quotations:

Isaac didn’t deny a segulah’s special power, but such quick remedies to people’s problems didn’t appeal to him. They led to exaggerated expectations with minimal labor. But there was no stop­ping them. That’s what people wanted. Microwave pizza, microwave marriage, microwave God.

“If you think God is a pinball machine”—he smacked his fist into his Iopen palm and his arm took off for the sky—”you pull the lever, God lights up, the bells ring, then I can’t help you. I can’t make such promises t on God’s behalf, neither can the rebbe.” He was fed up with magical I thinking. It was downright idolatrous.

“Each child has a special task in this world.”

“Look at your village and look at mine. We have so little.” In this country, the Arabs were the mules and horses, and the Jews held the reins. His brother Tariq had told him that. He rubbed the knobs in his neck, hard and stubborn as stone.

“It is both sides who don’t see,” the rabbi said, turning the spout in his i hands, “not just one. If the people in your village don’t pay taxes, and the great majority of Arab councils refuses to collect them, then they’re not

seeing the government of Israel, are they?” The rabbi’s pale eyes came closer to him. “Every year the state has to bailout a number of Arab towns and villages because they don’t pay taxes. They get the largest grants, I hear, more than any other group in the country. And they don’t serve in the army, either.”

“a gift for analyzing difficulties of the soul.”

He took a seat under a stoop overhung by a thick old olive tree and waited beside an odd assortment of Jews: a mustached man in a ragged T-shirt, an old lady in pink biker shorts, a burly Hassid pacing, a man weeping behind his briefcase. He noticed in the courtyard a fragrant smell of rosemary and honeysuckle and jasmine, and something else he later identified—chicken soup.

An old man, his white beard resting on his chin like a cloud, motioned to one person and then another. His silver-eyed gaze looked as bright and happy as an inventor with his machine. This must be the rebbe, Isaac thought, and he got comfortable on the stoop while he waited his turn. He watched a plump, dark-skinned woman in torn stockings eat a pizza slice with olives sprinkled on top. She seemed to relish each bite, her nostrils flaring and contracting with each swallow. Suddenly, the pizza fell splat, cheese facedown, onto the courtyard stones. Isaac stared at the woman, and the woman lifted her eyes and stared back at him. A heartbreak in her raw dark eyes. “Can I still eat it?” she rasped, reaching for the dirty slice. Isaac shrugged and took out his wallet. “Maybe you should buy yourself another pizza,” he said, and gave her a few shekels. She pocketed the money but scraped the cheese off the pizza and continued eating.

Finally the old man, the rebbe, motioned to him. Isaac followed him indoors and down a narrow hall to a small room with a table, the walls and shelves heavy with books.

Isaac spoke to the rebbe from a place of defeat—no wife, no children, not even a job he could say was a higher calling. And now, his mother dead. “I’ve lost my bearings,” he sobbed a little. “I don’t know what to do anymore. Does this sound crazy?”

The rebbe said in English softened by a European accent, “Life is not a clean or an easy business. You need to talk and I need to listen.”

And Rebbe Yehudah listened. Then, with both his hands the rebbe pushed a paper cup of seltzer across the table to Isaac. The sleeves of his white kaftan fell back and exposed the tattoo—thin survivor arms. He slid over a perfectly rectangular piece of honey cake on a napkin. “Makh a bracha un trink etvas.” Eat something and take a drink. A spider crawled on the napkin, and when Isaac lifted his hand to flatten it, the rebbe put a hand on his wrist.

“Though it’s not forbidden to kill,” he said, “maybe you want to consider letting the creature live.” Isaac stared at him and set his hand down. The rebbe said, “Stay here awhile, if it suits you.”

For the next three weeks Isaac came to the courtyard, helping out as the need arose.

His managerial experience at the haberdashery now came in handy. Sometimes he pitched in when the rebbe or his rebbetzin was cooking up a batch of herring for the food deliveries to the poor. One day the rebbe spoke to him. “My wife and I can no longer come and go as we once did. You are young. The needs are great. You can help.” Isaac’s heart began to jerk and pound. The rebbe said, “Here you can have a place to eat, a bed to sleep. It isn’t much by way of this world, but it will be a blessing for us both.”

Isaac answered the call.

(A year later. Isaac is going on a blind date, a shidduch, with a widow, Mrs. Edelman. Actually, they know of each other from the kabbalist’s courtyard. They are meeting for the first time in a hotel lobby. One more thing. Married women – including widows — cover their hair with wigs.)

A ficus tree partly shielded Isaac Markowitz as he waited outside the café in the Jerusalem Plaza hotel lobby for his blind date to appear.

Just then Mrs. Edelman waved her fingertips at him from across a sea of glass coffee tables and puffy puffy chairs, and he lifted his arm in return, bringing down a rainstorm of ficus leaves. She walked toward him serenely, looking angelic in the creamy lights of the hotel lobby. She had changed from the blunt pageboy wig she usually wore to something a little longer, fuller, and feathered at the side. Rather daring for the proper widow, even though her wig barely grazed her shoulders. The thought that Mrs. Edelman (he couldn’t even think of using her first name) might have chosen her deluxe Sabbath wig for this shidduch, this very blind date, made him blush.

He emerged from behind the ficus tree. “Shall we have something to eat?” He gestured toward the café, while not quite looking at her. Suddenly, he felt naked without the courtyard as a buffer.

“How about just sitting in the lobby,” she offered, smoothing back a feathery brown strand of wig. “I’m not particularly hungry.”

He coughed his assent, though he pondered her meaning. Maybe she, too, didn’t have high hopes for this evening and didn’t want to wait around for their order if things went poorly. Or perhaps, he thought more charitably, she was similar to many pious Jerusalem women who took compassion on a Jewish man’s wallet.

She sat in a beige-and-burgundy-striped easy chair next to a lamp, and he stood, undecided. Should he sit facing her three feet away on the sofa? Too formal, he thought, too much like an interview. But to sit in the easy chair kitty-corner to her seat struck him as unbearably intimate. He found himself backing his way toward the sofa—after all, weren’t these blind dates interviews in a sense, packed as they were with questions designed to ferret out who was marriage-worthy and who should be set aside?—and he sat down heavily, bumping his knee against the glass coffee table.

Mrs. Edelman, in her simple navy skirt and matching jacket, looked like a perfectly wrapped box, all neat corners and angles. Nice-looking and a fine lady, he thought. Most likely in her upper-thirties. In short, appropriate for him. “So how long have you been coming to the courtyard?” he began. Better if he took charge with the questions. In this way, he could avoid the unwanted ones.

“Oh, for ages,” she said. “Rebbe Yehudah has been just wonderful to my family, especially since . . . you know, my husband passed away,” she murmured. “So helpful.”

Helpful. He didn’t know why, but the word irked him, as if the rebbe were no more than a social worker. “Do you have any unusual story that you can tell me?” he asked her. “Something special about the rebbe?”

“Unusual?” She frowned. “A story? How exactly do you mean?”

“I don’t know, anything out of the ordinary he said or did.” Any tidbit about the rebbe was precious to him.

“Hmm.” She crossed her legs tightly at the ankles. “All I can think of is, once I had a terrible cold. I could barely breathe, but I didn’t want to break my appointment with Rebbe Yehudah. The strange thing is, after I spoke to the rebbe, my nose”—she touched it with a light hand—“well, I could breathe again. Not that I believe in that voodoo stuff,” she said with a deep roll of her eyes and dismissive shake of her fluffy wig.

“And neither do I,” he said, though he found her vehemence a little off-putting. “Some tea?” he inquired as a waiter walked by carrying mugs and a small porcelain teapot.

“Tea would be nice.” She nodded her thanks as the waiter poured her a cup. “I must tell you, I never thought I’d seek advice from a man who looks as though he’s wearing an old sheet, but he really is the most sensible person I’ve ever met.”

Isaac nodded. “True, true.” Though again he winced—at the word sensible. Too paltry for Rebbe Yehudah. Ach, he was far too zealous of the rebbe’s honor. .

“Actually, it’s a kaftan,” he now said mildly to Mrs. Edelman, “not an old sheet,” and then he countered with a few stories of his own about Rebbe Yehudah, one involving an overdue pregnant lady, the second a lottery, the third a lawsuit—well-told stories from his rebbe repertoire. A few times Mrs. Edelman gazed in amazement or laughed out loud, and her wig shook alarmingly. Isaac was on the verge of relaxing into the conversation, enjoying his tea, when Mrs. Edelman leaned forward and asked, “I hardly know anything about you. Tell me, where did you grow up again?”

“The Lower East Side.”

“Your parents still live there?”

“Actually”—he paused to remove his hat and set it carefully on the seat cushion beside him—“neither of them is alive.”

“I see.” The widow nodded composedly. She pulled her navy skirt a little lower over her knees. “So what did your father do for a living?”

His stomach muscles pinched slightly—the chill of questions to come. Or maybe the hotel’s central air-conditioning was cranked too high. “He was a scrap and salvage man,” he said. “Ran his own business.” About his father, a man with a nineteen-inch neck span and an endless supply of coarse jokes, the less said, the better. Though his father kept the basic traditions of the Torah, it had always struck Isaac that he and his father were made from different batches of dough.

“And your mother . . . ?”

“A wonderful lady,” was all he would allow. Simple, devoted, and practical, but unfortunately, she hadn’t been capable of standing up to her husband’s bullying. “And you?” he tried to divert her.

“My parents?” She touched her collarbone. “No, I’m not finished with you,” she said, now smiling, a little menacingly, it seemed to Isaac. “I heard you were a haberdasher. Somehow I can’t put that together with what you do now in the courtyard.”

“A haberdasher, yes.” Isaac blew on both hands, cracked and scaly with eczema. He remembered his shoe box of a store on the Lower East Side. The storeroom was always dusty and full of mouse turd.

“Actually,” he said, suddenly feeling a need to round himself out, “when I was younger, I hoped to teach Torah.” This, over the objections of his father who had wanted him to be an accountant or dentist, something “useful” his father would say. “And I did teach for a bit.”

“Really?” Mrs. Edelman sat up, hands clasped in her lap, in a posture of complete receptivity. “You taught Torah?” Her brown eyes fixed on him so encouragingly that all his thoughts and ideas about Jewish education began to spill out, his desire to reach the boys who couldn’t sit still with the books, the ones the other teachers considered beyond hope. He discovered he had a special talent as a youth leader, and people in the community recognized it, too. A few summers, he ran camps. For reasons unknown to Isaac, the boys gravitated toward him. Then, in his early twenties, Isaac became ambitious—he wanted to start a special afternoon program, not quite a school, but almost.

He talked on and on to Mrs. Edelman, about the backer who had lent him a sum of money; and the backer’s fine daughter, the lovely, dark-haired Gitty, who was fired up with the same idealism as himself; the rundown building they’d refurbished together, making their dreams come true; his old yeshiva buddy Heshy, garrulous, sunny, and built like an ox, who he had recruited to help teach since he bore the official title of rabbi, and Isaac’s own rabbinic ordination was at least a year away. He remembered that moment when Gitty had turned to him and said, “You’re going to accomplish amazing things, Isaac.” Those had been the best months in his life, getting ready for the wedding and getting that place into shape, tearing down—

“You were engaged?” Mrs. Edelman broke in.

“Why—” Isaac broke off, stupefied. His ears and neck went cold, then hot. How could he be so stupid as to have relaxed? He was a fool. “Yes, engaged,” he said, and expelled a sour gust of air. “To Gitty.”

“And then . . .” Mrs. Edelman’s eyes coaxed him on.

“And then, nothing. It didn’t work out. She broke it off.” Simultaneously his elbow began to itch and he was overcome with an almost violent urge to yawn. The yawn he smothered with his hand. The itch couldn’t be contained, though, and he scratched through his suit jacket.

She sipped her cup of tea and patted a napkin against her lips. “So your heart was broken,” she concluded.

He was reaching for his hat. “One might say such a thing,” he replied with a small ironic smile, as if to surgically detach himself from his own history. Gitty had broken it off two days before the wedding. She was tearful but wouldn’t explain the breakup, though he begged her to. The day of his canceled wedding, a black tornado of a flu descended upon him that he couldn’t shake for weeks, and he’d had to let all his plans for the school program drop. Anyway, he’d run out of funds. Four months later, Gitty married Heshy, his recruit, and Isaac finally understood everything. She had chosen his yeshiva buddy, quick-witted, extroverted Rabbi Heshy with the big arms, broad thighs, and slap-happy can-do manner, so different from Isaac, so similar, in fact to his own father.

“I’m curious. Whatever happened to the school you were planning?”

At this, he signaled a waiter passing with a white teapot. “Care for more tea?” Another yawn overtook him that he tried to cover with his palm. What was wrong with him? Up since 6:00 a.m., he supposed.

Her eyes darted from Isaac to the waiter. “I think it’s getting late,” she said firmly. The waiter shrugged and moved on.

They walked out the hotel lobby, while Isaac viciously scratched his elbow, releasing flakes, he was sure. He waited like a gentleman for her bus to arrive while trying valiantly to stave off more yawns. The night air had a sting to it on this April evening. He wished he had brought a scarf. Cold, itchy, tired. The world—or maybe just his body—could be such an uncomfortable place sometimes. Mrs. Edelman said, “So you’ve been living in the rebbe’s home for a year now?”

“That’s right.” His neck craned for the bus.

“Don’t you want a place of your own? Or perhaps you can’t afford it.”

Why oh why was she asking him these questions when she had already disqualified him? “I can certainly afford my own place. But what a privilege to be able to assist the rebbe. When I marry, I’ll rent my own place. Or maybe buy.” Scratch, scratch.

Mrs. Edelman nodded and let out a big yawn of her own. “Excuse me for saying this,” she threw out as the bus rounded the corner, “but I can’t see you ever getting married, if you’ll forgive me.”

A lump of silence. Then, “Just because you and I are probably not a match,” he said stiffly, “doesn’t mean I’m unmatchable.”

“I know a serious man when I see one,” she stated, and a flush traveled from his itchy sock all the way to the black hat on his head. It was true. All his setups ended like this. Why he even bothered to date was a mystery to him.

“So why waste my time?” the widow went on, reading his mind. “Or anyone’s?”

He pondered this. “A single person can be compared to a captive held in jail, waiting to be redeemed,” he said at last. “He could be saved the next minute or in another twenty years. One never knows. Don’t the sages say that redemption can come in the blink of an eye?”

Mrs. Edelman let out a faint snort. “I fail to see how that answers my question,” she said, and boarded the bus.

Then he took his own bus back to the courtyard.

At the cottage on Ninveh Street, he hung up his jacket in the tiny hallway closet.

Rebbe Yehudah’s wife stuck her plump head out of the kitchen doorway, though it was late, already past ten in the evening. “How did it go?” she asked, her tightly woven snood covering every speck of hair. She glanced down at his arms, and her pale brown eyes went wide with alarm. “Oy vey, you’re bleeding!”

He glanced down and past his scabby bloodied elbow toward a memory, the school Gitty and Heshy had started, modeled so closely after his own (they even had recruited his former students). It was a great success, he’d heard. The school had saved many a teen and young man. As for himself, he never did get his rabbinic ordination.

“It’s nothing,” he said to the rebbetzin, pulling a tube of hydrocortisone from his pocket. He shmeared a fingernail amount onto his elbow, asked after the rebbe’s health, and shuffled off to sleep in his own room next to the study.

The Epigraph:
” If I tell you my story, you will listen for awhile and then you will fall asleep.
But, if, as I tell you my story, you begin to hear your own story, you will wake up.” – Chassidic saying. 

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