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It was Friday evening and Dad had completed a day and a half of interviews with the search committee. It turned out that the other two finalists for the position dropped out when they found out what Beth Israel was willing to pay. They'd have been taking a substantial pay cut. Dad didn't say how much he'd be making, 'cause he was still negotiating, but it was a lot more than at Hopkins. He was always complaining that Hopkins paid shit, but I knew it would take a lot more money to live in New York than it did in Baltimore.
The sun was getting low in the sky and soon it would be time for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. We 'men' would all head to schule, or rather, the synagogue my Uncle and his family attended while the 'women' made preparations for Shabbat dinner back at my uncle's apartment. Call it sexist, but that's just the way it was - the women would attend services with us in the morning, but they would be relegated to sitting up in the balcony while we men prayed on the main floor, free from distraction.
Once my brothers and I were dressed for services, we headed down to the lobby of the Blue Moon, where we were staying, and as we waited for my sisters to finish getting ready, a group of Hasidic men and boys walked in, wearing their traditional black suits and black hats. Among them was the redheaded boy I'd seen earlier that day. When he spotted me, he came right up to me!
"I saw you guys over by the Seward Park Co-ops this afternoon," he began in a somewhat high-pitched voice, "and I'm guessing you're not from around here, are you?"
My voice caught in my throat as I attempted to reply, and I shook my head and finally managed to croak out, "No, we're from Baltimore, or Bal-mer, as we tend to call it down there."
"Why's that?" he asked. "Are syllables more expensive down there?"
"Nah," I replied, "it just takes more energy to talk, 'cause of the heat and humidity," which caused him to laugh. Man, could that boy smile!
"By the way," I continued, "you ride a mean skateboard. I couldn't believe the way you skated the other day, in those clothes and everything. I'd have been afraid of ruining my clothes if I dressed like that."
"Ah, so that's why you stared at me," he responded, which caused my face to feel like it was on fire. I knew I was blushing furiously, and that he must have seen it. "And here I thought it was because of my incredibly good looks," which only made my blushing worse. "From your reaction, I guess it was that, too," he just had to throw in with a laugh.
The laugh was infectious and pretty soon, we were both laughing.
"My name's David, by the way," he said as he extended his hand.
"And I'm Danny," I replied as I took his hand firmly in mine.
"So do you skate?" he asked me.
"With a passion," I answered. "It's just about my favorite activity. I basically eat, sleep, go to school, skate, and play my recorder."
"You play a recorder? That's really cool," David said. "I play guitar." When I arched my eyebrows, he said, "You look surprised. What, you never saw a Hasidic boy who skates and plays guitar before?"
"I've never seen a Hasidic boy before at all," I said, "let alone a boy who does both. Now if you could play your guitar while skating, that would really blow me away." I laughed.
"Don't laugh, Danny," he said with a serious look, "I've done it before. It's not all that hard."
"Shit, I can't imagine playing my recorder while skating. I need my arms for balance, man,"
"That just means you're not as good as me," David said as he stuck his tongue out at me. Continuing, he asked, "Hey, why don't you attend services with us, and then you could come back with me to have dinner with my family?"
Wow! I was definitely in awe of David, and now that I'd met him, wanted even more to get to know him better. He was inviting me back to his home for Shabbat dinner. "I'd love to," I said, "if it's OK with your parents, but my aunt has prepared a huge dinner and I wouldn't want to let her down. I think my uncle's expecting me to go to services with his family, too, but I could come over after dinner."
"Why don't you come for Oneg Shabbos, then?" he asked. He was inviting me to his family's after dinner celebration, welcoming the Sabbath. "It's definitely OK with my parents, by the way. They're always inviting strangers into our home. It comes with the territory." I wondered what he meant by that.
"Sure, I'd love to have Oneg with you and your family," I answered David. "That is, if it's OK with my parents and my uncle," I added. I then went and asked them, and they actually encouraged me to have Oneg Shabbat with David. Sweet!
Because the sun had not yet set, David grabbed a piece of paper and a pen from the front desk of the hotel and wrote down his address - something he would not be able to do once the Sabbath had started at sunset, as it was prohibited to write on Shabbat by Jewish Law.
After he handed the paper to me, I asked him, "Why are you guys over here at this hotel, anyway?"
"Chabad House of the Lower East Side holds its services here," he explained.
"Cool," I said, and just then my sisters arrived down in the lobby, and it was time to leave for services at my uncle's schule.
"Goodbye, David. I'll see you later," I said as I shook his hand.
"Yeah, and don't stand me up," he replied.
"I'll be there . . . I promise," I told him just as we departed.
Fortunately, the synagogue wasn't far and we arrived in plenty of time for services to begin. As is common, the bimah, or pulpit, was in the center, with seating all around it. Other than the service being in Ashkenazi Hebrew rather than the Sephardic Hebrew I was used to, there truly were almost no differences between a Shabbat prayer service back home in Baltimore and the prayer service I experienced here. There was a Hazan or rather a cantor, and there was a rabbi dressed in a traditional tallit, or tallis as they call it here - a prayer shawl - that extended nearly to the floor. He had a long grey beard and wore a fancy hat on his head.
Looking around at the people around me, I was struck by the diversity of the congregation. There were so many different traditions represented, and yet they were all Orthodox Jews - people who believed they were following the original precepts handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. At least we all shared a common language and our core prayer service.
After the prayer service, there were announcements, including a welcome for us! There was also going to be a bar mitzvah tomorrow. How well I remembered my own bar mitzvah nearly three years ago. It seemed an eternity ago. With Orthodox families having so many children, there was always at least one bar or bat mitzvah every Saturday. I hated that we had large families, but the feeling was that God commanded us to be fruitful and multiply - and many felt we had to make up for the high rate of intermarriage among Jews. I felt that with overpopulation in the world, for anyone to have more than two kids was a disgrace. 'Course I prolly wasn't gonna have any kids - yet another revelation my parents wouldn't like - but at least that would help offset the large family I came from.
Heading back to Uncle Mortie's apartment for dinner, I encountered my first 'Shabbos elevator'.
The rules of keeping Shabbat are complex and in my opinion antiquated, but for some strange reason, no one ever bothered asking me in drawing them up. The law according to the Torah, the ancient scripture supposedly handed down to Moses by God himself, states a few things about what you can and cannot do on Shabbat, but it took the Talmudic scholars to turn that into a long list of all the things that make up modern Jewish Law. One of the things you're not allowed to do is to light a fire, but you're allowed to make use of naturally occurring fires, such as those started by lightening. Pretty silly, huh? But that's Jewish Law.
Anyway, the Talmud, which is an extensive treatise on Jewish Law dating back hundreds of years, was written long before the invention of electricity, but Orthodox rabbis generally agree that electricity is equivalent to fire. When you flip a switch or press a button, there's a spark, so it's basically the same thing - you cannot activate any electrical device on Shabbat, be it a light, an iPod, a telephone, or an elevator. However, most Modern Orthodox allow that if any of these devices are already active and operating on a preset program, they can continue to do so as long as nothing is done to change it. It's supposedly the same thing as lighting a fire before Shabbat begins and letting it continue to burn - something Jews have been doing for thousands of years.
Since I can remember, we've always had lights on timers on Shabbat, so that we don't need to live in darkness. The lights automatically come on at set times. Now that I'm old enough to think about it, what difference does it make if we set the lights up to come on in advance, or turn them on as needed? Does God really award us brownie points for doing it this way? Not that I believe in God, but the whole idea seems pretty silly to me. However, having grown up this way, it all seemed so natural at the time that I never even questioned it.
Enter the Shabbos elevator. In taller buildings in New York, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, there is a designated elevator that stops on every floor. I kid you not. With Uncle Mortie's family living on the sixteenth floor, it was really too far to walk up or even down the stairs, so we waited, and waited until the elevator finally arrived. The elevator wasn't large enough for all of the people waiting, however, and so we had to wait until it made another trip up and down before there was room for us. It then took forever for it to ascend to the sixteenth floor!
As Aunt Blanche and my mom made the final preparations for Shabbat dinner, the conversation centered around my dad's interviews at Beth Israel.
"So you think they'll offer you the job?" Uncle Mortie asked Dad as we all gathered in their living room. By 'all', I mean my father, Uncle Mortie, the seven of us Weiss children and the eight Bloomenfeld children.
Fortunately, they had a huge place - close to 3000 square feet, I guess. They bought the first part of it back in the mid-1990s, when Co-op Village first went on the free market. Prices were less than fifty dollars a square foot back then, which was a steal according to Uncle Mortie. When the adjacent two apartments became available, they bought them too, and broke down the walls in between. Uncle Mortie didn't say how they became available, but I got the distinct impression that the former occupants had passed away.
"I think there's an excellent chance they will," Dad answered Uncle Mortie's question. "I think the interviews went well, and I don't think I screwed anything up. If they don't offer it to me, that would mean they'd have to start the search over, which would cost them a fortune in time and money."
"You're being modest, Sid," Uncle Mortie countered. "Why wouldn't they want you? I'm sure you bowled them over. You're perfect for the job. The question is, do you want it?"
"It would be a change from Hopkins . . . that's for sure," Dad admitted, "but in a good way, I think. There'd be a lot less pressure to publish and a lot more emphasis on my clinical skills, and I think I'd like that at this stage in my life. The research element would still be there, and thanks to a hefty endowment, I'd be a lot less dependent on competing for a diminishing pot of research funds from the NIH. Teaching would take up a lot less of my time, although I'd be in charge of a group of four physicians, and that could be a real can of worms. However, the administrative assistant has been there for years and she's a real gem. For all of these reasons, I'm inclined to take the job if we can agree on a reasonable package."
"Are they at least in the ballpark?" Aunt Blanche asked from the dining room.
"Compared to what I'm making now, the remuneration's excellent," Dad answered, "but they're stingy with their formula for the technical fees. It's a departmental formula, but because we make use of CT scanners and MRIs to such a great degree in Neuroradiology, technical fees amount to a much greater share of reimbursement than in any other imaging subspecialty area. I don't think the chairman gets that. He thinks he's being fair, when he's actually shortchanging my group and effectively skimming our reimbursements for his own purposes."
What I guess Dad was saying was that he'd be paid pretty well to be the director of the Neuroradiology section of the X-Ray department - the section that studies the brain and nervous system - but that the chairman of the department was skimming some of the profits from the CT scans and MRIs his group would be doing. That sounded like a bad thing, 'cause it could make it hard to hire good radiologists for his group if he couldn't afford to pay them as much as other hospitals could.
"But is that a deal breaker?" Uncle Mortie asked.
Smiling, Dad answered, "No."
"So it looks like you're going to be moving to New York, then," our uncle confirmed.
"If I'm offered the job, then, yes," Dad answered.
"That's fantastic news!" Aunt Blanche exclaimed. "Mazel Tov!" And then she added, "Dinner's ready, so come sit down."
"Let's not count our chickens until they're hatched," Dad said as he got up and walked to the dining room, but he was definitely smiling.
"Danny, would you do us the honor of saying the Kiddush?" Uncle Mortie asked after we were all seated and as he finished filling the last of our sacramental wine glasses. With so many of us, Aunt Blanche had put two tables together, end-to-end and appropriated a good part of the living room in addition to the dining room to accommodate us. It was crowded, but damned if we didn't all fit.
Raising my wine glass, I began to chant the traditional blessing for drinking wine, "Ba-ruch' A-tah', Ado*** El-o-hei'-nu, Me'-lech ha-o-lam', bo-re' pe-ri' ha-ga'-fen. . . ." (Note: God's full name not spelled out in deference to the many Orthodox Jews who take the third commandment literally, and object the use of God's name outside of actual prayer.)
After I concluded the first verse, everyone joined in and sang, "Ki va'-nu va-char'-ta . . ." and when we finished, we all concluded the chant with a rousing, "Ah-mein'"
We all drank our wine, but then my cousin Leila asked, "Why does Cousin Danny's Hebrew sound funny?"
"That's the way they speak in Israel," Uncle Mortie explained. "It's called Sephardic, and it's the way most people speak Hebrew today." Turning to me, he said, "I'm afraid if you move here, you'll have to get used to the Ashkenazi pronunciations. Our schule at first opposed the formation of Israel . . . today we are among its strongest supporters . . . but because of that, we steadfastly clung to the old traditions and never switched our Hebrew usage."
Wow! I'd heard of that, but I'd never come face-to-face with it. Some of the ultra-orthodox sects had opposed the formation of Israel at first because they believed that a Jewish state couldn't occur until God sent the Messiah. I couldn't imagine there not being an Israel. Israel was our safety net. Hitler had shown the world we needed one - not even the United States had been willing to take the Jews in during the Holocaust.
"Boy, that'll take some getting used to!" I acknowledged.
"Might as well start right now," Uncle Mortie said. "This isn't Shabbat, it's Shabbos," he laughed.
Turning to Izzy, he asked, "How about you doing the honors with the Motzi?"
Sure thing, Uncle Mortie," he answered, and then he began to chant the traditional prayer over the bread, "Ba-ruch' A-sah', Ado*** E-lo-hei'-nu, Me'-lech ha-o-lom', ha-mo-tsi' le'-chem min ha-o'-rets. O-mein'" He made sure to emphasize each syllable he chanted where he used the Ashkenazi pronunciation instead of the Sephardic one.
As we all ate the symbolic piece of the sacramental bread known as challah, Uncle Mortie said, "That was very nice, but 'A-tah' is still 'a-tah' in Ashkenazi. It's spelled with a Tav and not a Sav, so the pronunciation doesn't change."
Poor Izzy colored up when he heard that. He was trying to impress us all with his knowledge, and yet to put it bluntly, he'd fucked up.
Shabbat dinner was great. I couldn't help it - I still called it that. It was hard to change fifteen years of how I was used to calling the end of the week.
Anyway, Aunt Blanche served matzo ball soup, and then a wonderful beef brisket and barbecue chicken with candied yams and mashed potatoes, too. There were string beans and carrots, and there was an incredible non-dairy noodle koogle, which was a kind of pudding.
After Joshie led the chanting of the Birkat Hamazon, the traditional prayer after the meal, I excused myself and told my parents I was heading over to David's apartment for Oneg Shabbat. I took the Shabbos elevator back downstairs and found my way to his building. There, I took another Shabbos elevator to his apartment, which was the penthouse and took up the entire the top floor!
When I got off the elevator, I walked into a scene of pure pandemonium. There were young kids running all over the place while their mothers chatted away. A group of bearded men in traditional Hasidic garb were standing in a corner, having a very animated conversation. I couldn't tell what it was about, but whatever the subject matter might have been, they certainly seemed passionate about it.
David and I both loaded up paper plates with a ton of desserts, and then David once again grabbed my hand - he certainly had no reservations about doing so - and pulled me through a door that led to a huge outdoor rooftop terrace. David's family had an amazing garden on their terrace - they even had a small tree - and the view was fantastic. I could see all of Grand Street from up there. Not only that, but I could see the East River, all three bridges to Brooklyn, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and even the Statue of Liberty. The view was magnificent.
The other nice thing about the terrace was that it gave us some privacy - not much, as there were plenty of other people out there, but compared to inside David's apartment, it was bliss. I explained to David about my father interviewing for a job at Beth Israel, and that if he got it, we'd be moving to the neighborhood.
"It's beautiful up here, David," I said earnestly.
"I really hope you move here, Danny," David said. "I'd like to bring you up here sometime when it's just the two of us. You should see what it's like on the Fourth of July, when the fireworks explode over the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the East River. It's breathtaking. It would be so nice to have someone to share that with besides my sisters.
"I could also use a skating companion around here. Hardly anyone else skates. It's not much fun doin' it by myself, and if I go up to Tomkins Park or Union Square, all the skaters up there treat me like I'm some kind of freak."
"That must really suck," I commented.
"Big time," David agreed. He sounded so lonely. In that instant, my heart went out to him and I couldn't help myself - I gave his shoulder a squeeze. David reciprocated by pulling me into a hug, which wasn't easy to do since we were both still holding our plates. He hugged me for all he was worth and didn't let go.
"Ah, there you are," a deep voice boomed out and David released me almost as if I were radioactive.
"Yes Abba," David acknowledged. I turned around and was shocked when I realized it was the Hasidic rabbi! David was the rabbi's son! No wonder they lived in the penthouse. "I . . . I invited Danny from Baltimore to celebrate Oneg Shabbos with us," David continued.
"That is good," the rabbi acknowledged, "it would be nice to have more members of the Chabad Lubavitch family. Even just having more Jews on the Lower East Side would be a blessing."
"He's a skater," David added.
The rabbi arched his eyebrows, and then smiled - he actually smiled when he said, "You always were a different one, David. It would be nice if you finally found a friend who shares that strange interest of yours." Finally turning to me, he said, "Daniel, welcome to New York."
"Thank you, Rebbie," I acknowledged, addressing him using the traditional greeting for a Hasidic rabbi.
"This place is different than what you're used to in Baltimore," he continued. "Like you, we have our own little community, but we are also part of a larger community here. We take the train across the bridge all the time to interact with our Chabad brethren and yet, they cannot understand what it is like to live here. If you don't want to feel Jewish . . . live in Brooklyn! You can live in a community where you never come into contact with any goyim all your life. Imagine, never seeing a black person, or hearing Spanish or Chinese? Not a single non-Jew? Where's the challenge in that?
"Here, we come into contact with every race and every culture you can imagine . . . even the Arabs. And you know something, Daniel?" he asked me, and then answered before I had a chance to even open my mouth, "We are all better off for it. Even in Israel, the Jews and the Arabs live side by side. Don't get me wrong . . . I don't think we should concede one inch of land to the Arabs, ever, but if there is ever going to be peace in the Holy Land, we have to learn to live with them.
"Our brethren in Brooklyn don't understand that. They think we can push them all into the sea, just as they wanted to do to us, but when you buy a copy of The Times from an Arab kid every day at the corner convenience store, how can you think it right to want to kill all the Arabs?
"Obama's wrong when it comes to a Palestinian state . . . we can never get rid of the settlements, we'll never give up Jerusalem . . . all of Jerusalem, and we can never give up Judea and Samaria - the West Bank is ours. God gave us that land. Still, with so much land in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, surely we can resettle all the Arabs and find a way to make peace."
Wow, I guess the rabbi expected me to say something, but what was I to say? Should I agree with him entirely? Of course I strongly supported Israel, but lately I'd had strong misgivings about the way they'd handled the war in Gaza. I'd even gotten into an argument with some of my friends in school over it. I guess I considered myself a moderate, for an Orthodox Jew, and the Lubavitch rabbi did likewise, even if his idea for a peace plan would be considered extreme by just about anyone else.
"Rebbie," I said, "I think we're both moderates in our own ways. While moving millions of Palestinian Arabs to the East Bank of the Jordan would be great for Israel and the settlers, the Arabs won't go willingly, and forcing them to move will result in the bloodshed of many and play into the hands of the terrorist organizations, who will be only too happy to paint the Jews as the evil villains yet again. Is that the image we want the world to see?"
"It's what the world already thinks of us, Danny," the rabbi countered.
"But why prove them right?" I answered. "The Jews, the Muslims and the Christians all believe that land was given to them by God. That land will ultimately be ours when the Messiah comes," I said, playing my trump card. "The past has only proven that there's nothing we can do to bring him here any faster, so we shouldn't be in such a hurry. We shouldn't try to bring peace by making war."
"Ah, but we shouldn't make peace by capitulating," the rabbi challenged.
"On that, I agree with you," I said. "But letting the Arabs live on land they've owned for centuries is not capitulating, particularly if we can get them to accept the settlements we already have and to give up their ridiculous demand to return to their homes inside Israel. Getting them to give up on their so-called right of return would be a major concession on their part and if we can get that, the rest will be easy."
"There is no right of return," the rabbi said.
"Of course not," I agreed, "but the Palestinians don't see it that way. They see the land inside Israel that was in their hands for generations, which was taken away from them. Rightly or wrongly, they feel it's still theirs. Now, it's been ours for generations, and giving up a claim to it will be an admission that it's gone forever. Perhaps they do deserve some sort of reparations for it, maybe not from us, but from the world. They got a raw deal. So did the Jews in Hitler's Germany. So have a lot of victims of genocide, throughout the world. That doesn't make it right, and that doesn't give us the right as Jews to be as bad as everyone else."
"Daniel, you're very young, and very na•ve. I don't agree with anything you've said, but not one of my students would dare to challenge me the way you did tonight. Not one, including this one," the rabbi said as he pulled David into a hug. "If you move here," he continued, "we are going to have countless hours of debate, you and I. My students could learn something from you. I think it will be a lot of fun!"
After the rabbi walked away, David said, "I can't believe you talked back to my dad like that. I agree with you completely about Israel, by the way, but I've never had the guts to talk back to my father. None of us has."
"Well, he kind of put me on the spot," I admitted, "and I wasn't about to agree with something as preposterous as what he was suggesting. I had to say something."
"Do you talk like this to your rabbis in Baltimore?" he asked.
"Actually, yeah . . . well, not directly, but we debate this stuff in Yeshiva," I explained.
"Wow! We'd never debate that so openly here," David lamented.
"Maybe it's just your community. We have a lot of Modern Orthodox kids like me in our Yeshiva, and even some Conservative kids, so that might explain it."
"Interesting," David said more to himself than to me.
"Listen," I said, noting that it was getting late. "I need to get back to my uncle's place. I have a long walk back to our hotel."
"I'll walk you back to your hotel, then," David said as he took my hand and led me back to the Shabbos elevator. As we descended to the ground floor, he asked, "Would you like to attend services with us tomorrow?"
"I'll have to ask my parents, but I'd love to," I answered.
"That'd be great!" he responded with unbridled enthusiasm. "Meet me in the lobby at nine if you can make it." We chatted amicably as we walked along. When we reached the front of the hotel, he suggested, "Why don't you ask your family if you can have lunch with us, too? I know my dad would love a chance to grill you some more, and I'd just love to spend more time with you."
"Me too, David," I replied, and then he did something totally unexpected - he kissed me on the cheek. Was that some Lubavitch tradition, or was he just being extra friendly to an out of town guest? I kissed him back on the cheek, too. He smiled at me, and we gave each other a warm hug.
"I really hope you guys move here. I think we could be good friends, Danny." I could see the loneliness in his eyes. Maybe something else, too . . . something I saw when I looked in the mirror.
"It all depends on my dad getting the job," I said. "It'll be weeks before we know, and maybe months before we move."
"I've waited fifteen years for a real friend," David responded. "I guess I can wait a few months more. Good night, Danny."
"Good night," I said as I walked in the front door.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of David of Hope in editing this story this story and Alastair in proofreading it, as well as the support of Gay Authors, Awesome Dude and Nifty for hosting it. I would also like to thank Rigel for correcting some of my errors with respect to traditional Orthodox Judaism. This story was written as part of the Gay Authors 2009 Novella Writing Contest.