The news bent me double.
"Berkeh's Story" was a place to put my empathy.
(originally published in Moment Magazine and reprinted here with permission)
by Leah Lax
The young men huddle together shivering on the front stoop of their yeshiva, towels under their arms, waiting for the school bus that picks them up outside their dormitory, two blocks from the Rebbe’s synagogue on Seligson Avenue, every morning at six-fifteen. Their shirttails hang out over black, straight pants, ritual fringes dangling at their sides like a tailor’s forgotten threads. Several wear fedoras that hang off the backs of their heads. Faces are expressionless, shoulders and arms curved forward against the damp morning breeze. Two stand with backs turned to the wind and hands cupped over a cigarette, squinting smoke-stung eyes.
Berkeh is among them. He wishes he could do this alone. He dreams of a private pool where he could immerse without eyes around him. Like a fish in the ocean of Torah.
When the school bus arrives, the boys climb in with slumping postures and tired steps. Some set their feet apart and stand in the aisles to begin their morning prayer routine, trying to co-ordinate their swaying to the motion of the bus, unconsciously stroking their new soft beards as they pray. They clutch open pocket-sized prayerbooks that are so careworn they won’t quite close, pages fingered daily for months, years, the corners darkened and shining. Some sit, brows knit and lips moving silently. Others stretch growing legs into the aisle, heads back on the seat and eyes closed, trying to snatch a few more minutes of sleep. Shoulders touch. Limbs sprawl over one another. The bus bumps and snorts and sighs.
At the mikvah, the boys come alive. All but Berkeh enter the pool area and strip off clothes, chatting, then descend the steps to the small tiled pool where they jump into the warm water for this routine morning requirement, this ritual purification for prayer. The younger one’s splash one another, all elbows and jokes. They duck their own heads and each other’s under the water, laughing and spluttering, then run for the few showers.
“Kazen gets number one!”
The boys are equal here, all locker-room naked, long ago past the bathing suit phase when they once hid their budding selves, when each was sure his was a singular, private thing. All but Berkeh.
There have been times, when he was younger, when Berkeh managed to immerse himself before the others came in, which he did with an urgency that left him stiff-jointed. He would step down into the pool, glance around and duck one swift time beneath the water, hoping to seize for that brief moment a feeling of free-floating submersion, to be a drop nulled in the greater pool. But if someone stepped in to join him he looked away from them and left with his head down, as if he could be anonymous by avoiding their eyes.
Now, at twenty, Berkeh’s days begin like this one. He showers as soon as they enter the building while the others are still in the pool, then waits on the bench in the inner area, dry and clothed, disappointed in himself for not joining them. He is afraid he will stare at their bodies and terrified of what they would say if he did, and yet he is unable to call attention to himself by refusing to come along. Berkeh wishes he could dull himself enough to participate. He trains his eyes on the white tiles hoping they will leave a blank white picture in his mind’s eye.
The others come out of the water, luminescent drops clinging to the wet flattened rows of hair on young limbs and shimmering in thin new beards. It seems to Berkeh as if the clothing the boys pull over themselves is a transparent, ephemeral shell obscuring nothing, but simply placing their bright flesh in an inaccessible place. He wants to crumble the shell in his fingers. Then he shakes himself to shake the wish away. He has to look at them until he no longer imagines he can see lean muscles and sinewed firmness beneath the clothing, until he stops rubbing his fingers on his palm in an unconscious caress. If he works at it, he thinks, hopes, his vision will grow clouded and his eyes might stop drawing down in a reflexive sweep below their chins.
Shivering again in the January chill beneath a gray low sky that muffles sound, the students climb aboard the ancient bus, which beeps its way into traffic and back to the study hall. Berkeh leans the back of his neck on the rusted chrome railing and is soon asleep. Shlomo is waiting when they arrive.
It is Shlomo shaking him, pulling his arm. “Come on Berkeh. Let’s go.” The hot coffee smell of Shlomo’s breath is on his face. Berkeh’s lazy smile is a flash of pleasure aimed at Shlomo’s sandy wiry hair and quick toothy smile. “Already?”
To Berkeh it is a wonder Shlomo doesn’t go to the mikvah in the mornings. Shlomo insists he doesn’t feel the need to go through empty motions and doesn’t fear questions. For him it is a simple matter, but how, thinks Berkeh, could it be simple? I am here, in this yeshiva, and this is what we are supposed to do. The one time Shlomo has questioned Berkeh, it seemed as if the two spoke different languages. “Why must you go to the mikvah,” Shlomo insisted. “Can you put on a different skin?” I want to, Berkeh wanted to say. Yes. Like a chameleon. “I want a match like the others, and a wedding,” he told Shlomo. “I want this community to celebrate me when I take my place among them.” Shlomo nodded, sighed.
The two enter the yeshiva building, Berkeh’s cocoon. In the lobby, Berkeh looks up at the vaulted ceiling and then behind at the closed door. Outside, the brightness of things, the world and its contentions, dim when doors close behind them. Their world is an interior, of rabbis and the cacophony of male voices in the study hall.
The two boys meet again after the first class. They linger in a side hallway before morning prayers. For those few minutes Berkeh forgets where he is expected to be, their amity peppered with nudges, finger pokes to the chest, hands on arms, and closed-lip smiles with foreheads tipped forward almost touching.
Late last night in bed, Berkeh had to wonder if there were two Berkehs, two separate beings that flip and tug one another. When he joins the boys in class and locks his mind with theirs in Talmudic intricacies and mystical worlds, that is his reality. But when he’s with Shlomo…
Berkeh’s eyes stay on his friend as they enter the synagogue and separate to go to their customary places. How could Shlomo be so sure, so calm? He is like a river with a steady current as Berkeh struggles to swim against it.
At the front of the room is Rabbi Raichik, a local rabbi-turned-businessman who joins them most mornings and leads the prayers. Berkeh positions the black leather boxes of his tefilin on his head and forearm as a mass of voices surround him, wrapping them all up together like a human prayer shawl. His own lone voice rises up among them and then still farther, searching release. He closes his eyes, sways, and both hears and does not hear the words, until the last. “It is incumbent upon us to praise the Master of All, to ascribe greatness to the Creator of “In the Beginning…”
Several of the boys approach as Berkeh is putting his tfilin away in its velvet bag. They slap his shoulders, touch his arms.
“Hey, Berk. You ready for Goldenberg’s faher? That test’ll be tough!”
“Berkeh never gets ruffled. He’s probably got it cold!”
Shlomo approaches and Berkeh is suddenly conscious of his chest rising and falling. He holds up one hand in an affable manner to fend off the boys. Rabbi Raichik is watching from across the room. Shlomo puts his hand on Berkeh’s shoulder and speaks quiet words warm in his ear. “Let’s get a head start on that test—I haven’t done a thing.”
“Elbow grease does it, guys,” Berkeh says to the others. “Turning pages.”
Berkeh and Shlomo face one another across a narrow wooden table in the crowded study hall, the table strewn with books of many sizes in Hebrew or Yiddish. There are several dog-eared dictionaries. Some of the other students have already settled in, some still arriving. A hum and tangle of voices begins to rise as partners square off to spar over Talmudic texts. Their days are spent like this, in pairs parsing out the tangle of Law—revealing God’s Will. Berkeh relaxes. He’s ready to learn.
Whenever he digs into the oblique commentaries, he aims for each line of text to turn itself inside out and divulge the secret that nothing is as it seems. Physical light is really darkness. Simple things are complex and the complex can be distilled down to a simple vivid point of God’s essence that shimmers its way down through multiple worlds.
Berkeh and Shlomo have been study partners since they first met at summer camp as boys. Other pairs of study partners have always surrounded them as they do now, all facing another across a table. This is just what Berkeh wants for him and Shlomo; a bond of Torah, two heads joined, separated from bodies. But Berkeh looks across the table and sees a young man with a body. He is still troubled about their conversation the day before, when Shlomo related his conversation with his father. Berkeh was horrified.
When Shlomo was last home to visit, he went to the local beis medrash to study in the evenings. He came home one night to find his father waiting up for him. They sat together in the kitchen, his mother already sleeping. His father’s manner was gentle, but his too-steady gaze made Shlomo feel transparent, and small. It seemed, Shlomo told Berkeh later, as if a mass of elements had come together and it was time to talk. So he told his father. Everything. How he felt. What he felt. The slow, solid conclusion about who he is. And about Berkeh, although he wouldn’t say his name.
Shlomo’s father was shouting. “You can’t do this!” he said.
“You think you can’t help it, but you can’t love a… a man.”
“To’eivah! I thought you were my son!”
“You want to flip a switch in me?”
“Yes!” his father said.
“I can’t be anyone else,” Shlomo shot back. There was desperation and a sliver of leftover hope in his voice. Shlomo was on a roller coaster, as if he could see his father’s toy-sized figure below watching him leave when he had wanted his father in the seat next to him. He wanted to span the impossible distance, reach down and bring his father back.
His father raked his steel grey hair with an agitated hand. Somehow the community and Shlomo’s life in the yeshiva were all rolled into that view.
“Your mother has found a girl for you, son, you’ve got to try…” His father said.
“Is that why you were waiting up for me?” Shlomo said, and looked away, knowing the burden he was putting on his father to tell his mother. It was the way that, with her, he was at best awkward and newly arrived at manhood.
“Stay in yeshiva. Stay…stay,” his father begged, when eyes were half shut for both of them, against what both wanted not to see, but also from fatigue. But Shlomo stood on now-heavy limbs to go up the carpeted stairs to his childhood room, kept intact for him like a shrine. He would not sleep, enshrouded like that in his parent’s hopes. “I’ll stay,” he said, and, “Don’t worry,” irony in his tone. Until I leave.
To Berkeh, it was as if Shlomo was speaking his foreign language again. Leave the yeshiva? And go where? They didn’t know the ways of the world. And to even imagine that Berkeh’s father might listen to him talking about forbidden desires, or be able to face him, requires thinking in Shlomo’s strange language. No, Berkeh’s father’s language is one of Law and Torah and community, in their world of husbands with wives and children. Their world is created by words—if God withdraws His Word for a single moment, the world will cease to exist. But there is no word for Berkeh, for what he is, as if he is invisible, not made by God. There is only a name for an act that Berkeh desires and doesn’t want to desire. Shlomo’s father had said it: To’eivah. Abomination.
In the study hall, Shlomo slouches down in his seat. Under the table, his right knee brushes Berkeh’s thigh. Berkeh jumps at the touch and pulls away, then almost as instinctively leans his thigh into Shlomo’s leg and relaxes it there, and Shlomo’s leg presses back. Berkeh frowns in concentration and digs more into the text, but his pulse quickens, and he hears his own breathing, guarded and fast. He looks down at his book to find Shlomo’s blue green eyes dancing between the lines. He tries to discuss what they are learning, forces his voice forward in a halting stubborn singsong: “Two grasp onto a single prayer shawl. One says, “It is mine,” and the other says, “It is mine.”
As they proceed, Shlomo’s hand strokes the side of his other knee in time with their singsong and Berkeh picks up that rhythmic motion. He closes his eyes only to envision Shlomo’s leg and the hand stroking it. His nostrils flare. Beads of sweat arise on Berkeh’s brow and upper lip. He tries to keep his mind from forming any image other than the blurred letters.
He feels Shlomo’s hand moving up his thigh and the tightening in his groin—an involuntary reach toward that hand—and Berkeh can’t think. The study hall fades away, but the clamor of voices still goads him, chides him. He becomes weak, his head light, tongue frozen. Nothing is real but Shlomo’s hand. Berkeh is in a vortex eddying and swirling downward to that one point, his existence one thing only: Want. He wants.
A book slams shut. Berkeh sits up shaken, numb. His gaze darts across the sea of students. Mortification leaves him queasy, the hairs on his arms standing up, goose bumps on his skin. He tries to swallow. He thinks in panicked relief of the suit jacket on the back of his chair that he can use to cover evidence of his erection. Shaking, he puts his forehead into the palm of his right hand.
“That’s it,” Shlomo says. I can’t.”
“Hey, ” Berkeh says. “We have a test.”
“I can’t be here. That’s it.”
“Is it, is it me?”
“Not you. It’s here. The yeshiva. I can’t be here. And neither can you.”
Berkeh swallows, tongue-tied. Shlomo’s words shrink him. Draw him. “How could you leave?”
“I’m forced out,” Shlomo whispers.
“Where will you go?”
“I’ll find a place. Where I can learn Torah without pretending. I don’t know. Maybe my parents’ living room. Don’t you know it can’t be here?”
“No,” Berkeh said. “No!”
Shlomo takes his hand. His whisper is fierce, pleading. “Come with me, Berkeh!”
Days later, Berkeh is in the study hall when he hears his name over the intercom. There is a telephone call for him. He closes the book and makes his way around the narrow tables and out to the lobby. There is a group of boys near the phone. Berkeh sighs. Cell phones, internet, all forbidden, and one very public telephone for all of their communication.
“Hey, Berkeh. Where ya’ been? Get this already—I gotta make a call!”
“Sorry, Itz.” He lifts the receiver, still warm from the last person, and leans forward, his back to the others. “Hello?”
It is his father. Berkeh smiles, pleased, but wary. “Tatteh, is everything all right?”
“Sure.” There is a pause. “Rabbi Raichik called us.”
“I don’t—we don’t know that much about him.”
“He’s a businessman, Ta, but he gives a lot of money and he’s a scholar. And…” Something was taking shape in Berkeh’s mind. “He’s found a lot of brides for the boys.”
“He’s most impressed with you.”
“Me?” But there is thrill in being recognized like that.
“He’s offering for you to go out with his daughter.”
There is a little explosion in Berkeh. “Me?!” His face flushes. Berkeh is grinning. Yes, he thinks. The whole yeshiva will put a crown on his head. This will be his proof, his arrival. He sees the students lifting him up on a chair as they dance at his wedding.
But Berkeh can’t seem to find his next breath. Shlomo. He can’t imagine being without Shlomo. “Ta, I don’t know what to say.”
“What do you think?”
“What do I think. What do I think?” He tries to envision himself married. But Shlomo. He looks around. “Ta, there are a lot of people here.”
“Just go out with her, okay? No commitment. You have to see if she’s the right one.”
There is a pain beginning in his stomach. He squeezes his eyes shut.
“Berkeh, are you ready for this?”
His father laughs. “Of course not. You know,” he said. “You’ll learn.”
Berkeh thinks, I can learn to love her. He says, “I can learn.”
“Shalom Ber, we’re proud of you. Mom and I.”
Berkeh’s chest goes tight with love for his father. His voice goes soft. “Okay, Ta. Yes. I’ll call her.”
Silence. His father doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say he loves him. I love you, Ta. The words hang there. There’s a click.
He turns to find the impatient group of boys have grown quiet. A line of eyes. One shoots him a sly smile and points a thumb upward, a vote of belonging. Late at night there will be furtive boasting in the dormitory, exchanging notes about girls, tips, teases. Berkeh is a comrade. He has a girl.
But he sees Shlomo at a distance listening to one of the younger boys, a known gossip with red ears. Then Shlomo is searching Berkeh out. Berkeh feigns a confident smile to the boys and raises his thumb in return, then strides off past Shlomo’s pain. He stops for a moment at the front window. Outside, a young man in low-slung jeans leans against the bus stop to light a cigarette. A woman passes in vigorous stride, her dog straining ahead on a taut leash. Cars rush past. The rolling bluish clouds seep downward.
Berkeh borrows a car, an Oldsmobile that smells of cigarettes, blue paint dulled and vinyl roof laced with cracks, a cassette of Yiddish Gems stuck in the tape deck. Since his father’s call Berkeh has avoided conversation with Shlomo. When they studied, he kept his focus on the text. Only once Shlomo had closed his book and tried.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Berkeh felt he was being pulled down a dark corridor to an unknown frightening place. “Look,” he said past the constriction in his throat, even as the light glinted on Shlomo’s hair and he saw pleading desire in his eyes. “If Raichik’s daughter is good enough, I’ll marry her. Can’t you understand?”
Berkeh stops at the curb in front of the Raichik’s home. He wants to be swept along with a tide of his peers down its old deep-set path. It should be easy. Someone mentions a girl. The parents talk. You go out with her, and then life takes its course: Engagement, wedding, buying furniture, plans for the first year—all a standard form, all his friends the same. That was the pride in it, being the same. It meant you had arrived, joined a fine exclusive club. You measured up, blended in indistinguishable, breathless at the calculated acceptance.
In the car, he hesitates. Should he go to the door? What will he say if her mother answers? His lips purse in indecision. In the end, he honks, twice. It is a quiet time in the neighborhood. Old magnolias and live oaks rustle above their shadows.
When she emerges, she lets the screen door bang and skips down the concrete stairs, opens the car door and gets in with a flounce, smoothes her skirt, looks modestly downward and then straight into his eyes to offer the first hello. A scarf around her shoulders sets off her face above a long neck, like a long-stemmed rose.
Berkeh’s first thought is that she must have gone out with others before him. He tries to relax, tries not to think that he will say the wrong things, or that she might see that a barely visible Shlomo clinging to his shoulders. “So you’re Shayna Raichik,” he says.
“Did you expect someone else?” She is smiling.
Berkeh puts the car in gear and pulls out onto the narrow lane. They drive in silence, as Berkeh doesn’t know what to say.
“Where are we going?”
He doesn’t look up. “The Ambassador?”
It is common for the boys to take their dates downtown to the grand old lobby of that aging luxury hotel, as protocol requires they go to a public place where passers-by formed a kind of chaperone. The hotel’s location downtown and at a distance from their neighborhood is good, as the only couples allowed to be seen in public together inside their community are engaged or already married.
“Oh, no,” Shayna says, sounding playful and appalled. “That old place?” she says. “It’s stifling.”
His foot jerks on the pedal. Berkeh is completely confused. He grips the wheel. “Then where?” he says.
“The Arboretum?” Berkeh says. “But no one will be there.”
“Well, not hundreds, like at the Ambassador, but oh, I don’t care—there’ll be someone there, we won’t be alone, and anyway, I can breathe there.” She pauses.
Berkeh is driving on with no destination.
“You want to know if I can be your wife, right?” she says. “How can you find anything out about me when we’re sitting on some hotel couch and chatting about, I don’t know, how many siblings we have?”
“How many do you have?”
“Eight, and you?”
“We take what we get.”
“Mom’s going to have another in May.”
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen for two more months. You?”
Berkeh makes a turn and merges onto the highway. He takes a deep breath. “Park Lane is off 59,” he says. “I think I can get into the middle of the park from there. I wonder if the tennis house is open.” Soon, he turns off the roadway onto a gravel path, pulls to a stop in a lot outside the gated entrance.
“Uh oh,” she said.
“What is it?”
“You still want to go in?”
“I can handle it if we walk slow.”
There is a lush garden just inside the entrance, followed by a path that is wide and well trampled through a cultivated forest deep and dense. Along the way, trees are labeled as if transplanted here for preservation. They walk slowly, looking, smelling.
Many of the trees are old and blackened, knotted branches heavy with rough bark. Olive green leaves are interspersed with spots of sunlight and the delicate yellow-green of new growth. Shayna stops at a turn in the path and leans her head back to breathe it in.
To Berkeh, the park is too self-contained and controlled. A garden of Torah. Rows of flowers stand at attention along the path, their beauty contrived, transcending the wild cruelty of the natural world. His father’s garden. But then, as they walk, he notices rot, and twisted roots, and new cuttings struggling to take hold. They pause at a tree, sprouting fresh greenery, that lies on its side, its roots torn and in the air, helpless.
“I wonder what could bring down a young tree like that?” Shayna says.
“Maybe the soil isn’t right,” he says. “Maybe the earth here can’t hold it.”
Varieties of mushrooms are scattered around the trees. Their small, tilted caps teeter on firm upright stalks glistening from an earlier rain, seeking to spread their fecund spores. How would it feel, he wonders, to walk openly here with Shlomo, relaxed, unpressured, unjudged, unseen, the breeze touching our faces?
They drink in sun and green, tinged with car exhaust. Just off the path they find a hollowed tree, very old and large, its hole a cave. “Don’t you wish,” he says, “that you could climb in?” He imagines curling up in there away from everything, the smell of moss and greenness in that womblike peace.
“It would be delicious for about five minutes,” Shayna says, and looks at him, puzzled. Then her face softens, and there is a look of delicate interest, almost wonder, and a hint of a smile, as if she sees something rare and specialized. She looks down to his feet and then up again to his face, like a whispered touch.
Berkeh doesn’t respond, discomfited with being examined.
After a turn in the path they find a bench with clusters of wildflowers around its feet set against a tree. They are in a clearing behind the old tennis house. Shayna sighs and sits down, kicks off her shoes, and leans over to rub the top of her foot. Berkeh joins her on the bench, leaving a proper modest space between them.
“You’re not a big talker,” she says.
“I’m sure you already know plenty.”
“Why do you say that?”
“How many questions did you ask before you accepted the offer to go out with me?”
She laughs. “About a hundred.”
“I guess I passed,” he says.
“And why did I pass?”
She pauses. “Well, you have all the standard criteria.”
“Like what?” he says, but he knows.
“A good, religious boy. Careful with prayers. Good family. Dedicated to learning. Good reputation in yeshiva.”
“You just described dozens of guys.”
“My father likes you.”
Berkeh raises his eyebrows. “That’s important.”
“Of course it is.”
“To him,” he says. “And to me. I mean, he’ll probably look for someone he can take into his business.” For a light-headed moment Berkeh pictures himself behind a desk managing real estate.
“How many questions did you ask about me?” she says.
He blushes. “Uh, zero.”
“You’re Rabbi Raichik’s daughter.”
“Rabbi Raichik’s daughter,” she says. “So I could have three hands and one eye sticking out of the top of my head and you’ll still go out with me because I’m Rabbi Raichik’s daughter?”
“Once.” But she smiles. “And Shayna? Shayna without a last name, thank you. How many times will you go out with her?”
“At the present moment, he says, “the calculation is approximately four hundred and twenty three. But don’t worry. Those are just the points you got in the first hour.”
She laughs, leans back. The bright sunlight through the leaves above them make a pattern across her face. Her smile is more gentle than Shlomo’s, but it seems too soft. Everything about her seems too soft. Not unpleasant, he tells himself, resolute.
“I don’t want to go home,” she says. “I could just stay here.” She turns to him. “You’re, I don’t know, nice to be with. I feel safe with you.”
He has already begun to tell himself that this could become a pleasant friendship. Then she reaches her hand toward his face and holds it there, palm close enough for him to feel its warmth, a whisper away from the forbidden touch. She is trembling, her mouth slightly open. He is frozen in place. “I wish,” she whispers.
Berkeh reddens, shifts, looks down at his feet. “I don’t think,” he says.
Shayna flushes and withdraws her hand. She bends over and puts on her shoes. When she stands, their eyes meet, and then both look quickly away, embarrassed. They walk back slowly and do not speak of her almost-touch. He hopes they are walking away from that moment, for the awkwardness to pass. He wants to see them sharing space in a separate undemanding way, easier in a way, without the electrifying confusing feelings he has when he is with Shlomo.
It is growing dark, their shadows overlapping on the path. On the drive home, they speak on and off. The empty moments are easy between them, in spite of Shlomo’s stubborn image on the periphery. “Don’t forget me,” she says as she gets out of the car.
He calls her as she walks up the steps to her home.
“Yes?” she says. She turns but doesn’t come back.
He leans across the seat so she can see his face through the passenger side window. “Next time,” he says, “wear tennis shoes!”
She laughs that laugh of hers. “You bet!”
On Sunday evening a group of boys from the yeshiva enter the cavernous lobby of the Ambassador Hotel. One of their recent graduates is getting married and the mood is high. The group is heading to the main hall for the celebration. From the wedding hall, they can hear the sounds of happy conversation, clink of catering dishes, the first soundings of wedding music. The boys are eager, already affected by the fresh joy radiating from the milling celebrating crowd. Berkeh is among them, indistinguishable from the others in appearance, camaraderie, pleasure that yet another friend has reached, in marriage, fulfillment.
The group comes upon Shlomo in the lobby and sweeps past him with waves and greetings. But Berkeh catches Shlomo’s nod toward nearby chairs and, helpless to that, he sends the other boys on. The two then sit together in the old chairs of heavy brocade over dark wood where Berkeh had intended to sit with Shayna on their first date. The floor is covered with worn red velvet carpeting, the high ceiling studded with glistening yellowed chandeliers.
Shlomo looks as if he hasn’t slept. Berkeh reads the familiar face, each shadow and line, as he has read it since they were boys. Berkeh sighs, then pulls his shoulders back and tells himself that he must be the ner Hashem, the candle of God, wavering, small and weak, yes, but constant in its reach to the above. Loyalty. Yes. But he is riveted to the presence before him.
This, thinks Berkeh, is what desire is. Aching helplessness.
For a few minutes the two sit watching the wedding traffic in the lobby. An onlooker might think them bored and waiting for someone. Then Shlomo leans forward as if it is necessary to whisper beneath the vaulted ceiling that steals sound and says,
“I’m leaving tomorrow.” The words stand between them unembellished, alone because Shlomo is alone. “I’ll miss you,” Shlomo says. “I can hardly think of going without you.”
And loss washes over Berkeh. He needs to fall to the floor. Now that the loss is real, he is surprised at the size of it. He has pelted himself forward down a different corridor, but how can he cut away the part of himself that is Shlomo? Berkeh wants to grab Shlomo and beg him not to leave. If he feels that touch just once more, it will open something Berkeh can no longer stop. He will forget Shayna, forget the yeshiva. Forget his father. He wants to say something that will make Shlomo open that door. “Shlomo, I,”
Shlomo will not knock at a door he knows to be locked. He stands to go.
Berkeh swallows. Then he stands, too. Then, in the same way that Shayna had reached out to him, Berkeh reaches out to Shlomo’s face. The pads of his tremulous fingers trace the side of the familiar nose, the lips, travel across Shlomo’s cheek, fingers now curved in a caress, and rest there on the line of curled hair in the thin, blond beard.
Shlomo puts a hand on Berkeh’s shoulder and steps closer to him.
Two fellow students pass, headed back into the wedding hall. One, turns and looks back at Shlomo and Berkeh, curious, just in the moment that Shlomo raises his second hand to Berkeh’s other shoulder and leans forward. The young man’s shoes are polished, and his eyes are bright with excitement and vodka. “Hey, you guys coming?” he says. The second friend hovers, impatient. Then Berkeh sees a too-long interchange between those two sets of eyes, two knowing grins.
Berkeh steps back from Shlomo as if he’s been burned. He is nauseated, full of raw fear. “Sure,” he calls out. I’ll be right there!” The two boys look at each other and laugh, and then they are gone with a dismissive wave.
The heat of Berkeh’s humiliation turns to rage. One look at Shlomo feed the fire in him. He spits out his words. “You go ahead and leave,” he says. “Maybe you don’t belong here.”
Shlomo’s look is narrow and cutting. He laughs. “We’ll see,” he says.
Berkeh turns to the wedding party in a fury, ready now.
The hall for the wedding celebration is divided down the middle by a lattice partition elaborately woven with decorative ivy and flowers. The area on one side is for the women, all of them elegantly coifed and in formal gowns. The other side is a sea of black suits and black hats. At one end of the partition there is a long table heavily draped in pink satin and laden with fruits, pastries, and every imaginable type of dainty, and dotted with flowers, ribbon, and ivy, a place where both men and women hover, nibbling from flowered plates. A five-course meal will be served later.
A band is playing on the stage. The lyrics are Hebrew, often lines from Biblical texts, but the music is a wild mixture of liturgical, klezmer, rock, folk, classical music and Israeli tunes, all of it at the same fast pace, the same earsplitting volume. Berkeh enters the men’s side, Shlomo at a distance behind him, just as the band comes to a dramatic stop and the lead player shouts into the microphone in an Israeli accent, “Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. And Mrs. Yossi Bendell!” The bride and groom appear at the doorway and the band goes into a frenzy. The couple split there and are swept into wild dancing on their respective sides.
The men whirl in circles around the groom, arm over arm. They step, they jump, they sing. Hats come off. Jackets and ties and collars are opened, shirts unbuttoned. Berkeh pictures himself as the groom, makes himself want again the warm satisfaction of such honor, like an arrival. He jumps into the current. Red faces with open-mouthed smiles flew past, and his feet carry him as if on air. Berkeh dances arm in arm in one of the concentric circles around the groom, ready now to meld indistinguishable. The groom dances in the center with first his father, then his father-in-law, his new brothers-in-law and others he wishes to honor. Around and around. With each circuit Berkeh catches a fleeting image of Shlomo on the periphery, separate, different. With each sighting Berkeh steps higher and grips the shoulders of the dancers on either side of him with more surety.
Bottles of vodka are passed. Unknown hands appear at Berkeh’s face to tilt tiny plastic cups of vodka into his mouth. A flush rises into his ears.
All clasp arms, whirling, whirling. More vodka is passed, this time in a silver goblet, and Berkeh tips the cup himself now. He feels warmth in his face and head, blurring in his feet and tongue. He dances, furious, enthused, determined.
An hour passes, and part of another. Berkeh spins out of the circle to catch his breath and finds Shayna standing at the Viennese table. She flushes when she sees him. The band pauses between pieces. As he reaches for a petit four, she says to him, “You’re different from the others. I like that.”
“I doubt that,” he says, noticing the foreign slur in his voice. He grins.
“Oh yes?” she says, teasing him. The band starts up again. Dancers are wiping brows, stripping off jackets and jumping back in.
Berkeh waves his arm with the pastry in his hand at the circles dancing again around bride and groom, the motion of his arm large and liquid. “You know,” he shouts above the music. “That could be us.”
Shayna’s eyes widen, glistening at what she takes to be an invitation. “I would like that,” she mouths.
“Yes?” His face is bright. “Hah!” he says. He puts down the pastry and with fists raised and new, fierce joy jumps back into the whirling circle, full of the image of himself as head of a household, father, scholar and community leader, a mentch. Best of all, his father will dance at his wedding.
A few men rush in and without ceremony strip a table of its pink settings. They put a chair on the table, lift the groom to sit on it, and lift up the table with the groom on it until he can see his bride on the other side of the partition and salute her. Berkeh dances with the others around the groom and everyone claps and shouts and sings.
It is all becoming a pantomime, Berkeh’s ears growing deaf from the music. One of the rabbis digs beanbags out of his pocket and begins to juggle. Three others appear balanced three up on each other’s shoulders like a drunken tower and waver up to the groom. Another jumps in wearing a clown face over his beard. More vodka is passed.
The men lower the table and the groom jumps off. The whirling circle breaks into several smaller ones, one inside the other, each in the opposite direction. Spinning couples of men fly in and around it.
Berkeh moves to the innermost circle, to a place where he can’t see Shlomo past the dancing men. His head spins with the music. He, too, strips off his hat and jacket and tosses them aside and turns and turns, red-faced and grinning. His limbs are light and unconnected. He has become an inner part of a huge and noisy machine, a place where he doesn’t have to think, doesn’t have to know anything but the stream of motion all in the same direction. Just move, go, and the pleasure of fitting into the larger flow and of forward motion will fill him. His feet carry him along with the others, and then he is shoved forward to dance with the groom. Just as they begin, someone hands Berkeh a larger cup of vodka and shouts “Mazel tov!” and Berkeh drinks it all. Then Berkeh grasps arms with the groom and jumps into a faster dance, and the groom’s feet trip through an elaborate series of hazy steps while the music pulsates and fills Berkeh’s whole brain with its beat and laughter spills out of him.
The groom lets go too quickly for the next one, Berkeh’s feet are not ready, and he flies away and into Shlomo, who seems to be there waiting. Shlomo grasps first one of Berkeh’s arms and then both to steady him while the inner circle of dancers widen to encompass them, and the groom and his brother melt away, as if the spinning circles are focused now on them, including the passing faces of the two boys that saw them in the lobby who are laughing now and pointing and Berkeh laughs with them.
Now Berkeh and Shlomo are the pulse that drives the machine. For the smallest moment that seems to be between the beats of the music, Shlomo’s beard is against Berkeh’s cheek and Berkeh feels one of Shlomo’s hands at his back, feels Shlomo’s warm breath on his face. Berkeh thinks he hears Shlomo’s rhythmic words in the pulse of the music. Same. We’re same.
The music’s speed increases and the two are holding one another as a single spinning teetering top, each hand gripping a forearm against the centrifugal force that can rip them apart. For a full minute they are blurred together as the fleeting image of the laughing faces burn into Berkeh’s brain and Berkeh holds on, face contorting, shoulders rising, a wave going through him, and they are fused into a single spinning top, balanced in twirling motion. The music drives their feet and Shlomo’s pulsing arms fill Berkeh’s hands. Then Shlomo’s blue green eyes are in front of his and Berkeh feels the bear hug of Shlomo’s chest pounding against his and the cold air on the tears spilling down his cheek.
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