(originally appeared in Narrative Magazine)
ISAAC AND TAMAR are eating leftovers from Shabbos—vegetarian cholent and Israeli salad—when they hear a knock on their apartment door.
Isaac makes a “sit, sit, have a rest” motion to his wife. “I’ll get it,” he says.
He opens the door. In the flickering light of the hallway stands an old woman in a beige turban and a boxy house-coat dress, the kind that charity collectors wear. He reaches for change in the pocket of his suit jacket, then stops.
“Who is it?” Tamar’s voice drifts out from the kitchen.
“It’s the rebbetzin, Shaindel Bracha,” he calls out, his voice husky. Last he saw her was seven months ago, at his wedding. She’s smiling, bobbing her turbaned head, hen-like. Her white plump cheeks glow with an irresistible light. The air around her gives off a pleasant, spicy scent. A feeling of well-being envelops Isaac, just to see the rebbetzin, and yet he can’t help but wonder what possessed her, a woman in her seventies, to come out on this cool damp Jerusalem evening.
He and Tamar fuss over the rebbetzin. “Come in,” Isaac urges. “Have some tea,” Tamar insists. “Five flavors, take your pick,” but Shaindel Bracha waves them off, not wanting to intrude on their private time, she says, in this, their honeymoon year.
Shaindel Bracha turns her gaze to Isaac. “I have a favor to ask.” The rebbetzin explains how she needs his help – “just for a few days” she says with a hint of apology – to resurrect the courtyard, a place where anyone who had a problem was welcome to tell it to her husband, the kabbalist, and try to get an answer.
Isaac nods. He remembers how all kinds of troubled souls came to their courtyard. Rebbe Yehudah was both a spiritual and practical fix-it man. Shaindel Bracha offered advice and a slice of noodle kugel from the sidelines. Isaac had been one of those troubled souls who’d washed up at the elderly couple’s courtyard, straight off the plane from the Lower East Side, hoping for salvation, not even knowing he was seeking it, with nothing to keep him tethered to the States, certainly not his job as a haberdasher. “But who will they bring their problems to?” he asks. Now. With Rebbe Yehudah dead over a year — this he doesn’t say out loud.
“But who will they bring their problems to?” he asks. Now. With Rebbe Yehudah dead over a year — this he doesn’t say out loud.
She touches the filigree brooch pinned to her collar. “Me.”
Isaac blinks. Her. It’s rather odd, even if the rebbetzin was very much her
husband’s equal in piety and wisdom. People are used to her husband. They are used to a man. ”What kind of help do you need, Rebbetzin?”
Shaindel Bracha looks at him with her luminous light brown eyes. “I’d like you to be my assistant.”
“Your assistant,” he repeats, and scratches his left wrist vigorously. Marriage has cured many of his woes, but his eczema isn’t one of them.
“Just until I get myself off the ground,” Shaindel Bracha goes on, fingering the brooch. “No one else could manage the courtyard like you.”
True. It had been his job to organize all the petitioners and seekers. He passed messages to Rebbe Yehudah when the frail kabbalist got too ill to handle the crowd himself, and also fielded the less difficult questions. (Isaac had practice from dealing with cranky customers at his haberdashery back in the States.) For this, Isaac had received free room, board and a small salary from the couple. Truth be told, he would have done it for nothing, just to see how the holy couple lived, just to be close to them. But now it’s a different story.
“I know it’s a big favor,” Shaindel Bracha says softly.
She had never asked him for a thing, and yet–
Tamar breaks in, “Not before he finishes his smicha, Rebbetzin.”
Isaac startles at this. Tamar is right to protect him, of course. As soon as he completes his rabbinic ordination, he’ll qualify for jobs, real ones – a rabbi in the army, a jail chaplain — that could support a family. His work as a haberdasher on the Lower East Side had been a disappointment, a distraction that had lasted nearly twenty years. Outfitting men with the right socks, hats, jackets and suits. Useful work, dignified work, he supposed. But there were other Isaacs in the world to man the haberdashery, not him. He’s forty-two now and finally getting on track with his life. Tamar could even quit her job as a fundraiser. He doesn’t need any diversions now. Still, how can he say no to the rebbetzin? She and Rebbe Yehudah took him in when he got off the plane, burnt out, an oistmensch, not quite a person, with his mother recently dead. Shaindel Bracha practically made his match with Tamar. He throws his wife a maybe-we-can-manage-this look, and she signals back, you-decide, followed by a shrug.
“A few days at the courtyard won’t set me back,” he says finally to the rebbetzin.
Shaindel Bracha’s plump cheeks crinkle with gratitude.
After she leaves, Isaac pokes around the cholent stew. “Shaindel Bracha’s hardly aged,” he comments.
Tamar doesn’t reply but she is clearly brooding.
“What?” He peers at her over his glasses.
“I said it wasn’t a good idea, and you just,” she makes a face, “steamrolled me.”
He stares. “I thought – from your expression – you were saying: do what you want.”
“You misread me.” A red comma of hair slips out from her head scarf and she tucks it back under. “You have a job right now.” She looks at him across the table. “Finishing your smicha.”
“I told you I could handle it,” he says with an edge. He’s not used to being admonished by someone twelve, thirteen years younger than himself, even if she is his wife. Then he winces, hating sounding like his own father, even to himself. That was his father’s way, decisions imposed, barking out orders. “You’re right,” he amends. “I should’ve consulted with you first.” He ducks his head in apology. “Should I cancel my offer?”
She thinks a moment. “Nah.” Then she says without rancor, as if stating simple facts, “Anyway, you love her.”
“Love? Come now.” He feels affection for the rebbetzin and endless
gratitude. That’s all. (But maybe it’s true. Around the rebbetzin, he feels less like an
orphan.) “Just a few days,” he says, as though resigned, but his heart rises like a kite at
the thought of returning to the courtyard.
the rest of the story continues below, acted out by Sam Guncler, who has appeared on TV and in Jewish productions.