A sequel to “A Lesson for John on King George Street.” The most brilliant student in the Yeshiva considers leaving. But parting is never simple, especially after sacrifice…
The three of them walk to the yeshiva in the rain. “Will I ever look upon your fair face again, my lady?” John asks his girl. They walked without raincoats, holding hands. Despite her soaked socks, she giggles. “Give me something to remember you by,” he says. She raises her eyebrows. She is quite beautiful. Kalman goes inside.
Into the Beis Medrash, his domain. No matter how cold the world outside gets, it is always warm here. In the day, voices ring out in battle. It is night now, and instead a sleepy peace reigns. It is always so in the world of ideas. Here, even the worst fights never cause him to doubt his life, never bring him to question his choices, never leave him drying under his covers, face buried in his pillow, questions following him to yawning oblivion.
He grabs a cup of coffee and sits down to his Talmud, thoughts of flowing water and brushing fingers washed away like dust.
Too soon, he is interrupted by Rabbi Marmelstein sitting down across from him, bright gaze and short brown beard drawing his eyes from the page.
“Kalman, you’re what, twenty-two?”
“That’s right, Rabbi.”
Sigh. “I think it’s time for you to move on.”
Kyle, you’re twenty-two. Your whole life is in front of you. We’ve sacrificed so much for you. Please.
“Move on, Rabbi?”
“There’s an excellent place, a Yeshiva for gifted students like you.”
Just stay. Your father and I will help you find the right college. You can keep studying in your own time. We’ll find you Kosher food.
“I’m happy here.”
“You’re stuck. No one here can learn like you can. And between the two of us, our students don’t have the same priorities as you.”
Half the boys in your program are idiots. You said so yourself. Do you really want to be one of them?
“They’re my friends.”
“I’m worried that they’re holding you back. At this new place, if you work hard, you could become something great.”
You can’t tell your mother “they may be idiots but they’re my idiots” when she’s worried about you starving in the gutter.
“I’m not sure I want to be great.”
“There’s something else. We spoke to them about you, and they’re considering a full scholarship.”
You’re going to have the best life imaginable.
He takes off his glasses and says he’ll think about it.
He sits cross-legged on his bed, listening to G-d’s blessings pour through the gutters, banging his head back against the wall to the beat of What do I want? What do I want? What do I want?
He remembers the last days of December, Junior year of high school, at the ski cabin, drinking sweet cocoa on the couch with Hannah, muscles aching after a long day of chasing her down the mountain. He was always chasing her. What do I want? She’d gotten whipped cream on her nose, and he offered her the corner of the tablecloth with one of his wry smiles, and she laughed and laughed, a laugh soft like the evening snowfall. What do I want?
I can have it again. Call mom, fly home, be happy.
He tries to remember why he shouldn’t, and all he hears is the sound of the rain.
“Don’t do it,” John says, and burps.
“Who’s gonna help me if I need a word translated?”
Mordechai slaps John on the back of the head, and the kid puts his head in his arms on the table’s edge and chuckles at the floor.
Yosef, who has been Kalman’s shadow for two years, says, “It’s free, and it’s a better Yeshiva. You should do it.”
“They have more guys who learn. That doesn’t mean it’s better.”
“It’s free. Your parents won’t be paying anymore. You won’t be under their thumb. They won’t feel like they’re wasting money.”
“Damn,” says Shraga. “He’s right.”
“All my problems solved, just like that,” says Kalman with a wry smile, and drains his cup.
“It’s the next step,” rumbles Mordechai, their gigantic Russian sage. “Always forward, never back.”
“What about sideways?” says Kalman. “You guys aren’t helping.”
“Exactly,” says John, sneer muffled by his arms. “Go make some friends who can help.”
Kalman gets up, pays his part of the bill, and leaves.
“Why the hell are we friends?” slurs John, his hand on Kalman’s book, blocking his view. John shakes his head and droplets of rainwater fall on the page. Kalman winces. “We don’t have anything in common. Yosef is holy, Mordechai’s wise, Shraga’s nice. What do I have that the best bocher in Yeshiva wants to be friends with me?” His voice trembles. Kalman winces again.
“You should lie down.”
John said what he thought of that.
“You should scour your mouth out, then lie down.”
“Answer the question, dammit.” The elfin rabble-rouser throws his arms around Kalman’s neck and pulls the struggling scholar close, until their foreheads touch. “I love you, Kal.”
Kalman rolls his eyes. “You’re drunk.” A cloud of alcohol fumes escapes when John opens his mouth to object, Kalman cuts him off. “We’re friends because we’re meant to be friends. It just makes sense. Kalman and John, John and Kalman. Can you explain Yosef and me any better? Can you explain peanut butter and jelly?”
John snickers. “I’m sorry, that’s just so romantic.”
“Ugh.” He shoves the kid away.
He’s out alone on the slick sidewalks trying to get it all organized in his head. The rain drumming against his poncho acts as a floor for his thoughts; his mind is unreachable in company and shy in silence but with the patter in his ears and the sheet of water enshrouding his body the ideas whirl unbidden. They are, to his dismay, disjointed, chaotic.
There is no problem in the world, he reckons, that can’t be divided into smaller parts and tackled piece by piece. But it takes wisdom to balance the parts, to glean the crucial from the superficial. It takes a higher, objective perspective. And Kalman can’t find it. There is something harassing him, a pattern in the leaves. Something he’s missing.
He reaches his favorite bookstore and steps inside. As he removes his plastic raincoat, a father and young son approach the counter. The boy clutches a slender red Chumash to his chest, and his father counts out coins like precious gems in his palm. They have holes in their beaten shoes, and Kalman realizes it might be collected charity they’re trading away for the book. It could be the boy’s first. Maybe he needs it for cheder, needs it more than shoes on a rainy day. The man hands over the coinage with one hand and caresses his son’s shoulder with the other.
And with no great drama, it clicks. They found love in this place, he thinks. If she’s here, I’m going to find her, too.
Kalman pushes his glasses towards his eyes. It is time to chase once more. He can feel it. And since he is a scholar, he will start with holy books. He walks to the back corner of the store, dustier than the rest, and runs his fingers along new spines.
“I’ve decided to stay,” he tells Rabbi Marmelstein.
The man raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Are you sure?”
“No,” says Kalman freely. “But, Rabbi, there’s something you could do to add to my certainty.”
Kalman pulls the shopping bag onto his lap and holds it open, revealing its contents. The Rabbi shares a wistful grin. “Well, if that’s how it’s going to be,” he says, “let’s get to work.”
To be continued…
Image from Flickr.