The way he spoke left no doubt in Shuey Portman’s mind as to whose idea it really was
Korman was leading the pack outside Rabbi Portman’s office, as if to make it clear that he was on board with the plan. Lorb and Wagner were there, and Shimshy Lieber had also been invited. He was meant to do the actual pitch, firstly because he fancied himself a gifted salesman (at the BMG shuk before Succos, he had sold more sets of arba minim than the kids at the next two tables combined and in eighth grade he’d raised enough for Beis Gavriel to win the dirt bike) and also because he was the most serious in the beis medrash, so it gave the idea more heft. It wasn’t just some boys looking for a matzav.
Shuey Portman heard the knocking and shuffling feet and called out, “Come in.”
He realized that it was more than one bochur and stood up, pulling out folding chairs and trying to rearrange the small office.
“Plenty of room rabboisai, plenty of room,” he said pleasantly, settling on a small stepladder from the hallway as the final seat. “Sit down, what’s up, what’s on your mind?”
Shuey Portman liked the bochurim and they liked him, but this was the first time a group was coming to meet with him. He tried to imagine what they wanted as he watched them getting settled. It might have been about food, but then Lieber, a consistent dieter, wouldn’t have joined. It might have been about the dormitory, but poor water pressure in the shower didn’t justify a group of four.
The others were looking to Lieber to start the conversation, but he faltered. He looked around helplessly, and Korman squared his shoulders, gave Lieber a pitying look, and leaned forward.
“Rebbi, some of the oilam had a shtickel idea. It’s like this…”
The way he spoke left no doubt in Shuey Portman’s mind as to whose idea it really was.
Penina Wasser had put in a full day. She’d been in the city since yesterday working, making sure that life at the office was in order. That was her therapy: paying the bills, renewing the contract with the drinking-water company, successfully fighting off the extra fee from the landlord for the new carpet he was meant to pay for, and doing payroll.
Last night, she’d taken advantage of the fact that she was sleeping in Brooklyn to go wish mazel tov at the vort of her cousin Shalva’s son.
Penina knew she was a good wife, so when they said, “Oh gosh, you live out in the sticks for your husband’s yeshivah, you’re special,” it didn’t mean that much to her. When Shalva, the baalas simchah, introduced her as “my superwoman cousin whose husband like, knows the whole Torah, and she also runs a company and commutes back and forth from like, Saratoga or somewhere… we’re very proud,” Penina shrugged it off. Big deal. It was just words.
She didn’t need the attention, but she did wish that people had heard of the yeshivah. She couldn’t wait for the day when she would see a flash of recognition in people’s eyes when they heard the name “Modena.” She wanted it to be like Philly or Long Beach or South Fallsburg, “Oh, my nephew learned there and he did wonderful,” or “Yes, we have many boys from our neighborhood there, they love it. So nice!”
Like she kept reassuring Sholom, it would come. He was following the plan perfectly, focused on his boys and working hard. It would come.
She had seen the bochurim who’d come to dance with her husband on Simchas Torah. She had felt the affection in the room when he spoke at the Simchas Beis Hashoeivah. Something was happening, and her husband was the one making it happen.
As she drove up the Thruway, mountains tinged with orange showing the first hint of autumn, she allowed herself to dream. Generations of talmidim would be familiar with this highway, would speak fondly of the turn-off, remember the large iron wheelbarrow at the corner of Newport Road.
She didn’t need an upscale dinner and she didn’t need honor. All she wanted was a bit of recognition for the yeshivah that Sholom had built with his ten fingers, the bochurim he was carrying every single day.
Shuey Portman made sure he was alone in the hallway leading to his small apartment, and then gave a little jump, as if he were on stage.
He knew he wasn’t thinking calmly, that he needed to process the idea before going to the rosh yeshivah so that it was coherent and clear, but he was enjoying the fantasy too much to let it go.
He let himself into the privacy of his apartment and spun around, grabbing for an imaginary mic and rearranging his facial muscles, as a long-ago Israeli producer — Erez, maybe, or Ezer, something like that — had warned him. “You have to be smile when you singing, your face singing too,” Shuey remembered the instructions, the little man with his gray curly hair and smoky voice. “You have to be smile.”
“Ein kamocha,” he jumped again, “ein, ein, ein kamocha, ein,” he pointed to the drop ceiling made yellow by a leak upstairs, and then lifted one leg onto a chair, as if it were a stool at a concert.
“Ve’emunascha baleilos,” he closed his eyes, “balei, ei, eilos.”
The idea was an interesting one, he thought. He’d agreed to present it to the rosh yeshivah — there was no way Rabbi Wasser would give his approval to the Dovi Korman version, but maybe he could explain it differently — and now he was getting into the zone.
You have to be smile.
There was a little kumzitz going on in the laundry room, the whirring washing machines providing sort of a harmony to the singing. “Ki al rachamecha harabbim,” boom, boom, boom.
“We got this,” Dovi Korman was sitting on the dryer, looking out the window. “The sh’eilah is what song to go with. Do we compose a new one? The Modena niggun?”
“So maskim. Actually, Niggun Modena sounds even better,” Sutton said.
“Wait, we’re not sure that Rabbi Portman even spoke to the rosh yeshivah yet, until he gives his okay this is a non-starter,” said Zeldman. “We can’t jump the gun, you know?”
“There’s no way the rosh yeshivah is saying yes to this,” Weldler, who knew things better than other people — he really did, Korman conceded, even though his way of stating opinions like they were halachos was annoying — “not a chance.”
“You should have seen Portman,” Lieber argued, “he was pumped out of his daas, like so excited about this. He’ll make the sale.”
“The Rebbetzin just pulled up,” Korman announced glumly. “Forget it. Even if Rabbi Portman gets him on board, she’ll ruin it.”
“Reb Sholom,” Perensky leaned forward and spoke in an exaggerated voice, “Reb Sholom, I’m not sure what the hava amina is…”
Korman pounded the dryer. “So maskim, she for sure calls him Reb Sholom, no sh’eilah.”
“Reb Sholom, this is a real yeshivah, do you really think it passes to record a song?” Perensky wasn’t giving up on his Rebbetzin imitation.
“But Penina,” he switched to what was supposed to be the rosh yeshivah’s voice, “it’s good for the boys, even if it doesn’t help the yeshivah, that’s also something…. I mean, the Korman bochur, he needs outlets like this, it’s important for him.”
The others laughed, but Dovi Korman interrupted it by banging again, like a gabbai in shul.
“Okay, now Rabbi Portman is headed over there too… it’s time to daven.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 823)
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