Jeter hit a triple in the ninth and the Yankees won, but Shuey had felt lousy all night long
Once, when Shuey Portman had been about 15, a group of his friends were going to a Yankees game during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. He really wanted to go — it was against the Red Sox, both teams in a fierce fight for a playoff spot — but he knew his father would be disappointed.
So he planned it well, spending most of the afternoon working on his pitch. He came home for supper and passed by the dining room, where his father was learning. “Ta, I finally got invited to join the better group, you know, the boys you always wanted me to be friends with, Levy and Buckman and the others.”
Tatty had looked up blankly. “Oh, wonderful Yehoshua, that’s nice. You deserve it.”
“Anyhow, Ta, they’re going out tonight for a bit, Tuesday is the night off from seder, and it’s been so intense, with all the bechinos, and I want to join them, is that okay?”
And then, before Tatty could answer, Shuey continued, “This is a big deal for me, I’m not the loud type of guy, I’m not like Pinny who was born having friends and is popular the second he walks into a room… I’m so nervous about this, I hope I won’t say or do anything stupid.”
Tatty looked up. There was an open Shaarei Teshuvah on the table, next to a notebook and pen. Tatty was in a different place, and, as Shuey had anticipated, he didn’t even ask where they were going.
“Hatzlachah with your friends, Yehoshua, you’ll have a nice time, they’ll enjoy you. Do you need money?”
Feeling horrible and also a little bit excited, Shuey thanked him and ran down the hall to his room to change. He’d done it right. But as he headed up the steps he thought he heard Tatty sigh and then he realized that his father probably did know where he was going.
Jeter hit a triple in the ninth and the Yankees won, but Shuey had felt lousy all night long.
Years later, Mr. Kohl would berate him, “Portman, do you want to sell snacks or do you want to get turned down? Because I listen to you talk and you sound like you want people to slam the phone down, to be frank. You gotta develop a story, you have to know how to push…. I’ll tell you something, the ‘yes’ is always there, waiting for you, it’s your job to get to it. Make it impossible to say no.”
The Kohl boys — who’d never sold anything and considered themselves titans of salesmanship just the same — would listen to their father’s speech and nod along. “Yeah, Portman, you have to want the sale, let the other guy fight to say no.”
Now, sitting at the oval kitchen table in Rabbi Wasser’s apartment, the Rebbetzin’s laptop filling its center, a Kovetz Meforshim on Gittin and open binder next to it, he leaned in to make a sale.
He thought about Tatty’s sigh during that long-ago Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and also about old Mr. Kohl, leaning against the wall and lecturing about the “yes” being there, waiting for you.
Rabbi Wasser wasn’t playing games. He clearly had no idea what a single was.
“Why wouldn’t a person make a full tape? I don’t understand.”
Shuey smiled and tried to gauge the Rebbetzin’s reaction. He wasn’t sure where she stood, but he was certain that the final decision would end up being hers.
“A single is more of a way to just get the music out there, you know?” Shuey said. “If l’mashal, a singer doesn’t have financial backing to do a full album, he’ll send out one song and hope that it catches on, so that makes it easier to go forward.”
He realized that he wasn’t helping his own case.
The Rosh Yeshivah looked confused. “But what shaychus does that have with us?”
“Nothing,” Shuey said. “Sorry, I was just giving a svara why a singer would release a single. In our case, the thought is that if we send out a niggun, just one, and we wouldn’t do any of the elaborate videoing, none of the beaches and deserts and bridges, no gimmicks, just the oilam sitting around singing, it would give people chizuk, first of all.”
Shuey swallowed. No one had ever said a word about chizuk. This was his own addition and it felt wrong.
“And also, people will sort of connect it with Modena, so memeila, we’re chal, so when it comes to whatever fundraising we have to do, it’s just an easy way to help the oilam recognize the name.”
Rabbi Wasser was shuckeling back and forth. The yes was there, Mr. Kohl had said, and Shuey wanted this yes.
He couldn’t explain this to Rabbi Wasser, but since the moment Dovi Korman had explained the concept — a single, with Shuey Portman lending his voice and expertise, the boys doing the rest — Shuey had felt jumpy, like those ads on the radio for restless leg syndrome. Just in a good way.
He’d been thinking about what song to sing all nightlong, humming when he went for his walk after supper and drumming it on his shtender as he waited for Maariv to start. He really wanted this to happen.
It wasn’t just the music, though the prospect of standing behind a mic had caused something inside of him to open up. It was also the creativity, the idea that Avi Korman had come and gone and he, Shuey Portman, along with a few boys, had answers to the crisis. They would figure it out. Do it their way.
“So again,” Rabbi Wasser was leaning back in his chair, eyes closed, like he was working his way through a sugya. “Again, chazzer it one more time. You sing a niggun, not a whole tape, just one niggun, maybe a few bochurim help it out, right? So kodem kol, what about bittul Torah?”
Shuey was ready for that. “I have a place that would do it for us, record the whole thing.” He was careful not to use the word “studio.” “The guy is an old friend of mine, so we can do it over the off-Shabbos in a few weeks, probably get the whole thing done over a long Motzaei Shabbos. And we don’t really have to do much work before, there’s no real practicing or anything, it’s all very easy, not so formal.”
“Aha, aha, and then what happens next? How does the niggun get out?” Rabbi Wasser was trying, Shuey noted.
“We share it, I’ll take care of that, people can get it at home on their computers, it’s not a big deal.”
The Rosh Yeshivah shook his head back and forth, as if trying to find a reason to say yes. It was clear that Shuey Portman wanted this badly and Sholom Wasser was a generous person.
But it was also clear that he didn’t understand the whole concept, that it was making him nervous.
Penina Wasser finally spoke.
Last night, she’d been standing at a vort waiting for someone to recognize the name Modena, to see any hint of acknowledgment of the yeshivah. Tonight, Shuey Portman was sitting at her table offering an easy solution.
She knew that her husband didn’t understand what a single meant or how streaming sites worked, but she also knew that he wanted his bochurim to thrive, to have kosher outlets, to give them a project that didn’t involve bittul Torah and would allow them to do something they enjoyed.
And if people would start knowing what Modena was, would that be so bad?
“Sholom,” she said, “it does sound like a nice idea.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 824)
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