Journeys Through Life| September 2, 2020
A car turned the corner, slowing near her house. Her heart dropped. Buick, definitely from the ‘60s. This was not a good sign
Chani Steinberg rushed into the dentist’s office, trying hard to remain calm. She hadn’t planned on this. Her little Yanky’s toothache had come unexpectedly, and there was no way their insurance would cover dental outside of state.
She was hoping for mercy, hoping that, somehow, the dentist would understand her desperation and give her a break. She’d been told that this dentist in Woodmere, a short distance from her parent’s home, would be sympathetic.
They’d been in the waiting room for just a few minutes before the dentist called them in. When Chani saw him, her jaw dropped. As did his.
“Uh, Mrs. Steinberg?” he ventured. She nodded, still not quite believing her eyes. The dentist expertly filled Yanky’s tooth, and sent them off with regards, blessings, and, of course, no bill. Chani couldn’t believe the hashgachah.
It had all begun many years ago, back when she was still Chani Hershkowitz, 22 years old, waiting for the right boy to come along. On this particular night she had a date, so she stood by the window squinting into the dark, waiting for that cautious-looking vehicle to turn into her driveway. She knew it was superficial, but she totally judged the boy based upon his car. With three younger brothers she knew all about cars and could tell the make and year from a single glance.
A car turned the corner, slowing near her house. Her heart dropped. Buick, definitely from the ’60s. This was not a good sign. She eyed the diary on her desk, where she kept a detailed description of every date. Sometimes, though, no details were necessary. She guessed this would be one of those times.
She’d come home in an hour, tops, and simply write, “Buick from the ’60s. Forget about it.” Her thoughts stopped short when she heard a polite knock at the door.
Three hours later Chani came home, waved at her waiting parents, and bounded up the steps. They knew the drill already. She grabbed a pen, opened her diary, and began to write:
I guess I really shouldn’t judge a boy by his car after all. The Buick, turns out it’s a ’67, totally did not encapsulate his personality. He’s actually pretty funny.
I don’t get what happened, but at the toll booth, the man gave him a high five and said, “Hey! It’s you again!” and they fist-pumped. I wasn’t sure what to make of that but I guess it means he has a sense of fun.
But aside from personality, he’s super deep with a weird life story. Apparently, he wasn’t always so frum. He grew up on the East Side, back in ’65, with a pretty rough group of friends. But he became super close with a rebbi of his who totally changed his life around.
It’s incredible, you’d never guess that he’d ever been less intense! Now, he’s so yeshivish, it’s almost like he speaks his own language. It’s all “takeh, eppes, grada,” and so on.
We went to this museum, where there was a display of a sefer Torah. I’ve seen it before, and never paid it much attention. But he was enthralled. He imagined a whole life story behind the Torah, where it came from, and how it dreams of returning to a shul. He has so much depth! If he’s willing, I’d go out with him again.
Klonymous Kalman was pacing back and forth, muttering to himself. His wife, Zelda, looked up from the pot of couscous she was preparing. “What’s up?”
Kalman had been waiting for this chance to unleash his anxiety.
“What’s up is I just don’t know what to do. That guy called again, my biggest customer. I told you that he was recently appointed president of this whole atheist organization, right? It’s his latest mishigas but it’s been great for business, they have this annual convention and he invites all his rich cronies and fellow card collectors to show off their most prized items.
“They’re having another event soon, this one bigger than ever before. Inviting agnostics as well — whatever that means. So last year, I sold him the Babe Ruth card and the year before, a Hank Aaron. But this time, all he’s interested in is a Joe DiMaggio.”
“So, what’s the problem?” Zelda asked. Kalman didn’t usually get this tense.
“The problem is that there are practically none on the market. I know a guy who has the card. He’s frum. His name is Hoishkowitz, Faivel Hoishkowitz. I’ve knocked on his door a few times, sent him letters in the mail. Offered up to half a million. But all he’ll say is, ‘It’s not for sale.’ ”
Zelda turned off the flame under the couscous. “Well, why not give it another try? You know what your friend Rachamim always says, you never know when the yeshuah might come.”
“Okay,” mumbled Kalman. “I’ll give it another shot.”
Chani always got especially nervous before a second date. It wasn’t her fault. Her father never had any long discussions with a boy on the first date. His logic was that the boy would be somewhat uncomfortable on a first date and more inclined to reticence. But when it came to a second date, Faivel Hershkowitz was all business, asking about yeshivah, chavrusos, and plans for the future.
The doorbell rang. Zev (that was his real name, although Chani’s brothers had dubbed him “Buick Boy”) was ushered into the living room. After they’d all been seated, Faivel cleared his throat.
“So, which yeshivah did you learn in?”
“Uh, it’s called Yeshivas Chachmei Kedem.” Zev twisted his jacket button.
Faivel seemed to be enjoying his role. “Ah, yes, a fine yeshivah. An old one too. I learned there myself back in the old days.” Chani was used to the awkwardness by now, but she just wanted it over.
“And who do you consider your Rebbe?” Faivel pressed on.
Zev brightened visibly. “His name is Rabbi Friedenstein.”
Faivel was quiet for a moment. Chani noticed the strangest expression cross his face. “Friedenstein? Shmuel Friedenstein?” he asked with unexpected sharpness.
“Yeah, Reb Shmuel,” Zev replied. “He’s super choshuv. He was a rebbi until recently, when he was promoted to rosh yeshivah. Now, he’s considered to be a leader of men. Do you know him from somewhere?”
Chani stared as her father’s face rapidly seemed to lose its color.
“We’ve met,” was all he said. He stood up, announcing the meeting’s end.
Chani joined Zev at the doorway, the ’67 Buick now a welcome sight after the strange encounter she’d just witnessed.
The second date went well. He was even deeper than on the first date. He views the whole world metaphorically. We took a train downtown and he gave a whole derashah about how a train is like life and how some people are just on for the ride.
Then we got off and walked around a park. A child was flying a kite and Zev just walked over to him and said “Watcha doin’ on this day so fair?” (I asked him how he’d conjured up that accent. He said he has cousins from Kansas — they mostly aren’t frum but one of them just become a baal teshuvah). When the boy replied that he was flying a kite he said, “Cantcha see little boy, there’s nothin’ up there?” Then we walked off. He went on and on about how the kite is a metaphor to life, how whenever something happens, we should always think, “It had to be Hashem.”
I never saw myself as super profound but I’m enjoying his insights. I’d give it another shot.
Chani shut her diary and headed downstairs, expecting the usual barrage of questions. She was met with the strangest sight. Her father was sitting at his desk, the odd expression that had appeared earlier that evening still fixed on his features.
But the strangest part was the drawer. It was open. That drawer never opened. The Hershkowitz kids all knew not to even bother asking what was in the drawer. But here it was, wide open, and her father was hunched over, staring inside. Chani cleared her throat. Her father’s head shot up and he slammed the drawer shut.
“Oh, hi, Chanaleh,” he said, sounding distant. “How did it go?”
“Uh, great,” Chani stammered. This wasn’t her father’s style at all.
“Wonderful, wonderful. He seems like a fine young man.”
“Yeah, he is.” Chani said. She waited, but no reply was forthcoming. “Well, have a good night, I guess.”
“Yes, good night, sheifele.” Chani headed upstairs. As she reached the top landing, she could distinctly hear the drawer being opened once again.
Klonymous Kalman slammed down the phone. “He said no,” he fumed. “No again. I asked him what on earth he plans on doing with that card. He wouldn’t answer. Just said it’s not for sale, like he always does. I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s a good thing Shabbos is coming. I’m gonna go get some of that shmaltz herring that Rachamim loves.”
Kalman stood up and opened the door, softly humming Boruch Kel Elyon. Shabbos was coming; the sun would soon be going down, hiding in the trees. His business woes would have to wait till next week.
Time passed. After a whirlwind six weeks of dating, Zev and Chani announced their engagement. Chani was thrilled to finally be wedding planning like her friends. Her mother, though, was a bit more worried. This was the Hershkowitz’s first wedding and they were at a loss.
Someone recommended that Mr. Hershkowitz get in touch with a wedding consultant agency. The conversation was short lived. The consultants (Mr. Katz and his boys) insisted that the wedding be insanely lavish, but money was tight in the Hershkowitz home and there was just no way that was going to happen. Late one night, Chani overheard her parents holding a hushed conversation.
“Just sell it, Faivel.”
“I can’t, I just can’t bring myself to part with it.” Her father sounded agitated.
“But he keeps calling you with offers, and we really need the money.” Chani’s mother was beginning to sound frantic.
But her father wouldn’t give in.
“It’s not for sale,” he kept saying. “It’s not for sale.”
“Well, what about your father, whatever happened to all that money they supposedly had before the war?” She getting desperate.
“We don’t know. The Zurich Bank insisted that the account doesn’t exist. And they demand a death certificate. Isn’t that ridiculous? My grandfather died in Auschwitz, the Nazis didn’t do death certificates.
“Besides, my father doesn’t have the energy for this. He’s tired, old, and worn out. And most things that people say to him just seem to slip his mind.”
“Oh, well,” Chani’s mother sighed. “We should just daven. You know what it says — kavei el Hashem, chazak vi’ameitz libecha, v’kavei el Hashem.”
Wedding plans continued. The Hershkowitzes settled on a band, a somewhat motley crew composed of a few good Jews who weren’t all that talented but wanted to bring simchah to Yidden with music. They selected songs both new and old, from Rosenblatt on gramaphone to Ohr Chadash and Simchatone.
One day, Chani’s phone rang. Zev. This was strange. His rabbanim had advised them to speak twice a week; this call was unplanned.
“Hello?” she said cautiously.
“Chani!” Zev almost shouted. He was clearly in tears. “You won’t believe it — my yeshivah burnt down!” Chani froze. She knew how much the yeshivah meant to Zev. All of his spiritual growth had taken place there, and he’d planned on joining the yeshivah’s kollel after the wedding.
“I have to go now. We’re starting an urgent fundraising campaign. I just wanted you to know about this.”
Zev hung up the phone and Chani burst into tears.
“What’s wrong, Chani?” her father asked. “Is everything okay?”
“Not really,” Chani sniffled. “Zev’s yeshivah burnt down.”
Mr. Hershkowitz grew pale. His eyes filled with tears. “Reb Shmuel must be heartbroken,” he whispered. Chani watched him walk out of the room. She heard him settle at his desk and, then, for the second time in a few weeks, the sound of the mysterious drawer opening.
Klonymous Kalman’s wife was chatting on the phone when her husband bounded into the kitchen, face flushed with excitement.
“He’s selling! He’s selling!”
“Whoa, calm down,” she said, setting his daily big bowl of couscous before him. “Who’s selling what?”
“Hoishkowitz! He’s selling the card! He just called me. He said for half a million we have a deal.”
“That’s so interesting. Why the sudden change of heart?” She was genuinely curious.
“You heard about that yeshivah that burnt down? Well, apparently Hoishkowitz is good friends with the rosh yeshivah. He wants to sell the card and use the funds for the rebuilding campaign.”
“Wow,” Zelda remarked. “What a fantastic, amazing miracle.”
“Yeah,” Kalman agreed, shoveling couscous down his throat. “I gotta quickly arrange a flight to L.A. now. The convention is next week and my clients will be expecting me.” He pulled out his phone and started searching for flights.
I’ve always said that you were temporary. That as soon as I get married I would do away with you, together with the pile of boys’ resumes. Well, I’ve got good news for you, Diary. Marriage has been such a dramatic transition I need someone (or something) to talk it through with. Zev seems happy in his kollel. They’re learning in trailers now as the old building is still undergoing repairs. An anonymous donor has stepped forward and covered the entire cost. Mi K’amcha Yisrael.
The only problem seems to be finding a chavrusa. Zev says that he likes learning with boys who have little yeshivah background. He finds it so gratifying to help them to discern how the words that they see are the secret, the key, that have kept us alive through the ages. But at this point, there are no such chavrusos available. Hopefully something will turn up in the near future.
Kalman boarded the plane, feeling even more giddy than usual. He’d managed to get a room in the same hotels as the Atheist Convention, so he’d be able to catch potential clients in the hallway, at the coffee machine, in the lobby — it would be great. Lost in his thoughts, Kalman barely took note of the three men seated behind him.
The plane took off. Kalman’s tensions eased and he started feeling hungry. It wasn’t a moment too soon. A stewardess approached.
“Sir, you ordered kosher?” she inquired.
Kalman nodded graciously, took his meal, and began unwrapping it. He ignored the soft snicker behind him and bit into his mezonos roll.
“Could he be so naive?” one man giggled, “to still believe that there’s someone up there watching over him?” The other men laughed along and enjoyed the beverages they’d ordered.
At first Kalman was insulted. But then, comprehension dawned. These people must be atheists! They were surely headed to the same Atheist Convention! What hashgachah! Kalman always felt like such an outsider at the convention. He had his few contacts but didn’t know most of the attendees. Now, he could befriend this chevreh, and they’d introduce him to new clients.
A sudden explosion interrupted his thoughts. Everyone began to scream and wail. The plane was in a spin, and losing altitude. Kalman grabbed his Tehillim and began to daven feverishly. Incredibly, when the plane was just a few yards from the trees, the pilot seemed to easily get it back into flight.
Kalman was left feeling a bit unsettled. Was his plan ruined? During the commotion he’d distinctly heard all three “atheists” crying out to their respective deities — most noticeably the fellow in the middle, Kalman was pretty sure his name was Howard, had cried out “Shema Yisrael” in perfect Hebrew.
It would be great if the Jew would mend his ways, but couldn’t the Christian and the Muslim hold onto disbelief for a little longer? Kalman turned around and, smiling politely, asked, “With your true colors showing, will you three still be going to the Atheist Convention in L.A.?” The three shook their heads sheepishly.
Kalman’s heart sunk. But, he thought, if Hashem had put him in this strange position it must be for good reason. Turning to Howard he said, “Hey, I noticed you speak Hebrew. Did you go to Jewish day school as a child?” Howard sighed.
“It’s a long story. I see the seat next to you is empty. Can we talk?”
Kalman nodded. He wasn’t a kiruv guru but this sounded interesting.
“I used to be in yeshivah, way back in ’65.” Howard closed his eyes. He seemed to be in a different world. “I wasn’t much into learning, just loved watching TV and talking about sports. But I was still frum.” He sighed. “All that changed one Lag B’omer. We were playing baseball against a team from Bensonhurst, I was the catcher. But while sliding into third, I broke my leg. I was in terrible pain. The ambulance came and took me to the hospital. I assumed my rebbi would come along to be with me, offer me moral support.”
Howard paused, his face reddening. “But he didn’t! He just stayed, playing ball, leaving me to fend for myself. I never went back to yeshivah. I couldn’t look my rebbi in the eye after that.
“Everyone thought I went off the derech completely.” Howard hung his head. “But I guess this experience has shown me that’s not true. I think I always knew that deep down, I still believed. I knew that Torah is not just a fantasy, a tale that’s been told. It’s what I believe.”
Kalman’s mind was spinning. What a terrible story. But perhaps he’d been put on this flight to help Howard heal a childhood wound. “Don’t you think it’s worth giving your rebbi a call?” he asked. “Perhaps there was a misunderstanding.”
Howard shook his head miserably. “Nah, it’s been way too long. Besides, I have no idea how to reach him.”
Here, Kalman saw his in. Reaching people was never a problem for him. “What was his name?” he persisted. “I’ll find him for you.”
Howard closed his eyes again. “His name was Rabbi Friedenstein. Reb Shmuel Friedenstein.”
And so it was. After a few well-placed phone calls and an ample dose of his salesman skills, Kalman arranged for Reb Shmuel and Howard to make amends after all these years. Howard joined Reb Shmuel’s yeshivah and was assigned to learn b’chavrusa with his old friend Zev Steinberg. The two renewed their friendship from the good old days and became very close indeed. Howard was a frequent guest at their Shabbos table and Chani was amazed and delighted by her husband’s passion and skill for kiruv.
The years passed. Howard adopted some chassidic minhagim. After he married, he decided to return to Woodmere where he resumed his dentistry practice.
Some more years passed. Zev and Chani were blessed with seven children. Zev’s relationship with Howard faded into a distant. Money in the Steinberg home was scarce; they were all still squeezing into that same old ’67 Buick. (Zev had purchased it at a used car dealership at Sheepshead Bay. He recently went back to see if he could get a good deal but the dealership had since closed).
Every year, the Steinbergs went to Chani’s parents for Pesach. To be honest, Chani’s motivations were mostly psychological, not financial or familial. The mere thought of having to clean her own home, with all those tiny crumbs, made her heart pound and her brain feel numb.
But this year, just two days before Pesach, her little Yanky (named after Zev’s great grandfather, who’d been a great talmid chacham back in Europe) started complaining of a terrible toothache. A friend recommended they see Chaim’l, a well-known dentist in Woodmere. Chani rushed over, where she was stunned to recognize the bearded dentist about to treat her child.
When Chaim’l had finished, he called Chani in.
“Mrs. Steinberg,” he said. “There will be no charge. It’s the least I can do to thank you.”
“Thank you so much,” Chani could barely whisper.
They were about to leave when Chaim’l called them back. He opened up a drawer and produced a photo. Chani recognized the soft white beard immediately. Reb Shmuel. Chaim’l handed the picture to Yankel. “Give this to your grandfather,” he said, his voice quavering with emotion. “It will be so very precious to him.”
Chani thanked him again then once more, turned to leave. Then, as an afterthought, she said, “Isn’t it amazing how life takes us on such incredible Journeys?”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 708)
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