He would start out playing clueless yeshivishe yungerman, and if the situation called for it, he would let it slip that he got it, he’d been around the block, too
Back in Yerushalayim, Heshy had been one of many yungeleit who tried to work with American bochurim, but his approach was different from the rest.
The other ones planted themselves in yeshivos and the shuls in which boys learned, hoping desperately that a bochur would ask them a question so that they could engage them in conversation. But Heshy thought that the boys saw through that, and there was no reason to play games.
Instead, he used to go to the new cholent place behind the Meah Shearim shuk late on Thursday night and find himself an empty chair among the bochurim. They never minded when he joined: if anything, it added to their fun.
He would start out playing clueless yeshivishe yungerman, and if the situation called for it, he would let it slip that he got it, he’d been around the block, too.
In every group, he found a couple of boys who took to him, usually not the ones with obvious challenges, more likely the clean-cut ones from the wealthy homes. They needed it the most — they were stuck on a conveyor belt that they had no hope of climbing off of, and Heshy’s originality and color always attracted them.
Heshy didn’t think there was a reason to beat around the bush. The whole plan — invite them for a Shabbos meal, hope they linger after bentshing for a l’chayim, daven that they open up and share their life story, then follow up during the week and make sure that they didn’t suddenly start avoiding you because they felt awkward about how much they had shared — was a waste of time.
(Mansbach, his partner in the Thursday night chaburah, had once gotten very close to a bochur and the boy had opened up about his father’s anger management issues. Mansbach had done wonders for the boy, even raising the money for therapy himself, since the boy had to keep the therapy a secret from his parents. Eventually, the boy returned to America and got married, but he didn’t invite Mansbach to the chasunah or answer any of his calls. Mansbach forgot about it, but on Chol Hamoed Succos, Mansbach had seen the young man, who was visiting Eretz Yisrael, “and I knew,” Mansbach told Heshy, “that he was in the same rotten shape as when I first saw him, and that’s why he couldn’t even look at me.”)
Heshy trusted his instincts, and he felt he could ask the personal questions right away. If they answered, they answered, and if he thought he could help, he did.
He thought about this now as he stood near the register in Kipshuto, surveying a room filled with bochurim and nearly overwhelmed by the need to join a conversation, any conversation, and do his thing.
The bochurim in America acted differently than they would a year or two later in Eretz Yisrael. They were still inhibited by the fact that a neighbor or aunt might walk in and see them. They had yet to achieve the casual nonchalance that surrounded the tables in Cholent shel Yossi or Deitsch.
He saw his opening at a table in the corner where all the boys were wearing scarves and no coats, which was always a good sign. He passed by as if headed elsewhere, then suddenly said, “Hey, mind if I sit down here?”
One of the boys looked up, alarmed, then turned to his friends, as if asking their permission.
“Yah, no worries,” one of them, clearly the leader, said, “sure. As long as you’re up to date on the hock.”
Heshy found an empty spot on the table and gingerly lowered his shawarma plate.
“What about hock about real life? Like, the nimshal and not the mashal?”
Heshy made a brachah and took a bite, and smiled. “Look, I can tell you the back-and-forth about the Joey and Beri Weber gig last week and also why Reb Leibel is leaving Fligman’s to open his own place, but none of that will make a difference to you in a year or even in a month. I would rather talk about other stuff.”
“How do we know you’re not a dangerous creepy weirdo?” asked a kid who Heshy had pegged as shy.
“That is a smart question. The short answer is that you don’t, but there are flags you can look for, and I’m happy to share them, though not tonight, not here. For now, I’ll start by telling you my name and what I’m about, and you can ask around. I’m a pretty normal guy, but not too normal. My name is Heshy Brucker and I moved here from Yerushalayim, where I worked with bochurim, because I felt like I can get more done here, you know?”
The shy one from the corner again. “Why do you think that?”
Heshy wasn’t used to being asked questions, he preferred to ask the questions and open their minds, but there was something vulnerable about this boy.
“Less finished, more open, I guess?”
“But doesn’t that also mean less mature?” the boy persisted.
“You know something,” Heshy said, “you’re a sharp guy. What’s your name?”
The boy blushed to the roots of his hair and it was clear that he wasn’t that accustomed to hearing nice things about himself.
“Zeldman, Chaim Zeldman.”
It got quiet around the table then, and Heshy realized that there was something he was missing about this boy, something he was supposed to know, maybe.
“Well, you’re an amazing kid, Chaim, very insightful.”
And then, because it was getting awkward, he told them a story of how he had once done a stopover in Istanbul and he’d gotten stuck for Shabbos, and that’s actually where he learned to make baklava. If they came to his kiddush, he said, they could taste the real thing, the way he’d learned it from an old Sephardic chacham in Turkey.
The boys seemed enthralled, and one of them, Lorb, told him that he was also a foodie and his secret was Coca-Cola in the cholent, the oilam pounded it.
Heshy smiled broadly and said, “Wow, hope you invite me once to taste it… after Chaim here checks out that I’m not a weirdo, that is.”
“Where do you live?” asked the boy Heshy had marked as leader.
Heshy paused. If he said Alameda Gardens and one of them knew about it, then they would ask what he was doing in an old people neighborhood and he would have to explain that he lived with his parents — and then he would takeh sound like a weirdo.
Instead, he winked. “Hey, we’re just meeting, take it slow.”
But then he realized that he sounded exactly like he did not want to sound, like another adult who wants to hear, but not share, so he did a quick turnaround.
“Kidding. We just moved back here, so we’re at my parents in Alameda until our house is ready… But you know, it’s not simple to replace an apartment in Musrara, right? You guys know Yerushalayim at all?”
He pulled out a pen and reached for a napkin. “Here’s Meah Shearim, here are Arabs, and here is a very intense Breslov neighborhood,” he said, drawing a crude map. “Right here,” he made a dot, “is where we lived. That was kind of cool.”
He had them again.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 898)
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