| Second Dance |

Second Dance: Chapter 25

"Akiva, trust me, this is something unhealthy,” Reuven insisted. “My only question is what I’m seeing and how to react”


Akiva Putterman had a talk entitled “The Healthy Way to Fight,” in which he helped mechanchim understand the backdrop to arguments. Along with keeping their classrooms calmer, he felt it equipped them with vital skills to teach to students in maintaining peace.

It was a major principle of his that people only fight when they feel threatened, so the first step to conflict resolution was identifying the threat and evaluating whether it was real. Rabbi Putterman always liked to use the example of the time his wife discovered a mouse in the guestroom and nearly passed out from fright. She called him home from school to deal with the emergency. (He had received Rina’s permission to share the story, he always pointed out. Speakers should never tell family stories unless they were sure that the subjects of the story were okay with it.)

He drove home, parking at a funny angle like a Hatzolah member, and grabbed a broom on the way in. He hadn’t felt like such a hero since sheva brachos, he would say, and this always got a laugh.

He hurried to the basement, where his wife had locked herself into the toy closet, and then gingerly opened the door to the guestroom, ready for anything. The mouse in the corner, peeking out from under the radiator, hadn’t moved an inch.

It was there, waiting patiently for him. He crept forward, the broom raised over his head — and as he was about to bring it down, he realized that it was just a crumpled sock, bunched up so that it looked like a mouse.

That was it. He lifted it up and came out triumphantly, waving it at Rina, who, even though she saw that it was a sock, still looked unconvinced for some reason.

But the point was, they had been worried about a sock.

Many conflicts, he would say, can be resolved by identifying what it is that is causing the threat, articulating it, and analyzing it. “So often, you’re waving a broom menacingly… at a crumpled sock,” he would say, feeling it a very dramatic line.

Now, he tried it on Reuven Stagler, who was usually so receptive to his ideas.

“Nah, this is not a sock, Akiva, trust me, this is something unhealthy,” Reuven insisted. “My only question is what I’m seeing and how to react.”

They were standing in the empty parking spot between their homes on Wimbledon Loop, and they stopped talking as Mrs. Brucker passed by, even though she wasn’t within earshot.

The whole thing was just so sensitive, and it had the potential to become much stickier, Akiva thought.

Reuven Stagler, Akiva discerned, was a person with real ability and a real sense of achrayus, who had never been given a chance like this before, and now, it meant everything to him. That’s why he felt threatened and unnerved by Heshy Brucker’s innocent little gathering, as if someone was planning to open a parallel kehillah to his under his nose.

“Reuven, you need to believe me on this,” Akiva said. “First of all, Heshy is the sweetest person, I guarantee you that he has no agenda. If he were ambitious that way, he wouldn’t be living in his Mommy’s basement trying to figure out his life, right?”

As if he had only heard the last sentence, Reuven Stagler said, “Exactly, and more and more people are coming to tell me that it’s a violation of the neighborhood bylaws. No tenants, no families moving in with you long term, this neighborhood was specifically planned for a certain type of family. Heshy Brucker is the wrong age, and he doesn’t seem to have any plans of leaving at all. I felt like it was petty to say anything, firstly because it’s not clear in the fine print how long is short term and what’s permanent, so I don’t really have an argument, and I also didn’t want to create any unpleasantness with them. They’re our neighbors, Chaim is clearly a choshuve Yid, and Nechama, of course, is friends with the Missus.”

He exhaled.

Akiva Putterman heard desperation and he knew that his next words would be crucial. He wanted to validate, but also to dispel any such notion from his neighbor’s mind.

“You know what, Reuven? Why don’t you go face this head on and ask Heshy the question? So much of what you’re feeling is really fear, not anger, and it’s like you already decided on the outcome in your mind. Ask him straight. If you want, I’ll come with you.”

Reuven paused. He hadn’t worn a tie to work before moving here, but he’d taken to walking around in a suit and tie now, if only to make sure that people realized that this position was serious business, not just some small talk about speed bumps. He was their man and he would do them good.

Yesterday, a couple he didn’t really know, Wiener on Dublin Court, had called to invite him to a sheva brachos they were hosting for their granddaughter.

“You know, we have so much respect for what you’re doing, it’s not like we have a rav here yet, so we thought it would be nice if you could join,” the man had stammered after Minchah.

Reuven had placed a leaderly hand on his shoulder and assured him that he would be there, for sure.

Nechama had been less eager, insisting that she wouldn’t know anyone there and if he was a big macher, that was great, she was happy for him, but it had nothing to do with her. But when push came to shove, she joined him, and ended up meeting new people.

She came home with great information about an exercise class and a new friend who would teach her how to bake sourdough challah, all upbeat and sunny about how different this was from Queens, the sense that they were all in it together, like a real neighborhood.

That feeling was what he was looking to bottle up and share with the people, his people, and now, he saw a threat coming from right next door. He needed time to do it right and he needed space, but he believed he could make Alameda Gardens into the place that the advertisements had promised, so people would be rhapsodizing like Nechama had been last night.

“I hear you, Rabbi, I do,” Reuven said, trying to imagine his conversation with Heshy Brucker. “I would go over if you think it’s wise, and sure, I’d love it if you came.”

Leaders had to be bold.

“But the thing is, it’s 11:26 a.m. now, and I haven’t exactly known Heshy to be the earliest riser in the place, he’s usually sauntering off just about now with his tallis bag, to be honest. Maybe we should wait until later in the day?”

Reuven was aware of how obnoxious he sounded. That was also part of it. He was hard-nosed when he needed to be, and if Rabbi Putterman was judging him, then so be it.

Akiva didn’t smile and he also didn’t lecture Reuven for being snide. He just sighed and said, “Okay, then, let’s be in touch later, Reuven.”

As if on cue, Heshy Brucker pulled up in his father’s car and parked.

“Good morning, chevreh,” he said warmly, the tallis bag under his arm moving up and down as he waved.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 903)

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