He squinted in the darkness and stared, unable to process what he was seeing. Reuven? At Heshy Brucker’s tish?
kiva Putterman had given a lecture in Brooklyn, and he pulled into Alameda Gardens, well after midnight. He was tired, but the lights from inside the tent, visible from Wimbledon Loop, called to him, and he walked over to peek inside.
Heshy was still holding court, even though most of the people had left, and it looked intense. Akiva slipped in from the rear corner, and moved quietly. No one even realized.
He was about to take a few peanuts from the plastic bowl when he saw a familiar figure, the slim shoulders and straight back of his neighbor, Reuven Stagler.
He squinted his eyes in the darkness and stared, unable to process what he was seeing.
Reuven? At Heshy Brucker’s tish?
He leaned in to hear the conversation.
“It was about sheva brachos, you know? Things take on a different sense of importance, and what should be a small little detail gets inflated,” Heshy was saying, and Akiva had the sense that Heshy was a bit drunk.
He looked around. It appeared that everyone in fact was drunk. He couldn’t see Reuven’s eyes, but he could see his cup and the bottle three inches from him.
“That’s what this Yid told me, that it’s like a terrorist threat. Can you imagine? Every time he skipped a simchah, or didn’t smile nicely at someone or whatever, his wife was like, ‘You need friends, who will come to our simchahs? Who will make our children sheva brachos if you don’t show up to anything?’ ”
There was laughter all around at this, but Heshy looked very serious.
“So guys go along with this for twenty, thirty years, socializing with people who don’t interest them and showing up at dinners that bore them, and then what? Then you end up here. You don’t have to worry about your children’s sheva brachos anymore — for the most part it’s behind you — but you’re still feeling that pressure, still hearing that voice in your head saying, ‘Show up, smile, act normal.’ Why, raboisai? Why? What for? When are you going to live?”
Then Heshy suddenly said, “L’chayim,” and Akiva saw Reuven’s arm shoot out for the Livet, and he knew with complete and total certainty that this was not the first, second or third drink of the night for his friend and neighbor.
He got up and tiptoed out of the tent. It was certainly interesting, but if Reuven were to see him, then their relationship would never be the same again: it would be too embarrassing for Reuven to know that Akiva had spotted him there.
The right thing, Akiva knew, was to leave and forget whatever he might have seen.
Once, in Queens, Reuven had seen Samson run into shul looking all disheveled, urgently seeking the rav. It had appeared an emergency, and Reuven had gone to help find the rav, who had been learning quietly in the ezras nashim.
“Oh, good,” Samson had burst out in relief when the rav looked up inquiringly, “I need to speak to you so badly, we can’t decide what to do about Pesach.”
Reuven had grimaced and walked away, wondering how someone could make an emergency out of a basic question. It wasn’t pikuach nefesh.
But on Friday morning, he parked outside Rabbi Klarberg’s daughter’s house and felt just as pathetic.
Nechama had kindly not said anything about the fact that he woke up near nine o’clock, something that hadn’t happened in many, many years. She didn’t ask him if he felt okay, even though he walked holding on to the wall, and he poured himself a large cup of orange juice and took three Advils. It was like she knew to leave it alone, and he appreciated it.
He knew she’d heard him come in, and she knew where he had gone. She knew that if he wanted to talk about it, he would, when he was ready — and she left it at that. He had davened in Satmar for the first time since he’d arrived in Lakewood — the parking was a disaster, Reuven thought — and to be honest, he hadn’t been able to summon up much of a davening.
He had felt ravenously hungry, so he bought a Danish from someone selling them out of a box on the sidewalk — another first — and then headed over to Rabbi Klarberg, without any appointment.
He knew that the rav was leaving back home after Shabbos, to get ready for the wedding, and every moment in Lakewood was accounted for, but this was an emergency. Not like Samson’s “emergency,” but the real kind.
Reuven parked and swung the door open. He was aware that he was still walking a bit wobbly, but he also knew that if he didn’t talk to someone sane fast, he would climb back into bed and stay there all day.
He knocked on the door, then rang, then felt silly for a minute. The expression on Rabbi Klarberg’s daughter’s face didn’t make him feel any less silly, but she managed to be polite and say, “Hold on, I’ll see if my father is available.”
The rav came to the door a moment later, jacketless, in slippers, and smiled at Reuven. Already, Reuven felt a bit better than he had a moment earlier.
“Reb Reuven,” the rav said kindly, and stepped out on to the porch, closing the door to the house behind him.
It was a bit chilly, and Reuven would have preferred to be inside, where there were comfortable chairs and it was warm, but he wasn’t being given a choice. There was a chair on the porch, but it had a mound of snow in the middle of it.
Reuven coughed, and then, when he realized he hadn’t prepared, he just started to talk.
“Did I ever tell the rav about Heshy Brucker?” he asked.
He knew he hadn’t, so he did now. He told the rav about Chaim and Shaindy and Shaindy’s eager, determined efforts to make sure Reuven knew that her husband was rav material. He told the rav about Heshy’s charm and appeal, and how some of the people in Alameda found him intriguing.
He told the rav about his own conversations with Heshy, and about the younger man’s ability to speak in a way that made his listeners wish they were somewhere else, feel like they hadn’t really lived yet, hope to experience a richer, deeper life.
He gave the example of the man sleeping in Tzfas, and described the Leil Shishi, the gathering of the night before. He admitted that he had drank more than he wanted to, and that he wasn’t built for it, and Rabbi Klarberg threw his head back and laughed, his first real reaction to the whole speech about Heshy.
Reuven got to the end of the speech, and then asked the question that had brought him here, uninvited, on an Erev Shabbos when his head felt like it was split in two.
“Are we happy or are we not happy? Is he right? Why does he make me feel this way, and what is the eitzah?”
Rabbi Klarberg didn’t answer right away. He took off his glasses, and then blew on his hands.
“It’s sort of cold, Reb Reuven, let’s go inside the house for a minute to warm up, and I’ll try to answer your question, okay?”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 920)
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