Yossie teetered on the brink of his future, hoping he still had one. He’d found a gap in the rail fence that separated most New Yorkers from the Hudson River and stepped onto ice age Manhattan schist. He gathered a handful of river stones, each stone representing a particular sin. There are opposing traditions whether stones or bread be used for this ritual, but Yossie had already used up his quota of bread and now relied on what he found at his feet.
Yossie straddled the boulders closest to the river and prayed that with each flung stone a sin would be cast from his soul.
“Yossie,” a voice barked, “Don’t ruin your shoes.”
“I’m fine, dad. Look how far I can throw.”
On the safe side of the barricade were Yossie’s mother and father and several of their friends. They were all on a break between afternoon and evening services from their synagogue because it was Rosh Hashanah, New Year, and synagogue was an all-day affair. It was mid-September; the day was blustery. Still they had walked from their shul on west 102nd to below the granite walls of Riverside Park. Beyond the soft green of lawn, they ambled, dressed in their finest clothes, heads covered: fedoras for the men, and for the women, scarves and hats lashed under the chin with a bow.
They strolled with thoughts to the year ahead, bread or rocks in hand to be tossed into the Hudson. This throwing of rocks into a body of water is a custom called Tashlich. It marks the beginning of a ten-day cleansing of the soul leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, during which an accountant God tallies up one’s sins and decides who is and who isn’t to be entered into the Book of Life for the coming year.
Kind of like Santa’s death list, Yossie thought. Yet Yossie, the fourth-grade, A minus, Yeshiva student, was pretty sure he was not supposed to acknowledge such things as Santa or Christmas or Easter.
Last year, in fact, during the second half of his school day when English is learned after the morning’s Hebrew lessons, the English teacher, who was secular in her day-to-day life, asked her third-grade class to spell “Christmas” on a spelling test. Yossie wrote “Xmas” so he wouldn’t have to spell out “Christ.” Saying, or for that matter, spelling “Christ” was a minor blasphemy in the third-grade of the Bais Yakov School on 85th Street in New York City. The teacher was reprimanded for her poor judgment by the school’s rabbi/principal and the entire class got A’s on the test.
Yossie tossed another rock because he thought the word, “Christ.” Yossie was full of remorse: he remembered finding a quarter on the sidewalk and buying himself a Popeye Pez without telling his parents; he remembered flicking bottle caps with some neighborhood Irish boys when he was supposed to be studying arithmetic at Georgie’s house; he remembered telling his second-grade English teacher that English was his favorite subject, which was the first lie Yossie consciously told; he remembered a class outing to Central Park where he unearthed two snakes and attacked them with a fervor reserved for the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He found a sharp rock and cut them into pieces. Then, when they continued to wriggle, he picked up a thick branch, pulverizing them, roiling up a cloud of dirt and fallen leaves. His English teacher, the leader of the outing, ran up to him, yelling:
“Ayee! What are you doing?”
Wiping sweat from his chin, “I’m killing snakes, Miss Weitz.”
“Yossie, stop!” She pulled the implement of murder from his hands. “They’re earthworms. Night-crawlers.” She shook him by his shoulders. “They aerate the soil, Yossie. They’re Mother Nature’s helpers. If I ever see you…” She put her hand to her chest as if to collapse. “Just pray that G–d didn’t see you do that.”
But of course, that’s exactly what G–d is about. That’s why you throw rocks into a river, because fish don’t blink. They see everything. Like G–d.
Yossie wondered, Is G–d a fish? He cringed at yet another heresy and quickly found another stone. He whispered, “I didn’t mean it, G–d is not a fish. I’m sorry. G–d is not a fish. Please let me live.”
As the stone arced above the river, Yossie heard a prayer go up from the group behind him. His stone was joined by other stones, each begging forgiveness from those they had hurt, or insulted, or cheated, or upset in some major or minor way; no sin was too small to go unnoticed by a fish-eye G–d who sees everything.
They unburdened their souls, then they all turned and headed back to their shul, B’nai Midrash, for the evening service.
B’nai Midrash was on the ground floor of an old apartment building that faced 102nd street between Broadway and West End Avenue. The rabbi and his skinny wife, who spoke so softly you had to lean in to hear her, lived in the many little rooms that made up the rest of the apartment, the part that wasn’t the shul. The rabbi was big and round and smelled of chicken fat because he was also a butcher. He was imposing and looked right through you when he spoke. Scary until you noticed the smile lines at the corners of his mouth.
It was a small, orthodox shul that couldn’t afford a cantor, not like the showy 93rd Street synagogue where men and women sat together in a huge hall, under heavy chandeliers, with an organ and a choir sitting above the Holy Ark.
“It costs an arm and a leg,” Yossie’s father complained, “if you want a seat during the high holidays.”
His father took him there, every now and then, to listen to the choir and the famous cantor who had made several records for RCA Victor. But the 102rd street shul was their shul, the neighborhood shul, and their rabbi had a fine voice and sang the old melodies, “So beautiful, with a kneytsh,” with a wrinkle in them.
Yossie liked this shul, the smell of it: the odor of damp books and water-stained walls when you entered the apartment, the wool coats, moldy with winter snows and rains that hung on a rack in the hallway even though it was still summer. Then you turned the corner and walked into the big room with high ceilings, ornate crown molding, and shiny parquet floors. During the high holidays it held thirty wooden folding chairs and a mahogany wardrobe off to one side that housed the sacred Torah. That was where the men sat. The back of the room was curtained off with ten or so chairs where the women sat.
When he was younger, Yossie had questioned the seating arrangement: “Why can’t I sit with mommy?” he asked his father.
“Because it is special to sit in front, close to the holy Torah. A privilege. And because soon you will be a man,” his father said, the finger of wisdom in the air. “Every living thing has a purpose and a place in G–d’s great universe. Do you understand?”
Yossie tried to understand. He was taught that the roles of women and men were different in shul as in life. In shul the women gossiped and exchanged recipes. Outside the shul, women took care of the family, ran the home and paid the bills. The man’s job was to pray and learn scripture and keep the outside world, with all its greed and sin, from the home. Yossie’s father explained that it was the duty of each man, whether priest or layman, to study Torah, as long as he could still make a living for his family.
“You see, my son, we are each a piece of G–d’s puzzle, and we are not to question our place in His great plan.”
It was not unusual for members of the congregation of an orthodox shul, when it came time for the rabbi’s sermon, to argue over small details in the Bible. Recently, an argument arose over whether a certain man in that week’s Torah-reading rode a male donkey or a female donkey into the desert:
“What are you talking about?” said Georgie’s father. “If he had ridden a female donkey, then that would have been a sign that he was following in the footsteps of Father Abraham who also rode a female donkey when G–d, blessed be his name, ordered him into the desert. As it wasn’t a female, but a male donkey, it proves that the beast was really the Evil One, I spit on his name, in disguise.”
“Are you meshugah?” Moishe’s father answered. “You’re giving the Evil One, I spit on his name, too much power, absolutely. All it means is that the man didn’t own a female donkey, and that one of his son’s would need a wife with a dowry that included a female so the herd could multiply and prosper.”
Yossie pulled at his father’s sleeve: “What are they talking about?”
“Pish, pish, pilpul,” his father said. “Over nothing. Each one thinks he can stop the world from coming to an end.”
“Are they mad at each other?”
“Some schnapps will make everything good again with them. You’ll see.”
Ten days hurried by as it always did between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Yossie again found himself outside B’nai Midrash along with all the children under thirteen. It was late in the day, time when children were ushered outside and told to wait because they weren’t allowed to see the secret, holy ritual that was happening inside, something about falling on your knees and throwing yourself on the ground in the presence of G–d. Yossie shuddered, the idea of it twisting in his head: The Presence of G–d. When he was older, he was told, he’d be allowed into the presence of G–d. With an ear to the door, he listened to the rising and falling voices of the congregation.
Yossie ran his hand along the crease in his slacks. He was wearing dress pants and a sports jacket, white shirt and blue bow tie, hair neatly parted beneath a red yarmulke. He was standing in his blue canvas sneakers outside the 102d Street shul. He guessed it was about 4 o’clock by the position of the sun. He guessed it was four because his watch had a leather band and you weren’t allowed to wear leather on the High Holidays, which was why he was in his PF Fliers.
He didn’t quite remember why you couldn’t wear leather except that maybe purging your sins also meant not killing animals for food or clothing for a day. Yom Kippur was a fast-day so he hadn’t eaten anything since the night before. Feeling slightly faint and empty and righteous, he now could fill himself with goodness.
Even though it often interfered with his birthday, Yossie loved Yom Kippur. He loved the neatness of his home: all the walls and the floors scrubbed, all the clothes and linen washed. He loved the all-day session at the synagogue, the little community shul he could walk to. It was a small, comfortable shul, heymish, as his Bubba Trana would say.
“Homey, like in the old country,” his father translated.
Now, listening to the secret ritual at the door, Yossie could only imagine the men pounding their chests during the Yom Kippur service, softly for the more timid, harder for the more-hearty, when confessions would soar as one to the ear of G–d in hope of redemption.
But all that was going on inside, and Yossie was outside waiting to get back in.
His eyes swept the faces of the kids, looking for someone familiar, when he saw her. His heart thumped against his chest, a different kind of thump than the ones in shul. He shook his head in disbelief, but there she was, Rebecca of Bais Yakov, sitting between two girlfriends outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur, their heads together in some mystery known only to eight-year-old girls. She was sitting with her back to him, her braids flipping side to side with just a seam of skin down the back of her head, parting her blond, thick ropes of hair.
Yossie remembered Rebecca’s first day at Bais Yakov:
It was in January of last year. When she was introduced to his class, Yossie’s insides turned to mush. She was assigned a seat two rows on front of him and, every day, he’d scurry to place himself behind her as the class marched out to recess or when they were lining up for lunch. He delighted in the “swoosh” her dress made as she swung her arms against her red plaid dress in time to her footfalls. He thrilled at the way her pleated skirt flared out and the way the petticoat layered beneath it. She was always neat and clean, even after recess. Maybe it was because she didn’t do anything at recess like jump rope or play hopscotch. But she didn’t have to. Regular school rules didn’t apply to her; she was above stickball, above getting dirty or even mussed. She was neat and tidy, and always wrapped up like a present. He’d get all Jell-O and giddy breathing in the sweet-smelling bathwater that her mother bought her for her birthday which, he recalled, was sometime in May, between spring and summer, the perfect time to be born, unlike his which was at the beginning of the school year.
Ugh! Yossie shuddered remembering his last birthday. His mother had thrown him a party and invited his two best friends, Moishe and Georgie. She also insisted on inviting Myron Kornbluth because Yossie’s mother and Myron’s mother belonged to the Hadassah and sometimes did charity work at the big synagogue on 93rd Street.
Yossie didn’t like Myron. Myron was a bully who stole lunches from his classmates and threw them in the garbage, and watched cartoons on Shabbos morning instead of going to shul. The Hebrew teacher once caught Myron threatening another student. The teacher gathered the whole class at lunchtime to witness as he struck Myron’s knuckles three times with a ruler. But even that didn’t stop Myron from stealing and lying.
That birthday party was pretty much a big nothing: Myron’s mother called Yossie’s mother to say that Myron had the flu. As Yossie’s mother hung up the phone, she heard Yossie say, “Thank G–d.” She met him with a puzzled look, so Yossie had to backtrack: “Because … if I got the flu from Myron, I’d have to miss school.” Just then Moishe and his mother and Georgie and his mother came by for a brief visit to drop off a coloring book and a 24 pack of crayons from Georgie, and a five hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle of Disney characters from Moishe. Yossie liked jigsaw puzzles; he liked the fact that all the pieces fit together. He and his friends had cake and ice cream and, after an hour, they left because they had to get ready for the holidays.
Waiting for his relatives to come by for the family part of the party, Yossie went into his room to read some of his many Donald Duck comic books. He liked the drawings in the Walt Disney comics better than in the Warner Brothers ones, except for Bugs Bunny. He liked Bugs and the Road Runner, because they each did pretty much as they pleased and got away with it.
He read a comic, then two, then heard the telephone ring again. It was Cousin Phillip; he couldn’t come because it was almost Rosh Hashanah. Then more phone calls. Yossie’s mama came into his room.
“It’s like this every year, no? Come,” she said. “Cake Masters made the cake special for you. Let’s eat it all up.”
So, he sat down with his father, mother, and Bubba Trana, and finished the cake and ice cream.
Bubba Trana had come from Europe and was living with them until she died last year, a month after his birthday. Since coming to New York, all Bubba Trana would do was sit and stare out the bedroom window like a shriveled-up prune, and sigh, and speak mostly in Yiddish which Yossie mostly didn’t understand. But there was one thing special about her: Bubba Trana was the first non-Irish person Yossie ever knew who had a tattoo. He had seen strong men at the circus with tattoos, he had seen service men with tattoos, but Bubba Trana was the first woman he knew to have a tattoo. And it wasn’t even a picture. It was just a bunch of numbers on her arm. When she died, Yossie’s papa told him that he’d tell Yossie what the numbers meant when he was older. Always when he was older.
That was a year ago and relations with Myron got even worse. Yossie knew that Myron knew that Yossie liked Rebecca. He knew this because two weeks ago, the day before school let out early for Rosh Hashana, Yossie and Myron got into a fight. It was an overcast day early in September. The class was lining up for recess and Myron ran up and pushed Yossie out of line. Myron got in back of Rebecca, turned around and balled his fist in Yossie’s face. Then Myron grabbed Rebecca’s braids and pulled. He was such a show-off. She turned around and told him off, really good. She said, “Stop it or I’m gonna tell.”
Once outside, Myron lumbered up to Yossie. “What’s-a-matter? Too chicken to stand up for your girlfriend?”
Yossie crunched the gravel beneath his shoes. “She’s not my girlfriend, she’s not.”
Then Myron said, “Then you shouldn’t care if I pull her braids.”
Then Yossie said, “You better not.”
Then Myron challenged Yossie to a fight.
Yossie said, “I’m like Wyatt Earp. I don’t start fights; I just finish ‘em.” The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was a show on television. I hoped I didn’t sound as stupid to him as I sounded to me.
“Oh, yeah?” said Myron.
“Yeah,” said Yossie.
Then Myron dared Yossie to jump over a park bench that some of the older boys had pulled from Riverside Drive into the school’s play yard.
Yossie watched Rebecca. He wanted so much to show her how brave he was. Wanted so much to show her that he could protect her from bullies like Myron Kornbluth.
“Okay,” Yossie said. He backed up to the edge of the yard to get a running start.
Most of his class, as well as some of the upper grade kids, gathered around. They dared him to jump.
“Jump,” they said. And, “Bet you can’t do it,” they said. And when Yossie heard someone shout, “He’ll probably crack his head open and spill his brains all over everybody,” Yossie thought he had better not do it even if it meant that all the kids would call him “chicken” for the rest of his life. Then he heard Rebecca plead, “Don’t jump, Yossie. You don’t have to jump,” and Yossie knew he couldn’t back down.
He dug his heels deep into the gravel, then he was off. He felt good, fast like lightning, and just as he was ready to leap, Myron called out, “You’re a sissy boy and Rebecca is your girlfriend!”
Yossie swiped a fatal glance in Rebecca’s direction, miss-timed his jump, caught his toe between the bench slats, and tumbled topsy-turvy, head over heels. He hit the ground hard. Everything blurred. He felt like he was underwater, slowly sinking in a muddy lake, unable to see or hear except for a few indistinct words beyond the filmy water. He closed his eyes and let his body go limp until one of the big boys leaned over him and said, “He’s bleeding like Niagara Falls.”
A girl screamed. Yossie, still on the ground, opened his eyes. Faces pressed for a closer look. He was hurt. He had covered his head with his left arm to avoid landing face first, and his elbow was bleeding … a lot. The faces parted as the teacher on yard duty pulled him from the bench. She asked, “Are you all right?”
Yossie wanted to tell her that he hurt like heck, that he was embarrassed to be crying, that he wanted to be home watching cartoons with a cup of cocoa and a bag of Wise potato chips. Instead, Yossie murmured, “I’m fine.”
The assistant principal ran up, “How did this happen?”
Myron answered, “He tried to jump over the bench.”
The assistant principal tsked Yossie, “Well, that certainly was a stupid thing to do.” Rebecca bit her lip, stared hard at Myron and blurted out, “One of the boys dared Yossie to jump.”
The assistant principal brought his face down to hers, “And if somebody dared somebody else to jump off the Empire State Building…?”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence. All the kids looked down at their shoes, imagining a stupid boy lying splat at the bottom of the Empire State Building.
The assistant principal half dragged Yossie to the nurse’s station, Rebecca following behind. The nurse put down her magazine and pulled Yossie’s shirt from his arm. Her eyes gawked wide. “Oh, my,” she said. Then she rolled up his trousers and gasped, “Holy Moses, this is awful.”
Yossie had gashed open the skin around his left elbow and all along his left leg. “I have to clean the wounds,” the nurse said. “You’ll have to take off your shirt and pants.”
The assistant principal led Rebecca out of the room and shut the door behind her. “You heard the nurse, son, take off your clothes. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Keep your underpants on. I hope they’re clean.”
The nurse and assistant principal shared a smile. But Yossie was embarrassed. His mother had seen him naked when he was a baby, and maybe a time or two afterwards when he was sick. But no other girl.
While undressing to his shorts, the nurse attached a bit of garden hose to the faucet of a deep sink. “I’ll clean your arm first.” She ran water down his arm flushing out loose dirt and gravel. “Now step in the sink.”
Standing on tiptoe, Yossie swung his left leg into the sink feeling awkward and stupid. Then she poured iodine on his wounds. From behind his eyelids, Yossie saw red. Next, she sat him on a cot, grabbed some tweezers from the medicine cabinet and began pulling embedded gravel from his torn flesh. He muttered under his breath and tried not to cry.
“Speak up, young man,” the assistant principal ordered. “How do you expect to be understood in life unless you speak up?”
But Yossie couldn’t speak through the pain, dared not make himself clear to anyone because no one should hear him say, “I am not a sissy boy.”
When his parents arrived, his mother grabbed her chest and fell at his side. She examined the gauze bandages covering his wounds. His father shook his head and clucked his disappointment.
With a smirk meant to make his parents feel guilty, the assistant principal said, “He needs to go home,” and left the room.
Yossie’s mother fussed and stroked and kissed his forehead. “Och, my baby, my Yossela.” Then Yossie’s parents started bickering:
The father flicked his wrist like a bandleader. “Stop it! Stop making a baby from him.”
“He had a hard fall,” said the mother and held him close.
Father: “Hard fall? Life is hard, it’s time he learned that.”
Mother: “He’ll have plenty of time later to learn.” Then before he could respond, she said, “Why must he always be perfect for you?”
The father stamped his foot. “Why do you make from him a cripple?”
Yossie’s mother caressed his face, “You are a good boy, a good, good boy.” She kissed his forehead, his eyes, his cheeks and told him she was going to take him to the carousel in Central Park for his next birthday, and invite Moishe and Georgie and Myron, and have a birthday picnic on the lawn outside the zoo. Yossie couldn’t protest without telling his mother why he didn’t want Myron at his party. And couldn’t Rebecca come to his party, too?
Yossie returned to the Yom Kippur of the here and now. He couldn’t believe his good fortune, because there she was, right in front of him, Rebecca. His heart beat against his chest. “Rebecca,” he said and immediately slapped his hand to his mouth, afraid she had heard him. But she hadn’t. She laughed with her friends, her voice high and giggly and happy. She was even wearing the same red plaid dress he liked so much. She always did. He couldn’t remember her wearing anything else.
Then he knew … listening to her laugh, he knew. The laugh was a sign. He knew about signs from stories his Bible teacher told. Signs were everywhere if you knew where to look: signs from the prophets in the Bible, breadcrumbs in the forest, changes in the weather. Signs from G–d! And although Yossie turned his head when men and women kissed in the movies, he had seen enough to know what to do when a boy and girl really liked each other.
She laughed again. He held his breath. He tiptoed up to her, not wanting to break the spell. A step, closer, another. She smelled like flowers, like the lilac bushes that grew by the side of the pond in the Catskills where he and his family went every summer. Closer… and he had to do this fast or he’d lose his nerve. So close now, heart racing, still breathless. Closer… and he became aware of her girlfriends on either side of her turn to him. Closer… as they pulled away and she looked at her friends who were looking at him. She turned her head to see what was behind her. Yossie closed his eyes and met her surprised lips. Her lips were cold, still he lingered there for a moment until he opened his eyes and to his astonishment realized … IT WASN’T HER. It wasn’t Rebecca who had turned around, who had been laughing with her friends. It wasn’t Rebecca! She had the dress, she had the hair, she even had the smell, but it wasn’t Rebecca; she didn’t even look like Rebecca from the front.
Yossie’s mind raced. He remembered that Rebecca lived somewhere around 79th and wouldn’t be at services way up here; that Rebecca was a meek little thing, who wouldn’t brave loud laughter on Yom Kippur outside of shul. He noticed that this girl smiling before him must be at least ten years old, maybe even eleven. So were her friends, who started making kissy faces at him. Yossie stumbled backwards and ran, and they pursued him with loud, puckering, smacking, giggling sounds.
He ran across the street dodging a black Olds, the driver shouting curses on this holy- of-holies day. Yossie ran to the corner of 102d and West End Avenue, stopped and turned. The two girlfriends were jumping up and down laughing like hyenas, but the tall blond, braided-hair girl stood still, smiling back at him.
Yossie continued running down 102rd Street to Riverside Drive, ducking behind some bushes. He kept telling himself he was a big stupid idiot and he was never going back to that synagogue as long as he lived. To keep the chill off, he tucked up his coat collar around his neck and, after a while, he sneaked back and hid under the basement steps across the street from the synagogue.
His hands were black with soot from the basement banister, his jacket and neatly pressed pants were smudged with dirt. He waited as the children were ushered back into shul, but he stayed where he was. He waited … and waited … and waited for sunset and the end of the service when the shofar is blown in a series of ear-piercing blasts of varying quavers. Finally, he heard the Tekiah Gedolah, one very long blast as long as the blower could manage, the longer the better, which signaled the end of Yom Kippur and the end of the 24-hour fast.
He pictured the inside of the shul, everyone greeting one another with “Gut Yontiv,” everyone ending their fast with schnapps and sponge cake. Yossie always felt a little tipsy sipping a small glass of alcohol on an empty stomach, his face red with intoxication. Now his face was flush not with drink, but with shame. The doors opened. He heard laughter from the shul. He heard the men congratulating themselves for surviving another year, and he heard the women nudge their men and children to hurry home to their feasts. He imagined the three girls laughing, sharing the story with their school pals about a stupid boy who goes to the 102rd street shul and kissed their friend during Yom Kippur services.
His father stuck his head out the synagogue door and called “Yossie!” Then his mother came out and called for Yossie. But Yossie stayed glued to his spot. Another woman joined his mother, a neighbor, and the two crossed the street and passed right in front of Yossie’s hiding place. His mother’s friend asked, “Does he have a key to the house?”
“On Yom Kippur, we leave the door unlocked.”
“Ah, then that’s where he must be,” the friend said as they walked back to their homes.
Yossie heard more laughter and gut yontifs from the congregation. A street lamp switched on flooding his hiding place. He was overcome, and with each breath he tasted his own tears and humiliation. He smeared his face dry with his sooty hands, but he didn’t care what he looked like anymore.
The congregation began their leave taking. He crouched lower. The kids scampered out, poking fun at one another, playing keep-away with their fathers’ prayer shawls and books. Then he saw the girl who was not Rebecca whisper something to one of her friends. They shared a secret that Yossie was forever going to be a part of.
Yossie watched the exodus pass by him, their voices fading in the distance. He waited until the light inside the shul went off and the last person said gut yontiv to the rabbi and his wife, and hurried after the others. The congregation moved down the street in a clump, and when they got to Broadway the group broke up. Most scattered up or down the street, but some went down into the subway for the train to take them home to food and comfort, purified and free of sin for the coming year. Now that they had all gone, Yossie slinked from his hiding place, covered in sin and shame, a whole year of it.
He retraced their steps down 102d Street to Broadway. Although he was only minutes from his home, each step took longer than the last; at the rate he was going he would reach his apartment by daybreak. He thought of excuses he could make for his disappearance, but nothing would make sense to his father. Even his mother would shake her head. Yet more frightening was the thought of the next school day. Surely everyone would have heard about the kiss. How could he ever look at Rebecca again? Myron Kornbluth?
He was deep in thought when he passed the subway entrance. There was laughter floating up the stairs of the station and he imagined being the butt of the joke. Then as the train approached and swallowed up the laughter, Yossie became aware of the sounds of traffic and of the city around him. A horn beeped. A truck passed. He noticed the red stoplight turn green. He crossed the street and stepped onto the concrete island that separated the cars going up and going down the wide avenue that is Broadway. He stopped and sat down on the bench the old people sat on, the old people who spent their days watching everyone and everyone’s business go by.
A flash of lightning. Distant thunder.
Yossie squinted through his eyelids. Broadway was dancing, a blur of street lamps and stoplights and steam from manholes. Busses and taxis flashed by carrying people to and from, people who didn’t know about Bais Yakov and Yom Kippur and shul and Myron Kornbluth. Some, he imagined, were rushing home to families like his own, and others to homes he couldn’t even imagine. Some would be in church on Sunday with their own community and their own customs and their own G–d, a G–d who didn’t care if Yossie was allowed to spell Christmas, who didn’t care if he had kissed a girl or not.
A clap of thunder. He opened his eyes. First came the earthy-metal smell of coming rain, the air charged with possibilities. He felt light, like a weight lifting from him. Yossie’s shoulders relaxed. He felt a drop … another. A drizzle tap-danced on the sidewalk. Rain sprinkled his face. He pulled the hairpin that held in place his yarmulke and balled both pin and yarmulke in his fist. He pictured in his mind the unthinkable, that he wasn’t Jewish. That he didn’t recognize Mr. Traugutt’s Fancy Feet Shoe Parlor on the corner of 101st, that he didn’t understand the words Glatt Kosher etched in the window of ‘Hyman Blatt’s Glatt Kosher Dairy Restaurant…Best Egg Creams In Town.’ He pretended he was seeing everything like new, for the first time. He pretended that his parents came from Connecticut, that he had a dog named Rinny, that he went to school at P.S. 9 with kids who didn’t wear yarmulkes, that his class was in a red brick building with teachers who didn’t need a haircut and a shave.
He felt really good for a couple of minutes. Excited. Then, at the tail end of his excitement, his breathing became labored. He couldn’t catch his breath. He opened his eyes and coughed uncontrollably. No one came to help him. No one cared that he couldn’t breathe. And he couldn’t stop the thought that if he didn’t recognize anything around him, where was he? Who was he? Where did he fit? Another clap of thunder and the rains came like a punishment.
He bent over his aching stomach, closed his eyes, and cradled his head with his palms. In his mind his mother leaned out their third-story bedroom window and yelled, “Come straight home from school, but first go and get eggs and farmer cheese. Oh, and a loaf of challah for Shabbos.” He saw his father poking the air, warning about big rats in the subways and gypsies stealing little children who dawdled too far from their parents. He heard his mamma crying in her sleep, “Zenen alle farlorn.” which means, his father translated, “They are all lost.” His heart was lonely and full of hurt.
From where he was sitting, he could see the stoop leading up to his apartment building. He leapt from the bench, but instead of crossing the street to his house, he ran headlong in the opposite direction, heedless of the oncoming cars. He ran across Broadway, holding his yarmulke to his head. Rain pelted him. He ran passed the shul, ran across West End Avenue, down the block and across Riverside Drive. He ran down into the park. He ran until he found the gap in the fence, stopping for a handful of stones. He stepped onto the ice age Manhattan schist bordering the Hudson River and began to empty his soul of sins.
Laezer Schlomkowitz is a theatre actor and director. Having adapted many stories for the stage, for the past two years, he’s been working on a series of short stories and a completed novel. Much of his work references the immigrant experience with NYC as a backdrop.
*The ‘Hudson River…’ appeared in the 2019 Spring issue of The North American Review