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Community Service - A short story by Michael Oren



Por el embajador Michael Oren


Years ago, while on leave from the Israeli paratroopers, I was tasked with taking out a woman who'd just been left at the chupah. It was, they told me, my duty.

“Dina here?”

Zabarsky was asking but Martin didn’t respond. Throughout the service— the silent prayer, shema, and the opening of the ark—his mind was elsewhere. During the Torah reading, which others followed fervidly, correcting the rabbi’s infrequent mistakes, he ruminated. The portion spoke of war and bravery, conquest, and courage. Deuteronomy, a manual for the weak and strong of heart, but Martin scarcely heard.


Only when Zabarsky, a short, intense man, the brainy nerd who a generation ago would’ve worked in his father’s shmata business but now was raking in millions on Wall Street—only when Zabarsky repeated, “Dina?” did Martin finally sigh.


“She couldn’t…”

“I totally understand.”


“Do you?” Martin snapped, though he didn’t mean to. His next words were practically wept, “Could anybody?”


His eyes drifted around the synagogue, across the pews of the men’s section and up to the women’s gallery. The entire congregation in their Sabbath best, a regular catwalk for Bergdof and Barney’s, all affluent, a far cry from the Lower East and even the Upper West Side Jews, and all contended, familywise. And yet something was different. Something had changed, especially for the Bardensteins.


Which was why Dina, his wife, hadn’t come. Everyone would stare at her, she was convinced, the mother who came within hours of being a mother-in-law only to be humiliated. Better to stay at home hiding in their bedroom while their daughter holed up in hers, emerging only to set out the leftovers, or as Dina tearfully called them, “the not-overs.”


His mind wandered, searching for a way out. For Martin always found a way out, whether from back-to-back bankruptcies or a recent bout of prostate cancer. Tall and broad-shouldered with a blockbuster chin—in another life, they said, he’d been a boxer—he knew how to weather predicaments. This one, though, was entirely different. Not financial or physical but a matter of face. Of pride and standing. Private shame was bad enough, worse when the humiliation was public.


“Hey, get a load.” Zabarsky’s tallis-draped elbow was jabbing Martin’s, calling attention to a young man sitting on the far side of the shul, alone and struggling to follow the portion. “Takes guts coming in here like that, knowing nothing. Or chutzpah.”


Another jab and Martin relented, only because he sensed that Zabarsky was trying to get his thoughts off what had happened on Wednesday. The chuppa dismantled, the caterer paid off, the frantic calls to over two hundred guests. What hadn’t happened. He looked, finally, over Zabarsky’s shiny bald head—did he polish it, Martin wondered?—and the penumbra of his black leather kipa, to the young man with the trembling lips.


“They say he just got out of the Israeli army,” Zabarsky hissed on. “The paratroopers.”


“No kidding.” Martin couldn’t believe he was reacting at all. Couldn’t, moreover, believe his interest. “A paratrooper?”

“In the war. They say he found God.”


“God, no kidding.”


“Studying Gemara now. No chacham, I’m told, but, hey, as I said, guts.”


Martin gulped. His eyes watered and his chest felt so heavy he scarcely could rise for Torah’s return to the ark. “A hero…”


Between the lox and bagel table and the spread of Orwashers rugelach, Martin threaded. He moved fast so that no one could stop him with condolences, faster still to beat out anyone else trying to reach him. Only the plastic cups of Chivas, one in each hand, slowed him down. The offer, he told himself, must be brimming.


“Good Shabbos,” he puffed when he finally reached the young man who thankfully was standing alone by the kugel. A slender man of medium height—Martin towered over him—his build was nevertheless muscular, the product, perhaps, of his training. For indeed he looked like a paratrooper—or at least what Martin thought a paratrooper should look like—solid, unconcerned with his boxy off-the-rack charcoal suit, the indifferently knotted tie, the shoes clearly designed for floorwalking. Solitary. His head, vaguely egg-shaped, was angled downward and it wasn’t until Martin extended the cup and, handshaking, managed to spill a dash of the Scotch, did he finally get a look at his face.


“Oh, jeesh, I’m sorry!”

The young man shrugged and, before Martin could extract his handkerchief, licked the booze from his wrist. “No sweat.”


The face was a paratrooper’s as well. Block-jawed, spine-nosed, shorn of excess cheek or lip fat. The forehead, though, was a little low-set for Martin’s taste, and the eyes vacuously brown. So what, he reasoned, the boy’s a soldier not a brain surgeon.


“I hear you’re new here,” Martin began again. “New to this,” and his cup took in the kiddush hall, the plastic bowls of whitefish and herring, the schnapps’ bottles, and congregants. “Studying Gemara, I heard. How’s that going?”


Another shrug. “Seen tougher.”


“I heard that, too. Heard that you just got out of the Israeli paratroopers. Wow. And the war.”


The young man nodded, though more in consent than agreement.


“Now that must’ve been tough,” Martin commented. His mind was seized suddenly by the scenes shown repeatedly on Nightline, of Israeli troops crawling under fire through the streets of Beirut, the devastation, the massacres, President Reagan sending in the Marines. “I can’t imagine.”


The young man merely glared at him—or stared, Martin couldn’t tell which. The expression was either haunted or blank. And there the conversation might have died, but the memory of Wednesday’s disaster, of Dina crying into decorative pillows and the silence behind Ayelet’s door, spurred him.


“Martin,” he announced and hastily transferring the cup to his left hand, shot out the right. “Martin Bardenstein.”

The young man looked at the hand for a moment, as if it were wired, and then shook it, firmly enough, just once.


“Haim.”

“Haim? Born Haim?”

“No, Mitchell.” A pinkish tint infiltrated his cheeks, the empty eyes lowered. “But Haim, now. Haim.”

“A very good name,” Martin added hurriedly and held up his cup. “L’haim!”


“L’chaim,” the young man relented and touched the cup to his mouth. Remaining there might have saved him from answering the questions that Martin next fired at him—where was he working, where did he live? The answers—"nowhere yet, looking,” and an uptown address beyond where the East Side fell continental shelf-like off into slums—could easily have elicited a scowl. But his response to the ultimate query, “Are you single?” had Martin beaming.

He learned in closer, almost whispering, “I wonder, then, if I could ask for a favor?”


And he proceeded to explain all the horrid details, Dina’s need for a respite from suffering and Ayelet’s to escape from her room. Martin couldn’t believe he was relating all this, the disgrace, and to a total stranger. But what choice did he have? Breathlessly, he kept blurting while Haim listened, in incomprehension or awe, Martin again couldn’t tell, but he showed no sign of objecting.


“One phone call. One lunch. Anywhere kosher. I’ll pay.”

Haim blinked.

“No great task for a paratrooper like you.”


Haim shifted his kipa back and forth across his close-cropped dun hair, to the edge of his tapered brow.


“Consider it a mitzvah,” Martin exhorted him. “Consider it”—he peered once more around the hall. “Community service.”


Fine & Schapiro’s on West 72nd Street was chosen. Martin preferred an Upper East Side establishment—"Zabarsky, everybody, will see them,” he argued, “by Shabbos it’ll be all around shul”—but Ayelet wouldn’t hear of it and neither would Dina.


“Hasn’t she been through enough?” Martin’s wife cried. “Haven’t we all?”


He could scarcely remember the last time she said anything without crying, when simple requests such as “please pass the salad” were not proffered through sobs. A petite woman with a stylish bobbed wig, she retained the steely good looks that first attracted him as a freshman at Yeshiva, the industrially-drawn nose and lips. Her eyes, drill bit blue, still pierced him.


“Enough that she agreed to your mishigas, let her have her way,” she wailed, and those eyes began to bore.


So, Fine & Schapiro’s it was, a delicatessen located well beyond the known Bardenstein universe, with booths like catafalques and the overhead lighting of a truck stop. Hardly a romantic setting, yet the purpose here wasn’t love. Martin didn’t delude himself. Ayelet was an educated girl, a biology major at Barnard, an accomplished pianist fluent in both Hebrew and French, and Haim was, well, Haim. No, this was no shidduch, no match that would facilitate Martin’s entry into heaven, but something else. Rescue, redemption, and a confirmation that nothing, in fact, had changed. The only question was: for whom?


Ayelet was a half-hour late.


Haim, punctuality hammered into him by the paratroopers, passed the time herding toothpicks across the Formica table. Why am I here? he again asked himself, and yet the answer remained unclear. To be fully accepted into the congregation, perhaps, or to perform g’milut hashidim, a single act of kindness? Or did it reflect some other, elemental, need? He’d begun wrestling with the question when the backfire of a truck outside sent him ducking beneath the table where he dallied for a moment, gathering scattered picks.


“No need to bow, Haim,” he heard a voice above him exclaim. “I’m not royalty, you know.”


He looked up into a pair of brown suede pumps and the cuffs of stonewashed jeans. She plopped down on the other side of the booth and waited while he straightened himself. What he saw, rising, was a burgundy polka-dot blouse with matching pussy bow. The shoulders were unnecessarily padded, though, for everything about her was big. Even seated, she was at least as tall as he and heftier looking. Her necklace was of nuggets, not beads, and her earrings could easily have doubled as handcuffs. Her highlighted hair, permed and blow-dried, was massive.


“You are Haim, aren’t you? Kind of awkward, wouldn’t it, me gabbing with a stranger?”


It wasn’t a question, though Haim answered it simply enough, with his name. He extended his hand only to abruptly pull back.


“Ah, negiyah,” Ayelet observed. “Can’t have you touching a woman, can we?” She gave him the same pitying smile that he’d been prepared to show her. “Went through that stage as well. That is, not touching men.”


“And now?”

“And now? Let’s just say touching is the least of my infractions.”

Haim shook his head. “You’ve stopped being religious…”

Another smile, this one wistful. “More like religion stopped being me.”


A stilted silence followed, broken only by the entry of the lunchtime crowd. Several elderly couples and a gaggle of eight-grade girls from a nearby Jewish school. A waiter arrived to take their order—Ayelet’s order, which she made for them both.