Commentary Magazine


The Seduction of Steven Eskanazzi

“Absolutely not. Crazy. Ridiculous.” Eskanazzi’s brain is fast and he always speaks fast.

“Listen,” she says. “Please. Please.” Looking at the table.

“For this,” he says, “this is the reason? Y’know what time it was in Jerusalem? I thought you were dying or something.”

“It was a terrible thing to do,” she says, “but listen. Have. Please.” She turns her head away so he can’t see her face. Gathers the blonde hair at the back of her neck in a tight, vague grip. They are alone on the back terrace of a country club on a spring morning, ten o’clock, 1978. The sun bright and shadows sharp and the flag straining and snapping in the breeze.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. But there is nothing, zero, nothing, I can do about it and I don’t want to put it this way but honestly, this girl, she wants to marry a sheigetz, fine, let her do it, gezunterheyt, because honestly, this girl”—and he stops short. He scowls at the table. And looks up again: “This girl is a slut. And this should be her worst problem, marrying Horst Wessel or whoever the hell he is, this gem of an individual.” And turns sharply away, looking in anger at the perfect green slope of the golf course in the distance.

When she collects herself and looks at him again, her blue eyes are bright with desperation and her lips are pressed hard against her fist; you see her face only from the nose up.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “But it changes nothing; what can I do? Nothing. Forget it.”

For a Jewish girl to marry a non-Jew was an everyday event in 1978, but you could still find people who were frantic to stop it, as if you could keep the dandelion puffball of the modern Jewish community from scattering elegantly on the breeze. Rabbi Steven Eskanazzi was twenty-seven at this point: slight, with a white shirt and knitted black yarmulke and wavy black hair, offhand manner, cold voice, hot eyes. Many of the smartest young Orthodox men were ordained as rabbis, meaning that they knew Talmud and halakhah and the fine points of Jewish life. Only a few became pulpit rabbis. Eskanazzi never dreamed of it. Mostly they went into medicine or law, business or teaching, academia or accounting or science. They went everywhere and did everything—jumped in but stood apart. And they smiled in a certain way, like the man who knows a secret and is content to keep it. Who knows more about you than you do about him.

In 1978 you could see these modern-style Orthodox Jews all over New York, and they looked like everyone else, except for the men wearing yarmulkes. Not all the men—but the younger they were, the more secure in this idea of plain American Orthodox Jews, the more likely to wear their yarmulkes full-time. The smile didn’t matter to Gentiles but drove other Jews crazy or, now and then, brought one to a dead halt and left him puzzled and uneasy, as if he had seen his Doppelgänger in a dream.

_____________

 

“Listen.” She looks at the table. (The wind playing delicately with the points of her collar. Her neck and the triangle of skin inside the collar’s V and her strand of tiny carnelian beads in shadow.) “He’s not just a German. He looks like a German. He’s got this smug”—words on tiptoe to keep from crying. She stops. The flag strains tight and beats. “If it were just any girl. But Jackie. . . .”

But Jackie—you’re too much of a mensch to be her friend. I know you were big pals a long time ago, so what? She’s your cousin—big deal, g’bye, forget about it. Y’know what?” He stops as the waiter puts black coffee before him, coffee and half a grapefruit in front of her. The food is supposedly kosher, but he doesn’t believe it is seriously kosher and won’t eat it. In 1978 the Orthodox community is holding together and the rest is dandelion seed giving way before the breeze. A certain kind of person saw it all in agonizing slow motion as it happened.

Coffee and grapefruit?” he says. “Yeccccch. Isn’t that like—acid and acid?” Screws up his face. She finds his vivid repugnance-face so little-boyish she has to smile. The smile is gone instantaneously. He looks (playful and suspicious) at her grapefruit. His moods are intense, but they come and go abruptly.

“Listen,” he says. (The waiter has taken his ostentatious indifference back inside.) “I’m really sorry, okay? It shouldn’t happen to anyone. If I could do something I would. But I can’t. So listen. You look great, how’re you doing? How’s—what’s his face—Edward?” The day before yesterday he had been in Jerusalem working on his Ph.D. dissertation, living in a yeshiva. She phoned and he came—back to Great Neck, Long Island, where they had grown up on the same block.

“He’s okay.”

“When’s the wedding?” Teasing.

“No wedding,” she says; with her eyes unfocused she spoons a wedge of grapefruit. They have known each other since he was ten, she was eight; she has never won an argument with him. Not in seventeen years. She never expects to. And yet he would do anything for his friends. That is the only issue. His kindness. She is not Orthodox but cares about Jewishness and teaches at a liberal Jewish day school. They have known each other for a long time. The flag beats and snaps. Her hair (pinned up with a barrette on one side) stirs in the breeze. He steadies his yarmulke with one hand; with the other he squeezes open the clip and refastens it. He would do anything for his friends. “You would do anything,” she says, looking at her grapefruit, “for your friends.”

“Anything? Yeah?” The boyish smile. “I wouldn’t say that.”

“You dropped everything and flew halfway around the world to come and see me.”

“Sure, I thought you were dying—I mean not literally, God forbid—I thought you were in big, big, big trouble.”

“I am.”

He sighs—“Please. All right, you are. Fine. You are. But there’s nothing I can do about it and there’s nothing you can do about it, so honestly—drop it. You did a mitzvah, you tried, you failed, fine, forget it; eat your grapefruit.”

“But there is something you can do about it. There is.”

Shakes his head stiffly in repugnance. “What d’you want?—maybe I should call her in for a little lecture on Jewish marriage? Jewish ethics? I’m sure that’ll make a big impression. That’ll go over big. Her entire life is a negation of Jewish ethics. Honestly. Please.”

“There is something you can do.” Conspiratorial and stubborn. “There is. It’s this: take her out. That’s the only thing. If you did, she would listen to you.”

Take her out?” When he delivers a sentence slowly the effect is withering. “Like on a date?”

“Yes.”

He shakes his head so briskly it is more like a shudder. “Please. Please. This is loony-bin stuff.”

“She admires you very much. She looks up to you very much. At one point she was in love with you. I think she still is.”

He squints at her. The flag straining and beating; the air breathlessly bright. “You could seduce her,” she says, “if you wanted to.”

“Libbie,” after a moment, “I love you but you’ve cracked.”

“Just once? Take her out just once?”

“You’ve cracked.”

“Just once?”

“Not only would I make a fool of myself by asking her, but the whole thing—honestly—I can’t believe we’re even discussing this.” He only dates Orthodox women because he can’t picture marrying any other sort.

“I’ll set it up? Just once. Just once?

“Jackie was in love with you,” she continues after his silence. His brown eyes have lost their glitter and gone deeply translucent. Root-beer brown: she remembers thinking of them in those terms years ago. Soda in clear glass in sunlight, the bubbles streaming. “She mentioned you very recently, out of the blue. Even I was surprised.”

In love. Please. Years and years ago,” his repugnance-voice and repugnance-face returning—he takes in the green fields with a squirmingly annoyed glance and turns back—“she claimed to have a thing for me which lasted, what, y’know, ten minutes, and the reason she had it is because I was the one boy in the neighborhood who wouldn’t roll over and play dead for her, as you know perfectly well, the one boy inside a 100-mile radius centered on her bedroom—except for the other Orthodox people in the neighborhood—who had no interest in her whatsoever. In love. Please.”

“I’ll set it up. Just once?”

The breeze quiets for a moment and they hear a car grinding the dry pebbles in the parking lot. A distant lawnmower.

She doesn’t know what passed between her cousin and Steven Eskanazzi ten years ago, but Jackie has tormented her on the subject ever since. “Wouldn’t you love to know what happened between Stevie and me?” With her big bright gorgeous, teasing, needling smile. Her inability to sit still, and her grace that made you catch your breath. Libbie was said to be pretty, Libbie was arguably prettier than Jackie, but then again Jackie warped the entire sexual field of the earth from Great Neck to the South Pole merely by existing. Six years ago they were home from college on winter break, alone in the late afternoon in Jackie’s parents’ living room, Libbie barefoot in faded jeans on the floor, dangling her long undergraduate hair like drapery so it just grazed the thick carpet, aware of her reflection in the bare black of the picture window, and Jackie putting a tray with Japanese tea on a piano bench and needling her (“Wouldn’t you love to know what happened between Stevie and me?”), then grabbing a shiny red throw pillow and pummeling her playfully over the head—as smiling Libbie, long-haired and lonely, shielded her head with folded arms—and Jackie dropped into a fencer’s crouch, menaced her with an imaginary foil for three seconds and then dissolved into musical giggling and served tea.

_____________

 

That was ’72 and now it was ’78. Nineteen seventy-eight was a sour time. The country felt queasy and went around in a fog. Yet it still had the impression that its sickness was temporary. Would vanish if it could only get away and lie down. Inflation and the oil cartel and the rising price of gold and President Jimmy Carter’s face made people nervous; his humorless smile made people cringe. Yet the nation was rich and still getting used to its wealth—to the after-effects of the huge, unprecedented boom that had only recently tapered off. Near the country club with the patio and the flag and the almost-kosher food, an A&S department store was set like a sprawling military complex in a vast parking lot in a private dell. Cars arrived and departed all day and into the evening. Women got out of their spanking-new Toyota Celicas and Honda Accords and Saab 900’s and diesel Benzes (Detroit was flat on its back), slammed the doors smartly, strode into the building and returned with big shopping bags. A tony and expensive store that was always mobbed.

“You don’t know anything about women,” Libbie tells Steven as they walk from the patio toward the parking lot, “and you don’t know anything about yourself.” With a nervous sidelong smile. He has agreed to go out with Jackie exactly once, if Libbie can set it up. Libbie has plotted to tell him this for years, in precisely these words. The call to Israel and the proposition this morning are two death leaps she attempted only because she had somehow got herself, twice, onto the high diving board with no other way down. Two leaps with eyes shut and brain disengaged. And they have both come off, which makes her feel strange. She might have been sixteen when these words first occurred to her: You don’t know anything about women, and you don’t know anything about yourself.

He shrugs. “Maybe not.” A moment later: “Y’know, I drove a Fiat in Israel, too. I mean, the times I had a car. Not all that often.” Jingling his keys restlessly in his pocket. They’ve reached his dark green Fiat 850, a two-seat convertible with its top down—cheap, pretty, and unreliable. He opens her door. She eases herself (smoothing her pleated skirt underneath) into the low seat. She buckles the seat belt, slips off her flats, draws her crossed ankles tight beneath her seat and against the right door. She’s tall and the car is small. He has shut her door, walked around and opened his own; he slides in beside her. “Who owns this place?” he asks. Starting the engine. “Does it have something to do with your family, did someone tell me once?”

“Not that I know of. I think some sort of board owns it. I don’t know.” A painful blaze of sunlight off the chrome rear-view mirror as she turns her head.

He shifts into reverse and winds backward in a tight arc as the gears sing; shifts to first and crunches over the pebbles to the long asphalt driveway. Once he gains the driveway, the car moves fast enough to make conversation impossible for the rush of wind. He drives her home. She watches him shift gears. She loves watching him shift gears: his offhand precision as he thinks frowningly about something else.

_____________

 

That afternoon he parks a few blocks from the eastern outpost of the New York City subway at 188th Street in Queens. Carefully he hooks one end of the steel crook-lock around the steering wheel, the other end around the clutch. He closes the top, locks the door, and sets out for the station down residential blocks of immaculate small houses on tiny lots—past mirrored spheres and fiberglass fawns and a concrete Virgin in a blue-and-white tiled grotto. The station underground is brown and cool, with a row of identical posters advertising John Travolta in a white suit, arms flung wide. The platform is nearly empty, hollow silence echoing to infinity down the dark tunnel as he waits.

He rides the F, D, and 1 trains 45 minutes into the city, with a melody in his mind the whole time, he can’t get rid of it; emerges at Broadway and 72nd and starts for the small yeshiva where several of his best friends teach. He has taught there too. It’s an oddball institution: certain high-school students are there part-time, certain college graduates full-time. The streets are wan and tired. A cab rattling by at top speed leaves paper trash aswirl in the gutter. He hasn’t been at the yeshiva in five months. He walks faster as he gets near.

The medium-large room on the third floor is full of voices. Five long tables—caterer’s equipment with Formica tops, a makeshift set-up. They are all covered with big open books and students cluster around them, listening to a teacher in small groups or studying head-to-head in pairs. Most are in open shirts; their knitted yarmulkes bob in a dozen colors. Three walls are covered floor to ceiling with the black, brown, and burgundy of Hebrew books packed and piled onto shelves, bare of dust jackets, the titles picked out in gold. Coffee cups and rumpled copies of the New York Times scattered about; the windows on the fourth wall give out onto 73rd—they face north and admit no sun, a row of pale bright rectangles that leave the inside feeling sheltered and dark.

The warm prickly voices tangling in argument and untangling and the enveloping books he loves the sight, smell, heft, and feel of and the intellectual tautness and the haphazard dusty holiness of the air make this room, for Steven Eskanazzi, the best place in the world. Rafi coming toward him. They hug each other. Rafi with his woolen hair and big, permanent smile and suntanned look. A half-dozen other young men surround them. The students watch from their seats; even those who have never studied with Steven Eskanazzi know about him. He is famous in these parts as a Talmud scholar, but prefers to work on the Bible. His dissertation is on Psalms.

He joins Rafi at a long table. Others pull up chairs and they talk: Israel, his work, their work, inflation, Jimmy Carter, the Arabs, Menachem Begin, Rav Soloveitchik (a four-times longer topic than any other), the Lincoln Square Synagogue, the Carlebach shul, Meryl Streep (l’havdil), Saturday Night Live, Woody Allen, the wedding of Daniel Fein, the wedding of Ernie Lasker. Then Steven says abstractly, “I have this tune in mind. I can’t get it out of my head. It keeps repeating. I heard it on a record a long time ago, scratchy old record—a hazzan who wrote his own music singing in a haunting, moving kind of way, kol yisroel yesh lohem helek l’olom ha’bo

They all know the words, the start of Pirkei Avos, the collected moral precepts of the Mishnah: all Jews have a place in the world to come.

“Anyone ever heard this record? Know the name of the hazzan? The sleeve had a small gold label, in Yiddish I think, I can picture it. The saddest music I ever heard.”

No one recognizes his description. He leans his head backward into laced-together hands, tips the chair back on its hind legs and stares at the ceiling. At other tables the voices go on around him but they all, somehow, take account of his presence.

A moment later Rafi asks him something about a passage in the large open volume of Talmud before him. He brings his chair back to earth and answers. Rafi asks something else. Steven quotes a passage from a commentary. Rafi asks something else. “Where’s the Ran?” Steven asks. He stands impatiently and scans the bookshelves, jingling coins in his pocket. He locates the large, slim volume of Rabbenu Nissim’s 14th-century glosses on the laws of betrothal, pulls it down and returns to the table. Flips it open. Finds the page.

_____________

 

The moment after he points to the right passage, he is looking out the window (the pale bright rectangle of street light) and hearing nothing. He and Jackie as teenagers sitting on the edge of her bed as he scowls at an automobile manual she has convinced him to look at. His astonishment at the bedroom, like a parody of a girl’s bedroom, his suspicion that she has set it up this way to make fun of him—he wouldn’t put it past her, yet it seems a touch too bizarre. The stockings droop gracefully from the bureau drawer, the pile of neatly-folded laundry with a bra on top. Otherwise it is what you expect, the portable phonograph with the lid up, a falling-over pile of 45’s beside it and albums stacked face-forward against the wall. The garish psychedelic posters—a worm in hot yellow-green crawling on a black field, the flower explosion in orange, yellow, and fluorescent-pink, the “War is Unhealthy for Children and other Living Things” in black lettering on white, the stuffed animals tumbled on the bed. She is amused, more than amused, by the way he feels obliged to stand aloof from the sex culture of 1968. Sitting next to him with her legs crossed in her skirt that is short even when she stands. Then she slides off the bed and kneels facing him, settles back on her haunches pulling the skirt tight around her thighs, moving her head back and forth to a snatch of a Beatles song under her breath (“and dance to a song/that was a hit before/your mother was born”); she is always singing; then up on her knees and yanks the pillow off the bed, and settles back again hugging it to her chest with both arms; her sleeveless blouse; lays her head sideways along the pillow’s top edge: his mind losing traction. Who’s kidding whom?—you don’t wind up in a girl’s bedroom by accident. Not by accident. Her needling impossible smile. Someone is talking to him, proffering a large object of white cloth.

Minhah?” The head of the yeshiva, smiling. Steven smiles back, gets to his feet and takes the tallis, walks to the front of the room and stands facing the small, upright wooden box with the red velvet curtain. It serves as the ark and holds a Torah. A noisy basso scraping of chairs, and then 24 men and boys assemble in a loose standing group behind him. A whole chaotic establishment rising to pray—the most remarkable fact about any yeshiva. He drapes the tallis over his head, says the blessing, and places it stolewise over his shoulders, hitching up each side so it won’t touch the floor.

He is supposed to start the afternoon prayers but doesn’t. He touches the fingers of his left hand to his forehead and stands silently. Swaying slightly forward and back. They look at his shoulders or out the window; they wait. Through open windows they hear the panting rumble of a truck drawn up at the curb. He stands silent. It seems like a long time. At length he opens the book in his right hand, presses it to his chest, and with his eyes closed starts the Ashrei, and 24 voices join in behind him. Libbie in her tiny office is on the phone to her cousin.

_____________

About the Author

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.




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