Yankel and Leah (Chapter 5): Glancing at the Eyes of the Gentile Cashier
This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
He took up this thread when he called Miriam the shadchan’te the next morning. “I am still not sure about the way she looks,” Yankel told her. “I have no way of knowing. I can’t even remember from date to date what she looks like. I don’t think I could pick her out of a line of women.”
It was quiet. Miriam was a good ten years older than Yankel. Feminine, she possessed the calm judgment of Esther and Deborah, the prophetesses and matriarchs of ancient days; warmth and craft served the same master.
“Leah is an unusually beautiful girl,” she finally said. Now her voice took on a firmness. “Her appearance – whatever she looks like to you,” she said, speaking in a rabbi-like cadence with spare words as if rendering a legal pronouncement, “cannot be a factor going forward. You either find her looks acceptable or not.”
Yankel felt annoyed. It seemed an attempt to pigeonhole him, to box him in, but she was just trying to do her job, he quickly reasoned. She wanted to make a sale. One could even admire this: the scholar’s wife with notes of business-cleverness about her, too. She trades potatoes and radishes at the market with Ivan the peasant for bales of cotton and rolls of silk which she re-sells quickly to the mill for double the price. This was not wrong for Miriam to push him like this, and maybe this was for his good, but it made him feel cold.
But perhaps the cold eye was needed to get the work of the world done. Yankel was unsure. On the question of Leah’s appearance, he was not repulsed by her, far from it, but how could he know if he was attracted? Abraham and Isaac did not seem to notice their wives’ appearance until much later. Of Abraham it is written, ”Only now I realize you are a beautiful woman,” – now that he had to worry about they Egyptians wanting her for themselves. Jacob, on the other hand, loved Rachel at first sight on account of her beauty.
“Let me think about it,” he tried to say. But before he could say anything, the shadchante pre-empted him. “Let me tell you, Leah is going to go fast. If you’re so unsure, I’m going to recommend other men for her.”
He heard Miriam take a deep breath. “One more thing. I am going to level with you,” she said. “Leah was concerned. She enjoyed being with you, but you hardly looked at her, she said. A woman needs…”
Yankel, pained, felt himself a little dizzy. How hard he tried not to offend. A lingering, leering look offends. And now, not enough looking offends, too? He could not do anything right by women. “I get it,” he said, exasperated.
“Yankel,” Miriam continued, “you must really like the way a woman looks, but this is not something you think about. It’s something you feel, you know…” She coughed. “I believe you know the answer. This must be established.”
“Enough!” he muttered. ”No lectures please! I well understand the importance…”
Although this could not be seen over the telephone, Yankel made all kinds of involuntary gestures while standing in the payphone room with his hat still on his head, tilted to the side, nervously adjusting the brim, opening and clenching his hand, a Jew in mild despair. In his mouth a toothpick stuck between his teeth.
If he went out again, it didn’t mean he had to marry her, did it? Although he knew of some in his yeshiva who had become engaged after a fourth or fifth date he shook away those unhelpful thoughts. A date is not a commitment. “Tell her she needn’t worry,” Yankel said hurriedly. “I would like to see her again. I will call her.”
Yankel’s dorm room was on the third floor directly above a storefront grocery. Sometimes he would not eat with the Yeshiva, but rather take something up to his room and eat it there. Occasionally, he would stop in there to buy a loaf of rye or a seeded roll. He had, after many years, earned the privilege of having a small fridge, the only one in the dorm allowed, for which he paid the yeshiva seven dollars a month for the electric. In this tiny cold box, he kept a small tub of whipped butter and a couple of slices of cheese and a pint of milk. The Gentile girl in the store would make small talk with him.
“Cold out there?” she asked when he came in for his seeded roll.
“One dresses for the cold and it’s not so bad,” he replied.
He noticed that she wore a flannel shirt and a down coat. He could not help but notice the color of her eyes. They were a dark green set against blond hair. Her whole face suggested a dirtied up version of those ubiquitous (and disgusting by his lights) Ralph Lauren ads: People posed in rumpled, but inhumanly clean clothes sitting in a hayloft or on an old farm truck, staring ahead with silos and Kansas wheat fields in the background.
“I picked out the freshest one for you,” she said, handing him the roll.
“Thank you,” he said, in a hurry to end the connection.
Look how easily this Gentile woman gave friendship. For a flash he saw how he, they, together, might have looked in the poorly lit store, she, in a yellowed brightness, and he, rabbinically-hatted, suited and coated, his back toward the daylight blocking some of the outside brightness. And yet he couldn’t help but wonder. Her, he could see, her, he could recall the color of her eyes.