We were just getting on the New Jersey Turnpike when Danny Engel bent over his guitar and placed his lips on those of Debbie Lieberman. Both of them were sitting on the floor in the aisle of the crowded bus that was taking our Washington Metro Area Midrasha’s students back from a Chabad Shabbat in Crown Heights. Sam and I were sitting on a pair of seats to their left, me the aisle and he by the window, just behind the couple, giving us an excellent view. Danny had started strumming and singing softly to Debbie right when we left Brooklyn. Ripples of streetlight, filtered through the long adolescent locks of the kids in the bus, played like starlight over the lovers. I was jealous. Nothing like that ever happened to me. And I kind of liked Debbie.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
Sam paused in his narrative about the young family he’d stayed with as he followed my gaze. We waited for Danny to raise his head softly and look deeply into Debbie’s eyes.
But that got boring after a while, so Sam got back to his story.
“So, you know, I’ve just gotten out of the shower and Yisroel, that’s the father’s name, knocks on the door a crack and calls out that I should hurry or we’ll miss mincha. And I open the door so the steam will go out—it must filled up the whole tiny apartment, our kitchen at home is I think the same size—and say, ‘mincha?” and he explains, as if I don’t know, ‘The afternoon prayer.” So I say, we already did mincha, over there at Lubavitcher headquarters, whatever it’s called …”
“Seven-seven-seven,” I filled in.
“Right, seven-seven-seven. And he says, ‘What was it like?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was cramped.’ And he says, ‘The room was full?’ and I say, ‘Actually, when we went in there was plenty of room, but then just before we started to daven the Rebbe walked in and everyone took three steps back. And since the room was maybe only ten steps from front to back, I got crushed between two black suits.’ Wow, they’re still at it.”
He stared at Danny and Debbie. Debbie opened her eyes for a second and I thought she was looking at me. I looked back. Or was it at Sam?
“So Yisroel’s eyes open wide and he slowly extends his hand and touches me and says, ‘The Rebbe came to mincha? And you were there?’ Well, I almost dropped my towel and good thing I didn’t because, you know what was happening under my towel? And just then Rochel, his wife, walks into the hall and says, ‘You doyvenned with the Rebbe?’ in her Swedish accent, did I say she’s a convert from Stockholm, got picked up by a Lubavitcher at a kibbutz where she was volunteering?”
“No, you didn’t say,” I said.
“Well, she is, and Yisroel was studying French literature at Yale when he got picked up. And, well, how can I explain it, I had a spiritual experience. Right there in the hallway, without any clothes on to speak of. When’s the last time they breathed, you think?”
The driver suddenly put on the brakes, there must have been traffic but it was hard to see outside because it had started raining, but the sudden deceleration propelled Debbie toward Danny’s body, which gave Danny, or this was the way it looked, an opening to put his right arm around her waist and cradle her head with his left. Once more she opened her eyes, glancing to the right and to the left, then closed them again.
“What do you think she sees in him?” Sam asked. “I mean, he’s kind of short and skinny. Scraggly beard.”
Then he looked at me sharply. “Oh geez, so why don’t you just ask her out.”
“She’s busy,” I pointed out, then changed the subject. “You should try singing to Angela.” Angela was the pom-pom shikseh that Sam was currently crazy about but who was, in the meantime, resisting his charms. Sam’s idea of charm being to talk about himself.
Sam considered that silently. Considering silently was not an activity that came naturally to him, so I was very appreciative.
“Yisroel is short and skinny, too,” he said after about fifteen seconds of hard considering. “So is Rochel. But they have this passion, this fire inside. You know, they don’t care about having a big house or a car or nice furniture or a TV. There’s slews of things they’re not allowed to eat. Lists of things they can’t do on Shabbat. But that’s ok with them. They just want to be close to the Rebbe.”
I looked at him quizzically.
“Well, you know, there’s something to it. When we got back from shul, we sat around the table, the three of us, the baby—they have this new baby, just one month old—in its buggy, and Yisroel says we have to wait, we can’t make kiddush yet because the stars aren’t right. And then he begins singing, bam-bamming this melody without words—they call it a niggun—and suddenly I find myself joining in, singing, and we sing the melody over and over again, louder and louder, and well, I mean …” His voice trailed off.
After a few seconds, during which I checked to see what was going on with Danny and Debbie and found that nothing had changed, I said, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, well, it was like sex, you know.”
“I wouldn’t,” I said.
He patted my hand. “Don’t worry. It can’t be long now.”
He suddenly swiveled and grabbed me by both shoulders.
“Do you think that’s God?” he asked. “Is that what they mean when they talk about God?”
I looked at him in surprise. “What am I hearing, Sam? That you’re going to give up on Angela, buy a black suit, and take the next bus back to Brooklyn?
He looked like he was about to say yes but then he gave it a second thought.
“Do you think I have a chance with her?” he asked me. “I mean really? I mean, why doesn’t she like me?”
I thought about it. “ I think you don’t have passion.”
He looked at me in disbelief. “I don’t have passion? No passion? Do you know how many girls can testify to what an animal I am? You’re the one with no passion. You can’t even get up the nerve to make a move.”
I waved my hand before his eyes. “Idiot. That’s lust. Lust is giving into your instincts.”
“So what’s passion, then? Have you ever felt it?”
I pointed at Danny and Debbie. “I know it when I see it. That’s passion. What Yisroel and Rochel have is passion. Passion is doing what you wouldn’t otherwise do because you feel compelled to. But you, you just do what you do.”
Sam looked over at Danny and Debbie, who were still locked in their embrace.
“Are you trying to say,” he whispered, “that Debbie’s being forced?”
I shrugged. We observed them silently for a minute as the highway starlight played over their trembling limbs. Sam drummed his fingers on the arm rest and finally said, “So do you think that’s what they mean when they talk about God?”
All that happened back when I was in high school, in the seventies. Sam and I lost touch. I ended up in Jerusalem. Maybe ten years after that bus ride in the night I bumped into him on Ben-Yehuda Street, coming out of one of those Judaica stores that cater to tourists. He was wearing shorts and a Tzahal t-shirt and, while he’d put on a bit of weight, he looked pretty good. He told me he’d made junior partner in his law firm and was still living in DC. I said I was a writer and he grimaced and wondered what I really did for money. I checked surreptitiously and there were no fringes peeking out from under his shirt, no kipah on his head.
Just then Debbie walked out of the store. She looked pretty much the same—kinky hair, lively eyes, petit frame. Sam took her hand and says, “You remember Debbie, don’t you?”
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. But somehow I broke out laughing. Debbie smiled. Sam frowned.
“What’s so funny?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “I just can’t forget that kiss.”
Debbie giggled and rolled her eyes. “It was my first,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do!”
Sam asked if I had time to get some lunch with them, on him he assured me, and I said I’d be glad to. We walked up the street toward King George in silence.
“Sorry about bringing that up,” I said to the two of them. Then I shook my head.
Sam looked at me searchingly.
I tried to explain myself. “Deb’s hardly the type of girl you went around with in high school.”
“Angela left him for a North Carolina jock halfway through first semester freshman year,” Debbie said. “And on New Year’s Eve we found ourselves at the same party in Greenbelt and he was sort of wandering around the room and came over to me. And you know, I’d never liked him at all.”
I glanced at Sam, who was staring off into the distance.
“But then he looks at me and he starts singing, bam-bamming this melody without words.”
“Passion,” Sam explained. He gave Debbie a little kiss on the lips.
“Stars,” she said.
I felt a tear in my eye. “So what should we eat?”
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