Sometimes when I try a dropshot in pickleball and it doesn't make it over the net, my sister-in-law will say, “Serves you right.” As if I have been punished by God for trying such a sneaky shot. When she reads this story from back in the day, she will no doubt also say that it serves me right. That I flew too close to the sun. She will look up from her paperback—she does not like eBooks—wag her finger at me, and say it serves me right. She will be smiling but she will mean it. I will say, “Why does it serve me right?” And she will say because I tried to date two women on the same day. And I will say that’s not what happened. And she will say it sure sounds like that is what happened.
Icarus and I, both misunderstood.
Aviva Blatt was one of the women. She was beautiful. She was smart. She was accomplished. She also possessed a quality which I was finding to be increasingly rare—she liked me. We had gone out twice. Once to Kalendar with a K and once to play mini putt. Now Aviva Blatt had invited me to her family’s house for Shabbat—Saturday—lunch. She had done it in a manner which I considered to be a little underhanded. She had called me and asked if I were free for lunch on Saturday. I told her yes, I was wide open, I had no plans, my schedule was totally unmarred by appointments. I was. She said, “Great, you will come for Shabbat lunch at my parent’s house.”
If she had led with, ‘Do you want to come for Shabbat lunch?’ I would have then rapidly but calmly accessed my excuse folder. I had dozens. Some were even virgin excuses. Never used before.
But now all I could say was, “Sounds great. Looking forward to it.”
I called Allie.
I said, “I have a situation.”
She said, “Your life is a situation.”
“Aviva Blatt has invited me to her parents’ house for Shabbat lunch.”
She said, “That’s your situation?”
I said, “Yeah.”
She said, “Let me get this straight. A beautiful woman who you like and, and I can’t stress this part too much, who likes you, has invited you to lunch at her parents’ house and you believe this is a situation?”
I said, “Yes. I do. I might suggest this could even be considered a code red.”
Allie said, “I can’t wait to hear this.”
And I said, “They are going to ask me to lead Birkat.”
“They are going to ask you to lead Birkat?”
“Yes. Birkat Hamazon. The prayer after the meal.”
Allie said, “I know what Birkat Hamazon is, idiot.”
I said, “Well, you used a question mark.”
She said, “I was just questioning as to why they were going to ask you to lead it.”
“They will. It is an honor they bestow on guests. They are definitely going to ask me.”
“Maybe they will have other guests.”
“I’m sure they will have other guests. But I am going to be the motherfucking guest of honor.”
I don't know why I was getting angry at Allie.
“You could say no.”
“How is that going to look? You know I can’t say no.”
“Okay. So suck it up. I don’t really know what the problem is. You have no problem speaking, even singing in front of crowds. You revel in it.”
I said, “You don't know what the problem is?”
And she said, “No.”
So I said, “I will tell you what the problem is. The problem is I don't know Birkat Hamazon.”
I said, “No.”
“You didn’t say it at home?”
I said, “No. My father did the prayers before the meal. The blessing on the wine. The blessing on the bread. We never did the prayer after the meal.”
“You never went to Hebrew school?”
I said, “No.”
“You never went to camp?”
I said, “You know I never went to camp.”
“But you have lots of religious friends. You go to Shabbat lunch at their house all the time. What do you do at the Pratzers’ or Rosens’?”
“What do I do? I sit there like a schmuck. I look at my watch. Every once in a while I bang the table.”
“You don’t know any of it?”
“I know a few words here and there. I certainly don’t know how to lead it.”
“Well,” she said. “You know what you have?”
I said, “What?”
She said, “You, sir, have got yourself a situation.”
I didn't say anything.
She continued, “It’s only Thursday.”
I said, “I know.”
She said, “Saturday is still two days away.”
I said, “Tell me more, Professor Science.”
She said, “Do you really think it is a good idea to make fun of the one person who stands in the way of what will surely be a day of abject humiliation?”
I figured that was a rhetorical question. “Are you going to help me?!”
“Look, the only part you need to know is the beginning. It is a call and response. Then the whole group joins in. I will record it for you on a cassette.”
“What about the other part?”
“You don’t need to know it. Some of it is even silent prayer. If you want, every once in a while, you can throw in a ‘ha rachaman.’ It comes up a lot.”
“Yeah. Come pick it up in an hour. You can play it in your car and memorize it. You can do this.”
“You really think I can?”
She said, “Not really, but it will make a good story. I will see you soon.”
I said, “Thanks.”
She said, “You owe me.”
The other woman was Tamara Blankenstein. Lewberg and I ran into her at Yorkdale Mall the Friday before my Shabbat lunch. He called and said he wanted to buy new tennis shoes. I said, “Lewberg, you don’t play tennis.” And he said, “I never had the right shoes.” So I picked him up. He got in the car and said, “What the fuck are we listening to?” I popped out Allie’s cassette tape of the Hebrew blessing I had been trying to memorize and replaced it with Van Morrison.
“Aviva Blatt,” I said.
I said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Jesus. Seems like a lot of work.”
Lewberg bought three pair of tennis shoes because he couldn't decide which pair he was never ever going to wear and we ran into Tamara Blankenstein at the checkout. Lewberg knew her better than I, and we made small talk for a few minutes.
She was also beautiful and smart and accomplished. She was really nice but was a little bit too Birkenstock and granola for me. Even if I had not been dating Aviva Blatt, I’m not sure I would have wanted to go out with her. But that turned out to be a moot point because she did not want to go out with me.
I know this because Lewberg called me later in the day and said, “She doesn't want to go out with you.”
I said, “You are going to have to narrow it down a little. That’s a pretty long list.”
And he said, “Tamara Blankenstein. She doesn't want to go out with you.” Lewberg seemed like he was enjoying telling me his news.
“She doesn't want to go out with me?”
“How do you know she doesn't want to go out with me?”
“Because,” he said patiently, “after we ran into her in the mall, I called and asked her.”
“If she wanted to go out with me?”
“We ran into her at the mall and then you called her and asked if she wanted to go out with me?”
“Yes,” he said “she doesn’t, by the way.”
“Lewberg,” I was trying to control my temper, “why would you call Tamara Blankenstein and ask her if she wanted to go out with me?”
“Because you said she was cute.”
“I said she was cute?”
“Lewberg, why would you think that me saying she was cute meant I wanted you to call her and ask if she wanted to go out with me?”
Lewberg was quiet for a second and said, “Because that’s what friends do.”
It was hard to get angry at Lewberg. He was a loyal friend. He was a people-pleaser. Not for a second did he think he had done anything wrong.
I said, “But you know I am dating Aviva Blatt.”
Lewberg said, “Hey, Pappy, I don't judge. Anyway, there is no issue because she doesn't want to go out with you. It’s all good.”
Well, it really wasn't all good, but there was no point trying to explain it to Lewberg, who now said, “Want to meet at the Firkin for a drink?”
I said, “Hold on. Why doesn't she want to go out with me?”
And Lewberg said, “Does it matter?”
And I said, “I suppose not.” And I guess it didn't. “I will meet you there in 15.” But Lewberg had already hung up.
He was already sitting at the patio with what appeared to be his second Ketel and cranberry in his hand and a Guinness in front of my seat.
“Why doesn't she want to go out with me?” I asked before taking my first sip.
“Tamara Blankenstein. Why doesn't she want to go out with me?”
“I thought we had settled this.”
I said, “No.”
Lewberg took a big gulp of his drink and motioned the waitress for another.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Do you really want to do this?”
I said, “She wasn't attracted to me?”
Lewberg said, “That was the obvious one. That would have been my guess. But no. She said she had no problem with you physically.”
“She had no problem with me physically?”
“Not exactly a glowing review, but I guess better than revulsion. Okay. My personality?”
“That was my second guess. But no, she said you were funny and charming. Which makes me question her sanity.”
“So what the fuck?”
Lewberg said, “She thought you were a little too Jewish.”
“Tamara Blankenstein whose grandfather was Rabbi Blankenstein. That Tamara Blankenstein?”
“She said I was a little too Jewish?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “I eat pepperoni pizza.”
Lewberg said, “I know. I have eaten it with you.”
“I mix milk and meat.”
Lewberg said, “I know.”
I said, “I don't go to synagogue and don't fast on Yom Kippur.”
Lewberg said, “You don't have to convince me. You are a shit Jew.”
“So what then?”
Lewberg said, “You used the phrase.”
I said, “I used the phrase?”
“Yes. When she asked you how your sister in Israel was, you said, ‘Baruch Hashem.’”
I said, “I said Baruch Hashem?”
“Yes,” said Lewberg. “Praise the Lord.”
“Lewberg,” I said calmly. “I know what Baruch Hashem means. Why is saying that an issue?”
“She dated Joel Mandlebaum. He became a little too religious for her. She said she respected his beliefs but didn't want to go through that again.”
“Yeah. One minute he’s a bacon double cheeseburger guy and the next he is going to pray three times a day.”
I said, “I like Joel Mandlebaum.”
Lewberg said, “Me too. Great putter. But he became a bit too religious for her.”
“Lewberg,” I said, “I’m not becoming more religious. If anything, I am becoming less religious.”
“She said she got the impression you were on a path.”
“A path? I’m not on a path!”
Lewberg said, “You are preaching to the converted. But you know, Baruch Hashem.”
I said, “I was using it ironically.”
Lewberg said, “I know.”
“You didn't explain I was using it ironically?”
“Hey. I made the call. It’s not on me to get into semantics with her. That’s on you. I mean, it’s your path.”
There wasn't much to say after that. Lewberg wasn't going to be convinced, and anyway, I had a Shabbat lunch at the Blatts’ the next day.
So I forgot about it.
For about an hour.
I phoned Goldfarb in order to tell him I was going to call in a marker. Am not crazy about having to call Goldfarb and having to call in a marker. I’d rather take a marker to my grave. It’s like in golf when you use your mulligan on the second hole. “ Am using my mulligan here,” you announce. Everyone nods and takes note. Then you play like shit for the rest of the round because of the pressure, knowing you have already used your mulligan and have no more mulligans to use. Or you can be like Lewberg, who announces, “I’m going to use my mulligan here,” even though we all know he used it three holes ago.
So I wasn't thrilled about using a marker up with Goldfarb, but it was what it was.
Goldfarb picked up the phone on the fourth ring.
I said, “I am going to call in a marker.”
Goldfarb quickly replied, “You don’t have a marker with me.” But we both knew that’s bullshit. So I didn’t say anything.
There was silence for a few seconds and then Goldfarb said, “This makes us even?”
I said, “Yes.” I didn’t say that friends don't keep favor ledgers with friends. Because I knew there was no point. That is how Goldfarb operates. He is a great friend. But you can’t leave his house without paying your backgammon losses. That is just how it is.
He said, “What do you need?”
I said, “Yeah. I want to go out with her and tell her I am not on a path.”
“You want to go out with her and tell her you are not on a path?”
I said, “Yes.”
Goldfarb said, “Am I supposed to know what that means?”
I said, “It doesn't matter. Can you help me?”
Goldfarb said, “Aren’t you dating Aviva Blatt?”
I said, “We have gone out twice. Am going to her parents’ house for Shabbat lunch tomorrow.”
Goldfarb said, “Birkat Hamazon?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “How is that going?”
I said, “I have it down cold. Have been listening to it endlessly in my car.”
“But now you want to go out with Tamara Blankenstein?”
“I don't want to go ‘out’ out with her. I just want to go out with her to tell her I am not on a path.”
“You want to use up a marker for that?” asked Goldfarb.
I said, “Yes.”
Goldfarb said, “You know I have a marker with Tamara Blankenstein.”
I said, “I know.”
“Because of that thing.”
I said, “I know.”
He said, “Let me see what I can do.”
I call Tamara Blankenstein. She was expecting my call. Goldfarb did his part. We have a very nice conversation. I tell her about pepperoni pizza. She tells me about Joel Mandlebaum. I say she doesn't have to explain. I get it. We do a little Seinfeld ‘not that there is anything wrong with it.’ We arrange to go out for dinner on Saturday night. I suggest shellfish. Lobster. Shrimp. She says great.
Aviva Blatt’s mom is a great cook. Chopped liver. Matzo ball soup. Brisket. Roast potatoes. I think she is anyway, because I don’t really eat all that much because I am nervous about the blessing. I move food around my plate and then move more when my refusals for seconds go unheeded. Aviva whispers, “Eat something,” and I do my best to put some food away. I feel a little sick. I’m not sure if throwing up is worse than not eating. I think both are bad. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because I am about to rock this blessing.
But then Aviva Blatt’s mother says:
“And now our guest of honor, my brother Haim, who came all the way from New York, is going to lead us in the Birkat Hamazon.”
Uncle Haim is the motherfucking guest of honor?
Did Mrs. Blatt just call an audible because I didn’t eat her brisket?
I am encouraged to sing with the rest but I haven't studied that part. I mostly sit like a schmuck and bang the table. Once I try a ‘ha rachaman,’ but it turns out to be during the silent prayer. Am pretty sure I am not getting invited back. News of my pepperoni pizza past must have filtered back. Aviva Blatt does not look happy. She does not look happy at all.
I am not a big date planner. Shower. Nose hair trim. Brush my teeth. Mouthwash.
But I spend a lot of time thinking of the music I am going to play in the car. It sets the tone. It sets the mood. It tells the woman the type of guy I am.
I had thought about it and settled on the Grateful Dead. I didn’t really like the Grateful Dead. I didn’t even own any Grateful Dead. I had to stop at Lewberg’s and borrow a cassette from him. But at the last minute I changed my mind. It would look like I was trying too hard. My friend Ezekial had taught me to stick with the tried and true. That would be Grover Washington Junior’s Just the Two of Us. I popped the Dead out, rummaged through my console and snapped in the new cassette. But, in my haste, I must have grabbed the wrong cassette.
So when Tamara Blankenstein slid into the front seat, she was not greeted by the dulcet tones of Bill Withers.
Instead she was greeted by Allie’s lovely voice, reciting the blessing after the meal.
Allie has only recorded the opening. She has it on a loop.
We listen to it a few times.
Shame. I really had it down cold.
Tamara Blankenstein asks me to take her home. She doesn’t even wave goodbye.
I don’t blame her.
Allie’s recording was a little pitchy.
The Live at Budokan version is much better.