| Calligraphy |

And You Shall Teach Your Son

It’s a simchah, it’s a baby, a son for him and Batya. So what if the word son rips his heart clean in two, so what if his insides wrench from the pain of it

The curtains are paper-thin; pale, opaque sheets masquerading for walls, a futile attempt at privacy. In the next cubicle, loud voices clamor in a foreign language, punctuated here and there by a newborn cry.

“If you’ll just excuse me,” says a nurse, pulling back the curtain that brushes Uri’s shoulder. She’s trying to maneuver an IV pole across the ward, a tangle of wires and awkward rubber wheels. Uri shuffles his plastic chair closer to where his mother-in-law stands, cooing over the hospital crib. Something in the way she leans toward the baby, placing two hands on the rim of the bassinet in an almost possessive gesture, irks him.

“So I think we’re gonna be discharged later today, isn’t that amazing?” Batya’s giddy with adrenaline, her words are looping over and around each other like they’re on a roller coaster ride. It’s the fourth time she’s told him about her anticipated discharge. His mind flicks back, another hospital, another birth. He squelches the memory.

“It’s great,” he starts to say, then realizes Batya had directed that last comment to her mother. The words die on his tongue.

Blue eyes flutter open, and Uri leans forward reflexively, but his mother-in-law swoops in first, wrapping her arms around the baby and nestling her cheek against his tufty hair. He shrugs, even though something tells him to stake out his rights as father. But there will be plenty of opportunities to hold the baby.

The baby fusses. Batya’s mother adjusts the swaddling blanket, clucking her tongue rapidly. “There, there, bunchkin, it’s alright, your Mommy is right here... What a beautiful little boy, Batya, kein ayin hara. Just look at that dark hair! Nothing like your girls, is he?”

Batya giggles. “I know, right? Well, Deena had no hair, and Racheli’s blonde. But it’s not just that, Ma, he just has a different face from them, it’s rounder...”

Uri watches his mother-in-law twist her neck to view the baby in her arms from a different angle. “Well, that mouth is definitely a Weinbaum mouth. Chavi and Shaina and you all had exactly the same.”

Batya shrugs. “Really? I can never see these things... I’m sooo happy we’re coming home today, the girls are so excited to meet the baby, and besides, it’ll give us time to prepare the shalom zachar and everything, isn’t the timing great?”

Shalom zachar. He’d known it but somehow hadn’t realized it until now. Something cold spears his heart, glides to his fingertips. He grasps the bedside table, steadies his breath.

“...those eyes, look at those deep blue eyes, he’s a beautiful one,” Batya’s mother says, still immersed in her feature-by-feature analysis.

“Baruch Hashem,” Batya murmurs happily. The baby blinks, then emits a sudden wail. “Here, let me feed him, Ma.”

He still can’t believe this is real.

Batya’s mother hands her the squalling infant. She handles him with practiced ease, although Racheli is already five years old. He’s never seen her hold a baby before, and something about it makes his heart ache.

“There, there, sheifelah, your Mommy’s about to feed you,” Batya’s mother says affectionately. She’s standing by the bed now. Uri jumps up.

“Here, do you want to sit down?”

His mother-in-law waves the offer away. “Don’t be silly, you were up all night last night! Keep the chair. I’m fine standing.”

Batya’s murmuring to the baby and the quiet in the cubicle is starting to feel awkward without her blithe banter between them.

“So, do you see any family resemblance?” Batya’s mother asks Uri, in a polite tone.

Any resemblance.

Memories rush forward, a tidal wave crashing against the dam in his heart. One more minute and it will disintegrate, splinter open, and drown him in the steaming, frothing depths. He’s powerless and small against the pain of it, Hans Brinker with his finger in the dike.

His mother-in-law is eyeing him, a puzzled look on her face. He dredges up words from somewhere. They come out raw and rough.

“I-I’m not sure,” he coughs out, stammering around the rock in his throat.

But he is sure. He knows exactly who the baby looks like. Deep blue eyes, dark-velvet fuzz of hair, round face, tiny smudge of a nose… This brand-new baby boy looks exactly like his brother — Uri’s older son.

  

The crowd of people are a wave, surging through the stuffy dining room and forcing Uri to retreat against the wall. His father-in-law holds court right in the center, dispensing l’chayims, booming out good wishes and a steady stream of exuberance.

“Reb Boruch! You came all the way, gevaldig, have a drink, warm yourself! Aaah, Srul’chik, you made it to your old uncle’s simchah! And who’s that with you, little… Mendel? Mechel? Michoel, of course, what a zeeskeit!”

Uri lets the words flow over him as he accepts proffered hands and murmurs replies. Most of the guests don’t know him and he doesn’t know them; they’re here for his father-in-law. It’s been two years and he’s still a newcomer in this neighborhood, in this family.

“Nu, Reb Shua, where’s your eidem?” someone asks. Uri senses stares and surreptitiously-pointed fingers and he turns on a plastic smile to accept another mazel tov.

It’s a simchah, it’s a baby, a son for him and Batya. So what if the word son rips his heart clean in two, so what if his insides wrench from the pain of it, so what if he stands here and 12-year-old memories assault his consciousness?

It’s been seven years now since he last saw his first son.

“Wonderful, wonderful news! Much nachas! Only simchahs!” His father-in-law’s business partner crushes Uri’s hand in a beefy fist and shakes it vigorously.

“Mazel tov, Reb Uri, ah sach Yiddishe nachas.” Batya’s parents’ rav, firm handshake and warm eyes.

“The father himself! How’s the night shift going?” Batya’s oldest brother, winking as he claps Uri on the shoulder.

It’s different, all different from last time, from then, from the dim, airless room in their little apartment that smelled of herring that nobody touched. Totally different from the stony silence emanating from down the hallway, where Shira had retreated with the baby (no, it’s okay, you go and enjoy yourself, don’t bother yourself about me), closing the door in his face.

Here, the chandelier above the table sparkles with dozens of swinging crystals and the crowds spill out into the hallway and he can picture Batya in the kitchen, laughing with her mother and sisters as they fight to hold the baby, as Deena and Racheli prance around in new dresses, as the house fills to bursting with joy and gladness and warm wishes.

But somehow even while he’s here, he’s there, in the awkward stillness as one friend arrives, offers good wishes, leaves; as the men from kollel fill the empty space briefly, take a l’chayim, decline the cake he’d bought from the bakery up the street and tried to arrange neatly on paper plates.

“What a simchah, what nachas, may you merit to raise him l’Torah, l’chuppah, ul’maasim tovim,” someone wishes him warmly.

“Amen,” Uri mouths, and his heart implodes from the sound of the words: May you merit to raise him — Yoni’s upsheren, in Shira’s parents’ house, where he hovered at the sidelines, watching, and the photographer had asked him politely to step out of the way of the photoshoot; Yoni, wrapped in a tallis with honey-streaked lips, twisting his head in confusion as Uri wraps his arms around him, calling, “Zeidy, Zeidy, where’s Zeidy?”

“Yeah, it’s a real simchah, she’s had it hard,” he hears a cousin tell someone, knowingly.

Yoni, age four, singing Mah Nishtanah into the phone while Uri paces his tiny, barren apartment and tries not to cry.

“…Yes, his second marriage, too… I think so, a boy also. But much older. I’m not sure they’re in contact.”

Yoni’s first day of Pre-1A, a dog-eared picture of a dark-haired boy with an oversized knapsack that he received four months later.

Yoni’s sixth birthday. Borrowed money from a friend for the rental car; hours on the highway, the present he’d painstakingly chosen and wrapped with clumsy fingers.

Yoni’s sixth birthday; the last time he saw his son.

There’s a shift in the atmosphere. Uri realizes the room has emptied, it’s getting late. Batya shuffles past the dining room door, on her way upstairs with the sleeping baby.

Steady.

“Mazel tov, mazel tov.”

Men shuffle round him, past him, nodding and shaking hands and making for the door. The room is light, airy, and his legs are shaky. How many hours has it been?

Uri accepts a shot of whiskey from his father-in-law. The amber liquid hits his throat, setting it ablaze. It tastes of fire; of heartbreak; of searing, agonizing love.

  

The envelope, stiff and cold, arrives a day before the bris. Uri scoops up the mail in the morning, thumbs through it without thinking, and stops as the return address jumps out at him.

It’s oddly familiar, like a scrap of an old dream. It’s been years since he last got mail from this particular address. And yet somehow, as the months go by and the pages of the calendar move ever forward, he’s been waiting for this. Waiting without realizing he was waiting.

He’s still standing in the hallway, bills and fundraising brochures spilling from slack fingers, one sheet of silver-embossed cardstock trapped between thumb and forefinger.

So they invited him, after all.

Mr. and Mrs. Hershel Levinsky take great pleasure…

Shira had remarried almost five years before he had. To the world, it served as proof of his guilt. And yet somehow, he still marvels at it, an intricate web of connections had led him and Batya to meet and marry — and here he is, whole again, father of a baby, making a bris.

How ironic that today, this arrives.

…the bar mitzvah of their son, Yoni, on the third of Iyar…

Their son. His heart is hammering.

So this is the invitation they’re offering him.

He’ll be a guest. Greeted with reserve and seated with icy cold politeness, maybe placed at a table with business acquaintances of the bar mitzvah boy’s stepfather. Shira’s family will look through him, over him, around him, strangers will shake his hand politely and ask what his connection is to Hershel Levinsky. And Yoni will sit at the head table flanked by his mother and her husband, his grandparents, and step-grandparents. He won’t even recognize his father.

“Uri?” Batya sweeps down the hallway, baby in her arms. He marvels at her energy. “Uri, are you ready to leave? Did you check with the caterer, is everything sorted…”

“The caterer, yeah, sure,” he says with a start, guiltily slipping the invitation back into its envelope. “Um, yes, I’m ready to go… So I’ll leave you at your mother, and she’ll bring you to shul with the girls?”

“Who else?” Batya’s fiddling with the hood of the brand-new Doona. She had a Snap-N-Go from when Deena was born, but he figured she deserved something new, something special. She adjusts the handlebars and leans against the wall to take a breath.

“Whew. Can’t believe we’re doing this.” She squints at him. “Uri? What’s that?”

“Nothing,” he says, hurriedly stashing the thick envelope inside his tallis bag. “A bar mitzvah invitation from… an old acquaintance, that’s all.”

  

When he looks around the table, all white and crystal and napkins folded unevenly by little fingers, he still finds it hard to believe.

Batya cuddles Moishy in her arms, eyes dancing. It’s the first time they’re making the Seder together; Batya’s parents have gone to her sister in Eretz Yisrael for a rare trip to the Israeli contingent of the family, and Batya thought it would be nice for the girls to be able to share what they learned uninhibited. He doesn’t mind; he’s spent 35 years at other people’s Sedorim. Still, there’s an awkward moment or two when his stepdaughters look up at him expectantly and he fumbles to turn the page in his Haggadah and sound like he’s done this before.

“Soo… let’s see. What comes next in the Seder?” He points at Racheli for the answer, like a schoolteacher. She giggles and screeches, “Yaaaachatz, we break the middle matzah!” and he flicks a chocolate button toward her.

“Hey, no fair, I knew it too,” Deena complains. He sends one scuttling in her direction, leaving a dark streak on the plastic tablecloth.

Batya looks on happily, and his heart swells.

“So where were we up to? Right, breaking the matzah.” He lifts the matzah cover, deliberately reaching for the top one. “I’ll just take this nice round matzah from the top of the…”

This time, the girls shriek in unison. “The middle one! Tatty, the middle matzah, not the top one!”

“Oh, wow, good you reminded me.” He throws up his hands in mock dismay. “Here, Mommy, give our two little helpers some chocolate gelt.”

Batya nudges Moishy over one arm, leans forward to handle the distribution of chocolate. “Next year, it won’t be Racheli doing our Mah Nishtanah anymore, right?”

Mah Nishtanah. He flips the page of the Haggadah. Already? But it’s true, they are here, a landmark and a landmine.

His heart always lurches at the sound of the four questions, the opening lines of Tatteh leiben, answer me, Tatty, Daddy, Abba, fathers and sons and the question marks that stretch between them. Some years, as a guest at various tables, he’s been tempted to excuse himself on some pretext or another, discreetly reciting the words on his own and leaving the table for a few minutes so he shouldn’t have to hear it. He never did, though. Instead he’d stare into a silver goblet or crystal glass or a sticky purple wine stain and block out the sound of it, a childish voice and a knife in his heart.

Uri tugs at the belt of his kittel, trying to ground himself. He is not there, they are here, he is in his own home, king of the Seder, reclining at the head of the table, together with his family. Racheli will say the Mah Nishtanah this year. Moishy will say it next year.

Little voice, cracking on the high notes, whimper of uncertainty, Tatteh leiben, ich vill dir freigen de fier kashyas. Father dear, I want to ask you…

Shira’s voice, harried, tense. “Yoni, you’re still on the phone? Come, Mommy has something to show you, you’ll sing the whole Mah Nishtanah tonight, to Zeidy. It’s time to nap now.”

Moishy. Yoni. Batya. Shira. Images blur and merge and melt. Racheli’s on her chair now, belting out the questions confidently.

Focus.

“Beautiful,” he compliments Racheli as she steps down. “Two chocolates for you for saying the Mah Nishtanah, and two for Deena for listening.”

“Moishy, too!” Racheli bounces up and down. “Give Moishy chocolates! He also listened!”

“Moishy’s too little for chocolate, sweetie, but it’s so nice of you to want to share with your brother,” Batya says, reaching for a napkin to wipe the chocolate smudges from Racheli’s fingers. “Here, sweetheart, I don’t want you to get your new dress dirty on the first night…”

Moishy wriggles in her arms and starts to cry. Uri looks up and hurriedly shifts his eyes back to the Haggadah. “So… um, yes, here we are. We’re going to answer Racheli’s questions, right? Remember you asked me so nicely why this night is different?”

The baby’s whimpers turn to wails. Batya stands up, jiggling him. “I don’t know why he’s not falling asleep, it’s already late for him,” she says, frowning. Uri bites his lower lip, a nervous habit. He should offer to hold Moishy for a few minutes, give her respite. But the thought makes him feel numb inside.

Moishy’s not a colicky baby, but he has his nights, all babies do. And sometimes, when he’s rocking the baby in their small living room/dining room, the walls around him melt away and he’s back in another lifetime, as tiredness forces his eyes closed and the memories flood back, relentless.

Is it the sheer exhaustion that leaves him with no energy to fight the ghosts of the past? Or is it the aching déjà vu of the cramp in the crook of his arm, Moishy crying is Yoni crying, Yoni cries and Uri cries and his tears are salty helplessness and defeat, baby’s wails and a crumbling marriage and the dying of a million golden, gasping dreams.

The day Shira left him.

The day she took his son along with her.

 

He hears his voice intoning the words of the Hagaddah. He is floating somewhere above himself. Be happy, Uri, happy! Count your blessings… look how good things are, how everything turned out okay. He looks at the table and his wife and her daughters and tries to shake off the demons, but then he sees the baby and they all return.

“The Torah tells us about four sons,” he says. “Who learned about the four sons?” And there it is again, the word sons, sons and fathers and words and questions and answers and fears and pain. Who says fathers have the answers?

He has two sons. One whom he doesn’t know. And one who he’s afraid to know. So who is he, which father does that make him?

He’s heard the vort about the fifth son, the one who doesn’t show up at all. Is that what he has become? Or does he simply not know what to say, not know how to ask, is his heart too scarred to risk again?

“And the son who doesn’t know how to ask, you should open things for him…” He looks around, Deena is sucking on a chocolate button and Racheli thumbs through her school Haggadah, eyes shining. No one notices that his voice cracks as he hurries through the rest of the paragraph.

  

“Why don’t you try to contact him again?”

The question hits him as he’s trying to balance the checkbook. Rows of tiny numbers march up and down the screen, morph into a haphazard mess.

“Why… what?”

Batya’s sitting on the sofa, rocking the baby in her arms. She looks curious, guileless, like she hasn’t just launched a space rocket into the calm of their home.

“Your son. Yoni. I was just thinking, it’s been so long. Do you ever think about trying to, y’know, reach out again? I mean, I know what happened back then, but maybe now… I was wondering. We never really talk about it.”

He logs out, tries not to slam the laptop shut. “Maybe there’s a reason for that,” he says, aiming for a light tone, falling far short. “It’s not something I like to talk about.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that,” Batya says casually. “But like, I’ve just been… thinking about it a lot. Especially now, especially with Moishy. You know?”

Uri gets up and starts pacing. He can’t help himself, even though it’s a nervous habit he tried so hard to kick when he was married to Shira. It irked her, but then again, so did almost everything about him.

“Did you… when Yoni was a baby. Y’know. Did you feel… like, connected to him?”

He stares at her in utter disbelief. “Of course I did,” he says, finally, but the words are weak and empty; how can words do justice to the memories? To the throbbing of his battered, aching heartbeat as he hunched over his son, desperately trying to protect him from the shouting, from the pain? He can still hear the desperate, tiny wails from the small bedroom down the hallway when Shira insisted on enforcing her cry-it-out sleep training; he can still remember how he finally couldn’t bear it any longer and snuck out of the dining room to pick up his baby, soaked in tears and sweat. How when he lifted his face from his son’s, finally, finally, it was wet from his own tears, too.

“I don’t mean to accuse you or anything,” Batya says hurriedly. “I just, y’know, like, you never even speak to him. Or… send him a birthday card, anything. I just… wondered.”

Back when they’d dated, Batya had asked him about his son. Uri had sufficed with a brief “We’re not in touch,” and she’d backed off, respectful of his privacy, of their newly blossoming relationship. They spoke about it later on, during the engagement, once or twice in the early days of their marriage. He’d tried to explain, put vague words to the overwhelming feeling, the knife-stab of rejection, the fear of trying again, the way he’d simply given up on having a relationship with his child. Batya had accepted it, at the time.

But now, it matters more. He has another son. It’s her son, too. Has she noticed how he somehow can’t get close to Moishy, how his interactions sound stiff to his own ears, how he does his share of baby duty with a sense of duty and obligation and precision — but not that happy, overflowing, innocent joy of a new daddy?

But he’s not a new daddy. He never will be again.

“It’s complicated,” he says finally. “Like I told you, I… I did keep in touch. For a while. But then things got — complicated,” he says again, reverting to the same word for lack of a better way of putting it.

Batya blinks. “Complicated?” she asks, and in her voice is a sort of wonder: What sort of father is that? How can it be too complicated to try again, to reach out and connect to your child?

This is absurd. He looks at her helplessly, and then the helplessness falls away in a surge of steaming, boiling anger.

It’s not he who is at fault.

Let her try swallowing rejection after rejection, let her hear her daughters turn against her, let her keep slamming her head into a wall of ice.

Uri breathes, once, twice. Don’t get angry. Don’t say anything. Just end the conversation, leave the room, deal with this later.

“Uri,” Batya’s voice is tiny. It arrests him just as he reaches the doorway. “I saw the bar mitzvah invitation.”

  

This wasn’t meant to happen.

He’d married Batya because she was so lighthearted, so easy to please, so eager to please. If Shira had been a glacier carved out of mountain ice, Batya was a sunlit field, grass and daisies and buttercups.

She’d never challenged him before, never asked uncomfortable questions. But maybe nothing had meant enough until now.

He isn’t sure what to make of it. They never fight, wait, is this even a fight? What should he do now? Forget the conversation? Come back and answer? Just move on and pretend that nothing’s happened?

Batya decides for him, when she asks him if they can drive to the supermarket together.

“I got a babysitter for the kids, so we can talk,” she says blithely, and he smiles, kind of relieved that she’s made the decision for them.

When they’re cruising down the road, engine purring gently and reassuringly, he takes a deep breath. He’ll explain something, try to let her in on the agonizing backdrop to his non-relationship with his son.

“What you asked me earlier…” Uri swallows. “About Yoni. You’re right. That I could reach out again, and I don’t.” He grips the steering wheel so hard, his knuckles turn white. “I guess I just… gave up on it. It hurt too much to try. To make all that effort and have it, you know… slammed back in my face.”

Batya is semi-frowning, like she’s trying to understand. “But Uri, he was a child, a little kid. It wasn’t his fault. I’m sure he wants to hear from you. You’re his father.”

Uri thinks of Shira and her family. The way they talk, how it played with his mind. So clever, so convincing, so critical, so certain. He isn’t so sure about Yoni wanting to hear from him. He probably hears only negative things about his father — if they ever mention him at all.

“I think you should go to the bar mitzvah,” Batya says.

“Let’s not discuss that.”

“Why not?” She is surprisingly persistent. Is this about Moishy? Or is it about him?

“Because I don’t want to argue with you.”

She laughs. He permits himself a small smile. At least they’re back on track.

“But Uri, you can’t just ignore it, he’s your son. And besides, they invited you. That means he wants you there. Don’t you want to see him growing up?”

Oh, how he used to dream of seeing his son grow up. Those long, lonely nights — and every night was gaping, endless, breathtakingly lonely — he would fantasize about seeing Yoni, having him come for a visit. Yoni calling his cell phone, lisping in that endearing voice of his, Hello, Daddy, it’s Yoni!

Yoni would frequent his dreams, broken, blurry images of a baby-child who alternately wailed in his arms and glowered in rejection. Sometimes the dream was about himself, running, running, running, frantically trying to find something, a Yoni-shaped hole in his heart.

And the invitation? He wasn’t so sure it was about wanting him there. Shira and her family, they liked to take the high road. See? We never shut him out. We even invited him to the bar mitzvah. Yoni doesn’t want to speak to him? That’s not our problem.

He takes a breath. She can’t understand. She never will.

“It’s not the bar mitzvah that’s the problem, it’s the whole… it’s everything,” Uri says, but as he says it he realizes, it’s not everything, it’s me.

Because she’s right, this isn’t Yoni’s fault, he’s just a kid. And it might be Shira’s fault, but she’s not part of their father-son relationship, for all she’s done to destroy it. It’s his son and his fatherhood and their lives, forever intertwined, forever ruptured.

All along he’s viewed himself as the victim, but Yoni is the real victim here, robbed of a relationship with his father, the only father he’ll ever have. He, Uri, is the adult, he should’ve kept trying. Maybe it would have been effective right away — probably not — but at least he would have done his part. Cast his bread upon the waters, and let the story unfold for itself.

Years can change things. What will Yoni’s memories be? Of a father who gave up on a relationship with him after one or two rejections?

“It’s too late for us. There’s so much broken stuff. So many years.” Uri coughs a little, his throat is tight, thick. “Some things can’t be fixed, you know.”

Batya passes over a box of tissues, looks away. “Some things, maybe,” she says, half whispering. “But many other things can.”

  

The night air is softly-scented, spring and people and shrubs and city life.

He can’t believe he’s doing this. How did Batya convince him to do it?

Was it she who convinced him? Or was it he himself, in a slow dawning of self-honesty that makes him feel like he’s been missing the point for years?

Don’t get stuck there. Look forward. One step at a time.

He parks two blocks from the hall, and while usually that would make him feel a stab of annoyance, now he appreciates the extra few minutes walking in the orange-lit night.

“Are you nervous?” Batya asks as they walk together.

He takes his time answering, maneuvering Moishy’s stroller over a bump in the pavement with a little too much concentration.

Is he nervous? He should be nervous, it’s going to be uncomfortable tonight, he’s under no illusions. But somehow he’s not as much nervous as he is focused.

Uri looks sideways at Batya. Is this something he can explain?

“It’s not about me,” he says finally. “It’s about Yoni. And that whatever happens now, tonight — he’s gonna be able to look back, next year and the next and whenever, forever — and say, my father came to my bar mitzvah, my father cared.”

Batya is quiet for a long time, all the way down the block, across the intersection, and halfway down the next block.

“You’re doing the right thing,” she says at last, and he smiles slightly, because it’s nice to have the validation but really, he knows that already.

They pause in front of elaborately-carved double doors, one securely shut, the other open, drumbeats and snatches of song spilling out onto the street. A group of fresh-faced boys in brand-new hats clatter past them.

“Want me to take the baby now?” Batya offers, reaching out for the stroller handles automatically. That’s what they’ve planned, Batya will take Moishy with her to the women’s section, they’ll stay a short time, he’ll wish Mazel Tov, and then they’ll meet outside when he’s ready.

But somehow, right now, he doesn’t want to relinquish the stroller. His son.

“No, thank you,” he says, feeling a surge of something new and strong and powerful. “I’ll take Moishy with me.” He lifts the baby from the bassinet; deep, blue eyes peek out from beneath the pom-pom hat. The baby blinks at him, bemused.

“Come, little guy,” Uri says softly. “It’s time to meet your brother.” 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)

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