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Big Bro

But then he went to America, and I could forget I had a brother. Which was fine with me! Why did he have to come home now?

“AJ, so nice to have you home,” I hear my mother gush from the kitchen.

That’s weird. She’s obviously speaking to a stranger, both because of the slightly too high-pitched tone of her voice and also because there’s no AJ in my house. How can she welcome someone home who isn’t?

If I walk into the kitchen, I run the risk of Mommy giving me another Pesach job, but curiosity gets the better of me, and I wander in to find out which mystery guest is moving into my house.

I would’ve been less shocked to see a green alien with purple horns leaning on the counter.

AJ, he’s my older brother, who I told all my friends went to learn in America. He went to America alright, but not to learn.

“Baruch — AJ’s home for Pesach. Isn’t that amaaaazzing?” my mother says in that same talking-to-strangers voice. Like, she’s not speaking to her own kids in her own kitchen.

AJ? What is wrong with my mother? She’s always into calling everyone by their full names — even when the rest of us call him Rum, cuz we can’t be bothered with so many syllables, my mother has always, always called him Avraham Yeshaya.

I’m about to mimic my mother’s “amaaaazzing,” not caring how chutzpahdig it would sound, when I stop. As angry as I am at my brother, I don’t want to hurt his feelings.

Just as I’m wondering whether Mommy thinks it is so amaaazzing to have “AJ” here that I can get away with going to ride my bike, Rum pops up from the counter, reminding me of one of those marionettes on strings when the play begins. He fishes in his knapsack for a minute and hands me a bag of Herr’s hot sauce chips.

“Brought you a present from America. You’re gonna love them.”

I take the chips and go to my room.

Why is Mommy acting all excited that Rum is here for Pesach? Did she, like, totally forget that I have to get into Yeshivah now? Beis Ephraim was a long shot, but I thought I really had a chance. There’s no way they’re taking a kid with an off the derech sibling. Ohr Torah was my safe fallback, but maybe they won’t take me either if they hear about my brother?

We used to be a normal family with a bunch of normal kids. One minute Rum was a normal bochur, like all my friends’ brothers, and then I heard him talking in the bedroom on Shabbos when I knew he was alone.

He stopped being careful with mitzvos, and he fought with my parents all the time. Kids in my class made little comments and teased me about the way Rum dressed — as if I wanted him to look like that!

I was so mad at him!

But then he went to America, and I could forget I had a brother. Which was fine with me! Why did he have to come home now?

There’s a knock on my bedroom door.

Mommy peeks her head in.

“Shmuel’s at the door. He wants to know if you want to go bike riding with him. Why don’t you go?”

I give Mommy a funny look. She’s actually letting me go bike riding the week before Pesach? Wow, I guess Rum coming home really is special to her.

Mommy doesn’t seem to notice my confusion, so I grab my helmet and run out to meet Shmuel before she can change her mind.

We’re halfway down the block when I see some boys from my school.

“Hey, Meltzer, heard you’ve got all of the arba banim at your Seder — even the rasha,” a boy calls as I ride past. I pretend I don’t hear him and ride faster.

My brother has literally been home for, like, an hour — how do people already know he’s here? It is so annoying that the whole neighborhood knows who my brother is. So annoying that he makes my family stand out.

When we finish riding, I invite Shmuel over. Seems like with Rum home, my mother’s letting me get away with whatever I want, I may as well take advantage. And Shmuel has never said a word about Rum to me.

My sister Nechama — who’s between me and Rum in age — is in the kitchen when I get us drinks. “Rum came home,” she tells me under her breath.

“I know. I saw him already.”

When I get to my room, Shmuel is already there, and he’s eating my chips. He grabs the cup out of my hand and guzzles.

“Whoa, those are so spicy!”

“Who said you could start eating my chips without my permission?!”

Shmuel looks at me like I’m a green alien with purple horns — which is understandable since we always eat whatever nosh is lying around in each other’s rooms without asking.

But Rum brought me these chips from America. And even though I’m so mad at him, and I wasn’t planning on giving him the satisfaction of eating them — it makes me sad that there are less in the bag now. Which makes absolutely zero sense, so I’m not about to try to explain it to Shmuel.

I stick my hand in the bag, grab a handful of chips, and stuff them in my mouth, just to make sure Shmuel realizes how little I care about keeping those chips.

Whoa! They really are hot! I gulp down my water.

There’s a tap on the door, and Rum walks in. He laughs when he sees Shmuel and I practically panting over the chips. He opens a package of rice cakes and offers them to both of us.

“Don’t you realize you can’t wash away the spice with water? You have to eat something. Bread or crackers are best, but there’s no way Mommy’s letting that into the house this close to Pesach.”

“We don’t need any rice cakes. We’re fine.” I say.

Rum nods and walks out of the room, leaving behind the rice cakes, which Shmuel and I grab the moment he’s gone — not ’cuz the chips were too spicy for us or anything. We like spicy. Just… we were in the mood for rice cakes, too.

I feel kind of bad. I should have at least thanked Rum for bringing me chips all the way from America. Then again, if he was a normal bochur, like every other guy, he wouldn’t be in America to bring me chips.

I look at Shmuel. “Do you think, ummm, do you think I’m going to have a harder time getting into a school, because, uh, you know….” I trail off, but I know Shmuel knows why I’m asking, and I don’t have to spell it out.

“Nah, not at all. Why should a yeshivah care about your brother? It’s you they have to accept.” But I can tell by the way he’s looking at my floor that he doesn’t really believe it.

After Shmuel leaves, Mommy hands me a paper with a list of jobs on it and a pen.  “Put your initials by the jobs you want to do.”

I look over the list, but instead of looking at the jobs, I’m looking at the initials my siblings have put next to the jobs. Nechama and Sarala have chosen jobs, and Dovi doesn’t get to choose his jobs until after I do because he’s younger — Mommy lets us pick our jobs in age order from oldest to youngest.

“Why doesn’t Rum have to do any jobs for Pesach? Because he gets special treatment ever since he left yeshivah? Or because you don’t trust him to make sure there’s no more chometz?”

I expect Mommy to yell at me or tell me that Rum is a guest in our house. But she just looks really sad, and I feel bad that I said anything.

“I don’t think now is the right time for AJ  to help at home. Tatty and I don’t try to be fair. We try to give everyone what they need. It would be silly to buy you glasses when you have perfect vision — but we buy Nechama glasses because that’s what she needs.”

And even though I see that Mommy is sad, I can’t help asking because I’m really worried.

“But, Mommy — don’t I need to get into high-school? Isn’t that something I need? And Rum is going to make it harder for me.”

Mommy sits down on Dovi’s bed. Oh no, so not in the mood for a DMC with my mom right now, but I guess I was kinda asking for it. I notice she’s twisting her wedding ring round and round her finger with her thumb and watching it spin.

“Baruch, I know it’s hard for you. It’s hard for all of us — including AJ.”

“So, he can just stop! He can go back to being normal! He can go back to yeshivah and start keeping mitzvos just like every other normal person!” I interrupt her.

Mommy’s quiet for a while. But I see she’s not angry at me — she’s trying to decide if she can tell me what she’s thinking.

“Ma, just tell me whatever you want to say. I’m almost 14, you know.”

Mommy laughs — which is a relief from the heavy heart-to-heart feeling hanging in the room.

“I’m not going to tell you what is going on with AJ — because I can’t say I understand myself, and I’m not sure he does either. But it’s like he’s sick —  just it’s not his body that’s sick. It’s his neshamah. If we love him and daven a lot, it will help him to get better.

“And no yeshivah should look at him when they’re deciding whether or not to take you. Beis Ephraim will be so lucky to have you — I hope they see that for themselves!”

“But they might not.” I say.

Mommy nods. “They may not. But let’s hope they do.

“Pick your jobs before the good ones are gone,” Mommy says pointing at the list.

“As if there’s such a thing as good jobs!” I laugh and put my initials by cleaning the garbage cans (it’s fun to take them outside and hose them down, ok?) and a few of the other more harmless jobs.

I’m cleaning out my knapsack when Rum bursts into the room lugging a huge suitcase — which he’d left in the living room all day and neither one of my parents even yelled at him to get it out.

“Hey little bro — how’s it going? Guess we’re bunking together again, huh?”

Does he not get that I’m trying to ignore him?

He picks up the nearly empty bag of chips, “Guess you liked them.”

“Yeah, I meant to thank you before. Sorry.”

“Here. Try these.” He throws a bag of Sour Lips at me.

“Thanks!” I remember to say this time.

Rum keeps talking and asking me questions, so it’s kinda hard to keep ignoring him. And I also don’t really want to. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve missed him.

But I’m really angry at him. How can I miss him and love him and be worried and sad all at the same time?

I’m running my tongue over my teeth trying to get out the bits of sour lips when I finally get it — I can totally taste the sweet and sour of the candy at the same time.  The hot sauce chips can burn my mouth, and I really like them.

I look at my big brother unpacking all the clothing I’m so embarrassed he wears into the closet. And I’m really glad he’s home.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 956)

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