| Calligraphy: Pesach 5784 |


Ninth-grade bochurim would huddle in a corner, daring each other to make the plunge and ask Mordy a question

“It’s an avodah,” Mordy would say. “You have to have kavanah.”

Dovi’s eyebrows creased in concentration as he measured out 28 grams of coffee beans, imported from Gedeo Zone, Ethiopia, and inserted them into the grinder. He then turned to the kettle screeching on the stovetop. “The only kavanah I’m having,” he mumbled to no one, “is to not melt my hand off.”

Mordy always insisted on an actual kettle rather than any of the more modern heating apparatuses — “it needs to be a mevushal with all the hiddurim” — was his expression, and Dovi dutifully poured the boiling water over the freshly ground beans and watched the thick brown liquid trickle through the filter into the waiting thermos below.

He swiftly clamped on the cover and checked his watch. One thirty. Mordy’s flight landed at two and it took just under an hour to get to the airport. He envisioned Mordy and Gitty staggering over to the baggage carousel, lunging desperately after each black, unmarked duffel bag. Finally, they would feel satisfied enough to crack open the zipper, whereupon a pile of seforim would come tumbling out. Dovi had time, he knew, but not tons of it.

He grabbed the thermos, about to head out, then paused and raced down the stairs to the guestroom. He knocked lightly on the door.

“Hey, come on in!” Zeidy sounded cheerful albeit a bit drowsy. Dovi pushed the door open. Zeidy was sitting up in bed, reading From Newton to Nuclear — Physics through the Ages.

“Hi Zeidy, just checking in on you. I’m about to head to the airport to pick up Mordy and Gitty. Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”

“Ah Dovi, I’m doing fine. Still full from that oatmeal you made me for breakfast. Go on to the airport. Your old Zeidy will be just dandy.”

Dovi smiled, reached out and gave his grandfather a quick shoulder rub, then hurried back up the stairs and straight toward the front door, which he flung open wide. The blast of spring air blended with the strong scent of coffee made for a surreal déjà vu experience. There were still some patches of snow on the ground, just like there had been for last year’s drive to the airport. He slid into his car, carefully put the thermos in the cupholder, and pulled into reverse.

The curbs were running with melted snow as Dovi picked up speed and turned onto the thoroughfare that would take him to the highway. He opened the windows a touch, just to feel the rush of wind as he swung through the exit and glided into the left lane. Now he was on his way and had the freedom to think.

Mordy was coming! Dovi had long gotten used to the fact that Pesach was the only time they’d see each other, and he always made sure to maximize every moment of it. Together they’d learn in the kollel that Dovi wouldn’t dare enter unshielded by Mordy. He’d sit there, smug and proud as he wore a spiffy wine-colored cardigan in the sea of black and white. Contemporaries would shuffle over and wish his brother a shalom aleichem. Then they’d turn to Dovi. “Ah, der brudder!” they would smile and offer a warm handshake. Mordy would wink at him the moment they moved on. Ninth-grade bochurim would huddle in a corner, daring each other to make the plunge and ask Mordy a question.

Although Dovi had no way of confirming it, he was certain that they were all agape that this sharp-looking 22-year-old who struggled to get through a line of gemara was just one year younger than the legendary illui they all adulated. But Dovi didn’t care. It was the highlight of his year, the annual breath of spirituality in a life that was a whirlwind of digits and stock symbols.

Dovi pulled free from the tunnel and began revving up as he readied himself for the last stretch of the trip but suddenly, he sensed that prickly feeling that crawled up his neck when he began feeling anxious. Deep down, he knew that something about Mordy had changed.

He remembered dropping off Mordy at the airport after Pesach last year. There were frum people around so Mordy had to whisper. “It’ll come down to Rangers versus Diamondbacks. Rangers gonna win.”

In the six months between the prediction and its uncanny fulfillment, Mordy had married Gitty. When the Rangers won the World Series against the Diamondbacks, Dovi had called Mordy to congratulate him. Gitty had picked up the phone and passed it to Mordy, who listened and said, yuh yuh, takeh,” before hanging up.

A Dodge Caliber tried cutting him off, and Dovi thought to speed up, but then changed his mind and let the guy in. “Go ahead,” he growled, “kick a dog while he’s down. I bet your sister-in-law isn’t the Israeli daughter of a prominent rosh yeshivah who just snatched your one and only brother right from under your nose.”

An awful thought struck. Would Mordy even be willing to learn with him? Would the association with a cardigan-clad brother be too shameful for the married version of Mordy?

Dovi almost missed the sign that said “Airport — Exit Only” all the way to the right and he had to skate dangerously to make it on time. He followed the signs to Arrivals and was soon met by the usual pandemonium of too many cars in too little space. Miraculously, a spot directly adjacent to the terminal’s exit opened up and Dovi scooted right in.

A few moments later, he spotted them, wrestling their way through the crowd. Mordy was in classic form, faded trench coat with the belt trailing on the floor, weathered hat with an enormous brim, and the desperate expression that comes along with not wearing glasses while requiring a −8 prescription. Teetering behind him was Gitty. Dovi couldn’t resist thinking that her facial expression looked like that of a chicken swung overhead during kapparos.

They stepped out into the open and Mordy looked around wildly, eyes glazing right passed Dovi.

“Hey, Homeless!” Dovi called.

Mordy stopped and turned, then broke into a huge smile. “Dovi!”

“Put your glasses on before you bang into me and spill all this big-budget coffee, bro.”

Mordy inhaled. “Ethiopian?”

“You got it. Here, I’ll take your suitcase.” Dovi grabbed the duffle bag, which felt like it carried all of Shas and Shulchan Aruch. He then turned to look over Mordy’s shoulder, where Gitty was cowering.

“Gitty!” he beamed too brightly. “Welcome to the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. Why don’t you hop into my humble vehicle here.”

“Ah, thank you,” Gitty mumbled, not looking Dovi in the eye. She took a few steps toward the car and then turned desperately toward Mordy. Mordy looked flustered for a moment, then slid in beside her. Dovi gnashed his teeth. He had been hoping Mordy would sit in the passenger seat and leave his wife stranded in the back, free to enjoy the lovely spring scenery on her own. Oh, well.

Dovi pulled out of his parking spot and navigated in silence until he was back on the highway. Only then did he look toward Mordy in the rearview mirror.

“So Mahomes did pretty well, eh?” his voice trailed as he caught the look of pure terror in Mordy’s eyes.

“Ah,” Dovi said, heart sinking, “yeah, Mahomes, uh, my homes. My nursing homes. They’re doing pretty well, baruch Hashem.” It was a pretty awful comeback, and Dovi noted that while Mordy looked slightly relieved, he seemed a whole lot more anxious. An awkward minute passed as Dovi searched for another topic of discussion. He took a deep breath, months’ worth of dormant angst beginning to bubble upward.

“Mordy!” he said with feigned cheer. “You know who came in this morning? Zeidy!”

Dovi knew this was reckless driving but he stared deep and hard into the rearview mirror anyhow. The passiveness on Mordy’s face was killing him. “Smile,” Dovi thought desperately, “c’mon, smile!” Mordy seemed to be trying; there was a tug-of-war between his eyes and his lips, and then he gave up.

“Zeidy? Nice!”

Knowing he would regret it, Dovi plunged forward.

“Listen, Mordy, I davened Minchah early, I have a meeting with a bunch of investors this afternoon. Dad presumably davened at work as well — he won’t be home till later. You think you can take Zeidy to Minchah?”

A shadow crossed Mordy’s features.

“Um, Dovi, I don’t, uh, I don’t think I can. I plan on davening in yeshivah. I wanna catch up with Reb Yechiel.”

Reb Yechiel was the menahel of Zichron Chaim, where Mordy had learned from ninth grade through third year beis medrash. Dovi had met Reb Yechiel only once. It was more than enough. He had shown up to the house on the day of Mordy’s aufruf, when Mordy made a siyum haShas.

The setup was classic Dad and Mom — a spread of meat casserole, deli salad, and lemon meringue pie. A group of bochurim, led by Reb Yechiel, piled inside and didn’t touch the food. Mordy made the siyum and the moment Kaddish was over, Reb Yechiel burst into very loud song:Ashrei mi shegadol baTorah, va’amalo baTorah,” he roared and then broke into wild dancing, quickly joined by all of Mordy’s friends. Dovi held back but Reb Yechiel yanked him in, “Nu, brudder, brudder, kumpt arein!” Then he reached the high part of the song and slowed down the tempo, and everyone began jumping ASHREI. ASHREI. MI. SHE.GADOL. BA.TO.RAH.

Dovi had to jump as well, which looked terrible because he wasn’t wearing shoes, and his purple happy socks looked crazy when surrounded by six pairs of worn black leather. “If a professional photographer were here,” he remembered thinking mid-air, “he’d lie flat on the floor and have a field day.”

Dovi shook himself out of the memory. He stuck out his chin.

“So what?” he countered. “How is Zeidy gonna affect you talking to Reb Yechiel? He’ll probably just sit down in a corner and learn the daf like always.”

The dark cloud was back and, when Mordy spoke, it seemed to have hijacked his voice as well.

“Yeah? Well last time he didn’t. He went over to Reb Yechiel and said, ‘Rabbi. I just wanted to thank you for teaching our Mordy all that Torah. We’re real proud of him. Rabbi, as they say down in Little Rock, ya done good.’ ”

Dovi hid his smile — the imitation was great. “All right,” he snapped. “I’ll cancel my meeting and take Zeidy to Minchah at Shalvas Manoach. He likes the daf shiur there anyway. They don’t do that at Zichron Chaim, eh?”

Mordy let out a small huff but said nothing.

They continued driving in silence and Dovi allowed himself to contemplate what he was feeling. Was he angry? Offended? Afraid? It was pretty obvious that Mordy had a problem being seen with Zeidy in public. Why? Were the tan pants and broken Hebrew really so shameful?

Dovi’s thoughts stopped short — they had pulled up in front of the house.

“Here we are, amigos,” he announced, catching a bewildered expression from Gitty as he climbed out of the car and hauled the duffel bag out of the trunk.

Mom was sitting on the rocking chair and leaped up when they entered. She gave Mordy a big hug and then turned toward Gitty, attempting to hug her as well — but the result was basically a stiff, awkward double pat on the shoulders. Dovi hid his cringe. He would have loved to escape to his room and disappear back into the stock market — where he was far more comfortable than he was now — but there was too much going on inside of him.

“Mom,” he said, “I have to run a few errands. I’ll be back to bring Zeidy to the daf shiur before Minchah.”

Dovi drove just around the corner, then parked. He placed his head on the steering wheel and allowed his mind to travel back, way, way back in time.

He was a child again, and Mordy was his trophy brother, revered throughout the neighborhood as the kid who had every sports stat at his fingertips. Dovi remembered getting into an argument with a classmate as to whether or not a football team ever went an entire season without a single loss. Dovi said yes, his friend said no and, just at that moment, Mordy walked by. He placed his hand on Dovi’s shoulder. “Miami Dolphins 1972,” he told the other boy before sauntering off. Dovi was so proud.

The crazy thing was that the farther Dovi drifted from the yeshivah world, the closer he grew to his brother, who was skyrocketing through yeshivah at a mind-spinning pace. Secretly, they would continue to talk sports and somehow, Mordy always knew everything, even when he had long ceased to follow.

When did things change? When did he begin to sense that Mordy was slipping away?

Dovi knew the answer — it was a single moment that came after a few months of buildup. Mordy had completed third year beis medrash and Brisk was having a “closed zeman.” No one could get in. Mordy, however, was notified that Brisk was willing to make an exception for him since he was “ah bazundere surt illui.” But in a move that stunned yeshivah bochurim nationwide, he turned the offer down, opting, instead, to go to a yeshivah known simply as Zellman’s.

Dovi didn’t understand these things, but apparently, the move had to do with “Kodshim versus Nashim/Nezikin,” or something like that. The rosh yeshivah, Reb Berel Zellman, was originally from Flatbush, but had settled in Eretz Yisrael, where he opened his own yeshivah. It probably had an official name, but bochurim knew it only as Zellman’s.

Mordy went off to Eretz Yisrael after Succos and, by Chanukah time, some strange Israeli had called Mom and given her a long lecture about allowing her son to marry young. Mom, being Mom, just said, “Yes, certainly, of course, I fully understand.” The next thing Dovi knew, Mordy was engaged to Gitty Zellman.

At first, Dovi was overjoyed — his brother was getting married! He took the first flight out along with Dad and Mom for the vort. Dovi remembered the very first signal of something amiss. He had rushed into the hall where he spotted Mordy, who was intensely jabbing the air with a clenched fist as he shared a shtickel Torah with a group of friends. Dovi waited for him to finish and then strode over and gave him a huge bearhug. Mordy had hugged back but it was stiff — too stiff.

He had pushed it out of his mind, convinced himself that it was just nerves or anxiety, but deep down, it bothered him. Something wasn’t right.

The next time they saw each other was at the wedding; Dovi felt sick when the memory resurfaced. Dad, Mom, he, and Aliza had flown together to Israel. Zeidy came as well, flying alone from Florida. He walked into the wedding hall, resplendent in a royal blue suit and white fedora cocked to the side. His smile was broader than Dovi had seen it in years.

There was the badeken, the chuppah and, with each passing moment, more and more bochurim packed into the hall. Soon, there was barely space to breathe in the sweaty sea of black. The first dance came and Dad, together with Reb Berel, danced with Mordy. It was a cringey scene but whatever. Dovi wanted to jump in as well but it wasn’t right. First came Zeidy — where was he?

Dovi searched around frantically and then spotted him — way off in a corner, sitting before an ArtScroll Gemara, reviewing the daf. Dovi ran over. “Come, Zeidy! You have to dance with Mordy!”

“Ah, you don’t say?” Zeidy smiled. “Dem ol’ legs of mine haven’t done any dancing since my college days. But if you say so.”

Dovi grabbed his arm and began leading him into the fray. The dance had transformed into a massive swaying black mush, and Dovi began hurling people out of his way with all his might. “MOVE!” he screamed at an enormous fellow leaping up and down deliriously. “GET OUT OF HERE!”

Finally, they made it to the middle. There were three men with beards and frocks dancing with Mordy, whose eyes were closed, a look of pure bliss on his face.

Dovi shoved his way forward. “Mordy!” he screamed over the deafening noise, “Mordy! I brought you Zeidy! Zeidy’s here!”

Mordy opened his eyes and looked flustered. A fourth bearded frock man had just entered, hands extended, ready to dance. Mordy looked panicky. He reached for Zeidy’s hands and danced for a moment, clearly struggling because Zeidy was entirely unfamiliar with yeshivish-style dancing. Then, almost as soon as he took them, he let go, turning toward the bearded frock who stood to the side.

Zeidy began shuffling away, walking toward Dovi, but Dovi barely saw him. He just stared at Mordy, not believing what had just happened. Then he turned to Zeidy and began wrestling him back to safety, pushing and kicking the giant human mass out of his way. Zeidy seated himself in the corner again and reached for his Gemara, but Dovi noted an expression on his face that hadn’t been there since… since Grandma had passed.

Sad. Zeidy was sad.

“Gee, Dovi m’boy,” Zeidy said after a few minutes, “these ears of mine ain’t what they used to be. The music is giving your old Zeidy a headache. I think I’ll head back to the hotel and retire for the evening.”

Dovi nodded and took Zeidy’s arm. He turned to take one last look at his brother, who was on to a new set of frocks. A steamy haze enveloped the intensive dancing and, in it, Dovi saw 22 years of laughter, trust, pride, and companionship evaporating into invisibility. He let out a sigh that came from somewhere inside him that he didn’t even know existed, then led Zeidy outside to the cool, quiet outdoors. He hailed a cab and took Zeidy to his hotel before returning to the hall.

Now Dovi envisioned the inscrutable expression on Mordy’s face when he had let go of Zeidy’s hand, and it was no longer such a riddle. Mordy yearned to replace his plebeian heritage with his wife’s prestigious one. As long as he was visibly connected to Zeidy, it would never happen.

Leil HaSeder came, and Dad, Dovi, and Zeidy arrived home from Shalvas Manoach well before Mordy got home from yeshivah, where he always davened. The moment Dovi entered the home he could sense the tension that must have ensued between Mom, Aliza, and Gitty, who was sitting on a couch, her head buried in a magazine, eyes motionless.

Eventually, Mordy entered and Gitty leaped up and began holding a hushed, animated conversation with him, which Dovi could tell was a fake. She just wanted to escape whatever awkward interactions she had just suffered through with Mom and Aliza.

Suddenly, Dovi’s heart dropped. Would Mordy be all stiffed up throughout the entire Seder? That would be unforgiveable. Mordy always insisted on drinking five ounces of dry, non-mevushal wine for each kos, which made for some highly memorable moments. He had a terribly low tolerance for alcohol and his tongue would grow looser with each drink.

There was that time when Mordy was in 11th grade, at the very height of his uber-yeshivish years and, by the time Nirtzah came along, he was totally stoned. Dad was going through “Echad Mi Yodeiah?” and when he got to “Asarah mi yodeiah?” Mordy’s eyes fluttered open. “Record number of home runs by one team in a single game. Toronto Blue Jays, September 14, 1987.”

Gitty quit the phony conversation and Zeidy hobbled into the dining room holding his kittel. Dovi breathed a sigh of relief when Mordy gave him the annual wink. Zeidy had his lines that he repeated every year and the kids all knew them by heart.

Sure enough, as Zeidy put his arms through the sleeves of the kittel — “Well, I haven’t worn one of these since my days in the lab!” — Dovi and Mordy broke into simultaneous grins. Zeidy referred to “the lab” frequently. This was where he had worked as the director of the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory until Mom reached ninth grade. There was no Orthodox girls’ high school in Little Rock, so Zeidy and Grandma moved to Baltimore, where Mom and, later, her younger sister, Eleanor, could get a proper Jewish high school education. Zeidy wasn’t able to get comparable employment in Baltimore, and he had taken on a teaching job in a community college until retirement.

Urchatz came and Dovi rose to get water for Zeidy to wash, but then stopped when Mordy produced a notebook. This was strange — he had never done that before. Mordy launched into an unexpected devar Torah about tzvei dinim and the geder of heseibah and Dovi looked on, confused and then annoyed. The Return of Mordy he had hoped for would be limited at best. He was sure Gitty had no idea what Mordy was talking about, but she was glowing with pride, and that was clearly Mordy’s objective.

Dovi waited for Mordy to finish and then proceeded to the kitchen, returning to wash Zeidy’s hands. He paused as Zeidy shared the ritual line: “Reminds me of my days in the lab when they had us washing our hands every five minutes!”

Mordy flashed Dovi another grin.

Karpas came and, with that, one of Dovi’s favorites.

“Call these potatoes? You should see what my dad had growing in our backyard in Little Rock! The size of small watermelons they were!”

But the humor of the moment was dampened when, again, Mordy launched into a shtickel Torah about k’zayis and borei nefashos. This time, even Dad looked annoyed, and Mordy, seeming to sense this, ended quickly with an edge in his voice.

Yachatz came and here, Zeidy’s line was, “If I knew Judo like my brother Willy did, I could chop this here matzah with one hand!” Zeidy would laugh at his own humor with Dovi and Mordy laughing along. This year, Mordy’s laugh was notably forced. Dovi could see that Gitty was entirely lost — she probably didn’t know what Judo was — but she was now whispering what seemed to be words of condolence to her husband.

Maggid came and Aliza said the Mah Nishtanah, which was followed by the family’s muttering of Avadim Hayinu. Then there was an expectant quiet. Each year, for the last seven years, they went through the same routine. Dad would look up and ask, “So, how does Avadim Hayinu answer the questions of the Mah Nishtanah?”

All would turn to Zeidy who would close his eyes, lean back slightly in his chair, and fold his hands. “Well,” he would say, “as Rabbi Geldner once told me, ‘Not all questions have answers down here.’ ”

All but Aliza remembered when Rabbi Geldner had made that statement. It was eight years ago when Zeidy was sitting shivah for Grandma. His head was buried in his hands when Rabbi Geldner, who had been his rabbi in Little Rock, entered. He sat there silently for several awkward minutes before Zeidy lifted his face.

“Why, Rabbi?” he asked. “Melanie was such a fine woman. Why did she have to go so early?”

It was to this that Rabbi Geldner had cleared his throat, fidgeted uncomfortably, then said, “Well, Ernest, not all questions have answers down here.”

Like clockwork, Dad asked the annual question and, as expected, Zeidy opened his mouth to speak but, before he had a chance, Mordy jumped in. “Actually, Dad, I have a great shtickel on this, based on the Beis Halevi. You see—” Dad threw him a very sharp look and Mordy fell silent. Zeidy looked flustered but collected himself.

“Well,” he said, a bit disconcertedly, “as Rabbi Geldner told me, not all questions have answers down here.”

They began the next segment of the Haggadah but Mordy apologized, saying that he had to step out for a moment. Dad nodded and continued. Dovi mentally counted to 20 then mumbled something about how he, too, needed a quick break. He spun out of his chair, dashed to the backyard, and walked behind the clubhouse that Dad had built for them when they were kids. He sidled up next to Mordy, who was leaning against the wooden planks, breathing heavily.

“I schlepped here from Eretz Yisrael,” Mordy said slowly, looking straight ahead. “I could have stayed and spent Pesach at my shver. Gitty begged me to stay, but I insisted that we come home. I wanted to make Mom and Dad happy.” He took a few deep breaths, sending wisps of vapor into the crisp air.

“I worked hard on my shticklach. Gitty deserves to hear them. This is what she grew up with.” Mordy took another heavy breath, then turned to look at Dovi. His face held a fierce expression. “Why am I here, Dovi? I could’ve stayed in Eretz Yisrael. There are plenty of Israeli bochurim who learn in yeshivah on Chol Hamoed, I would have given shiurim and they would all be there. But here, I can’t say a single vort. Why am I here if no one will listen to my Torah?”

Dovi didn’t answer. Mordy blew another gust of vapor and, as Dovi watched it thin into nothingness, the haunting memory began edging its way forward. The frocks, the beards… Mordy dancing… Zeidy extending his hands — something about the smoky mist hanging in the air reminded him of that steam rising from that horrible dance at the wedding.

Dovi shut his eyes.

A full two minutes passed in silence. Dovi pushed himself off the wooden plank and began walking away slowly. Then he spun around.

“You wanna know why you’re here if no one’s listening to your Torah? Consider this, Mordy. Maybe you’re here to listen to Zeidy’s Torah.”

Chol Hamoed came and Dovi was deeply gratified when Mordy invited him to learn in the kollel — just like the good old days. But Dovi couldn’t get himself to feel what he had in previous years. It wasn’t because of anything Mordy was or wasn’t doing, though.

Over the past few days, Zeidy had been spending far more time in bed than ever before. He was taking long naps, and, when he awoke, showed little interest in doing anything. He had even turned down an offer to go for a walk along the riverbank that he loved so much. Only the daf seemed to imbue him with his usual energy, and, each day, Dovi would take him to the morning shiur, and then again to the evening shiur.

Pesach ended, and Dovi bid farewell to Mordy and Gitty with a mixture of sadness and relief. Dad and Mom would take them to the airport, and Dovi would stay home with Zeidy who, by now, was evidently slowing down. His flight to Florida was scheduled for the next day and, much as Dovi tried to insist on accompanying him, Zeidy was adamant that he fly alone. Mom booked a flight to Florida for the end of the month so she’d be able to check up on how he was doing.

The following day, Dovi led Zeidy into the passenger seat of his car, while Mom — who didn’t drive on highways — sat in the back. The silence in the car unnerved Dovi; his usually talkative Zeidy said nothing other than muttered a few words to himself as he studied the daf from his paperback traveling Gemara.

As they turned off into the terminal, Dovid saw the usual trappings of post-Pesach — lots of Odysseys jammed with duffle bags stamped with camp logos. He knew that the departure lane was a tow-away zone but there was no way he was simply dropping Zeidy off at the curb. He parked, whispered a tefillah not to get caught, and together with Mom, walked Zeidy to security.

They stopped and Dovi gave his grandfather a big hug.

“Goodbye, Zeidy.”

“Goodbye, Dovi. You’ve grown into a fine young man. Thanks for everything.”

Dovi jumped, realizing these were the first full sentences Zeidy had said in an hour. Something very sharp jabbed at his heart.

“I’ll miss you, Zeidy,” he said quietly.

“I’ll miss you too, Dovi,” Zeidy said as he began shuffling forward in the line. For a second, Dovi thought he saw Zeidy give a small shudder, but it was gone as soon as it came.

Dovi gave one last wave, then ran back to his car, opened the passenger door for Mom, and began pushing his way through the traffic.

Two weeks later Zeidy was gone.

Dovi had gone numb the moment Rabbi Stern called saying that Zeidy had missed the daf. He tried to convince himself that perhaps Zeidy fell, maybe it was a broken leg or something, but deep down he knew. If Zeidy missed the daf, it had to be over.

The next three days were a whirlwind as Dovi, along with Dad, worked feverishly to ensure the body’s release, arrange flights to Florida and, from there, to Ben Gurion where Zeidy would be buried on Har Hamenuchos. The taharah would be done in Florida so that the meis could be taken directly to the cemetery without having to stop in the funeral home in Yerushalayim. Mom joined them for the trip to Florida where she would sit shivah together with Eleanor for one day before heading home. Dad and Dovi would travel to Eretz Yisrael for the burial.

The El Al flight was torture for Dovi; the thought that somewhere beneath him lay a lifeless Zeidy tormented him. He could neither eat nor sleep and, when the plane mercifully landed, he staggered off, leading Dad, who looked pretty dazed himself, through customs out into the chaotic frenzy of taxis and tenders swerving amid shouts of Hebrew and blaring horns. Dovi hailed a cab and the window slid down.


“Har Hamenuchos,” Dovi intoned. The driver named an exorbitant fee, and Dovi nodded absently as he opened the passenger’s door to allow Dad inside. Dovi took a seat in the back and stared blankly out the window.

Mordy had taken care of all the plans on the Eretz Yisrael end, and the Chevra Kaddisha showed up at the airport in a blue van to pick up the mitah and bring it directly to Har Hamenuchos. The moment Dovi arrived, he saw it, the thin plank of wood with the tallis wrapped tightly around… he couldn’t. He lowered his head until all he could see were a huddle of shoes through the corner of his eye. Only once he reached a point where the mitah was blocked from view by a group of Yerushalmi men — who Dovi assumed were the Chevra Kaddisha — did Dovi look up. He locked eyes with Mordy, who gave him a weak smile.

Standing right next to Mordy was Reb Berel Zellman, who had come along with a group of bochurim.

Mentally, Dovi had prepared a hesped, nothing too formal — he wasn’t much of an orator — but just a few words to express his thoughts and feelings. But the presence of Reb Berel and his talmidim threw him off, and he wasn’t sure how, and where, he would be able to speak. Before he had a chance to ask someone, the mitah was lifted and Dovi readied himself to walk behind it.

From the corner of his eye, he noted Reb Berel walk over to Mordy and whisper something in his ear with a stern look on his face. Mordy nodded and began walking over to Dovi, looking terribly uncomfortable.

“Uh, Dovi, my shver told me to tell you, uh, I mean, my shver reminded me that uh, minhag Yerushalayim is that direct descendants don’t follow the niftar.” Dovi nodded, and any interest in sharing divrei hesped was sucked out, replaced with an irresistible urge to throw Berel Zellman into the grave instead of Zeidy.

The Chevra Kaddisha began leading the procession forward, with Mordy and Dovi remaining in place. Dovi had never felt so helpless as watched the group’s receding backs. From afar, he could see that they had stopped at a freshly dug grave and he stood on tiptoe to get a better view. The men were crouching downward, lowering the mitah into the grave. And then it disappeared from view. Dovi blinked. Goodbye, Zeidy. Mordy was looking into a sefer he had brought along and Dovi, sapped of all energy, leaned against the empty blue Chevra Kaddisha van, lest he collapse.

After what seemed like an eternity, the group returned and Reb Berel grunted something about second seder. He threw Mordy a questioning look and Mordy looked desperately toward Dovi.

“Go,” Dovi sighed, “we’re done.” He wasn’t lying. Their return flight was in three hours; he and Dad had to rush. They bid farewell to Mordy and headed straight back to the airport.

Mom was anything but a social butterfly, and her network of friends was limited to a few neighbors and fellow members of the JCC reading club. They came by dutifully, and listened politely as Mom shared memories of how her father taught her the Periodic Table of Elements and took her to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington as a prize when she repeated it by heart.

But for the lion’s share of the day, Mom sat alone, with Dovi sitting beside her, trying, but failing, to focus on his investments. Dad’s idea of shivah activities was to haul out an old box of VCRs along with a dusty, battered video machine. Dovi didn’t find the videos overly exciting but, one evening, his mind snapped to attention.

The screen showed the living room with Zeidy sitting on the old weathered brown couch that Dad had bought at a garage sale. Beside him sat Grandma. But the video’s focus was  six-year-old Mordy, who was pacing up and down the carpet. He was chanting the first few pesukim in Bereishis by heart but, instead of providing their translation, was calculating their gematria. “Bereishis — 913, bara — 203, Elokim — 86.”

Grandma squealed and clapped her hands.

Dovi stared at the kid version of his older brother. His forehead was enormous and… the dimples! Dovi had forgotten about those dimples — they had somehow disappeared as Mordy’s features went gaunt and sunken — a result of years of learning through lunch and supper, subsisting on pretzels and caffeine. “Es hashamayim — 796, v’es ha’aretz — 703.”

“Ho ho!” Zeidy cried out. “Incredible! With a head like that this kid’ll becomes the world’s greatest physicist!”

Mordy smiled and leaped into Zeidy’s lap. “A talmid chacham, Zeidy! A talmid chacham! I wanna be a talmid chacham!” he cried out.

Zeidy grinned and gave his cheek a soft pinch. “Sure m’boy, you’ll be a tremendous talmid chacham!”

Mordy flashed Zeidy a smile. “Amen!” he shouted earnestly. “Zeidy’s brachos for sure work!”

Zeidy laughed and eased Mordy off his lap. The video cut out at this point and Dad hit eject.

That night, Dovi fell asleep with the sound of his brother’s kid voice ringing in his ears: “A talmid chacham, Zeidy! A talmid chacham! I wanna be a talmid chacham!

Shivah ended and life went back to a more somber form of normal. Dovi returned to day-trading, working with added vigor to distract himself from having to acknowledge his new reality. Zeidy was no longer; the smile, the chuckle, the accent — they were all gone. It was now just Dovi, along with Mom and her stack of Hemingway and Dad tinkering in the garage.

One night, Dovi woke with a start. His phone was buzzing incessantly. He grabbed it and looked at the screen. It was 4:45 and… three missed calls from Mordy. Dovi leaped to his feet, threw negel vasser on his hands, and called him back.

Mordy answered immediately but there was no hello.

“D-D-Dovi, you can come?”

“Whaddup, Mordy? What’s going on?”

“It’s, it’s whatever.” He seemed to be struggling mightily to find the right words. “Dovi, sh-she’s expecting. But now she’s sick and, and the baby, it….” He really wasn’t speaking well at this point.

Dovi booted up his computer and began clicking furiously. “I got it Mordy, you don’t need to explain. I’m taking a noon flight out. Just hang in there Mordy, just hang in there.”

Dovi had lost track of what day it was when he landed in Ben Gurion. “Yerushalayim,” he gasped to the driver of the taxi he had leaped into, “Rechov Chanah.”

Forty-seven minutes later they were there. Mordy was outside, speaking frantically into the phone, pacing back and forth, his face sheet-white. Dovi ran over and Mordy snapped the phone shut.

“’Kay Mordy, I’m here. What’s up? What are the doctors saying?”

“Dovi,” Mordy sounded empty. “Gitty has rubella. She’s in the hospital now. It’s bad but she’ll be okay. The baby though… the baby… the doctors… they… they don’t think it will make it.”

Mordy shook his head and he looked at Dovi pleadingly. Dovi swallowed.

“Mordy, I’m here for you. Anything you need, any expense. I’ll give you every penny I have. Just tell me what you want me to do.”

Mordy smiled weakly.

“Thanks Dovi, but money… it’s not nogeia now. My shver wants me to go to Har Hamenuchos to daven at the kever of his rosh yeshivah, a groiseh gaon and yaduadikke tzaddik.” Mordy produced a paper that mapped out the kever’s location. “This is where it is. My shver offered to come with me, but,” the pleading look returned, “Dovi, I…I’d much rather if you came instead.”

Dovi hailed down a passing taxi. “Let’s go,” he said, “we’re going right now.”

He began climbing into the car while Mordy ran back into his apartment to get Sifrei Tehillim. Dovi took the opportunity to quickly text Mom and update her on where things were holding. Mordy returned quickly, carrying the two Tehillims. They drove down the bustling Yerushalayim streets, and, as they passed a small shopping plaza, Dovi suddenly jolted forward and rapped the driver on the shoulder. Nehag,” he said sharply, chakeh rega.”

Mordy stared at Dovi, bewildered as his brother jumped out of the cab and bolted into a nondescript seforim store. A few minutes later, Dovi returned, shopping bag in hand. Mordy looked at him, perplexed.

“What is that?”

“Nothing,” Dovi said. Instead of pressing him, Mordy seemed to forget about the incident the moment the cab resumed driving. He just sat in silence, staring blankly out the window.

The cab pulled into the Har Hamenuchos parking lot, and Dovi shook his head in wonder at the lively diversity that prevailed even in this very subdued corner of Yerushalayim. The warm, sunny weather must have made gravesite-visiting a popular activity; a busload of bochurim was  disembarking, an American family with kids sporting binoculars was clambering back into their rented van, while, off to the side, a group of Yerushalmi meshulachim were going at it with heated contention.

Dovi handed a hundred-dollar bill to the shocked driver as he and Mordy stepped outside. Mordy produced the map dubiously and Dovi snatched it from him. Mordy had a pathetic sense of direction.

Dovi looked at the map, thought for a moment, then began walking quickly down the path, Mordy in tow. Within a few minutes, they were standing beside the kever. Mordy produced the two Tehillims and handed one to Dovi. They stood close together, and Dovi noted how Mordy’s shuckeling came in short, rigid bouts and he kept wiping his forehead. Telltale signs of impatience, Dovi knew. They said the 15 chapters of Shir Hamaalos and then Mordy snapped the Tehillim shut.

“Ok, Dovi, shoin genug. Let’s go.” They began walking back up the path, and Dovi could see that Mordy was in worse shape than he’d been earlier.

“Dovi, why?!” he suddenly burst out. “Why would this happen? What did I do wrong? What did the baby do wrong? Why would Hashem do this to us?”

Dovi stopped for a moment and absentmindedly clutched the shopping bag in his hand tightly. He sighed sympathetically and the two continued walking in silence.

After a few minutes, Dovi turned to Mordy.

“Hey,” he said quietly, “once we’re here, why don’t we go to Zeidy’s kever?” Mordy looked taken aback for a moment. Then he nodded.

Takeh azoi,” he said slowly. “Let’s go.”

The sun was starting to beat down heavily as Dovi and Mordy stepped between the rows of gravestones. Dovi slowed his pace as he caught sight of the kever. Something about it struck him so wrong. The severe Hebrew lettering, spelling “Aryeh Leib ben Michael Halevi” was so not… Zeidy. He almost wished the epitaph could have been written in Zeidy’s large, loopy script and read, “Hi y’all. I’m from Little Rock, Arkansas. I got my bachelor’s in mathematics and my master’s in physics. I’ve been learning the daf ever since the new cycle began in 1990.”

Mordy pulled out his Tehillims but Dovi motioned for him to put them away. Wordlessly, he opened his bag and produced two thin, paperback Haggados. Confusion turned to comprehension as Mordy reached out and took one, hands trembling. He opened it to Kadeish and took a deep breath.

“Well,” he said, “I haven’t worn one of these since my days in the lab!”

“Mordy!” Dovi thumped him on the back, “Ya done good!”

Mordy smiled shyly. “Urchatz, Dovi,” he said. “Take it away.”

“All right,” Dovi said. “Reminds me of my days in the lab when they had us washing our hands every ten minutes!”

“Five minutes, Dovi, it’s five minutes.”

They turned the page. Mordy grinned broadly. “Call these potatoes? You should see what my Dad had growing in our backyard in Little Rock! The size of small watermelons they were!”

Dovi laughed out loud — the imitation was perfect. “I’ll take Yachatz,” he said. “If I knew Judo like my brother Willy did, I could chop this here matzah with one hand!”

Mordy giggled and turned the page. The smile vanished from his face.

“Maggid,” Dovi said softly. Simultaneously, their eyes slid past Mah Nishtanah, and settled on Avadim Hayinu. Mordy stood there, absolutely silent. Dovi waited a minute, then spoke carefully.

“Mordy, you have a shtickel Torah on this, don’t you? You have a pshat in how Avadim Hayinu answers the questions of Mah Nishtanah, right?”

For a few moments, Mordy said nothing. And then he shook his head.

“No, Dovi,” his voice came out warbly, as if his throat was filled with cotton balls. “No, I don’t.” He was staring off into space and, when he spoke, the southern accent was gone. “Rabbi Geldner got it right,” he said. “Not all” — his voice caught. He swallowed and tried again — “not all questions have answers down here.” And then, Dovi could neither see Mordy’s face nor hear his voice as he fell forward against the kever, shoulders heaving rapidly.

“Sure m’boy, you’ll be a tremendous talmid chacham!”… “Amen! Zeidy’s brachos for sure work!”

Dovi stood back and shut his eyes, offering a silent prayer.

The two brothers trudged up the path together, stopping to collect their breath once they reached the parking lot. The meshulachim were no longer there, Dovi noted, but in their place was a large group of tourists speaking an inscrutable language. A few eager nehagim were leaning against their cars, looking toward them expectantly.

Mordy pulled out his phone and looked at the screen. Two missed calls from Mom.

“Oh, boy,” Dovi said as Mordy squared his shoulders. “She’s gotta be a wreck by now.”

Mordy hit “Call” and Dovi could clearly hear Mom’s frantic voice coming through the speaker.

“Mordy! Are, well, you know, are you, like, okay?”

“Hanging in there, Ma,” Mordy said.

“Mordy!” Mom pressed on anxiously. “Dovi texted me that your father-in-law suggested you go to the kever of a tzaddik. Did that happen? Did you daven by the tzaddik?”

Mordy opened his mouth to answer but stopped short. He then broke out into the biggest, widest smile.

“Yeah, Ma, we davened by a tzaddik,” he said. “A very, very big tzaddik.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1008)

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