I took a deep breath. We found hand-me-downs for Leiba, Miriam, and Yisroel, but there was nothing of mine that could be fixed to fit me
“They look so nice lined up like that, don’t they?” I commented to Miriam, scanning the row of bottles of wine we had made for the Seder this year. Until now, Papa had made the wine by hand, squeezing the grapes and turning them into wine, pure and perfect for the Seder.
“Yeah,” Miriam agreed, watching the sun glinting off the glass bottles. “Baruch really worked hard on it.”
“And Dovid,” I added. Dovid had helped; we hadn’t just left it to Baruch.
“Elka?” Mama’s voice called out through the window, “can you come upstairs and take down this wet laundry to hang on the line?”
I bounded up the steps and relieved Mama of the heavy laundry basket at her feet. Descending the stairs slowly and carefully, I made my way through the building and outside to the yard. We shared the area with the rest of the people in our building, and it was not just our lines that were filled with clean clothing. Everyone was busy getting ready for Pesach, only two days away. When the basket was finally empty, Miriam grabbed it and the two of us went upstairs to see what else needed to be done.
“Mama?” I called into the house. Leiba and Yisroel came dancing to the door. “Where’s Mama?” I asked them. Yisroel pointed towards the dining room.
“Come try it on,” Mama said, shaking out the dress she had been working on.
I took a deep breath. We found hand-me-downs for Leiba, Miriam, and Yisroel, but there was nothing of mine that could be fixed to fit me. Yocheved gave Mama some old clothing of Faiga’s — she’s taller than I am and her outgrown clothing would still fit me — but I refused to wear them. Mama insisted. She didn’t have time to make me something new. So while I sulked, Mama fixed up Faiga’s dress to fit me.
“Try it on,” Mama said again.
Yom Tov was coming. In a few hours, Mama would bentsh licht and we’d set the table. Whether I liked it or not, I’d be wearing this dress. I looked at it again. The white linen had been cleaned and ironed. Wordlessly, I took the dress and slipped it over my head. Then I undid the dress I was wearing and let it fall to the floor beneath me. Miriam reached up to clasp the back and I stepped back.
“It fits perfectly,” Mama said, reaching over to straighten the sleeve.
“It looks so pretty,” Miriam smiled, stepping back to look at the dress from far. “I don’t know what you were complaining about.”
They were right. I looked down at the dress and couldn’t help but admit it. It was beautiful. If only it hadn’t been Faiga’s first.
“Okay,” Mama said suddenly, “Elka, take off the dress. We don’t have time to stand around. It’s almost Shabbos. And we need to make sure everything is ready for the Seder, too.”
The house became a whirlwind, with all of us scattered around putting the finishing touches on each room, l’kavod Shabbos and Pesach. Mama carefully hung the challah in the window off of the kitchen. We didn’t want them to make crumbs in our Pesachdig kitchen. Even the bochurim who rented the bedroom pitched in to help. And then, as Dovid and Zalman hurried off to shul, the sun set and the peace that Shabbos brings settled over the house. It was Shabbos, but it was also Erev Pesach, which was strange and exciting at the same time.
And then, before we knew it, we were sitting down to the Seder. Mama took her place at the end of the table, like she always did. Even though Papa wasn’t here, no one sat in his seat. It just stayed empty, as if he had stepped out and would be coming back any moment. I looked around the table at all of us, dressed in our new Yom Tov clothing, our cups for the Daled Kosos filled to the brim with the grape juice and wine that we had made. But there was no one in a long, white kittel at the head of the table. No on to stand up and boom out Kiddush while the rest of us followed along. Instead, we limped along through the beginning of the Seder, trying to make it feel right. It had been a mistake. Mama had been right. We should have gone to Yocheved and Baruch and had a normal Seder. And it was all my fault.
But by the time Dovid split the matzah and hid the afikomen, the talking and the laughter and the discussions felt just like they usually did.
“Hey!” Dovid shrieked as Leiba scampered off with the afikomen he had hidden under the table. Leiba giggled and disappeared into the kitchen to hide her find.
“I learned something interesting in school,” Miriam said, addressing Mama, but really talking to all of us. “Do you want to hear it?”
“Of course, Miriam,” Mama said, smiling encouragingly as Miriam launched into a devar Torah for Maggid.
Even without Papa, it felt right. Something was missing, but this was still better than being a guest at Yocheved’s house.
The next day we had some bochurim eat with us. We barely missed Papa then. Everything felt so normal — a man to make Kiddush, Mama’s piping hot stew with sweet carrots and raisins. A recipe we had learned from friends in Chevron, not one from Europe, but something we had all come to enjoy. And divrei Torah, and laughter, and all of it right here in our house.
When the seudah was over, I stretched out on the couch to take a rest. The past few weeks had been long and hectic, and I was ready for a break.
Dovid and Zalman stayed seated at the table, though, and through my half-closed eyes I listened to their conversation.
“I’m almost 12,” Dovid was saying, as though embarrassed by his age. He had nothing to be embarrassed about. He always acted so mature .
“So, what are you doing about tefillin?” Zalman responded. “You need to order a pair soon if you want a sofer to have them ready for your bar mitzvah.”
Mama passed by just then, having finished washing the dishes from the seudah.
“Are you ordering tefillin for Dovid soon?” Zalman asked her. His father was a sofer, I remembered. Was he hoping we would order from him?
“Actually,” Mama replied slowly, “I already have a pair of tefillin for Dovid.” She said it hesitantly. Almost nervously — if Mama could get nervous.
“Really?” Dovid asked.
“Yes,” Mama said. “We have Papa’s. I have it in a safe place, waiting for you.”
Papa’s tefillin? The sleepy feeling inside of me evaporated and left behind a huge empty chasm. No. Dovid shouldn’t be using Papa’s tefillin. No one besides Papa should be using Papa’s tefillin. I turned towards Dovid, expecting to see the same feeling reflected on his face. But instead, his face was alive with excitement. How could that be? How could Dovid want to use Papa’s tefillin?
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 930)
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