| Family Tempo |

Call Waiting

Sari shot Avi a rueful glance. They both knew full well that after the wedding, their bochurim rarely showed up again

"Yanky, take your kallah home. It’s getting late.” Avi grabbed the broom from Yanky, and gave him a friendly shove towards the door.

“Wow, Reb Avi, Rebbetzin Goodman, thank you isn’t enough. This was awesome,” said Yanky, pumping Avi’s hand.

“Yeah, thanks so much. I couldn’t believe it when Yanky told me you’d take care of the vort when our parents couldn’t get into the country. He’s been telling me how much you do for him and how he loves being here.” Dassi’s smile lit up her eyes. “I can’t wait to come for Shabbos.”

Sari smiled warmly and draped her arm over Dassi’s shoulder. “Yanky’s a great guy. It was our pleasure.”

“Hey, you’re still gonna give me karate lessons, aren’t you?” Nine-year-old Shloimi seemed to appear out of

“Course we’re gonna continue our lessons,” said Yanky, fist-bumping Shloimi as he threw a mock kick to the side.

Sari shot Avi a rueful glance. They both knew full well that after the wedding, their bochurim rarely showed up again. If they were lucky, Sari thought, the couple might remember to invite them to a bris or kiddush a year or two down the line.

Sari waved good-night and she slid the front door closed.

“Bed. Now.” She smiled and kissed her bechor on the top of the head.

She was practically sleep walking as she packed petit fours and cookies into Tupperware; the kids would enjoy a special after-school snack tomorrow — and for the next several days. She stuffed a load of tablecloths into the wash and piled an impossible number of trays and serving dishes in her sink. They'd need to wait until tomorrow.

Avi had folded up the tables and chairs and stacked them by the door. Sari went to get the sponja stick.

“Just leave it. I swept already. You can wash the floors tomorrow,” Avi said.

“No, I can’t. It’s so annoying to step on sticky floors. The kids can’t wake up to that.”

Avi rolled his eyes and took the sponja stick from her. If Sari had decided the kids needed to wake up to washed floors, he wouldn’t convince her they didn’t. But he also knew she’d been on her feet all day preparing for the vort.

“Thanks. I think this is the first time I’m sitting down all day.” Sari collapsed gratefully on the couch. “I must be crazy to put so much work into shooting myself in the foot.”

Avi looked genuinely confused.

She sighed. “Hello, Yanky’s engaged. After the wedding, that’s it. They’ll spend Shabbos by all of Dassi’s old seminary teachers. If you happen to bump into him, he’ll promise to come for that never-land Shabbos called ‘sometime.’”

Avi didn’t say a word. He knew she was right.

Sari closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the couch, then opened them and sat up abruptly. “I know Yanky meant well, but he shouldn’t have told Shloimi he’ll continue the lessons. You and I both know he won’t.”

Avi looked up from a stubborn spot on the floor. “So we’ll get him karate lessons somewhere else if he wants them. I saw an ad today.”

She shook her head. “That’s not the point. Shloimi gets attached to these boys. We all do. You do too… and then they never come again. They have these big brothers for a year or two, and then poof. It’s not fair to them. Maybe it’s time to pull back?”

Avi pressed his lips together but didn’t say anything.

Sari sighed. It just wasn’t fair. Avi invested so much in “his boys.” Sari knew how hurt he was every time a boy who’d sat at their Shabbos table week after week, done his laundry by them (because everyone knows the yeshivah machines ruin your clothes), crashed in their guest bedroom when he wasn’t feeling well, and turned to Avi for everything he would’ve turned to a big brother for, suddenly upped and disappeared the minute after he stood under the chuppah.

When they’d gotten engaged, Avi had told her that he wanted to be that home he wished he’d had when he was in yeshivah. And that’s exactly what they’d created.

Now, she watched him dragging the wet rag across the room in neat lines across the tiles, back and forth, row by row, and felt her heart twist.

“Remember when Ruvi got married? The kids kept asking for him to come back and draw those cartoons? And when Baruch got married, they didn’t understand why we stopped having black and white cookies every Shabbos.”

“You want me to start buying black and white cookies for Shabbos?” Avi looked up. With his narrow frame and straight black hair, he looked so much like Shloimi — and just as vulnerable. Sari wanted to protect them both.

“Baruch got married five years ago. I doubt the kids even remember the cookies. The only reason they remember Ruvi’s cartoons is because Shloimi still has a few hanging on the wall. It’s not about the things that stop when they leave… “ She trailed off.

So what was it about? She closed her eyes again. It wasn’t about the cartoons or cookies or karate. She and Avi were giving and giving and giving. But if bochurim could walk away without so much as a glance back in their direction, were the boys really receiving anything? She was draining herself for nothing. The Goodmans were just a convenience for these boys. Shouldn’t she be taking her children into account?

“The kids aren’t so little anymore,” she continued. “Shloimi won’t forget Yanky. Neither will Rivky, and maybe Yehuda too. Shloimi will always remember that he looked up to him like a big brother and that he vanished while they were still in the middle of karate lessons. Maybe we’re paying too high a price for these connections.”

Avi put the sponja stick on the porch. “It’s late. Let’s get some sleep. We can discuss this another time.”

“I told you guys I’d save you some yummy goodies if you went to sleep nicely!” Sari told the kids as they tumbled in the door at lunch time. “Go put your stuff away and wash up.”

The only reminder left from the vort the night before were the little plates in front of each child’s seat. Sari had spent the morning cleaning and scrubbing, removing all signs that a party had taken place.

Two-year-old Chelli was covered in cream, but it was worth it to watch the look of glee in her eyes as she licked her fingers.

“Don’t touch anything until you wash your hands!” she announced to the older children as she held Chelli over the kitchen sink. Sari had always fended for herself at lunch time as a child. More than once she’d eaten dessert first and was no worse for the wear. The kids had been so excited about the leftover vort goodies; she couldn’t make them wait until after lunch.

“Mommy, can you call Yanky and find out when we’re having our lesson?” Shloimi sat down to eat lunch — meatballs and spaghetti that Sari had carefully ladled onto opposite sides of the plate. Shloimi wouldn’t eat them if they were touching each other.

Sari sat down next to him and looked him in the eye. “Zeeskeit, Yanky just got engaged. He’s going to be busy getting ready for the chasunah. I don’t think he’s going to have time to give you karate lessons anymore.”

Shloimi turned away and started eating. He was quiet until he left for cheder again.

When Avi walked in, Sari offered to bring him a plate of cake. “Eh, no thanks. I ate more than enough last night. I’m wiped. I’m gonna go catch a nap before afternoon seder.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to eat something?” Sari’s voice was almost pleading as she proffered the Tupperware full of goodies to her skinny husband.

Avi shook his head. “Maybe after I wake up. Now I just want to catch up on some sleep.”

Sari started reaching for a cream puff for herself, then thought better of it and closed the container. She wasn’t much bigger than Avi, but whereas for him it was an effort to keep weight on, for her it was an effort to keep it off.

Avi’s phone rang. His face lit up as he looked at the screen.

“Baruch! No way! It’s been ages! What’s up?”

Sari watched Avi’s face change way too fast as he slid into the dining room chair;  she felt her own heart speed up.

“Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry. Yeah, let me just check with Sari, but I’m sure it’s fine.”

Avi held his palm against the phone and whispered to Sari. “They have a three-week-old baby who’s running a fever. The doctor sent his wife to the emergency room. He wants to know if he can drop the older two kids here so he can go meet her. He’s sorry to ask at the last minute, but he can’t think of anyone else he can call.”

Baruch has a three-week-old and they didn’t even know? Sari nodded her consent, chiding herself for her pettiness. This wasn’t important now.

Half an hour later Baruch knocked, holding a blond little girl in each hand. Sari bent over and offered the older girl a sprinkle cookie. Good thing the vort had left her with tempting nosh on hand. These kids had no idea who she was, she thought, with a twinge of hurt.

“You must be Nechama. I remember when you were born — you’re four years old already! What a big girl. You’re going to help me take care of…” Sari paused for a second, trying to recall Baruch’s second daughter’s name. “Mali, right?” She handed the pudgy-faced two-year-old a cookie and let the girls inside.

“Rivky, could you bring the bubbles for our new friends?” Sari didn’t usually let the kids play with bubbles in the house, but she figured she’d need some heavy-duty distraction to keep these two from having a meltdown in a stranger’s house.

“Baruch, I know you’re in a hurry to get to the hospital, but can I give you lunch to bring with you? Or a couple of coffees? I bet Chana didn’t eat anything before she went to the hospital.”

Baruch instantly looked more relaxed. “Oh man, you can’t imagine how good it feels to be back in your house. I forgot how well you take care of people.”

“We have meatballs and spaghetti, but I don’t know if you’ll find a place to heat it up there. Would you rather some tuna sandwiches?”

“That sounds amazing, but I think I should just get there and see what’s going on. If I know Chana, she won’t be able to put a bite into her mouth until she knows what’s going on with the baby. We can always pick something up in the hospital cafeteria.” Baruch glanced at his little girls chasing bubbles around the Goodman’s living room, then tiptoed to the door while they were distracted.

Baruch reached out to shake Avi’s hand. “I really don’t know how to thank you. I didn’t know who else to call. I mean, Chana has her people, but she was in no state to call, and I… I just didn’t feel comfortable asking them for such a big favor.”

Avi put his second hand on their still-joined hands. “We’re glad you turned to us. I just wish it was for better circumstances.”

Avi reached into his pocket for a pen and his ever-present notepad. “What’s the baby’s name? We’re gonna be davening until you call us with good news.”

“Uh, it’s Moshe Yitzchak ben Chana Tehilla. I really appreciate it.”

Sari noticed Avi pause for just a moment before jotting down the name. Sari clenched her teeth. So there’d been a bris and they hadn’t even bothered to call? Well, it had been five years… and people can’t afford to invite every family they were ever in touch with to a bris, she reasoned. Still, we’re not “every family” to Baruch. At least we weren’t five years ago.

Baruch stiffened and reddened slightly. “I’d wanted to call you about the bris, but the baby was yellow, and it ended up being at the last minute…” he stammered.

“Your wife is waiting. Don’t worry about it. B’ezras Hashem we’ll have plenty of time to catch up when the baby is released,” Avi said.

Sari handed Baruch a container full of the most finger-friendly vort goodies she could find, and he slipped out the door.

The rest of the week passed in a blur. The baby’s fever came down but the hospital ran an endless battery of tests to discover its cause. Baruch dropped his girls at the Goodmans in the afternoons and Sari packed suppers for him and his wife to eat in the hospital. When he picked up the girls in the evening on his way home, Sari made sure they were already bathed and in pajamas, ready for bed.

In between taking care of her six children and Baruch’s two, she called listings for apartments near the yeshivah that might work for Yanky and Dassi while Avi went chasunah shopping with Yanky.

Growing up, Sari had always been more independent than her friends. Her parents seemed oblivious to the fact that other girls her age weren’t preparing their own meals and doing their own laundry by the age of ten. While Sari worked on assignments by herself and made her own appointments, she felt a stab of jealousy that it didn’t even enter her friends’ minds to call the orthodontist when their retainers broke.

But all that independence had paid off. Now, not only could Sari do for her own children what her parents had never done for her, she could also take care of anyone who needed her.

It was like watching a wilted flower come to life when you watered it; that’s the way she no doubt would have looked if someone would have taken a burden off her own shoulders when she was a girl. That was what kept her going. She was a gardener watering all the thirsty flowers.

Two hours before Shabbos, Baruch was on the phone with his wife trying to decide if it would be better for him to spend Shabbos at the Goodmans with their girls or in the hospital with her and the baby, when the hospital decided that even though they hadn’t identified the source of the newborn’s fever, since all the tests had come out negative and he seemed healthy, they could go home.

Baruch lowered the phone from his mouth and looked at Sari. “Uh, Chana really wanted to spend Shabbos at home — you know, finally sleep in her own bed, but, uh,” he glanced at his watch, “it’s kinda late to make that happen, and the girls are already here…”

“Tell Chana it would be a treat for us to host your family together.”

Baruch lifted the phone to speak, then let out a short laugh. Chana had heard Sari’s invite through the phone. “Chana says she doesn’t even know how to thank you. You’ve already done so much.”

“Our total pleasure,” Sari said, smiling.

“This is ridiculous,” protested Chana as Sari cleaned up after Havdalah. “You’re working so hard and you’re not even letting me get off the couch.”

“Ridiculous would be a new mommy who just spent days in the hospital getting up to help a perfectly healthy woman when she didn’t need it!” answered Sari.

Avi smiled at Sari. Shabbos with Baruch had been just like old times — only better, seeing him with his wife and kids. And the way Sari was spoiling Chana, for sure they’d be back. As he’d told Sari earlier that day, he would never wish a sick baby on anyone, but this was just the way Hashem’s hashgachah brought Baruch back into their lives.

So funny this had happened just as Yanky got engaged and Sari was worried about losing their relationship. Here was Baruch after five years, sitting at their table like he’d never left.

“Mommy, how long has Yanky been married?”

Sari counted on her fingers. “About three months, sweetheart. Why do you ask?”

“Now can we call and ask about my karate lessons?” Shloimi said.

Sari practically smacked herself. How could she have forgotten? Shloimi hadn’t said a word since she’d told him Yanky didn’t have time. And all these months her son had been anxiously waiting, and she hadn’t even acknowledged his feelings.

“Uh, I’m not sure Yanky is going to be able to continue your lessons now that he’s married, but why don’t you give him a call and ask.” Sari didn’t want to give her son false hope, but she also hoped her little boy’s pleading voice would make an impression on Yanky. Aside from Avi seeing Yanky every day in kollel, they hadn’t heard a peep from him since the wedding.

“He didn’t answer.” Shloimi put down the phone. Sari glanced at her watch. Maybe Yanky’s chassan teacher had told him not to answer the phone during lunch?

But he didn’t answer any other time of day either. She should just tell Shloimi to stop trying. Yanky could see a dozen missed calls from their number.

On day three of Shloimi’s stalk-a-thon, Yanky finally answered. “Shloimi, so sorry, I’ve been busy doing husband things, but as soon as I find time we’re getting back to work! I hope you’re practicing!”

Sari asked for the phone.

“Hey, Rebbetzin, what’s up?”

“Not much, I was just wondering when we could get you and your new kallah here for a Shabbos.”

“I’ll ask my wife and let you know.”

Sari laughed. “I see you like the sound of that, don’t you?”

“Baruch Hashem. Baruch Hashem. We’ll be in touch, Rebbetzin.”

When the phone rang that Thursday Sari checked the caller ID, wondering if it was a would-be Shabbos guest. Her heart started racing when she saw it was Rabbi Daskal, Shloimi’s rebbi. Rabbi Daskal was fast to assure her that everything was fine.

“I just noticed that Shloimi seems a little quiet lately. I was wondering if anything’s been going on at home.”

“Uh, thanks so much for calling. I’m not sure… one of the bochurim we’re close to just got married, and I know Shloimi misses him. Maybe that’s it.”

When Avi came home that afternoon, Sari offered him rice and grilled chicken. He made himself a coffee. “I can become fleishig just as soon as I’ve got this pumping through my bloodstream.” He lifted the mug toward her in a toast.

“Three guys asked to come for Shabbos,” he said.

For just a moment Sari imagined herself holding a watering can, but instead of watering a plant she was pouring water on barren, empty concrete.

She started pacing their small kitchen.

“Maybe we need some space. Shloimi keeps practicing his karate and he just doesn’t understand that Yanky’s not coming back.”

Avi blinked. “Let’s get him karate lessons. It won’t be free, but who says Yanky is even qualified to give karate lessons?”

“This. Is. Not. About. Karate,” Sari said as emphatically as she could. “This is about young, immature bochurim getting what they need from us when they need it, and dropping us when they don’t. When our kids were little, it was fine, but now that they’re getting older, we’re giving to these bochurim at the expense of our own children.”

“Do you really think it’s that big a deal? Sure, the kids miss the guys when they don’t come back, but don’t you think that’s a normal part of life? A lot of guys only come for a year or two. Would you suggest we never host them because they’re not going to be here forever? The kids like having the guys for Shabbos.” Avi paused. “We’re hurt when the guys that could come don’t — maybe we could just be a place for Shabbos and that’s it. Not a place to do your laundry or a hideout when you’re fed up with the dorm.”

“And I’m not spending all day making your vort or helping you find an apartment,” Sari finished before Avi could continue.

Avi stood up, placed his empty mug in the sink, and looked back at his wife.

“So I’m telling the guys they can come for Shabbos?” he asked.

“Let me think about it, okay?”

But Sari didn’t want to think about it. She wanted a distraction. As soon as Avi was out the door, she called her friend Rivky to chat. It was only when she started to relax on the phone that she noticed Avi had left without touching lunch. Some gardener she was.

“Please give me a recipe that I haven’t made every single Shabbos…”   she told Rivky. “My Shabbos menu needs a refresh.”

“Oh! That reminds me! You’ll never guess who I met last Shabbos,” Rivky’s voice warmed. “Remember that guy you used to ask me if I knew a girl for? Baruch, I think? I met his wife in the park. They came to my neighbors, the Kaufmans, for Shabbos, I think Mrs. Kaufman taught the wife in sem… Chana, right? I’ve seen them before but never made the connection. She was going on and on about what you did for them when they were in the hospital. Isn’t that the funniest thing?

“Yeah, hysterical,” said Sari, trying to sound like she actually thought it was funny. “Rivky, I’ve gotta run. Nice to catch up.”

In the six months since his baby was sick, Sari and Avi had invited Baruch back at least a dozen times. Every time he turned them down. Sari tried to tell herself they probably just wanted to be home for Shabbos, but then here they were going to this Kaufman family. She’d been busy all these years thinking she was watering flowers. No one wanted her stupid water; she was just pouring it down the drain.

Even though Sari never called Avi during seder, she found herself dialing his number.

“Tell the guys we can’t have them this week, ‘kay? Just say no.”

She hung up without explaining herself, grabbed her purse, and ran out the door. She needed fresh air. She had just enough time to get to the shekel store before the kids came home.

Yehuda was turning eight. She liked to have every kid in the family give the birthday child a gift, so her children would always feel that they were lucky to have a lot of siblings, but with Avi still in kollel, it would have to be shekel store presents. And if the kids were happy with inexpensive gifts, so why spend more?

As Sari browsed the fuzzy keychains and light-up racecars, she saw a tall, blond woman eyeing her. She looked familiar, but Sari couldn’t place her.

“Mrs. Goodman! How are you?” Seeing her uncertainty, the woman continued. “I’m Tami Lichter, Yoni’s wife.”

“Oh, wow! How are you? How’s Yoni?” Sari said, trying to remember her manners. Yoni used to come to them all the time, until he married Tami, of course.

“Yoni’s great, baruch Hashem. How’s your family?”

Sari forced a smile. “We’re good, baruch Hashem, kids are doing well… it’s actually my Yehuda’s birthday tomorrow.” She stopped. Why was she babbling?

“Hey, you’re not here buying birthday presents, are you?” Tami asked, looking excited.

“Uh, actually I am. How did you guess?”

“Yoni told me all about it. He insisted I also get presents for all the kids to give the birthday boy, just like the Goodmans. It’s a beautiful idea. I hear this from him all the time — ‘We should do X like the Goodmans or let’s do Y just like the Goodmans.’ Sometimes I feel like you’re actually living in my house!” Tami rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.

Sari finished selecting her prizes and hurried out of the store. She was dizzy. It had been years since they’d heard from Yoni. And all these years that she thought he’d totally forgotten about them, he’d been driving his wife crazy to make their home like her own.

She noticed the green sticking up through the cracks in the side walk, the trees at regular intervals growing in little squares of dirt along the entire sidewalk. Everywhere she looked, things were growing. Even after they left her home, the boys were still growing from her water. She just hadn’t known about it.

Maybe she’d been all wrong about the bochurim and the gifts they gave her children. Her kids were sitting in the shade of the plants she had watered. Maybe her kids weren’t losing out on cookies and cartoons and everything else — they’d gained it during the times the bochurim had been able to give it.

She looked around and tried to steady herself. It was like the world had been sideways and finally righted itself. After a few deep breaths, she felt ready to continue home.

On her way back, Sari paused to copy a phone number off an advertisement into her phone. Then she dialed.

“Hi, I saw your ad. I wanted to know how I could sign my son up for karate lessons.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 763)

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