They felt foreign in his hands, these cool metal symbols of the luxury he’d spent so long trying to escape
When Chaim Zev walked through the door followed by eight bochurim, he felt for the first time what it meant to be the man of the house. Here was his table, there was his wife, and these boys were his official guests.
Just a few months ago, these guys had been his friends and equals. But since his engagement, things were a little different. They hadn’t been surprised when he’d been snatched up by the wealthy Alex Weiss — after all, Chaim Zev was a rosh yeshivah’s son and the best guy in Rav Aryeh’s yeshivah — but still, landing the shidduch of the year had made Chaim Zev seem a little distant from his crowd.
Now that he was past the awkwardness of the engagement and stiffness of the sheva brachos week, Chaim Zev wanted to be part of the chevrah again. He knew Perri would be a willing hostess, even though eight hungry bochurim could sound intimidating to a girl who’d gotten married a month ago and had barely finished settling into her apartment in far-off Yerushalayim.
But Perri had risen to the occasion admirably. Ten delicate plates graced the brocade tablecloth, their gold trim glinting atop matching chargers. Perri had skillfully twisted the linen napkins into the set of napkin rings Tante Leichu had given as a wedding gift. With fresh flowers towering from a matching vase, the table looked just like her mother’s back in Boro Park.
Chaim Zev wasn’t used to linen napkins and wasn’t quite sure what he’d do with his, but he couldn’t deny that the table looked eminently Shabbosdig.
The boys lifted their eyebrows a little when they saw the table, but sang Shalom Aleichim decorously. Kiddush was a little funny — Chaim Zev almost felt like he was playing Shabbos Tatty — but once they got past the challah, the atmosphere was comfortable again.
Perri had prepared two types of fish — gefilte fish with some sort of red sauce plus sweet and sour salmon — and had garnished each plate with green stuff. Chaim Zev wasn’t sure why regular fish and carrots wouldn’t do, but they said marriage meant working on your middos, so he figured he could handle the red sauce. Goldman and Fine were digging in, at any rate.
But what was this? Perri was coming out of the kitchen again, holding a huge tray. When she put it down on the table, Feingold smiled wide.
“Sushi!” Lieberman whooped appreciatively. “Wow, there’s even tempura here.”
Chaim Zev had never gotten this close to sushi before. He knew it had something to do with raw fish. He also knew it didn’t belong on a Shabbos table. But he kept quiet. Shalom bayis and all that. Besides, the guys seemed to like it.
The meal went on, course after course, and the eyebrows kept going up. Chaim Zev knew this wasn’t exactly his mother’s menu, but he didn’t know enough about food to understand why Lieberman and Feingold kept kicking each other under the table.
After dessert, he escorted his friends out of the apartment, then came back in and closed the door.
“That was some meal, Perri,” he said warmly. “You’re an amazing cook, and everything looked so nice.”
“Thanks, it was fun!” Perri bubbled as she carefully stacked the stemware near the sink. “I can totally do this every week!”
It was only on Sunday morning, when Chaim Zev was hanging up his jacket before first seder, that he realized something wasn’t quite right.
“You had to see what she served, that Weiss girl,” he heard a voice from the other side of the coatroom. Chaim Zev stood very still.
“Not just gefilte fish. And not just salmon. Gefilte fish, plus salmon, plus sushi! And it was good sushi. I think I know where she ordered it from.”
“Forget about the food. I mean, don’t forget about it,” said another voice. “It was totally sick — Cornish hens and minute roast on a regular Shabbos. But you had to see the table. The napkins! The serving pieces! And these gold chargers!”
“I don’t know if Chaim Zev realized what he signed up for,” the first voice laughed. “Pas b’melach, huh?”
Chaim Zev knew he’d have to phrase his words carefully. Perri surely didn’t realize how mired in gashmiyus she was. On their dates she had talked with fire and passion about the Israeli families she’d met during seminary, how beautiful she’d found their Spartan lifestyles, how life in Yerushalayim without the distractions of luxury really helped people achieve a higher level of Yiddishkeit. And Chaim Zev knew she’d meant it.
It was funny; in a way, Alex Weiss had that same genuine admiration for Torah. For all that he was a savvy businessman, he’d seemed to shrink next to Tatty at the l’chayim, offering Tatty a seat, using the most respectful tone when asking “the mechutan” to speak, introducing his friends to Tatty with real humility. It was as if the tough negotiator and brilliant business mind had disappeared. Maybe he wasn’t used to dealing with roshei yeshivah.
But now they were far away from Alex Weiss and the big stone house in Boro Park, and Chaim Zev had to help Perri see the disastrous effects of her upbringing. Chas v’shalom, that she and Chaim Zev should cause jealousy or hurt feelings, or make people feel bad because they had beautiful chargers or anything like that.
“Perri,” he started gently that night, after she’d cleared away the steaks and asparagus spears. “I was thinking … you know, when we were dating, we talked about living here, and how it’s much easier to grow in ruchniyus when you don’t have all the distractions of America.”
“Right,” she agreed. “I see it already. You know that organization I signed up for, the one that sends volunteers to cancer patients? So yesterday, when I was in the children’s ward, I met this amazing family. It’s so sad, they have this little girl in the ward, and when I was schmoozing with the mother, I realized she lives right near us. You could tell how special she is — living on almost nothing.… I was thinking maybe we could invite the husband and kids for a Shabbos meal, if the mother has to be in the hospital for Shabbos again. What do you think?”
“I … uh — that’s so nice that you were volunteering at the hospital, Perri,” Chaim Zev fumbled for a minute. “Look, if you want to invite them, it sounds like a really nice mitzvah. I’m just thinking … maybe … we should modify the menu a little.” Now back on steady ground, the purpose of the whole conversation, he forged ahead more confidently. “I don’t know if these people are so used to all the red meat we Americans eat.”
Perri nodded, although she looked a bit puzzled.
“And,” Chaim Zev plunged onward, “those chargers — I’m thinking maybe we should put them away for now. L’maiseh we’re a kollel couple, you know what I mean? I wouldn’t want to make anyone feel jealous or uncomfortable or anything.”
Perri looked confused. But Chaim Zev came from a house of Torah learning. His father was a rosh yeshivah. Her father was just a businessman. Chaim Zev seemed to be very sure of how a kollel couple’s Shabbos table should look.
Silently, she handed him the stack of chargers, and he stowed them inside the highest kitchen cabinet, the one that almost touched the ceiling.
“So,” Perri gushed as she set the chicken cutlets down on the supper table, “you’ll never believe this great idea I had today.”
“Tell me,” Chaim Zev smiled at his irrepressibly creative wife.
“You know how my mother hosts this luncheon once a year to raise money for kallahs? I was talking to her about it today, and I was remembering how much fun it was and how much money we raised. And then I started thinking, why not do it here? I could ask Zeldy and Malky to help me — we used to help out mothers with their functions — and we could ask our parents to donate prizes for a mini Chinese auction, and we could invite Rebbetzin Spira to speak.…” Perri’s voice trailed off as she noticed Chaim Zev’s smile fade and his shoulders tighten. In a small voice, she offered, “If it’s more comfortable for you, Chaim Zev, we don’t have to do it in our house. Malky’s living room is probably big enough.”
Chaim Zev nodded in relief, thinking that the last thing he needed was his friends’ wives discussing the new window treatments and matching throw pillows. He didn’t notice the light dimming in Perri’s eyes, the way her shoulders sagged.
“Good schnitzel,” he commented bracingly.
“Chaim Zev, mazel tov! Welcome back!”
“How’s the baby doing?”
“What’s his name? Let me guess, Shloimeh, after Mr. Weiss senior, right?”
“How was it in America? How’d you survive the in-laws?”
“Baruch Hashem,” Chaim Zev yawned. “We managed. It was really a help to go there to have the baby, believe me. I don’t know how we’re going to manage now that we’re back. Last night the baby just kept crying and crying.”
“I guess the Weiss’s’ baby nurse didn’t come along with you on the plane?” That was Lieberman. Chaim Zev wasn’t sure if it was a joke or not.
“Nah, no baby nurse,” he shrugged it off. What kind of kollel couple hires a baby nurse?
“No, no baby nurse,” he said more firmly that evening, as Perri dropped onto the couch with a whimper, wearily shifting the baby to her other shoulder. “My mother always managed the babies by herself, even the twins. You’re so capable,” he tried a positive approach. “The hardest part is behind you, the first month is the worst. I’m sure you can manage, Perri.”
“You think?” she moaned. The baby’s arms flailed.
“I’m sure,” he said. “And I can help. Once Rav Aryeh was telling us about this pshat he came up with at night, when he was rocking the baby while he learned. Just wake me up if you need help with the baby.”
The next morning, Perri didn’t get out of bed to make Chaim Zev his morning coffee. He wondered why she hadn’t woken him up in the night. The idea of getting Shloimy acquainted with a kol Torah, after he’d spent a month in the arms of that baby nurse back in America, had really appealed to Chaim Zev.
Maybe his baby had slept through the night?
“Perri,” he tried very hard to be gentle. “Kollel couples don’t go to the Italian Alps for bein hazmanim. It’s ostentatious. What would I do there? I would be so uncomfortable. I want to be in the beis medrash. Even during bein hazmanim.”
“Okay,” she swallowed hard. “I understand.”
Did she really understand? He wondered sometimes. Like when she volunteered to organize and host that elaborate Nshei evening in their home, not realizing how people might be hurt seeing the dining room set his shvigger had bought for their first anniversary. Or when she sent over that fancy chocolate platter to Schwartz’s shalom zachor, instead of making chocolate chip cookies. He’d almost shrunk into the floor when Schwartz thanked him for sending “those expensive Belgian chocolates!” in front of everyone. This wasn’t such an easy task he had, educating his wife about the right way a kollel family should live.
“I hear what you’re saying about spending bein hazmanim in Europe. I wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortable,” Perri’s face looked a little pinched. “But you know it hasn’t been easy for me, taking care of Shloimy and coping with morning sickness and coordinating the kimpeturin meals for the Nshei and helping out the Cohens. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a little break. And my parents were really hoping to meet us in the hotel and spend Shabbos with the baby. I’m not sure what to tell them.”
Tell them that if they want their son-in-law to shteig, he can’t go gallivanting off to Europe. Tell them they can come here and spend Shabbos with us in our apartment. Tell them they made their choice, they married off their daughter to a chashuve yungerman. Tell them the surest path to Torah is a dry crust of bread dipped in salt.
“Tell them I’m sorry it didn’t work out this time, and we’re really looking forward to spending Succos with them.”
Chaim Zev was tucking his tallis into his tallis bag when he heard the hushed conversation. This Yerushalmi dialect wasn’t quite the Litvish Yiddish he grew up hearing, but it was comprehensible enough.
“Every Monday, my wife tells me, she has them waiting outside in these little terry bathrobes holding their fancy pool bags and towels. I don’t know why it bothers her so much, but she says it’s hard for all the ladies to see the way these kids spend their afternoons.”
“Nu, she’s an American, they say her father is a groisse gvir, he probably owns a hotel somewhere with a pool. What does she know of trying to stretch a budget to pay for bread and milk?”
When Chaim Zev picked up his head, his eyes accidentally met the eyes of the fellow. And from the blush that spread across the speaker’s face, Chaim Zev knew all too well who the subject of the conversation had been.
Again his wife was causing problems. He was trying so hard to teach her what a kollel lifestyle should look like, but instead of keeping her visits to her parents’ Ramada suite quiet, she had to practically announce their bank balance to the entire neighborhood.
That night he tried to bring up the topic with Perri. “You know, Perri,” he forced his voice to stay gentle, “I’ve been thinking about your trips to the pool with Shloimy and Yossi.”
“Huh?” Perri looked confused, maybe a little suspicious. Chaim Zev wasn’t all that acquainted with the children’s schedule. He remained largely oblivious to their activities, coming home just in time to kiss them ah gitte nacht. His place was in the beis medrash, or in the seforim-lined study Perri had renovated for his last birthday.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “Just … do you think maybe some neighbors might feel bad when they see our kids all dressed up on their way to the pool?”
“Bad?” Perri sounded defensive. “You think they have nothing better to do than look out their windows, checking us out while we wait for the cab? They’re such nice people, they don’t seem like the prying type.”
Chaim Zev didn’t have a ready answer for that one, but after a minute, he knew what to say. “Even if they’re not prying, they might notice, and our lifestyle might make them feel bad. You know what I mean?”
“Yes,” she sighed. “You mean it’s ostentatious.”
She knew his words already. He felt guilty, but carried on righteously.
“Well, I’m not sure it’s ostentatious, but this is a very Torahdig neighborhood.…”
“Okay, I hear,” Perri pressed her mouth into a thin line.
Chaim Zev nodded in satisfaction.
“It’s official, Perri,” Chaim Zev told her one winter night. “You can start planning. We can schedule the siyum for next month.”
He’d been working toward this moment for years, spending early mornings and late nights over his seforim, crawling closer and closer to his goal. And she had worked hard too, he knew. Not every man was as lucky as he, not everyone had a wife who spared her husband every possible worry so he could focus exclusively on his learning. She’d even hired Mrs. Seigel to type up his chiddushim and patiently relayed all the corrections and edits before each installment went to print.
Over the months and years they’d built their partnership. She was the force who kept the house running, the children happy, the pantry stocked. He was the spiritual steward, the captain who set the Torah tone of the household, the one who toiled every day to conquer Shas. Not that she wasn’t a spiritual person. He knew that Perri did a lot of chesed, too — something with hospitals, and this family that she helped out with clothing or food, or was it both? She didn’t talk about it all that much — maybe because it made him nervous to think how open she was about the fact that they had more money than most? — but he knew she was special.
By being firm yet gentle with Perri, he’d managed to keep the focus where it belonged and had grown in his learning without getting caught up in materialism. His rebbi, Rav Aryeh, had urged him to start a chaburah, and over the last year or so he’d gained a real following. Of course, he had his moments of doubt — the times when he wondered whether he’d have come this far without Alex Weiss’s monthly bank transfers, the Friday afternoons when he faced an empty beis medrash, watching all his friends hurry home to help their overextended wives finish the shopping or cleaning or baths. His wife didn’t need his help — she had plenty of help without him — but as the beis medrash grew quieter and quieter, he’d wonder whether his ripple-free learning was nearly as precious as the truncated sdarim of his friends, the ones who really sacrificed for Torah.
One thing he made sure of: The young members of his chaburah would never guess he was married to a Weiss. Even his older friends, the ones who knew where Perri came from, marveled at how Chaim Zev kept luxury out of his life and focused only on the essentials. You could barely tell he had a rich shver, they’d say in wonder and admiration. As far as he knew, even the paupers of Yerushalayim were unaware of his financial status. By the time he came home from the beis medrash, collecting hours were long over. Maybe Perri gave them some money while he was out, but his own time was reserved for his seforim.
Now, with the siyum finally a date on the calendar instead of a dream in the future, Perri went into overdrive. She spent a lot of time on the phone, confirming the dates with her parents, who were flying in for the event, and working out endless details with some caterer. Something about the energy and enthusiasm reminded Chaim Zev of her as a young kallah. This new/old Perri was a nice change; over the years, she’d lost some of her easy spontaneity and cheer. He wondered why, come to think of it.
“Rav Aryeh is going to be there,” he told her a week before the siyum. “I invited him today and he said he wouldn’t miss it. I’m going to go pick him up right before and bring him over.”
She nodded, but didn’t say anything, and he realized it might be a little hard for her to set everything up and get the kids over to the hall. “Would you need my help?” he offered, realizing how silly the request was now that the arrangement had been made.
“It’s okay, Chaim Zev,” Perri told him. “I’ll manage. You bring Rav Aryeh. We’ll have a really beautiful siyum.”
Chaim Zev figured this siyum would be a bit fancier than his friends’ schnitzel-and-kugel affairs. But Perri was so excited about this event, he felt bad giving her the usual cautionary counsel. It was her simchah, too, he reminded himself magnanimously. Plus, he figured that five years of firm but gentle guidance should have made their mark by now.
So he gripped Rav Aryeh’s arm and led his aging rebbi carefully down the steps to the simchah hall. The staircase was a tad steep, and Rav Aryeh lurched slightly every time he lowered his leg. Chaim Zev kept his arm firm and tried to anticipate each lurch before it happened. It took some concentration.
Maybe that’s why it took him an extra minute to digest the scene when they made it into the hall.
The first odd thing was the smell. He’d been here before, for brissim and vorts, even a bar mitzvah, and he’d never smelled anything like this. There was an intense hickory scent, like a summer barbecue, tempered by a heavy alcoholic vapor … and off to the side, a soy-ginger-sesame infusion. Chaim wondered what Perri was serving that could possibly smell so … un-Israeli.
He shifted Rav Aryeh’s grip to his lower arm, closer to the wrist, and tried to locate the head table. That’s when he noticed the décor. Someone had draped every inch of the whitewashed walls with a filmy sort of pale blue fabric. It gave the basement hall the feel of a Renaissance ballroom. The same color cascaded from towering floral ensembles at the center of each table, accented by small purplish blooms twined around each place setting. The head table — it must be the head table — had four low flower arrangements hugging the tablecloth with elegant tapers rising proudly upward.
A stab of dread pricked Chaim Zev’s stomach. Out of the corner of his eye, he stole a glimpse at Rav Aryeh’s face, trying to gauge what his rebbi thought of the scene. But Rav Aryeh just smiled a bemused smile. “An Americanisher siyum, eh?” he half-questioned, half-commented as he shuffled forward.
Chaim Zev settled Rav Aryeh into the seat of honor and carefully lowered himself into the chair beside his rebbi. The thread of angst stitched itself tighter in his abdomen, pulling painfully at his intestines. From his vantage point at the head table, he was finally able to figure out why the room smelled so different.
There, right off to the side, was a buffet crowned with gleaming chafing dishes. A white-gloved waiter stood behind each station, busily stirring the contents of each dish. Clouds of steam rose to the ceiling. Off to the side, another waiter manned a mini bar. On the left, he spotted trays of those familiar rolls that had once, years before, made an unwelcome appearance at his Shabbos table. Perri had ordered a sushi station for his siyum on gantz Shas. The nausea was now so strong, he was sure neon-green rays were radiating from his temples.
“Chaim Zev!” There was Daddy, literally glowing as he approached his treasure of a son-in-law. “What a simchah, what a zchus!”
Chaim Zev nodded dumbly, trying hard to swallow his bile.
“And so wonderful Rav Aryeh could make it,” Daddy continued, ever the gracious host. Chaim Zev realized he was being prompted to make the introductions, and woodenly introduced his rebbi to Daddy. Daddy, apparently overawed by the fact that he would be sitting at the very same table as a living legend, looked almost like a shy schoolboy as he shook Rav Aryeh’s hand and attentively soaked up the brachos and compliments Rav Aryeh showered upon him.
But Daddy had eyes only for his Torah prince, and as the hall filled with well-wishers, he hung back right behind Chaim Zev, drinking in the nachas. Every mazel tov addressed to Chaim Zev seemed to intensify his glow. It was Chaim Zev’s siyum, but it was Daddy’s night.
Once the guests had gotten their fill of eggrolls, sriracha salad, mini steaks, and mushrooms in wine, Daddy took the mike to gently urge them to their seats so the waiters could start serving. The perfect gentleman, he positioned his napkin in his lap before his first bite, savoring the tilapia appreciatively.
Chaim Zev managed to wash and swallow a bit of challah, but he waved his hand dismissively when the waiter approached with his appetizer. He wasn’t sure where to put his eyes. Everywhere he looked, he saw ostentation. Even the table was ridiculous, with its artfully scattered leaves and violet flowers and at least three glasses for each plate.
Then, without warning, strains of song, in four-part harmony, wafted toward him. Everyone craned their necks, trying to locate the source. Daddy smiled and leaned over toward Chaim Zev. “I got the Menagnim to come,” he said proudly. “Perri thought vocal music would be more appropriate than instruments, more heimish, you know?”
No, no, no, Chaim Zev wanted to moan. Instead he nodded silently, his eyes glassy as the quartet transitioned tunefully from “Torah HaKdoshah” to “Lulei Torascha.” Rav Aryeh swayed in appreciation.
The invisible needle pulled harder at Chaim Zev’s gut as an impossibly tall man with a big camera closed in on the head table. “The baal simchah!” Mr. Cameraman crowed in delight as he kneeled in front of the monstrous flower arrangement. “Let’s get some nice shots, something the family can blow up and be proud of forever! Smile, young man, it’s a simchah! Say cheese — no, how about this — say hadran alach! Show those teeth!”
Chaim Zev pulled his lips upward. It was going to be a long night.
Desperate for air, Chaim Zev ripped off his tie before the front door swung open. Usually, when they came home late and the kids were overtired and kvetchy, he’d offer to help Perri get them into bed. But this time he needed quiet so badly, he couldn’t. He threw his jacket over a chair and fled to his study. He shut the door, hard.
On the desk was a pile of seforim and the printout of his chaburah, ready for him to edit before Perri would give it back to Mrs. Seigel. But he couldn’t look at the neat stack of papers.
The rows and rows of seforim, his friends who for years had watched him fight fatigue and doubt and distraction until long past midnight, now stood like flinty soldiers. Hostile, even. You’re not part of our world, they told him frostily. You’re all about Olam HaZeh, you’re submerged in it, with your sushi station.
Chaim Zev turned away from the shelves, sat down on the big swivel chair and closed his eyes. But as soon as he blocked out the sight of the angry seforim, scenes of the siyum took over. The towering sweet table. The chafing dishes. The gloved waiters. And those stupid singers.
How, how, how could they have done this to him? What would everyone say? How could he ever go back to the beis medrash?
For so many years he’d kept his focus on what was really important, blocking out all the distractions. He’d tried so hard to build his home and his success on the tried and true path of pashtus. He’d resisted and refused all the easy portals to luxury. Now, on what was supposed to be his night of victory, he’d fallen flat on his face in a puddle of Johnnie Walker. Blue, of course.
His shame turned to fury, and then the fury narrowed, funnel-like. It aimed itself toward one person, the person who should have known better, who knew him best and knew that he knew best.
How could Perri have shamed him like this?
Chaim Zev kept his eyes closed, so that the sounds around him seemed amplified. There was Perri, gently coaxing Shloimy and Yossi into pajamas. There were his in-laws, ebulliently rehashing the highlights of the night. There was the DSL line, ringing off the hook as all the siblings and cousins and great-aunts and uncles on Perri’s side called to relay their mazel tov wishes. (His parents had called earlier. His siblings weren’t so into these things.)
Now the house was quieting down. Shloimy and Yossi must have fallen asleep. His in-laws’ conversation had faded to faint murmurs. Perri must be doing something in the kitchen, because he heard water running, china clinking, the cabinets opening and closing. Then there was silence.
He knew Perri sensed something was wrong. He also had a feeling she wouldn’t go to sleep until she figured out what it was. So he wasn’t altogether surprised when she let herself into the study and sat down. She was wearing the pearls he’d given her back at their wedding. They were still so white, so hopeful. They reminded him of that other Perri, the easygoing young wife who’d been happy to share and host and spend without constantly gauging what other people would think.
“Mazel tov, Chaim Zev,” she said now. “It was so busy at the siyum I don’t know if I ever had a chance to tell you what a big thing this was for us, for me personally.”
The quiet stretched on too long.
She sighed, then her nostrils flared. “I know what you’re thinking,” her voice came out angry now. “You’re thinking the siyum was ostentatious, right?”
That word again. He shrugged.
“You’re thinking people will talk, right?”
She knew. She knew him pretty well by now.
“That it isn’t Torahdig to make such a big siyum? That really Torahdig people don’t do these kinds of things?”
Well actually yes, that’s what he was thinking.
“So, maybe you need to realize something,” her words tumbled out heatedly. “Maybe you didn’t realize it when we got married. But this is who I am, this is where I come from. We don’t live so simply. We don’t see anything holy about having dirty walls if you can afford a paint job, or scrubbing the floors yourself when you can get help. We don’t ration our chicken soup and we’re happy to have guests, lots of guests — whoever needs a meal, actually — and to feed them well.
“And you know what?” she continued. “We really and truly value your learning. Your learning is the most important thing to me.” Now the anger fizzled into pain — pain at years of being squelched, suspected, undervalued, and misunderstood. “If you’re making a siyum on Shas, why can’t we celebrate it properly?”
Chaim Zev knew the answer had something to do with ostentation and values and other people. But the sudden reversal of roles –—the raw pain Perri couldn’t hide — stripped away all his usual arguments. Hadn’t he been the one betrayed? Hadn’t he been the one misunderstood? Hadn’t he been the one who’d endured unimaginable shame?
“You don’t understand,” he tried. “You don’t understand what I want to be.”
“Don’t I?” she asked. “I’ve done everything I can to make sure you have no worries, no distractions.”
“Yes, you have, you’re right,” he conceded. That much he had to grant her. “But — do you realize what you did tonight? Do you realize what my friends, the neighborhood, the entire Yerushalayim is going to be saying about us? That’s the last thing I need, for every meshulach here to start thinking of me as some gvir with a mustache and Swiss bank account. I’m a chashuve yungerman. The only thing I want in life is to be in the beis medrash and give over my Torah learning to others.”
Perri graciously ignored the way he’d insulted her father and complimented himself in one breath. “Chaim Zev, believe me, I know what you want to do with your time. I know who your heroes are. I know the path to Torah comes with sacrifice. And I think it’s beautiful to see how people sacrifice so much for their learning.
“But” — was that a note of pleading he heard? — “there’s something beautiful about being a giver, you know? You don’t have to be ashamed that Hashem gave you the means to help other people breathe a little easier.”
Chaim Zev had nothing to say, so he played with his red pen. All these years he’d scrambled so hard, fought so doggedly to be the real thing, the talmid chacham disconnected from materialism. He’d been so sure of the path he had to take, of the need to guide his clueless wife.
“I’m going to sleep now, Chaim Zev,” Perri said gently. The real kind of gently — not the condescending pretense he’d been using on her all the years. “I just want you to know you’re our family’s biggest asset. And remember, your Torah isn’t less real or less yours just because you have a nice study.”
That Friday afternoon, Chaim Zev came home an hour before Shabbos, Gemara tucked under his arm, just as usual. The stone floors gleamed and the children played contentedly; fragrances of cholent and chicken soup and compote mingled in the air. And presiding over the complex symphony was a competent and efficient Perri, who welcomed him with a smile and set a plate of hot potato kugel in front of him, just as usual.
“A lot of guests tonight?” he asked her.
“Well, there’s this family I told you about that just moved here from America, they’re still getting their bearings, so I thought it would be easier if I at least took care of their Shabbos meals. And Mrs. Karlinsky from the nursing home looked like she could use a break, so I arranged for the nurse to wheel her here after Kabbalas Shabbos. Okay with you?” she asked, but it was really a formality. She’d taken care of everything, just as usual.
“Sure it’s okay,” Chaim Zev said. He made a brachah acharonah, put his plate in the sink, and headed toward the bedroom to get ready for Shabbos.
Then he turned around and walked back into the kitchen. He pulled the footstool over to the counter, climbed up, and opened the highest cabinet, the one that almost touched the ceiling. Carefully, holding his breath almost, he took down the stack of gold chargers that he’d hidden up there years ago, after that first ill-fated Shabbos meal.
They felt foreign in his hands, these cool metal symbols of the luxury he’d spent so long trying to escape. But now he handed them to Perri and suggested, “Why don’t you use these tonight? I think they’ll help our guests feel how beautiful Shabbos can be.”
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Succos 5773)
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