| Family First Serial |

For Granted: Chapter 5 

“This isn’t about a medical issue. Or am I not allowed to talk to you about something that’s not related to Chesed Tzirel?”


The local bagel store was so packed that Ayala and Naftali had to squeeze into a table behind the door to drink their iced coffees.

“What’s everyone doing here on a busy Friday morning?” she grumbled.

“Same as what we’re doing here, no?” her husband replied.

Ayala wasn’t so sure about that. She knew why she was here: because yesterday, Naftali had asked her if she had time to discuss a question one of the avreichim in his kollel had asked him, and she — stirring the scrambled eggs for dinner with one hand and jotting down a note about a chesed client with the other (deliver wheelchair to Strassman, being released after Shabbos) — had replied, “What’s his medical issue?”

Naftali had blinked several times.  “Um, this isn’t about a medical issue. Or am I not allowed to talk to you about something that’s not related to Chesed Tzirel?”

The rub was that Naftali had smiled in a way that told her he was genuinely joking; he hadn’t been trying to make her feel guilty. So, of course, Ayala had spent the next few hours berating herself over what a horrible wife she was, and she’d stayed up until three a.m. cooking for Shabbos just so she could brightly and casually suggest this morning that they go out for coffee together.

Were all the other wives in the bagel store also there to prove that they weren’t neglecting their husbands and families for their work — even when they so obviously were?

Now she leaned back in her chair.  “So what was that avreich’s question you wanted to discuss?”

“Oh, that?” He took a sip and wiped his mouth. “He has a daughter who’s thinking about studying speech therapy, and he wants to know if she can speak to you.”

Whaaat? But she quelched the thought before her exhausted brain could even verbalize it. No, she hadn’t stayed up half the night because she thought Naftali’s friend had an urgent issue to discuss; she’d done it to show her husband that she cared. Yes, it was worth it. Even if he could have simply asked her this half-minute question in the kitchen. She would not think about all the actual urgent things that still needed to be checked off her to-do list before the kids got home from school.

“Uh, sure,” she said.  “Tell him his daughter should call me.”

“Thanks.” Naftali took another long sip. “Though, on second thought, are you sure you’re the best person to speak to her?”

Ayala stared at him, her face growing warm. Was he implying once again that she didn’t have time to help people if it wasn’t Chesed Tzirel-related?

“No, I’m really happy to,” she said, more strongly. “I can make the time.”

“It’s not the time I’m thinking about,” Naftali said slowly. He winced as someone opened the door of the café a little too eagerly, and it banged into the back of his head.

Rubbing his head, he continued, “I meant that there are probably more, um, enthusiastic speech therapists out there.”

Ayala’s eyebrows shot up.  “What’s that supposed to mean? You think I don’t like my job?”

Naftali put his hand down.  “I think your heart’s not completely in it, because there’s something else taking up most of your headspace.”

She squinted at him. What was he getting at, exactly?  “Okay…  Yes, I’m busy with Chesed Tzirel. Very busy. We’ve established that already. Are you saying I’m not doing a good job with my therapy because of that?” She heard the tremble in her voice as she felt her insecurities rise. Her husband thought she wasn’t good enough.  She squeezed her cup of iced coffee, feeling the moisture droplets run down her wrist. How could he say such a thing? She was always careful to focus on her clients when she was at work!

But Naftali, rational as ever, didn’t notice her angst. “I didn’t say you’re not doing a good job. I said your heart doesn’t seem to be in it. Am I not right?” He looked at her, but she couldn’t meet his eyes. “If you had to choose between your speech therapy job and Chesed Tzirel, which would you choose?”

Her mouth opened a little, as he continued, more softly, “Because what’s happening right now, with you doing two full-time jobs… it isn’t working.”

Ayala felt her heart pounding in her chest, as his words echoed inside. It isn’t working. She wasn’t managing to satisfy everyone.

“Ayala Wexler, you’re, like, superwoman.” Just the other day, Sruli’s mom had looked at her with such admiration. But that had also made her uncomfortable, because she knew she really wasn’t superwoman.

Was her problem that she believed even a regular non-superhero should be able to do it all?

Naftali was looking at her expectantly, as if waiting for her to come to the self-realization that was so obvious to him. Suddenly, she felt anger burn inside. She pushed her chair back.

“I don’t want to talk about this in here,” she muttered, standing up.

Naftali quickly stood as well. “No problem, let’s go for a walk.”

They walked in silence down the quiet streets for several minutes, Naftali shooting her anxious looks, until Ayala finally burst out, “I don’t understand what you want from me! Obviously, I can’t give up my job, unless you’re suggesting you leave kollel and go to work?”

She glanced at him, but he remained silent, taking the question as rhetorical. She felt relieved; if he had announced now that he wanted to move on from kollel, she would have felt forever guilty that it was all because of her.

“So are you saying I should drop the organization? Really? When we see how many people we’re helping?”

Naftali scratched behind his ear.  “I’m not really sure what I’m saying, except that I’ve been watching you twist yourself into a pretzel in the last year, and it hurts me. You’re stressed, you’re carrying responsibility for everyone and everything, and it’s not good for you.”

She took a breath, feeling the fresh morning air course through her. He’s not being critical; he’s being caring.

Her phone rang. Her hand automatically moved to her pocketbook, then stopped as she felt Naftali’s eyes on her. She dug her fingernails into her hand. What if it was an emergency? What if the Strassmans needed help understanding the doctor’s release instructions? What if Teichmans’ preemie had suffered a setback?

The ringing stopped and she unclenched her teeth.

“You asked me before which I would choose, if I had to choose one,” she said. “I think it’s obvious that I’d pick Chesed Tzirel.”

Naftali nodded.  “So now we need to figure out if there’s any way to make that happen.”

Ayala stared at him. “You’re serious? But that’s so—” So completely unlike her practical husband.

Had life become that unbearable?

Naftali’s lifted his eyebrow. She shrugged. “First figure out a realistic way, and then we’ll talk.”

She didn’t see how it could possibly happen. But, deep down… did she hope that it would?


Dini yawned as she drove into the parking lot of Ayala’s building. Shabbos had been one big jet-lagged party; her kids had been up most of Friday night, and they’d all slept straight through the morning. (Including Shuki, who’d run out to try to catch a late late minyan at one of the shtiblach. “I can’t imagine anyone’s still davening now,” Dini had muttered disapprovingly from her bed, even as she knew she deserved Shuki’s retort: “Oh, go back to sleep.”)

Though it was well past Havdalah, the kids had still been wide awake when she’d left. “Sorry, sweeties, Mommy needs to go do chesed work,” she’d said as she sailed out, conscious of what a good role model she was being. “A man who just had surgery is coming home from the hospital tonight, and he needs a wheelchair.”

She parked and dialed Ayala to tell her she’d arrived. A few moments later, she saw Ayala’s tall figure emerging from her building, pushing a wheelchair. Dini jumped out of the car.

“Sorry, I should’ve helped you schlep that,” she said as she helped Ayala fold the wheelchair and lift it into the trunk.

“Nah, I was fine. Naftali got it out of the machsan for me before he left for kollel.”

“He goes to kollel on Motzaei Shabbos?” Dini blurted before she could stop herself. Shuki went out on Motzaei Shabbos to play basketball.

“Uh, yeah. He joined this new weekly kollel. It pays nice money.”

Dini wondered if Ayala was looking so uncomfortable because she’d intuited Dini’s jealousy, or because she felt embarrassed talking about their financial needs. Either way, the conversation was getting awkward; Dini dispelled the moment by reaching out and giving Ayala a hug.

“It’s good to see you, stranger. It’s been way too long.”

Ayala grinned. “Yeah, how was the big bar mitzvah? Was the food served on diamond plates or just gold ones?”

Dini snorted. “Let’s just say, my kids’ eyes were literally popping out. My kids.”

She knew what Ayala thought of her family’s upscale lifestyle; it felt good to let her know that by Reiner standards, Dini was raising her kids in downright simplicity.

“I can’t wait until Binny’s bar mitzvah,” Ayala said lightly. “Then I’ll get to see for myself what a Reiner simchah looks like.”

Dini really didn’t want to think about what Binny’s bar mitzvah would — or wouldn’t — look like; she had two and a half years to worry about that.

“You were already at a Reiner simchah, silly. You don’t remember my wedding?”

“Are you kidding? I can still smell that huge fountain that sprayed liquor instead of water.”

“Hey, don’t forget my dress! French designer. A hundred bucks a stitch.” Dini supposed that the fact that she could laugh about it now showed her growth. As a kallah, she’d been taken aback by Ayala’s horrified reaction. (“Do you know how many poor people that gown could feed?”)

“Anyway,” Dini continued, “how’ve things been going while I was away?”

“Too busy, as usual.” Even in the dim light of the parking lot, Dini saw a shadow fall across Ayala’s face.

“What’s wrong?” she asked quickly.

She didn’t really expect Ayala to answer; she’d learned long ago what a private person her friend was.

Sure enough, Ayala said, “Nothing’s wrong. Just busy.”

She started to turn away. Then, suddenly, she swiveled back to face Dini. “Naftali thinks I should quit my speech therapy job. He says Chesed Tzirel has become a full-time job, and I’ve turned into a shmatteh trying to do both.”

“I think that’s a great idea,” Dini said.

Ayala made a face. “Sure, it’s a great idea, if I didn’t have to worry about things like, you know, eating and paying the mortgage. Chesed Tzirel may be a full-time job, but it doesn’t pay.”

Dini felt her heart beat faster. “Well, why shouldn’t it pay? Other nonprofits pay their CEOs.”  She could still hear her sister’s condescending words. No one knows about it in the US. Why is that? How do you do your fundraising?

“CEO. Ooh la la.” Ayala waved her hand and laughed.

“Yes!” Dini said angrily. “You are a CEO! And we’re going to raise money to pay you a salary! Just leave it to me.”


To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 857)

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