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Freedom of Information

So now I’m the poor friend receiving her tzedakah, when just a year ago I was the one helping her?

I will not brag, I promise myself, as I ring the bell at the back of Risa’s house.

The sign on the door has been upgraded since last time I was here; she now has a logo engraved on the metal plate under the words “Sheitels by Risa.” I trace the curlicued “R” with my finger. Does that mean her business is picking up?

“Door’s open, Bailee!” Risa calls from inside. I walk in to see her with another client, and she nods to me.

“Take a seat, I’m just finishing up with Esti.”

The seat she waves me to is a velvet cushioned lounge chair. I sit down and look around, taking in the décor. Hmm, business must really have picked up.

I’m not the gushy type, but I hear myself gushing. “Wow, Risa, this place is gorgeous! I love what you did with the space. It looks like a professional salon!”

I wince at how sickeningly fake my voice sounds, but Risa doesn’t seem to notice. She beams as she carefully clamps the curling iron on a lock of hair. “I used Aviva Simmons. She’s a hot designer for the hair and beauty industry. Cost a fortune, but hey, you gotta give the customer the experience they deserve, right?”

She winks at the lady in the chair, who smiles appreciatively. I try to hide my grimace. Look at her, pretending she’s one of these flashy, mega-successful businesswomen, when just last year Risa was begging me to come and bring friends to her newly opened salon because her husband had just been laid off from his job and she had no idea how they were going to pay their bills.

As soon as Esti leaves, Risa visibly relaxes. “You know who that was, right?” she asks as she motions me into the chair. “Esti Gordon!”

She sees my blank expression in the large, filigreed mirror and shakes her head in amused exasperation.

“Bailee, how have you managed to live here for fifteen years and not know who Esti Gordon is? She and her husband support, like, half the institutions in the community. I bet they’ve been paying Aryeh’s kollel stipend all these years and you didn’t even know it!”

“No, that I would know about,” I murmur, but I flush anyway. Risa only moved to our out-of-town community three years ago, but within two months she already knew more people than I did. And gotten in on all the major community groups. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t care about keeping up with the latest gossip, I’m not interested in being a mover and shaker. I’m happy with my quiet life, raising my family and working my quiet job to support us.

So why does Risa make me feel like such a neb?

Risa hands me my sheitel to slip on as she talks. “Anyway, it was a real coup that I got Esti in here. Until last month, she went to Zahava for her sheitels — she charges like triple my price and was trained in some fancy salon in Paris. But I’d met Esti at a Chinese auction one evening and we somehow hit it off, and I mentioned that I do sheitels. I convinced her to take my business card, but, honestly, I expected it to end up in the first garbage can she found when she left the hall. Then, last month, Zahava wasn’t available for some last-minute rush job, and Esti called me! It was super-exciting but, still, I figured it was a one-time thing. So you can imagine how I fell off my seat when she actually called to schedule another wash and set this week!”

“How nice,” I say with what I hope is a wide, so-happy-for-you smile.

“And the best part is, maybe she’ll start recommending me to her friends! Imagine! If I become known as the sheitelmacher for the wealthier crowd, I can for sure double my prices!”

“And leave us poor kollel wives in the dust?” I ask lightly, though I’m feeling something heavy and bitter congealing inside my stomach.

She waves her curling iron magnanimously. “For you, of course, I would still keep my original price.”

“Appreciated,” I say stiffly. So now I’m the poor friend receiving her tzedakah, when just a year ago I was the one helping her?

Risa’s tone becomes lower, and more confidential. “This break with Esti Gordon couldn’t have come at a better time, you know. These renovations cost way more than we were expecting. We went over budget, I had to take out a loan. Reuven was not pleased.”

“Really?” I hate the way I suddenly feel lighter inside.

“Yeah, it’s been crazy. Even though he has a new job, the salary isn’t what it was in the old place, you have to work yourself up in these finance institutions. And then we’ve been paying so much recently for Yudi…” As her voice trails off, I feel all my jealousy from a moment ago melt away.

I’ve been hearing updates on the Yudi situation for the past year. How he went from cherub-cheeked bar mitzvah boy to a moody, edgy, leave-me-alone teenager, all in the space of a year.

Risa’s been tearing her hair out over him, and I can only imagine the pain and frustration. At the same time, I can’t say I was totally surprised at how things have unfolded; as her friend who’s been privy to her parenting methods for years, I’ve been expecting something like this. You can’t let a kid have whatever latest electronic gadgets he asks for and do whatever wild activities he wants, all through his childhood, and magically expect him to become self-disciplined and mature when he hits bar mitzvah.

In fact, their permissive parenting style has been a source of tension for me ever since they moved here. My Binyomin is the same age as Yudi, and Risa naturally assumed that the boys would be friends. But after Binyomin’s first visit to the Lowingers — when he reported having watched a Harry Potter video — my horrified husband put an immediate end to the friendship.

“Maybe I could say something to Risa,” I’d suggested in desperation.

“Bailee, if they’re the type of family that allows these sorts of videos, then it doesn’t matter whether you tell your friend not to let them watch it when Binyomin’s around,” Aryeh had responded. “We don’t want our son hanging around a boy who has these influences in his life.”

I’d agreed with him one hundred percent. So, uncomfortable though it was, over the years I’ve made my excuses and kept my son away from Yudi. After all, a friend’s a friend but a son’s a son. My children’s chinuch comes first.

Now, as Risa sprays mist to wet my sheitel bangs, I ask delicately, “How’s Yudi doing?”

She runs a comb through the bangs and sighs. “The same. He’s a good kid, he really is, but somehow — I don’t know, his rebbi just doesn’t seem to have done a good job turning him on to learning and Yiddishkeit, you know? You’d think a school would give their most exciting, charismatic rebbi to the eighth grade, but this one seems kind of dull. Yudi tells me he falls asleep during every class.”

I cluck my tongue in sympathy. Binyomin’s in a different school, so I can’t comment on how exciting or dull the eighth grade rebbi really is, but something tells me the issue is more Yudi’s own motivation.

“Of course,” she continues, “that might be because he stays up until crazy late every night. No matter what time I go to sleep, the lights are still on in his room. I have no idea what he’s doing in there.”

“Mmm,” I murmur, and after a moment, Risa admits, “Okay, I do have some idea. He’s probably watching movies on his new tablet.” Her face darkens. “He begged and begged us for it. I thought maybe, you know, if he sees we’re taking a step toward him, that we’re demonstrating our trust in him, then he’ll show some more respect toward us.”

She shakes her head and her face in the mirror looks so droopy and miserable that my heart goes out to her, even though there are a million disapproving thoughts running through my head.

“That’s what you meant when you said you were spending extra money on him?” I ask. I’d thought she meant therapy.

“That and other things,” she says. “Buying a kid’s affection is expensive.” Her lips twist sardonically, but she doesn’t say any more and, after a few moments of silence, she abruptly changes the subject.

“So, nu, do you know yet where Binyomin’s going to mesivta?”

My hand clenches around the chair’s leather-padded armrest. I had promised myself on the way here that I wouldn’t brag, but now, especially, it would just be too cruel to pour salt on her wound. Still, it’s hard to avoid answering her direct question.

“We think so,” I say carefully. “He applied to a few places.”

“And did you hear back from any of them yet?” Risa presses. “A boy like Binyomin, I’m sure he doesn’t have to worry about getting accepted somewhere.”

My shoulders stiffen, as my maternal indignation reflex kicks in. Getting “accepted somewhere”? Does she realize that the high schools have been chasing Binyomin, that they’re literally begging him to come to their schools?

I try to keep my voice subdued as I say, “Actually, baruch Hashem, he just got his acceptance to Chochmah V’Daas. It looks like that’s where he’ll be going.”

I lower my eyes humbly, but my triumph is not lost on my friend.

“Bailee! Chochmah V’Daas? The Harvard of mesivtas? Wow, they only take the tops-tops! You must be so proud!”

To her immense credit, she sounds so much more sincere in her congratulations than I did when I complimented her on her upgraded decor.

“Baruch Hashem,” I say again, allowing myself a grin.

As Risa picks up the curling iron, she says wistfully, “I wish Yudi could go to a school like that.”

  

I come downstairs after putting the younger kids to bed and smile when I see Aryeh and Binyomin in the den schmoozing as they work on a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. My heart aches with pride as I watch the closeness between father and son. My bechor, he’s grown so serious and mature, and I can’t believe he’s going to dorm next year. I wish I could keep him home, but, as Aryeh keeps reminding me, Jewish mothers over the millennia have sacrificed far more for the sake of their sons’ Torah.

The dirty supper dishes are still on the table, but I walk over to the jigsaw puzzle and pick up a piece. “What are we working on?” I ask brightly.

“The bridge,” says Binyomin, nodding towards the stone footbridge in the picture. I gamely begin sorting through the pieces as I ask, “Any more news in your class about where boys are going next year?”

He brightens. “Yeah, Krieger and Sanders also got into Chochmah V’Daas.”

“Wonderful! So you’ll have friends with you.” No surprise there; those two boys, like Binyomin, are the metzuyanim of their class, and they also come from excellent families.

He picks up a gray piece, examines it critically from all sides, and attaches it to another piece on the table. “But Lichtman didn’t get in. It’s awkward now, you know?”

“Mmm, too bad,” I say. “I’m sorry for him, it’s hard when your friends get accepted someplace and you don’t.”

Hard, but, honestly, this was no surprise, either. Lichtman’s a sweet boy, but Chochmah V’Daas is known to be highly selective and, academically, he isn’t at the top. Or, as Risa put it, the tops- tops.

“Do you know which boys got in from the other schools in the neighborhood?” I ask.

Binyomin shrugs. “Not every school got their acceptances yet. Krieger told me about some boys from Toras Nachum who got in.” He looks up at me. “Oh, and I hear Yudi Lowinger applied, though he hasn’t heard from them yet.”

I look at him sharply. “Yudi Lowinger? To Chochmah V’Daas? No, that can’t be.”

Binyomin raises his eyebrows at the decisiveness in my tone. “Could be I’m wrong,” he says diplomatically. “That’s what Krieger told me, he usually knows the hock, but…” He shrugs again.

I exchange a significant glance with Aryeh, and then, too impatient to wait for Binyomin to clarify the veracity of this bombshell through the eighth-grade newsfeed, I head into the kitchen and grab my phone.

Risa picks up on the first ring. “Bailee! You must be psychic; I was literally just about to call you! I need advice desperately. Our interview’s tomorrow — tell me how to transform myself into you!”

My heart is thudding ominously. “Wait a second. Backtrack. Your interview? For what?”

“Chochmah V’Daas, of course! Didn’t I tell you?” She laughs self-consciously and my eyes narrow. She knows she didn’t tell me.

“After we spoke the other day in my salon and you told me that Binyomin got in, I just couldn’t get the thought of the school out of my head. I kept thinking, ‘Well, why not? My Yudi’s smart, he’s always been a top student.’ Even this year, when — you know — still, his grades are decent. So I talked to Reuven about it and we decided to apply.”

This is so wrong, on so many levels, that I am literally speechless. At last, I get out, “Um, you know that Chochmah V’Daas is really intense. You need to be highly motivated to succeed there. Do you think that’s the right place for Yudi right now?”

“Oh, yes,” Risa answers so quickly that I can tell she’s offended. “Definitely. Yudi can be a very hard worker if he’s motivated enough. And we think that feeling the success of getting into the top school might be just the push he needs right now.”

I crush a stray piece of pasta on the table with my thumb. Whether that’s just what he needs is certainly debatable. If you ask me, they should be looking into one of those fuzzy-wuzzy schools where they’ll put their arm around the kid and talk to him about how, yes, movies are fun, but Torah’s even more geshmak. Not that it matters what I think. I’m not Yudi’s mother, and I know for a fact that Yudi’s mother would never in a million years consider sending her son to a school like that. Risa’s a wonderful, caring mother, but she’s also an image person.

“Uh huh,” I say slowly as my brain whirs furiously. They’ll never accept him. The Lowingers aren’t the type of family Chochmah V’Daas is looking for.

“Anyway,” Risa says brightly, “Now you know why I need your help. Our interview is tomorrow, and I know they don’t want to see Risa Lowinger sitting there in their office. They want to see Bailee Stern. So, I’ve been working on it, I already cut myself an above-the-shoulder, monochrome brown sheitel that looks even more rebbetzin-y than the one I styled for you the other day. Hah, no offense.”

No offense, hah. Ten years wearing the same sheitel and I never felt self-conscious about it until now.

“And the phone, that was a no-brainer. I bought myself one of those kosher dumb phones. Now I just need an excuse to take it out during my interview. Hey, I know! Maybe you can call me in the middle, say 12:15 or so, and I’ll have to take it out of my pocketbook and apologize for not turning off the ringer. This way, the rosh yeshivah will see it’s a real phone that I get real calls on.”

“But it’s not,” I say through gritted teeth.

She doesn’t miss a beat. “Ah, come on, everyone knows this is just a game, this whole school interview process.”

I want to scream, And is your son’s education also a game? Is my son’s?

She’s still talking. “But it’s not just the sheitel and the phone. It’s the overall dress, the look, the eidel-meidel mannerisms. That’s what I need to learn. For instance — what did you wear to the interview?”

I close my eyes and lie. “I don’t remember.”

She hisses her exasperation through the phone. “Bailee Stern, no way. Even you must remember what you wore when you met with the rosh yeshivah of Chochmah V’Daas!”

I’m losing my patience. “Listen, Risa, what does it matter what I wore? You’re not me, and if you don’t feel that you can present your family for who they are then maybe this isn’t the school for you.”

Risa is silent for so long that I start to worry that I’ve insulted her really deeply. When she speaks at last, her voice is much more subdued, and much more real.

“I don’t think you understand. Of course this school isn’t for me. But it’s Yudi I’m looking out for. And the more I think about it, the more I believe that this is his best bet for snapping out of whatever funk he’s in and getting back onto the right path. Imagine what would happen if he goes to a lesser school, where they accept a wider variety of boys? The way he’s going now, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll attach himself to the very lowest element, and then what will be with him? But in Chochmah V’Daas, there is no lowest element. Don’t you see?” she beseeches, and despite myself, I do. I really do.

The only problem is, I’m also seeing that if her Yudi goes to the school, then there suddenly will be a lowest element in Chochmah V’Daas.

  

I have a weird habit of baking cookies when I’m anxious. Aryeh sits in the kitchen, watching as I mix the chocolate chip cookie dough with my bare hands.

“Who says they’ll accept him?” he asks. “There are lots of very good boys they don’t accept. And a boy who’s clearly not holding at the level they want?”

“But how are they supposed to know that?” I ask. “How are they supposed to know what he does in the privacy of his home?”

“Come on, Bailee,” Aryeh scoffs. “These things are easy to find out. I’d be very disappointed in the Chochmah V’Daas hanhalah if they can’t do even the most basic digging on a boy.”

I squeeze little balls off of the dough. “Who’s going to tell them? Yudi’s parents sure aren’t. His rebbi? All he knows is that Yudi falls asleep in class. From what I’ve gathered, the Lowingers haven’t reached out to anybody about this because they’re hoping it’s just a phase that will blow over.”

“Maybe it is,” Aryeh says.

“Maybe it is,” I agree. “But giving him unlimited access to whatever online garbage he wants is not going to help it blow over very quickly.”

“No…” Aryeh takes one of the dough balls and presses it onto the cookie sheet. “Chochmah V’Daas takes only twenty boys each year. They probably already have their twenty lined up.”

“Then they wouldn’t be interviewing the Lowingers,” I reply. I slide the first cookie sheet into the oven and add grimly, “With only twenty boys, imagine how much damage one bad apple can do.”

  

I don’t have to ask Risa how the interview went. She lets me know herself, in a million celebration emojis that she texts me as soon as they leave the yeshivah.

“It was fabulous!” she tells me later, after she gets home. “Rabbi Mendelson was very impressed with Yudi — he did a really nice job on the bechinah, apparently, I was so proud. And we had a great conversation, me, Reuven, and the rabbi. Turns out, Tova Mendelson is related to Reuven! I was ready to kill him for not knowing that in advance — I mean, seriously, how could he not have found out such crucial information before the interview? But, luckily, Rabbi Mendelson started by asking a few friendly questions about our family, and all it took was a tiny bit of Jewish Geography to figure out that his wife is second cousins with Reuven’s mother. Is that incredible hashgachah or what?”

“Wow,” I say weakly.

“So with that, and a clever question by Reuven about whether they accept corporate donations, because his company has a fund for supporting educational institutions, I think this acceptance might just be in the bag! Wouldn’t it be adorable to have our boys together in high school, just like we were?”

My cheek is sweating against the phone. Risa is expecting me to be happy for her. Just like she would be if our situations were reversed. And I wish I could be, I really do, but — but — my Binyomin! With her Yudi! I’m picturing Yudi, in the dark of night, lying on his bed watching a screen with terrible images, awful, inappropriate things that I’d never in a million years want my son exposed to. One of only twenty boys… how can it not affect the class? How can anyone expect Yudi not to share what he’s watching with his friends? Oh, at first in secret, perhaps, with just one or two boys. But it will spread, of course it will spread, and even when you’re talking about the best boys, from the most sheltered homes, how can they stand a chance against the temptation of that magnetic screen?

Don’t you realize what you’re doing to the rest of these innocent boys by pushing your son in where he doesn’t belong? I want to scream at my friend.

But instead, I squeeze out a tepid, “So glad it went so well for you,” and hang up.

  

We still have most of last night’s cookies left, but I’m making a second batch right now. Lucky family.

“You need to ask a sh’eilah,” Aryeh is saying, as my hands rapidly smush the cookie dough — oatmeal raisin this time.

“A sh’eilah about what?”

“About whether you should tell the yeshivah what you know about Yudi.”

I stare at my husband, open-mouthed. “About whether I should rat on my friend?”

But even as I pretend to be horrified, I realize that I was thinking the same thing. I just didn’t want to admit that I could be such a nasty, underhanded backstabber.

So we ask, and the rav’s answer comes back: If the seven conditions making the lashon hara l’toeles, for a constructive purpose, are all met, then I have an obligation to tell the school, so that Yudi doesn’t cause harm to the other students.

L’toeles… I go through the list with Aryeh. “Hmm, I have to know first-hand that the information is true. Well, what does first-hand mean? Should I spy on his bedroom at night? I know from his mother; I assume she wouldn’t lie to make her son look bad… ‘Someone should first speak to the subject of the lashon hara…’ Well, honestly, I tried, I tried pointing out to Risa that this was a bad move, but she didn’t want to listen… ‘The intent of the speaker must be pure.’ Obviously, I’m doing this to protect other innocent boys from getting hurt, you can’t get purer than that…”

I break off, because something’s niggling me about that one, but then Aryeh says, “It sounds like maybe you really do have a chiyuv to tell.”

I take a breath and nod. The conclusion sits right with me; I realize it’s what I’ve been wanting to do.

  

I’m crazy nervous before the phone call, but it goes smoothly. After a way-too-drawn out and embarrassed introduction about how uncomfortable I am sharing this information, how the Lowingers are dear friends of mine and I really don’t want to hurt them, and how I would never dream of betraying her confidence if not for the very real toeles at stake here of our children’s chinuch, I at last get to the meat of the matter. Rabbi Mendelson seems to take what I say very seriously; he asks me a lot of questions and thanks me gravely at the end for sharing this important information, assuring me that none of it will get back to the Lowingers.

I hang up. The deed is done. Now all there is to do is wait for the fallout.

I think I’ll bake another batch of cookies.

  

I’m bringing those cookies over to Risa’s right now. She just called me, distraught, because Yudi got his rejection letter from Chochmah V’Daas.

“I don’t understand!” she wailed. “The interview went so well! What happened?”

Have you ever showed up at your friend’s door with a tray of cinnamon twist cookies, wrapped in cellophane and a bow, that is weighted down with such a heavy load of guilt you have trouble holding it?

As I wait for her to open the door, all I know is that I’ve never felt this awful in my life.

“Bailee!” Risa exclaims. “I can’t believe you’re giving up your day off to come comfort me. And — what is this? Cookies? Did you actually bake for me? You are literally the best friend in the world!”

I allow her to hug me before I sink onto her couch, asking myself why I came to torture myself. Kapparah for my sins?

Risa dives right into the subject at hand. “We were just so shocked when we got the letter.” She picks up a paper from the coffee table and reads. “‘Yudi seems like a talented young man with fine middos, but we don’t think he’ll be a good fit for our school. We wish him much hatzlachah next year.’”

She looks up at me. “What changed so quickly? At the interview, Rabbi Mendelson was giving such positive vibes. He was talking about what masechta they’ll be learning next year, he made it sound as if Yudi would be part of it. And now, suddenly, this —”

Her eyes narrow as she shakes her head. “The only possible explanation I can think of is that somebody said something.”

My heart starts to pound, and I fold my hands under my pocketbook to hide their shaking.

“Reuven thinks it was his rebbi,” she continues. “They haven’t gotten along all year.”

I clear my throat before attempting to speak. “You did say that Yudi sleeps through class. It makes sense that the rebbi wouldn’t have a good impression of him.”

Risa waves that off. “Come on, he’s a teenager. Is that a good enough reason for a rebbi to ruin a boy’s chances to get into high school?” Her face darkens. “The rebbi was probably waiting for his opportunity to sabotage this. He’s been telling us for months that he thinks Darchei Emunah is the best school for Yudi.”

“So, what’s wrong with that?” I ask slowly, though I know her answer before she even says it.

“Are you kidding?” she explodes. “Darchei Emunah kids spend their day singing in kumzitzes and going out to the forest for hisbodedus. It’s not for smart, serious learners like Yudi!”

I don’t say anything, just raise my eyebrows. Is she really that self-deluded?

Our silence is interrupted by someone shuffling into the room. I don’t know why, but the sight of Yudi Lowinger startles me. He’s grown a lot taller since the last time I saw him. His eyes are puffy and bloodshot, as if he hasn’t gotten much sleep, but other than that he looks like your typical eighth grader. What was I expecting? Ripped jeans? A tattoo?

“Hi, Ma,” he says, and turns to me. “Hi, Mrs. Stern.”

“Good to see you, Yudi,” I say warmly. Without warning, a terrible, suffocating sensation overwhelms me. “How are you?”

“Baruch Hashem,” he says, though his eyes shift downward before flitting back up to me. “How’s Binyomin doing? I heard he got into Chochmah V’Daas. Not that anyone was surprised by that.”

What do I say? What can I say? “Yes, he did. I — uh — was sorry to hear you didn’t get in.” Hypocrite! Hypocrite! I can barely hear his answer over the hammering in my brain.

Yudi shrugs. “Thanks, it’s fine, don’t worry. There are plenty of other schools.” He turns to his mother. “Ma, I was really tired, I just woke up now. I’m gonna go see if I can catch a late minyan at the shtibel.”

“Okay,” Risa says stiffly. “I’ll drive you to school afterward.”

He waves her off. “No need, I’m not in the mood today.”

After he leaves, she throws me an exasperated look as if to say, See what I have to deal with?

But I’m seeing something else right now. I’m seeing a young man, not much different from Binyomin, who may be struggling and confused but is still interested in catching a late minyan. He’s still walking the walk and talking the talk, still wants to be part of the system. Maybe — I can barely breathe from contemplating the horrible possibility — maybe Risa was right about what her son needs next year?

Maybe I’ve just destroyed a Jewish neshamah?

  

I feel like calling Rabbi Mendelson back, feel like telling him it was all a terrible mistake and that Yudi Lowinger’s a decent kid who deserves a chance. But I know that would accomplish nothing — I don’t even need Aryeh’s quizzical, “But I don’t understand; nothing about the circumstances has changed,” to tell me that. The information I gave Rabbi Mendelson was accurate; Yudi really isn’t appropriate for a school like Chochmah V’Daas.

Maybe it’s not Rabbi Mendelson I want to call; maybe it’s Risa, to beg her forgiveness. To confess that there’s something about her that brings out the ugly and jealous in me, and that maybe, just maybe, it was that side of me that made the decision to call Rabbi Mendelson.

But I know I could never, ever breathe a word about what I did to Risa, not unless I want to utterly destroy our friendship.

And then again, maybe it’s not Risa, either, whom I need to speak to. Maybe what I’m really feeling is a desperate desire to get down on my knees in front of Hashem and beg Him to make this work out okay, to help Yudi get into a good school and do well there. Because if he were to fall in with the lowest element at a place like Darchei Emunah and start doing really bad things, I would never, ever forgive myself.

I’m in this state of mind when I read Risa’s text the next day, on my way to work: Heads up. We’re applying to Torah V’Yirah and I’m giving you as a reference this time. Say only good things lol

I look up in surprise. Torah V’Yirah? It’s not Chochmah V’Daas, but it’s close. So Risa still hasn’t given up.

I reread her text and suddenly relief floods me. She’s giving me as a reference. Thank you, Hashem, for sending me this chance to do teshuvah! I’ll put in a good word, speak glowingly about the family, and Yudi will have a yeshivah to go to. Torah V’Yirah also attracts a good chevreh; no harm done at all.

And Binyomin will still be safe.

I stop short. Literally. As in horn-blaring, Lady-watch-where-you’re-going. Shaken, I turn on to a side street and pull over. Then I press my hands to my forehead.

I’m a selfish hypocrite. Who cares about all those other boys, as long as my son is safe? Is that what I’m saying? Get Yudi into the other good school, assuage my guilty conscience, have my cookie and eat it too? If I thought telling Rabbi Mendelson the truth about Yudi was the right thing to do, well, the rosh yeshivah of Torah V’Yirah deserves to know just as much, whether or not my son is in that school.

Right. Why don’t you go follow him around and sabotage his life? What a friend you are, Bailee.

And then I realize: a friend. I need to look out for my son, but I also need to be a friend. Risa, I know, would lie for me. That’s her idea of being a loyal friend. Mine is different. I can’t lie for her; maybe I shouldn’t lie to her, either.

Carefully, I reply to her text.

Risa, u know I love you, so I’m telling u as a friend: Maybe look somewhere else?

My finger hovers over the phone. Risa’s going to be so hurt.

But I send it anyway.

  

I don’t hear back from her for an entire day, and during that time, I’m imagining everything she’s thinking about me, everything she’s screaming about me.

Have I just permanently ended our decades-long friendship?

But the next evening, Risa calls. I’m tempted to ignore the phone, but I gather my courage, run into my bedroom, and answer.

“Bailee!” she cries. “You brilliant girl! He got in!”

My heart pounds. Does this mean —? “Um… where? Darchei Emunah?”

“Darchei Emunah?” She snorts. “Who was talking about that? No, silly, Torah V’Yirah! And it was all thanks to you!”

“Oh,” I say weakly. “I mean, that’s wonderful. Um, so you weren’t upset by my text? Because I thought —”

“Oh my goodness, of course I was upset by your text,” she says, laughing. “I was furious. At first I didn’t understand what you were trying to tell me. And then — I got it! ‘Look elsewhere.’ So I did.”

“But —” I splutter.

“You’re so modest, Bailee, but your advice was spot on. You weren’t the right reference for the school; I needed someone else, someone with real pull. So I asked Esti Gordon to put in a good word for us. The Gordons finance half the institutions in the neighborhood, I knew the school would have to listen. And Esti was more than happy to help out. The interview was this morning, and we already got our acceptance!”

I don’t even know what to think, much less what to say. But I admit, I feel a chill run through me, for Yudi, for his family, and for all our precious, fragile, teenage boys as I hear her crow, “Just think! A real, tops-tops yeshivah!” 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)

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