| Serial |

Growth Curve: Chapter 13   

The day was halfway over. And she still hadn’t heard from Benny since he’d walked out this morning “to clear his head”


Tziporah looked at the clock. One-seventeen. Soon it would be time to pick up Momo. She still hadn’t got past the first item on Maury’s list. It shouldn’t be taking her so long — this wasn’t her first audit, she already knew Maury’s system — but her brain seemed disconnected from her fingers today.

She started dialing Benny’s number again, but stopped midway. Benny usually called her sometime during first seder to see how her morning was going and to check if she needed anything. Today there had been no calls.

But it was okay for a guy to need space, right? Especially a guy who — no, she wasn’t going there, she wasn’t going to think about the red-eyed stranger who’d bid her goodbye this morning. Any guy could need some space.

Tziporah sighed, saved the meager work she’d done, and logged out. If she couldn’t be a good accountant today, she could still be a good mother. She had barely paid attention to the kids yesterday — she’d been so nervous about the Melaveh Malkah that she mommied on autopilot. Today, Tziporah told herself as she hurried to the babysitter, she would do better.

Momo buried his head in her neck as Chavi handed him over.

“He was a real cutie today,” she told Tziporah. “Right, Momo? Right you’re really getting around Morah Chavi’s house? I think he’s going to start cruising pretty soon.”

Tziporah smiled and patted Momo’s cheek.

“I love this stage,” she said. “You get to watch them discover the whole world. Thanks so much, Chavi. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

She slipped Momo’s diaper bag over her shoulder and let herself out the door.

The smile faded as soon as she took her first step down the staircase. Now that she had Momo in her arms and was heading home, it meant the day was halfway over. And she still hadn’t heard from Benny since he’d walked out this morning “to clear his head.”

She strapped Momo into his stroller. Usually she hurried home — she liked to get in some more work before picking up Yehuda and Miriam from their afternoon programs — but if she wasn’t getting any work done in any case, why rush back to the apartment? What, exactly, would she gain by staring at the rolled-up tablecloths, folding tables, and stacks of chairs waiting to be returned to the gemach?

Instead she took the path to the Igloo Park. The park was empty — it was the hottest time of day, when intelligent people stayed indoors — but the swing set was under a tarp that provided some shade.

Momo smiled happily as she settled him into a swing and began to push him gently. She pulled out her phone. It was okay to call your husband, right? Even a husband who needed to clear his head after orchestrating himself a grand public shaming, right?

She pressed hard on two to speed-dial Benny. It went straight to voicemail.

Okay, so maybe he needed a little more space, some time to regain his equilibrium before stepping into Ner Olam for second seder.

She gave Momo’s swing another soft push and smiled at his delighted squeal. He was so innocent, so easy to please. He would be happy anywhere, as long as he had his mommy and tatty and fuzzy blanket.

At what point, she wondered, does that simple formula change? When would Momo need more, want more, hunger for complex and convoluted things beyond the sweet existence that was perfectly satisfying today?

When had it happened to Benny?


It was four o’clock. Tziporah knew that because she had checked her watch ten minutes before, and ten minutes before that. At this point her body was probably ticking along in sync, counting the hours since Benny had last spoken to her.

Yehuda was playing outside in the alley with his little band of neighborhood boys. Miriam was busy with two friends and her dollies. Momo was banging around some Magna-Tiles. And Tziporah was waiting.

She had never been one to sit on the couch and watch time pass. She was practical, she was efficient, she was responsible. If the kids were playing nicely, Tziporah Muller put up supper or folded laundry or organized her pantry. She did not sit and stare at her silent phone.

At four-thirty the phone rang, and she jumped.

“Hello,” a male voice said. “Is this Mrs. Muller?”

“Yes,” she said.

“This is Mordechai Felder from Ner Olam.”

Mordechai Felder? She wracked her brain, trying to remember a Shabbos guest from Ner Olam named Felder. The silence stretched.

“The bochurim call me Motti,” the man said helpfully.

Oh! It was Reb Motti!

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he continued. “We’re just wondering when Reb Benny plans to show up. The boys are a little nervous about the big bechinah, and he promised to help them chazzer… is he feeling okay? He’s never this late.”

Tziporah felt the bile rising up to her throat. She swallowed hard and forced it back down.

“Actually, he’s not feeling so great,” she stammered. “I’m sorry he didn’t let you know. I don’t think he’ll make it today.”

She gently pressed the “off” button and stared at the phone. Where is Benny? He wasn’t in Ner Olam, he wasn’t home. He’d said he needed to clear his head, but how many hours did that take?

She pressed the speed-dial for Benny. Hard. It went straight to voicemail again.

Benny where are you Benny where are you Benny where are you she almost screamed. But she kept the panic inside. When Yehuda trudged in at 5:45, sweaty and hangry, she somehow found the resolve to give the kids supper without once glancing at her watch. Out of habit, she ladled a bowl of soup for herself, but she could barely swallow a spoonful.

Then she tried Benny’s phone again. Nothing.

Soon came bath time — another blessed distraction. Then the DSL line rang. Caller ID announced “Schick, Dina,” but Tziporah couldn’t speak to Dini now, her sister would tease out the tension in her voice. She let it ring and ring until Dini gave up.

Now it was later already, and the kids were yawning. Benny was the singer in the family — he did Shema and Hamalach with hugs and tickles — but when seven o’clock came with no sign of him, she tried his phone again, then sang her own half-hearted version and tucked them into bed.

Then, she returned to the couch. The sun was angling downward, painting the buildings of Ramat Eshkol a soft rose-gold, but Tziporah felt brittle inside.

Okay, Benny Muller, she thought, as the panic rose up from her stomach and her hands began to tremble. I gave you space, I gave you time. But you need to be an adult! Even if you’re very disappointed, even if you’re crushed — you can’t just disappear on us. You need to come home!


Eight o’clock. Nine. Ten o’clock. Eleven.

Tziporah couldn’t believe this was happening to her. I am the least dramatic person in Ramat Eshkol, she thought. Nothing ever happens to me. I work on the computer, I pay some bills, I wash the dishes, I clean up the toys, and then I do it all over again. I am the furthest thing in the world from a breaking news story.

Eleven-fifteen. Is there a Missing Persons protocol in Israel? How do you even call the police here? Or maybe you call the army?

She imagined Ramat Eshkol plastered with posters — pictures of a carefree, smiling Benny eyeing her from every bus stop, streetlight, and tree. Fervent emails sent to the local Neshei lists: “Tziporah Muller’s husband, father of three, has disappeared! We need your tefillos and Tehillim!” A mass gathering at Ner Olam, all the bochurim hocking about her husband, speculating about her marriage.

Benny’s father would get involved, for sure. He’d probably fly in and set up some sort of command center in his hotel room, maybe even hire a private detective if those primitive Israeli policemen didn’t manage to find his son.

And he’d blame Tziporah, too. Because this was really her fault. She had watched Benny lose his bearings and his logic — and she never spoke up, never said anything. A train had been speeding toward her neat, happy little existence and she just let it crash and wreck everything that she and Benny had built over the years.

Some Perfect Couple they were now. Turns out you can’t escape your past, no matter how hard you try to write a new script. Her husband had basically walked out on her, just like his father had walked out when Benny was a kid.

Who could be knocking at her door at 11:30 p.m.? Was it the police?

Tziporah looked into the peephole and tried not to groan. No, she did not want Gitty Lederberg with her cute little outfits and shoes and rich-girl worries right now. But Gitty was holding something. It looked heavy. With a sigh, Tziporah opened the door.

“Hi,” Gitty said gently. “I hope it’s okay that I’m coming now. I know you worked really hard last night treating everyone else. I wanted to bring you this.”

She extended a glass pitcher toward Tziporah.

“It’s lemonade — homemade. I’m still figuring out how to cook, but my husband said this came out really good.”

Tziporah smiled. The girl was so guileless, so sweet. “That’s really nice of you, thanks so much,” she said.

Gitty smiled back. She looked relieved. She had known, hadn’t she, that last night’s event didn’t turn out quite right.

“I should probably go now,” Gitty said. “It’s late.”

“Actually,” Tziporah said, then stopped. She took a deep breath. “Actually, if you want to stay here a little, that would be great. My husband still isn’t home, and I’m getting worried. I didn’t — I didn’t hear from him the whole day. It’s really not like him.”

Why was Tziporah confiding in this just-out-of-seminary girl? She wasn’t sure, but the rush of words kept coming. “I’m not the nervous type at all, you know me, Mrs. Cool Calm and Collected. But if you had seen my husband this morning… he wasn’t himself. It scared me. And then he left, he said he needed space. And now it’s almost midnight and he didn’t call, didn’t come back, nothing. Do you think you can stay here for a little? I mean, only if your husband isn’t waiting for you…”

Her voice trailed off.

Gitty stepped into the apartment. She took in the crumpled tablecloths and stacks of chairs and faced Tziporah with understanding in her eyes.

“Of course I’ll stay. You do so much for us, this is the least I can do.”

Tziporah sighed in relief.

“Thank you,” she said, as Gitty poured cups of lemonade for them both and sat down next to her. “This isn’t normal, right? Should I be calling the police? Where could he be?”


“Mommy, mommy, wake up!” Miriam was pleading urgently. Tziporah dragged her eyes open.

“Yehuda’s pulling my hair and it hurts and we need to get dressed and go to gan!”

Tziporah peeked at Benny’s bed. It was empty. She took a quick look at her phone. No missed calls. Then she saw the time. It was 7:45.

“Okay, Miriam,” she said to her poor little fatherless girl. “I’m getting up.”

A sharp pain radiated right behind her eyebrows as she lifted her head off the pillow. What time had she moved from the couch to her bed? It must have been around 3:30 a.m., when Gitty had told her to try to get some sleep before she’d gone back to her apartment. Right, it was 3:34, she had checked her watch and then called Benny one last time, just in case his phone had magically turned on. It hadn’t.

Now she was facing another day with Benny still gone. She quickly got the kids dressed, made Momo his bottle, started pouring cereal.

“Yehuda!” Miriam shrieked.

Oh, no, he’d purposely knocked Miriam’s cup of milk off the table. Now Tziporah had to clean up the spill — and there was no more milk left. Usually Benny picked up milk on the way home from Ner Olam. Where could he be? Did something happen? What kind of guy abandons his family?

“Stop kicking me!” Miriam yelled. “Mommy, tell Yehuda to stop!”

“Someone’s knocking at the door,” Yehuda said.

“So open it,” Tziporah muttered as she attacked the spill and began packing pretzels and cucumber slices for the kids.

Yehuda ran back to the kitchen. “It’s a different tatty, I don’t know him,” he said.

Tziporah pulled her tichel tighter and approached the door.

Yaakov Lederberg was standing there with a Sam’s Bagels bag that emitted a rich chocolaty smell.

“Hi, Mrs. Muller, good morning,” he said, and the warmth in his voice said more than the simple words. “I hope you’re doing okay. Here’s some breakfast for you”—he handed over the bag—“and as soon as your kids are ready, I’ll bring them to gan. Just tell me the addresses.”

The kindness hit Tziporah so hard, she felt physically faint. She leaned against the open door.

“That’s so nice of you,” she said.

Nice was a dumb word. This was much bigger than nice.

“And after that, I hope it’s okay if I come back here to talk,” he went on, lowering his voice slightly while glancing at the kids. “My shver has a gabbai here in Eretz Yisrael, he, uh, he handles his tzedakah projects. He’s very discreet — you know the type? — and has a lot of connections.”

Yaakov cleared his throat. “I happen to know that he has some ins with a private security company — he sometimes uses them for my shver’s events. If you’re comfortable with it, I think it would be a good idea to get him involved. I’ll take care of the back and forth, you just focus on your family.”

Tziporah gulped. “Don’t you have better things to do than bring my kids to gan?” she asked. This was the neighbor with an ironclad list of learning commitments, the guy who walked through the streets of Ramat Eshkol mumbling the shakla v’tarya, the man who learned on Friday morning, on Shabbos afternoon, until late at night…

Yaakov Lederberg shrugged. “No,” he said. “This is exactly what I should be doing right now.”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 936)

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