| Serial |

Growth Curve: Chapter 16   

She wasn’t sure why she was even dressing up to go out with this guy who’d abandoned his wife and kids


“Thanks so much for coming over,” Tziporah said as she let Miri Rosen into the apartment. “All the kids are in bed. Yehuda might make some noise — it takes him a little time to fall asleep — but tell him to stay in bed nicely and I’ll give him a treat in the morning. If Momo wakes up, there’s a bottle for him in the fridge. And here, under this magnet, you’ll see our cell numbers if you need us.”

Miri nodded. She knew the ropes already.

Tziporah closed the door and followed Benny down the stairs silently. She hadn’t said more than a few words the entire day to this garishly cheerful guy who’d whistled while carrying stacks of chairs back to the gemach, offered to pick up Momo from the babysitter, and then played loudly with him for hours while she pretended to work on the computer.

She hadn’t so much as entered the living room while he sat there on the floor with Yehuda and Miriam, constructing fantastical buildings out of Clics and Magna-Tiles before knocking them down with a toy bulldozer as the kids shrieked in delight.

And she’d stayed far away from the kitchen after he’d announced he was making the kids supper, listening from afar as he took orders for custom pita-pizzas with funny faces constructed of olives, peppers, and carrot sticks.

While he’d put the kids to bed, she had gotten dressed in her nicest weekday outfit, and put on her sheitel and a dash of lipstick. Honestly, she wasn’t sure why she was even dressing up to go out with this guy who’d abandoned his wife and kids.

Now she walked behind him through the parking lot, not trusting, not ceding.

The Perfect Couple.

A few women were still sitting on the stone ledges, watching their kids play in the fading light. There was Miriam Berkowitz, the born morah who’d been wiping noses and singing Modeh Ani patiently with two-year-olds for 15 years while her husband shteiged in a little kollel on Sorotzkin. Chavi Shain, the sheitel wizard who could perk up Tziporah’s worn wig and impart a boost of empathy to every woman who sat in her improvised salon. And Rina Mendlowitz, one of the younger women, a sweetheart with funky shoes and at least three gemachs running out of her home.

My neighbors, my friends, Tziporah thought. We’re raising our kids together and figuring out this parenting thing together and managing to lead full, rich lives far from our parents. We have the same values and hopes and dreams, supermarkets and babysitters and bus stops… But they have zero clue, they don’t know about the cracks just under the surface, threatening to split apart the home I labored to build.

She nodded and smiled at them.

“So nice you’re getting out with your husband,” Miriam commented graciously as Benny walked toward the street to hail a cab. “Enjoy!”

The cab pulled up across from the King David Hotel, and Benny thanked the driver as he handed over some bills. They both got out and Benny began striding toward Red Heifer. Then he stopped.

“Tziporah, are you coming?” he asked.

Tziporah shrugged. The smell of freshly grilled meat should have been tantalizing, but instead she felt queasy.

“We have a reservation for 7:45, remember?” Benny said, the casual words not quite managing to mask his undertone of urgency.

She took two steps forward, then stopped.

“Tziporah,” Benny said softly. “What’s wrong? Did you not want fleishigs, is that the issue?”

“Is that the issue? Is that the issue?” Tziporah hissed. “Thank you very much, Benny Muller. I don’t want fleishigs, I don’t want milchigs, I don’t want to eat in a restaurant at all. I can’t eat anyway, have you noticed? You disappeared on me, you know that? You left me all alone with three little kids, I was petrified! I could have been an agunah — for all you care! And you think a piece of steak will make me happy?”

Benny swallowed hard and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“So tell me,” he said measuredly, “what will make you happy?”

“I’ll tell you. Take me to that spot you showed me once when it was my birthday and the kids were little and we finally got a babysitter after two hours of phone calls,” Tziporah found herself saying. “You know, that spot you found when you were a bochur, right outside the Old City walls, where you could see the barest outline of Jordanian territory. That would make me happy.”

Benny looked at her blazing eyes, then dropped his gaze. “Okay,” he said. “We can go there, no problem.”

They began walking silently toward Shaar Yaffo.

“Um, Tziporah,” Benny ventured. “You don’t want to eat anything?”

He was clearly hungry.

“We can do pizza,” she offered, “or you can pick up shawarma or something like that.”

“But I want to treat you,” Benny pleaded.

“You want to treat me?!”

She stopped walking and looked straight at him, echoing the words her mother had hurled at hapless Abba all those years ago.

“Do you know me? Because I don’t know who you are anymore, Benny. I’m not looking for treats or steaks. I’m looking for the guy I married.”

Benny’s face whitened, as if she’d physically slapped him. He gulped.

“Tziporah,” he said. “Can I say something?”

She nodded primly.

“So, first of all, I know this is not the main thing here, and I’m the one who messed up and need to apologize, but, umm, I need to eat. It’s been a day, actually three days.” He tried to smile but it came out lopsided. “Three days that I haven’t really eaten anything. How about we go to the Old City, I’ll buy some pizza, something quick. And then we’ll sit down somewhere quiet and you’ll tell me what you meant when you said you’re looking for the guy you married. I want to hear more about that.”

Her shoulders softened a little, but the invisible chip was still there.

“Okay, I can do that,” she said.

They walked quietly toward Shaar Yaffo, finding a path through the stream of humanity and hope and heartbreak.

“Here, here it is.” Benny drew to a sudden halt and pointed to the right. “It’s dark now, so you can’t see very far, but this is the spot, the place where you can see Jordan. Remember?” He craned his neck, then gave up. “Nah, we definitely won’t be able to see it now, but I think I saw enough horizons today.”

Benny resumed walking and Tziporah walked alongside him. They passed through the arch of Shaar Yaffo and into the Old City, drawing close to the restaurants and tourist shops as the street narrowed.

“What do you mean, you saw enough horizons?” she asked.

“Well, I spent a lot of time yesterday at Yam Hamelach,” Benny said slowly. “It was like, how can I say this? I was feeling so dead inside, and something was pulling me to the desert, where everything is dead too. I just needed to be away from Ramat Eshkol, from the apartment, the party. I don’t know if I can explain it to you, it’s not easy for me to talk about it.”

They turned onto St. James Street and he stole a quick look at her hunched shoulders, the blank eyes. He sighed.

“Okay, I can do hard things for you, Tziporah. You’ve done enough for me. I’ll try to explain.

“Here, let’s sit,” he said, leading her to three small steps. She sat down gingerly next to him, and he finally let the pain and bitterness tumble out. “I do so much for these guys, you know that? You do too, we do it together, of course you know. So much. So much! The learning, the meals, all those hours and hours talking to them, helping them, giving them chizuk. And what can they do for me? Nothing. Not the rosh, not the guys, not the parents. It’s just… hard. Hard to face it.”

He bit his lip and stared ahead. “You said you’re looking for the guy you married. You’re right, I’m not exactly the same I was when we got married. Is anyone? Maybe you are,” he acknowledged. “You’re always so steady, so focused.”

Tziporah shrugged. Was it a compliment? A barb? She wasn’t sure.

“But I’m not like that, I’m not as steady as you,” Benny went on. “So when we got married, we thought we’d be here a year or two, and then I’d go to work — and then I changed my mind. And you were amazing, you agreed to stay here so I could keep learning.

“Then I grew into something else, the job at Ner Olam, and it was — not what I planned for, not what I imagined, but it was something I was really good at. The older rebbeim, or the super-yeshivish ones — they don’t get the guys the way I do. You see that, right? You see the way they keep coming back to us, to our Shabbos meals…”

He took a quick look at her, and she nodded wordlessly.

“That’s why I wanted to make it work, even with Kroizer’s stupid rent increase. Because I saw myself and my future in Ner Olam. And it was a mistake, it was dumb. And running away was the dumbest of all. So dumb, because I ended up hurting you, of all people. After everything you did for me, it was stupid and cruel and I can never apologize enough.

“But that’s it, I’m moving on.” He stood up, his jaw set. “If they can’t appreciate what I do — and let’s be honest, the salary is beyond nebach for the hours I put in — I’ll do something else, something that brings in real money. You deserve to have more stability, a normal kitchen, a nice apartment. Maybe even a car. Why should you have to save up for years every time you need a new sheitel?”

Tziporah stood up too and they walked down the narrow street, then past the Churvah shul, to a row of fast-food places.

“Okay if we stop here?” Benny asked. Tziporah nodded.

They approached the counter, where Benny ordered chicken nuggets, a burger, two helpings of fries, and a Coke. Tziporah brought over a can of Diet Sprite from the fridge and waited quietly while he paid and found a table.

Benny washed, ate, and bentshed in less than ten minutes, while Tziporah sipped her drink and her eyes wandered everywhere and anywhere, never resting on the ravenous wolf sitting across from her.

“Okay, let’s move,” Benny said.

They stopped just past Rechov Misgav Ladach. Tziporah finally looked directly at her husband leaning against the stone wall, the Kosel down below and the silent stones of Har Hazeisim just over the ravine.

“Do you really think Ner Olam is so great for you?” she suddenly asked.

Benny turned to her, eyebrows furrowed. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Because I feel like you were starting to lose yourself there.” After so many hours of silence her words now spilled out fast, hot, like lava. “It was so important to you to be relevant”—she spit out the word with derision—“that you lost your seichel, your logic, your values. And I started to feel like you were almost losing us.”

“Losing you? What do you mean?” he asked, eyes big and vulnerable like a wounded little boy.

Tziporah kept spewing lava mercilessly. “It’s like, your whole identity became Ner Olam and the guys. Okay, so you’re really good at what you do, you’re helping guys and showing them the light, but it’s like you lost your compass, your standards. Your family isn’t your focus anymore. Even your own learning isn’t your focus. Everything you do, you wear, you buy, it’s all about what the guys will think of you. I feel like… like…” She inhaled and spit it out. “Like you need your fans around the table in order to feel like a somebody.”

Benny shrank back.

“Sometimes I wonder what would happen,” Tziporah said, taking a step toward the stone wall, “if we had a whole Shabbos, maybe even two Shabbosos in a row — maybe even a whole month — where it’s just you and me and the kids. No guests, no guys, no one who can  appreciate the way you manage to be so plugged in to your learning and also know the latest baseball stats or songs. Just three little kids who want to sing ‘Noach Built a Teivah.’

“Would you even enjoy that,” she asked, hugging herself, “or would it just make you miserable? Because when you left, that’s what it felt like to me. You were saying, if I can’t have the Ner Olam guys around my table every week, then why do I even need to be home at all? It’s not like my family does it for me.”

Benny lowered his head and rubbed his eyes over and over. This hurt. He was the good father who took the kids to gan every morning, the model tatty who zoomed home after seder to help out with bedtime, the guy who sang silly songs and told corny dad jokes that made the kids shout with laughter. If there was one thing he knew with certainty, it was that he would never be like his father. His kids would know they were his everything.

Now he looked down at the dark steps leading to the heartbeat of the world and replayed a thousand Shabbos meals, remembering the high of all those admiring guys singing under his direction, shining a spotlight on his Ner Olam reminiscences and advice while his family faded into the background. He wondered if Tziporah was right. He wondered how long she’d been holding on to this.

“This wasn’t easy for you to say, right?” he offered gingerly. “I know you’d rather keep things going and make it all look smooth and nice than say this out loud.”

She nodded cautiously.

“But it’s heavy,” he conceded. And painful, he wanted to say, but he took a deep breath instead. “I need to think about what you’re saying. Can I ask you—”

The tinny sound of an Ishay Ribo ringtone floated out from his pocket. Annoyed, Benny pulled out his phone and glanced at the screen.

“Oh, no, it’s the rosh,” he said. “Sorry, Tzip, I’d better take this.”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 939)

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