| Serial |

Growth Curve: Chapter 19 

 Benny put down the phone and returned to his Gemara. Tziporah got back to her clicking and tapping, but she had clearly been listening to every word


Benny handed two 100-shekel bills to the taxi driver, accepted his change, and slid out of the car. Meir followed.

The driver popped open the trunk. Benny pulled out the black suitcase.

“Come, let’s go upstairs,” he said.

Meir followed him up.

“Hi, Tziporah,” Benny said softly as he let himself into the apartment. “You remember Meir, right?”

Tziporah came to greet them. She was wearing a tichel and looked tired, but she smiled in welcome.

“Come in,” she said to Meir, who stood awkwardly just inside the door. “Do you need a drink? There are drinks in the fridge and cups on the counter. Make yourself at home and take whatever you need. Benny will show you the spare bedroom.”

Meir ducked his head. “Thanks so much, Rebbetzin,” he said.

Benny showed him down the hall — it wasn’t too far — and realized that Tziporah had removed her computer monitor and keyboard from the desk. Smart, she’d need them tomorrow while Meir was here.

“Good night,” Meir said. “Thanks for everything.” He closed the door.

Benny grabbed the suitcase and quietly opened the door to the kids’ room. They were all sleeping soundly. He hesitated for a second, then stowed the contraband under Momo’s crib, next to the containers where Tziporah stored the out-of-season clothing.

He closed the door and returned to the living room. He knew he had to talk to Tziporah, explain what was going on. He took a deep breath. “Tziporah—”

“I’m going to sleep now,” she said abruptly. “Regular work day tomorrow.”

The tension was suddenly back between them, forbidding, impermeable.

“Good night,” Benny retreated. “Thank you for being so flexible, so generous.”

She left the room without a word.

Benny sank onto the couch and tried to digest the last 24 hours. The yellow bouquet lay abandoned on the dining room table, blooms drooping listlessly. Had it only been this morning that he’d stood in this room and promised to fix all the damage he’d done? Instead, he’d been dispatched on a bizarre rescue mission to Ben-Gurion Airport, and now he had a suitcase of khat hidden in his home.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would try again.

Benny woke up at 6:10. The house was silent. He dressed quickly, grabbed his tallis bag, and headed to shul. This wasn’t his regular minyan — he usually davened at 7:30 — and the rhythm and atmosphere felt unfamiliar. Somehow it reminded him of those early minyanim in Har Tzvi, back when he’d been a wide-eyed bochur.

When davening concluded, he wrapped up his tefillin and pulled out a Gemara. He wanted to help Tziporah with the kids, but figured he had 25 minutes to start catching up on the learning he’d missed.

Yehuda and Miriam enjoyed the hands-on attention as he helped dress them, poured cereal into their bowls, and deposited them and Momo at their respective stops.

When Benny returned home, Tziporah was davening Shemoneh Esreh. He watched her whispering for a second before he woke up Meir and sent him off to Shacharis.

Then he found his phone and dialed Avi.

“Shalom, Avi,” Benny said. “This is Benny Muller.”

“Ah, Benny, hagibor shelanu — the big hero. Nu, did you convince the bochur to come back?”

“Yeah,” Benny said.

“Okay,” Avi said. “Now here’s what you do. I’m out of town now. So you keep him safe until tomorrow. Tomorrow afternoon, let’s say around 2:30, you give me a call. I’ll get him back to yeshivah and then I’ll stay around and keep an eye on things.”

“Okay,” Benny said. He wondered what kind of things Avi would be looking out for, and whether Meir was facing any danger.

Tziporah had finished davening by now. She returned to the kitchen, turned on the electric kettle, and poured herself some cornflakes. Benny wasn’t sure if he was supposed to join her. He pulled his Gemara off the shelf and sat down at the dining room table.

Tziporah appeared with her #1 CPA mug a few minutes later. Without a word, she plugged in her computer, took out the spiral notebook where she kept her to-do lists, and began clicking her way through her morning routine.

Benny cleared his throat. “How’s it going, Tziporah? I hope you slept okay. I just spoke to Lederberg’s guy, his name is Avi. He said that Meir shouldn’t go back to yeshivah until tomorrow afternoon. He wants to watch over him or something — he said the smugglers will come back and they might be angry.”

Tziporah had stopped clicking. “That sounds scary,” she said.

“I know,” Benny said. “Are you okay having him hang out here? He’s a good guy, pretty quiet, but it’s going to be a pain. I mean, I can try to take him out, keep him busy—”

Tziporah shrugged. “We can make it work,” she said.

She returned to her computer, tapping and clicking and occasionally writing something down in her notepad. Benny took some breakfast and went back to the Gemara. Tziporah didn’t ask him if he was planning on going back to the Mir, but he knew she was wondering.

In some far corner of his consciousness was a vision of Har Tzvi, of an earnest kid grabbing precious minutes in the predawn hours to get closer to his goal. He wanted to be that kid again, but he wasn’t sure how to get there.

His eyes must have fluttered closed. Ishay Ribo was singing again from his cell. Benny looked at the screen: it was Borenstein, his chavrusa.

“Hey, Shimmy, what’s doing?” Benny tried to sound cheerful.

“You tell me.” Borenstein was clearly irritated. “Are we learning or not?”

“Umm, well,” Benny stammered. “So—”

“Listen, Benny,” Borenstein said. “I like learning with you, we covered a lot of ground these past two years. I know that sometimes things get rough at home, sometimes people get the flu, whatever, it’s like 97 degrees outside, but okay. But these past few weeks have been… let’s not go there. I need to know if you’re still in, or if I should find someone new for Elul zeman.”

Benny fingered the yellow flowers still lying at the edge of the table.

“I hear you,” he said. “I’m starting to feel much better, almost ready to jump back in. Hopefully tomorrow. Maybe even tonight. Sounds okay?”

“Okay,” Borenstein said, but the suspicion in his voice came through loud and clear.

Benny put down the phone and returned to his Gemara. Tziporah got back to her clicking and tapping, but she had clearly been listening to every word.

“Borenstein?” she asked. Her voice was just as suspicious as Shimmy’s, maybe even more so.

Benny ducked his head. “Yeah.”

Tziporah’s only response was silence.

The Rosh called during bein hasedarim, while Meir was napping in the spare bedroom.

“Meir’s doing okay,” Benny told him. “I think it’s probably best for him to stay away from yeshivah for now, so the guys won’t realize his trip didn’t work out.”

“I agree,” the Rosh said. “So you’ll be keeping an eye on him, yes?”

“I can,” Benny said.

“Fine,” the Rosh said crisply. “You do that.”

Benny stared at the phone. The Rosh hadn’t said anything about learning with the guys for the big bechinah tomorrow. Benny wasn’t sure whether to be hurt — after all those afternoons explaining the Gemara, maybe they really didn’t need him — or to be relieved that he wouldn’t have to face them yet.

But maybe it was better this way. Without anyone waiting for him in Ner Olam, he was able to schlep Meir along when he went to pick up the kids. He figured it would be best for Tziporah if they spent some time at the park. That way she would have quiet — and he could escape her interminable silence.

“Tatty!” Yehuda was thrilled to see him.

“Where’s Mommy?” Miriam asked. “Why aren’t you helping the bochurim learn?”

Benny tried to smile. “Because today I wanted to take you to the park,” he said. “Good idea?”

The kid skipped along to the Igloo Park and got busy right away. Benny found a bench in the shade and plopped down. Meir sat down too.

“Tatty, Tatty, come!” Miriam called.

Just then Momo started kvetching from the stroller.

Benny unstrapped him. “Here, can you take him for a minute while I go see what she wants?” he asked Meir.

Meir took the baby, who looked at him with steady, curious eyes.

Benny returned to the bench. “He likes you,” he said.

Meir half-smiled. “At least someone does,” he said.

“Hey, not fair,” Benny said.

Meir shrugged defiantly. “You think I don’t know?” he said. “Everyone thinks I’m a loser, a guy who’s never gonna make it.”

Benny was genuinely confused. “What do you mean? You’re one of the best guys in Ner Olam,” he said. “Everyone there is amazed at what you managed to accomplish — the Rosh, Reb Motti, Reb Ephraim. I’m sure your parents are also impressed.”

Meir snorted. “My parents? Please. They have no mussag what I’m doing in yeshivah. My father can barely read Hebrew. And my mother, no way would I ever want Reb Motti to meet her. You can’t even make a brachah in front of her, the way she dresses.”

The derision in his voice made Benny’s skin prickle.

Meir wasn’t done. “And who cares if Reb Motti is impressed with me? What kind of guys does he deal with anyway? A bunch of flip-outs who’re just figuring out how to make a leining. If that.”

Benny kept his tone mild. “It’s not their fault they don’t have the background,” he said.

Meir shifted Momo on his lap. “Not having the background is one thing,” he said. “But staying stuck in it is something else. Most of these guys, they’re still busy with their sports and their playlists. They’re not really serious.”

“Look,” Benny said. “Everyone needs balance. For some people, that means sports. Or music. It doesn’t mean they’re not serious.”

“And then there are the people,” Meir kept going, “who are still obsessed with TV and movies. They pretend they’re so holy, but really they just can’t let go of all that junk.”

Benny heard the rebuke. Momo must have too; he started crying and wouldn’t stop until Benny took him from Meir and rubbed his back in wide, soothing circles.

“Shhh, shhh, Tatty’s here,” he murmured to Momo. “People who come from our kind of place,” he said as he went on rubbing Momo’s back, “we have this issue. We sometimes think that if you’re not that perfect black-and-white yeshivish guy, if you weren’t born with a hat and jacket, if your parents don’t have gedolim pictures on the walls, then you’ll never make it, you’ll never belong. But that’s not how it is. You don’t have to cover up who you are. This belongs to everyone.

“You know,” he went on, looking at the swings, the slide — anywhere but at Meir — “Reb Motti likes to say something smart: One-hundred-percent on means one-hundred-percent failure. There’s no way to do that without crashing. And if you burn out everything under you — if you diss your parents, your high school, your friends, your rebbeim — then you won’t have a safe landing spot when you need it. You’ll crash all the way.”

Meir shifted uneasily on the bench, but there was a receptivity there; Benny could sense it.

“One last thing, Meir, okay? And then I’m done. You need to find that person — maybe it’s Reb Ephraim, maybe it’s Reb Motti, I don’t know — but you need someone who can be honest about you and Ner Olam. Maybe it’s a good place for you, maybe not. Maybe you’re ready to move on. I don’t know. But wherever you go, I think that you have to figure out a healthy balance so you can grow and chill and take a break sometimes, maybe even a real vacation.

“Just please not to Brussels, okay, Meir?” Benny said, cocking his head. “You can do better than that.”

Meir’s lips twisted into a lopsided grin. He gave a faint nod.

Tziporah had set the dining room table and had the food ready when they walked through the door.

“Wow, Tziporah, it smells amazing in here,” Benny said.

“Mommy!” Miriam threw herself at Tziporah. “We went to the Igloo Park! And I went on the slide and the swings and I did the monkey bars for four seconds! And Tatty bought us ices!”

“Sounds great!” Tziporah said. “Here, let’s wash your hands, and then we’ll have supper all together.”

“The whole family? Like Shabbos?” Yehuda asked.

“Don’t you see we have a bochur here?” Miriam said. “So for sure it’s like Shabbos.”

“But it’s only one bochur,” Yehuda countered. “Shabbos is tons of bochurim.”

Benny bit his lip. His kids really did equate Shabbos with a table of guys. Tziporah had been right.

“Come, sit,” he said, pulling out a chair for Meir. Then he headed to the kitchen. “Here, let me help,” he told Tziporah. “I’ll bring in the rice and the salad, okay?”

“Thanks,” she said as she piled schnitzel on a plate. “Can you also put out sweet chili sauce and ketchup?” Benny never knew you could inject a chill into the word “ketchup,” but somehow she managed to do it.

Meir was very hungry; schnitzel had been a good call. He ate and ate, not saying a word as Benny and Tziporah kept the conversation centered around the kids.

“Great meal, Tziporah,” Benny said, setting down his fork.

“Yeah, really good, Rebbetzin,” Meir piped in.

“I’m gonna help my wife with bedtime, and then maybe we’ll go to Maariv together, okay?” Benny said.

Meir shrugged. “Thanks, but I think I’ll figure it out myself. I want to go out a little. The entire Ner Olam will be studying for the bechinah, I don’t think I’ll bang into anyone.”

Benny nodded. “Sounds fine.”

“I’ll be back around 11:30, that work?”


Meir went to the spare bedroom, grabbed his Adidas bag, and left.

Benny drew aside the window curtain and peered down at the last lingering kids playing outside. How was it, he wondered, that he knew just what to say to Meir, he intuited what was hurting the guy and what he needed to hear — and yet he couldn’t figure out something so basic as calling his wife to let her know he was alive?

How was it that he had the capacity to connect to the most closed guy in the beis medrash, but he had no idea how to begin melting down the iceberg between him and Tziporah?

The light outside was fading. Soon it would be night. Benny didn’t have answers, but he did have a promise to keep.

Benny dropped the curtain and looked at Tziporah. “After bedtime, is it okay with you if I go out too?”

Wariness flashed across her face.

“I mean, to Mishkan Esther. Night seder.”

“Oh,” she said softly, and it was if a breeze had suddenly swept through the room and dissipated the tension. “Night seder, for sure.”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 942)

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