Growth Curve: Chapter 22| January 17, 2023
“That day, that day that I left,” Benny said suddenly. “I never really told you about it”
“Here, Miriam, this setting still needs a spoon,” Tziporah said, pointing at the dining room table.
Miriam carefully placed a spoon in the empty spot.
“Now napkins, right?” she said. “Can we do the ones with the purple flowers?”
Tziporah nodded and counted out four napkins, then pulled Momo’s highchair in from the kitchen. They had made early Shabbos so the kids would be awake and alert. “They’re going to be the stars this time,” Benny had said this morning. “It’s gonna be all about the family.”
Now the door opened and Benny and Yehuda entered. No honor guard of bochurim behind them, no admiring crowd filling the room.
“Good Shabbos,” Benny greeted her, his voice just a tiny bit tentative. She smiled back. They could do this.
Benny’s voice sounded a little lonely as he sang Shalom Aleichem without harmony or backup. But it was beautiful this way too, with nothing masking the strong, clear notes of his sweet tenor.
Yehuda bounded over with his parshah sheet right after the challah. Benny went through each question, and Yehuda beamed as each “great job!” resounded in the almost-empty room.
Tziporah cleared the fish plates and brought in the soup. “Here, I’ll feed the baby,” Benny said, bringing the highchair closer to his seat. Momo giggled as Benny swooped spoonful after spoonful of soup into his mouth. He didn’t complain when, after most of the bowl was finished, Tziporah took him out of the highchair, cleaned his face, and got him ready for bed.
She returned to the table and found Miriam snuggling into Benny’s shoulder as Yehuda recounted the backstory of his parshah project.
“Oy Miriam, you look so tired,” Tziporah said. “Let me bring you your blanket.”
“I’ll do it,” Benny offered. He stood, slid Miriam gently onto the couch, and went to fetch her blanket. She closed her eyes as he spread it over her and was asleep in minutes.
Yehuda joined Miriam on the couch after three bites of chicken. Now it was just Tziporah and Benny sitting together. At first there was the food to keep them occupied. But soon enough, Tziporah was full. She put down her fork and looked around the room: the two little ones breathing softly on the couch, the ceiling fan overhead at its slightly skewed angle, the Shabbos candles flickering valiantly on their shelf. And her husband, very flawed but trying hard, sitting there with her at the table.
“That day, that day that I left,” Benny said suddenly. “I never really told you about it.”
She hugged herself. “Right.”
“So, I went to the strangest museum,” he said. “It’s not like I’m a museum person to begin with. But that whole day was weird. It was like — I just had to get away from everything, as far as I could go.”
Tziporah folded and unfolded her purple-flowered napkin. “Okay,” she said.
“So the museum, it was all about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Did you know a Bedouin shepherd found them totally by accident? He followed his goat into a cave or something, and he saw all these clay jugs inside. And they were full of bits of parchment with Hebrew writing. Then the archaeologists came and realized that some tribe of Jews who wanted to escape from civilization had been living there, right near Yam Hamelach, thousands of years ago.”
Benny was looking at his plate, but she could tell he was seeing something far away.
“You can’t imagine how lonely that place is, Tziporah. No houses, no trees, no noise. I think that got me the most. No noise at all. It was… I thought it was what I wanted, what I needed, after messing up so bad at the Melaveh Malkah.”
She cocked her head. “But?”
He met her eyes, then dropped his gaze back down to the plate. “But I couldn’t stay there. It was too much. Too quiet, too creepy. Really I need people, I need action. I was just — scared. Scared to come back, scared to face you when you knew the whole time I was wrong. And then my phone died, and I couldn’t call you, and I had no idea how to get home… and I must have been dehydrated or something, because at some point I almost passed out. Not that any of this is an excuse; it’s not. It was just mistake after mistake, and I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me for leaving you like that?”
Tziporah unfolded the napkin again and swallowed hard. This was her husband, the man who had organized his own public shaming, then abandoned her while he wallowed in a sinkhole of self-absorption and defeat. The man who had put his young fan club before his wife and kids. The man who could convince a desperate bochur to slow down and rethink a rash decision, who could understand what made him tick and why he was so down. The man who, after all was said and done, still found solace and purpose at his Gemara, who wasn’t too proud to apologize, who was trying hard to fix his mistakes and make things better.
“Yes,” she said, her lips trembling. “But we can’t cry on Shabbos, so I think you need to change the subject.”
Then she stole a quick glance at Benny and realized she wasn’t the only one who might cry.
The daytime seudah was cute — lots of talk about gan and friends and whose Tatty was bigger. But without the usual pack of bochurim and their spirited discussions about Ner Olam and Gemara and baseball, it was over before one. The afternoon loomed long and hot ahead of them.
“How about we take a walk?” Benny suggested. “Break up the day a little. We can take turns resting afterward, and you’ll still get some time in the park with the kids later.”
“Sounds good,” Tziporah said.
The midday sun was blazing, but the two older kids skipped ahead of the stroller, impervious to the heat in their short sleeves. Benny directed them down Mishmar Hagevul, found a slight edge of shade on Yam Suf, and then angled the stroller toward the Chamisha Asar Park.
Outside one of the Tama buildings on Ramat Hagolan was a little knot of three young women. One of them had bent down and was talking animatedly with Miriam and Yehuda. It was Gitty Lederberg.
“Hi Gitty, good Shabbos,” Tziporah said as the approached with the stroller.
“Good Shabbos,” Gitty greeted her. “Your kids are heaven! I’m hearing all about their Shabbos treats. Purple and green this week!”
Tziporah smiled. “How are things?” she asked.
“Good, really good, actually,” Gitty said. “This is my friend Mimi from seminary, she just moved here. And then we realized that Chaya Dina — we know her from camp — was living here for a year already. She said there’s this amazing Shabbos afternoon shiur in Maalot Dafna, so we decided to get together beforehand. That was last week. We’re switching to Mimi’s house this week. Her husband has a chavrusa, so it worked out perfectly.”
“That’s nice,” Tziporah said. “It’s so great to have friends here. And a schedule.”
“Right,” Gitty said. She stepped aside and lowered her voice slightly. “They never told us about this in seminary — the loneliness, the boredom. I was almost ready to go back to America, I wasn’t sure I could do it anymore. But I thought about it, and I realized that for now I want to stay here. And I want my husband to be able to do his thing without feeling guilty that I’m all miserable and lonely without him.”
“That’s a lot of thinking,” Tziporah said. “Not so easy to be honest with yourself like that.”
Gitty nodded. “I’m trying. I want this to work, and I don’t want to pull him out of the beis medrash just because I’m bored. So I’m making it my project to be busy. Bein hazmanim is coming soon, we’ll take a nice vacation then. We’ll both deserve it,” she said with a half-shrug.
“Anyway, don’t let me keep you,” Gitty said. “Enjoy your family, have a great Shabbos!” Then she waved goodbye and turned back to her friends.
Tziporah put a hand back on Momo’s stroller. Enjoy your family, Gitty had said. Tziporah looked, really looked, at Benny and the kids. She could sense an almost-visible ring around them. This is our family, this is what we’re building, she thought. Maybe it can be strong enough for us to transplant to new ground. Maybe we can be enough together.
Many hours later, after the kids were sleeping and Havdalah put away, Benny dropped the news.
“I’ll dry the dishes while you wash,” he said, grabbing a dishtowel. “Tziporah, I wanted to tell you — on Thursday I met with the Rosh. He wanted to hear my take on Meir, but he also had this suggestion.”
He studiously wiped the plates as he told Tziporah about the training course with Dr. Marks and the possibility of a long-term position in the yeshivah. “So what do you think?” Benny asked.
The water was still running, but Tziporah didn’t seem to realize. “Um, what do I think?” she said tentatively. “I think that… well… I’m surprised.”
Benny leaned over and turned off the water. “Surprised?”
“Yeah,” she said, and her face turned pink. “I hope it’s okay if I’m being honest. I didn’t really think he’d want to keep you on staff. Especially after the Melaveh Malkah, I feel like that sort of — well, it made things clear, you know?”
Benny ducked his head. “You’re saying that something was off for a while beforehand, right?”
She nodded apologetically. “Right.”
“So can I ask you something?” he said. “A wife isn’t supposed to watch her husband fall off a cliff and just stand there. He needs her to be his reality check. Guys can get all caught up in stupid things; they need their wives to be the smart ones.”
She sank into a chair at the little kitchen table.
“I don’t want to be that kind of wife.” Her voice was shaking. “I grew up with that. I hated seeing it. I never, ever want to be that.”
He sat next to her. “But you wouldn’t be that even if you tried. You’re not the type of person who rips people apart or make them feel small or stupid. I know you. I trust you. Can you be honest with me?”
Tziporah closed her eyes. Since she’d met Benny, that’s what had drawn her: his openness to growing, to changing, to recalculating.
“Do you want me to be really honest? It might hurt,” she said.
Benny straightened his shoulders. “I would be very grateful,” he said. “Even if it hurts.”
“Okay,” she said. “I hate fights, I hate arguments, I hate negativity. I never ever want to be that kind of wife. But… I also need to respect you. I used to love watching you with the bochurim. I think it’s so great, so important, for them to have this person in their life who started out where they were, who gets them and knows where they’re coming from and what they’re all about.”
She paused, and he nodded.
“Okay,” Tziporah went on. “So the thing is, they don’t want a guy who’s like them right now, a guy who’s still stuck in the same stupid stuff that’s pulling them down. They want someone who used to be there, but moved past it — someone to show them what they can be in ten years. And I think,” her voice dropped, and her tone grew apologetic, “I think you started losing that.”
Benny drummed on the table, an odd rhythm that wasn’t angry or sad, just contemplative. “Thank you,” he finally said. “I appreciate that. You’re right. I’m not going to deny where I come from, I’m not ashamed that this is the package Hashem gave me. But you’re right, I do need to keep the past in the past, and to focus on moving forward. I messed up, and I don’t want that to happen again.”
He gave another series of taps on the table before looking Tziporah in the eye.
“Okay, so there’s another interesting offer I want to tell you about. This one is from Dave Rothman, my friend who made it big in real estate? He wants someone to run a branch of his business here in Israel. Someone who gets numbers, money, profits and percentages. He would pay a real American salary, better than the accounting firm. It could be perfect for you.”
“For me?” Tziporah said, startled. “He offered the job to me?”
“No, not really,” Benny said. “He offered it to me, but I think we all know numbers aren’t my strength. I’m thinking about taking this course the Rosh recommended and seeing if it clicks for me.”
He stood up, grabbed the dishtowel, and got back to work. “Maybe I should skip the course with Dr. Marks and do this all the way — become a therapist, that’s more my thing. I want to talk it out with Reb Motti, see what he thinks… but maybe it could work out well. I could start every morning with a solid first seder, and then work in the afternoons, using whatever gift the Rosh Yeshivah talked about along with real professional training to help bochurim figure things out.”
“A therapist?” Tziporah asked, still sitting. “You mean, you would go to school, get a degree? That means you’d have to drop Ner Olam, no? A degree takes real time, real focus. A lot of hours.”
Benny placed the plate on the pile of dry dishes, then grabbed another one. “Yeah. My dad would be thrilled to pay for it. He’d finally be proud of me. But that’s not the most important thing.” He put down the dishtowel and picked up the stack of dry plates. “The most important thing is whether this works for you, for us.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 945)
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