Benny watched Dave stride purposefully toward the washing sink. His business must be doing well; he walked as though he owned this place
Benny smoothed down his pants and walked into Entrecote. He quickly scanned the room — four young American couples, a table of five chassidish men, a dati-leumi family, a set of fifty-something American parents treating their couple-living-in-Israel, and a big Sephardi get-together in the corner.
Oh, and there was Dave, at a table at the far end, his blazer draped over a chair and his fingers busily swiping his phone. Benny walked over and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, Reb Benny, good to see you!” Dave said. “Sit down, I’ll tell the waiter you’re here. Looks like you could use a drink. Still racking up sechar, walking all around Yerushalayim?”
Benny wondered how sweaty he looked. “Actually no, I caved and got myself an electric bike last year. Don’t tell my mom, she’ll just be petrified I’m getting myself killed. But it’s so much faster and easier, once you buy it there’s no going back.”
The waiter arrived.
“Can you bring us some cold water, please, and the bread,” Dave said. Benny noticed how his voice didn’t go up at the end — this wasn’t a question, it was a command.
The waiter nodded, then returned with some sort of Middle Eastern hot, fresh bread. He industriously began covering the table with tiny little dishes of dips — carrots, beets, cabbage, tomato, pepper, several iterations of eggplant, and lots of herbs.
“Let’s go wash,” Dave said. “I hope it’s okay that I ordered for both of us already.”
Benny watched Dave stride purposefully toward the washing sink. His business must be doing well; he walked as though he owned this place. Benny followed silently and washed.
The bread was hot and soft and fragrant, and Dave apparently hadn’t grown formal or fancy enough to forgo ripping off hunks with his fingers and dabbing them directly into the dips.
“Mmm,” Dave said after popping the Moroccan carrots. “This is one of those things that Americans just don’t know how to do. I have this friend Yoni, he runs a nice little fish restaurant in Lakewood, one of the newer ones. I do lunch meetings there sometimes, and his fish is great — not overcooked or dry, you know? — plus the design of the place is funky, fresh, different. But the dips, I don’t know, they just can’t figure out how to do the Israeli dips right. I should bring him here for a tutorial.”
Benny hadn’t realized how hungry he was. Lunch had been a long time ago, and he hadn’t managed to put anything in his mouth when he got home — he wanted to help Tziporah get the kids into bed before leaving her to her supper of reheated leftovers.
He took another piece of bread. “So tell me about your life,” he said as he spread matboucha over it. “It’s been a while. How’s your wife, how are the kids, how’s business?”
“Whoa, lots of questions,” Dave said. “My wife is—”
There was a ping, and he squinted down at his phone, then picked it up and began typing.
“So you were saying?” Dave said brightly, after finally putting the phone back down.
“I was asking actually. How’s your wife, how are the kids,” Benny tried again.
“Right, so my wife is doing great, she sort of discovered this inner artist that was hiding inside of her all these years, and once my business took off, she decided to drop the speech therapy thing and pursue art full-time. So I built her a studio off of the kitchen, and she’s doing abstract Judaica type of work, you know the type? I’m sure she’s gonna have a huge following soon, I’m planning to connect her to some of the top frum decorators, I think that’s really the key. Here, let me show you.”
He pulled out his phone and started tapping, then pushed it over to Benny.
Benny looked at the swirls and dots and multicolored squares. Was that the Kosel?
“Wow, very creative,” he said.
He had no idea if this was considered quality work, but then again his artistic exposure only went as far as Yehuda and Miriam’s parshah sheets.
The waiter appeared again, this time with two huge trays.
“I told him to do the platters, that’s the best way to really get the feel of a restaurant, you get the bigger picture of what they can do,” Dave explained. “Look, there’s lamb, and steak, and pargiyot, and chicken, and ribs. And of course some fries on the side, Americans always need their fries. Here, take,” he motioned, shoving a plate and steak knife toward Benny.
The two chewed appreciatively for a few minutes.
“And what about you, how are things here?” Dave asked. “Your wife, the kids?”
Benny sipped some Coke. “All good. My wife finished her CPA a few years ago and found a job working remotely for an accounting firm in New York, salary’s much better that way. The kids are really good, our neighborhood is an amazing place for kids to grow up — it’s like one big day camp outside. And the neighbors are like our support system, no one has parents here, so we all help each other out.”
“I hear you, that’s really nice,” Dave said, spearing a lamb patty with his knife and dumping it on his plate. “And you still fit into that little Ramat Eshkol apartment, the one I saw four years ago?”
“Really nice, very special,” Dave said.
Benny envisioned Tziporah peeling potatoes in their worn little kitchen and wondered how big Benny’s new house was, whether he’d installed a pool in the backyard along with his wife’s painting studio.
“Although to be honest,” Dave said, leaning forward, “the most amazing thing to me is your shteller. Like, who would have imagined back when we were in Ner Olam that you would be on staff one day? Really nice of the rosh to bring you on. Tell me about it. Like, what exactly do you do there?”
Benny felt hot and he wasn’t sure why.
“Second seder shoel u’meishiv,” he said. “Plus I’m also running the Friday learning programs.”
“Shoel u’meishiv, hmm.” Dave poured himself more Coke. “So you answer questions, nice. And you’re still feeding the hungry guys every Shabbos? Rocking the neighborhood with your zemiros?”
“Definitely still feeding the guys,” Benny said.
“Nice, really nice.” Dave drained his cup. “What about that guitar of yours, you still playing?”
There were actually two guitars — a hardy, mellow model that had starred at many a kumzitz over the years, and a smaller, shinier one with a precise twang that was perfect for inside the house. But Benny wasn’t interested in sharing the details of his personal music-making with Dave. Something about the questioning, maybe the tone, made him feel small and inadequate.
“Yeah, still playing,” was all he said.
Dave cut himself a piece of steak, and shoved it back and forth on the plate.
“Tell me, Benny,” he said suddenly. “Do you ever think about ten years, twenty years down the line? Like, assuming you’re still living here, do you see yourself getting into business, or maybe real estate?” He seemed very serious now. “The market is super hot here, I’m sure you know that. But also complex — it’s much harder to make headway, get through the red tape. I come here and I see all the building going on, I hear about all the people desperate for housing…I’m telling you, there’s tons of potential if you’re smart and ambitious.”
Benny shook his head. “I — umm — no, never thought in that direction,” he said. His real estate portfolio consisted of one measly rental unit in Houston, a wedding gift from Dad whose proceeds went straight to cover his rent.
Dave pushed aside the steak. He seemed disappointed somehow, like Benny had failed an invisible, unannounced test.
“Okay, I hear that,” he said. “Keep up your good work, my friend. You’re doing great things.”
Then he motioned to the waiter. “Bill please?”
“The door’s open, just go in!” Tziporah called to Yehuda and Miriam as they climbed up the stairs. Each was carrying two jumbo bags of Bissli. Tziporah pulled a bag of candies out of the stroller basket and unstrapped Momo. “Soon we’ll make the pekelach, and whoever helps gets their own pekeleh after supper!”
Good, that worked. Yehuda and Miriam clambered up the stairs. Once safely inside the apartment, Tziporah set them up at the table.
“Here, here are the pekelach we have to fill up,” she said. “Yehuda, you put a water bottle and a bag of Bissli inside each one. Then pass it to Miriam. Miriam, your job is to put in four candies. Then pass it to me. I’ll put in the rugalech and then I’ll close them up so all the treats stay inside for Tatty’s bochurim.
“Wait,” she said. “Be quiet for a second. I think I heard someone knocking.”
“I’ll go check!” Miriam jumped off her seat and flung open the door.
Gitty Lederberg was standing there in a monochrome skirt-top set and metallic slingbacks. Her look was polished and current, but her expression was shy, almost timid.
“I noticed your kids going up and down the steps with bags, and I was wondering if you need help?” she said.
Nebach, the girl must be so lonely.
“Come in,” Tziporah said. “We could definitely use some help, and I’d love to have an adult here with me.
“Here.” She motioned to the mountains of nosh spread over the table. “We’re packing up pekelach for my husband’s bochurim. He runs this program in the yeshivah, and he’s doing a special trip. It’s a treat for the guys who showed up to learn every Friday.”
“Wow, that’s so nice,” Gitty said. “Which yeshivah is this?”
Not a place your husband would step into, Tziporah didn’t say. “It’s called Ner Olam, a smaller place for younger guys. Less yeshivish backgrounds, but very growing boys. The type of place you can really make a difference.”
“Wow, I love that,” Gitty said. “Here, should I seal the bags? And then I’ll put them here, in this empty box, right?”
“That would be amazing.”
Gitty got to work. Then, after sealing her fourth bag, she stopped suddenly.
“Wait!” she exclaimed. “That was the singing, right?”
“Yes, the singing! That gorgeous singing on Friday night. It was your husband with his bochurim, right?”
“Probably,” Tziporah said. “My husband’s very musical, and it’s sort of an unofficial part of his job to host the guys for Shabbos meals. So we have a lot of singing here.”
Gitty sighed. “It was stunning,” she said. “You must feel so lucky to have that every week.”
Tziporah smiled and passed her two more pekelach. “For sure,” she said. Then she turned to her two little helpers. “Wow, Yehuda, it looks like you’re almost done! What a super worker. And Miriam, you’re doing such a great job with those candies! Here, pass them to me.” She grabbed some more rugelach from the pile and inserted them in the waiting bags. “Would you want to join us one Shabbos?” she asked Gitty.
Gitty shrugged. “I don’t think so, not my husband’s type. He doesn’t like long meals, he has this whole schedule of things he wants to learn on Shabbos.”
And he probably wouldn’t be comfortable with your super-chilled bochur meals either, Tziporah heard the words left unsaid. He wouldn’t spend his time singing “Tatty My King” with struggling-but-growing guys in the hopes that they’ll bring a piece of Yerushalayim back to the rat races awaiting them in America, in the hopes that a few will take to learning and make it part of their lives forever.
“I hear that,” Tziporah said. “Your husband sounds very serious.”
“He is,” Gitty said. She bent down over the box and stuffed some more pekelach inside. “That’s what I wanted, a really serious learner.”
Tziporah didn’t know Gitty all that well, but she was pretty sure that her cute new neighbor with the perfect sheitel and shoes was sounding a little choked as she packed in the final pekelah for the guys of Ner Olam.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 927)
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