Whew. He and Tziporah were lucky that they’d found this rental back when the prices were normal
Benny dashed up all three flights of steps and opened the door, panting.
“Hi, Tzip, you’re almost ready?” he asked.
Tziporah’s voice came from the spare bedroom-turned-office. “Almost.”
Benny downed a cup of water, then another. It was hot outside. Spring had been nice during the few short weeks it actually existed, but summer was rapidly overtaking the country. And this being the Middle East, you had to make your peace with the heat, because it wasn’t going to make any unilateral concessions to pampered Americans.
“Okay, Benny, I’m just sending out an email to Maury with the final version of the Nathan file. Then we can leave,” Tziporah called.
There was an advertising circular on the dining room table, and just for the fun of it, Benny flipped to the real estate ads. Two-bedroom apartment in Ramat Eshkol for sale, gorgeous view, needs renovations, 3.6 million shekels. Three-bedroom apartment for sale, new kitchen, huge living room, two porches. Exclusive! 4.3 million. One-bedroom apartment for rent, four flights up, 4200 shekels.
Whew. He and Tziporah were lucky that they’d found this rental back when the prices were normal. Kroizer was a decent landlord, not the type to exploit people just because they were clueless Americans. True, he had no patience to deal with leaks or faulty wiring, but he was fine with Benny hiring a handyman and subtracting the money from the rent. And he didn’t care about the kids denting the avocado-colored kitchen cabinets or scribbling on the walls that probably hadn’t been painted since Ramat Eshkol was built, right after the Six Day War.
“Okay, I’m signing out,” Tziporah said.
“Wait, just a sec, don’t turn it off,” Benny said, walking swiftly to the computer.
He leaned over the screen and pulled up yesterday’s highlights. Wow, Aaron Judge hit his 20th home run in only 50 games! If he continued hitting homers at this pace, he could beat Roger Maris’s season record. Benny wondered what Akiva and Chaim would have to say.
“Ready?” Tziporah was standing at the door with her wristlet. “I checked with Chavi, she said Momo’s still awake, so let’s pick him up quickly. Hopefully he’ll fall asleep in the stroller. Wait, do you have the prescription?”
“Oops, you’re right,” Benny said. “It would be pretty dumb to go buy glasses without a prescription.”
He found the paper, stuffed it into his pocket, and headed up the block with Tziporah.
“Gitty! Hi, how are you?” she said as a stiff-shouldered bearded young guy passed by with his wife.
The wife cut off her earnest conversation, looked at Tziporah, and smiled absently. “Baruch Hashem, how are you?”
“Great,” Tziporah said. “Have a nice day!”
“Who’s that?” Benny asked once the couple was safely out of earshot.
“Oh, you never met him? Those are the new neighbors, Lederberg, they took Cohen’s apartment. I met her a few weeks ago, right at the beginning of the zeman. She’s very sweet, helped me with the stroller…I think she said her maiden name is Klein? Right, Klein, originally from Boro Park, recently moved to Toms River.”
“Whoa,” Benny said.
“What? What do you mean?”
“I mean whoa, that must be the Klein whose name is on tons of yeshivos around here, Martin Klein. I heard he recently moved to Toms River. He’s loaded. Could probably buy our entire building.”
“Hmm, I hear.” She eyed the jumble of strollers in the entrance of the building and pulled out the Baby Jogger. “Here, can you recline this all the way? I’m running up to get Momo.”
The bus came just a few minutes later, and the dull rumble of the motor lulled Momo into his afternoon nap.
“Let’s get a quick lunch before we go to the glasses store,” Benny suggested as they got off on Malchei Yisrael. Tziporah’s eyes brightened.
“You sure?” she asked.
He felt bad. When was the last time he’d treated her? Things were so busy, they were both working so hard. Plus she had put in all that extra time helping him plan the trip last week, and all she gained from it was having to prepare for Shabbos alone, dealing with a husband who rushed in less than an hour before candle-lighting, and watching him collapse on the couch after the soup. The least he could do was get her lunch.
Sam’s Bagels was crowded with seminary girls, but Tziporah staked out a table in the corner while Benny ordered. She smiled with genuine appreciation when he came bearing their lunches. The smile was still hovering over her lips after they washed and took their first bites.
“I feel like the Lederbergs,” she said lightly. “The first time I saw them, they were going out for breakfast on a Friday morning.”
“Makes sense, honorary members of the Ramat Eshkol extended honeymooner club.” Benny bit into his bagel, then grabbed a napkin to catch the tomato slipping out.
“Not really, though,” Tziporah said. She took a sip of iced coffee. “The husband seems like a really serious guy. Very into his learning.”
From some reason Benny felt his jaw tighten. “It’s easy to be shtark when Tatty is paying for everything,” he said.
Tziporah took another sip. “Yes and no,” she said, tone measured, inner CPA calculating costs versus benefits. “I mean, for sure the money part is easier, right. But I’m becoming a little friendly with Gitty — that’s the wife — and I’m starting to see…” She cocked her head and thought. “I guess I’m starting to see that being married to a learning guy can be a challenge no matter what, even if you have tons of money and a gorgeous apartment.”
Benny shrugged and took another bite.
Tziporah leaned forward. “You know, when we started out, we had something a lot of these couples don’t have,” she said. “We were on the same team. We wanted the same things. We knew we couldn’t rely on our parents, only on each other. That was hard,” she said with a half-smile, “but it was also good. It wasn’t like you wanted to learn while I wanted you home, or you wanted to save every possible shekel while I wanted to spend it all at the mall. We were both in this together, we had a shared goal.
“And also…” She picked at a piece of lettuce, then put it down. “Also, we knew how things look when a couple isn’t on the same page, so we made sure not to go there. Right?”
Benny realized Tziporah was waiting for some acknowledgment from him, an affirmation that they’d overcome something tough together, but honestly, they were in Sam’s Bagels surrounded by seminary girls. Did they really have to have a DMC about their marriage now?
“Definitely,” he said. “I want to finish up at the glasses store before second seder starts. Sounds doable?”
Tziporah sighed. “Yes,” she said.
Her voice was flat, emotionless. Benny shrugged.
Tziporah wheeled the stroller into the glasses store. Good, Momo was still sleeping. Even better, the air conditioner was blasting. She followed Benny to the display and watched him scan the options.
“What about these? The green would look nice with your eyes,” she said.
Benny didn’t seem to hear her. He was moving on to the next display case.
“Do you like this shape?” Tziporah tried again, pointing at an oblong tortoiseshell pair. “In a way it’s nice that it’s not so round, the super-round ones remind you of little kids, right?”
Benny was trying on a pair of clear plastic-framed glasses in some weird hexagon shape. He seemed completely unaware of her presence. She watched her husband approach the mirror and examine himself with narrowed eyes. He adjusted the glasses, pushed his yarmulke back, and then unbuttoned the second button of his shirt.
Tziporah’s eyebrows drew together in puzzlement. Huh?
Benny took another look in the mirror, with a wide smile this time.
“What do you say, Tzip?” he asked brightly. Suddenly she existed again.
“Hmm, not sure,” Tziporah said honestly.
“This is what all the guys are wearing, trust me,” he said. He looked at the mirror again, then turned around. “Hey, there’s Eric! He’s one of my guys. Eric, how’re you’re doing? What are you doing here?”
“Hey, Reb Benny, my glasses broke,” Eric said. “Well actually, I broke them, I stepped on them by mistake this morning. I was half-asleep and didn’t realize they were on the floor. But wait a sec, let me get another look at you. Is that really you, Reb Benny? Whoa, cool glasses.” He pursed his lips and pumped his chin rhythmically. “Ni-i-i-i-ce. You look just like one of the guys.”
Benny tried to hide his smile, but Tziporah caught the triumphant look.
She followed Benny to the counter, watching silently as he handed over his prescription. Something about Eric’s tone made her wonder.
“Just like one of the guys,” he had said. She wasn’t sure it was a compliment.
“Hi, Dad, how are things?” Benny paced outside the yeshivah building, trying to stay in the shade. Wow, the week had passed so quickly. It was Thursday already, time for his weekly call to his father.
“Good, and your knee? Still bothering you?” Benny nodded at Yitz and Akiva as they entered the building. “Right, hmmm, sounds good. Any interesting Shabbos plans? Sounds nice. I have to tell you the cutest thing that Miriam said…
“Great, have a great Shabbos, we’ll be in touch. Right, I’ll email you the pictures of Momo sitting. Bye, Dad, I miss you! Speak to you next week!”
Benny walked into Ner Olam and found an empty hook for his hat. He shrugged his jacket over his shoulders and headed toward the beis medrash. His guys were waiting for him.
Wait, there were voices coming from the office. Usually Mrs. Maryles went home before second seder. Who was in there?
One voice was easy to identify: Ephraim Grossman, the first seder shoel u’meishiv. Deep, slow, confident. It matched his appearance: thick, dark eyebrows and broad shoulders, and the kind of tall that made average Benny feel small and unsteady.
The other voice took more time, but soon enough Benny picked it out. It was one of his guys, part of the chevreh that liked to hang out at his house. Meir Elbogen. Sweet kid, a bit tentative.
“Look,” Grossman was saying, “I’m happy the guys enjoyed it. It’s important to relax after working hard.”
What was Grossman talking about? Benny studied his shadowy reflection in the frosted window.
“And it’s not like it came on the cheshbon of any learning. Who learns here on Friday? I mean, besides Benny Muller’s super-special learning program?”
Benny bit his lip. Grossman’s tone was so disparaging.
Now Meir was talking, but Benny couldn’t quite hear the words. Something about motivation, maybe?
“You don’t have to be like that,” Grossman was saying. “Believe me, you can go a lot farther than these guys. I’ve seen you in the beis medrash, you’re holding on a different level.”
Meir was mumbling again. Benny heard a chair scrape, then footfalls. Grossman must be standing right in front of Meir now, six feet and three inches of utter confidence.
“Listen to me, Meir,” Grossman commanded. “Remember, a lot of the guys here need these prizes and treats, tachlis, that’s where they’re holding. Not you. You’re learning, you’re shteiging, you’re going places. One day soon, you’re going to see that you don’t need all that kiddy stuff from Benny Muller.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 929)
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