| Serial |

Growth Curve: Chapter 7  

He started his rounds. Yitz, Akiva, Eric… they were doing well. But why was Chaim sitting alone? Where was his chavrusa?


“Wait, Benny, don’t forget the envelope,” Tziporah said.

“Envelope?” Benny tried to focus on Tziporah and the envelope she was waving.

He checked his reflection in the mirror again. Should he try brushing his hair the other way? The glasses were good, but maybe they would be even better with a haircut more like Eric’s.

The guys had been talking about Madison and Lila again yesterday. Maybe he should google the names, figure out what was consuming them.

“The rent, remember?” Tziporah said. “Tomorrow is the first of the month. I stopped at the bank this morning and got the cash, so you can drop it off at Kroizer after second seder.”

“You’re the best, Tzip,” Benny said. “We would have been evicted by now if I didn’t have you managing our money.”

Tziporah smiled. It was true. “Have a great afternoon,” she said.

“You too!” Benny stuck the envelope in his jacket pocket, grabbed his helmet, and ran out the door.

The electric bike hummed up the hill to Geula, vibrating to the steady rhythm of Madison-and-Lila, Madison-and-Lila. Tonight, when Tziporah finished working, he would check it out, Benny decided. It was his job to be accessible to the guys, to know their issues and lingo and culture. He had to be in the loop if he wanted to remain their address — the guy who was just like them, who came from the same background, who dealt with the same struggles and challenges. Wasn’t that why the Rosh had hired him?

The beis medrash was pretty full when he arrived at Ner Olam. It took a good five minutes to cool off — that helmet was so sweaty in the summer — and then he started his rounds. Yitz, Akiva, Eric… they were doing well. But why was Chaim sitting alone? Where was his chavrusa?

“You mean my former chavrusa,” Chaim said, rolling his eyes toward the front of the room.

There was Meir Elbogen, sitting alone, mouthing the words of the Gemara fervently.

“What happened?” Benny asked.

“What happened is that Meir the masmid dumped me.”

“He dumped you? But you learn so well together!”

Chaim lifted his hands, palms upward, and raised his eyebrows. “Did you see the guy? He’s shteiging away — before seder, during seder, between sedorim, after seder, at night again. No way can I do that. I’m not the chavrusa he needs. At least that’s what he told me.”

“Whoa, that’s very intense,” Benny said carefully, watching Chaim’s face.

“To put it mildly,” Chaim said. “Way too intense for me.”

He didn’t seem insulted or hurt, just matter-of-fact. Good.

“So, wait, who are you learning with now?”

Chaim shrugged. “I’m open, I guess. Any suggestions?”

Benny scanned the beis medrash. “I need to think about it. Most of the guys here have chavrusas, it’s the middle of Sivan already. Would you want to be a third guy? Nah, I don’t see it. I’ll talk to Reb Motti, we’ll figure it out. If I have time this afternoon maybe we’ll sit together and go over the shakla v’tarya. Sounds good?”

Chaim smiled. “Sure.”

Benny walked to the other side of the room to see if Shmuli and Zak were doing okay. Along the way, he stole another look at Meir Elbogen. Something troubled him about Meir, and he wanted to figure out what it was.

From a side view, the guy looked tense, pained almost. He was gripping the shtender hard and seemed to be battling something, attempting to quash an invisible foe. But instead of triumph, he just radiated defeat.

That was it: There was no joy.

Wait, don’t be so dramatic, Benny cautioned himself. Maybe Meir was just tired. Summer zeman could be draining — long days, hot weather, a challenging sugya, friction with the chavrusa.

Benny shrugged and headed over to Shmuli and Zak. There was no way he could know for sure, and it probably wasn’t his responsibility anyway. Meir was still a steady guest — he had showed up for the mega-Shavuos meal, plus the Shabbos right afterward — but he hadn’t confided in Benny in a while. At this point he probably believed with perfect faith that he was meant for better things than Benny Muller’s tiyulim and kiddy contests. Well, at least he’d have Ephraim Grossman to unload on when the sugya got tough.

Rejection always stings, even to a 28-year-old, but life is short. You’re not wanted, you gotta move on.

“Hey, Shmuli, my man,” Benny said, grinning beatifically. “How’s the learning going?”


“So picture it, we’re having this huge Shavuos meal with nine of Benny’s guys.” Tziporah balanced the phone on her shoulder as she slid a pan of French fries into the oven. “You have to see it, Dini, imagine a table full of guys who don’t know what’s day or night anymore.”

She closed the oven and set the timer. “All nine of them stayed up learning for two nights in a row — Benny ran the program the second night, totally his idea — and now they’re inspired, on a major high. They can barely believe that they pushed through twice. And then Miriam pulls out her Har Sinai project and she says… Wait a second, Dini, I think someone’s knocking.”

Someone was knocking. It was Gitty Lederberg, holding an envelope from the electric company.

“Umm, hi,” she said tentatively. “I was wondering, would you be able to explain this to me?”

“Sure,” Tziporah said. Then, into the phone: “Dini, I have to go. I’ll try to call you back later, when the kids are in bed.”

She motioned Gitty toward the couch and sat down.

“Wow, is it always so busy here?” Gitty asked, her gaze sweeping over the five little kids absorbed in a mess of Magna-tiles, menschies, dolls, and trucks.

“Well, today things are extra busy because Tova Roth from the next building had a baby and I’m taking her kids for the afternoon,” Tziporah answered easily. “But yeah, usually this is busy time around here. It gets quieter — and neater — after bedtime.”

“That’s so special of you, three extra kids to watch and feed and everything.”

Tziporah shrugged. “Tova would do it for me too. We all have to help each other out here, it’s not like anyone’s parents live nearby.” She motioned toward the envelope in Gitty’s hand. “So, okay, the electric bill, let’s go through it. It’s not so hard once you understand the Hebrew.”

Gitty pulled the papers out of the envelope and Tziporah ran through the items with crisp fluency.

“Wow,” Gitty said with a sigh. “I can’t imagine ever being able to zip through the Hebrew like that. I feel so handicapped when I have to talk Hebrew, you know?”

Tziporah nodded sympathetically. “Totally,” she said. Then she stood up and pulled the Magna-tile box over to the kids. “Okay, guys,” she said, “soon is suppertime. We’re going to have yummy hot dogs and French fries, hurray! But first we need to put the toys away. Come, Yehuda and Dovid, let me see you put away the Magna-tiles in this box. Miriam, Chani, and Riki, you can put the menschies and dollies away. I’m so proud of all the helpers!”

She returned to the couch and sat back down. “I feel the same way about Hebrew,” she admitted. “Even though I can read it fine, and understand it — when I’m talking to Israelis, I just can’t find my words fast enough.”

“For real?” Gitty asked. “You seem so settled here. Me, every day I keep finding a new reason why it was a mistake to come.”

She fingered one of the throw pillows, then went on. “My cousin Malky is getting married this week. We’re basically like sisters, and I never dreamed I would miss her wedding. We did everything together — camp, bungalow, Chol Hamoed trips — literally everything. My great-grandmother is going to be crushed that I’m not at the wedding. She’s a survivor, and every simchah, we do this big family picture, and she gets all emotional — like, this is her nekamah against the Nazis. And I’m not going to be there!”

Tziporah was about to empathize about the high prices of airline tickets, but Momo chose that moment to start crying. She went to the kids’ room and scooped him out his crib.

Apparently, the ticket prices weren’t the issue.

“How do I explain to my great-grandmother that I’m missing Malky’s wedding because Yaakov doesn’t want to miss a day of the zeman?” Gitty asked, staring at the speckled floor. “What do I tell her? Family is the most important thing to her, for sure more important than a zeman. And we’re shanah rishonah, so it’s not like I’m going to fly out to America without him.”

She sighed. “I don’t think I ever missed a major family event before. I feel so far away.”

Tziporah settled Momo with his bottle. “This sounds so hard,” she said to the just-out-of-seminary girl curled into the corner of her couch and cradling a faded throw pillow. “It must be such a bad feeling to disappoint your great-grandmother like that. What about your parents? Do they understand why you’re not coming?”

Gitty nodded glumly. “Yeah, or at least they pretended they did. My mother told me that of course my husband comes first, and we should make sure to celebrate in Yerushalayim — you know, go out for supper, order something really good, and keep Malky and her chassan in mind.” She scrunched the throw pillow tighter. “But it’s not the same. And I don’t even know if my husband would want to go to a restaurant anyway. Probably not.”

“Hmm, that’s a lot to deal with,” Tziporah said. This girl was in real pain. “I was thinking—” She broke off tentatively, then forged ahead. “You know, when my husband and I were newlyweds, we used to play games together. Boggle, Set, Parcheesi… would you want to borrow a game or two? It can be a nice date night type of thing, instead of a restaurant.”

Gitty released her hold on the pillow and sat up, alert. “Oh, because your husband doesn’t like eating out either?”

Tziporah laughed. “Nah, he loves a good piece of meat. We just couldn’t afford to eat out too often back then. I was still finishing my CPA, he was learning full-time… the games were a good, cheap way to spend time together.”

“Wow, that’s really special,” Gitty said.

She was silent for a minute, and Tziporah wondered if she was now officially a Freak Who Couldn’t Afford Restaurants. Gitty didn’t seem dismissive, though. She cocked her head and looked at the creaky ceiling fan contemplatively.

“That’s like, real mesirus nefesh for a kollel lifestyle.”

Gitty breathed in, then out. Tziporah waited patiently while the kids babbled.

“You know, I thought I was ready for this life,” Gitty said tremulously. “I mean, I always got great marks, was head of chesed in high school, went to a top seminary, had all the right hashkafos. I really did want to marry a serious learner.

“And I’m trying really hard,” she went on. “I’m trying to deal with all the bills so he can focus on his learning, I have the fresh chocolate chip cookies waiting for him after night seder, a nice breakfast every morning, the works.

“But honestly?” She bit her lips as they began to tremble. “Honestly, I can’t believe I’m missing Malky’s wedding.”

Tziporah thought of Gitty’s husband — tall, lanky, and bearded, with his stiff shoulders and unyielding schedule. Then she thought of Benny, the Benny she thought she knew, the spiritually sensitive guy who’d chosen to stay here and grow and focus on his learning, suddenly absorbed in his image in the mirror.

Your husband is someone I can respect, she wanted to tell Gitty as she envisioned the unfamiliar new Benny in his cool glasses and open shirt. I hope you realize that and respect him too.

“Here, let me get you some of those games,” she said instead. Then, to the little people on the floor, she called “Come, guys, supper!”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 930)

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