Light Years Away: Chapter 1| January 20, 2021
“Nice, isn’t it?” Shua had just come home from the mikveh, his peyos shining with moisture and his eyes with expectation
On Erev Shavuos she found it, wrapped in heart-spangled silver paper, on the tray.
Just before lighting the candles, she slipped her fingers under the folds of the wrapper, tearing a heart or two. She pulled it out: a small, machine-cut, wooden object, a keychain in the shape of a little bottle, painted red and black, lettered in white with the name “Nechami.”
A gift. For Yom Tov.
Bathed and fed, the baby was asleep in his infant seat. Bentzi was sitting on the couch, busy with his bag of potato chips. And for the first time in her life, she’d received a Yom Tov present.
“Nice, isn’t it?” Shua had just come home from the mikveh, his peyos shining with moisture and his eyes with expectation.
“Very nice,” she said. She couldn’t manage to say anything more. She pictured him, baffled, unsophisticated, chassidish and sheltered, peering at the revolving stand in the shop, searching for one name between “Naamah” and “Nitzah”… selecting this one, just for her.
And although she wanted so much more, she could appreciate the sparkle of this small gift.
She lit and made the brachah: Shehecheyanu. V’kiyemanu. V’higiyanu. La’zeman hazeh.
Now, the keychain jingles between her fingers. She’s been using it for ten years, stringing her keys on its ring. She pushes the black key into the door to the storeroom. She opens it, and the smell of fresh paint hits both her and her sister Chaya. The lavender wall they painted last week gleams before them.
Chaya appraises the wall. “You’re going to have photographers here soon, taking pictures for the interior-design magazines,” she says. “So should we start with the bird stencils today, or do you want to paint the other wall first?”
“The birds. They’re dying to get up there and fly. I have the stencils ready — did you bring the paint?”
“Got it right here.” Chaya rummages in a shopping bag and pulls out a little can of metallic silver paint. She applies masking tape to the wall and spreads sheets of transparent plastic on the floor.
This was going to be Nechami’s dream office: two storerooms converted into one, painted with a loving hand. Furnished one item at a time, built up slowly, but just the way she wanted it.
They had an hour and a half to work. Another one of those small, stolen blocks of precious time to make an office for Nechami. Nechami did it because it was hers, and Chaya, because Nechami was her big sister.
“Abba is still dreaming of the Shpinder boy for me,” Chaya reports, her paintbrush stroking the wall, carefully filling in a bird’s outspread wings.
“And what do you think about that?”
“It’s too bad you can’t get a son-in-law without a daughter.”
“Whazzzat bea?” With her paintbrush in her mouth, Nechami steps back and examines the results.
“It means I wish people could just choose a son-in-law for themselves without their daughter having to get involved. Abba, for example. He wants Moishe Shpinder for his son-in-law, because the boy’s an illui and a lamdan. So let Abba have Moishe Shpinder. What does he need me in the picture for? Let Abba give the boy an apartment and support, and let him be his shver, without me having to be stuck in the middle.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Nechami says, carefully placing the next stencil.
Then a silence falls between them. Because it would be utterly tactless for Chaya to say what she’s thinking. And Chaya is thinking that it was enough for her, as a child, to see Nechami marrying an illui and lamdan, someone who cared nothing for the pleasures of this temporal world. And she couldn’t verbalize, either, that a little bottle-shaped keychain was a bad choice for a Yom Tov gift to a wife. And that she has no intention of bursting into their parents’ house as Nechami once did, driven by the wind and the rain, with chattering teeth and three small children in tow, two of them — and their mother — sick.
She has no younger sisters, either, so she has no one to turn to and say through chattering teeth, “Chaya, r-run out to the taxi and bring the baby in, and p-pay the d-driver.”
She’d taken 50 shekels out of her own little cash box, not knowing if she’d ever be paid back. She’d run to the taxi. Paid the driver. He wasn’t annoyed at the delay. He was soft-hearted. “Miskeinah, poor thing,” he’d said to Chaya, who was maybe eight at the time. “She’s your sister? Take care of her, okay? She cried all the way here, along with her babies. Where’s her husband, for goodness’ sake?”
She’d taken the pajama-clad baby in her arms. He’d stared at her with big, questioning eyes. His nose was running, the stream passing over his sweet little mouth and cutting a path over his chin. Nearly frozen herself, she’d run into the house with him. Nechami, her big sister, had collapsed on the couch, and Ima was trying to calm Bentzi, who was wailing, and make beds at the same time.
“Where’s Shua?” only little Chaya dared to ask.
“Learning,” Nechami said wearily. “As usual. Thanks, Ima, you’re a lifesaver. They were all crying, and I was feeling so sick.”
Shua had regular sedorim with his chavrusas until 1 a.m. And in the low-ceilinged beis medrash at Mikelov, there was no cell-phone reception.
Many birds have flown since then in the skies of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Today, Shua knows how to bathe a baby and even change a diaper. If Nechami is sick, he stays home, and when there’s a new baby, he takes over, the perfect father. Which is to say, he gets the kids out on time, dressed in clothes. Whose clothes, and whether they’re on straight, is another matter.
Abba is proud of Shua. So is Ima. Everybody is. Their eldest son-in-law, so refined, such an illui. Chaya sees how their eyes glow when he comes, when he goes. They want Moishe Shpinder for her. She doesn’t.
Dudi, my favorite uncle, says it’s not so bad to be a girl without an ear. To be an ear without a girl would be much worse. Actually, he doesn’t say it anymore these days, because I haven’t seen him in a while, but mainly because my father didn’t like his jokes. He doesn’t like Dudi much, either.
“I’m all ear! All ear!” I remember Dudi saying a while back, lurching around Saba and Savta’s living room, playing the part of the ear without a girl. Abba didn’t laugh at all. Chaya and I were cracking up. “Are you worried about her shidduchim, Gedalya?” Dudi said to Abba, giving me a wink. “Don’t worry, brother. I heard that in Indonesia, there was a boy born without a nose….”
“Narishkeiten!” my father growled. “Why are you talking to me about some little goy?!”
“But Abba!” I’d say in horror. “That boy has no nose. What difference does it make whether he’s Jewish or not — I’d never marry him!”
Abba was shocked. “L’hefech. That boy is a goy, and therefore it doesn’t matter whether he has a nose or not. You can’t marry him.”
“If we all agree that Tovi isn’t going to marry him, then what’s the problem?” Dudi asked with total sincerity. (In our family, what we call “total sincerity” is when someone knows perfectly well he’s annoying someone but pretends not to know it.)
“Dudi, you’re a big leitz, but my daughter’s ear is nothing to joke about.”
Dudi ignored that. “I’m not joking about her ear,” he explained with total sincerity. “I’m only joking about the ear she doesn’t have!”
I’d just taken a sip of peach nectar, and before I could swallow it, I was spluttering with laughter. We spent the next while, while Abba was trying to learn with Chaimke, arguing about whether an ear someone doesn’t have is theirs or not.
“Of course it’s not theirs,” Dudi argued. “If you don’t have a coat, then the coat you don’t have isn’t yours!”
“My coat is at home,” I reminded him. It was a warm Shabbos in Sivan.
“So then you have a coat, it’s just not here. But what if you didn’t have a coat at all? It wouldn’t be yours!”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
“But Dudi’s right,” Chaya thought. “If I don’t have a silver ring like my friends do, then I don’t have one. And the ring I don’t have isn’t mine.”
I picked up a round pretzel from the bowl we were sharing. “But if a pretzel has a hole, it’s the pretzel’s hole,” I argued. “It’s not some other pretzel’s hole.”
Dudi stuck to the point. “Because that’s a hole that is! We’re talking about things that aren’t!”
“The hole is where there’s no dough,” I insisted. “So that’s something that isn’t. And it belongs to the pretzel.”
“Shh!” my father scolded us. We weren’t letting him learn in peace. “Chaya, don’t you have your Batya group?”
“Not this week,” Chaya said, leaning back on the sofa and stretching her legs.
I got up and went to look in the bathroom mirror. I pulled off my hairband and saw a girl with a big “isn’t” on one side of her head. I’ve never managed to explain to Abba why I love it when his brother and sister, Dudi and Chaya, joke with me about the ear I don’t have.
Because when you can laugh about something, it’s not so monstrous.
If someone’s seriously ill, you don’t laugh about it. If someone dies young, you don’t laugh about it. Because those are terrible things. So when Abba won’t let his siblings joke about my missing ear, I feel like a freak, like it’s something too terrible to laugh about.
I looked in the mirror. It was true. It really was monstrous. That soft depression on the left side, where everyone else has an ear.
Quickly, I put the headband back on and arranged my hair around it. Dudi and Chaya were still on the couch, arguing about what happens to the hole when you eat a pretzel. “But I didn’t eat the hole,” Dudi insisted. “I only ate the pretzel. Why did the hole disappear?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. The hole isn’t real. It’s only there because there’s a circle of dough around it. It’s not a thing. It’s not an ‘is,’ it’s an ‘isn’t.’ ”
“What isn’t? There isn’t a hole in the pretzel?”
I explained to them, “It’s like, if there isn’t an ear, just floating around here by itself, nobody thinks, hey, there’s no ear! But if there’s a girl, who’s supposed to have an ear, and she doesn’t, then suddenly everybody realizes something’s missing.”
“Nu, nu, shh!” Abba shushed us again. He doesn’t like it when people talk about my — well, I don’t want to call it a “deformity,” because that’s an ugly, brown, twisted word. What’s the right word for that hole where something should be?
I sat with my aunt and uncle and we joked around for a while longer. And without knowing how to put it into words, I felt like this family was a great big “is.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 845)
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