| Light Years Away |

Light Years Away: Chapter 16  

“She really had me convinced she was my double,” Nechami murmurs, still stunned. “She stood here as if she owned the place


Achassidishe gentleman, around 60 years of age, comes along.

He’s glancing from side to side, looking for someone, it seems. He sees Nechami standing outside her building and cautiously, he approaches. “Excuse me,” he says. “Have you see someone… wandering around here? A young woman without shoes?”

“Umm…” Nechami says, her mind racing. He’s looking for someone without shoes. The woman she saw in the kitchen was wearing metallic blue slides, just like her own. Nechami hesitates for a moment.

“My daughter,” the man explains. “She left the house less than ten minutes ago.”

Shua is hurrying down the stairs, taking two steps at a time. He catches the last words.

“I think she’s in our apartment,” he says to the older man. “Would you like to come up with me and see if it’s your daughter?”

“She was carrying a little pot of flowers,” the father adds. The two men enter the building together, talking quietly.

Nechami remains outside, keeping close to the entrance, to the mailbox with their name on it.

A minute later the intruder is led downstairs, barefoot.

“Um, excuse me,” Shua says. “But I think the… the clothing she’s wearing is also ours.”

Nechami nods dumbly. She’s still in shock, stupefied. Maybe she’ll just let the stranger keep the hoodie.

“We’ll give it back to you,” the father assures them. “Just give us a moment. Ruti, let’s duck in here under the staircase, and you’ll give back the top you borrowed from these people, b’seder?”

Nechami just stares, wide-eyed, as he gently folds the hoodie, taking care not to damage the sequined applique, and hands it to Shua. The woman is dressed in a dark robe. Her father takes her by the hand and they walk away.

“See, she wasn’t trying to pass herself off as your double,” Shua says as they climb the stairs. “She just put on the top and slippers she found by the front door. Remember, some water spilled on you this morning, and you left the stuff here to dry? I told her to keep the slippers on so she wouldn’t have to walk home barefoot, but she didn’t want them.”

“What are we going to do about lunch?” is all Nechami manages to utter. Her hands are still shaking. “I can’t serve the food that that — woman — touched.”

“We’ll put up a new pot of rice,” Shua says in his most soothing tone. “I don’t think she touched the chicken nuggets. You put them in the oven this morning, right? She just turned it on. Take a look — these are for sure the ones you made. You always arrange them like that in the pan, one row tilted this way, the next row that way — right?”

“She really had me convinced she was my double,” Nechami murmurs, still stunned. “She stood here as if she owned the place, talking about parallel universes with so much self-confidence, telling me that people can suddenly find themselves in the middle of somebody else’s story….” Tears flow from her eyes and her shoulders shake. “I told her, ‘This is my house,’ and she said to me, ‘It’s my house!’ It was terrifying!” The tears keep coming.

“She was just repeating your words back to you,” Shua says, neatly packaging the experience. And now he’s pouring two cups of rice into a clean pot, not so neatly. Some grains jump happily off the pot’s rim, landing on the counter and the floor. He adds salt and soup powder. He spills a bit. Whatever. He gives it a stir and lights the gas.

“Will you go bring Yehudit home, or should I?” he asks.

“I’ll go,” she says, trying to pull herself back to the moment. “But how did that woman get in here, anyway?”

A second later, she regrets asking. She sees her husband’s face fall. He feels foolish, and she knows what happened. Again, he didn’t close the door properly, even after she had a locksmith come and install a number-lock. Even the best lock doesn’t help if you walk out the door absentmindedly, carrying a bag of garbage or something in your hand, and you don’t bother to make sure the door is shut behind you.

Nechami goes down to Naaman’s yard to coax Yehudit away from the trampoline with a promise that she can come back after lunch if Faigy’s ima lets.

“Excuse me,” a chassidishe-looking woman says to her as they’re about to enter their building. “Are you Bernfeld, from one flight up?” Nechami nods.

“I hear that our Ruti gave you a bit of a scare,” the woman says, looking at her intently.

“More than a bit.” Nechami doesn’t want to belabor the conversation. She wants to get away. First your daughter sets herself up in my kitchen and insists she’s me until I start doubting my sanity, and now you want to stand here and rehash the whole horrible experience?

“I’d like to explain,” the woman says. Now Nechami sees the pain in her eyes. She knows it’s a pain this woman will live with all her life. And she doesn’t want to get away anymore.

“Do you have a few minutes now?” the woman asks.

“Yes, it’s fine,” she hears herself say.

“Imaaa!” Yehudit complains. “Why did you come and get me, if you’re going to stay here and talk? I could’ve kept on playing at the Naamans!”

“I came and got you so you could have your lunch,” Nechami says. “Go on upstairs, I’ll be there soon.” She has no intention of eating those chicken nuggets, but there’s no reason why the kids shouldn’t.

There’s no bench on the street, so they stand. “She was perfectly okay as a girl,” says Ruti’s mother. “She got married young, like most girls do by us, and she went to live in Neve Chamtzitzim. She found a job there in the day care center. It didn’t pay that well, but it was enough to cover their mortgage and groceries.” The words come out in a rush; she doesn’t stop to breathe. “Everyone has 20–20 vision in hindsight. Now we wondered why we didn’t see it, after she had her second baby. They came to us often enough for Shabbos. How did we not realize it was more than just the baby blues? She was wilting. Working eight hours a day, and then coming home to take care of her own little ones. Financially, they were just getting by. Surviving, like all the young couples. And from one week to the next, something in her eyes… the light was slowly going out. But we didn’t see it.”

“What would you have done, if you’d realized what was happening?” Nechami asks. The story is piercing her like a rusty nail. Maybe there really are parallel universes. Or maybe people sometimes just have very similar histories. She pictures Ruti, alone in a small apartment in Neve Chamtzitzim, one baby crying and the other screaming. Another day. Another night. Another day. Work. So much work. Another day. Another night. Another day.

The woman doesn’t hear her question. She goes on talking. “After her third baby, she just fell apart.” The pain is oozing from her now, like blood, like pus. “Ever since then, she’s either with us or in the hospital. It’s been years already. We moved to this area just this week, temporarily, while we renovate our apartment. We’re adding on a private unit for her. But you don’t need to be scared. She’d never hurt anyone, she’s gentle as a lamb.”

You cried because a stranger took your hoodie and wore it.

In your hysteria, you told your husband — the one who left the door open — that you’ll never wear it again.

And suddenly you hear about the parents who took their broken daughter back to shelter her. You say goodbye to the mother and go upstairs. You take a deep breath. From the kitchen, you hear Shua and Yehudit sharing a happy moment, making a brachah on the rice. You take another deep breath and put on your hoodie. Even though it smells of the stranger. Even though you said before, who knows, it might have her spit on it. You put on your Birkenstocks, the ones you declared you wouldn’t touch. They’re cool to the touch and a shiver goes through you. You step into an alternate history. You tremble.

  • ••


Today Batya was wearing coils — funny pink coils in her hair, between the magnet and the implant processor.

I was curious to get a closer look. “How did you put those on?” I asked. “I mean, do you mind if I look?”

She smiled. “Do I mind? That’s what they’re there for, to be looked at.”

I leaned in and peered. That pink thingy wasn’t instead of the cable, it was just coiled around it.

“My Ima got them for me from Poland,” Batya said. “With Yaffa’le.”

“Affa’le — Ima shel Ital,” Avital explained from her seat in the stroller. We each gave her a big hug.

“That’s right — Yaffa’le is your Ima,” Batya agreed. She let Avital out of the stroller and put her on the rocking horse. Meanwhile I looked around the playground to make sure my little sisters were all in view.

But what was that about Poland? Had I missed something?

“What, they went to Poland?” I asked.

Batya laughed. “No, no. They bought it online, on the computer. There’s a place in Poland where they make all sorts of cute accessories for girls like me, with cochlear implants. You can order stuff from them on the computer, and they send it to you. Stickers, beads, bows, hairbands… Wait — maybe they could get something for you there, too. They have special hairbands with pockets inside to fit all sorts of devices.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I’m good,” I said. “We buy regular hairbands for me right here in Beit Shemesh, and Ima fixes them for me.”

Batya stopped talking.

“But go on with what you were telling me about this factory,” I pleaded. I pictured a robot packaging all the items people ordered on the computer, sticking on the address labels and sending them to Israel. I wanted to hear all about it.

“What is there to tell?” Batya looked at me blankly. “Doesn’t your mother ever order anything online? Like pajamas or tights, maybe, for your sisters?”

“No,” I said. “We don’t even have a computer in the house.”

“Wow.” Batya looked at me — with admiration, I think. “But how does your father work for the newspaper without a computer?”

“With a pen and paper. They send him faxes at home, and when he’s in the office, a secretary prints everything out for him. He wouldn’t even take a 2,000-shekel raise they offered him if he’d work on a computer from home.” I was proud of Abba. “But I don’t know what he’s going to do now,” I added suddenly. “Because the Kupat Cholim decided they won’t pay for my operation, and my parents can’t afford it.”

Batya rocked Avital on the horse. She thought and thought. “Why won’t the Kupat Cholim pay?” she asked.

“Because they say it’s not a risk to my life, and they want us to do it here.”

“And why did your parents think they would pay for it?” Batya asked smart questions.

“There’s a committee that decides, and I think somebody on the committee thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but in the end…” I trailed off. I didn’t really know who told them it would be okay. “My parents didn’t really explain it to me, Batya. I just… heard them talking. There was somebody who could get the Kupah to bend the rules sometimes, but he’s not there anymore.”


“I don’t know. Even what I just told you is only what I heard my parents saying.” I wasn’t listening on purpose. It’s not my fault that I have such good hearing in my right ear. And that, together with the hearing aid on my left side… Chaimke claims I could be a great spy.

“Oof,” Batya said. “That’s really bad news.”

“I think they were right to take him off that committee, if he was taking money or favors from people and then not following the rules. It’s not fair to all the other people who do go by the rules.”

“Tovi!” Batya looked at me like I’d fallen off the moon. “What do you care what’s fair and what isn’t? You need that surgery. If somebody can help, why shouldn’t he get paid for it?”

“Of course I’d be happier if that man were still on the committee and he’d get the funding for us,” I said heatedly. “But what I’m doing is called looking at it objectively. As if I were somebody else, not Tovi who needs the surgery. What if I were the prime minister? I’d want the country to have laws that everybody follows — no exceptions. No special favors.”

Batya had a simple solution. “So they should let everyone have the funding.”

“The Kupat Cholim doesn’t have enough money to hand out to everybody who wants to get surgery in chutz l’Aretz,” I said. “Oysh, Batya, it’s terrible to be talking against myself!”

“I’m more worried about your surgery. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

Maybe I just won’t have the surgery. And I’ll get married to someone who’ll take me the way I am.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 860)

Oops! We could not locate your form.