| Light Years Away |

Light Years Away: Chapter 23 

They promised her, and they’ve done all they could to make it happen, but now their way forward is blocked


First they make sure their sweet little resident spy is fast asleep, and only then does Shifra leave her vanilla cream, wash her hands, and tiptoe into Gedalya’s little home office.

“Close both doors,” he whispers. “Here, and the one to her room, too.”

Shifra laughs. Surely Tovi can’t hear them now, when she’s asleep, and with her hearing device off for the night.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “She can’t possibly hear us.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” says Gedalya. “Sometimes I think she has the power to attract sound waves. At least when it comes to our voices.”

He sits down and spreads some papers out on the desk.

“Information from a ‘Parents of Children with Microtia’ Group,” he says. “Katz printed it out for me in the office. Have a look.”

On the first page there’s a picture of a little girl in a pink dress, with a bright blue sky behind her. “This is Jeanette, our two-year-old,” a father from Florida reports. “She’s absolutely perfect. When she’s older, we’ll let her choose whether to do reconstruction or not.” The child has Grade 3 microtia; only a sliver of ear shows on her right side, where her flowing dark hair is pulled back.

Next is Jorge, a 30-year-old man from Barcelona. He chose not to have reconstruction. “I’m fine with the way G-d created me,” he declares.

Shifra pushes the papers away. Lessons in emunah from a Spanish non-Jew aren’t what she’s looking for.

Gedalya moves on to the next page. He hovers over the garbled translation Katz added for him.

“Gedalya,” she says.

He says nothing.

“Gedalya, I don’t want to read this.”


“Jeanette from Florida and Jorge from Barcelona aren’t going to be in shidduchim. They can go around without an ear and talk as high and mighty as they want.” At this moment, Shifra hates Jorge from Barcelona with a passion. “You do realize that seven or eight years from now, if Tovi goes into shidduchim with perfect hearing and two normal-looking ears, she’ll be considered a great catch, right?”

“I don’t see it that way,” Gedalya says, shaking his head vaguely. “If we believe that shidduchim are made in Shamayim, then how can this ear surgery affect her prospects one way or the other? What’s bashert is bashert.”

“Gedalya! What are you thinking? That we can call off the surgery now? We’ve already gotten passports and applied for a visa! And we’ve paid a huge advance for the operation!”

“Yes,” he concurs, avoiding her eyes. “And I can’t do any more.”

“You can’t pay the rest?”

“I can’t pay.”

“What about your 2,000 shekel raise?”

“That’ll go to pay back the loan I took for the advance.”

“So I’ll take on more jobs. Bronfman’s confectionery asked me if I’d work for them one day a week.”

“No, Shifra. You’re already working too hard.” And one day a week at Bronfman’s won’t bring in 2,000, not in your dreams.

“I just won’t accept this,” she says. “It can’t be that in this day and age, a girl should have to go without critical surgery for lack of funds.”

She wants to cry, but she holds back when she sees a tear emerging from her husband’s eye. She’s almost never seen him cry.

“Maybe… maybe we could do the surgery here,” she murmurs, groping for comforting words.

“They don’t have enough experience here with Medpor,” he says, reminding her of what they both know. “And they don’t open the hearing canal. So it would mean putting her through three or more procedures here, with a difficult recovery period after each one, instead of getting the job done quickly and properly in California.”

Suddenly Shifra is wishing that Tovi weren’t such an excellent candidate for Dr. Barclay’s procedure. The surgeon had even asked for permission to use Tovi’s CT scans in her lectures. “It’s as if this method were developed especially for Tovi,” she’d enthused, going on about the inner and middle ear, about the stapes and the cochlear nerve that hadn’t degenerated, thanks to the radio device that carried sound waves to it.

“You tell me, then,” Gedalya says. “What should we do?”

“Ask for help.”

“Who can we ask?”

“The family.”

“Nobody on your side has a shekel to spare,” he reminds her. “Your parents don’t even own an apartment. All my siblings are paying off mortgages. And my parents are about to give everything they have, and don’t have, for Chaya’s shidduch.”

Suddenly Gedalya is wishing he hadn’t pushed them so hard to go ahead with this shidduch. That’s not a nice thought. He deletes it. The chutzpahdig thought comes back, blinking on his brain’s screen. If only Chaya weren’t getting engaged in the next half year, they could lend us that trust fund money in the meantime.

“Your brother Tzvi has a rich shver. Maybe he could get him to help us.”

“A loan? And how would we pay it back?”

After their talk gets them nowhere, Shifra checks on her sleeping daughters. On the little shelf above Tovi’s bed is a little plastic teddy bear, made of solidified glue. Beside it is her bone-anchored hearing device — the device that kept her cochlear nerve functioning. If only she had an ear to go with it…. They promised her, and they’ve done all they could to make it happen, but now their way forward is blocked.

I was willing to walk all the way to Haifa for you, Tovi. But that wouldn’t help, would it? Shifra opens the window, lets in the cold air, and prays, because there’s nothing else she can do.

  • ••


Nechami comes to the end of her tale, her flight home in business class, and falls silent. She’s unloaded more than enough on her little sister tonight.

They’re both ready to admit what they knew all along, that they can’t really work while having an intense conversation, and by mutual agreement they end the call.

But Nechami continues to talk. With herself. The building she’s modeling is deadly boring — plain, rectangular, institutional, without a single point of interest, void of any creative touch, as if the architect were a prisoner doing forced labor. But at least the building is to be situated on a moshav, so she can go a bit wild designing the background.

A moshav in the background — yes, she likes that.

A moshav… that was where Rebbetzin Kloss found her sitting on a bench one Shabbos night, years ago, waiting for Shua. He’d said he’d go for a walk with her, and he’d gone to learn. And forgotten his promise.

“Everybody tells me I should be happy,” she said to the Rebbetzin, keeping her voice low. “They say I have such a big zechus.”

And the Rebbetzin sat down with her and said, “There’s no ‘should’ here. No one can be happy because they ‘should.’ Tell me, Nechama’le, how are you doing?”

“I… my husband was supposed to meet me here… we were going to take a walk.” Her words were weighed down by many long nights without seeing him, many frenzied mornings getting three kids out on her own. “But I guess he got involved in learning and forgot.” She wasn’t even allowed to be upset.

The Rebbetzin stood up. Nechami thought she was expected to follow, and asked where to.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said the Rebbetzin. Her manner was so sweet, it made Nechami think that if this woman didn’t exist, she would have to be invented. “I’m standing up out of respect for you, Nechama’le — an eishes talmid chacham who waits for her husband.”

“Everyone tells me I mustn’t complain.” Nechami’s lips trembled. “They say I should imagine I’m married to a diamond dealer. But’s it’s not a good comparison! If I were a diamond dealer’s wife, and I called him to come home at 2 a.m., I wouldn’t feel guilty. He might be losing hundreds of shekels per hour, but that wouldn’t bother me if I needed him at home. But I can’t make him miss an hour of learning. And if I did…”

“What? What would happen if you had to ask him to interrupt his learning?” The Rebbetzin sat down again beside her on the bench.

“I’d hear all those rebbetzins from the stories, giving me mussar,” said 25-year-old Nechami, with lowered eyes.

“Well, tell them that there’s one rebbetzin, from real life, who hugs you and says you’re a tzadeikes! And Nechama’le, you’ve got to stop listening to everyone’s shtusim.”

Shtusim. She loved the sound of it, like birds chirping. Rebbetzin Kloss paused and added, “Have you heard the story of the Russian peasant and the Communists who asked him what he was willing to give for the Party? ‘What would you do if you had two cows?’ they asked. ‘I’d give one to the Party,’ he said. ‘And if you had two sheep?’ ‘I’d give one to the Party!’ ‘If you had two tractors?’ ‘One to the Party!’ And then they asked him, ‘What if you had two chickens?’

“And this time, Nechami, he didn’t answer. Because he had two chickens. It’s very easy to be generous when you don’t have to give. A computer programmer’s wife can easily imagine how she’d cope day and night on her own, if he were learning. It’s a lot harder for her to give what Hashem actually asks of her. When all you have is a few chickens….”

“But I don’t even have chickens,” Nechami whispers. “Not anymore. They’ve worked so hard, laying eggs, hatching them and raising the chicks, feeding the brood and cleaning the chicken coop… the chickens are dying, Rebbetzin.”

Again, the Rebbetzin stood up. “Come,” she said. “Let’s go and ask the Rav.”

Nechami didn’t understand. Ask him what? What was the sh’eilah — was she permitted to stop Shua from learning because she wanted to take a walk? Once again, she heard the disapproving voices of the rebbetzins resounding in the darkness.

“Send those rebbetzins to me,” Rebbetzin Kloss commanded. “I’m a rebbetzin, too. I’ll talk to them.”

But just as they were about to knock on the door of the side entrance to the Rav’s study, they saw a figure quickly approaching from the end of the path.

Shua. He’d remembered. And he’d come hurrying to walk with her. To talk, to listen, and to breathe in the fragrance of the fields and the wildflowers.

She’s not on the moshav now. She’s in her office in Jerusalem, and it’s four thirty in the morning. The model is nearly ready. She backs up the file and shuts down the computer. Suddenly she’s so thirsty. She needs a diet cola right now. That’s what her stash is for. Chaya always teases her about that. She says it sounds unrefined. “Gedalya would cross out ‘stash’ and change it to ‘hiding place,’ ” she claims.

“Then it’s a good thing we’re not characters in a story in HaMehadhed,” Nechami answers. “So I can call it a stash if I want to.”

Chaya laughs. “If you were a character in one of those stories, your stash would be the least of your problems. You’d never get to vent. You’d just have to be grateful all the time. You wouldn’t even have a stash! You wouldn’t need one.”

As she climbs the flight and a half to her apartment, Nechami muses on the paradox. Can a person be happy if someone is someone is drawing a red X on their natural feelings and writing in positive feelings instead? Would she want to be a character in a story, always happy even if artificially so, or would she rather be her living, breathing self, feeling bad sometimes and even — gasp — complaining?

The paradox looms larger when she pulls the pile of kitchen towels back and finds nary a can of cola there. There are three bars of chocolate, but she doesn’t want chocolate now. She wants to find cola here, where she left it. She wants her needs to be honored. She wants him not to take anything from here, and if he must take it, she wants him not to forget to replace it. This isn’t just a treat for her. When she works into the small hours of the night, she needs that caffeine; it’s critical. And she’s explained this to him so many times.

But he’s forgotten again.

But Mrs. Bernfeld, those murky figures shout at her from the darkness, if Shua were an engineer or an architect, he would still take things from your stash and forget to replace them! Don’t blame it on his learning! Be happy that it’s the zechus of Torah that makes him forget!

But my dear nashim tzidkanios, she shouts back at them, if Shua were a working man, I could get upset with him. I could say, you got so involved in your work that you forgot about me? I take second place to your job?!

In the silence, she puts on her shoes and her coat. She goes out to the nearest vending machine and buys three cans of diet cola, and two bottles of fruit juice for good measure.

In silence, she returns home and stashes the drinks behind the towels. The first rays of dawn are pushing their way over the horizon, breaking into a thousand little sparks on the wall.

to be continued…

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 867)

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