| Light Years Away |

Light Years Away: Chapter 39  

At the family meeting that night, Yoeli had explained to them all that no, they couldn’t send out pictures of Tovi. That was off limits for Gedalya



ow do we know that time passes?”

Nechami’s about to enter the building when suddenly Ruti materializes right behind her. Who is letting this woman wander around at this time of night?

“Entropy,” Ruti answers her own question. “Light and sound waves spread out. Chemical changes take place in the brain. Why? You call them memories, don’t you? But why? Just because?”

“Time passes because that’s what time does,” Nechami answers, trying once again, in vain, to have a rational exchange with this woman.

“No!” Ruti is happily triumphant, like a little girl. “The trajectory of time is dynamic. The future already happened. We’re getting younger all the time. Maybe. And therefore, I say everything is fine. We forget what we knew before.”

“No.” Nechami argues forcefully. She has to. “We’re getting older all the time. The future didn’t happen yet. We don’t forget it, Ruti, we just don’t know it, because it hasn’t happened.”

“The future already was. The future is present,” Ruti says, stretching a hand out to indicate some imaginary point.

Nechami follows the gesture with her eyes. She sees nothing there but a neighbor’s laundry hung out across the street. Unmatched sheets on a squeaky line, and a semi-legal building extension.

“The past is what will be. It’s all in the same space. Do you hear what I’m saying?”


At the family meeting that night, Yoeli had explained to them all that no, they couldn’t send out pictures of Tovi. That was off limits for Gedalya. And in fact, they couldn’t send out an appeal for donations in any sort of public forum.

“Only one-on-one,” he said, and for the umpteenth time, Nechami imagined a flute accompanying his musical voice. Only one, la la, on one, la, la…

“Dignity and privacy are very important,” one of Shifra’s brothers commented. “But sometimes pictures and information are what persuade people to give.” Both of Shifra’s brothers were paupers. Everyone knew that, and the brothers themselves said as much when it came time to set fundraising goals. Each of them took upon himself to raise ten thousand shekels.

“If you’ve got a really big donor,” said Yoeli, “let’s say someone who’s willing to give the whole amount you’re aiming for, you can show them pictures of Tovi and documents as verification. But only show, don’t distribute or publicize them.”

Only show, don’t distribute, Nechami played on her imaginary flute. She wished she could speak like that, slowly, with a lilting melody. La, la, la.

“Reb Duvid, if you’ve got a really big donor,” said their brother Tzvi over the speaker connection from Antwerp, “Can you hear me? If you’ve got such a big donor, we’re going to raise your goal to twenty thousand right now.”

He could afford to be jolly. He’d taken on forty thousand — a mere ten thousand in euros. He’d invite all of his father-in-law’s elderly shtibel friends to a fundraising tea. And if that didn’t do it, his mother-in-law would happily make a seven-layer cake and invite her friends from the Tehillim group. For what did his shver and shvigger have such a nice milchig china set, if not to raise a few thousand euros for Tovi’s operation?

Nechami’s new cordless phone trilled. She’d chosen the prettiest ringtone, and none of her offspring had permission to change it. When you get married and you’re in your own house, with your own phone, you can choose the ringtone you want, she told them firmly whenever she caught them playing with the settings.

“Why don’t you answer it?” said Dudi. He wanted to get the interruption over with and finish the meeting already, with solid decisions.

“Wait a second,” Nechami said. “I want to hear the tune.”

Dudi laughed. “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, right?”

“Right. Winter.”

The number on the screen was unfamiliar, and curiosity made her pick up the phone, cutting off the winter melody mid-phrase. Her Beri was on the line.

“Ima,” he said in a whisper. “Help.”


  • ••

With some children, it’s easy to see where their traits come from. Like her Bentzi, for example, the eldest, the protective, hyper-responsible one. Bentzi, who told her this morning that he thinks he should put off marriage until he’s about 22.

“Because if I get married young and I have kids, I’ll have to take care of them and raise them, and then I won’t be able to learn in peace.”

She’d stood there facing him, pretending she was calmly making him a peanut butter sandwich, pretending her hands weren’t shaking. Maybe she was imagining things. Or it was just theoretical. Maybe it was just one of her neighbor Ruti’s disconnected thoughts. It wasn’t really happening. The bechor she’d nurtured and raised, the teenager who took way too much responsibility on himself, wasn’t really standing there telling her he was afraid to get married. Because when he was little, he’d seen her sink to the floor in a faint. He’d been so worried, he’d tapped on her head with a schnitzel hammer to revive her. And after that, any time he saw her lying on the floor — even if she was just checking the pipes under the sink — he’d get anxious.

“Chanochi grew up in the same house,” Shua like to tell her whenever she voiced this guilt and fear. “He was also an older brother to all his younger siblings. And baruch Hashem, he’s not like that at all. He’s even more absentminded than I was.”

That was true. It was hard to surpass Shua in absentmindedness, but Chanochi had managed to do it.

“So don’t worry,” her husband said, wrapping the matter up neatly. “It’s not anything you did wrong. Every child has his own inborn traits, that’s all.”

But she does worry.

And now Beri, her third son, is on the phone. A hesitant combination of both his parents. A child who doesn’t yet know who he is, and soon they’ll be celebrating his bar mitzvah.

“Ima,” he says in a whisper. “Help! I’m calling from the grocery. I can’t get home. Two big cats are fighting — they’re blocking the way to our street. They’re howling and snarling, and I can’t…”

“I’m coming,” she says.

Nechami only has to walk for ten seconds to reach him. He was right; the cats are really intimidating tonight — huge, snarling tomcats, brandishing their teeth and claws, fighting at the narrow entrance to their street.


Meow! Meow! Meow!

She looks around for a suitable stick. There’s one — good thing they live on a neglected side street, there’s always a discarded board or chair post lying around.

“Kishta!” she shouts in a stage whisper, waving her weapon at the furry brutes, commanding them to leave and let her son through unopposed.

Nechami always becomes a different person when she has to defend home and loved ones from members of the animal kingdom. As a young mother, she would go berserk if a cockroach ever appeared on their premises, which didn’t happen often because the insects prefer more humid areas. But on the few occasions when one of them ventured into her territory, she’d transform into a killer, striking the creature dead and removing it from the house in a dustpan. Only when it was safely in the dumpster would she revert to her normal self, a loving mother of three or four little ones.

“And there was no neighbor passing by,” Beri explains, gulping air into his lungs. “I had to go to the grocery and ask to use their phone to call you… and I was afraid that by the time you came, the cats would be gone, and I’d be bothering you for nothing.”

“It wasn’t for nothing,” she reassures him. “Alley cats really can be scary sometimes. Even for a boy who’s almost bar mitzvah. I even know of adults who are scared of them.”

“Yes, but if you came out and there was nothing here,” he says, still anxious, “it would be like I called you and made you come out for no reason.”

“You called me because there was a need,” she repeats patiently. “And I came because you’re my son, and you’re very important to me. Even if the cats were already gone, I’d still be happy you called me.”

He looks at her. And slowly, he begins to calm down.


  • ••


Earlier, Dudi had been sitting back on her living room couch, opening an Excel file.

“I’m using this technology l’sheim yichud mitzvas tzedakah,” he said. “Don’t tell Gedalya, of course. Let him think we used nothing but pen and paper here. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”

The possible answers to that question were too complicated, and as usual, Nechami preferred to keep silent.

“Gedalya hasn’t given up on my chinuch,” Dudi went on. “He thinks I’m a writer in his paper, and he can censor who I quote from! Today he told me I should start quoting the Chazon Ish and the Avnei Nezer instead of Einstein and Descartes. Can you picture it?”

Dudi had a few minutes alone with his sister, and he relished the chance to chat freely before the others arrived, although they were interrupted several times by the appearance of a little girl in pajamas or a teenager with his head in the clouds. (Chanochi! I said get to bed! You’ll be too tired in the morning to get up for Rebbi Gavriel’s minyan! Yes, I know Beri isn’t even home yet! He’s out at his friend’s siyum!)

“You could consider adjusting your quotes to the person you’re speaking with,” Nechami suggested cautiously. She knew Dudi was fed up with preaching and couldn’t take any more. “If you’re talking with Gedalya, for example, or with Ima, there’s really no need to quote medieval German philosophers.”

“Descartes was French, and he was from the Renaissance era,” Dudi informed her. “And what do you want me to do, anyway — lie to them?”

“No, but you can tell them aspects of the truth that don’t cause them pain. Why go out of your way to hurt them?”

“They need to understand how to live and let live. If I’ve chosen a certain way of life, it doesn’t mean I want to hurt them. What does hurting them even have to do with it? Did I ever try to tell them how to live?”

A few delicate knocks on the door announced Yoeli and his wife. They’d put their kids to bed at her parents’ house. When Yaffa’le arrived a moment later, Shifra’s brothers were already at the bottom of the stairs. And last came Shua, hurrying in with two seforim under his arm and a plastic bag holding his notes. Nechami and her sisters-in-law sat on the couch, and the men took seats around the table. With Yoeli acting as chairman, the meeting began.


  • ••

There’s no other G-d, Gedalya had once shouted at Dudi. They’d almost come to blows. That was back in the days when they really used to fight, after Ima found out about Dudi’s secular studies.

There’s more than one way to arrive at gilui Shechinah, Dudi said.

Your way isn’t one of them, Gedalya was sure.

Long ago, when Dudi was only three, and Gedalya was the one to put him to bed because Ima had a job in a store, they used to sing Adon Olam together every night.

And sometimes Dudi would fall asleep before they came to bli reishis, bli sachlis, v’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah.

And sometimes he’d fall asleep before they sang v’Hu echad, v’ein sheini, l’hamshil lo l’hachbirah.

But as his eyes slowly closed, he almost always stayed awake long enough to sing v’Hu hayah, v’Hu hoveh, v’Hu yihyeh b’sifarah.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 883)

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