| Light Years Away |

Light Years Away: Chapter 48

“You want to bring him back here to put away the ice cream? But he went to learn, Nechami!”


It’s early Shabbos afternoon, and all is tranquil and silent. The moshav is sleeping. Not a cow moos, not a bird chirps.

And on the kitchen counter sits a dripping carton of ice cream. Alongside it is a disposable white bowl, stained in pink. A teaspoon. A package of nut crunch, left open. A bottle of chocolate syrup, sticky. Together, they form an artistic composition with a clear message: Chanochi Bernfeld was here, treating himself to a midday snack.

“Chanochi!” Nechami calls out, breaking the tranquil silence. Bubbling lava is rising.

“He went out to learn,” says her mother-in-law, relaxing in the living room with the Hed Kevodah. “What’s the matter? Something urgent?”


Nechami goes to the front door, opens it, descends three steps. Glances at the path, looks up and down the street. She’ll make him come back here to learn, once and for all, how to leave a kitchen after taking a serving of ice cream. More importantly, how not to leave it.

“Nechami?” Her mother-in-law is standing in the doorway, her reading glasses still on her nose, wondering what on earth is wrong. “Do you want us to send somebody to shul to call him? And can I ask what happened?”

It hasn’t happened yet, dear mother-in-law, the one who raised my dear husband. It’s going to happen, unless I stop it. Eight years from now, a young woman will have a husband who’ll constantly be leaving messes in her kitchen. He won’t close the fridge. He’ll leave bags of pretzels open. He’ll leave apple cores and peach pits, plates, cups, and tissues on the arms of the sofa. The poor young woman will probably sit with her sisters, complaining about my failure to raise him properly.

“What happened?” her mother-in-law insists on knowing.

“Nothing major,” Nechami is forced to say, unable to think of a quick cover story. Some people are so smooth at lying — how do their minds work? She clears her throat a bit and tells the truth. “It’s just that we… we’re working on getting Chanochi to be, um, a little more grounded, if you know what I mean… We’ve made a few rules about… things he’s supposed to remember to do, and…”

“You mean the ice cream?” Her mother-in-law is astonished. “That’s what you want him to come back for? To clean up the kitchen?”

Nechami is blushing furiously.

“You want to bring him back here to put away the ice cream? But he went to learn, Nechami!”

“I’ll clean up,” says her sister-in-law Iti kindly, getting up from the couch and dropping the obituary section where she was reading about some random elderly stranger. “You don’t need to go looking for him.”

Swiftly, Iti closes the box of nut crunch, pops it into the freezer along with the ice cream, and tosses the bowl into the garbage and the spoon into the sink. “There,” she says. “Two seconds.” She pours half a cup of soapy water onto the counter and sweeps it into the sink with a squeegee.

Nechami stands aside like a rebuked little girl. She remembers the time when she was three, and Morah Ruchama unjustly made her stand in the corner. She’d told the girls not to touch the new doll. All the girls had touched it, every single one. But Nechami was the last one. She’d plucked up the nerve too late, and she was the only one to get caught.

“A bochur who learns Torah is kodesh kodashim,” says Iti. She has three daughters, and her husband works.

“So he doesn’t need any chinuch,” Nechami says cynically. “I get it.” I’m the one who needs chinuch.

“So we’re happy to serve him,” Iti counters. “His time is precious.”

Iti runs a towel over the dry counter. “I only wish Zalmy would go and learn, and leave me alone in the house for an hour.”

Zalmy doesn’t go and learn. He works as a foreman in a factory and comes home exhausted every day. It’s been a long time since he’s opened a Gemara.

They stand there, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, looking at her accusingly.  Looking at the only woman there who holds a diamond in her hand — a husband who learns day and night — and she has the audacity to complain.

Nechami quickly regains her composure. “Don’t look at me like I’m a criminal, Iti! Chanochi has to live here on earth with everyone else. He’ll get married and have a home of his own one day!”

“It’s his wife’s job to run the house,” says the shvigger to the imaginary young kallah. “And b’ezras Hashem, she’ll be a girl who knows to be machshiv Torah. She’ll value his learning above all, and she won’t get upset if he’s deep in a sugya and leaves a few things on the counter once in a while.”

Yes, on the counter, and on the armchair, and on the couch. And a bag of clothes thrown by the front door when he returns from the mikveh on Friday afternoon. And a damp towel left to get moldy.

“He won’t even have to take ice cream out of the freezer. She’ll serve it to him,” says Iti, adding fat to the fire.

Wise Iti, who’s never cleared a blocked drain, never fixed a leaky faucet or a crooked cupboard door, and doesn’t even have to do the big weekly grocery shopping. Zalmy does that for her. And brings it all home in the car.

But Nechami keeps quiet, because suddenly she’s able to shrug off the burden of her own feelings and see things from someone else’s point of view. For the first time, she sees the envy in her sister-in-law’s eyes. And she’s startled. She has nothing to say in the face of this pain, as she looks at these two women who’ve never been left alone at home on a stormy night with three babies and a flashing, red-lettered sign in their minds, telling them that one may never disturb a man who is learning. Two women who’ve never been awakened at six in the morning by the singsong of Gemara drifting from the living room. Who’ve never seen how a man looks when he comes home from Rav Baruch’s Friday shiur.

And suddenly, it’s not about her.

She changes the subject. She asks about Esther Lelov’s latest column in Hed Kevodah, and they’re glad to share their take. After they’ve given her a summary, the three of them start discussing parental authority and the new reformulation of Alfred Adler’s psychological approach…


“Did you really fall into that trap again with my mother?”

Shua and Nechami are walking between the green fields, spotted with the last of the wild anemones and the first of the poppies, and Shua can’t understand why Nechami can’t just let go already.

“Ribbono shel Olam, you’re a big girl, Nechami. You know my mother and sisters have a thing about honoring lomdei Torah. Why do you start up with them?”

“Don’t you think it’s our job to teach Chanochi to come down to earth now and then?”

“I do think so. Very much,” Shua says firmly. “And you know what? I also wish my mother had taught me more basic life skills. I didn’t even know how to wash dishes when we got married. I didn’t know I was supposed to put my clothes in the hamper — she used to bend down and pick up my dirty socks from the floor. I was her prince.”

Yes. She remembers.

“So put it in perspective,” Shua says in a soothing voice. “Baruch Hashem, Chanochi knows to put his clothes in the hamper, and he even helps with the Shabbos cooking. Sometimes he forgets to put things away, sometimes he leaves an empty Bamba bag on the couch. That’s true. He still has some growing up to do. But my mother’s house isn’t the right place to teach him our views on menschlichkeit.”

Yes. She knows that.

Nechami clears her throat. “They’re jealous of me, you know,” she says. “They think I’m so lucky.”

“Yes,” Shua nods. “Very much.”

She understands why people once thought that Earth was at the center, and everything else revolved around it. It’s so human, so easy and natural, to take the geocentric view, to see yourself as the center, with everyone else circling around you, shining light on you, rising and setting for you.

“Especially my sister Iti,” Shua says. “She really wished… she wanted it too.”

On that Shabbos afternoon, against the clear horizon, she understands why those who argued otherwise were persecuted, why the Church banned the works of Copernicus and Kepler, why they forced Galileo to recant his heliocentric theory. It was intolerable to be told that planet Earth is just one small sphere, part of a whole system of planets that revolve around the sun, that the entire universe doesn’t spin around us humans after all.


This Shabbos, they don’t empty their pockets and venture beyond the eiruv. They take the back path back to the playground next to the shul and find their children there, having fun. Yehudit is spinning in the carousel, squealing with joy.

Then they spot a young chassidishe bochur, almost a child, suddenly dashing out the shul. His curled peyos swing as he runs toward his grandparents’ house.

“Chanochi!” Nechami calls.

“Abba, Ima.” He comes to them and stops, out of breath. “I didn’t realize you were here!”

“Where are you running to?” Nechami asks.

“Savta’s house,” he mumbles, avoiding eye contact. “I, um, forgot something there.”

“Something on the kitchen counter?” she asks.

He lowers his eyes. “Yes.” A carton that’s probably sitting in a puddle by now. A bowl, a spoon…

Shua just watches the scene. Nechami’s playing the leading role, but nobody’s given her a script. Maybe the director wants her to ad lib. Chanochi curls one of his peyos around his finger, a nervous habit of his.

“All of a sudden,” he says in a rush of words, “I mean, I was learning shnayim mikra v’echad targum… I was already at chamishi, and suddenly I remembered I left the ice cream and everything on the counter. And I was scared you’d be upset at me.” And that Savta would tell Frumet to clean up, and you’d get upset at them for letting me grow up selfish and lazy. Chanochi adroitly skips over that part. “So I closed the Chumash and started running back to clean up. Do you think the ice cream will be all melted by now?”

She wants to clasp this boy of hers to her heart, the sweet son she’s raised with her two bare hands over so many long nights. And days. She wishes she could bottle that pure gaze, pure like his father’s. And tell him how good-hearted, wonderful, smart and fine he is. And that no ice cream in the world can melt away all the good that’s in him. She wants to say she’s not upset with him at all.

But she’s speechless, and Shua takes over. “It’s all right, Chanochi. The ice cream’s already back in the freezer, and the counter is clean.”

He sends the boy back to his learning, and the scene is over. Cut.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 892)


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