Light Years Away: Chapter 60| March 22, 2022
"As long as I consider him my rav, I can’t go against what he says — and he put his signature on a letter against Gemara learning for women”
“No, don’t say it,” Chaya pleads. She picks up the garbage bag on her way out and touches the mezuzah with the other hand.
“I will say it,” Moishy says.
“Please don’t,” she says, crossing the threshold. He’s right behind her, heading out to second seder. She puts the garbage down next to the wall, opens her handbag and takes out her key.
“Did they land yet?” he asks, picking up the bag she put down. “Let me take this.”
“Yes, they landed,” she says, locking the door, stroking the nameplate she made herself. “Shpinder,” it says. She follows him down half a flight.
Weissbrod’s kids are screaming, as usual.
Moishy is saying something. “What? I can’t hear you,” Chaya says. She bends down to pick up an empty potato chip bag someone dropped on the stairs, running her hand over a broken tile on the wall as she reaches down.
“You heard me,” he says. He won’t let her pretend. “I want to move to Neve Tzinobarim. How do you feel about that?”
They go down another flight in the old, rundown building and she’s still quiet. It takes time for her to confess the truth.
“I don’t want to move there.”
“Okay, that’s one hesped off the roster at my levayah,” Chaya greets Nechami from her seat on the bus to Beit Shemesh.
People are getting on at every stop. The driver waits patiently for them all to climb in. To pull out their bus cards. To figure out how to fold their strollers.
Nechami smiles into her phone. “Good afternoon to you, too.”
“No, I meant it for real. I said ‘no’ to Moishy. I told him I didn’t want to move there. Now nobody will be able to say at my levayah that I always put my husband first.”
“What is it with him and that place in nowhere’s land?”
Nechami’s indignation rises on her sister’s behalf. Moishy Shpinder, you wanted only Yerushalayim, your parents wouldn’t budge an inch, they had to have an apartment in Yerushalayim, Chaya committed to a huge mortgage so you could live in Yerushalayim. So what’s all this now about Neve Tzinobarim?
“He has some good friends who are moving there,” she whispers. “And a rosh kollel promising him a bigger monthly stipend, and a derech in learning that appeals to him. And the housing is so much cheaper. We could make it through the month without my having to work so hard.”
She wishes the bus would get out of the city already, out onto the open road, so she can lean her head on the window, close her eyes, see only blackness.
“And what did you say?” Nechami asks.
“I said I was really sorry, but I just couldn’t imagine myself living there.”
“And what did he say?”
“He didn’t. We left it at that.” She gulps, hard. “He went to kollel, and I got on the bus to Beit Shemesh.”
“So why are you crying?” Nechami wants to know.
Chaya doesn’t even know why, herself. Why is she sitting on a bus, on her way to Shifra, choking back tears?
“I’ll never be the perfect wife, Nechami. It’s much harder than I thought. I just want him to want the same things I want, so I’ll never have to negotiate.”
Nechami spreads vanilla cream on one layer of cake. Mocha cream on the second layer.
Chaya sniffles. “I was up all night working for a very annoying client. In the morning I had to be in class, and before that I had a huge pile of ironing to do. I fell asleep just when Moishy came back from davening and woke up after he went out again to kollel, and I don’t even know what he took with him to eat. I’m totally exhausted, and this is before I even have one kid. I’ll never survive as a mother at this rate, no way.”
“That’s just your fatigue talking,” Nechami tries to reassure her.
“No, it’s not.”
“I’m going to get off the phone, so you can sleep. Get a half-hour nap in, so you’ll have koach to help Shifra.”
“He’s always wanting things, Nechami,” Chaya says.
“Ah.” Shua hardly ever wanted anything.
Nechami was a young mother. Of three. Maybe four. She can’t remember exactly how the living room looked, much as she tries. Was it before the renovation, or after? Shua was dancing with Chanochi and Bentzi, two delighted preschoolers, in a little circle.
“Ashreichem, talmidei chachamim,” he sang. “You see what a nice song they composed for us?”
She saw him. Saw how happy he was. He was able to spend his whole day doing something he loved. His favorite thing. She wanted a taste of that magic, too. So he tried to figure out some way to fit it in — his schedule was crowded. He gave her a few minutes, in the morning after the kids were all sent out, or in the evening, at the kitchen table.
She didn’t tell anyone that her husband was teaching her, explaining to her what he was learning. It was a secret, a kitchen table secret. Oxen gored cows, a wayward cow escaped from the paddock. Paid and unpaid guardians were deliberately negligent. And she drank in every word with joy and light.
How well she remembers that evening. The day before, the guardian had hidden the money that was left with him for safeguarding. He’d put it in a tzrifa d’orbani.
“It’s a sort of little hut,” Shua had explained. “Bird hunters build it out of willow branches, to hide in. Thieves don’t come to a place like that, because they wouldn’t expect to find money there. But a fire could break out there.”
She never did find out what happened to the money.
Shua ate his usual bread, with his usual hummus. And a tomato.
“Could you tell me about your learning now?” she’d asked, after he’d bentshed.
“No. I…” He looked up at her forlornly.
“You’re not up to it today?” She was disappointed. The house was a mess. Sari, plump and content in her bouncer on the floor, was cooing at them.
“No, it’s not that.”
“Well, what, then?” Nechami asked.
“I… I’m really sorry… but I can’t.”
She forced the reason out of him. A group of feminist activists had recently, with much fanfare, started a midrashah for women to learn Gemara. They’d gone about it in the most provocative manner, like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It was only a matter of time until a public letter of protest would be issued. And it hadn’t taken long.
“But what does our private learning have to do with that midrashah?!” Nechami was indignant. “It’s nothing official, nothing provocative. We just sit here for a bit, and you explain to me what you’re learning…”
“I didn’t just sit here, Nechami,” Shua said morosely. “I was teaching you Gemara.”
“But that was okay! You wouldn’t do something assur!”
“Yes. But now Rav Baruch signed the letter. Rav Baruch. My rav.”
“The letter against the midrashah!” Nechami said pointedly.
“He didn’t mean it for us.”
“I don’t know exactly who he did or didn’t mean. But as long as I consider him my rav, I can’t go against what he says — and he put his signature on a letter against Gemara learning for women.”
Perhaps that money is still sitting there in that little hut of willow branches built by fowl hunters. A fire never broke out there, a thief never came to steal it. Now, in hindsight, after all these years, she suspects that maybe Shua was just tired of explaining everything to her, and that letter served as a good excuse. Or maybe there were other reasons.
But she was young, and easily hurt. She wanted. And he didn’t.
She doesn’t tell any of this to Chaya. That evening, after the children are in bed, she looks out the window, searching for something. She doesn’t find it. The neighborhood is too crowded, the streetlights are too bright, and the moon, waned to a crescent now, is hardly visible, especially at this early hour of the night.
She goes out, to her special spot near Davidka Square, and walks among the potted flowers. She lifts her eyes to the heavens. She must find it. She doesn’t.
Her phone rings. “Ima?” It’s her almost-bar-mitzvah boy, excited. “I saw you made the special layer cake I love for my bar mitzvah. Thanks so much! Can I take what’s left around the edges of the pan?”
“Sure,” she says.
“Where are you?” he asks curiously.
“In the street.”
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for the moon.”
He laughs. Surely his mother is joking. “Where?”
“On Rechov Yaffo. But I can’t find it.”
“It’s very thin now, it’s the end of the month,” her son explains. “Maybe over at Kikar Safra you’ll be able to see it.”
She starts walking toward Kikar Safra. But there’s no need — suddenly, off to one side in the dark sky, she sees a glowing sliver.
“He didn’t want to diminish you,” she says to the moon, says to herself.
She has no more strength left to say it to her sister. Maybe Chaya will learn it on her own. Maybe everyone has to learn such things for himself. He wanted you to go and diminish yourself. To learn, by a shift of consciousness, how to surrender. To bow your head. To learn when to wax, when to wane. To be a receptacle for someone else’s light.
People come and go, bags full of purchases in their hands. And Nechami walks, breathing the air, in the middle of the evening, as if she doesn’t have a house full of children and a bar mitzvah in a few days. Someone in Ben Yehudah is playing on the open piano while Nechami walks and gazes at the moon.
It’s not a punishment, she knows. It’s the avodah of a lifetime, the way to become a source of light.
“So what do you think?” Chaya asks. Nechami is on her way back now, and Chaya has already updated her about the fabulous tefillin-shaped chocolate truffles she and Shifra made for the bar mitzvah. “Shifra’s not really allowed to exert herself, so she sat the whole time and told me what to do. And it’s not that cheap baking chocolate — we used the high-quality dark chocolate. With incredible fillings…”
“Thank you. You’re both wonderful. Beri’s going to be so happy, and I’m happy, too.”
Chaya gets back to the burning issue.
“So I was thinking, maybe I should just give in and tell him yes, we can move this summer to — to wherever he wants?”
Maybe Neve Tzinobarim really isn’t that bad. There are lots of women who like it there. She doesn’t have to become a faceless, nameless woman in a colorless crowd, or join the park-bench babble she despises. She can stay at home and talk with friends on the phone, or email them. And she wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of those onerous mortgage payments — they’d rent out their own sweet little apartment in Jerusalem, and that would cover the mortgage.
When Chaya thinks of their own sweet little apartment in Jerusalem, she feels a pang.
They worked so hard searching for it, fixing it up, turning it into home.
“I don’t know,” Nechami says.
“Then who does know?”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 904)
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