Her son looks at her directly. He’d gone to speak with his father, not with her. He’d intentionally come while she was out
When I take out the protective earplug, I hear sounds from an unfamiliar place. I can’t explain it to regular people — it’s weird. Until now, I heard everything through my bone-anchored device. Now sounds are coming into my ear, and I need to process them in a whole different way. I’ve noticed that I’m wrinkling my forehead as I try to understand what people are saying to me, like some professor. I guess it’ll take time to get used to this new way of hearing.
Before I leave the house, I always slip an earplug into my ear — a bright fluorescent pink one. Dr. Barclay warned me not to go out to any public place without an earplug until my hearing canal is completely healed. At the clinic they offered me a choice of these bright-colored earplugs or plain, ugly beige ones. Abba almost took the ugly beige ones.
He looks at me now. “Are you sure you want to come to the bar mitzvah?” he asks.
He’s hesitant. My stitches are showing, and there’s still some swelling. My new ear is still a bit purplish-red, though it’s slowly taking on my normal skin tone. And that crazy pink earplug.
Ima won’t be there with me at the bar mitzvah, she’s staying home, probably because we’re going to have a new baby soon. I hope it won’t have microtia like me. Last night, Chaim’ke told me he wouldn’t mind another brother or sister with microtia, as long as it won’t be a pain in the neck like me. I answered him back, and we both enjoyed it. Ten days without fighting with Chaim’ke had been very long. This felt much better.
Now Abba wants to know if I really want to go to the bar mitzvah. Of course I do. How could I skip Beri Bernfeld’s bar mitzvah? He was my best friend until he started high school and started feeling too grown up and important to talk to me. I’ll be the guest of honor there! So why is Abba so hesitant, anyway?
“Would you rather I didn’t come?” I ask him, a bit cautiously.
“Chas v’chalilah,” he says. “If I were in your place, I might prefer to stay home, but you’re your own person and you should do what works for you. If you want to come, and you feel you’ll have a good time, I’ll be happy to take you.”
I know what he means to say — he means he’s proud of me.
Leah asks someone to go to the men’s side and call her youngest son. She can’t wait any longer, she must speak with him now. She steps into the narrow corridor between the women’s and men’s halls, by the entrance to the kitchen, and waves him over.
“I heard you dropped by today, Dudi, while I was out helping Nechami with the cakes.”
“Yes.” Her son looks at her directly. He’d gone to speak with his father, not with her. He’d intentionally come while she was out.
She knows that all is not well with him at home. Ever since he and Yaffa’le returned from their respective travels, the tension has been mounting. But no one tells her anything. Dudi prefers to consult with his father. Not with her.
From the few scattered words she picked up, she gathers that Avital was not accepted to their neighborhood gan, which belongs to the Shaarei Tevunah network. Yaffa’le wants to send her to the religious public-school gan. Dudi isn’t sure he wants that. The other city-sponsored gan is too far away, and they’ll have a long list of rules and regulations that Yaffa’le won’t want to keep.
Of course, this isn’t just about gan. It’s really a bigger question — what sort of school will they want to send their daughter to? What path do they see themselves taking?
But Dudi doesn’t ask for her opinion. He doesn’t care what she thinks. Only his father’s opinion counts. She, who worked so hard raising him, who poured her heart and soul into him, is left on the sidelines.
“Why are you leaving me out of your life, Dudi?” she asks.
“Because I can’t handle your disappointment, Ima,” he says. He looks away, looks at the floor.
“Just talk to me, tell me what’s going on. I won’t be disappointed,” she declares.
A waiter tells her to get out of the way. He’s carrying a tray loaded with pitchers of fruit drink. A drop of sweet orange stuff lands on her.
“You’ll be upset,” Dudi insists. “You’ll yell at me, and then I’ll answer back, we’ll both say things that we’ll regret… who needs it?”
“I’ll listen. I want to hear you out.”
He tells her.
She doesn’t know what’s going to be with this couple. They’re walking a very thin tightrope. But as long as her son is standing here with her in this cramped passageway, sharing his hopes and fears between cartons of rolls from the caterer, she allows herself to hope. She swallows her dreams and her wishes and lowers the bar… and she just listens to her child. And nods.
Saba Bernfeld stands up and begins to speak. He mentions Rabi Akiva, and suddenly Shua jumps in his chair with a little gasp.
Yerushalayim shel zahav!
The what-do-you-call-it, the necklace he bought for Nechami! He forgot it!
He waits until the end of the derashah, shakes his father’s hand, and thanks him. He looks to his right and his left. Who can he send to their house, a seven-minute walk from here, to bring the little package? Maybe he should just wait and give it to her when they get home. She’s probably already wearing another necklace, anyway.
“What’s the matter?” Moishy Shpinder, his young brother-in-law, claps him on the shoulder. “You need something?”
“Yes, umm… a small package I forgot at home.”
“Let me run there and get it for you.” Moishy doesn’t ask what or who, he’s up and running, ready to do whatever needs to be done. Trust him, Shua thinks, he’ll probably even find someone to take him by car, and be back in five minutes instead of fifteen.
“Just give me the code to the front door and explain to me how to find this package,” Moishy says.
Ten minutes later, it’s in Shua’s hand. In the shul hall where they’re celebrating the bar mitzvah of Beri, their third precious son.
“Shua’s looking for you,” says a red-faced nephew to Nechami. “He’s out there, near the kitchen.”
Waiters hurry through the passage with loaded platters. Blintzes and fish. Big disposable pans, a hot oven, the kitchen manager shooting out orders. A plate breaks. Shua stands, waiting for her, a small bag in his hand, and a box.
“What’s going on?” Nechami asks.
“This is for you,” says her husband. He’s glowing.
She’s surprised. “What, you bought that just now?”
“No, I bought it a few days ago. I meant to give it to you before we left the house, but I forgot.”
The table next to them is smeared with some greasy sauce. Nechami moves the bag to keep it clean. She opens the box.
He watches anxiously. “Is it nice? Do you like it?”
“It’s the most beautiful present…” Her voice catches in her throat. “The most beautiful present anyone ever received,” she says, and she means every word. In the background is a shul kitchen, aromas of mushroom sauce and potato kugel filling the air. “It’s meant to be a Yerushalayim shel zahav, like Rabi Akiva gave to Rachel, right?”
“Yes,” he says. “But… you’re already wearing a different necklace.”
She takes off her white gold necklace. She doesn’t care what all her guests will say. She opens the clasp and encloses her neck in something of a very different style — a wall of gold, little houses and tiny, sparkling stones.
Long ago, Yeshayahu comforted Yerushalayim in her mourning. He promised that Hashem would make her gates of garnets and line her border with precious gems.
“In Bava Basra, it says that the angels in Heaven argued about which gems would be used,” her talmid chacham tells her, amid the waiters and the mushroom sauce and the sticky floor. “Shoham, or yashpeh. Chassidishe teachings say that they were actually asking what kind of light Hashem would reveal to us when the Geulah comes — direct light, or reflected light?”
A passing waiter grumbles about this family, how they keep coming out here to talk and how they block the way. Nechami doesn’t hear him. Right now, she’s a yashpeh, a shining stone. Reflecting light. She looks at him, this absentminded, rail-thin, glowing avreich, and she can’t imagine any greater happiness than this. And she knows that even if there is, she doesn’t need it. She has enough.
“And how does the argument end?” she asks, putting her white gold necklace in the bag, ready to go back to receiving her guests.
“Hashem promises both. K’din uch’din. The Geulah will come both ways — as ohr mekif and ohr chozer, as an encompassing light all around us, and as reflected light that we’re capable of containing. When the Geulah comes, Nechami, there will be no contradictions. All opposites will come together in harmony.”
Ima’s friends crowd around Chaya. “So what’s the story, Chaya’le?” someone asks. “Can they start planning a welcome party for you in Neve Tzinobarim? My Shoshi was so happy to hear you’d be coming.”
“Not yet,” Chaya replies, cooling their enthusiasm.
She doesn’t bother going into detail. She doesn’t know what they’ll do in the end. Right now, she just can’t see it. She knows that many other kollel wives are living there very happily, that it’s a friendly place. But she still doesn’t feel she can make the move. Perhaps one day she’ll feel she can. And maybe by that time Moishy won’t want to anymore. She closes her eyes for half a second, then opens them and changes the subject.
The last of the guests have gone. Tired and happy, the Bernfelds load all the seforim, Beri’s bar mitzvah presents, into the taxi’s trunk. Nechami’s sons go back and forth merrily, carrying stacks and sets of seforim and piling them in. Shua glances at his watch in that way of his that means just one thing.
“You have a late shiur tonight?” Nechami asks, reading him like an open book.
“How did you know?” He looks like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Yes, I mean, there’s a shiur in the Kollel Chatzos at Milkov, and I thought… maybe….” His voice grows faint. Yossi is asleep in the stroller. Sari and Yehudit are spinning in circles. “But I’m sure you want me to come home and help out.”
She wants? Of course. And she wants other things, too. She wants it all. She used to think she was in a hopeless competition for his heart. The Torah, unbound by time, had gotten there first. Now, she’s no longer in second place, running to keep up. She’s not chasing after the light. The light envelops her, envelops them together. She knows it.
“So what do you say?”
On a quiet street, on a warm night, she makes her choice. Once again.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 912)
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