It seems that many readers missed the essence of the story
For 68 weeks, we met every week at the back of the magazine, as I shared the story of Light Years Away. Throughout that time, I’ve heard feedback — complaints and compliments, questions and criticism. With the story’s conclusion last week, I got accusations. That it ended too abruptly, that there is no closure, that it needs at least 20 more chapters, that no real writer would end a story this way.
And I felt a dull, aching sadness.
Not just because I thought I’d tied up all the ends nicely, over the course of about ten carefully planned chapters, yet all my efforts were lost on these disappointed readers. But because it seems that many readers missed the essence of the story.
If, after a whole story about people coming to new realizations, people becoming more attuned to each other, more accepting of each other and of their own realities, a story of people learning to rethink and reinvent their relationships, never giving up on connecting with those they love, I could still get such strident feedback, then perhaps it’s time for the magazine to print stories of another kind. Stories that are in sharp focus, clear and decisive. Stories where everything is black and white!! With lots of exclamation points!!! And a definitive ending, with all the bad guys dead!!! But before they die, they should say Vidui! Out loud! And regret everything they did! And all the good guys should live happily ever after!!! And then the story should end, exactly where you want it to!!! Not a moment before, and not a moment after!!!
But as for the present situation, Light Years Away, which was initially mapped out as 60 chapters, is over. And the author proudly admits that she doesn’t know how to write stories where everything is tightly wrapped up in a neat shiny bow and it’s perfectly clear which character is the good guy (and he dances for joy all day in his living room) and which is the bad guy (who is headed for big trouble).
What can I tell you? I don’t know how to write stories that end with a perfect shining moment of total clarity and peace. How is that even possible? There will always be conversations that didn’t take place, words that haven’t yet been said, thoughts that none of the protagonists have thought yet. The only way to end a story decisively is to have all the characters die. Kill them all by some natural disaster. As long as they’re living, things will continue changing in their lives, and they will always be in the middle of their journey.
They won’t yet have decided if they can handle moving to the place their husband is drawn to.
They won’t yet be certain of their way, of the religious character they want for their home. Or what kind of school is right for their daughter.
They’ll still be struggling to balance their innate rigidity with the needs of their spunky daughter, who doesn’t mind going to her cousin’s bar mitzvah with a swollen, surgically implanted ear (with a fluorescent pink earplug, no less) and one earring on her natural ear.
And even if they manage to listen to their son attentively and acceptingly, they’ll still have reservations about his life choices. And he’ll still drive them crazy. You can count on Dudi for that.
A story isn’t a cake with clear boundaries; it’s an endless stream of life. And when you cut it, there will always be raw edges. That’s the whole beauty of a story — we don’t know where life will lead the protagonists after the knife cuts and the words “The End” appear. We’re simply left hoping they will all live happily ever after.
Many questions and comments came in over the course of the last 60-plus weeks. Now that the story has concluded, I’ll address a few of your frequently asked questions:
Was the story meant to be longer, but the editors pressured you to end it prematurely?
No. It was actually meant to be completed in 60 chapters, with events beginning in autumn, continuing through the winter, and ending in the spring. The winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, was planned to come mid-story, and the vernal equinox, when the hours of daylight and darkness are equal, would coincide with the end.
The final chapter, as planned in my story outline, was to take place in Iyar at Beri Bernfeld’s bar mitzvah and to include the following events: “Tovi comes to the bar mitzvah, even though her ear looks swollen and ugly. Gedalya suggests that she might prefer not to come. She tells him she has no problem with having a problem. Nechami’s key chain breaks. She mentions to Shua that he bought it for her, and he can’t believe or remember it. He takes out a necklace designed as Yerushalayim shel zahav.
“ ‘The Torah always gave you what you wanted. I couldn’t compete with its light,’ she says.
“ ‘You don’t come second,’ he tells her, ‘and it’s not possible to pursue light. There’s no need to, either. It surrounds us, don’t you sense that?’ ”
In the five preceding chapters, according to my outline, the following threads are tied up: “Moishy Shpinder is very sure of what he wants. Nechami to Chaya: the moon. Hashem didn’t diminish it. He told her to go and diminish herself. That’s not a punishment. It’s a necessary shift of consciousness for anyone who wants to grow. To learn to move aside. To receive light from others. For Gedalya, to accept the fundraising. For Dudi, to accept other people’s opinions even when it’s hard, and for his mother, to accept him.”
The story ended up longer than my original outline; I needed 68 chapters to cover the entire plot. But the end was planned ahead, it wasn’t premature. True, it wasn’t an “everything must go” clearance sale. If anything, a lot of merchandise was still on the shelves…. But that was always the plan.
How is Tovi viewed by her classmates when she returns to school after her surgery?
The same way she views herself: a lively, funny, charming girl. As the story says, people don’t choose friends based on how many ears they have. It would be reasonable to assume that at first the girls will stare at her and gossip about her, and that the bolder girls will ask some questions about her condition. And then they’ll all move on. By the time they’ll start high school — two years after the story ends — Tovi’s surgery won’t be a big deal anymore.
Why were the avreichim (Shua and Gedalya) portrayed as bad guys, and the working man (Dudi) as a good guy?
First of all, may I point out that Gedalya works? Working as the rabbinical reviewer at a frum newspaper, holy though the job may be, is still a job. Gedalya may be a wonderfully spiritual man, but he doesn’t spend three sedorim in the beis medrash.
But to get to the real point of the question, no one in the story was portrayed as good or bad. They were simply portrayed, living their lives and thinking their thoughts. Their goodness or lack thereof was in the eye of the beholder. For proof, look no further than the contradictory feedback I got. Some claimed that Dudi and Yaffa’le were portrayed in too favorable a light, and “it’s not right to portray the ‘rebels’ as so successful,” while others thought Dudi and Yaffa’le were made to look bad: “You’re tarnishing their image just because their lifestyle is more modern, and it’s not true! They could be wonderful people!”
There was another response that I simply disagreed with. It claimed that the portrayal of the kollel couple’s home was feeble, that it lacked vibrancy. I beg to differ. The Bernfelds’ home is sweet, glowing with light and romance. True, Shua and Nechami came a long way to get to the point where they began to feel it — marriage needs to be worked on day after day, whether you’re a kollel couple or not. But to readers who didn’t see that glow in the chapters depicting Shua and Nechami’s present-day life, all I can say is, go back and reread them.
Look at Shua, hurrying to buy soda cans for Nechami’s “secret stash” at seven in the morning. Going for walks with her on the moshav. Buying her a weird necklace in the Old City. Walking her to the bus stop when she has a business meeting on a bein hazmanim morning, just to have some time together. And waiting for her in that dirty little corridor at Beri’s bar mitzvah while a nephew goes to call her from the women’s side. To my mind, that is so much more wonderful, beautiful, pure, and uplifting than a husband who buys his wife costly gifts and takes her to a five-star hotel.
Working men’s wives are left home alone at night with the children, too — not only kollel wives.
True. Of course. But the challenge depicted in the story wasn’t the challenge of “a woman left to deal with everything alone.” Nechami’s opponent in her struggle wasn’t her husband, the dedicated lamdan. And she wasn’t struggling against the Torah. She was at war with herself, as many sharp-eyed readers perceived.
When the diamond dealer’s wife wonders whether to call him home because she needs help with bedtime, she has to decide whether it’s worth bothering him while he’s working, or out socializing with friends. If her husband is traveling for business, or if he’s a shochet working abroad, there’s nothing she can do to bring him home at the moment. But when Nechami thinks of calling Shua home from the beis medrash, knowing that he doesn’t plan to come home until 1 a.m., it gets much more complicated. She finds herself in a whirlpool of aspirations, needs, desires, dreams, mitzvos, and values. The story is about Nechami’s whirlpool, how she got into it and out of it. It’s not about a woman left to cope at home alone.
Why did you make Nechami so miserable? Her husband is a talmid chacham — she should be dancing for joy.
That was the advice some readers offered to the young Nechami of the past. They argued that it isn’t right to depict a kollel wife going through hard times. It might discourage young women from marrying a serious learner. The right way to depict a woman privileged to be married to a husband like that is as constantly joyous, reveling in her good fortune.
A young woman coping with difficult situations isn’t always dancing for joy. The fact that she chose a certain way of life and fervently desires to stay on that path doesn’t make it easy. The boy she’s married to, at 20 or 23 years old, also has a way to go before he becomes a talmid chacham, before the Torah refines his middos. He may not be the perfect husband. She’s allowed to find it hard. She’ll grow from it, learn to calibrate herself, to absorb and reflect his light.
From real-life wives of kollel men, mainly from the chassidish world, which the story focuses on and which is somewhat different from kollel life in the litvish sector, I received warm responses. These women identified with Nechami’s experience to the point of tears. That’s exactly what it’s like, they said. And exactly how it was in the early years. Thank you for telling our story. Thank you for showing that light, fast as it travels, can take time to arrive. Maybe months, maybe years. And even after it comes, things can still be a little hard, and that’s all right. We’re not living in North Korea, where everyone has to be content, and declare it (or else).
My favorite response was from a kollel wife who said she identified with Nechami’s description of the most precious thing in the physical world — an hour of bein hazmanim! Yes, indeed, my sister. Isn’t it the truth?
It’s not fair that you ruined everything for Dudi.
Nothing was ruined for Dudi. Maybe it was all set straight. Dudi will go on to publish his science textbook after Gedalya’s meticulous review, and he’ll be successful and find a good job. At the same time, yes, he and Yaffa’le will have some deep and serious work to do, clarifying their expectations and committing to common goals. They’re both changing and evolving, and the glue that bonded them three years earlier in their youthful ardor is slowly going to dissolve unless they do some solid building to reinforce it. But have no fear, Dudi will find his place somewhere between the world of his youth and this new world he’s entered, and he’ll continue striving, like all the others.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 913)
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