“Really? You want to spend time with me? Or you just need to report back to Daddy?”
“So you’ll call us when you land, okay, Heshy?” Bernie gripped the wheel tightly. Ruchy was checking her lipstick one final time before they turned off the highway into JFK.
“Before or after the seatbelt sign goes off? Both, maybe. And then you want me to call again when I find my luggage? And again when I get to Yerushalayim?”
“Heshy.” It was a warning. Bernie scanned the signs. There it was; Terminal 4.
“Okay, Daddy, don’t worry. I’ll call you. Ma, cheer up! I’m not going to the gulag.” Heshy flashed his winning smile.
Bernie sighed. That kid had his mother in the palm of his hand.
“I’m letting you two off here.” Bernie nodded toward the curb. “You start checking in, I’ll park the car and find you.”
Ruchy was looking for her sunglasses. Sunglasses on an October night. Ridiculous. Especially because they would be seeing Heshy in about a month, if Nechama’s baby arrived on time. Bernie watched Ruchy and Heshy wrest the suitcases to the curb, then drove off to the parking lot.
Inside the terminal he found the two of them schmoozing with that easy banter he had never managed to master. Ruchy and her sunshine boy, the surprise redhead who danced through life with a spontaneity that delighted his mother and confounded his father. This whole idea of waltzing into Yerushalayim without even having a dirah set up, he’d never heard of such a thing.
The security and baggage checks went faster than he remembered and soon it was time to say goodbye. Ruchy was sniffing.
“Listen, Heshy,” Bernie leaned over. “I have two options for you for Friday night. You want to start off right. So there’s Reb Nachum — Nechama and Yechiel are actually going there this week, you can just go with them. I’ll check with him tomorrow during our chavrusashaft. Or if you want a real Yerushalmi experience, I can set something up with Reb Shayale Eisenbach — you know, the one with the kollel in Batei Ungarin, he juggled the glasses at Nechama’s wedding…”
Heshy shrugged. “It’s only Wednesday, Daddy,” he said. “I’ll figure it out when I’m there, okay?”
“By the time you land it will be late Thursday. And you have to get yourself a dirah.” Bernie’s eyebrows drew together. “At least your Shabbos meal you can plan before.”
Heshy hitched his backpack up onto his shoulders and sighed. “Okay, Daddy, so I’ll go with Nechama and Yechiel.”
“Bye, Ma.” He ducked into Ruchy’s arms, for just a second. “I’ll call you, don’t worry.”
Ruchy swallowed hard, hugged him harder. The sunglasses quivered.
“Bye, Daddy, see you soon.”
“Bye, Heshy, learn well.”
“So now you go back to the Ramban and you see how it all comes together. Niflah! Isn’t it, Reb Berish?”
Bernie turned off the speaker phone and took the phone off the receiver. “Beautiful, Reb Nachum. And I wanted to thank the rosh yeshivah for inviting my children for the Shabbos meal again. Every time they go, I hear such beautiful things from Yechiel, he says the Shabbos meals are so derhoiben.”
“He’s a very special young man, your son-in-law. We enjoy having him.”
“So this week, actually, my Heshy just landed, he’s going to be learning in Orchos in Geulah… I was hoping that…”
“Oh, of course, he’s invited too. I’ll let the Rebbetzin know. We’ll be very happy to meet him. I’m sure he’s an exceptional boy, with such parents.”
Why are you so sure? Bernie wanted to ask. Instead he thanked Reb Nachum again. It was almost midnight here, 7 a.m. in Yerushalayim. Too early to check on Heshy, tell him the meal was set up. Where was the kid anyway? Probably camping out at Nechama and Yechiel until he found himself a dirah.
Go with Yechiel and Nechama tonight, I set it up for you, he texted. That “you” should probably be “u,” he knew, and if he were really cute he would write “2nite,” but let’s face it, he wasn’t cute and hadn’t been cute in many years, if ever.
His eyes wandered to the pictures dotting his study. Bernie with Reb Nachum, Bernie with Reb Avraham Zev, the Rostover Rebbe taking brachah achrita at Nechama’s wedding, Bernie flanked by Reb Nachum and his two sons, Bernie at the mike at the dinner for the Rostover mosdos, Bernie bending his head beneath Rav Maalami’s hand, a shy Heshy right behind him.
Maybe Heshy took it for granted, but soon enough he’d see how fortunate he was that his father had developed such strong connections to all these gedolim. He had a whole zeman ahead of him to soak it all up, to drink in the gadlus and the grandeur of those tiny living rooms swelling with seforim, to hear Reb Nachum live, not just on the speaker phone.
“Hey, Heshy, good morning! Did you sleep okay? Want me to show you where minyan is? I have a few minutes still before my Friday chavrusa.” Yechiel was striding around the apartment, opening the trissim purposefully. He didn’t have to say “get moving already” for Heshy to feel his impatience.
“That’s fine, you can go, I’ll figure it out.” Heshy tried to disentangle his pillow from the earbuds and wires that had spent the night there.
“Here, looking for these?” Yechiel opened up a top cabinet and pulled out Heshy’s hat and tefillin. “You were so tired last night, I put them away for you.”
“So… we’re on for tonight? You’re coming with us to Reb Nachum for the meal?”
Heshy squinted. The sun was too bright here. “I guess. Doesn’t sound like we have a choice, huh?”
Yechiel turned to face Heshy. “What do you mean? It’s an amazing meal, every time we go my whole chaburah waits for the report. Most people don’t get these kinds of chances, you know?”
“Mmm.” Heshy slipped his glasses onto his nose.
“Leave the door unlocked, okay? Nechama’s sleeping late, no school today.”
“Okay.” Heshy’s unruly red hair was now bent over his suitcase. Yechiel got the message.
“See you later.” He shrugged into the sleeves of his jacket and headed to the door, then turned around. “Listen, Heshy, maybe text your mother or father, they called late last night when you were sleeping. Sounds like Daddy wanted an update on your dirah situation. He’s worried.”
“You mean he’s a control freak.”
Yechiel’s eyebrows shot up. “He’s your father, he wants to make sure everything’s okay. Text him when you get back from Shacharis.”
“That son-in-law of yours, a tachshit.”
“What a promising young man, that Yechiel.”
“You picked yourself a future talmid chacham, Reb Berish.”
The words echoed in Bernie’s mind as his secretary dropped the crisp sheaf of papers on his desk. Yechiel’s weekly email, his chiddushim on the sugya. Bernie smoothed the pages out before slipping them into the binder. Last night he’d gotten his weekly report from the rosh kollel. Yechiel was doing them all proud. One day he’d take all those e-mails and turn them into a sefer. Yechiel would be thrilled; he’d get him haskamos from the biggest names in Eretz Yisrael. Not everyone had a father-in-law who could do that for him. Maybe they would even dedicate the sefer l’illui nishmas his father.
Who was he kidding? His father had long given up on getting those kinds of gifts from him. From Shamayim, he would probably watch Bernie presenting Yechiel’s sefer to the gedolim and snort once again, “For this I survived the war? For a son who wants to be a basketball player? For this I went through the death march? For a son who can’t even make it through a masechta?”
Bernie closed the binder. Some weeks he tried to read through Yechiel’s chiddushim. This week wasn’t one of them.
Tuesday nights were Nechama’s late nights at school. She came home after nine so exhausted that she usually went straight to sleep. Yechiel didn’t mind; once a week he could slip back into his bochur routine.
Tonight he was in the mood for falafel. There was a little shop not too far from yeshivah where he could probably find a quiet table. He hummed as he walked there. In a few weeks life would be different, there would be a shalom zachar or kiddush to plan, and his in-laws would be coming, and Nechama would need him… but for now he could make his own schedule.
He pushed open the door and smiled at the guy behind the counter. Four minutes later, he was sitting in an orange chair, a black tray set before him.
“Hey, Yechiel, what’s up?”
His brother-in-law smiled and settled into the seat across him. “Nice seeing you here! No supper tonight?”
“Nechama has a late night at school. And you?”
“Hungry bochurim, falafel stores near yeshivah, what’s the question exactly?”
“I hear.” Yechiel bit into the pita. He was hungry.
Half a sandwich later, he was less hungry and more curious. “How’s it going, the learning?”
“Heshy,” Yechiel leaned forward. “Really, what’s going on with you and Shabbos? I thought you would come with us to Reb Avraham Zev last week, his wife cooks mamesh American style — no brown gefilte fish — and the atmosphere there is really nice, welcoming…”
Heshy shrugged. “I’m not so interested. I’d rather make my own plans.”
“But Heshy, we want to spend time with you, this would be perfect.”
“Really? You want to spend time with me? Or you just need to report back to Daddy?”
“Don’t worry, I know all about it, the Shomer Achi Anochi plan, that’s what I call it. We spend Friday nights together, you report to Daddy. I pick up my spending money from you, you report to Daddy. You schlep me to Reb Nachum’s parshah chaburah, you report to Daddy. Nechama calls me to check on my laundry situation, she reports to Daddy. Don’t worry, Yechiel, I’m fine, I can take care of myself.”
Yechiel sipped his soda, then tried again. “But don’t you think it’s a great opportunity, to eat at all these people?”
Heshy shifted his glasses up his nose. “I’m not really so interested in Daddy’s VIP list.”
“Don’t you realize that most people would—”
“You’re funny, Yechiel, you know? Daddy isn’t setting you up with his gedolim out of the goodness of his heart. Just like he isn’t calling your rosh kollel every week out of the goodness of his heart. You’re his nachas machine, you realize that, right? He wants you to eat at these people because then he gets all these glowing reports about his choshuv son-in-law, it makes him feel good.”
He leaned over and picked a French fry out of Yechiel’s falafel, doused it in salt and popped it in his mouth. “Don’t you think your wife would rather stay home in her pajamas when it’s raining on Shabbos, after she puts in a long week studying whatever those girls study to become speech therapists? Don’t you think that most girls who are about to have a baby would rather fall asleep on the couch after bentshing licht? But no, we all have to go to Daddy’s gedolim and make him proud, because Daddy is pulling the strings.
“Listen, Yechiel, you like it, go ahead, enjoy the meals. Just don’t forget, big brother’s watching you.” Heshy stood up. “Enjoy the falafel. Yochanan’s is the best in Yerushalayim.”
Yechiel watched his brother-in-law exchange a fist bump with the guy behind the counter, then leave the store. He pushed the pita away. It was soggy.
“I am so stressed out!” Nechama put her cell phone down and started sorting the silverware.
“My father just called me for the second time today. He wants to know if I have any idea what Heshy did last Shabbos, and how come he didn’t go with you to Reb Nachum’s chaburah after he arranged special permission for him to come. I wish I could tell him, but I have no idea! Do you know?”
“Can you try to find out? I’m getting a little worried about him.”
“He’s 21 years old,” Yechiel said carefully. “He can decide where he wants to go.”
Nechama put down the spoon she was holding. “Weren’t you just telling me the other day that you sometimes get a funny feeling about him? You know how he just disappears, doesn’t answer his phone? And that you wish he would come with us on Shabbos for the meals? And maybe learn with you once a week, some way for you to keep an eye on where he’s holding?”
Yechiel opened up one of those advertising circulars that Nechama liked to look at. He stared at an ad for baby shoes. “Yeah, maybe,” he said. “Or maybe not. He’s not a baby, we don’t have to… control him like that.”
“This is not about control!” Nechama closed the drawer hard. “Don’t you care about him? Didn’t you also notice that weird smell he had? Do you know that some bochurim here are in trouble? That some of them are into things like… like drugs?”
“Nechama, whoa, calm down,” Yechiel said. “Your brother is fine, he’s good. It’s not so bad for him to have a little space. All of us need space sometimes. Don’t you? Like, this Friday night, would you like to just stay home for once? We can buy food, you can rest on the couch. You won’t have to get all dressed up and schlep out… What do you say?”
“Me?” Nechama blinked. “Stay home? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just want to… I want you to be happy. I know you love those meals at the roshei yeshivah, I know Daddy’s so happy when we go.”
“But what about you?” Yechiel studied her face.
“Me?” Her shoulders dropped. “I just… I just want everyone to be happy with us. And I want to know where Heshy is.”
“What? Mazel tov! Mazel tov, ohmigosh, I can’t believe it, Bernie, it’s a boy! A boy! How is he? How big? How are you? You made it? Oh, my goodness, I really thought it would be a girl, you really shocked me. A boy! I can’t believe it! You know that I was sure it was a girl, right, Nechamala? Oh, send us pictures! I want to see him!” Ruchy was completely awake, even though it was 2 a.m. “Here, here’s Daddy, he wants to tell you mazel tov.”
Bernie took the phone. “Mazel tov,” he said dutifully. The baby was screaming, it was hard to hear anything. “How are you, you’re okay, Nechama? Here, let me speak to Yechiel. Mazel tov! Beautiful news! We’re going to be there as soon as we can, we’re not missing this bris, get me estimates for three halls and we’ll talk again tomorrow, okay? Here, Ruchy, you can have the phone back.”
Ruchy grabbed the phone, already on her feet. If the stores in Boro Park had been open she would have been on her way. “Now tell me everything!” she commanded. “Start from the first contraction. Wait, let me go down to the kitchen, I can’t sleep anyway and Daddy’s trying to go back to sleep… and we need to figure out exactly what this baby needs, I want to go shopping right away…”
Bernie heard Ruchy heading down the stairs, talking about a Bundleme and receiving blankets and pacifiers. He rolled over and squeezed his eyes shut.
But he kept hearing that cry from a hospital room in far-off Yerushalayim. A boy. A new baby, a new start… with an old name, a name that reduced him to something so, so small.
“Bernie?” Ruchy’s voice was unnaturally high. “Bernie, did you know about—”
A parade of kids wearing white Shabbos shirts was marching into Nechama’s living room. Behind them, a young man with curly peyos was gently pushing the last two kids through the door.
Bernie heaved his large frame out of the burgundy armchair as the young man approached.
“Mazel tov, Zeide!” the fellow pumped his hand. “Look, kinderlach, look at the baby! Such a sweet neshumelah, a new neshumelah. Come, kinderlach, let’s sing him Shema. Right hand over the eyes…”
The boys gathered around the baby’s infant seat and raised their hands.
Bernie looked at Yechiel. Yechiel looked back at him, confused. The rebbi walked over and draped a hand over Bernie’s shoulder. “The menahel sent the children,” he whispered. “He wanted to be part of your simchah, you hear? A little siman of hakaros hatov.”
Ruchy was videotaping the kids already. Their Israeli accents were really cute.
“Which cheder, remind me?”
“Toras Yechezkel, in Tel Arzah.”
“Ah, yes. Rav Epstein’s place.”
“Now Hamalach! Everyone look at the zisse little baby, tomorrow he’s getting such a big mitzvah! Come, let’s sing!” The rebbi was swaying.
Yechiel shuckled, ill at ease. Bernie watched him as he stole another glance at the invasion in his once-quiet living room. This was not the vach nacht his son-in-law had imagined.
Nor was it the vach nacht he’d imagined, either. All his mental images of the scene had included a redheaded young man. Where was Heshy?
“Ruchy,” Bernie muttered. “You told Heshy what time to come?”
Ruchy lowered the camera. “Heshy didn’t show up yet?”
“Did you tell him?”
“Sure, I told him, I said to come for the vach nacht and then we’d eat supper together. Nechama, did Heshy call?”
Nechama shook her head.
“Call him, Ruchy, find out where he is.”
“I’m trying. I keep trying. He’s not answering.”
The kids started to file out. The rebbi came over to Bernie again, shook his hand, let loose a stream of brachos. He was probably waiting for some sort of commission, Bernie realized. He reached into his pocket and pulled out two fifty-shekel bills.
“Send my best to Rav Epstein,” he said.
The rebbi smiled and added a few more brachos.
The door closed.
“Yechiel, did Heshy call you, tell you something about being late?”
“Nechama, is he always like this? You tell him a time, you tell him a place, he doesn’t show up?”
Nechama stole a quick glance at Yechiel. Yechiel’s eyes darted toward the window.
Bernie felt the heat creeping up his neck. “Yechiel, what’s going on with Heshy? You’re telling me he does this a lot?”
Yechiel straightened his shoulders. His eyes remained focused on the window. “Heshy’s a good boy, a really great boy, Daddy. Can I get you a drink?” He headed determinedly to the kitchen, not waiting for an answer.
Bernie turned to his daughter. “Tell me, Nechama! You know I’m relying on you two to keep an eye on Heshy, that’s one of the reasons I was able to send him here and still sleep at night. What’s going on?”
Nechama’s lower lip trembled. “I don’t… he doesn’t…” she gulped, and two tears spilled down her cheeks.
What was going on?
Yechiel strode back into the living room. “Daddy, here, drink something. Nechama, why don’t you go lie down a little, you just had a baby. Daddy, Heshy’s doing great, could be a million reasons why he forgot to come for the vach nacht. What was your plan for supper again, Mommy, were you going to join us here for leftovers, or did you want to eat out?”
Ruchy startled. “I… uh… we were thinking about that milchig restaurant… but it’s pouring now, maybe we should just stay put? I’ll make a salad, we can heat up the leftovers. Bernie, what’s going on?”
“I’m calling Heshy’s rosh yeshivah, I need to get to the bottom of this. Where’s my phone?” The red had spread up Bernie’s neck to his cheeks. “And what’s with Nechama, is she always like this?”
“Hormones, Bernie, she just had a baby. You know, PPD, baby blues, the stuff the women’s magazines are always writing about.” Ruchy was lying and doing a bad job. “You sure you want to call the rosh yeshivah? Could be Heshy’s at Maariv or something like that, why bother the rosh yeshivah?” She was pleading with him, he knew it: Don’t lose it, don’t make a fool out of yourself.
“Okay.” He replaced the phone in his pocket. “Yechiel, call me a taxi, will you?”
“A taxi? You’d rather eat out? Did you want me to make a reservation first?”
“No, no supper, I’m going to Geula, I’m going to track down that kid. You wait here.”
Ruchy dropped back down on the couch. Bernie slammed the door.
“Excuse me, is this the dorm of Orchos Mishpat?”
The kid looked scared. “Yeah.”
“I’m looking for someone named Heshy Hartman, redhead, glasses. Know him?”
“Sure, I know Heshy.”
“So is he here?”
“Not sure. Haven’t seen him in hours. But there’s a chevrah that rented a car and went down to Yam Hamelach for the day, I bet he went with them. His type, y’know?”
“When did they say they’d be back?”
The kid laughed, a laugh with no humor in it. “You think they told anyone? You hope they’ll be back before midnight, or at least before Shacharis tomorrow.”
Bernie looked out the grimy window at the rain-streaked streets. His mind traced the winding route from Sedom to Yerushalayim. Stupid kid, stupid friends. Why couldn’t Yechiel keep an eye on the kid? And what about the rosh yeshivah, what kind of institution was he running, letting a bunch of immature kids risk their lives on one of the most dangerous roads in the Middle East? Imagine if he ran his law firm the same way. And here he was, entrusting this man with his money, with his son.
Bernie looked at the kid, who was now smirking. “No.” He pushed open the door and started walking hard, fast, away from this miserable place.
The back streets of Geula were dark and slick, and the rain was merciless. Within a few minutes, he was drenched. He knew that two rights would bring him back to Malchei Yisrael, but for some reason he was on yet another unrecognizable narrow street. The rain was stabbing his cheeks, repeating the old refrain: For this I made it through the war?
Bernie reached the end of the little street. There were no landmarks, none of the heavy traffic of Malchei Yisrael. He had to get inside, dry off a bit. There, right off the corner, was a little store with the light on. Falafel HaBirah, the sign said. Bernie pushed open the door. Inside was the usual counter, the bright colors of tomatoes and cucumbers streaking into a mush behind the condensed cold air on the glass pane. A dark young man with thin shoulders was standing over a deep fryer. And heading to the counter, with a blue spritz bottle and shmatteh in hand, was—
Alive and well and cleaning tables in a falafel shop in Geula.
The anger was back, so sweeping that Bernie no longer felt cold or wet or disoriented. His Heshy, Heshy that he’d done everything for, Heshy who had every opportunity served to him on a silver platter, was throwing it all in his face and probably laughing about it afterward with his friends who skipped seder and went to the beach instead.
“Hey, Daddy,” the voice was flat, the eyes averted. “Nice to see you. Yechiel must have sent you here, huh? This is my friend Yochanan. Yochanan, zeh ha’abba sheli.”
The slight young man stretched his hand over the counter, waiting for Bernie to offer his. Bernie closed his hand around the lean dark fingers. “Naim l’hakir,” Yochanan said. “Can I give you something to eat?”
Bernie shook his head. For this I made it through the war?
“Here, Yochanan, pass me the stuff,” his son said. He took the pile of plates and forks and headed back through a peeling white door. Bernie stood still for a moment, then followed.
Heshy was slipping the plates into a sink. The water was running gently. He seemed very at home here, his son, running a sponge over the plates and stacking them on a drying rack.
“You spend a lot of time here?”
“Yeah. I like to hang here after shiur, help out a little. It’s not so easy for Yochanan to do the cooking and the customers and the cleanup all at once, and he can’t afford steady help yet. One day, when the store gets a little more popular…”
“I see.” Bernie’s jacket was dripping.
“Anyway, me and Yochanan… we get each other.” Heshy’s shoulder hunched in defiance. “We both make our fathers really proud, huh.”
The door swung open. Yochanan stepped in, holding a huge green mixing bowl. “Here, give me,” Heshy offered. “I’m just telling my father here about how we make our fathers so proud of us, yeah? Eizeh nachat yesh l’avot shelanu!” He turned back to Bernie. “Yochanan’s father is some major league talmid chacham, he didn’t plan for his son to be rolling falafel. He walks past the store with his whole pamalya around him and can’t even give his son a nod. I’ve seen it.”
Bernie stole a glance at Yochanan. His jaw was square, proud, but the eyes were dull.
“And me… you thought your son was shteiging till midnight, huh. At least you don’t ignore me or pretend we’re not related.”
Ruchy would have known what to say, but Bernie couldn’t even figure out what he was feeling. Wet, very wet, but beyond that — was it relief that his son wasn’t driving on some dark slippery road with a bunch of tipsy friends? Fury that his kid was squandering all these golden opportunities? Sadness that his sunshine boy thought his father had written him off at the age of 21?
Yeah, that most of all.
Heshy was stacking trays on some sort of tray-holder on the opposite counter. Bernie picked up a tray that looked dry. Where should he put it? Stacking trays wasn’t really part of his job description at Hartman & Feld.
He looked at his son. A soft halo thrown by the overhead fluorescent illuminated the red hair.
Suddenly he knew what he wanted to say. Heshy, you’re only 21 years old. When I was 20 I was just starting to figure out my life, I was just starting to make my peace with the fact that I probably wasn’t going to have a future as a basketball player. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay, you already are okay. You’ll grow into your plan. No rush.
But the words came out differently. “Heshy, we… missed you at the vach nacht tonight.”
“You didn’t need me there, you had your fan club, didn’t you? Reb Avraham Zev didn’t come?”
“He didn’t.” The wet was starting to creep through his jacket into his shirt. “He’ll probably come to the bris. But… I want you. You’re the uncle of the baby, remember? Tell Yochanan he’s welcome too.”
“I hear.” Heshy was busy with his dishes again.
“Okay.” Bernie shifted his legs. “Listen, Heshy, one more thing?”
“Can you just help me figure out how to get out of this crazy neighborhood and find Malchei Yisrael?”
“Sure, Daddy. And let me give you my umbrella, looks like you might need it.”
Eight minutes later, Bernie was back on familiar ground. The rain was slowing down, no longer ferocious, just sad. So he’s rolling falafel balls with some Israeli guy, it could be worse, he thought. Then, as two bochurim floated by, their Gemara-talk shimmering in the rainy mist behind them, the other thoughts came. This is the best thing he can do with his spare time? What about Reb Nachum’s chaburah, the one half the world wishes they could get into? What about Reb Avraham Zev’s Shalosh Seudos, the one Yechiel couldn’t stop talking about?
A tired gust of wind pulled the umbrella backward. Bernie pulled it back up. The image of Yochanan swam into his mind. The slight shoulders, the dull eyes at the mention of his father. The father who couldn’t acknowledge that his flesh and blood was standing behind the counter.
I don’t want to be that, I don’t want my son to be that, Bernie thought as fragile ribbons of rain crept down Heshy’s umbrella. He’s my sunshine boy. He’ll figure things out eventually.
Bernie was surrounded by a group of bearded men when he felt the eyes on him. Reb Nachum was there, Reb Avraham Zev, the Rostover Rebbe… He turned toward the doorway. Heshy was there, Yochanan right behind him.
Bernie waved. Heshy extended a thumbs-up. Then he and Yochanan found spots at the edge of the crowd.
“Kvatter!” The mohel stepped forward with smooth confidence, made his announcements and awarded the kibbudim. The baby squalled, then sucked the wine and was quiet. Reb Avraham Zev held him aloft as Reb Nachum made the brachos. “V’yikarei shemo b’Yisrael… Ephraim ben Rav Yechiel Michel…”
Bernie tried to swallow, but his throat was too tight. Here was his family, his beautiful kids. The rabbanim, so effusive in their gratitude and respect. And the baby, that angelic symbol of promise and potential. He was the father, the grandfather, the patron of them all. So why did he feel so small, so inadequate? Would he ever justify his father’s existence?
Is that what Heshy was going to feel like his whole life too?
“Aleinu l’shabeiach,” the mohel’s voice warbled. Bernie focused again on the laminated bris card someone had pressed into his hand. Then it was a crush of mazel tovs, another round of photos, and here he was, magnanimous host to the elite of the Torah world, patriarch of his growing family, giving instructions to the waiters and photographer and making sure the mike was positioned properly for Yechiel’s speech.
It was just as the waiter cleared away the chocolate layer ice cream that he noticed a familiar face scanning the head table. It was the face of Rav Maalami’s gabbai. Bernie jumped up and hurried over.
“Ah, perfect!” the man smiled. “The rav came to give the baby a brachah! I will bring him in.”
Bernie went over to the mechitzah and waved Ruchy over. “Go tell Nechama to bring the baby over here, Rav Maalami came to give him a brachah. Where’s the photographer? Where’s Yechiel? Call Heshy!”
Rav Maalami stepped slowly, majestically, toward the little crowd. He extended his hand toward Bernie, who kissed it, gesturing to Yechiel to do the same.
“Eich korim latinok?” the gabbai asked.
“Ephraim,” Yechiel said.
“Ah, Ephraim, such a beautiful name. Haben yakir li Ephraim. You can feel the love in it, nachon?” Rav Maalami put his hands over the baby’s head, closed his eyes, and swayed as he murmured. Then he straightened up and smiled beatifically.
“Abba, Saba, he’s going to make you all so proud. That’s what we want, right? Children who will make us proud.”
His eyes swept the little knot of people: Ruchy, Nechama, Bernie, Yechiel, Heshy, and hovering just behind, Yochanan from the falafel shop. The beatific smile froze, suddenly grotesque.
Bernie made the connection a second after Heshy moved protectively toward Yochanan. The man whose photo graced his desk at work, the walls of his study, was still heaping scorn and shame on his son who’d thrown it all away to make falafel. The words danced, a taunt. Children who will make us proud…
Bernie put a firm hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Atah yodeia, Kevod Harav,” he stumbled through the Hebrew. “It’s a tough world out there for kids these days. Hashem made them, He knows how hard it is just to get out of bed and make it to minyan. He’s proud of them, He’s proud of us. We’re all just trying to take another little step forward, to get a little higher, aren’t we?”
The baby squeezed his eyes tight and gave a little squeal. Then he shuddered. Bernie slipped his hand off his son’s shoulder and caressed the little cheek.
The little features smoothened out as his grandson closed his eyes and found peace.
(Originally featured in Calligraphy Pesach 5777-2017)
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