My neighbors cut off my light, air, and olive tree
We who are fortunate enough to have made this land our home know the value of every centimeter of real estate here and understand what a difference an extra room or two can make to a family living in cramped quarters. Often, however, a family’s expansion comes at a cost to their well-meaning neighbors.
Three years ago, when the Kallerman family living next door requested our permission to expand their apartment, my husband, Yisrael, and I were initially hesitant. About ten years earlier, we had given our consent to another one of our neighbors to build out, and during their construction two fruit trees in our backyard had been accidentally uprooted. The Kallermans’ proposed expansion was guaranteed to uproot the one remaining tree in our backyard, a stately olive tree, because in order to access the space where they planned to build, they would need to dig up a part of our backyard. More significantly, their renovation would restrict our light, air, and privacy, and reduce our property value. It would also block our access to the outdoor storage shed that sat just past our backyard, adjacent to the area upon which the Kallermans wanted to build.
We live in a ground-floor apartment, which has the dual advantage of being easily accessible as well as having yards in the front and back. The big disadvantage is that our windows are at eye level, and neighbors and passersby can easily see inside. Thirty years ago, when we bought the apartment, Yisrael planted bushes and trees in our front and back yards to block the direct view into our apartment. Two of the trees he planted in the back were olive trees, which provided optimal shade and required almost no maintenance after they outgrew the sapling stage. Now, only one of those olive trees remained.
In order to receive a permit from the local municipality to expand their apartment, the Kallermans needed signed consent forms from all the neighbors who would be affected by their construction. Yisrael and I were the ones who would be the most affected by their construction, and we were hardly eager to sign our agreement.
Yisrael, in particular, was unhappy with the idea of another neighbor infringing upon our space. “Remember what happened to the trees last time a neighbor did construction?” he said to me. “That time, it was a mistake, but this time we’re guaranteed that the other olive tree is going to be uprooted.”
I shared his hesitations, but I reminded him that the Kallermans were living in a two-bedroom apartment with six young children. “They desperately need the space,” I pointed out. “And they can’t afford something bigger.”
Having raised ten children ourselves in a small Israeli apartment, we both understood how important the added space was to the Kallermans.
In the end, we didn’t have the heart to block the Kallermans’ expansion, especially now that all our children were out of the house — eight of our children were married, and our two single sons were away in yeshivah — and it was only Yisrael and me who would be inconvenienced. But we did insist that the Kallermans sign a document stating that they would build a new path to our storage shed, that they would fix up our backyard after they finished digging, and that they would hire a gardener to carefully dig up our remaining olive tree before starting their construction and replant it properly in our front yard.
They readily signed to these three conditions, and we gave our consent.
This was three years ago. At the time, the Kallermans applied for and received the necessary permits, but they postponed the actual renovation because they did not have the money to pay for it. Often, when I met Ayala Kallerman, the topic of her planned renovation would come up, and she would tell me how much she was looking forward to having more space.
“I hope Hashem gives you the money soon!” I would tell her. She and her husband Benny were a sweet couple, and I really wanted them to have the space to raise their children comfortably.
About a year ago, Yisrael passed away, after a protracted illness, at the age of 65. After his petirah, I tried hard to be strong for my grieving children, especially my two unmarried sons. By nature, I’m a very positive person, and I was determined that the loss of my husband would not break me or my family. My children, for their part, became very solicitous and protective of me, always making sure I had a place to be for Shabbos and calling frequently to check on me.
Several months after Yisrael’s petirah, Benny Kallerman called to tell me that they were finally ready to start building.
“Don’t forget that you need to leave me a path to the shed,” I reminded him. “And that you need to get a gardener to move the olive tree to the front.”
“Of course,” he assured me. “I already told the contractor about that.”
I myself was unsure of where the olive tree would go, as by this time it had grown quite large. Thinking that perhaps I would sell it, I called a gardener to find out how much it was worth. “A full-grown olive tree like that can sell for close to $10,000,” he said. “To a landscaper, it’s a prize.”
But before I could give much thought to selling the tree, I got a call from Ayala Kallerman. “We’re all ready!” she informed me. “The digging is going to start in a couple of days.”
“That’s wonderful!” I replied. “And what’s going to happen with the tree?”
“Oh,” she said. There was a long pause. “I’m not sure. I have to ask my husband about that.”
“Well, please do find out,” I replied, “because you must get a gardener to come take care of it.”
Two days later, at about 7:30 a.m., while I was getting ready to leave to work, I suddenly heard noise coming from the backyard. I hurried over to the window — and saw that a bulldozer was driving through my backyard. Much to my horror, the bulldozer made a beeline for the olive tree and began ripping off its branches.
Afraid to confront the Arab driver alone, I ran out of my apartment and began banging on the Kallermans’ door. When their young daughter opened the door, I could see that all of her siblings were staring out the window in fascination as the bulldozer destroyed my tree.
“Where are your parents?” I asked the girl, struggling to keep my voice calm.
“My Abba is in shul,” she answered. “And my Ima is sleeping.”
“Go wake up your Ima right now!” I practically shouted. “They’re ruining my olive tree!”
I hurried back to my apartment and raced to the window, only to discover that the olive tree had been completely uprooted. My fear of Arabs temporarily overshadowed by my fury, I ran out to the backyard and began yelling, “That’s my tree! What do you think you’re doing? Stop! STOP!”
Hearing my shouts, the driver of the bulldozer halted. But the tree had already been demolished.
I started bawling uncontrollably. If Yisrael had been here, I thought, this would never have happened.
Minutes later, the contractor — a frum man — showed up.
“It’s assur to dig up a fruit tree!” I shouted at him. “There’s even a kelalah for digging up a fruit tree! How can you do this?”
The next thing I knew, Benny and Ayala Kallerman were standing in my backyard, she with a baby on her hip, and they and their contractor were telling me how sorry they were, how it was all a big mistake, how they were as shocked as I was, blah blah blah.
I was too overwrought to talk to them, and their words of apology and explanation stung like poison darts. Still bawling, I retreated into my apartment and called my oldest son, Ezriel. Hearing me crying like that, he was sure something awful had happened to me. When he finally managed to piece together the story, from the few intelligible words I managed to utter between sobs, he was furious. “That was Abba’s tree!” he protested. “How could they do that?”
All this time, the Kallermans and their contractor were ringing my doorbell and knocking, but I ignored them. I knew they wanted to placate me, and I was not interested. Not to be deterred, Ayala Kallerman, still lugging her baby, went around to the backyard and knocked on my back door. Go away, I silently begged.
At eight o’clock, just as I was about to leave for work, a pickup truck pulled up in front of my building. It was the Kallermans’ gardener.
I didn’t want to talk to him, either, but when he knocked on my door I finally opened it.
“I think we can replant the tree,” he said. “But it will take two years before we’ll know if the tree has taken root properly.”
“Fine,” I said, pointing to a spot in my front yard. “Good luck.”
Then I rushed off to the bus stop and headed to work, grateful for the excuse to escape.
While I sat at my desk at work, the gardener and his assistant dug a giant hole in my front yard and then transplanted the trunk and roots of the tree, which were all that remained after the bulldozer tore off all the branches. In the process of digging the hole, they accidentally uprooted my lantana bush, a beautiful flowering perennial that Yisrael had planted. They also broke a sewage pipe, and in order to fix that they had to turn off the water supply to the entire building. But they didn’t tell me, or any of the other neighbors in the building, that they had turned off the water, and when they left that evening, after fixing the sewage pipe, they forgot to turn the water back on.
Now I wasn’t the only one who was mad; all the neighbors were furious with the Kallermans. But somehow, their fury and mine were different.
Like Ezriel, all my children assumed that the reason I had reacted so hysterically to the tree’s destruction was that it had sentimental value to me because Yisrael a”h had planted it. But I knew that wasn’t the case. I had valued the tree only for the shade and privacy it provided, not as a remembrance of my late husband; in fact, I would have been happy to sell it.
So why did I care so much about the tree’s destruction?
The reason, I realized, was that had Yisrael been alive, he would have protected the tree.
He would have insisted from the start that the Kallermans give him a more definite plan of what was supposed to happen with the tree. He would not have allowed the bulldozer into our yard. He would have confronted the Arab worker immediately, before the bulldozer had had a chance to touch the tree.
He would have protected me.
I wasn’t mourning the loss of the tree. I was mourning the loss of my husband.
Seeing how distressed I was, my children were determined to get even with the Kallermans. My daughter-in-law, Ezriel’s wife, actually called them up and threatened to sue them and stop their construction. But once I understood what had triggered my disproportionate reaction, I told the kids to call off the big guns.
“Honestly, I don’t care about the tree,” I said. “It’s just that losing the tree forced me to face up to the fact that I’m a widow and that now I have to handle these things instead of Abba. But the truth is that it’s good Abba wasn’t here to see this, because he would have been devastated to see his tree destroyed.”
I’ve always believed in the adage, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” — which, I suppose, is a different way of describing the concept of being dan l’chaf zechus. And so, once I calmed down, I told myself that the Kallermans were simply clueless, not malicious. Everyone is healthy, baruch Hashem, I thought, and no serious damage has been done. We’ll survive this.
It took another few days before I felt ready to talk to the Kallermans. “Look,” I said to them candidly after they welcomed me into their apartment, “my husband and I were not thrilled to have you expand your apartment, for many reasons. But we signed anyway, because we knew you needed the space. We made it clear, though, that the tree had to be taken care of before any digging started.”
“I want you to know,” Benny Kallerman began, “that we made a point of hiring a contractor who is known to be considerate of the neighbors. And we arranged for the gardener to come at eight in the morning, which was before the digging was supposed to start. We even gave the digging company specific instructions that they could not dig until the olive tree was removed. But the Arab driver decided, of his own accord, to show up early and start working immediately — without saying a word to us or even asking for the black coffee these workers always demand before they’ll lift a finger.”
“I understand,” I said. “Obviously, this was min haShamayim. But I want you to realize that your construction is causing agmas nefesh to all of your neighbors, not just me. Of course, some aggravation is inevitable when you do construction. Dust, noise, construction workers swarming the area — those things are unavoidable, and you’re suffering from them just as much as we are. The difference is that you know that you’re going to have something out of all this, while we’re gaining nothing. So you have to make an extra effort to ensure that your construction doesn’t cause any more aggravation to the neighbors than necessary. For instance, if your gardener turns off the water, you have to let the neighbors know, and it’s your responsibility to make sure the water is turned back on right away.”
“But the contractor was supposed to take care of that,” Ayala objected.
“It doesn’t matter,” I responded. “Bottom line is, it’s your construction, and we’re your neighbors.”
Now that I had said my piece, I was ready to accept their apology, which I knew was sincere. The Kallermans were nice people, good neighbors overall, and I really did want them to have more space to raise their family. Yes, they had caused me damage, but sometimes nice people cause damage, too. And, bottom line, whatever agmas nefesh I had suffered was Hashem’s Will. Better on wood and stones than on anyone’s flesh.
It was time to move on.
As I walked back to my apartment, I stopped to gaze at the bare, ugly trunk of the once resplendent olive tree. And I noticed that little green branches had started to sprout.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 762)