"We’ve seen a few tears over the years, but we’re also mature enough to know that the tears are part of the song.”
For the first few minutes, Akiva Putterman was nervous. The shiur was much better attended than he had ever imagined, the crowd filling the living room and spilling out into the entrance area.
“Next time Rabbi Putterman speaks, we’ll have to use the simchah hall,” Mrs. Walburger said when she came in and saw the crowd.
Rina, sitting in the front row, looked nervous. Akiva opened by indicating her and saying, “I was just discussing with my better half, Rina, how warm and welcoming everyone here is, and we’re so grateful. Thank you.”
It was a gracious beginning, but also, he had long ago learned that you could win over a female audience in a moment just by referring to a “better half.”
He had prepared a speech along the lines of what Mrs. Walburger had asked for (demanded?), all about learning to deal with a new role, changing realities, being able to adapt, but then he found himself using one chinuch mashal and then another, and he noticed Mrs. Walburger’s face darken.
He was trying to speak about flexibility and wanted to tell his favorite story about Mrs. Wexler with the requests — only this rebbi, only this classroom, only these friends — and how after that summer when she’d had a baby and there were complications, and she was out of it, suddenly there was a school year without Mrs. Wexler bugging him. Her little Chesky came to school on the first day without his mother having called to remind him what a sensitive boy he was, how much he needed an attentive rebbi and how traumatic it would be if he wasn’t with the Lindauer boy, so Rabbi Putterman made the decisions himself.
Guess what, he liked to tell his audiences, by Chanukah, Mrs. Wexler was gloating about the fact that her little tzaddik was having the best year ever.
It usually got a laugh and it was a fine way to bring home the point of how Hashem takes care of things, and parents — people, in general — needed to learn to back off and roll with His plan. But he knew that if he used another classroom example he would never be invited to speak again.
“Part of adapting to a new stage in life,” he said, “is being able to let go of habits you think are part of you, learning to move on.”
He took a deep breath and continued. “This was very hard for me,” he said brightly, “the whole moving to Lakewood thing.”
He caught a look of panic in his wife’s eyes, but also the current of anticipation and renewed interest in the crowd, the almost imperceptible shift as people leaned in a bit closer.
Be vulnerable, he told himself. It works.
“Like, there are ideas that sound amazing on paper, but not in real life. We liked Monsey, our life was there, and even though we sometimes talked about moving to Lakewood one day, we didn’t expect that one day to come so soon.
“One day this week, I woke up and felt this overwhelming sense of wistfulness,” he went on. “I just wanted to be in Monsey, walking across the huge lawn and checking if the deer had eaten the hydrangeas again, it was like a physical pain… It was before Shacharis and I was holding a coffee in my hand, but I couldn’t even lift my mug to drink it. I just felt heavy and sad, like something had slipped away and would never come back.”
He stopped speaking, collecting himself, not unaware that there was drama in the air. He was speaking to them, not at them, and something had shifted.
“I closed my eyes and just stopped, remembering the day we moved to Monsey, how shy we both were, two kids from Brooklyn trying something new. I remembered how quiet it was, and how lonely it felt at first, and I visualized the house, the way it looked back then, just a strange gray farmhouse set back from the road that we were embarrassed to show our parents. The kitchen seemed to be an afterthought, all the way in the back of the house, and there were fireplaces that didn’t work and wouldn’t work, it was all so bizarre.”
Akiva leaned into the pause, let the tension linger.
“Then I saw,” he said, “as if watching on a screen, what had happened in that house, how over time, it filled with our children and their friends. The kitchen became our happy place, the fireplaces were so charming. It was five minutes total, but I replayed 25 years of real life and felt myself feeling calm and happy, and then I opened my eyes and looked around the new house, the too-white walls with no pictures yet, windows that don’t creak, a floor that doesn’t yet play tricks with the sunlight, and I let myself imagine.”
He stopped again and noticed that Rina had tears in her eyes. Every face in the room was turned in his direction, expressions open.
“And then I imagined the same things happening here: eineklach filling the empty living room, laughter and singing and yes, arguing and tears too, sometimes, because that also happens in a real home, life isn’t just a kumzitz…”
He paused again, and feeling like he could afford it, he meandered again. “Look, we’re all old enough here to admit it, right? We’ve seen a few tears over the years, but we’re also mature enough to know that the tears are part of the song.”
A woman in the front row exhaled loudly, overcome by emotion, and the women seated near her smiled understandingly.
“The point is, life flows a certain way and the happiest people are those who flow along, and that’s our avodah here, really. To hold on to the beauty of what was and to let it join us here, to ride with what the Ribbono shel Olam has in store for us while holding on to whatever made us happy before we came. It might be different, but it will happen again.”
This whole speech was totally not his style. He wanted to talk about Mrs. Wexler and flexibility and Dr. Foster’s Rule of Elasticity and follow the predictable script, but he had gone somewhere else and it was working.
Late that night, he would sit by his computer and try to write it up, breaking down the message to bullet-points and developing each one, but he couldn’t find any real message, just words.
Clearly the people here wanted something, and he would try to find out what it was.
Chaim Brucker looked up from his Gemara and smiled at Shaindy.
“How was the shiur?” he asked.
She sat down across from him and he graciously closed his sefer, placing an envelope inside to hold the place.
“Chaim, it was so weird, like he speaks nicely, but it wasn’t what we’re used to. No real devar Torah, no chizuk, it was all so emotional, like he was rambling about what it’s like to move, basically.”
“Aha, aha,” he said vaguely. Her tone was making him uncomfortable. She could tell. “Did the oilam like it?”
She spoke fiercely. “Yes, they loved it. That’s the problem.”
“What problem, Shaindy?”
She shook her head and said she was exhausted and then it was quiet again.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 887)
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