Sharing the secret would devastate my brother
It’s interesting with younger brothers.
They grow up and you’re their hero. You know all about sports and who’s going to be picked first for the team. You build the most complicated Lego cities, you know which rebbi gives the most homework. You’re the advisor, protector, instructor.
Then they grow up a little more and they know everything, too. You get married and they get married and wait, is that little kid who hid behind me at recess about to become a father?
Naftali and I were always close; we’re the only boys in the family, with three sisters to team up against. When he started shidduchim, Zahava and I had two kids; when he got engaged, we’d just had the third. I was experienced but still young enough to remember what it felt like, and he spent hours on the sofa in our small basement apartment discussing his latest shidduch dilemma, or mulling over pros and cons, or — finally — shyly debating proposals.
And then he became a chassan, and got married, and very quickly, everything changed.
It’s hard to pinpoint the first time it happened. Was it that Shabbos when we had them over for a meal, a few months after they were married? The meal had begun just how I’d imagined it, Zahava and Idy chatting, Naftali and I exchanging news and a high-five.
“So, how’s the apartment, you like it?”
Naftali nodded, swallowing a piece of fish. “Yeah, it’s great.” He looked quickly at Idy. “Really nice. Idy decorated it, she has great taste.”
Decorated? When we got married, we had the furniture that came with our apartment, and Zahava put up a couple of pictures. We always talked about repainting, but it wasn’t our own place — why invest in a rental?
“It was nothing, just some knickknacks, new curtains…” Idy’s eyes flitted from ceiling to floor, taking in the dusty window shades and peeling walls. The shelves crammed with seforim, papers, old receipts, magazine clippings, a spare pacifier, some keys. I changed the subject quickly.
“So, um, you have a year’s lease on the place?”
Naftali shrugged. “Not necessarily. I mean, we’re looking for something long-term.”
“Aren’t we all,” I chuckled, looking over at Zahava.
We’d been talking about moving for ages already, but the conversation always went the same way: We can’t afford to keep renting, larger apartments would cost a fortune, better to make do a little longer until we can buy something.
Still, the patience was paying off. Little by little, we’d managed to put some money aside, and now we were actively looking to buy. We’d seen a couple of houses, one that made this apartment look like a palace, the other almost triple our budget. But we were hopeful.
“Let’s speak after Shabbos,” I told Naftali.
After all, we were in the market too; I could give him a couple of pointers.
After Shabbos I called Naftali, just liked I’d promised. But even though he listened intently, asked a couple of questions, and seemed interested, it wasn’t much of a conversation. I felt like he was listening out of politeness, but wasn’t really taking it in.
“I guess he’s not that serious about buying,” I told Zahava afterward.
“They’re young, they have time,” she said comfortably. “I don’t blame them for wanting to see the options first, especially since they seem to have a nice place in the meantime…”
She didn’t say it resentfully, just stated it as fact.
The house-buying discussion didn’t come up again until one Motzaei Shabbos when we were sitting around at my parents’ house, enjoying a pizza-party Melaveh Malkah.
“So, is it true you’re in the market for a house?” my brother-in-law Sholom boomed across the table.
I was surprised — it wasn’t a secret that Zahava and I were looking, we were desperate to move out of that old apartment — but then I realized he was looking over at Naftali. Something inside me lurched a little.
Naftali seemed to notice; he darted a look in my direction before replying. “Uh, well, I mean, technically we are…”
Idy cut in smoothly from beside him. “Eventually. We hope to buy a house eventually.”
Naftali nodded. “Yeah, it’s not a big deal, our apartment’s fine for now…”
So it was like we thought. The young couple weren’t rushing things, they were enjoying their nice little rental, and all this talking of buying was probably just that — big talk, to keep up with the older siblings and all that.
“And you, Gershon? How’s the house hunt going?”
I shrugged. “You know. Narrowing down the options.” I forced some optimism into my voice. “We just scheduled a bunch of viewings with this agent, really highly recommended. Hopefully one of them will turn out to be ‘the one,’ you never know.”
Six months and many house-viewings later, I wasn’t so confident anymore. There’d been one great deal that fell through at the last minute, and a whole bunch of non-starters.
“I wonder if Naftali’s still into the house-hunting or if they’re leaving it for now,” I mused to Zahava one night. “He hasn’t mentioned anything recently.”
She waved a hand. “Oh, they’re not in any rush. They’ll take their time choosing, no?”
I assumed so. After all, we hadn’t heard anything to the contrary. “I should speak to him sometime, though. We haven’t really talked since that time I offered to show him that house on Beechcroft.”
I made a face. We’d really thought that was “the one” — I’d mentioned it to Naftali, thought he might enjoy looking around. It could’ve given him some ideas of what to look out for.
But he hadn’t been able to make it, and honestly it was better that way, because the whole thing fell through in the end. It still frustrated me to think about it.
“What about that one the agent e-mailed you about last week?” Zahava asked, starting to clear the table. “You know, the one a bit farther out, but good price? Do we have a viewing?”
“I need to call to set it up,” I said, pulling out my phone and heading over to the window.
Spotty service in these underground apartments. But even as I spoke to the agent and set up a time to go see the house, I wondered if anything would ever come of our hunt. Was it even worth it?
Turned out, it was better than we thought.
“I think — I really think — this might be it!” Zahava said, face a bit flushed after climbing the stairs from the basement to the top floor. She spun around. “And there’s a separate little laundry room, look!”
I was noticing other things. The spacious dining room with large windows, and sliding doors setting it off from the playroom. The newly installed kitchen. And the basement, although not in great condition now, could probably be done really nicely, if we were ever able to afford it.
We looked around for a while, took some pictures, and went home to discuss it. It was definitely a bargain, better than we’d hoped.
“Let’s put in a bid,” I told Zahava, who nodded eagerly.
Later that week seemed a good time to get back in touch with Naftali.
“Hey, bro, long time no speak.”
I should have continued the small talk for a while, but the news was too good to hold back. “So remember we were talking about buying a house, we were looking and stuff?”
“Yes, sure,” Naftali sounded hopeful. “You found something?”
“I think so.” I gave him the rundown. “We’re hoping to finalize sometime soon.”
I still got a thrill from saying that. I couldn’t believe this was really happening. Finally!
“Wow, that’s amazing! I’m so happy for you!” Naftali said.
He asked a bunch of questions, heartily wished us hatzlachah with closing, and ended the call because he wanted to “share the good news with Idy.”
“That was… interesting,” I said to Zahava. “Naftali was so, like, over-the-top happy for us. Weird.”
“Well, everyone knows we need a new house,” Zahava said sensibly. “It makes sense your brother would be happy for you, no?”
“I guess so.” I thought about the house and felt the excitement bubble up again. “Just remember, we still need to get the mortgage approved. Let’s keep that in mind, not get all our hopes up again…”
I was talking to myself just as much as to Zahava.
“There’s this Neshei thing tonight,” Zahava said, a few nights later. She was fingering the flyer and looking thoughtful. “Maybe I should go, I never go out in the evenings…”
“Of course you should go,” I told her. Zahava works way too hard. “I’ll ask my chavrusa to come over here, you won’t even need to find a babysitter.”
After the usual back-and-forth — But what if the baby wakes up? You know Yossi sometimes wakes up from bad dreams? Make sure to call me if anything happens — Zahava gave in.
“Thanks, Gersh,” she said with a smile. “It should be really fun, they have this comedian coming, and there’s a taste-testing thing with soups…”
“Enjoy it,” I told her. “Don’t worry about a thing.”
I checked on the kids, everything was quiet. I cleaned up a little, feeling extra virtuous, and had just sat down with a sefer when the door opened again.
“Zahava —?” I jumped up. “What happened? The event got canceled?”
She looked upset. “No. No, it’s going on, and I’m sure everyone’s having lots of fun.”
“What— but why did you leave? What’s the matter?”
She slumped down on the sofa, fingering the rip in the fabric. “Did you know that your brother signed on a house?”
“Naftali?” I blinked. “What? Really? How do you know?”
“Because Idy was there.” Zahava threw off her coat, and her lips tightened as she spoke. “She came over to say hi, and tell me so sweetly how happy she was that we’d found something. And she was wondering when were we moving, because they hoped to move into theirs in the summer, but they had to do renovations first… and I’m standing there like an idiot. I had no idea they were moving. I didn’t know they found a house. For goodness’ sake, they didn’t even let us know they were seriously looking for one!”
My mouth was very dry. “I… I didn’t know, either.”
“I just want to know when all this happened,” Zahava muttered. “Like, does your whole family know? Are we the only ones in the dark — poor Gershon and Zahava, still in their old shanah rishonah basement apartment?”
There was a bitter taste in my mouth. “I don’t know,” I said.
What did happen? Why hadn’t Naftali shared anything with me? Why did he let me think he wasn’t serious about the idea, that nothing was doing? It wasn’t as if he hadn’t had the opportunity to bring it up. We spoke about house-buying a few times.
Zahava and I didn’t discuss the house anymore that evening. Somehow, the hope had soured.
Two days later the mortgage broker called. He apologized that things were taking so long. Apparently our low income complicated matters.
“We’ll keep working on it,” he told me reassuringly. “I just wanted to update you. These things take time.”
These things take time. Naftali must have spent a few months closing on the house, dealing with the mortgage and stuff. All that time and he completely hid it from us?
I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone and ask him about it directly, but my mother let all the news slip when I went by to pick something up.
“What’s doing with that house you were looking at, Gershon?” she asked. “Have you finalized yet? Naftali sent me pictures of his, it looks beautiful.”
She was so innocently happy for us. She probably thought it was sweet that both her boys were buying houses at the same time. How long had she known about this?
“I haven’t seen pictures,” I managed, before quickly making my escape.
I could handle my younger brother getting a beautiful house, I really could. I could handle him getting a house while we struggled to find something for ourselves. But being kept in the dark like that was not something I could handle.
If I could tell Naftali one thing, it would be: Why couldn’t you just be honest and open? Hiding your success and good fortune for fear of hurting my feelings ends up hurting me so much more.
“I don’t see why it’s such a big secret.” Idy fake-pouted as she plopped a lettuce salad onto the table. “I was talking to my sister today, and she was all like, ‘Helloooo? What’s up with you guys house-hunting? You’re taking forever!’ And I’m stuck telling her that we’re still looking into things. When it’s not even true!”
I spooned some more gravy and onions over the meat on my plate. We’d had this conversation so many times. “I know it’s frustrating, okay? But it’s just for now, just till Gershon and Zahava close on a house. I’m pretty sure they’re serious about this one.”
“They were serious about the last one, too,” Idy grumbled, but she let the subject go and launched into a description of the shoes she’d found online — “Literally half the price of the stores, it’s insane!”
I personally thought the online price was a little insane for a pair of shoes, but hey, it kept her happy, and it wasn’t as if I was paying for them. She still used the same credit card that she’d swiped through seminary, shidduchim, engagement, and their first few months of marriage — her parents’.
Her parents. That was the whole problem.
Not that I could honestly call it a problem. My in-laws were amazingly generous, supporting us fully and offering a down payment on a house, just like they’d done for all their kids. With a baby on the way, Idy and I were hoping to close and move from our newlywed apartment in time for the big event, to start our family in a more permanent residence. We’d looked at a few houses, put down bids, applied for a mortgage, and finally, we were more or less closed on a house that was as close to our dream house as possible. It was a little farther from my kollel than I’d hoped, and Idy didn’t love the placement of the kitchen right at the front of the house, but overall, it was amazing, within the right price range, and newly renovated. It was a done deal almost from the moment we saw it.
The only cloud on the horizon was my older brother Gershon.
My mother had been so excited about my in-laws’ generosity.
“Imagine,” she told me happily, shortly after the engagement. “You won’t have to struggle in those awful rental apartments, you know how it is for Gershon and Zahava, with their kids and all… you’ll be able to start a family with a property to your name…”
That was when an uncomfortable feeling closed itself around my stomach. I’d forgotten Gershon.
Idy and I ate at my brother’s one Shabbos, a few months after the chasunah. They were living in a basement apartment: two bedrooms, three kids. Zahava skillfully maneuvered around toys and books and the sofa to bring food from the kitchen into the small dining room. The wallpaper was peeling, and even with the windows right beneath the ceiling, the room was dim. I thought of the apartment my in-laws had rented for us “in the meantime,” while we settled from the chasunah and started looking for a house. It was an airy third-floor apartment in a well-kept building, elevator and all.
“Take your time looking, buying a house is a big deal,” my father-in-law had told us heartily. “You can have the apartment as long as you need it.”
He said that to put us at ease, make us feel relaxed. But looking around my brother’s cramped accommodation, I just felt guilty.
“The thing with buying houses, it’s a process.”
Gershon was on the phone. I settled on the sofa and carefully poured myself a Coke. I didn’t want to get the throw pillows dirty — Idy had matched them to the tablecloth.
“…so you gotta balance it all,” Gershon was saying. I snapped back in, a little guiltily. “I mean, we’re actually looking at a place now that seems really good. The kitchen is a little small, but you can’t have everything — especially with a budget — so you need to choose where to give in.” He chuckled. “It’s sort of like shidduchim, pros and cons, you know?”
Was it? My policy with houses was why spend till you find something perfect? But then again, I thought guiltily, we didn’t have the sort of budget that Gershon was talking about.
“You know what?” my brother asked. “I could take you along next time I go with the agent to see the house, there are a few things we need to double-check before I start on the paperwork. You available on Sunday?”
Sunday. Idy and I had our own real-estate agent coming then. She had a short-list of five houses that might work for us, and it was all Idy could talk about.
“Sunday’s not great for me, Gersh,” I said.
He sounded disappointed. “Well, never mind, then. I guess you’ll see it when— if we end up buying it.”
There was a little thrill in his voice. I hoped this would work out; he and Zahava needed a bigger place so badly.
Besides, it would be much nicer to finalize our own house after Gershon. He’d been working toward this for so long; let him have that satisfaction.
But fortunately — or was it unfortunately? — Idy and I loved the second house we saw. The agent was happy, my in-laws approved, we applied for a mortgage, and I waited with bated breath to hear from Gershon. When he didn’t call, I sent him a tentative text: How’s it going with that house?
He didn’t reply for a while, which was strange for him. Eventually, he messaged me: No go with that house. Back to the drawing board…
I sent a sad emoji and bit my lip. Then I went to tell Idy that we had to keep our own situation a total secret. It would be a few months before we moved; hopefully Gershon and Zahava would have found something by then.
Which brought us to this uncomfortable situation where we had an almost-done deal on our hands, renovations scheduled to begin, and a move in the not-too-distant future. And no one was supposed to know a thing.
When Gershon called again, to say that they had found something in a good neighborhood and were hoping to close, I couldn’t have been happier.
“Tell me about it,” I invited, enjoying the excitement in his voice.
Three bedrooms, a large kitchen — it sounded great. I pushed away the niggling thought that the house we’d just closed on was almost certainly bigger. What would happen when we actually moved in?
“It’s going to be fine,” Idy reassured me. She was as happy as I was that Gershon and Zahava had finally found something. “The main thing is, they’re moving out of that horr— that basement apartment.”
Her tone made it clear she wouldn’t have lasted a month in that place. It really was something to be admired.
“Yup, that’s for sure.”
I had a happy picture in my mind: Gershon hosting a chanukas habayis in a nice new home, and maybe a few months later — when Idy and her mother were finally finished designing the guest room — we’d host one of our own. My brother would be genuinely happy for us, I knew. And everything would be much more comfortable than if we shoved our good fortune in their faces any earlier.
“Well, I’m really happy it’s all worked out!” Idy jumped up. “I’m going out with my mother, we’re looking for ideas for color schemes for the baby’s room. I mean, of course we’re not going to buy anything yet, but I want to know the options. See you later!”
I smiled when she left. This was a fun project for her. And now, without concern for Gershon clouding the excitement, it could be fun for me, too.
And then Idy came home one evening from some Neshei program, looking a bit confused.
“How was the event?” I asked, getting up to make her a fruit tea.
She nodded and smiled, a bit distracted.
“It was great, but something weird happened — Naftali, didn’t you tell Gershon yet about the house?”
Red alarm bells started ringing in my brain. I put down the kettle.
“Nooooo, I didn’t yet. I don’t think he’s 100 percent confirmed the house, so I was waiting… why? Did you — tell people?” I tried not to sound accusing, but — oh, I really hoped she hadn’t ruined it all. We’d kept this private for months.
Idy blinked. I’d never seen her look nervous before. “I’m really sorry, Naftali, I had no idea… I was just talking to a friend, and Zahava came up to me — I told her we’re so happy for her about the house and everything, and then my friend said something about it’s so cute that we’re in it together, so I had to tell her we closed, and when we’re moving… and about the renovations…”
Oh, no. I closed my eyes briefly, and then opened them. This wasn’t her fault. I should have been clearer. I should’ve explained that even though my brother found something, it wasn’t yet definite that it would work out, and we couldn’t spread our news yet.
“It’s not your fault, don’t worry,” I said, a bit woodenly.
All I could think about was the mess that would be caused now, Zahava going home and telling Gershon — I hadn’t said a word, hadn’t even let on that we were serious about the house-hunting…
“But Gershon must be so upset now. I didn’t tell him anything.”
“Call him now,” Idy suggested. “Tell him we just finalized… tell him you planned to call tonight anyway…”
I shook my head, morose. “Nah, these things take months to close, he knows that.”
Idy bit her lip. “Sorry,” she offered.
“It’s not your fault,” I said again, automatically. Well, it wasn’t really. Maybe I’d been stupid all along, trying to keep it secret. But what choice did I have? I should’ve made Gershon’s difficult situation even harder by letting him in on our smooth purchase, just when he was desperately struggling?
I went out of the room. I’d have to call Gershon, try to explain. Maybe tell him about ayin hara, how my in-laws didn’t want us to discuss their largesse… but that was also a sticky topic.
In the end, though, my hastily constructed plans came to nothing. I tried Gershon once, twice, the next day, but he didn’t pick up the phone.
We went on with our renovations plans, and eventually heard through the grapevine that Gershon and Zahava had closed on the house that he’d told me about. I called to congratulate him, and he actually picked up, but he could’ve been a stranger. When I tried to bring up what had happened between us, he insisted it was fine, and he understood.
But he didn’t.
If I could tell Gershon one thing, it would be: The last thing I wanted to do is hurt you. I only kept quiet to protect your dignity.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 798)