It soon became clear that the sentiment was mutual. If Yaakov wasn’t eager to return to his family, they weren’t eager to have him back
Sometimes it’s only in the dark that you realize how much you need the light; only on a voyage to chutz l’Aretz do you understand how much you miss home; only when something is missing do you realize what it meant to you when it was there.
And it was only after my mother’s passing that we understood how much she had done for us. Not just for her immediate family, but also for the countless people to whom she had provided a home throughout her life. Only then did we grasp just how many “brothers and sisters” we Breitkopfs had all over the world, stray souls she had taken in and provided with a loving family environment.
If the bochur responsible for room assignments in the Ateres Yisrael dormitory had realized how fateful his every decision could be, he would doubtless have fasted and prayed two days before assigning each one. But I doubt he devoted a moment’s consideration to it. Only Hashem could have arranged for Yaakov to be my roommate that first year of yeshivah gedolah. Only He could have known how our destinies would intertwine.
The zeman started on a Thursday afternoon. I arrived two hours early, at one o’clock. Even before I had stepped out of the car, I saw him. His wide smile and irrepressible energy were discernible a mile off.
“Are you Breitkopf?” he asked.
Yes, I replied diffidently.
“Cool. You look exactly like they told me. Short, a little on the pudgy side... We’re roommates.” He shook my hand. “I’m Yaakov.”
“Kevod Harav, could you open the trunk?” he asked my father, tapping lightly on the rear window of the car.
Before I could say a word, Yaakov had dived into the trunk and was hauling out pile after pile of suitcases packed with everything you could imagine — bedding, clothing, shoes, snacks, what not. Judging by my luggage, you would have guessed I was leaving for a yearlong tour of the Far East, and not for the shortest zeman of the year at a yeshivah not far from my home.
Yaakov carried about 100 pounds of my baggage without breaking a sweat. I was hyperventilating just watching him. Amazingly enough, he could talk while carrying it too.
“Wait, what did you say your name was? Shimon? Ah, okay. So listen, Shimon, our room is on the third floor. There’s another bochur in our room by the name of Ariel Roth. No, he hasn’t arrived yet. We got a pretty good room. It’s a little out of the way, but we’re only three to a room. There are rooms with up to eight, so you see how lucky we are. I came a little early, so I managed to fix it up a little. I bought two new light bulbs, and I fixed the closet — the door wasn’t closing well, a new hinge was all it needed.”
He rattled all this off at a dizzying pace, breaking off only to exchange a friendly wave with one bochur and pat another on the back, in addition to the winks and other gestures he exchanged with the dozens of people we passed on the way from my father’s car to our room.
“Okay, we’re almost there,” he said. “We’re on the third floor, and most of the guys our age are on the fourth. But it’s good, this way we’ll get to know the older guys.”
It seemed like Yaakov had been at the yeshivah for years. He already knew most of the bochurim, and as soon as we reached our room, he helped me unpack my bags, make my bed, stow my things away, and perform a dozen other tasks I could never have managed on my own, but seemed the most natural thing in the world to him.
To get such a roommate, I gushed to my parents that night in my first call home, could only be a combination of zechus avos, motherly prayers, and Hashgachah pratis. There could be no other explanation for such a stroke of good luck.
And indeed, Yaakov would reveal himself to be a bochur with a heart of gold: the first to volunteer for any assignment, always upbeat, always in a great mood and with a broad smile, always with something positive to say.
Only one thing darkened his days at yeshivah: the learning. That made him sweat blood.
Yaakov, of all people — Yaakov who had never been late to seder or missed the davening in his life — couldn’t learn. And it broke his heart. It wasn’t that Yaakov’s mind was full of garbage. He would devote his whole attention to a sugya, but still fail to crack it.
It didn’t matter what time he went to bed. At a quarter to seven he was always on his feet. Naturally, we appointed him to wake us up in the morning, and he did so with perseverance and sensitivity. Within a short time he was put in charge of the yeshivah’s otzar haseforim, given duties in the kitchen, appointed head of the medicine and pen gemachs, and had become the definitive address for anyone in need of anything.
It wasn’t his heart alone that was made of gold — his hands were, too. No problem was too knotty for his improvisational skills and out-of-the-box thinking. A broken shutter, closet, or light bulb; a stubborn hinge or door-handle — he’d fix anything and everything with determination, skill, and creativity. It seemed to come to him naturally, as if he were descended from a long line of mechanics or engineers.
But of course, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Yaakov, we learned soon enough, came from a family of illustrious lamdanim and talmidei chachamim in Bnei Brak. His father is a well-known rav, as are his grandfather, uncles, and brothers. All of them of course learned in a top yeshivah in the capital of Torah learning, and it was he, the youngest and the family am haaretz, who was sent to learn in a distant city far from his home and family.
We all noticed that Yaakov never seemed eager to go home.
In the Israeli yeshivah system, new boys typically go home for the second Shabbos of Elul, to soften their landing in a new and unfamiliar institution. Yaakov, however, opted to remain at yeshivah. This was odd. The idea that a bochur would voluntarily choose the exile of the dorm to the comfort of home (and familiarity of his mother’s food) seemed strange to us.
But it soon became clear that the sentiment was mutual. If he wasn’t eager to return to his family, they weren’t eager to have him back. When we probed him, delicately, about the situation, the extent of the tragedy became clear.
“I’m more modernish than my family and brothers,” he told us with decision.
While I had formed some vague idea of what he meant by that, our third roommate didn’t have the slightest inkling what he meant to convey by that term.
So he told us.
He mentioned concepts that were completely new to us, but that had come to him with his mother’s milk.
“You don’t understand how modern I am — on Shabbos I use electricity from the electric company, not a kerosene lamp,” he told us in a confidential voice, as if he had just listed one of the three cardinal sins. While we gazed at him uncomprehendingly, he continued: “I also rely on the kashrus of the yeshivah kitchen, and don’t take additional maaser from the fruit they serve. In our family”— and here I saw him blush for the first time— “that’s not really acceptable.”
He had a whole set of unfamiliar classifications.
“In our family, everyone’s very frum. Very. Not that there’s no diversity. Of course there is. We have all types. Some of us are Briskers, some of us are Chazon Ishniks, others are an entirely different type, they follow the direction of Rav Gedalia Nadel. We come in literally every breed. But everyone’s deeply connected to learning, they write seforim, produce their own chiddushim.
“They sent me here — far away, to more of an open type of yeshivah — because I’m not like my brothers, not even close. Not just in learning — also when it comes to yiras Shamayim. You know me. During the summer I wear a short-sleeved shirt, and I even wear a watch on Shabbos. At home, of course, I do none of that, out of respect for my parents, but here that feels more natural to me.”
We didn’t know whether to laugh, to rage, or to cry.
We realized, from the incredible detail he accorded every aspect of his wardrobe, that there were worlds of significance there that completely eluded us. But one thing we understood very well: While we had set out to yeshivah with a sense of excitement and pride, Yaakov had done so with a sense of being demoted and distanced. It was an excellent way for his family to get this black sheep out of their sight and out of their lives.
Our hearts went out to him. How could you treat a child like that? How is such a bochur — talented, likable, honest, and disciplined — not the pride of his family?
For entire nights Yaakov shared his pain, a pain that never left him.
As we lay in our beds, looking up at the cracked ceiling and hearing the crickets chirp, Yaakov poured his heart out to us, taking us through the emotional roller coaster that had been his childhood.
“Since it became clear that learning doesn’t come easy to me, my parents have always seen me as a disappointment,” he said. “They took me to see every rav, we went to all the gravesites, my mother has soaked countless sifrei Tehillim with tears pleading with Hashem over me. She doesn’t understand — why did she deserve a son like me? Why is it that among her entire extended family, it was she who had to have a son who isn’t like ‘everyone else,’ who doesn’t learn?”
Not long after he first opened his heart to us, he began to direct his frustration at himself.
“When will I, Yaakov, the ben zekunim, stop embittering my mother’s life, and merit to finally learn like my brothers, like her brothers? When will I finally fit in with my family?”
We soon came to understand that when Yaakov was in yeshivah ketanah and still learned close to home, his progress had become something of an obsession in the family. As if the mark of Cain had been engraved on his forehead. At that tender age, this gentle-hearted youth had endured tremendous emotional upheaval.
“My mother davened for me all the time,” he recounted to us. “Usually she davens quietly, but she davened for me out loud. She wanted me to hear her. ‘Oy, Ribbono shel Olam,’ I would hear her raised voice through the wall. ‘Open my Yankel’s heart, let him stop looking outward into the world and become a true ben Torah.’
“And that,” Yaakov told us with resignation, “is why I don’t enjoy going home. I know my presence won’t bring them any pleasure. It’s not like they kicked me out, chas v’shalom, but it causes my father pain to be seen with me.
“True, I miss many family events, because I can’t deal with the looks from my uncles and older brothers. I can sense the eyes on my back and the significant nods. But what can I say, I understand them. A Jew really should spend his days and nights over a sefer. If only I were like them!”
All our protests that he was a top bochur fell on deaf ears. There was no one to talk to. Yaakov knew that he was a black sheep, and it seemed that he was more or less resigned to it.
The first time I invited Yaakov over to my house was on Succos.
Our family has an annual tradition of a special seudah on the night of the Ushpizin of Yaakov. The minhag started with the birth of my younger brother, Yaakov Chananel, and continues to this very day. We invite a huge crowd, and every guest named Yaakov — and there’s no shortage of them — gets to sit in a place of honor, as we all enjoy my mother’s delicacies, beautiful singing, and uplifting divrei Torah.
It was only natural to invite Yaakov, my newfound friend. The yeshivah’s Simchas Beis Hashoeivah was one day later, so we agreed that he would stay with us overnight and that we would go to the Simchas Beis Hashoeivah together.
When I introduced him to my parents, the chemistry was instant. My father was impressed by his yiras Shamayim and “common sense,” as he put it. As for my mother, it was as if she had finally found her long-lost son.
After an acquaintance of less than 24 hours, my mother began listing some of Yaakov’s wondrous qualities to us Breitkopf brothers.
“What a charming and serious bochur he is,” she said. “First of all, he’s so industrious. He gets up on time, or even before the time, makes his bed, and puts his stuff away. So polite, such a mensch.”
We thought we’d gotten the message — but she wasn’t done.
“Look how he takes care of his arba minim. Look how he leaves for shul on time with your father. I ask him what he’d like for breakfast, and he tells me something doable, something reasonable. He doesn’t ask for something he knows we don’t have.” At this point she raised her voice and directed a significant look toward a certain member of the family.
“And look how he says thank you for every little thing. Look how organized he is. I hear he can even lein beautifully. Ribbon ha’Olamim, what did his mother do to earn such a treasure?
“This morning he saw the broken door handle outside the boys’ bedroom and fixed it on the spot. Finally, I’ve found a bochur who doesn’t just sit — not some lazybones, not someone who has to call an electrician every time a light bulb burns out, but an omer v’oseh [one who does what he says]. What a lucky mother he has!” she concluded with a sigh, before returning to take care of her own children, who, alas, had none of the magical qualities of this wunderkind from Bnei Brak.
Beginning that Succos, Yaakov became a central figure in our household. His ideal image haunted me and my siblings every day.
“When will you be like Yaakov?” my mother would say. “Look at him, he jumps out of bed like a lion to serve Hashem, while you boys roll over to the other side.”
We took it in good spirits; Ima’s love for us was evident even as she praised this young man after her own heart. Yaakov started coming over for Shabbos, and on weeks when he spent Shabbos in yeshivah, he would come over on Friday afternoon to equip himself with some goodies for Shabbos. My mother would pack up a whole bag for him: chocolate cake, potato kugel, the fried eggplant dip that he loved. And he’d sit and chat with my mother like another son.
For my mother, the riddle of his patchy relationship with his family became more of a vexed question by the day. How could his family discard such a wonderful child, such an esrog mehudar?
On several occasions my mother offered to enter the picture as an intermediary: She would reason with Yaakov’s mother, explain what a treasure the woman was forfeiting.
But Yaakov wasn’t excited by the idea. “If you really want to, feel free to call her, but trust me that nothing will come of it.
“For my mother, it’s a matter of principle,” he explained. “She teaches in a seminary and she knows that people look at her as a role model for a specific type of chinuch, a certain level of exactitude in halachah. She feels that if she compromises and conveys that my path is legitimate, that could influence other families. And she isn’t willing to take responsibility for that.”
Yaakov was a keen student of human nature. When my mother met a relative of Yaakov’s who hung out in somewhat different circles, she heard of a similar attempt that had ended in fierce recriminations and the end of the relationship.
“What?!” Yaakov’s mother had cried during that painful conversation. “Am I supposed to be ashamed of wanting my son to light up the world? He’s a good bochur, yes, but is that why Hashem brought us into the world, to be ‘good bochurim’? We’re striving for the kind of relationship with Hashem where you do more than ‘good enough.’ That’s what our family’s about.”
My mother decided to leave well enough alone.
Yaakov reached adulthood, and his parents had to accustom themselves to the shock of a range of shidduch proposals that they could never have imagined getting before. It was heartbreak after heartbreak. Their older sons had all married into the most illustrious families in the Torah world. The offers they were getting for their youngest son were embarrassing, by comparison.
The daughter of a building contractor. The granddaughter of a supermarket chain owner. And even one who worked on the stock exchange. In the stock exchange?! Yes. What’s a Jew even doing there? Rachmana litzlan.
But He who assigns each being to their soulmate isn’t intimidated by such distinctions. Luckily for Yaakov, his good name preceded him, and even more luckily for him, it reached the ears of a certain wealthy and wonderful man who was a close friend of our family.
One evening this man came to our home to speak to my parents about a shidduch that had been offered to his daughter. My mother cleaned every inch of the house and ordered the children to stay in their rooms. As someone who knew Yaakov well — I had been his roommate, after all — I was allowed to be present at the discussion together with all the grownups. We sat there: my mother and father, myself, and the old family friend, late in the evening, in a tense scene that I’ll never forget.
“Listen,” the man said, turning to Abba. “You don’t have to say a word about his family. I understand that he’s an excellent bochur in his own right, too, with wonderful middos. We’ve really only heard good things about him. But I’m asking you candidly,” his voice shook, “because we’re talking about my only daughter and she means the world to me. I don’t intend to make a mistake, and you know that with the dowry I’m offering, I can get whatever I want.
“So I’m asking you to tell me, full disclosure, is he gold?”
“I would never dream of telling you what to do,” my father replied diplomatically. “But I can tell you from my personal acquaintance with him, that he’s tops in middos and a genius in chesed. He’ll make your daughter very happy. You may find better lamdanim than him, but nowhere will you find a better person.”
Eventually the couple got engaged. The parents of the chassan were only mildly disappointed by the shidduch. A modernish bochur, a modernish young woman. What better could they expect?
When the young couple visited the chassan’s home together, the family conversation “just so happened” to turn to the importance of a modest life, to how Torah is the main foundation of a home, and to the importance of a woman pushing her husband to learn at least a little bit every day, especially if she knows it’s hard for him.
Yaakov had prepared his kallah well, and she was able to finesse the conversation to her future in-laws’ — well, if not satisfaction, at least not their shame. Not long afterward the couple was married in a beautiful event, with the chassan’s parents still struggling to accept the gezeirah.
Unlike Yaakov’s parents, my mother was overjoyed with the shidduch. During the engagement period, the couple visited us often, and of course we offered to host their last sheva brachos in our home. Yaakov’s parents were unable to come, for whatever reason, so he was surrounded only by his chosen family at the event.
When he was invited to speak, he sprang eagerly to his feet.
“This is a speech I’ve been waiting to make for six years,” he said.
“For many years I had a question: why is it at Succos specifically that we say we’re sitting b’tzila d’meheimnusa, under the shadow of HaKadosh Baruch Hu? Aren’t we under Hashem’s shadow on Pesach too? In fact, is there a moment in our lives when we aren’t under His shadow? What’s so special about Succos?
“I’ve found the answer in my own life. Only someone who hasn’t experienced the atmosphere of a home can identify a home. On Succos we leave our homes, we step out of our comfort zones, away from what’s familiar and safe, and into the unfamiliar and uncertain. It is precisely at those moments — when we’re vulnerable and unprotected — when we discover Whom we can rely on.
“I want to thank you for the home you’ve given me,” he continued. “Without the home I found here, I may never have known what a home meant. If not for my situation with my parents that led me here, I may never have imagined that there was such a thing as a home. That a heart could be so open, that I could be viewed in such a positive light, that I could be encouraged, believed in, and nurtured.
“Now that with Hashem’s help I’ve found a woman with whom to build my own home, I know what I want. It’s not an apartment I’m looking for, it’s a home. That’s exactly the kind of home I want to build. I want to build a place that can accept others and see the beauty and grace in them. I want to live a home where the people are happy when you come, happy for who you are, and miss you when you’re gone.
“In shidduchim, some people search for apartments and money. I searched for a home. And baruch Hashem, I found one too.”
When he sat down, not a single eye in the whole room was dry.
“I have to tell you, Yaakov,” my mother said emotionally. “Nothing could have made me happier than what you said today. We bless you that you should enjoy every brachah together with your tzadeikes of a wife. May all your dreams come true. We’re looking forward to see the home you build together.”
There was a moment of silence, during which I overhead Yaakov’s whispered words to his wife. “If only every mother could treat her children with such kindness. I know mothers who view their children with nothing but shame and disappointment.”
And his young wife whispered back: “Maybe, Yaakov, maybe all those things you were missing… maybe your mother didn’t give them to you because she doesn’t have them either? Maybe it’s us who should be a home for your mother? Maybe that’s our job.”
Many years passed since that day. Yaakov merited to raise a wonderful family. He also opened a yeshivah for boys who hadn’t found their place in the mainstream system, and who needed extra attention and out-of-the-box solutions. He always remained close to us. He called or visited every week, and we never missed each other’s simchahs. In his living room he keeps a large photo from his wedding, featuring himself, his wife, and my parents.
“They’re my mentors,” he tells any guests who comment on the unusual picture.
But we never managed to form a connection with Yaakov’s parents.
We made several overtures, but they were never returned. And so, when my mother was stricken with a fatal illness, and Yaakov asked if his mother could come to the hospital to visit, we had no idea how to react.
Yaakov and his mother entered hesitantly, and sat down in the chairs at Ima’s bedside. There was an awkward silence. Yaakov was the first to recover.
“Rebbetzin, this is my mother,” he said. “She said she wanted to visit. You haven’t met in 12 years, ever since my wedding.”
“Nu,” my mother said to Yaakov’s mother. “You’ve come from so far away. Have something to drink, have something to eat.”
“We actually came from quite close,” Yaakov’s mother replied. “We live with Yaakov in his house now. Maybe he told you that we sold our apartment to cover the debt we acquired because of my husband’s illness. So we needed somewhere to go. All our children live in small apartments crowded with small children, bli ayin hara. But with Yaakov we’re very comfortable. He has a big house, and nice little rental unit below. So we live with him.
“Before my husband got sick, we didn’t visit him for years,” Yaakov’s mother continued. “Not since the chanukas habayis. I remember I saw the picture of him and his wife together with you in the living room, and I said later to my husband, ‘This is what he found to decorate his living room with? Where are the photos of gedolim?’
“But in the past few months, we’ve enjoyed such a special relationship with him. My husband, despite his illness, is so delighted with him, they talk all day. They go to shul together, and Yaakov goes with him to all his medical appointments. And he does it all so happily and with such kibbud av.
“I say to my husband: ‘Look how he’s opened his home to us, how he respects us, how sweet and intelligent his children are. True, he doesn’t learn all day, but he does learn something every day, and he has such special middos. He’s isn’t angry at us for everything that happened. He managed to build a beautiful relationship with us, despite everything we’ve done. He’s such a tzaddik, his home has become our home…
“Who said HaKadosh Baruch Hu doesn’t have nachas from him? Who said our family’s way is the right way for every member of the family? Do you understand, Rebbetzin Naomi? I see this son, who was always such a disappointment to us, and I can’t help wondering, maybe we were all a little wrong about him…
“All those years, I knew that he was thriving in your house, and I’ll be honest — I was angry at you, Rebbetzin Naomi. I see that now, when it’s maybe a little late, and my heart aches.”
She gripped the arms of the plastic chair and took a deep breath.
“Rebbetzin Naomi,” she said, “I’m here to thank you for being a mother to my Yaakov, for giving him what I should have given. I feel like I’ve missed out on his best years. Rebbetzin Naomi, how can I bring those years back? I want to fix it, Rebbetzin… to apologize for everything…” Her voice choked up with sobs.
Mother reached her hand out to her, and Yaakov’s mother threw herself on her shoulder. And my mother cried with her… tears of bereavement, tears of sorrow and regret.
After they had calmed down a bit, my mother spoke.
“You know,” she said, “Yaakov told me more than once that it’s only when you step out of the comfort of home that you discover what your real home is. That’s what it’s like on Succos, when we step out of our everyday homes and discover our real home, under the shadow of Hashem. On the last night of his sheva brachos he shared a beautiful vort about this…
“And it’s the same with the galus, when you realize your distance from Eretz Yisrael, which is the real home of every Jew. And it’s the same, sadly, when it comes to distance from Hashem. You merit to discover Hashem’s light only when you realize how far from Him you are. And it’s the same with children who only discover what home means when they leave their parents’ home.”
Ima, who knew that her days were numbered, continued: “Rebbetzin, very soon I’m going to leave my home. This body, that was a home for my neshamah, is getting weaker and weaker. I don’t know when it will happen, but I do know that I’m leaving my home calmly, without fear or regrets. I know that my real home is somewhere else, in the shadow of the Shechinah.
“Still,” she said, “I’ve managed to build things here on this earth, and I hope that I’ll live on in the homes of people to whom I’ve been a home. And I hope, too, that they’ll continue building on that foundation.
“Because home is a place where the people are happy when you come, and where they miss you when you leave. That’s the kind of home your son is building — for his family, and for you, and for all the people who don’t yet know what a home looks like.”
In blessed memory of Naomi bas Rav Shlomo a”h.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 833)
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