| Family Tempo |

Sleight of Heart

Why? Why can’t you trust me and just lie low? Why risk everything by putting yourself in the spotlight?

She’d been up till 3 a.m. for this, and it had been worth every minute.

Suri surveys the table: colorful napkins and balloons, gift tied with a jaunty bow, and the cake in its crowning glory in the center. Six layers, covered in light-blue fondant, and decorated with marzipan stars, top hats, and little bunnies. She snaps a quick picture before the footsteps sound and the cake is about to be demolished. Then she stands back to watch the reaction.

Birthdays aren’t usually a big deal in their family, but this one — Zevi’s 12th — is different. It’s a chance to give him a boost, her sweet boy with the eager eyes. Her seventh grader who struggles just enough that it hurts, but not enough to be singled out for extra attention by the rebbi. Her boy who studies five hours straight for a 70, her son who brings home report cards with phrases like “heart of gold” and “A+ for effort” and that’s enough for her, but never enough for him.

It’s worth making a splash for him.

Atara waltzes into the kitchen, stops short. “Oooooh, nice, Ma. When’s the party?”

Suri smiles. “Now.”

The back door opens, and the three boys burst in, all grubby hands and muddy pants.

“Happy birthday, Zevi!” she crows, thrilling at the delight on his face. “Surprise! Go wash your hands, and then we can cut the cake!”

“And,” Atara interjects, “you can open your birthday gift. Right?”

The gift. How long she’d debated, wondering what Zevi would enjoy, what would make him feel special. Shmuel had laughed at her research, her endless rejecting of ideas, the six options saved in her Amazon cart until she’d finally made a decision.

Zevi had a craze for those kiddy magic tricks, born one summer after one of the counselors had put on an amateur magic show for the camp. The boys had watched, applauded, and headed on to the next activity — but Zevi had stayed behind, wide-eyed in wonder, as the older boy collected his props. A few days later, he’d come home proudly demonstrating some trick with a napkin, a cup, and a coin, and he’d picked up a couple of others as well.

The book she’d chosen looked straightforward and had great reviews. The main thing was to encourage Zevi’s interest in something out of school, something that made him feel good and special. Now, she holds her breath as he rips open the gift wrap. Discards the sparkly paper and holds his new book aloft.

The light in his eyes is magical.

 

*****

“Ma?”

A text buzzes in, Adi Greenspan, Neshei. Her finger hovers over the screen. “Hmm?”

“Wanna see my new tricks?”

She looks up and smiles. “Sure, honey, want to show me now?”

He shakes his head. “No, in the living room. I set everything up and everyone’s already there.”

She’s curious to see the results of the long hours up in his room, perusing the book and practicing, coming out only to get a coin or ask her to buy him a pack of cards.

“I’ll come in a minute.”

Hi, Suri, the text reads, I’m reaching out about our monthly Neshei workshop. I hear that you do cake decorating. We’d love to have you be the presenter at the Chanukah get-together. Call me for more details.

She frowns and heads to the living room. Zevi’s pulling a coin out of little Michal’s ear and everyone claps. Suri claps along, wondering who had told Adi Greenspan about her little hobby.

Not that she’d dream of agreeing to do a demonstration. Whoever recommended her obviously didn’t know her that well. Don’t make waves, don’t open yourself up to criticism or mockery — those were her mottos.

“Ma, you see this napkin? It’s green, right?”

Zevi waves something in front of her eyes. Suri blinks, tries to focus. “Yes, it’s definitely green.”

Except that it isn’t. Somehow, as he banters with his sibling, the napkin is suddenly red.

She claps loudly when he’s done.

“Wow, Zevi, that was really something!” she enthuses. He goes pink at the praise.

“You think so?”

Her heart melts. He’s so thirsty for compliments, he gets so little recognition at school.

“You’ve worked so hard on learning those tricks, and you did a fantastic job,” she asserts. “I was looking closely and I have no idea how you did the napkin thing. Great job!”

Zevi looks pensive. “So, I’m really good? Like, good enough to perform?”

She’s taken aback. “Perform? But you just did, and we really enjoyed it!”

Her phone is buzzing in her lap. Adi Greenspan again. May as well get it over and done with.

Thanks for thinking of me, she texts. Sorry, but running a workshop isn’t for me. Good luck!

Like she’s going to tell Zevi, performing in the living room is one thing. But in public? Be the happy medium, that’s what her mother likes to say, and it’s what she tells her kids as well. Why take center stage, all that attention, all eyes on her? It can backfire on you. She’d learned that the hard way in high school, and now she was determined to spare her children.

Stay out of the spotlight. That’s her principle.

“Thanks for the show,” she tells Zevi again, heading back to the kitchen.

He doesn’t reply.

*****

A week later, Shmuel drops the bombshell.

“So Zevi had this great idea, he wants to do a magic performance at Yoni’s siyum next week. It’s just family, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but it’ll be a nice opportunity for him, no?”

She pauses in the middle of serving the chicken. “He what?”

“He wants to do a little show, entertain the cousins. This hobby was a great idea, it’s really building his confidence.”

“Yes, but wait, he’s not… he can’t perform, like in public or anything. Why make him into a spectacle?” Her mind races. “Why open him up to be humiliated?”

“What?” Shmuel leans his chair back and surveys her quizzically. “We’re not making him into anything. He asked me if he could this. I, personally, think it’s a great idea.”

“And I think it’s a disaster.” Suri’s lips tighten. She can just see it, her son in some outlandish getup, making silly jokes and getting kids to laugh while he waves around some colorful props. Why did he want to stand out like that? Nothing good would come of it.

“But why?” Shmuel is genuinely bewildered. “You’re the one who chose the book for him, you kept saying he needs an outlet….”

“An outlet, yes!” She rams a serving spoon into the salad bowl and puts it on the table. “And he has an outlet! And the kids love his little tricks! But I don’t want my son turning into a laughingstock.”

“He won’t be a laughingstock.” Shmuel helps himself to a generous portion of chicken and rice, irritatingly calm. “He’s good for an amateur.”

“That’s not the point,” she snaps. They were setting him up to be noticed, and the other kids… who knew how they would react? What if they’d make fun of him? Why didn’t Shmuel understand? “I’m going to tell him to forget this idea.”

Shmuel looks uneasy. “I’m sorry, Suri, I didn’t realize you’d have an issue with it. I spoke to my sister already…. She’s really excited, and she added it to the program and everything. And I told Zevi yes.”

*****

The tablescape is navy and rose-gold. Classy. Wire centerpieces, sweet-scented flower arrangements, monogrammed place cards. Shmuel’s sister has pulled off another magnificent affair, in honor of her teenage son’s latest and greatest — a siyum on completing a masechta entirely on his own.

She’s always been the quiet one beside her sisters-in-law, but tonight she’s almost mute, dreading the moment Zevi will take the stage. He’s been fairly dancing all day, checking and rechecking his bag of supplies, and reviewing his lineup of tricks with anyone who’ll listen.

She’s been watching him with dread in her heart. Why? Why can’t you trust me and just lie low? Why risk everything by putting yourself in the spotlight?

“Magic show, magic show, magic show, I’m sick of it already,” Atara grumbles. Suri wants to sympathize, but Atara’s hardly the one to talk. Little Miss Popular with a never-ending stream of friends and effortless hundreds on every test.

“Zevi’s worked very hard for this,” she says instead. Ha. She’s such a hypocrite.

She chooses a seat near the back of the room.

“You must be so proud!” Miri gushes when Zevi finishes his first trick with a flourish. “And he’s so young!”

She gives a tight smile. That’s what they’ve been saying about Yoni, all evening. Only he’s the mesayem, the tzaddik’l who’s finished another masechta, did you know he never missed a single day of learning?

There’s nothing wrong with Zevi’s performance, in fact, the magic tricks come off perfectly. And she’s sure no one else notices the little wobble in his voice as he warms up to the audience. The extended family applauds raucously as he ends the show, the cousins cluster round to beg for an encore, and dessert is served.

Suri breathes with relief. It’s over.

“Beautiful job,” Shmuel’s mother beams at her, across the table. “He did a great job, Suri. Good for him!”

“He could do something with it, you know,” Miri says thoughtfully. “Party performances and stuff, it’s a good parnassah….”

Suri raises her eyebrows. A good parnassah. Right. My son is a performing clown. And his cousin is on the way to finishing Shas.

But of course, she doesn’t say anything, just passes along an artfully plated portion of dessert, and pretends to smile.

“Suri, your petits fours are incredible,” someone says, through a full mouth. “I don’t know how you do it, they look good and also taste amazing. You should do this professionally.”

“Oh! That reminds me.” Estee looks up. “Did someone from the Neshei call you? Because they were looking for someone to do a cooking demo, and I suggested…”

Her cheeks flare. “They called me,” she says abruptly. Why do they insist on putting her on the spot like this?

“Oh! So why did Adi say last night that they still haven’t found someone to give a workshop?”

“You’re doing a demo?” Rikki squeals. “Omigosh, when? I absolutely have to come!”

Everyone is staring. This is worse than Zevi’s performance.

“I’m not doing a demo,” she says. “I said no.”

Rikki opens her eyes wide. “But why?”

“It’s not my thing.” She doesn’t elaborate.

“Shame.” Estee shrugs. “They were really excited about the idea.”

She catches sight of Zevi, he’s doing a coin trick again, and the cousins are all laughing. He spins around, makes a comical face, and there’s an outbreak of fresh giggles.

“Not for me,” she says softly, too quietly for anyone to hear.

*****

She carefully chooses a time for the conversation. Motzaei Shabbos, while she’s clearing up the remains of an impromptu popcorn party, seems like the right moment.

“Thanks for your help,” she says to Zevi. He’s piling up the used paper bowls. “How’s the magic going?” she asks casually.

“Sure,” he smiles. “And the magic? It’s fine, I mean, I bought a new book last week, one that’s all about card tricks. There are a bunch of different moves that come up in loads of tricks. I’m practicing the double lift now, I can almost do it perfectly….”

“Wow.” She rinses the large popcorn bowl, turns it over to air-dry. “So, it’s sort of a hobby for you, right?”

He looks at her strangely. “Um, what do you mean, Ma?”

She sighs. “Just… I’ve been thinking, Zevi, it’s probably not something you should really do as a career or anything, I think you should view it as a hobby, something you do for fun on the side, you know?”

When he gives her that bewildered expression, he looks just like Shmuel. “But it’s not full-time, Ma. I have school.”

He picks up a deck of cards from the counter. “Anyway, I want to practice more now. Maybe I’ll have a new trick to show everyone soon!”

His enthusiasm is so endearing. And it makes her heart ache. He’s finally succeeding, and she’s going to take it away from him?

*****

“Hi, I’m calling about the magic shows? For a birthday party?”

Suri looks at the phone in disbelief. If this was Estee’s big mouth again, she was going to let her have it. “I’m sorry?” she asks, her tone just a bit chilly.

The woman sounds apologetic. “Um, I heard — my son said, I think it’s your son who does the magic shows? I— we wanted to know if he’d be available in two weeks, on Sunday… it’s for a birthday party….”

Suri lets out a breath. “I don’t think that will work out,” she manages, and hangs up the phone.

So the word is out. Her son is officially a performing clown, one of those people going up on stage in a Purim costume and making a joke of themselves. Why? How?

When he comes home from school, she blurts out what happened.

“What’s going on, Zevi? Are you telling people you perform at parties and things?” It comes out accusingly even though she didn’t mean it that way.

Zevi twists his hands together. His eyes dart away. “I… I didn’t do anything,” he says defensively. “I practice sometimes in recess, and kids in the class watch. And then Tzviki, he has a brother with Down syndrome, and it’s his birthday party, the little brother I mean, and I said I could do a few tricks for his party… he loves these things.” He looks at her shyly, begging for approval. “I wasn’t gonna charge or anything….”

Her heart twists. “Oh,” she says, thinking of the hesitant tone on the other end of the line. A special party, for a special child. “That’s… that’s really nice of you, Zevi.”

She agrees to the show, of course she does, how can she not? But she can’t bring herself to smile.

*****

The comments are the worst. First it’s just the odd one here and there, then a steady trickle. After a few months, she knows exactly what to expect when there’s a tap on her shoulder, a knowing wink, an acquaintance making a beeline for her when she enters the store.

“Your son, wow, so talented, we enjoyed his show so much!”

She’s perfected her response, a pareve, “Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed,” with a pleasant nod. But it doesn’t make things easier.

“Fine, so he’s not an academic star,” she complains to Shmuel one evening, the kitchen door firmly closed. “He’s not gonna ace Gemara tests or get into the top yeshivos. But why not become a Hatzolah guy, save lives or something? Or a businessman, make money, give tzedakah…” She’s not making any sense and she knows it. What’s she doing, trying to wish away reality?

“I just wish he’d let go of this whole craze, I hate the idea of public performances….”

Shmuel studies his hands. “Maybe it’s time for you to let go, instead.”

*****

The card is simple and sincere and makes her eyes water.

Dear Ma,

I know you like private performances so I’m making one just for you. Can you come at 7:00?

She swipes at her eyes, leaving a streak of mascara across the back of her hand. Only Zevi.

He’s waiting for her at the doorway of the living room, his makeshift stage all ready.

“Ma! I have a new trick, you’re gonna be the first one ever to see it!” He waves the deck of cards that never seems very far away these days. “I’ve been practicing for months.”

She smiles and settles down to watch. There’s a single chair placed for the audience, draped with a royal-blue fleecy blanket. “I love the chair of honor, sweetie.”

“Thanks!” his voice comes out high-pitched. This is a big deal for him, he’s nervous, he wants her to be proud.

“Wow, that was great,” she says when he does the first trick, even though she’s seen it so many times before. He smiles, a little wryly. When did her son get so mature, so intuitive?

And, she realizes as he bows theatrically and introduces his next trick, he’s happy. Not just faking happy, acting the part for his grand performance, like the typical clown with the huge painted smile. He’s in his element, right in front of her with his coins and cards and handkerchief and the anticipation in his eyes, not conscious of anything except the props in his hand and the audience before him.

No oozing fakeness, no masking self-consciousness with overly dramatized acts. He’s just expressing who he is.

Maybe it’s time for you to let go, she hears Shmuel’s voice.

Was everyone laughing at her son when he performed? Were they looking down on him, a wannabe kids’ entertainer with a bunch of tricks up his sleeve? Or were they simply enjoying watching young talent, cheerful confidence, the shining eyes of someone who loves doing what they do and wants to take you up there to the clouds with them?

“Pick a card, Ma,” Zevi says, thrusting the pack before her eyes. His face is alight; oh, this is the new trick. She selects one at random, it’s the six of hearts. Her fingers are shaking a little.

Could she have been wrong, all along? Is shying away from the spotlight always the answer? Or can it sometimes be limiting? Stealing something from the world… stealing something from herself?

The card drops to the floor. Zevi bends to pick it up, bites his lip. “Whoops, Ma, let’s start over.” He shuffles the pack.

“Sorry about that,” she says, trying to slow her racing mind. “I’ll pick again.”

But before that, before she can lose her nerve, she picks up her phone and rapidly types, Been rethinking about the food-art demo. You interested in doing one for Shavuos? Her finger lands on Adi Greenspan, Neshei and she hits send.

“Ready, Ma?” Zevi bounces on his toes, extending the reshuffled pack.

Suri puts down her phone, and finally, she smiles. “I’m as ready as you are,” she says.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 691)

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