The Still, Small Voice| October 6, 2022
It was when we lost our apartment that Ronny fell apart, seven years of blistering, blazing anger unleashed
Baking is equal parts science and art — let no one tell you otherwise.
I hate both.
I’m stuck, though. Just like the words in my head, in my throat. Stuck.
“Avivit?” Yaffa pokes her head through the flaps. “Did the timer ring yet?”
I shake my head and continue with the puff pastry. Dot, dot, dot the butter on a third of the dough, fold two thirds over, roll. Dot, dot, dot. If it’s going to be the perfect combination of crisp outside and tiny pockets of air inside, I need to work fast. Roll. Dot, dot, dot.
The shrill ring of the oven timer makes me jump even though I knew it was going to go off any minute.
She bustles in and snatches up the oven mitts to liberate the mini pie shells at that perfect moment before golden turns to brown.
“When you’re done with the pastry, check if the ganache is the right texture for piping and then go through the orders for today to make sure we’re on schedule.” Yaffa scuttles out again as I try to ignore an itch on my chin.
The phone rings and I don’t answer it, of course. But I do hang around to take down the message if the caller leaves one.
Two seconds, three seconds, and then the speakerphone.
“Avivit, it’s me, pick up!”
I’m already smiling as I do.
“Ron-ronny. Hello. Hello.”
“Avivit, guess what? I got two days’ leave and I’m coming tonight! I didn’t text you because I wanted to hear you say you’ll wait up.”
Of course I’ll wait up, funny. I haven’t seen my brother in so long, I should go to bed? You sound good, you sound happy, I’m sure you’re exhausted. I can’t wait.
I say none of this, just concentrate on getting a word or two out of my treacherous larynx.
“I. I-I-I’ll be w-waiting, Ron.”
“Ask Yaffa if she can spare you a few hours tomorrow. Maybe we’ll go out in the afternoon.”
And tell them I’m coming, ask if I can stay, he doesn’t say. He knows I can’t tell him anything over the phone, knows we can’t argue until he gets here.
I go back to checking the orders, marking them with little red Xs. Wait, the lemon-berry petit fours — did Yaffa prepare the custard? I sigh and go back into the stainless steel kitchen, the heart of Pereira’s French Revolution café, boulangerie, and patisserie.
Running a boutique bakery might be my aunt and uncle’s dream, but it never was mine. And I might be really talented with my hands, and the best choux creator in Petach Tikva, but I don’t want to be here anymore.
Four are considered dead — a pauper and leper, a blind person, and one who has no children.
If that’s the case, I’m surrounded by people who are considered dead. My childless aunt and uncle, my penniless brother.
I wonder why people who can’t talk aren’t considered dead too.
When I’m with Ronny, people think one of us is deaf.
After endless days of visiting me at the hospital after the accident, Ronny was out of his mind with desperation to hear me say something, anything. Then one night he crept in after visiting hours with a book on sign language, and suddenly there was one more thing to bind us together. If it locked the rest of the world out, well, Ima used to say we always had a secret language.
We decide to rent bikes in Reading Park. I’m grateful for all electronic advances that eliminate human interaction, even when I’m with Ronny. Punch in, swipe, remove bike. We ride in silence, looking for somewhere nice to sit and eat. The weather is glorious, but I feel a tug at my heart as I gaze across the weeds and rocks of what used to be the Sdeh Dov airport. I miss hanging over the fence, watching the small planes land and take off, with Ronny announcing plane models and sharing his dreams for the future.
Now there are no planes and no dreams.
“Let’s stop here,” Ronny calls, pointing to a shaded patch of grass.
I grab sidelong glances at Ronny as we take out sourdough rolls and fragrant kanelbullar. Pretty upscale for picnic food — for all I hate it, there are perks to working in a bakery. Ronny’s forehead is smooth, his smile easy. There’s none of that foreboding, simmering darkness I can sense in him lately, and something inside me unclenches.
Some people have more mazel than sechel, they say. We seem to have more sechel than mazel, Ronny and I — Ima’s stroke, Abba’s heart attack, a freak baseball to my throat, and then recently a court battle over the estate, leaving us orphaned, homeless, and speechless (for me, quite literally).
It was when we lost our apartment that Ronny fell apart, seven years of blistering, blazing anger unleashed. Abba’s lawyer messed up the will, or maybe Abba, reeling after Ima was gone, forgot to update it.
I’m tired of the fighting, though, the endless meetings with lawyers and banks and I-don’t-know-who. I’m comfortable enough with Maimon and Yaffa in their spacious home. I just want Ronny to be happy.
He catches me looking at him and grins as he lobs me a water bottle.
“Whatcha looking at?”
I’m just happy to have you home for a bit, anything wrong with that?
When we’re alone, Ronny never signs back.
“Well, we’ll be even happier if we eat already. This bread smells so good. You make it?”
No, Maimon’s still in charge of the breads. They like me to do the delicate stuff.
“For good reason, Avivit. No money’s good enough for the things you make.”
He’s going to talk about money again, I can feel it. I get up to find somewhere to wash, pretending it doesn’t hurt me that Ronny won’t follow.
Underneath, the pain is the same. But he took all the anger, my brother, and left me with the grief.
Today we’ll forget all that. We’ll eat and laugh and pretend we have everything we want — parents waiting for us at home, a cushy lifestyle, a sparkling future.
And a voice.
A burnt sweetness meets my nose as I enter the kitchen. The spun sugar baskets Yaffa has prepared are lined up neatly on wax paper, ready to be packed away for tomorrow. The café is closed, but I’m looking for real food, something to send Ronny off with. As close to a taste of home as I can manage.
I slice two leftover baguettes and find some salmon pâté in the fridge — Maimon made hundreds of finger sandwiches yesterday for a garden party. Then I dig in the freezer for something that won’t get squished at the bottom of a backpack. Here, some hazelnut brownies.
I wrap everything carefully, slip it into the white paper bag with its blue and red writing, and head across the kitchen back toward the seating area.
Back when I had to get used to the way my words wouldn’t come when I summoned them — not that I’m used to it now, but it no longer shocks me every time the clever retort I have in my head refuses to come free — I became noisy in other ways. I would clomp up the two flights to our apartment, bang heavily on the door even if it was unlocked, dump bags on the floor and slam closet doors.
It was my way of warning people I was around, announcing my presence instead of having to wade through stumbling hellos and startled I didn’t know you were theres.
I can’t pinpoint when things changed. Maybe when I realized that I didn’t have much to contribute by way of conversation anyway.
These days, I move quietly among people, appear and disappear at will.
Now it proves my undoing.
I push through the flaps and startle to see Ronny’s back. What is he doing at the counter? The only time he ever steps into the café is to look for me in the kitchen.
He spins around, something like shock on his face, but when he sees me it slides away into studied neutrality.
“Oh. Avivit. I thought you were upstairs.”
What is he doing?
The bag I’m holding slides from my nerveless fingers onto a stool.
What are you doing?
“Who, me?” He’s pushing a wad of light blue notes into his wallet. The one I bought him for his twenty-first birthday.
I can’t unsee what’s in front of my eyes. The small red cash box, wide open.
Did you just —
Are you taking —
What are you doing?
The dark is back, smile gone.
“What, Avivit? You think the uncle and aunt will miss a couple of shekels?”
Curse the baseball, curse my stupid stutter. Hands can’t scream.
I don’t believe this. What do you mean miss a couple of shekels? Put the money back!
Ronny’s lips curl as he slides the wallet into his back pocket. So tall, so striking, my brother the IDF pilot.
“Where do you think I get money to pay a lawyer, Avivit? From our inheritance? Payments from nonexistent bonds? My generous wages?”
My thoughts are like sludge, like nougat. Like thick, hot caramel taffy.
We’ll talk about that. But first put the money back. Now.
Ronny chuckles and pats my cheek as if I’m four years old.
“Don’t worry, my Avivit. I’ll give it back one day. Calm down.”
No. I won’t calm down. Put it back.
He turns around, casually plucks the bag off the stool. Of course he knows what it is. He moves toward the door. I feel the heat building behind my eyes, a rock in my throat.
I run after him, pull at his shoulder.
“R-ron. P-p-please.” Don’t do this. We’ll work it out.
“We’ll work it out. Exactly.” He lifts the bag in a clunky salute and pulls up one side of his mouth.“Thanks for the food. Bye, Avivit.”
For three years and eight days I haven’t cried. There’s nothing left to cry for after burying both your parents.
But now I return the little chipped cashbox to its place under the checkout counter, and my eyes drip hot tears.
First I ruin the chocolate by overheating it so it turns muddy and seizes. Then I take the macarons out of the oven too soon and they deflate until they look like sad purple puddles on the baking sheet.
My skin feels prickly and dry, and breathing seems to take effort.
Yaffa comes to stand next to me and I jump slightly, but she only watches as I try to pry a macaron off the wax paper.
“Not your day, ah, Avivit?”
I shake my head. Yaffa’s way of dealing with my stutter is to pretend it doesn’t exist. She fills in the gaps of my speech, completes my sentences, and preempts my effort at conversation by asking yes or no questions or just straight out guessing what I want to say. Most of the time she’s right.
“Maybe you should take the morning off; go have a rest, good idea.”
It’s funny, Yaffa reminds me so much of Ima, even though Maimon is the one who was her brother. Small, fiery, a bundle of sweet toughness, that’s Yaffa. She’s fought against so much tragedy in her life, had her most precious dreams denied again and again, but refuses to let anything defeat her spirit.
I hate letting her down.
“B-but I —”
“It’s fine, you took off yesterday afternoon for Ronny, you think you don’t deserve a day off for yourself, metukah?”
I take off my gloves, shake my hair out of the net, and elbow through the flaps. The café is full today. Maimon is refilling the brioche and ciabatta baskets, the new barista is bending over some fancy latte art, and there’s a line out the door.
“Here.” I didn’t notice Yaffa following me. “Take this and go buy yourself a book, curl up in bed and you’ll feel better soon.”
I stare at the hundred shekels in her hand. I can’t take it.
“N-no, Ya —”
“I don’t remember asking you. Take it and go!”
She leaves me holding a bill that burns where I touch it. It’s not as if I don’t have my own money; Yaffa pays me regular wages like any other bakery worker. But this is pity money.
She thinks I’m missing Ronny.
My brother. A thief.
I mindlessly let my feet walk me away from the main road and down some narrow streets. I still find it hard to breathe, can’t sort out the way I feel, don’t know where to go.
I’m on the second floor before I realize where I am.
What do I know about dying intestate, mortgages, foreclosure? This is my home. The three deep gouges in the doorjamb from when Ronny sneaked Abba’s penknife out and tried to carve a Magen David before he got caught. The sticky residue from numerous nameplates we made over the years. The loose tile that made a noise when you shifted your weight and never got fixed even though it drove Ima crazy.
I stand on it now and rock from side to side, thinking of all the things that have changed. Plink-plank. Mourning all the things that will never come back.
The money I’m still holding flutters in a sudden draft of air.
Who can I tell; what can I do?
Ronny, what have you done?
On the days Maimon has extra orders for his famous artisanal loaves, he’s happy to have me do the scoring. I concentrate on keeping the leaves symmetrical — if the razor goes in too deep, I’ve ruined the pattern.
My eyes and throat burn from sleepless nights. Still, my flowering vines look promising enough. I brush off a fine dusting of flour and turn to see what Yaffa wants me to do next.
I stretch out my hand to take the list she’s holding, but she waves it out of my reach and grasps my fingers instead.
“Avivit, metukah. I need to ask you something.”
Everything slows and sharpens, somehow. There’s the scent of vanilla beans soaking in vodka. I can hear the hum of the oven fans, the hiss of something coming to a boil.
And my heart thumping, loud and strong.
Maimon has his back to us, loading dirty bowls into the dishwasher, but I can see from the set of his shoulders that he’s listening.
“We’ve been thinking, maybe we don’t pay you enough?”
This is why doctors and speech therapists think my problem is psychological. When I’m upset or stressed, I don’t just stutter. I’m like a jammed cookie machine, unrecognizable lumps of dough oozing out slowly no matter how hard you press.
Yaffa throws an anxious look at Maimon’s back and squeezes my fingers again.
“I’m thinking an independent young woman needs more things, like clothes and bags and shoes, maybe?”
The shame coats me in a burn that starts in my neck and creeps upwards. My aunt and uncle don’t owe me a thing. I’m an adult, I could be scraping my own way on minimum wage somewhere in Ramle, sharing a dingy apartment with other single women.
I close my eyes and try to summon coherence.
“Y-yaff-fa. And M-m-maimon.” I swallow. Breathe deeply. “Y-you g-give me. So-so-so m-much. T-t-too m-mu—”
But that’s all Yaffa can bear to hear. One last squeeze and she lets go, my hand sinking woodenly to my side.
She searches my eyes and nods as if she’s found the answer to something she already knows. I don’t want to imagine their shock and confusion at the empty cashbox, even though that’s all I’ve been doing since Tuesday.
“Remember, metukah sheli, you can always ask if you want something, yes?”
All morning my shame turns into anger — a slow, seething heat as I paint delicate swirls of icing and decorate pastries.
Ronny’s text doesn’t help me any.
Hi sis, just checking in. Great weather for flying. Am somewhere up North but no Hermon 🙂
Not a word about how he left me, the money he stole. He knows nothing and no one will make me spill his secrets.
This isn’t the first one.
It’s some eight months after Ima passed away and I’m sitting on a low wall with Shilat. We’re licking ice cream that’s melting down our arms in the heat and watching our brothers play in the empty parking lot. At least we have a bit of shade, but the neighborhood boys are running around and whooping as if they’re not roasting under the fierce sun. As if they’re ten-year-olds again, not graduating teens.
Someone has brought a bat and ball so that they can play baseball like the Americans, a new fun sport. But they’ve spent years using their legs to kick the ball, they’re not used to the complicated windmilling needed for pitching, the concentration of the batter, the focus on a tiny ball. We’re laughing at them, Shilat and I, wondering how long it will take for them to give up and go back to soccer.
I’m turning for my water bottle when there’s a sudden yell and I snap back.
A ball whizzes through the air straight at my neck — Shilat, palm out to push me away, too late — a siren in my brain as the ball slams into me like a bullet and I topple over backwards. And then crack. Nothing.
But before that, somehow, the image that’s frozen forever in my mind — Ronny, bat dropping to his feet, eyes and mouth open in an unending scream.
Every day that I do nothing about the stolen money is another day that my feelings and thoughts jumble a little bit more, until after a week I’m a wreck.
I imagine a confrontation with Ronny. This isn’t our secret about who hit the ball. This isn’t a game of blame for things that are irreparable. This is hurting someone else. It’s stealing. Please, Ronny. Please. It’s not fair to expect me to keep quiet about this.
In my fantasy arguments I’m eloquent, passionate, convincing.
I wish Shilat lived close by. Explaining myself over the phone to my best friend won’t work, for obvious reasons. But neither is this the kind of thing we can text about.
I whisk and stir and drizzle, all the while wrestling with myself, until on Thursday afternoon an idea pops into my head. Rabbanit Turgeman! In a way, she’ll be better suited to help me. She doesn’t know any of the players in my life personally.
I finish torching the Swiss meringue, ask Yaffa if there’s any shopping she needs, and get on a bus.
It’s funny how I discovered her, this feisty, sparkling woman. She was giving out Shabbat candles in a mall, of all things, gesturing to passersby that no, she couldn’t hear, but she wished them Shabbat Shalom all the same. I’m sure everyone who got the packet lit candles that week, grateful for their hearing.
I press the button, knowing that there’s a light and vibration system that lets the rabbanit know someone is at the door.
Avivit. Tzaddikah. I don’t believe this. It can’t be true. Just when I had given up.
Given up what, I wonder, but she’s pulling me inside that warm kitchen of hers and has me holding a drink before I’ve managed to sit down.
Such hashgachah. I just said to Hashem that if He doesn’t want my plans to work out I’ll accept. And then you turn up.
I put the glass down.
What plans? I don’t understand.
Rabbanit Turgeman gestures at two enormous covered bowls on the counter. I’d recognize the smell of yeast anywhere.
Do you need help braiding challah?
She smiles and shakes her head.
For a month I’ve been trying to organize a special hafrashat challah event. For deaf women only. Think of the kochot. I had forty-one women. Just in case. And two can’t come. Last-minute complications.
She smiles again, triumphantly. And here you are.
This time I’m the one to shake my head. Rabbanit. I’m not deaf. I can’t come under that kind of pretense. Just because I can sign doesn’t mean I should join such a group.
Her eyes flash at me. Having forty women is more important. Such a segulah. It’s better if you come. You can leave after the hafrashah. You don’t have to mingle afterwards. I even prepared extra dough just in case. You don’t have to do anything except join us in taking challah.
I really don’t want to go, but such are the rabbanit’s powers of persuasion that I find myself lugging a bowl of dough into what seems like the simchah hall of a beit knesset.
Numerous tables have been pushed together so that forty women can see each other sign in a huge circle. Their movements are strangely beautiful, their arms like graceful birds swooping downwards, their hands the fluttering of wings.
And the absolute, eerie silence.
The everyday sounds that I would usually miss are magnified a thousand-fold. The scrape of a chair leg, the whisper of skirts. The crinkling of bags and saran wrap being gently removed from risen dough.
Rabbanit Turgeman is explaining what we are about to do, every motion of hers replete with meaning, but my throat constricts with an anxiety I can’t name and I focus on my dough, perfect smoothness starting to push over the lip of the bowl, and pray for it to be over already.
And then my phone rings.
The strident jingle sounds like an alarm in the silence and I jump so violently that the bowl teeters dangerously over the edge of the table. I rummage frantically through tissues and gum and papers and oh, where is that phone, and it stops ringing just as I grasp it.
My cheeks are on fire as I switch it to silent mode and slip it back into my handbag.
I want to bury myself as I turn towards the rabbanit, but then it hits me.
No one in the room heard my phone.
Everyone’s concentration is focused on one woman gesticulating passionately, and I slouch forward, heart hammering like a piston.
What am I doing here? I don’t belong to this wonderful group of women living in silence. I don’t deserve to be with them, to use their language. By what right have I stolen it, made believe it’s my own?
After the hafrashah, I wave to the rabbanit — thank you, we’ll be in touch — and walk out into the sounds of humanity, roaring motorcycles and honking and the squeal of tires. Of people talking and the tap-tap of heels and wind in the trees. My world.
And I know what I have to do.
I look at the emptying platter of melon balls and smile inwardly. Pereira’s French Revolution geniuses eat fruit for dessert.
The smile is vanquished by freezing panic digging at my insides. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s appetites, but now we’re almost finished the meal and I can’t wait any longer.
I push myself to stand. I think what I need to do will be easier that way.
Yaffa smiles at me. “Plans for the evening, metukah?”
“N-not y-yet.” My hands are shaking, and I squeeze the fork I’m holding.
“Y-yaffa. M-m-maimon. There’s s-s-something I n-need to s-say.”
I look to my side.
“A-and y-you too, R-ron.”
Maimon is silent as usual. Yaffa searches my face, my mouth, waiting for my opening words so that she can jump in to save me.
“I n-need you t-to listen till I. Till I’ve finished.”
Ronny puts his fork down, gently. Alert.
I’ve been practicing for weeks on end while waiting for Ronny’s next leave. Deep breath between words. Stumbling over the consonants at the beginning of each word, regrouping over the vowels. Stringing together awkward sentences like songs on a scratched CD.
But I’m doing this.
“I c-can’t thank y-you enough. All y-you do for me.” Inhale.
Exhale. “I w-want other things from m-my life. I. I love you b-both, you know that. I. I. I j-just don’t want to work in a k-kitchen. Anymore.”
Yaffa sits up straight and tries to interject but I hold up a hand and keep going.
I’ve thought about how love is complicated, how it tangles up with things like loyalty and worry and protectiveness and pity, like Yaffa’s. How she anticipates my words and needs. How she wants to cushion me from the world’s blows.
“I. Know y-you’re happy when I’m happy. And this. This isn’t it.” I think of the paper folded into eights in my handbag. “I-I-I’ve enrolled in a women’s college. Th-there are things I want to learn. The th-things I always wanted to d-do. I c-can do them even w-with. This.” I touch my throat.
Yaffa leans back in her chair again. Maimon looks at her but I look over their heads then, don’t want to break my concentration.
“At th-the interview. The l-lady said I had the s-same chance as everyone else.” I remember her firm handshake, direct gaze as she said that. My tears. Happy ones.
I smile now.
“I know y-you’ll b-be cheering me on.”
Maimon takes a napkin and wipes his forehead. I’m sweating too.
He looks at me, wary. His hands come up in warning.
Don’t say anything, Avivit.
I dig the tines of the fork into my thumb, deep, and then run my finger along the ridges. It would be the easiest thing in the world to use my hands for the rest of what I have to say.
Ronny’s love is smothered by guilt. And fear.
“I. I don’t want to sign any m-more. S-some mistakes can’t b-be fixed.” I touch my throat again, lightly, but move my hands upward and tuck my hair behind my ear. He can be sure that this secret I’ll keep.
“B-but other mistakes. Y-y-you can fix them. N-now.”
Three pairs of eyes look at me. One pair hard and angry, one smiling gently, one swimming in a pool of tears.
I bend to hug Yaffa, squeeze Ronny’s frozen shoulders, and resist the urge to apologize. To stay and see what happens.
Instead I turn and walk out of the door, heading towards my first lecture at the michlalah.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 931)
Oops! We could not locate your form.