| Family Tempo |

Through the Cracks   

Ohhhhh boy. Bribery at its best. I slip on the bracelet, refusing to allow it to feel like a very trendy handcuff


wave goodbye to the Grossmans and exit the Plaza practically skipping. Why does receiving packages from Ma back in Monsey make me feel like I’m back in sem? I wait at least a block before finding a random bench on King George Street to sit and examine the contents of the very large Amazing Savings tote bag my parents’ neighbors schlepped for me. That’s the test of true friendship: Will you bring random stuff to Israel for various relatives and acquaintances? Judging from the weight of the bag, the Grossmans passed with flying colors. I open the bag, owning the fact that I look like a homeless person getting comfortable on a public bench and totally not caring.

Yes, three boxes of Caramel Grab1s! At 42 shekel a box in the makolet versus $5.99 in Evergreen, it’s my most requested item. Then there’re the five pairs of Memoi black tights, a Kirkland onion powder, Montreal steak spice, four boxes of Gushers, four packs of Sour Lips, four boxes of Playmobil, cookie cutters in the shapes of hamantaschen and groggers, the pair of shoes I’d ordered, two sweaters Ma thinks I’ll like but are probably too small, and a small bag from Molly’s jewelers. Well, that’s unexpected. I take out a black velvet box, more confused than ever, and crack it open to find a stunning bracelet with a white stone butterfly set in. Ma knows I love butterflies, but what on earth? My birthday isn’t until Succos. There’s a letter in the bag.

Thank you for all you do for our mother. This is just a small token of our appreciation.

—Baruch and Faigy

Ohhhhh boy. Bribery at its best. I slip on the bracelet, refusing to allow it to feel like a very trendy handcuff. This feels a bit manipulative. Whatever, it’s not like I’m going to suddenly have more time in my life to visit Baruch’s mother — I already go once a week — so I guess it doesn’t really matter. I gather the goodies back into the bag and head to the bus stop to catch the #77 home to Ramat Eshkol.

I stop in the doorway of my apartment. Whenever I leave in the middle of the day and then walk into full-blown Levine-time, there’s a sort of magic that drapes itself over the scene — magic that I feel very disconnected from. Henny and Shira are coloring at the table, Yanky is hanging off the couch doing a Rubik’s Cube, and Pinny has his cars lined up on the coffee table in size order. They just look so perfect, so angelic. I lean on the doorway until Pinny spies me. “Mommy!”

The magic haze disappears and the scene sharpens. The girls are getting marker on the dining room table, Yanky is leaving footprints on the couch, and the entire house is in disarray. I detach myself to change into a tichel, and head to the kitchen to start dinner.

A little after five, the door blows open and Yudi comes barreling in. “Yudi!” I say. “Hi, sweetie, how are you? How was your day?”

He looks at me, grunts, and whirls off to his room. Well, that was charming. I wipe my hands on a towel, lower the flame, and head to his room. “Yuds? Yudi? What’s the matter? Hard day?”

He mutters something in Hebrew.


Mumble, mumble. I’m slowly losing patience, mainly because I’m exhausted to the point of stupidity.

“What happened today?”

He blows up. “WHAT HAPPENED is that tiny, scrawny Shimon Gerber was BEING ANNOYING, and because I’m bigger than him, everyone right away thinks I started it. STUPID. I CAN’T. I’m never going back to that school. EVER.”

Oh, this is just what I need. Forget the fact that I went to work, left early to go straight to Tanta Bea, went from there to the Plaza, came home, immediately made dinner, and have a pounding headache. No, today must also be the day when my son decides he’s quitting sixth grade. I promise to call his rebbi to straighten things out, and leave sighing.

What else can possibly happen today?

My phone pings. It’s Ruti from downstairs.

Don’t forget white shirts for Rosh Chodesh tomorrow 🙂 

Why’d I ask?

Of course no one has clean white shirts, and I have to stay up late stain-treating, washing, and drying an entire white load. I’m not going to run the machine if it isn’t full, and the kids need their shirts. Ma calls while I’m scrubbing; she knows I’m always up all night.

“Hi, Ma, thanks for helping Boruch and Faigy choose that stunning bracelet,” I say tiredly.

“Of course, Shiri. It’s so special how much you give to her.” Her voice sounds strained. “How are you, how are the kids? Are the Grossmans settled at the Plaza for the bar mitzvah? Did Pinny like the Playmobil?”

I try to answer her questions one at a time, but my brain is swirling, and my eyes weigh around two tons each. I slam the machine shut and turn it to delicate.

“Ma, so sorry, I need to go finish the laundry. Love you.” I hang up, confident that I’ll be receiving the worst daughter of the year award.

There are no chairs around, so I just sink to the floor, and close my eyes until the machine beeps. Time to hang the shirts. I peek at my watch. Four thirty-six. Maybe tonight I’ll get to sleep before five.

Apparently no one has clean skirts or pants, and the fact that I stayed up until dawn for their white shirts matters very little. I manage to get everyone out of the house only partially miserable. Guess I’ll have to try harder tomorrow. Hahaha. I text Ruti my gallows humor, and head to work.

It’s one of those days where I get the feeling that if I don’t crunch the numbers, it’s not going to make a difference to anybody, ever. But I crunch them anyway. An accountant’s gotta do what an accountant’s gotta do.

I’m mixing a salad in the office kitchen when my cell rings. It’s Brachi. “Ma? I don’t feel well.”

My stomach sinks with the helpless feeling that hits whenever one of my kids doesn’t feel well.

“Oy, Brach. Kay, go to bed, honey, I’ll be home later to check on you.”

Neve Simcha is quiet, the only sound from the burbling aquarium. “Look at the fish,” I say to the kids who are totally not with me. Mortified, I hurry downstairs to Beatrice’s room. She’s waiting for me, Rummikub set up on her little table, a package of Osem chocolate chip cookies open with a napkin next to it. I’m exhausted and worn out and I really just want to be home, checking on Brachi and making dinner for my family, but there’s something so lonely about the woman in front of me, the solitary occupant in her room. I don’t know if she has other guests aside from me; if she does they’re not family. Baruch, her only son, lives in Baltimore with his kids, and I’m the only niece in Israel. I wish I could visit more than once a week, but my kids aren’t great at sharing, and each one seems to want exclusive rights to moi.

“I waited all day for this,” Beatrice says, rubbing my knuckles, and it’s not a reproach, it’s a compliment.

I smile at her. “Me too, Tanta Bea.”

But by the time I finish laying out the tiles, my kids have already called multiple times. “I’m starving.” “I hate him.” “I’m going to rip her project if she doesn’t stop.” I am going crazy.

The kitchen is warm, the stew I’d thrown together bubbles gently while I chop a salad. Henny is doing a hilarious dance for me while Shira tries to keep up; Pinny is playing with his new Playmobil, and Brachi is sitting at the kitchen table with her history notes. Pinny calls me to see his setup, and when I go, the stew bubbles over. Suddenly, I have to bite my tongue to keep myself from snapping at Henny, who is now singing at the top of her lungs.

Instead, I pretend to know the words to Henny’s song, belting them out in an exaggerated American accent while everyone cringes, and Brachi tells me I gave her a headache. Amazing.

Chezky pokes his head in. “I’d join, but I’m allergic to nuts.”

Ah, 15 years of marriage, where the jokes don’t change, they just improve with age. I wrinkle my nose at him.

“You sure you don’t want to chance it?”

He smiles at me. “I actually really do. Gotta do the daf, though.”

I play along. “You sure you don’t want to skip, just today?”

He turns to the kids. “I would. But it’s not about the daf, it’s about the—”

Yomi!” they chorus back at him. Yup, enough nuts here to put him into anaphylactic shock.

Yudi strolls in. “Ma, did you call Rebbi about Shimon the Goober?”

I’m not sure what a goober is, but it does not sound flattering. “I’m going to do it right after supper, hun. Wash your hands and join us.”

It’s when we’re clearing off that my phone rings. I reach for it distractedly, trying not to drop it into the soapy water. Been there, done that, many times over.


Shalom, Shiri Levine? Hadodah shelach….”

She hasn’t eaten anything substantial since I last visited, apparently. I think about how I’m Beatrice’s emergency contact, how it is both sad that a woman who’s lived for 83 years has so few people in her orbit, and yet sweet that she chose me out of those few. Then I sigh, because I have no extra space in my life for a repeat of last year, when Tanta Bea fell into a depressive state and I was running there every day to make sure she ate.

I have Pinny with me, which is ridiculous on around 20 levels, but he wasn’t letting me out of his sight today. I plop him down on a chair, stick a lollipop in his hand, and approach the bed. Beatrice is propped up on pillows, her eyes huge, her face small.

“Tanta Bea?” I whisper. “It’s Shiri.”

She nods at me, and the weight of the world seems to be in that one head movement.

“Tanta Bea, you look great!” I lie. “Are you not hungry? Can I help you eat something?”

She nods again. I lift the bowl of chicken soup from the tray next to her. It’s cold by now. There’s a small cup of red jello. I offer her a spoonful; she nods again. She finishes the whole thing. The nurse looks so relieved I almost laugh. Almost.

I head home, swinging Pinny’s hand. I feel good, in that I-helped-someone way. Although I am now officially missing Henny’s PTA.

I feel like I’m falling apart. Tanta Bea won’t eat unless I’m there. And this time she won’t shower without me, either. I love her, but it’s too much. And the excessive phone calls from Baruch and Faigy don’t help, they just make me feel more claustrophobic. I’m pretty sure Beatrice is manipulating me, even if she herself doesn’t realize it. All of it leaves me feeling resentful, but I still head over to Sorotzkin after work every day, feed her a yogurt and banana, help her shower, and run home to be there when the boys walk in. I don’t want to be the only person she has in the world, which makes me more positive that I’m doing a chesed shel emes. Although, that might just be the yetzer hara playing with my mind. I don’t have time to find out.

Either way, an old woman needs me, and I’m there for her.

I try to juggle helping her with everything else, but I feel myself splitting down the middle. I divide my life into two lists: things I’m able to accomplish, and things I need to feel guilty about. I’m going to write a kids’ book: Shiri and the Surprise Life Threw at Her. It’ll be a spoof off of Dovi and the Surprise Shabbos Guests, except instead of “there’s always room for one more,” it’ll be “there’s always room for more guilt.” It’ll be a bestseller, right there next to the self-help books.


I begin to obsess over my Bea conundrum. I even ask my coworker what I should do, but she just sighs and says, “Wow, that must be so hard.” So, you know, that was helpful. Ma keeps going on and on about how amazing I am, and Chezky keeps reminding me that Bea’s not my mother or grandmother, and the kids need me at home. Which I know. But depression is not a joke, and a hunger strike can have permanent effects that I can’t hear to think about, and what will I tell Faigy? Besides, I love Tanta Bea.

In just five short days, I’ve missed Henny’s PTA, forgotten about Shira’s asifat horim (making it there only at the end), and now I see two calls from Yudi’s rebbi.  I make a mental note to call him back, but it blows away into the tug of war that is now my life: Feed Aunt Bea versus Be an Available Mother.

Pinny is the only kid not to bring a treat in for the big parshah party. And Brachi is barely talking to me after I snapped at her that she can help at home more. I know Chezky, or even Brachi, can visit Beatrice, but Tanta Bea knows me best, and I want her to be comfortable. And I can’t chance not going — the what ifs hold me prisoner. Not to mention the butterfly bracelet that I’m slowly growing to hate, purely because of what it symbolizes. And of course, there’s the snooty Russian nurse who gives me dirty looks and mutters that I don’t come often enough, which is why my mantra while rushing about Beatrice’s room is “I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry todaaaay.” It’s very catchy.

So when Yudi walks in and casually mentions that he’s been suspended, I’m actually shocked. Gobsmacked. Thrown for a loop.

Everything stops. I suddenly have nowhere to go except the dining room table. I look across at Yudi, he looks calmly back.

“You’ve been what?” I ask quietly.

“Suspended,” he says, his handsome little face annoyingly calm.

I grip the table edge, my knuckles snow white.

“Why?” Short sentences are best right now.

“For punching Shimon Gerber.”

Bite your tongue, bite your tongue. “Why?” I repeat.

He shoves his chair back with a screech that makes me jump.

“Because he was BOTHERING ME. And I TOLD YOU and you did NOTHING!”

His face is purple. I’ve never seen him so upset.

“You said you would call Rebbi and you didn’t, and every day he’d poke me with his stupid pencil or tickle my ear with his tzitzis or sing ‘Geshmak to be a Yudi,’ and I asked him to stop and asked him, and you know what? I’m happy I punched his stupid face.”

He storms off to his room, leaving me with absolutely nothing to say and a letter of suspension to sign.

And that night, when the house is finally, finally quiet, I lie wide-eyed atop my tear-stained pillow and wonder: Did I sacrifice my children in order to be there for a great aunt who might not really need me as much as she says she does? But how could I have ignored an elderly, lonely woman who literally wouldn’t eat? Or did I ruin my son’s reputation because I couldn’t juggle all the balls I had in the air? What do you do when there are just Too. Many. Balls?


All I can think is: Should I have done  anything differently?


Rachel, 45, Monsey, NY

My best friend’s mother, who is widowed, lives near me, and my friend would never ask me to reach out to her mom. She hires young girls to visit her. She knows I have a busy life, baruch Hashem. I work full time, and have marrieds as well as little kids. I manage to go visit her mom maybe three times a year, and go out for coffee once, and every single time, my friend is overflowing with gratitude. I wish I could do more, but honestly, I know I can’t. Not physically and not emotionally.

Shiri should have gotten herself some help. If Tanta Bea only had visitors once a week, that’s a bad situation.  There’s so much chesed in Klal Yisrael; I’m sure people would have been happy to visit her.  Shiri should have spoken to chesed programs and organized volunteers, or called Tanta Bea’s kids in the US and asked them to pay for visitors. I live across the street from an old age home, and we often go visit the residents on Shabbos. The rooms are teeming with girls visiting, playing games, or singing songs with the residents. I don’t see why they couldn’t have done something similar here. Shiri definitely should not have had to take the entire burden on herself at the expense of her family.


Yael, 32, Jerusalem

This story was triggering for me since it hit so close to home. My elderly parents live close by, and since I am the only one near them, I often get called upon to run errands or take them to doctors’ appointments. I love my parents deeply but when I have to choose between the needs of my family and my parents’ requests, it becomes an added stress. I keep reminding myself that chayecha kodmin.  When I juggle too many eggs, one is bound to fall, crack, and make a mess. My immediate family comes first, and I have to set up boundaries to keep that in place — for example, I have set days I’m available to help my parents or specific hours that I free up for them.  I’ve also discussed with my siblings what should be done in the event of a crisis. My husband and children have needs that only I can meet, and everyone benefits when I can give of myself guilt-free.


Rikki, 45, New York, NY

I coordinate events on a grand scale, and when I’m working for a month straight on an Ateres Kallah event, my kids know that for that time, I’ll be on the phone, preoccupied and less available. But I explain to them why I’m so busy — and the ones who are old enough to, assist me and join me at the event. When my kids see the 800 people in the room, it gives them the feeling of “My mother’s time was well-spent, there was a purpose to it.”

As a child, I always went along with my mother, when she would visit elderly relatives or do chesed projects. In this case, where Shiri wants to be there for her great aunt, involving them in this chesed might have benefited her twofold: they could have helped alleviate her workload, and her kids would have gotten a taste of their mother’s commitment to being mechabed her great aunt. That added perspective would have given them a greater understanding of the situation.
Include your children in your chesed. Then your acts won’t just be a technical success — they’ll be a chinuch success, too.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 832)

Oops! We could not locate your form.