They’re a tight threesome, a little bit aloof from the rest of the class. I have lots of friends, but somehow Leah’s gang is just fun
orah Traub wants to see me after class.
I doodle on my sketchpad, wondering why. I haven’t done anything wrong recently. Not in Yahadus, anyway. And Morah Traub’s not my mechaneches or anything. I do all my homework. I got a good enough grade on the last quiz. I take notes. Most of the time, anyway.
“Rikki, what do you think?”
My head shoots up. I meet the teacher’s eye guiltily. “I — I’m not sure,” I mumble, cheeks flushing red. Dead giveaway.
Morah’s nice. She doesn’t comment and calls on Yael instead. I pull out my notebook and start focusing. I don’t want to mess up a second time.
Morah Traub and I have an interesting relationship, dating back a couple of years to ninth grade. Ma had been in the hospital back then; it was a difficult few months before Nachi was born. Back then she was still Morah Weisenberg, fresh out of seminary and our extracurricular advisor. I’d talked to her a little, then a little more. After Nachi was born, when we found out about all of his special needs, she was the first person I’d called.
But that was years ago; I didn’t do that kind of thing anymore. Teachers are for school, friends are for home. Morah Traub and I still chat a little, when we happen to meet in the hallways, but those DMC days are long over, and she and I both know that.
Leah, Adina, and Shari pass my desk at the end of class. “Rikki, what are you doing tonight? Wanna hang out?”
Usually, I’d welcome the invitation. Today, though, I’m distracted. I can feel Morah Traub’s eyes on me, and I just want to get this over and done with.
“Let’s talk later, ’kay?” I flash a sunny smile. Fool the world, go me.
They shrug and move on as a group.
I didn’t always hang out with them. They’re a tight threesome, a little bit aloof from the rest of the class. I have lots of friends, but somehow Leah’s gang is just fun. They do more exciting stuff together, maybe. They like my company too; it widens their social circle, so we all win.
“Riks, you coming home?” It’s my neighbor and best friend forever, Ruti. She’s in the parallel class, came to pick me up, I guess, because I wasn’t at our usual meeting point outside. Her eyes are wide with concern. “You okay? Why are you still sitting here...?”
“Morah Traub wants to speak to me. No idea why,” I try to play casual, but Ruti gets it.
“Oooh. Want me to wait?”
I shrug. I wish, but I don’t know what this is all about, or how long it will take.
“Call me later,” she offers.
“Yeah, whatever.” The classroom’s empty now, just Morah and us. Ruti gives a little wave and sends me one last sympathetic look.
“Bye, Rikki, speak to ya soon.”
Morah’s straightening her desk, looking too casual. I lean on a desk two rows back, wary of coming too close.
“Rikki,” she looks up and smiles, beckoning me forward. “Thanks for waiting. There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”
I don’t move. Some of the smile slips, but then she recovers, coming around her own desk and mirroring my pose so we’re facing each other, arms folded.
“I want you to forget I’m a teacher for a minute, okay? I’m just talking to you as someone who cares.”
O-kaaay. What on earth–?
“Do you know what I want to talk to you about?” she probes, holding my gaze.
“I have no idea,” I say truthfully. This is so uncomfortable; my skin is starting to prickle.
“Okay. So I won’t beat around the bush then. It’s your friends, Rikki, the new chevreh you’ve started hanging around with.”
My heart pounds. Anger, defensiveness, sheer exposure. What is it her business?!
“Do you know who I mean?”
For all that forget I’m a teacher, she’s sounding awfully like one.
I make my face very blank and shrug.
“Rikki, I think you know who I mean, but I’ll spell it out anyway. Leah, Shari, Adina… that group. You’ve become very friendly with them recently, haven’t you?”
“They’re nice girls,” I say, too loudly, too defensively. “They’re nice, and they’re friendly, and they don’t have lots of friends in the class either, okay? So, I’m nice to them, it goes both ways, they like it when I hang out with them….”
“Yes, I know all of that, Rikki, and I’m sure they like you very much. You’re a popular girl.” She pauses, and the compliment cuts my rant short. I’m not sure what to say next. It’s okay, though, because she talks first.
“I don’t know if you notice it, though, but influences — subtle influences — can change a person. Do you see that?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I say stiffly. “They’re not doing anything wrong.”
She waves it away. “Wrong or not wrong, if something’s having a bad effect on you it might be time to figure out why.”
I keep my face very blank, but inside it hits hard, because she’s right. I have changed. The music, the clothes, even the language. It happened kind of naturally, just the things you have to do to fit in, and I don’t think I’ve done anything terrible, but I’m not the same as I used to be, I know.
“I know they come from very a different place than you, different standards,” Morah Traub went on. “Maybe what they do is understandable for where they come from. But you, Rikki, you don’t belong there.”
I can’t stand here and betray my friends by agreeing with her.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I mumble. But it’s not true. I do.
Like I said, Morah’s nice. She doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me, and her eyes are sad.
“Can I go now?” I ask, when the silence stretches too long. I don’t mean to, but my tone comes out belligerent.
“You’re a great girl, Rikki,” Morah Traub says finally. “Don’t lose sight of who you are.”
I run all the way home.
Just to show her, I spend the entire Sunday with my new friends. So what that they dress a little differently than me, do things I wouldn’t do with my other classmates? It’s what they’re used to. And I don’t need to change. I can join in with them and still be myself.
We go bowling and then play some arcades. I beat Adina at air hockey and we both shriek with laughter. The arcade place is packed, no one I recognize, though many are probably Jewish. Not my usual crowd. Some people turn around and stare at the noise, and I feel a twinge. But we’re not doing anything wrong, are we?
When we’re done indoors, we head to a nearby park. It’s too early to go home, Leah decides, so we have to entertain ourselves for another hour here. Shari suggests ice cream, so we troop off to get some. We take our cones back to the park and Leah puts on music through the speakers she’s always carrying around. It’s not a Jewish song.
“Let’s make up a dance!” she says, and the others jump up in agreement.
I love dancing. I watch them for a minute or two, licking my scoop lazily. I have much better steps to this beat, they’re clueless here.
“Okay, guys, watch me,” I say, and they gather round.
They catch on fast. Soon we’re kicking and spinning to the beat, breathless and laughing. Shari hops off to take a video and we make silly faces at the camera.
People pass by and we get some funny stares. I feel that twinge again. But we’re not doing anything wrong. Or are we?
I wonder for a moment how I would feel if Morah Traub passed by now. Or the principal. Or my parents. They would be…
They would be super disappointed in me.
It is wrong, I realize. I would never dance in public like this, even a silly dance, with my other friends. It’s wrong for me, because it’s lowering my standards. Even if I have friends who don’t yet know any better.
I flop down on the grass and look at them again. They don’t look guilty, or torn, or anything but carefree and seem to be enjoying themselves to the utmost. Maybe they really don’t see anything wrong here. It’s what they’re used to. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for me.
Morah, of course, was right. But even though I shrug at Leah’s offer to join the dance again, mutter something about being tired, and walk home very deep in thought, I don’t refuse to join them again when they invite me to a sleepover.
“Rikki, can you come here please?” Ma sounds stressed. It’s two days till Yom Tov, so I can’t really blame her.
I pull on a hoodie and come downstairs, yawning. I was on the phone with Ruti for hours last night, after a pizza party with the gang. It had been another late night, and the jarring balance between the worlds of my friends isn’t making things any easier.
“I need you to take Nachi out for a bit,” my mother says, barely looking up. “He needs some fresh air and I’m right in the middle of a recipe. Can you do that, please?”
Nachi, Nachi, Nachi. It’s always about him, and no surprise there. My two-year-old brother, whose arrival caused so much upheaval, has special needs.
“I’m tired,” I mutter. Tired of people telling me what to do. I want to go back to bed.
Ma’s lips go tight. “Rikki, it’s Erev Yom Tov, I need your help.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll take him, whatever.”
Nachi beams and bounces in his stroller while I sulk all the way to the park.
It’s been so long since anyone understood me. Or had time for me.
I stand in shul that first morning of Shavuos, holding a machzor and listening to the strains of Hallel. I don’t really enjoy going to shul, but Tatty likes it when we do. So I’m here, with Sara and Gitty, such a good daughter. I wish I were in bed. No one understands me.
It’s not really true, whispers my conscience. There are lots of people who try to understand. Who have time for you. You just….
Don’t let them. Because then they tell me things I don’t want to hear. And even when I do hear, I don’t want to… to listen.
Morah Traub tried. Even Ma mentioned something the other day, about my new friends, asking if everything’s okay. Things are hard in my family with Nachi, so I was impressed that she even noticed. I shrugged her concerns off, of course.
Hallel is over. Sara nudges me; we’re about to start leining and she’s lost the place. I show her just as the baal korei begins reading the Aseres Hadibros, his voice resounding in the large room below.
The Ten Commandments. I close my eyes and suddenly I am there: at the foot of a mountain, throngs of people around me, hearing a Voice impart the words of command, of faith.
I am Hashem! You shall have no other gods before Me.
And the next, and the next, until all ten are lined up, flaming rows of words upon words, to uphold and to keep.
I see the crowd and the smoke and the lightning and I think of what Morah Traub taught us earlier that week, of the nation’s unconditional acceptance of all they would be told.
Naaseh v’nishma. Two crowns, the Jews of the desert received, two crowns for two statements. And the question, why first to do and then to listen? We’d learned answers, learned about uncompromising faith and trust. But maybe it’s also because doing is one thing, and listening is very much another.
Maybe because it’s hard, so hard, to listen.
Even if you know the other person is right.
I go to bed after the meal, for a long nap, but I don’t sleep a wink.
Havdalah’s barely over when Adina calls. “We’re going bowling later, wanna come?”
I love bowling, I go all the time. But later? That means very late. I would never do that with Ruti, or my siblings, or anyone else.
But they’re so much fun to be around, it would be a blast. Leah will bring her speakers, we’d make our own music until some staff member stopped us. Shari would provide refreshments and Adina would treat us all to Slurpees somewhere, garish blues and reds that tingle on the tongue.
I want to go so much, it hurts.
“Rikki, can you come help out in here?” Ma calls. She sounds harried and overwhelmed, Nachi’s crying somewhere, and there’s three days’ worth of mess to clean up.
“I’ll call you back soon, ’kay?” I say hurriedly, and hang up.
“My friends are going bowling later,” I tell Ma casually. I watch a frown form between her eyes, daring her to tell me not to go. That alone would probably make my decision.
But she doesn’t. She just says, “Are you sure you want to go?” and suddenly there are tears springing behind my eyes and the truth is aching in my stomach and I realize that no, no, I want to listen to the voice inside me that agrees with Morah, with my parents. I don’t really want this.
“Nah, I’m tired. I’m going to hang out here. Maybe I’ll invite another friend over.”
Ma gives me a happy-proud look. I’m embarrassed but happy all at once.
I call Ruti. “Wanna come over?” I ask. “And bring your guitar….”
We’ll sit and sing and make popcorn and talk. And I won’t think about Leah’s gang out partying. Just for one night.
Tomorrow, next month, next year, it’s all blank on the horizon, but I’m taking one little step. One little step towards a giant mountain called Listening. Hearing. Taking advice from people who really care about me… and maybe one day, I’ll even learn to ask for it myself.
I think I deserve a crown, too.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 763)
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