After a long minute, Mommy had sighed and smiled and said, “Your father means well, Yechezkel, and he loves his family”
There had been a group of Kach’niks at Chezi’s bar mitzvah, clustered at a round table in the corner of the Banyad Hall basement in Spring Valley, with their large white knitted yarmulkes and military bearing, two of them in actual military garb.
They ate the same knishes in mushroom sauce as everyone else and drank Be’er Mayim soda, because the hall didn’t allow non-heimish brands and whatever askan had helped Chezi’s mother figure out the event hadn’t been very picky with halls.
At the end, it had been a cute distraction. Chezi’s classmates who knew nothing about Meir Kahane and Kach were awed by the presence of adults who owned guns and were happy to tell the wide-eyed boys about the responsibility of a Jew. At some point, the menahel came to say mazel tov and he had broken up the little conversation, leading the boys in dancing, but for the rest of junior high, the boys talked about those men.
Chezi knew a bit more than they did, because Abba would go to every Kach meeting and come back enthused, talking to no one and everyone about “building a future” and “making what’s our own, our own.”
That period hadn’t lasted long, because Abba had moved on soon after, Satmar, Lubavitch, Breslov, and Pshevorsk in less than two years. He had once spent four full months in the Ukraine, part of a small group that worked on heightened focus, and it took weeks of preparation to actually experience anything, so if they were going to do it, they should do it right. Abba had called the children together to explain this to them — he would be away for a while but they should know he would be davening for them and though he couldn’t really call or write, he would need all his focus there, they were connected in their neshamos.
At that point, it didn’t make much of a difference. Even when Abba was around, he wasn’t really around much. He slept a lot because of his various medical conditions and was altogether fragile. He was a vehement opponent of the kosher food industry, convinced that the chemicals and additives had weakened him in the first place, but Mommy had long ago learned to live with his protests. She didn’t argue, or even ignore them. She would listen, nod soothingly, and do her thing.
Once, when Chezi was sixteen years old, he asked Mommy point blank why she didn’t get divorced. He felt very mature saying the word, and he wasn’t sure how Mommy would react.
She was cool, looking at him for a while before she said anything.
She got the question. Her husband, who had been an eager, personable, inspired baal teshuvah like she was when they had gotten married, was more like a familiar guest now, wandering through rooms and muttering to himself and then disappearing again. Mommy worked long hours for TriStar Insurance and somehow ran the house and made do with whatever food came their way in the boxes and tried to be there for the children, expecting nothing and getting nothing from the man they called Abba, though he had recently tried, unsuccessfully, to get them to switch to Tatte, since Abba sounded Zionist. Currently, he was busy with a group fighting immorality, and spent most of his time writing emails to newspapers and raising money for the major legal challenge they were launching against New York State on behalf of traditional marriage, regularly going to meetings to plan strategy.
After a long minute, Mommy had sighed and smiled and said, “Your father means well, Yechezkel, and he loves his family.”
Chezi didn’t argue, but he wasn’t sure that his father loved them. He knew his father loved causes, that he loved groups, and he loved theories about who was right and how they were being wronged, but did he love his family? Even when he came to the Shabbos table, it was to push away the processed foods and eat his weird-smelling herbal dishes and stubbornly make his way through zemiros though his ivra wasn’t great and he couldn’t sing.
Chezi had contemplated this, remembering, suddenly, a moment many years earlier when he had been on the swings at Viola Park, Abba pushing him and singing, “Chezi fly, Chezi fly, Chezi flyyyyy” with each touch.
When they used to walk to shul together, Abba would often put his arm around Chezi’s shoulders, and that had felt like love, but now Abba davened in his own places, either vasikin or in his tiny study. Once, when Chezi’s bike was stolen, Abba had shaken his head sadly and said, “I would punch that thief in the nose if I saw him,” which had made Chezi feel good.
Did Abba love them? Did he?
Chezi was the oldest of four, and he had never really made any trouble. He hadn’t been a big learner, but Mommy’s boss, Mr. Blau, had helped him find yeshivos where he had done okay. In Franklin Lakes, one of the rebbeim realized that Chezi had a nice voice and called him over.
“You sing beautifully, did you know that?”
Not really, Chezi said, he knew he liked music, but not that he sang well.
“You never sing at the Shabbos table?” the rebbi asked. Chezi thought about the smell of herbs and the wobbly third-hand dining room table and Abba earnestly lecturing about vaccinations as a means of government takeover and apologizing for being the one who spoke truth, and said that no, he had never really sang at the Shabbos table.
“And what about davening from the amud?” But that just brought up images of going to daven alone at Greenwald’s on the corner, and the loud, shouted, passionate tefillos from behind Abba’s study door. Those sounded like connection, but Chezi knew they were really just frustration. No, he told the rebbi, he hadn’t really had the chance to daven from the amud.
So Chezi became a baal tefillah. Rabbi Lang stood two feet away and encouraged him the first few times, but two years later, when Chezi left Yeshivah of Franklin Lakes, he was already singing publicly. It started with friends’ chasunahs, and then someone in yeshivah recommended him for the backup choir in an album, and that’s where he had met Shmulik.
From Franklin Lakes, he had gone to Levine’s, where he learned half a day and worked with some of the other bochurim selling on Amazon in the afternoon and he felt good about both parts of it. At night, Shmulik found gigs, usually low-end bar mitzvahs or sheva brachos, but every dollar helped. He went home for Shabbos, trying to lead the seudah for Mommy and the other children, feeling proud of that too.
Abba was Neturei Karta now, spending long hours in Manhattan and even traveling to Washington a few times for what he called meetings. On Shabbos, he wore a shtreimel and gold beketshe and davened at a Neturei Karta shul across Monsey, so he didn’t come home until late in the afternoon, after their seudah was usually done.
Chezi was polite, and even tried to be respectful, but they didn’t have many mutual interests. Abba spoke to him about finding truth and treating it like a treasure, and Chezi would nod. Yes, for sure, he was all for truth.
One night, Chezi and his younger brother were playing Mastermind and Abba wandered by and stopped to watch, and feeling bold, Chezi said, “Abba, want to join us and play?” and Abba stood there for a minute, swaying. He sat down gingerly, and asked about the rules, but he couldn’t really get the hang of it and slipped away after a few minutes.
Chezi’s phone was turned off for seder and when he came out, there were six missed calls from Shmulik and a text — CALL ASAP.
“You sitting?” Shmulik was Israeli and had no real interest in learning proper grammar. “You sitting, Chezi?”
Chezi said yes, even though he wasn’t actually, because you didn’t have to be sitting to be sitting, was his thinking.
“Fried. Shwekey. The Chol Hamoed concert, and you’re going to open for them. First time ever, Chezi Block in concert,” Shmulik exhaled. “Eh, what you say, motek?”
Chezi knew that Shmulik had been working toward this goal, but he hadn’t expected it so fast. He thought it would be a Chol Hamoed afternoon gig in Baltimore, or maybe a kids’ amusement park concert, but the Tikvas Chana concert was straight to the big leagues.
Why? Why? It didn’t make sense. Why him?
Shmulik wasn’t big on diplomacy.
“Okay, you know that I like you, that’s the main reason. Also, the producer is my friend and he’s way over budget on this event so he needs someone free and also, you have a very different kind of voice, it gives variety.
“New singing sensation, Chezi Block,” Shmulik said in an announcer voice, “or maybe just Chezi? No last name? What do you say?”
Chezi laughed. He would let Shmulik worry about it; he wanted to get back to the dorm and tell the guys. He knew they would be happy for him. But first, he would tell Mommy and let her have a bit of nachas.
It was hard work, even if it was only a seven-minute opening and five minutes mid-concert. Shmulik had him working with Claude, the voice coach, once a week, and they were in constant discussion about which songs to perform in his joint Fried-Shwekey medley, if it was better to do classics or the songs that had never gotten their due.
Shmulik thought Chezi needed something to brand him, maybe to wear a scarf onstage or a bright-colored sweater, something to make him recognizable. The guys in the dorm found that hilarious, and every night, Wagner came up with new ideas. “Chez, I found an Elmo suit today at Marshalls, that will be a great branding zach,” and “Chez, what about a tuxedo, seriously?”
Chezi rolled with it. It was part of being chal, he told them, that he could ignore their jokes; real celebrities rose above it.
There were a hundred guys just like him, he knew, who sang just as well and were as clean-cut as he was. He had gotten a lucky break and he was running with it.
Shmulik’s wife was the first to notice, a random message surfacing on her social media feed.
STOP THE HATE!
On April 18th, a concert to benefit Tikvas Chana is scheduled to be held at Chateau Grande in Rockleigh, New Jersey, with Avraham Fried, Yaakov Shwekey, and a new singer, Chezi Block, appearing on stage.
BUT WHO IS CHEZI BLOCK???
There was a picture there, a grainyish image of a group of men standing on Main Street and Route 59 in Monsey holding red-and-black lettered signs that said Free Palestine, Israel You are Not Us, and Down with The Zionist Aggressor.
Someone had added an arrow pointing to Chaim Leib Block’s head.
Do We Support Hate? No! Before buying tickets, please call or email Tikvas Chana or Next Level Productions and tell them that a good voice isn’t enough.
She frowned and continued scrolling, not sure what the whole thing was about. At least it didn’t say anything about Shmulik, right? But the next day, a nutrition guru she followed also shared it and it kept popping up and she showed it to her husband after supper that night.
He laughed out loud. “It’s not Chezi, it’s his father, and the whole thing will blow over as soon as they find something else to get angry about.”
But then the lady from Sinless Sourdough, who had a nephew in the IDF, got into the action, wondering how Jews could support someone whose father clearly preached hate. Yes, she knew it wasn’t Chezi, it was his father, but you live with someone under one roof, you breathe in their views. If Chezi was comfortable with it, he should come on her page and say that he didn’t agree with his father’s position. He should make it clear he isn’t complicit in all that hate. That was all it would take, but otherwise, she would go to war.
She used those words, hissing as she said, “I will Go. To. War! Our money will not fuel hate. Jewish blood is not for sale,” while shaking her fist, and suddenly, it was everywhere.
The secretary at Tikvas Chana recorded over eighty calls the next morning, “like reading from a script,” she said, people registering their complaint that an organization that was about love and helping other Jews would celebrate people who did the opposite.
Gradinsky, who was producing the event, finally called Shmulik and said, “Listen, your boy has a great voice and he makes a nice impression, he looks like exactly the sort of person we would want to showcase, but this is turning into an issue, what can you do, people are bored and looking to get angry about stuff—”
Shmulik didn’t even let him finish. “Oh come on, you give in to these crazies today, and tomorrow they don’t like the size of your nose and then they dictate your whole life. Get ahold of yourself, brother.”
“Yes, but Larry Wendheim is president of Tikvas Chana and he called me, all anxious. Shmulik, these people trust me to make them look good, they want their reputation to be spotless.”
“So because of some stupid people you would wreck a kid’s chance?”
Gradinsky took a deep breath. “Listen, Shmulik, if the kid makes a short video saying he loves his father, but they don’t agree ideologically and he stands by Israel, something like that — as long as he looks sincere, I can let the other side think they won and put this to bed, fair?”
Chezi was surprised when Shmulik himself showed up in yeshivah, creating a little buzz in back of the beis medrash. Chezi followed him outside to the porch and declined the offer of a cigarette.
Shmulik inhaled deeply, then placed a thick arm on Chezi’s shoulder, a move that did not come naturally to him. “Listen, motek, I need you to just say you love your father, kibbud av and all that, but you don’t see the world the same way as him. Zehu. Can we do that now? You don’t have to even prepare, just say two sentences.”
Shmulik reached for his phone, ready to start videoing.
Chezi shivered with cold, then shrugged and started talking.
“Hi friends. I know there’s been some noise about the group my father is involved with. Listen, friends, my father’s involvement with them is… I don’t completely understand it myself…”
His voice trailed off and Shmulik looked at him pleadingly. “You need to be stronger. Say it’s embarrassing. Say it’s terrible. Say it’s wrong.”
Chezi looked through the glass doors, into the lobby where his friends were watching, then up the block where the post office truck was blocking traffic and a man was walking three dogs at once.
“Okay. Hi, friends… I know there’s been some noise about the group my father is involved with. Listen, guys, my father means well, but sometimes…”
He thought about his father humming to himself and muttering and writing yet another letter no one would ever read, and tried to imagine his father’s reaction to such a video.
He stopped talking and slumped over the railing. “Sorry, Shmulik. I can’t. I can’t do this.”
Shmulik looked away first, frustrated at what he was hearing.
But then he nodded slowly and said, “Respect, brother, respect. Okay, maybe the story will go away anyhow, by itself.”
But around Rosh Chodesh Nissan, a late night Motzaei Shabbos radio host on a frequency that was hard to find made the story his lead, calling the CEO of Tikvas Chana live on air, demanding to know how he could allow a voice of intolerance onto his stage.
The CEO, who had clearly been woken up by the call, protested meekly that the singer was a young man who had never preached any hate, but the host was ready, deftly saying, “Oh come on, do you really believe that a boy that age isn’t influenced by what he hears at dinner night after night, by the culture of the Shabbos table? And isn’t Tikvas Chana about hearing the cry of the oppressed? Why the closed ears to what the public is saying about this?”
The next day, a link was forwarded featuring a collage of Chaim Leib Block classics, one picture showing him in a happy huddle with a group of Palestinians at a protest in Manhattan, another as part of a line of bodies blocking the road when a rabbi-settler had come to speak in Monsey, and then a particularly unflattering photo of his face in a mask of exaggerated rage, mouth wide open as he roared some slogan near a communications store in Williamsburg. Last was a full color picture of Chezi and his father with their arms around each other at Sholom’s bar mitzvah the year before.
There was the usual text — Should this voice of hate be heard? — with no real distinction between father and son, and the list of phone numbers to call, this time with Shwekey and Fried added for good measure. It encouraged the people who loved Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael to make their voices heard, and later that day, Gradinsky texted Shmulik.
It’s not going away, bro. I think he should do the graceful thing and say he has bronchitis or whatever. Not worth it.
Shmulik’s heart sank, but he knew that the producer was right. It wasn’t worth it.
He looked ruefully at the gym bag in his hand and decided that he would have to do this in person. He would make it to the gym tomorrow.
Chezi appreciated Shmulik’s making the trip and he told him he understood and it was all good and they would figure out the future after Yom Tov, no worries. Shmulik made a half-hearted attempt at an embrace, which didn’t work, so it became a fist-bump and then Chezi went back to first seder and tried to learn and not think about what it would have been like to sit backstage with Fried and Shwekey.
But he did, of course he did, all morning long, little imagined scenarios of a quick three-way harmony on “Aderaba” or the low part of “Kolot,” which he considered underrated. This was meant to be the open door to the future, and through no fault of his own, it had closed.
When he came home for Shabbos, he didn’t mention it, but during davening in Greenwald’s basement, he could tell that a group of Sholom’s friends were talking about him, and he felt their sympathetic glances. Mommy only mentioned it on Motzaei Shabbos, after Havdalah.
“I always knew what a mensch you were, Yechezkel. Chaya Berkowitz has shidduch ideas for you always, but now she is completely blown away by you, would you even consider listening? You’re turning 22 next month, it’s not too soon…”
Chezi felt tired. He said he would talk to his rebbi and let her know.
He was packing to go back to yeshivah when his father wandered by.
“Yechezkel,” he said, and then looked shocked, as if he had astonished himself by speaking.
“Yes, Abba,” Chezi said gently.
“Yechezkel, can we speak? Maybe go out somewhere else? The pizza store or whatever?”
Sholom looked up from a magazine to follow the conversation. Abba wanted to go out? To a pizza shop?
Chezi wasn’t sure how to answer. “Sure, Abba,” he finally said, and his father bowed, as to a stranger he was meeting for the first time.
“Let’s meet at Waldman’s place in a few minutes, okay? I just have to finish up some important business.”
Waldman’s place? Chezi frowned. Ah, Waldman, that place had been closed for years, and he couldn’t imagine his father in any of the new pizza shops in Monsey, which were a far cry from the cracked Formica counters and limited menus of a different time.
“Abba, maybe we should just go for a walk?”
It seemed like too much of a decision for his father, who clearly wanted something other than what he was suggesting.
“There’s a new place near New Square, by that strip mall on 45, that’s very quiet,” Sholom volunteered from the couch.
Abba turned to him. “Thank you, tzaddik,” he said. “Please write down the address for me. Yechezkel, I’ll meet you there in half an hour, okay?”
The pizza shop was small and dark and fairly quiet, next to a shoe store and tanning salon at the end of a strip mall. The owner was a small, exhausted looking man with a heavy accent, and he slapped down two slices on paper plates and dropped them on the counter as if he had no more energy.
Chezi carried the two plates to a table on the side, then brought a bottle of water for Abba and Dr. Pepper for himself.
He knew Abba didn’t eat pizza, and was stunned when his father, using a knife and fork, cut off a small bite, made a brachah, and ate it.
It was like Abba was trying every trick he knew, looking to rediscover a skill he once had and believed he could still find.
Chezi ate quietly, aware that the newly married couple across the room was trying to figure out their story, a gaunt man with a stringy reddish beard and plastic glasses in a striped beketshe sitting across from a trendy young man in a maroon sweater.
It wouldn’t be the first time people wondered.
Abba had grown up in a quiet part of Michigan where his father had repaired farm equipment, and even though his English these days sounded like that of a Yiddish speaker, when he was nervous his original accent was audible and clear.
“I’m an old man, you know, it’s already pajama time for me,” Abba said, trying to joke. Pah-jah-mah.
Chezi laughed, wondering if there was a joke in the world that both he and his father would find funny.
Abba sipped his water and suddenly reached out and put a bony hand on Chezi’s hand.
“Yechezkel, I heard what happened to you, Mommy told me.”
Chezi nodded, completely astonished that his father knew, and again musing that he really understood nothing at all about the relationship between his parents.
“I heard it, and it’s not right.”
Chaim Leib Block’s eyes opened very wide, and Chezi saw tears there.
“I hurt my son. I hurt you, Yechezkel, and that’s never right, you can’t hurt other people.”
He was mumbling a bit, and speaking to himself with a lecturing tone, but his hand was still holding Chezi’s and he was trembling.
“I hold the things I hold, I have a weakness for truth, what can I do? I see falsehood and I have to avoid it, the world is a very dangerous place for me, but at your expense? That makes me feel dreadful.”
Chezi wondered how long it had been since his father had simply schmoozed with someone, and if anyone even used the word “dreadful” anymore.
“I don’t know how to make it right or why you have to pay for my principles, but I guess…” His father paused and took a large gulp of water. “I guess I just want to apologize to you, Yechezkel. You have a beautiful voice and Hashem will send you on a path on which your kochos can shine.”
Chaim Leib Block looked so sad then, so vulnerable and helpless and when he spoke again, there was something in his voice that Chezi wasn’t used to. His father wasn’t sharing an opinion someone else had developed or data someone had inserted into his brain.
“In the right time, Yechezkel, you will shine.”
Fly, Chezi, flyyyyy… Flyyy…
“I feel terrible, and I just want to say that I am truly sorry.”
Here was his father saying things he believed and felt, like a real person, and Chezi thought that hearing Abba’s voice animated by passion and genuine feeling was like hearing a good song.
His father was speaking truth.
There was a picture on the wall next to them, a field of daffodils against a blue sky, each flower the same shade of bright yellow, and Chezi thought that it was a bad picture, that things didn’t always look the same and feel the same and moments came and went and he squeezed his father’s hand back.
“I love you Abba, it’s okay,” he said, because he did love his father — he did.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 907)
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