Chava Rosenbaum blew out the wooden match just before it burnt her fingers, covered her eyes with her hands, and recited the traditional blessing over the two shabbos candles. She uncovered her eyes and gazed briefly at the quivering flames, and then glanced up at Avraham, her husband, who was standing beside her. Hidden under his uncut beard, his face was inscrutable. His eyes were deep and serious, as always.
She then continued in Hebrew with “Y’hi ratzon l’fonecho...” – “May it be Your will, Hashem, my God and God of my forefathers, that you show favor to me, my husband, and all of my relatives...” When Chava got to the phrase “Privilege me to raise children and grandchildren,” she felt Avraham stiffen and move, almost imperceptibly, away from her.
After Chava finished with “and let Your countenance shine so that we are saved. Amen,” she put down the laminated prayer card although she knew the prayers by heart, and closed her eyes once again. As she had done so many times before, during their eleven years of marriage, she silently pleaded with God for a child to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and to make their household – and their souls – complete.
* * * * *
Every day of work Chava awakened before the sun came up. She was careful to not awaken her husband when she silently recited the morning prayers before slipping out of bed. After washing up, she finished her prayers and then plodded into the kitchen to prepare Avraham’s breakfast and lunch. Only then did she have her own morning meal, which usually consisted of half a grapefruit, a slice or two of buttered bread and hot tea with lemon. For lunch, she would have something to eat at the Heimishe Bakery where she had worked for so many years.
Behind her back, her coworkers referred to her as “the silent one,” but even if Chava had realized, she, herself, would not have disagreed. They all knew bits and pieces – and the broad strokes – of Chava’s ordeal. Secrets were hard to keep in their insular orthodox community, which was also a fertile ground for gossip, despite the prohibition against lashon hara, speaking ill of others. They could not avoid her aura of unrelenting sadness, but neither would they pry.
During her lunch break, Chava usually sat by herself at the folding plastic table in the back room. Between each bite of day-old corn bread – she actually preferred the hardened, gnarly crust – she would take a sip of boiling-hot tea from her glass. Suddenly, tears were rolling down her cheeks, and soon she was sobbing.
Sarah turned away from the icing table, wiped her hands on her apron, and approached her. “Chava ... what is it? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
“Nothing? Nothing? One moment you’re sipping tea, and the next you’re sitting there crying.”
“It’s nothing, Sarah. Don’t worry about me.”
“We all worry about you, Chava.”
“What do you mean ‘we all worry?’”
“You’re always so sad. It’s so obvious.”
Chava sighed and shook her head. “It’s not easy, you know.”
“Maybe if you would talk about it.”
“What do you want me to tell you? What’s there to say?”
“You know it can’t be healthy if you’re bottling it up inside.”
“So who should I speak to? The rabbi? I should tell him what?”
“Maybe not him, Chava. But there’s another man I heard about. They say he’s a tzadik.”
“They say? Who says? And why do you believe in such nonsense?”
“No. It’s supposed to be true. And he’s supposed to be very wise, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. And they say he can see into the future.”
“A tzadik? Really? Right here in Borough Park?”
“That’s what they say. And you can usually find him every afternoon at the falafel place on Thirteenth Avenue. You know the one. Right on the corner?”
“So what do I do? Just walk in say, ‘I, Chava Rosenbaum want to see the tzadik, and give me a falafel to go?’”
“You’re almost right, but not exactly. Let me explain what you have to do.”
* * * * *
Jerusalem Pizza & Falafel was ordinarily packed, especially on motzei shabbos – on Saturday nights after sundown – all day Sunday, and on weekdays during lunch and late every afternoon. But after the lunchtime rush, when the all-day yeshivas were in session and when harried mothers pushing strollers with their pre-school children hanging on had little time for anything other than a quick bite to eat, was when Moishe Aaron, the Tzadik of Borough Park, held court.
For several weeks, Chava walked by the restaurant on her way home for work, hoping to build up the courage to go in. She looked through the filmy glass and spotted Moishe Aaron at the back table, holding a newspaper close to his face. Morbidly obese and prematurely bald, he was hard to miss. But he did not look like any tzadik she could ever have imagined – nothing at all like the pious, long-bearded faces on the blue and white Sages of Israel tzedakah box her mother used to fill with spare change. This time, before she could change her mind once again, she yanked open the scraping door and walked in.
On her right was a group of several mothers who had commandeered tables for their children and themselves. When she turned to the counterman, he asked, in thickly accented English, “Can I help you?”
“Yes. I’m here to, uh ... “ and she motioned towards the rear.
“Yes, he’s sitting right back there.” As if he could be missed.
Following Sarah’s instructions, Chava asked, “Can you give me a large falafel platter, and several extra pitas?”
“Coming right up.” The counterman piled salads, cut vegetables, humus and tahini onto a plate. He lifted a metal basket out of the deep fryer and rolled out several browned falafel balls. Then he reached into the pizza oven and drew out six pitas. “Anything to drink?”
Chava remembered this most important detail, but why it would matter, she could not understand. “Uh, yes. Two cans of Doctor Brown’s Cel-Ray soda.”
He placed it all on a tray, and slid it over to her. “That’ll be fourteen fifty, please, with the tax.”
Chava counted out a ten and five singles from her pocketbook. After pocketing the change, she carried the tray to the huge man sitting in the back.
She waited until he looked up from his Flatbush Jewish Journal, a free newspaper from the rack next to the door. His eyes were huge behind thick lenses.
She felt like turning around and running out. Instead, she took a deep breath, cleared her throat and asked, “Uh, excuse me. May I sit down?”
“Sure, whatever.” He motioned to the seat across from him. “Go ahead … have a seat.”
Chava placed the tray on the table and slid into the booth across from him. His enormous belly overhung the table. On his shirt were dried tomato sauce droplets and multi-hued stains she could not begin to identify. When he gazed up at her, she averted her eyes, realizing that a Jewish woman was not supposed to be alone with a man not her husband, let alone a man not known to her.
Several moments passed. The man, who seemed to be staring at her, appraising her – she could not be sure – then glanced down at her food. “Are you going to have that?” His voice was soft, almost apologetic.
“No. I’m not really hungry.” She slid the tray across the table. “I actually bought it for you.”
“You’re not supposed to say that.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
Ignoring her, he picked up a pita from the tray, ripped off the top, and began spooning salad, falafel balls and sauces into the pocket. She studied his practiced movements. His stubby fingers and pink hands were a choreography of motion.
He popped open a soda and then he shoved the filled pita into his mouth, and took a bite so huge that his whole mouth was filled. As he began chewing, drips of humus escaped and dribbled down his chin. Perspiration began to trickle down his forehead. He was alternately humming and making guttural, grunting sounds, as if he were lost in a private rapture. She watched, with astonishment and disgust, as he continued to devour what was in front of him.
After he smeared his plate clean with his last bit of pita, he swilled down the rest of the second can, wiped his mouth, took a deep breath and let out a loud belch. Whenever her husband forgot his manners, she would chastise him – “Avraham, please ...” and he would answer, “Chava, it’s a natural thing ...” – but she ignored the belch the same way that he ignored the new spatters on his shirt.
“Ach, that was good,” he said. “Thank you.” He rubbed his belly, wiped his mouth on a paper napkin, and reached up to readjust his yarmulke. “Okay, now. So what can I do for you?”
“They say that you’re a tzadik.”
“Maybe. Or then again, maybe not.”
“But let me tell you. You don’t look much like a tzadik.” Chava surprised herself with her sudden outspokenness.
“Looks aren’t everything. And you can never tell a book from its cover,” he replied, as if he had been repeating the mantra all of his life. “But that’s what they say. People come and I eat, and then they talk and I listen. Sometimes I suggest something. Sometimes it’s good advice and it helps, and sometimes ... well, sometimes it doesn’t.” He shrugged. “Whaddya gonna do?”
“Well, whatever. I’m here. And maybe you can help me.”
“So, go ahead, talk. We’ll see. But no promises.”
And Chava began.
* * * * *
“I’ve been married to my husband Avraham for eleven years, already.” She paused and bit her lower lip.
“Go ahead. Go on.”
“And we don’t have any children.” Chava felt wetness at the corner of her eye.
He nodded and waited. Then, “And?”
“I’m the oldest, yet all my sisters and brothers – all of them – have children. They have their children and their families and their naches and joys. They have their houses in Long Beach and Lakewood and Monsey, and all I have is my parent’s apartment and the old furniture and the empty rooms and the echoes.”
The tzadik sadly shook his head, and gestured for her to continue.
“Sometimes in the evening, when I’m sitting at the table in the kitchen, waiting for Avraham to return home from maariv, it’s so silent and still that I can hear the voices of children. I know I’m only imagining it, but I can’t help it. And then I can’t stop crying.”
Moishe Aaron sighed.
“When he comes in, he knows that I’ve been crying. I guess because my eyes are red.” She slowly shook her head. “He used to ask, ‘Chavaleh, have you been crying?’ and I’d answer, ‘Yes’ because we have no secrets from each other. He’d ask, ‘What do you have to cry about? You have your health, and we have each other.’
“But now ... now when he comes home, he doesn’t have anything to say besides maybe a ‘hello.’ He doesn’t even bother to ask anything. Then he’ll take his glass of tea into the living room and open a prayer book or read the paper. He just leaves me to sit by myself in the kitchen.”
Chava picked up a paper napkin and dabbed her eyes. “He doesn’t care. I know he doesn’t care anymore.”
Moishe Aaron, who had been an audience of one to so many variations of misery, who was privy to all sorts of marital disasters and woes, was strangely moved by this woman’s plight. “Are you sure he doesn’t care? And how do you know that?”
Chava thought she had already said too much, but she went on anyway. “He doesn’t want to come near me. He doesn’t want to touch me. Not even on shabbos. Not even when I’m, uh ...” And her voice trailed off.
For the first time – and it was not because of her looks, because even he could see, through his coke-bottle lenses, that she was not much of a sheynah meydeleh – he felt a sense of stirring, of unfulfilled longing. What is this woman doing to me? he wondered.
Her lamentation continued: “My brothers and sisters, may God bless them, of course, they’re all so successful, while my own Avraham earns so little at his clerk’s job that I have to go out to work at the bakery just to make ends meet. But not that I’m complaining.”
And Moishe Aaron heard in her voice – that oh-so-bittersweet voice! – her rage and resentment mixed with passion and fire, her frustration and fury mixed with craving and fathomless sorrow. Her voice was a beseeching song of anguish and yearning, lulling him, enchanting him, like the chanting of a chazzan reaching deep into his soul.
And she sang on: When, as the first born, she was favored and fawned over, and how much her sisters were loved, and how it all changed when the boys came along. How much her mother, despite her best intentions, ultimately and unforgivably gave into the ages-old reverence for sons. And then, how she and her two sisters were so unfairly cast aside. A decrescendo, then a pause.
And then the next movement, andante, slow and hypnotic, a heart-rending melody sung directly to Moishe Aaron’s heart: “And they left, all of them. I watched my sisters marry and then leave. And then, my brothers. And finally, my parents – may they rest in peace – they fulfilled their life-long dream to make aliyah, and eventually were buried in Har HaMenuchot, the cemetery in Jerusalem. And when I married Avraham, I got what remained – the apartment, big enough for all of us, and then some. It’s been a bad joke, like I’m being mocked. For me, my home has become a rent-controlled mausoleum.”
I can’t take much more of this, Moishe thought. He felt a pounding in his chest. He was sure he knew what it was – his heart – and it was breaking. Despite all the troubles and torments and tsouris he had allowed himself to hear and absorb through the years, while his stomach was churning and digesting and performing its own sort of absorption, this –
all of this – was too much to take. Sure, he’d heard worse than this – much worse – but, always, there were the simple facts and unfortunate happenings – raw, unprocessed data that seemingly rolled right off his back. This, all of this, was hitting him where it hurt the most, where there was the most to hurt: deep within, deep inside his gut.
“Are you okay?” Her voice – that voice – heard as if from far away.
Sweat was pouring down his florid face. He looked feverish, about to pass out, or even worse. Chava started to turn to summon the counterman, but Moishe reached over the table and touched her hand, and then covered it. And she did not pull away. It felt right, it felt like a thing that must be allowed, despite the rigid shomer negia laws against contact. Except for her husband, it was the first time in years that any man had ever touched her. Moishe wheezed, “Wait … wait a minute. I’ll be okay. Just wait.”
Several moments passed as Moishe fought to catch his breath. Then, “I don’t know what I can say to you. I’m at a loss.” He looked dumbstruck, his face questioning, as if in disbelief. He gasped and shook his head, as if to will away the silence. He searched for words. “I can’t find anything
to ... Ich kann nicht mehr … I can’t anymore ...”
The weight of his puffy hand had become more palpable, and still, she had yet to pull her hand away. It comforted her, it soothed her, and it made her feel whole again. She felt like crying, but this time from joy, and not from sorrow. But her tears, for once, did not flow.
Whatever it was, it all too soon passed. Chava heard with newfound clarity, as if returning from elsewhere, some strange somewhere else, the chatter of women who were half-heartedly warning their children to “stop running around, you’ll get hurt,” the swaggering young men who were bantering in Hebrew with the counterman, and the Yiddish murmurings of a shrunken, bedraggled beggar, who was shuffling towards them with his tremulous hand outstretched.
Chava stood up, nodded at her tzadik, and strode out of the place. And when she got home and began to recite the afternoon prayers, she could still feel the weight of his hand on hers, and the lifting of the weight from her heart.
Rev 13.1 / January 8, 2018
January 8, 2018 Copyright © 2018, Lloyd B. Abrams