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Faigy Schonfeld

But Ezriel!” Penina's voice rises. “I'm not asking you, I'm telling you! You have to swallow your pride, apologize, and get back into yeshivah. You don't want to ruin your life!”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

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It's not like Ezriel has never gotten into a snag with the hanhalah before. But this is different, this is Ezriel refusing to go back. It is wrong for a rebbi to humiliate him, so wrong that Penina wants to weep. But couldn’t he just go and apologize and quit ruining his life?!

T he décor is tasteful, Malky-style. Navy and rose linen, cream-colored china, elegantly plated Chinese-Thai food. The guests are indulging in the good food, and the air simmers, indulgent with the scent of good times and the cozy cheer of Chanukah. Penina fiddles with her linen napkin, wondering why she can't relax.

“This spaghetti thing is awesome,” Henny gushes, waving her fork.

Malky shrugs. “I didn't make it, but thanks.”

“You make such good parties,” Henny, always full of compliments, sighs softly.

Penina murmurs her agreement and eyes her oldest sister. Henny looks young and happy, as if life and stress and running herself ragged taking care of Daddy are all just stray wrinkles she can straighten out at the end of the day. Something writhes in Penina’s stomach and she clenches her fists beneath her napkin.

Ezriel. He'd come home from yeshivah, chipper and bright-eyed as always, but...but… there was something, a glint in his eye. Penina shivers in the warm room, the rise and fall of conversation and children’s laughter a faraway noise. Oh, Ezzie. She loves him so much she thinks her heart will crack. She never had this with her girls, this tightness in her chest.

She’d remarked to Avraham before the party, while deliberating between her leather pocketbook and pearl-studded evening bag (which was more appropriate for a Chanukah party? Her sister-in-law Malky favored lavish affairs), that she saw something in Ezriel tonight, something, oh, but she cannot say what. Avraham had waved his hand, as he always does, told her not to worry.

She purses her lips and looks at him now across the table, mmm-mming his way through a Bangkok rib, taking a jab in the chest from a brother-in-law, laughing. Penina stares, longing for a little bit of that peace. Her eyes find Ezriel, passionately debating something with a cousin. She wills herself to calm down.

“Have some, Penina.” Debbie hands her a square dish piled high with a broccoli-nut medley. Debbie always insists on bringing something homemade. Penina smiles and takes a crunchy bite. “It's fabulous,” she tells her sister, who is waiting expectantly.

Debbie beams and passes the next plate up the table. “It's for Daddy!” she declares. Daddy won't touch it, they all know, but he will certainly pretend, then smile and reach out, and give Debbie a feeble pat.

Daddy looks old, so old, and Penina’s heart aches. His face is all eyes, humongous over sunken cheeks, translucent skin and cracked lips. And smiling, always smiling, sad and wistful and kind. For years he’s had the withering look of a dying man, loving, grieving, watching world and family, sparkly-eyed children and strawberry ice cream and roses-on-the-breeze mornings from the sidelines, as if through a film of broken glass.

Like the windshield of Daniel's car, Penina thinks, heart constricting. Someone pops open a can of beer; she recognizes the grainy smell instantly and her blood curdles. It is always at times when everyone is happy and it's warm and good that she thinks of Daniel. Thirty years may have shaved off the bleeding edges, but they've hardly thawed the ache in her chest. Her eyes turn to Daddy again. Not for me, certainly not for Daddy. She thinks for a moment of long-ago bear hugs and booming songs and...and Daddy. Daddy notices her and raises a thin, mottled hand to wave at her. Penina smiles brightly and waves back, then forces her mind off shattered cars and mangled hearts to Chaya Yitty's hilarious tales.

“I'll write a book someday,” Chaya Yitty groans theatrically, pretending to be exasperated, pleased with her audience, “I'll call it The Sheitel Macher's Diary.”

The doorbell rings. “Right on time,” Malky says as she pushes back a chair. “The kids are getting rowdy.”

“Oh, Malky, you think of everything.” Penina joins her in the foyer. “What's the treat this year?” Malky winks, pleased.

A tall...well, a miniature Og of a man, is blown in on a gust of icy wind. He smiles, sets down his suitcase, and hurries back out to return, swinging a square cage in each hand. “Parrots!” Penina laughs.

“Parrots!” The Parrot Guy beams. He turns to Malky. “Where do I set up?” Malky ushers him into the basement. Penina watches them go. His beard is small and bushy, his eyes are very bright. He talks and gestures animatedly, too animatedly, until she cannot see them anymore. Penina swallows her distaste and turns back to the dining room.

“So, Chanukah vacation this year?” Brocha asks.

Penina shakes her head regretfully. “It would have been nice though,” she says, but Henny snorts and she chuckles. They know she loves her job, teaching First Aid and CPR to peppy high-schoolers and training aspiring lifeguards on Sundays at the community pool. She loves the intellectual challenge of teaching, the vigor of a pool workout, her sweet students with their pretty, young faces. For years, she only taught twice a week, casting aside her desire for more, knowing that her children needed her. But with her three girls out of the house and Ezriel already 18, she is back in swing. Automatically, she turns to check up on her son. The bochurim are chatting and picking their way through a mound of sunflower seeds (how did they sneak that past Malky?) but there’s no sign of Ezriel. The knot in her stomach is suddenly there again, wringing tighter. She talks a little, pretends to listen, tastes some elaborate dessert, keeps checking Ezriel's vacant spot. She stands up, excuses herself, and goes to look for him.

She finds him in the first place she checks. In the basement, with the kids. The children clamor and giggle as Parrot Guy bellows and sings and flails his arms while the colorful parrots squawk. Ezriel is standing off to the side, entranced.


Penina clasps her hands. Oh, Ezzie. She should have known he'd be here, how he loves animals. How he loves doing anything but what he's supposed to be doing. Oh, her Ezzie, he wants to revolutionize the yeshivah system, do kiruv in Antarctica, run for Congress someday, perhaps end up president.

From atop the staircase, Penina gazes at him, love and unease rising in her throat. If only he would just be, just live, just make it through yeshivah. If only he would be content. He is smart and funny and everyone loves him. She gives him her heart and her soul every day anew. Her daughters turned out to be so wonderfully mature, responsible, normal. Has she not given Ezzie enough?

She looks at him again, chocolate eyes so like her own, warm and dancing. She doesn't want to, but she closes her eyes and Daniel is suddenly behind her eyelids, all liquid eyes and dreams and a dimpled smile that sends rays of light through the heavens. It’s not fair to Ezriel, she knows, that she can hardly look at him without remembering her brother.

She feels her lungs close and she rattles for breath. Nothing was ever enough for Daniel. He dreamed such beautiful dreams, painted pictures of the stars. She swallows and tastes broken glass. In the end, he'd taken his dreams with him to the grave.

She turns away.

In the car on the way home, Avraham is humming, drowsy and content. Penina knows she must say something. She picks her words carefully.

“Ezriel, I saw you were downstairs, watching the parrots.” “Yes!” Ezriel lights up. “What a fabulous guy! What beautiful parrots! Did you see their colors, Ma?” Penina chews her lip and listens. Finally, she says, “I know you love animals and they were beautiful parrots. But… um...don't you think it was a little...strange...for you to be there with the little kids? I mean, all the boys were upstairs.”

Ezriel darkens considerably and shrugs. Penina feels bad.

“I mean, Chaim and Tzvi and—”

“Well, I don't care what Chaim and Tzvi think anyway,” Ezriel says gruffly, “I won't be seeing much of them anymore.”

Penina sits up. A chill flashes down her spine. She had known something was coming, she'd known, she'd felt it all evening. Even Avraham stops humming.

“I'm done with yeshivah.” Ezriel spreads his hands. In the darkness of the car, Penina’s face blanches. “Just done. Finish, over, finito.”

Penina Haber is in school the next day because her name is Penina Haber. She distributes sheets and clarifies and explains, strolling crisply along the aisles while her insides crumble.

It's not like Ezriel has never gotten into a snag with the hanhalah before. But this is different, this is Ezriel refusing to go back. It is wrong for a rebbi to humiliate him, so wrong that Penina wants to weep. But couldn’t he just go and apologize and quit ruining his life?!

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