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Story Supplement: Aflame

Mishpacha Contributors

8 stories trace the fire’s path, from the first glow until its dying embers

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

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S trike a match. A spark. It wavers, flickers, sputters, catches… and as the shadows dance, the flame takes hold, alights, ascends.

Light a single candle.

And then another, and yet another.

Eight nights of leaping flames, reminder of miracles and our Father’s endless love.

Cycle of Kindness

Rivka Streicher

Summertime, lawns are dappled with light, bougainvillea blossoms purple, and streets are deserted and too hot. We want to get away a bit, my friends and I. Two of us have a simchah in New York and another has recently moved to the States. We make some tentative arrangements and turn up in the Big Apple.

Between limited schedules and first year working budgets, our grand plans get us as far as Deal, New Jersey. Decidedly unexotic, but there is a boardwalk and a frothing sea sparkling in the sun.

We book the first decent-looking hotel online, and are looking forward to a couple of days of peace and calm and meet-up.

We turn up at dusk to find an ambulance outside the hotel. Hmm. We’re not in the mood for action. But it isn’t just any old ambulance, it’s Hatzolah.

A little girl is carried out on a stretcher and into the hotel. Who? Why? What is she doing in this hotel on this August evening?

 

A couple of white-shirted guys, clearly yeshivish, come out and help her inside.

Seriously, how many Yidden could possibly have chosen the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel, out of a whole street lined with hotels, on this particular night?

Turns out, flocks of them. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 571) 



Wavering Soul

As told to Malka Levine

In the yeshivah I attended, nice topics like Hashem, tefillah, and ahavas Yisrael are spoken about plenty. But I, for one, could never find them there.

I’m 14 when I show up in yeshivah in neat, rimless glasses. There’s no rule against wearing them... but the other boys in my class wear the chunky glasses that make me look awful. My maggid shiur, Rav Stein, calls me out of class. He flicks his finger against the small lens of my glasses, making me blink. He frowns. He tells me never to wear the glasses again and fixes me with a critical eye that will follow me forever.

One year later I consider myself a good boy. I learn three sedorim every day and stay out of trouble. I’m not even a hustler, the type who gets up every five minutes or so for a coffee or trip to the bathroom. But my maggid shiur, Rav Rosenblum, is concerned over my glaring spiritual failings — namely, that I take off my gartel as soon as I leave davening.

He corners me as I straggle out of beis medrash in the dark, after a full day of learning. “You make it look like your gartel is a terrible burden,” he tells me, shaking his head. “As if you’re desperate to throw it off.”

I leave him, bewildered, never meeting his gaze, wondering if I am a bum. Maybe if I would have looked into his eyes, I would have realized that the game was long over. I have been branded.

The Fire of Emunah

As told to Esther Ilana Rabi

She couldn’t know it was her first birthday, but she seemed strangely excited. Then she started chewing on nothing, for an hour or more. I called the doctor.

“It may be a seizure,” he said. “Take her to the emergency room.”

The EEG technician’s badge read “Hadassah Feingold,” so I knew she was Jewish, but her neckline and tattoos showed that she didn’t know about halachah. Still, I felt comfortable with her, and she seemed sweet. She was gentle with the baby and I started to schmooze with her as she attached electrodes all over my baby’s scalp. I always try to connect with irreligious Jews.

Ugh, it’s going to be a pain to wash off all the goop that she’s putting on her head, I thought. Aloud, I said, “I hope everything is going to be okay. She looks fine, doesn’t she?” I kept talking, because seeing my baby hooked up to so many wires was getting me scared, and I always talk a lot when I’m nervous.

Hadassah smiled and nodded absentmindedly as she watched the lines squiggling across her screen. When she went bug-eyed and pale, I trailed off. “Are you all right?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, don’t worry about me.”

“Are you sure? Let me get you some water.”

By the time I got back, her color had returned, but I told her, “You really don’t look well.” Because she didn’t. She looked like she felt sick to her stomach.

“You’re so nice,” she said, sipping the water, eyes on the screen. “Why do bad things happen to nice people?”

Well, there was my opening!

Playing with Fire

As told to Miriam Klein Adelman

Dressed in a yellow raincoat with bright red hazard strips and her brother’s toy fire hat, three-year-old Kayla trooped downstairs. She held the hose of an old vacuum cleaner, and walked around the room dousing make-believe fires. It was adorable and we laughed.

But as Kayla grew, I wondered if I was raising a psychopath, a pyromaniac, or a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When she was five and I told her it was time for bed, Kayla would respond, “You can’t tell me when to go to bed because I won’t listen. I’ll sneak out.”

And she did.

One night at 2 a.m. I woke and on the way to the kitchen for a drink, I passed Kayla’s room. Her bed was empty.

Hysterical, I ran to look for her. She was in the backyard, swinging on the rubber tire that hung from our oak tree. She didn’t offer explanations but simply smiled and said, “I needed fresh air.”

I needed fresh air. I’d nearly stopped breathing when I couldn’t find her in the house. I was so relieved she was okay, but furious at her for scaring me like that. But she’d do this kind of thing all the time. She had no fear of authority. She had no fear at all.

Adjusting the Flames

Elana Rothberg

I sit across from a stern-faced man and a woman with a grin playing on her lips. I focus on the woman, directing my responses toward her; it’s easier to deal with this interview if I experience immediate positive feedback. Getting this job is important to me. I don’t want to mess it up because of my nerves.

We discuss my credentials, experience, and degrees. As the potential employers launch into their descriptions of their expectations and the responsibilities of the position, the boss pauses, catches my eye. “What I’m trying to say is that we need someone who can be a go-getter, perhaps even a bit aggressive.”

Aggressive? Can I do that? I mull the question over.

I flash back to a year before, sitting in the office of my former employer. He had asked me to come in to discuss a few things. I had an intuitive sense of where the conversation was headed.

While I projected a sense of calm, inside was a storm of hurt, anger, resentment, confusion. My boss had looked a bit nervous, uncomfortable even, which confirmed my suspicions: This was going to be a dressing-down. “You’re affecting the entire workplace, people think you’re coming on too strong....”

Too strong?

The Unlikely Savior

Esther Teichtal

I called him Old Man.

He was old then. Today he must be in heaven. And in my memory, all that lives on is a tremulous hand and a walking stick. His face is a blur. His clothes hang on him. He must have shrunk with time. He is alone. That’s why he sits in our dining room on a Friday night, so that he won’t be. Alone.

We are two of a kind. As a five-year-old whose mind floats through a land without time, I always feel somewhat detached. There aren’t many kids in my kindergarten class who can step into my inner world and explore its quirky landscape with me.

Old Man and I — we do our own thing.

He sits on the sofa in the dining room, hunched over a Tehillim, muttering words I cannot hear. He speaks in broken whispers. And I cater to my own devices, wandering the hallways and staring at the walls.

The dining room is gloomy. A small lamp shed its rays over our guest, augmenting the moonlight that streams in through the large windows. But the morning room is bright and alive. That’s where the table is set, adjacent to our kitchen. It calls me with its promise of the Shabbos meal to come. Silver cutlery. Floral china. And Shabbos candles that beckon from the warm brown pinewood breakfront that adorns the left-side wall.

I climb a chair. That’s better. Now I face the flames. Yellow, orange, red, tinted with blue, a whisper of black at their core. They stretch and dip and bow and bend.

This is what heaven must look like. Gleaming candlesticks. Burning flames. Prettier than dancing angels. And there is the picture I’ve brought home from kindergarten earlier today: a thin blue drawing showing the seven days of Bereishis. Mrs. Bowman punched two holes at the top and threaded a thin pink ribbon through them, knotting it into a handle.

Flickers of Life

Esty Heller

I’m blinded by flashes and my cheeks are charley horse from nonstop smiling, when the little party approaches. My chassan’s aunt, arm linked with an elderly woman’s, makes the introductions. “Babi Heller,” she says, smiling. And to the elderly woman, “Mommy, the kallah. Say mazel tov to the kallah.”

I spread my arms to embrace her, but she doesn’t reciprocate. She just stands there, gaze floating aimlessly, while her daughter positions her at my side for a picture.

“Smile, Grandma!” The photographer coos. But before he has a chance to snap, she wanders off.

A week after the vort, when I get the prints, I stare at the photo. My aunt joined the shot in the end, sandwiching Babi between the two of us, so my chassan’s grandmother stays put. Even in the picture, I feel her looking through me, not at me. Her hollow pupils make me shudder.

I know this isn’t really her. Alzheimer’s is a malicious disease, sucking cognition out of people and cloaking them in confusion. It’s a miserable plight — and it freaks me out.

Dementia messes with me in a terrible way. Could this really happen? For years, a person accumulates wisdom and knowledge, constantly learning and exploring. And then a fate like this? Being robbed of one’s mental capacities and becoming dependent like a baby? It rattles. I’m a cerebral person. I can’t help thinking what would remain of me if I’m stripped of this, my essence. My me.

Embers

As told to Leah Gebber

“I’ll be buried in a churchyard,” Joe always told us.

Uncle Joe had the florid complexion of a man who drinks more for comfort than companionship. He had a heart that welcomed strangers from the street into his home, and a hollow inside that couldn’t be muffled, no matter how much beer or whisky he consumed.

How to define him? Amateur historian. Down and out. Devoted son, who cared for his mother until her passing. Nature lover. Alcoholic. A man who could passionately argue the intricacies of politics. A man who, numerous frum relatives notwithstanding, would never go to shul and spurned religion. A man we could never quite place or understand.

Five years ago, Joe decided that nature would be a calming influence on him, and he moved to the Emerald Isle, the green vistas of Ireland. Somehow, he scraped together enough money to buy himself a house. But the house was derelict, already declared uninhabitable. There was no heating or electricity. He had to charge his phone at the village shop, a five-mile walk.

We were in touch occasionally, and we noted that his abysmal living conditions were affecting his health: He began having medical problems, which culminated in a major surgery. Relatives went out to visit him, a social worker was appointed to his case. Joe was forbidden from returning home, and instead placed in a shelter. He was unhappy, and as the months went on, he withdrew more from society.

But still, when Joe failed to turn up at the pub on Friday night, his friends were worried. When Saturday lunch time came without a word, they called the police.

It was a cold, windy Monday when the police found him. He was in his old house, the place slated for demolition. He died alone. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 571) 

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MM217
 
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