Yitzi lay awake in the dark, listening to the crickets, the birds, and most important of all, the silence. He was alone. For the first time in years, he had his own bedroom! His little brothers were sharing a bedroom, his sisters were sharing a bedroom, but for now, for the first time since Tzvi Hirsch had been six months old – he was alone.
He certainly wasn’t going to admit to missing his brothers moving around in their sleep, much less their crazy energy just when he wanted to read before bedtime. And having actual privacy was an unaccustomed luxury. Still, it seemed strange to hear them across the hallway rather than right there in the room with him.
He wondered how they were handling this new adventure – moving hundreds of miles away to a new neighborhood. Had they even noticed how different it was? Their old development had had maybe three different house designs; you could walk into a friend’s house and instantly know where everything was. Here? He’d been watching the houses since they turned off the highway, and hadn’t spotted more than a few that even looked similar.
Two-year-old Uri Noach almost certainly wouldn’t have noticed; he’d slept most of the way, and Mom had carried him right into the house. Now he was mostly excited about moving from a crib to an actual bed. Tzvi Hirsch was old enough, at age four, to notice what was going on around him, but would he understand? Probably not. Of course, he might have been exhausted from the trip.
And I’m the only one who’s made a friend already, Yitzi told himself. A Jewish friend, even if he wasn’t observant. Well, Dad had worked with lots of non-observant Jews back home. Yitzi smiled and shook his head. How long would it be before he started thinking of this new house as home?
Then he smelled it. Eema had started baking. He lay back and relaxed as the aroma of cookies baking washed over him. Knowing her, they were probably intended as gifts for their new neighbors. Well, he’d volunteer to take some to Danny’s house in the morning. A contented smile on his face, Yitzi sank into the welcoming arms of sleep.
He awoke the next morning to a light rapping on the door. “You awake, Buddy?” his father whispered from the other side. Yitzi opened his eyes and looked out the window. The sun was just peaking over the horizon, so he hadn’t overslept.
“Just getting up, Abba,” he murmured in response, sat up and stretched.
“OK. See you in the library.”
By the time Yitzi had washed up, dressed, and made downstairs, his father was already wearing his tallis and tefillin. Yitzi, of course, wore neither as yet. “East is that way,” his father said, and the two of them turned to begin the morning prayers.
“Feels strange not to be reading from the Torah on a Thursday morning,” Yitzi commented, as they finished, half an hour later.
“Once we’re settled in, we’ll start advertising and inviting men to join us, but it takes time,” his father reminded him, while taking off his tefillin. “This is all very unfamiliar to most non-religious Jews, so we’re not likely to have the ten men we need for a week-day minyan for a while. Chabad will send us guests for Shabbos, but we’re going to have to build things up locally. You won’t remember, but the last time, it took me more than a year before I had enough men to do regular weekday Torah readings.”
Rabbi Feinman was just removing his prayer shawl when the doorbell rang. He looked at his son with surprise. “Now who could that be?” He hurried to the door and opened it. There stood Danny, wearing jeans and a Boston Red Sox t-shirt, and looking more nervous than he’d been the previous day.
“Oh. Hi,” Danny gasped. “I was wondering if–“ He stopped, staring at the rabbi’s left arm for a moment before catching himself. “I mean. I met this new kid yesterday and Mom said I could go over his house – he’s in the old Paisebell place – and Mom said I should invite Yitzi, and…” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Anyway, it’s for the whole day and there’s lots of cool stuff to explore. Can you come?”
He’d directed that last to Yitzi, who had come over to stand behind his father, and a bit to the side to see their visitor. The target of his question looked up and asked, “What do you think, Abba?”
“Meeting the neighbors sounds like a great idea, Yitzi, but we still have a lot of unpacking to do.” He indicated the many boxes of books and the bookcases that still needed to be assembled. As his son’s face fell, he turned to the other boy. “What time were you planning on going over?”
“But Mom said–“ Danny looked thoughtful. “Any time this morning is fine.” He slumped. “I think – how long will it take to finish?”
Yitzi’s eyes widened. As nervous as Danny had looked, it would have been understandable if he’d taken the news with relief, but he wasn’t. Could Danny actually want him to go? Playing a hunch, he suggested, “if you could help, I bet we could get it done faster.”
Danny open his mouth to respond, closed it, then ventured, “Well…“
Yitzi exchanged glances with his father, who said, “Daniel, if you decide to help, and the two of you work hard, we’ll call the job done for the day at ten.”
Danny looked completely overwhelmed. He opened his mouth again, but nothing came out for several seconds as he looked back and forth between the other two. Finally, he managed. “O- Ok… I guess… I mean,,, I guess so.” Still, he glanced back uncomfortably at the door as Rabbi Feinman closed it.
“Have you had breakfast, Danny? We were just about to sit down,” Yitzi’s father asked.
Once again the boy could only manage a tentative, “OK” but he followed his hosts to the kitchen. He seemed to relax just a bit only when Rabbi Feinman announced that he would start working now and eat his breakfast alone after the boys were done.
Yitzi watched his father go and turned to his guest with a welcoming smile. “You want Cheerios, Rice Krispies or Cinnamon Toast Crunch?”
“B-but… that’s so normal!” Danny gasped. Then he added hurriedly. “I mean, I’m not saying you’re not normal, but… I mean, I thought–”
Yitzi laughed. “It’s OK. I’m probably a lot more used to meeting Reform Jews than you are to meeting Orthodox Jews. We mostly eat the same kinds of things you do, as long as they’re kosher – and most cereals are. So can I pour you a bowl?”
In addition to the cereal, the two were soon munching on sticky buns Mrs. Feinman had made the previous night. Danny had listened while Yitzi made the blessings on the food, and had known to say “amen” before eating.
“So,” Yitzi asked between bites. “You’re a Red Sox fan?”
“You like baseball, too?” Danny asked, amazed.
“Sure,” grinned his host. “I grew up near Boston.”
“Did you get to go to Fenway?”
“Yeah, Abba and I used to go a few times a year.”
“That’s great”, Danny said, enviously. “It’s kind of far from here, so I’ve only been once.” He paused and looked towards the exit from the kitchen. “Yitzi,” he said in a lowered voice. “Is there something wrong with your Dad’s arm?”
“No…,” Yitzi answered, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“Well, when I came in, he had his sleeve rolled up, and there were all these welts on it. I was just wondering what happened.”
Yitzi had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. “You mean seven lines across his left forearm?”
“I didn’t count them.”
“Those are tefillin marks. He’d just taken off his tefillin, and they last for a while.”
Danny’s mouth made a small ‘o’ of surprise and Yitzi waited to see if he would ask to see them. Abba always said you weren’t suppose to push. If people wanted to know more, they would ask.
Danny didn’t look about to ask, though. Instead, he just muttered, “I’ve heard of it… never seen one…”
“Not surprising,” Yitzi hasted to point out before he could get defensive. “If you’re not Orthodox, why would you?”
Still, Danny looked a bit intimidated, and suddenly wasn’t talking or even meeting his eyes. Yitzi shook his head. He wished he knew how his father always managed to make people comfortable. He retreated to the one non-religious thing he knew about his new friend. “So, are you in a baseball league? Are there pick-up games?”
“Um… well, there probably are. My friends and I mostly just toss the ball around or take turns batting. Nothing serious. It’s probably a bit late for you to join a league.”
“Oh. Not me. I’m not so great at baseball. I just thought you…” He caught Danny’s eye and the two of them started laughing.
“One of the world’s shortest books,” Danny guffawed. “Great Jewish baseball players!”
“Well there was Koufax, and Greenberg, and… uh…”
“Al Rosen, Ken Holtzman…”
Yitzi shook his head. “You got me there. I don’t know either of them. But the Sox have Kevin Youkilis, and he’s pretty good.”
“Yup!” The boys smiled at one another, and Danny said, “I guess we’re done. Let’s go help your Dad.”
Yitzi held up a hand. “We should bentsch first.” At Danny’s startled look, he corrected himself. “I mean, say the blessing after the meal.” He grabbed a couple of bentschers – small booklets with the relevant blessings – and handed one to Danny after opening it to the correct page.
Danny held the booklet uncertainly, and gamely tried to follow along as Yitzi sped through the short after-blessing for grain products. With an embarrassed grin, he handed it back once Yitzi was finished.
Yitzi cringed. “Sorry. I should have done it more slowly.”
“Yeah, I think we’d probably still be reading it this afternoon if you waited for me to finish!” That brought another laugh from Yitzi as the boys headed for the library.
As promised, Rabbi Feinman declared at ten o’clock that they’d done enough. “If you boys are ready, I can take you over now. Your lunch is in the kitchen, Yitzy.”
Soon they were pulling out of the driveway, with the boys in the back seat. Danny leaned over and whispered urgently, “why are you bringing your own lunch?”
A bit surprised at the question and the whispering, Yitzy responded in the same tone, “They’re not going to have anything kosher, are they?”
Danny lowered his voice even more. “It’s all right. I won’t tell your Dad.” Seeing no response, he continued, “Look, it’s going to be embarrassing if you walk in and first off, you won’t eat their food. What are they going to think of us?”
Yitzi winced. He automatically looked to his father for help before deciding it wouldn’t be appropriate. “Danny,” he whispered urgently. “I can’t. I don’t eat trefe – non-kosher food. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
Danny looked as though he was going to explode. After a quick glance at the rabbi, he leaned in even closer. “Yitzi. Please. Don’t do this.”
Yitzi just stared. All of friends “back home” and the boys whose parents had brought them to his father’s outreach center had understood, even if they hadn’t yet been observant. What exactly was Danny afraid of? He didn’t know what to say, and shrugged, only to see his new friend slump in his seat.
He racked his brains. For this first time, it occurred to him to wonder exactly who these people were that they were visiting. Given Danny’s reaction, they probably weren’t Jewish, but if they were antisemites, why had Danny been so eager to visit, earlier? He sure didn’t seem all that eager now.
“Which house, Danny?” Rabbi Feinman asked, as the car started to slow.
Danny looked up and sighed. “The second one on the right.” When the car stopped, he sighed again and opened his door, but when Yitzi’s Dad opened his own door, Danny looked up in alarm.
Yitzi noticed and spoke quietly to his father. “Tati, I think Danny might not want you to come in.”
“I just thought that I should-” the Rabbi started, but looked over at the other boy, stopped and chuckled, “I guess even other people’s parents can be embarrassing, sometimes. I’ll wait in the car until you two get in the house, OK?” and settled back in his seat.
Yitzi turned to head to the house and whistled when he got his first good look at it. “That’s some house!”
“Yeah,” his friend agreed. “Do you like the cherubs? They’re from the Bible, aren’t they?”
Yitzi looked back and forth at the front of the house. “Where? I don’t see anything like look remotely like keruvim.”
“The fat little babies. I mean, they have horns, so Andrew says they’re gargoyles, but Natalie says they’re cherubs.”
With that description, Yitzi could easily pick out the figures on the house, and stared at them for a moment. Then he turned to Danny and said, “Those are not keruvim. The Hebrew Bible identifies them as guardians. Didn’t you ever see Raiders of the Lost Ark? The angels who defend the ark are keruvim.”
“Then why does everybody call those, cherubs?”
“I have no idea. We could ask my Dad…”
“It’s not important. Come on, I want to introduce you. Don’t say anything about the food, yet, OK?” Danny led the way to the house and rang the bell.
Andrew answered the door within seconds. “Danny! Great to see you!” He looked curiously at Yitzi, and then blinked in astonishment at his . “You’re a real Jew, aren’t you? Like in the Bible?”
Now it was his visitors’ turn to blink. “I’m Jewish, too,” Danny pointed out.
“Well, yeah,” their host countered, “but he’s wearing one of those yarmulke things, and you’re not. I’ll bet he does actual Jewish things that you don’t do.”
Yitzi grinned. It looked as though things were going to be just fine. He waved to let his father know.
That got another reaction from Andrew. “Who’s that?”
“Is he a rabbi?”
“Actually, yes” Yitzi laughed. He glanced at Danny, who was staring at their host with some dismay.
“Cool!” Then Andrew caught himself. “We should probably go in.” He led his guests inside, still chattering to Yitzi. “Do you eat kosher food, too?” He asked, sounding as if that would be almost past excitement.
“Danny!” A girl’s voice called from the stairs. “You’re back.”
Yitzi turned to look at the newcomer and then quickly looked away. She was wearing nothing but a halter top and skimpy shorts, showing a lot more skin than was decent! The women and girls who came to the outreach center had always worn skirts or dresses, and had exposed very little naked flesh. Then he remembered that she was also his hostess, and not looking at her would be rude, so he forced himself to look directly at her face.
But Andrew had noticed, and turned on his sister. “Natalie!” he saod, dragging her away from their guests. Yitzi could only catch a word here and there: “real Jew” and “Father said” and something about clothing. Obviously, it wasn’t considered appropriate clothing in this household, either, which was interesting.
Danny stared after them. “Now what was that all about?”
“She wasn’t very tsnius, was she? I mean – the way she was dressed.”
“Huh? It’s summer! Lots of girls dress like that.”
“Not religious Jewish girls.”
Danny rolled his eyes. “She’s not Jewish, OK?”
“Sorry about that,” Andrew called out as he rushed back. “Family issues.”
“With what?” Danny asked.
“Well…” Andrew started, but was immediately interrupted by Yitzi.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at a picture on the wall, which depicted a hand, palm up, with what appeared to be a railroad spike through it. The horrified boy was trying to understand why anyone would have such an image, and what it meant about how they would treat strangers. To be sure, Andrew had seemed really enthusiastic, but torture seemed a really odd subject to publicize.
“Oh,” responded Andrew, turning red. “That’s just a Bible verse.”
“Bible verse?” Yitzi had been so revolted by the content, that he hadn’t even noticed the writing: “I am crucified with Christ…” he read and then stopped, realizing what he was reading. “Oh, that’s…”
“Sure,” said Danny, “haven’t you ever been in a church? They have the guy nailed to crosses all over the place.”
“That’s Catholics,” Andrew said, hastily.
“No, I’ve never been in a church,” Yitzi responded almost simultaneously. “We’re not allowed.”
“You’re welcome to come to ours,” Andrew declared. “At least, I’m pretty sure, you would be – I haven’t been there yet, but I can ask, on Sunday.”
“No, I mean, we’re not supposed to go to a– well, to places that… that aren’t… you know…” Now it was Yitzi who was blushing. He really didn’t want to say anything offensive, and suddenly realized he wasn’t sure what a politic way would be to translate beis shegetz. Calling Andrew’s church a “house of abomination” didn’t seem very smart, especially given that his father had gone, and he could be facing a very long walk home if he got into a fight.
Andrew, fortunately, didn’t seem to be very good at reading expressions. “That’s the old days,” he reassured Yitzi. “I’m sure they’d be thrilled to have you visit. Or your Dad!”
“Yeah, Yitzi,” Danny chimed in. “Didn’t you have any Christian friends back in your old home?”
“Not really,” Yitzi admitted. “My friends are mostly the kids at school and camp, and they’re all Jewish.”
Andrew stared, as though wondering how anybody in American could not have lots of Christian friends. Danny was staring, too, and Yitzi didn’t know how to respond. The seconds crawled.
Suddenly, Andrew said, “Hey! You guys want to see the attic? It’s really cool!” The other two nodded their heads in relief. “Great. We should get some flashlights. All it has are these tiny windows. Mom? Mom!”
“Andrew, don’t yell,” a female voice answered as a woman came around the corner. “Oh, Danny, it’s nice that you came back. And who is your other friend, Andrew?”
“This is…” he started and then looked at his new friend with panic in his eyes, having just realized that he hadn’t learned his name.
“I’m Yitzi, ma’am.”
“Yitzi,” Andrew repeated, nodding to himself. “Mom, can we have some flashlights? We’re going to explore the attic!”
“Flashlights? I think your father might–”
“Thanks, Mom!” Andrew exclaimed, darting toward a door at the other side of the room. “Dad! Can we have some flashlights?”
“We?’ asked his father, coming through the door. “Ah! Danny, right?” He shook hands with the boy and then looked expectantly at Yitzi.
“That’s Yitzi, Dad,” explained Andrew, sounding very impatient.
“Yitzi? As in Yitzhak? What we could call, Isaac?”
“Yes, sir,” Yitzi responded, as Danny looked on in amazement.
“One of my favorite stories… Yitzhak and Rivkah. You need flashlights?”
“Yeah, Dad,” Andrew said, dancing from foot to foot. “We’re going to explore the attic.”
“Ah, yes. Well, they’re probably still packed, but I think I can find one…”
Andrew’s father had barely handed it over when Andrew went dashing up the stairs, with the other two in close pursuit.
“This way!” he shouted, leading the others to the other end of the hallway and turning sharply.
“This is an attic?” Danny asked, as he rounded the corner. “It looks more like just another floor.”
“I dunno,” Andrew shrugged. “I call it an attic.”
“Your sister’s probably already explored it,” Yitzi said, disappointed. No boy likes to be beaten by a girl.
“Natalie?” scoffed Andrew. “Even if she wanted to go in first to spite me, she’d never dare until the cobwebs were cleaned out.” The boys nodded at one another. Everyone knew girls were afraid of cobwebs and bugs. That was something that needed no argument at all.
As host, of course, Andrew led the way, shining his flashlight before him.
Yitzi stared. The attic, if that’s what it was, ran the length of the house. The gable windows looked as though they hadn’t been cleaned in year, and the light from them was meager, enough to see that the attic was packed with something, but not enough to tell exactly what.
As Andrew shined his flashlight carefully along the sides, it became clear. There were boxes and boxes stacked in neat rows from one end to the other.
“This is awesome,” Danny whispered. Yitzi nodded.
“What’s that up there?” Danny asked, pointing up near the ceiling. Andrew played the beam of his flashlight in the direction indicated until he had illuminated the object that had drawn his friend’s attention.
“Looks like a light switch! Perfect!” He tried to flip it, but it was just out of his reach. “Danny,” he said, “you’re the tallest. Can you turn it on?”
Danny reached up and threw the switch. Nothing happened. He flipped it back and forth a couple of times. “Must be burned out.”
“Crazy place for a light switch, anyway,” Yitzi commented. “I hope we can reach the light to change the bulb.” The boys looked around, but the ceiling appeared to be devoid of any light fixtures.
“We’ll just have to come back with more flashlights,” Andrew said. “Or a lantern – that would be cooler. But that can wait for tomorrow. How about we open some of these boxes? Who knows what we’ll find!”