Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 16 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
“Why does your wife want to stop her work?”
Arthur sighed. He took a gold lighter out of his pocket and positioned his thumb on the switch. Then, apparently having second thoughts, he put it back in its place. “She says that this kind of work isn’t suitable for a bas Yisrael.”
Eliyahu gazed at a long scratch in the table. ‘Tell me, what exactly is plastic surgery?”
“Operations that make external changes on the body. That’s just a very simplistic, unprofessional description.”
“In other words, the way you explain it to boors like me.” Eliyahu flashed a brief smile, paused, and then asked, “Is implanting missing limbs also part of this field?”
“Internal organs such as hearts and livers, no, but ears, for example, yes.”
“Ears…” Eliyahu breathed deeply. “And…fingers, for example?”
“Sure,” Arthur replied gaily, and then lifted his right foot onto the table before immediately lowering it. “Sorry, Rabbi Eliyahu, I forgot for a moment where I was. Last year, she implanted five fingers onto the hand of a girl who was born without them.”
“How can someone grow new bones?”
“They can’t,” Arthur replied patiently. “I can teach you what can be done in such cases, Rabbi, but I thought that I came here to learn Torah from you, not for you to learn plastic surgery from me.”
Eliyahu accepted the rebuke in good humor. “Got it, Arthur. You’re right, as usual. So, let’s get back to—”
“I’m right, as usual? Wonderful. Please tell that to Tissa. What time can I send her up to your house?”
Behind the white shutters of the Blum family’s large window was a narrow stone ledge, where, as a young boy, Yerachmiel had liked to sit with his legs folded and gaze at the street below. Thirty years later, there was no room for him to bend his legs there, but although it wasn’t as comfortable a perch as it once had been, Yerachmiel still liked the spot. He sat at the edge of the sill and opened the shutters a bit, leaning his head on his folded fist. He had already davened Shacharis and learned for two hours, and the rest of the morning stretched ahead of him like a final breath before he would dive into the busy afternoon that would launch one of the most enjoyable and most pressured times of year for him.
The last counselors’ meeting of the Yaldei Yisrael day camp was scheduled for three o’clock. For the past eleven years, he had served as a counselor for the sixth grade boys from several chadarim in Bnei Brak. Tomorrow, day camp would start, and for the next two weeks, he wouldn’t have a spare moment to come and sit in his favorite corner and just be with himself.
Yerachmiel’s eyes narrowed when he saw a group of children get off the bus across from his house, his sister Dini in the center of the little cluster. Dini was coming for a visit? Mommy hadn’t told him. He rose suddenly, abandoning the windowsill and the excited chatter of the children below. He had not a drop of strength to meet Dini now. If he could tell her once and for all to do him a favor and stop with that guilty look, it would be wonderful, but he couldn’t say it. Poor girl, she took the fact that he was stuck here, while she, who was younger than him, was raising a whole brood of healthy, cute children, very seriously.
He went into his room and shut the door. In a few more minutes he’d come out to his nephews with a smile, but he wanted a little more quiet time first. The worn chair squeaked when he sat down. Yerachmiel raised his eyes and gazed into the mirror hanging opposite where he sat. The reflection showed a worried expression with creases in his forehead.
He tried to smile at himself in the mirror. If he would emerge with a solemn expression like this to Dini, it would be no wonder she’d feel guilty all over again, and he really didn’t want that to happen. She wasn’t to blame at all! Not that there was anyone who would say anything to her, chalilah, but it was obvious that anyone who knew him and knew about the kidney he had donated to her, connected her automatically to the fact that he was still here.
Naturally, he had also thought along those lines in the past, but he had long moved beyond that. It had taken many years of working on himself to reach this point.
Perhaps from everyone in the family, it was easiest for him, because he was the only one who personally knew at least five guys who had reached the age of forty and, like him, were still single—and they hadn’t donated a kidney like he had. So what did that say? Nothing. Hashem guides each person on his own path, and no one knows why He chooses a specific path for each one.
And apparently, Hashem had decided that he was destined to remain along the same path even at age forty himself, as his fortieth birthday would be in one month hence, and here he was, still single, still alone. He had once tried to speak to Dini about it, to clarify this point so she could see it the way he saw it, but her eyes had filled with tears when he just mentioned the topic, so he’d immediately abandoned the idea.
The interesting thing was that he and Dini had never been particularly close. Yerachmiel had been born first, while they still lived in England, and Dini had come along a bit more than a year later, when the family had already been living in Eretz Yisrael. It was a blessing that she wasn’t a boy, because with such close competition he would have surely come out worse for the wear. As it was, everyone compared the two siblings endlessly: their talents, their development, even the way they smiled. Most of the comparisons had—to the best of his recollection—resulted in more favorable ratings for Dini. She knew how to read fluently during the winter of first grade, while he was still getting stuck here and there in third grade and couldn’t stand reading books. She was solving complex multiplication exercises in fourth grade, while he was still gritting his teeth memorizing the basic multiplication tables to win the prize the teacher had promised. (He didn’t win it in the end.)
She had also gotten married before him, but that, at least, was natural and normal. No one was comparing them anymore at that point, and they’d gotten along fine. What did a yeshivah bachur need to do to get along with his sister in seminary who was busy preparing model lessons? The fact that she gave fantastic lessons and excelled in school made no difference to him whatsoever. On the contrary, he was happy with her success and was proud to discover that her chassan was one of the top boys in the shiur above his. He got along with Dini’s chassan very well, and that was the main thing.
Yerachmiel turned his gaze away from the mirror. After Dini had gotten married, he became the top priority in the family’s shidduchim ladder. The future was spread out before him, glowing and clear, and he hoped to succeed, as he had succeeded in life until then. Yes, there’d been the occasional bump or obstacle, but that didn’t take away from the fact that in general, everything had gone pretty smoothly for him. He was a good boy, still young, learning seriously, well liked—what could be difficult about that shidduch profile?
His initial foray into shidduchim hadn’t been difficult, but it hadn’t been easy either. Things had moved very slowly—at a pace of one foot forward, two feet backward. And then, shortly after Dini’s oldest son was born, the future had darkened at once, becoming blacker than the sky on a dark winter night.
“Severe kidney failure,” the doctors said. “Dialysis will sustain her for a short while, but not longer than that.” A kidney transplant was the only chance to save Dini’s life.
There weren’t too many candidates to donate a kidney for her. Only Yerachmiel and his parents had even qualified at the earliest stage of testing; everyone else in the family was too young.
His memory of the morning when the results from further testing had arrived was hazy in his mind. Then, too, it was bein hazmanim, like now. He had come home from Shacharis, and Mommy had called him to her room.
“The results just came in,” she said, her face taut with tension. “You, Yerachmiel, seem to be the best match of us all.” She was quiet for a minute, looking at him. Abba stood beside the window, observing him, too, both of them in silence.
“Okay,” he said after a moment, when he realized they were expecting him to respond. “Baruch Hashem. I’m very happy. What do we do now?”
“Go eat breakfast,” Mommy said, but Abba stopped her.
“No breakfast. You have to do some more tests, while fasting, to make sure you’re really a suitable match…” He hesitated for a moment. “Is that okay, Yerachmiel?”
“Is what okay, the fast or the tests? I’m not really scared of blood tests.” He smiled uneasily, not entirely sure what his father meant.
“No.” Abba avoided his gaze. “We mean the whole donation. You understand what’s involved, don’t you? Giving one of your…kidneys…to Dini.”
“Of course I understand,” he said, shrugging. “The remaining kidney will be enough for me, right?” They nodded in unison. “So what’s the question?” he said, turning toward the door. “Are we taking a bus or a cab, Abba?”
A smile spread across Abba’s face, smoothing many of the wrinkles he had accumulated over the past few weeks. Mommy burst into tears of relief. He, more discomfited than ever, did not understand them. Wasn’t it obvious that he’d agree right away? Was there a person in the world who wouldn’t do the same for his sister?
A week later, as he lay in the recovery room and squinted at the white ceiling above him, he heard Mommy talking to someone on the phone. To this day, he didn’t know who she was talking to, but he clearly heard her words. “We were pretty sure he’d agree,” she said, “but there was this niggling fear, you know, because Yerachmiel and Dini didn’t always get along. But he really is an amazing boy. He didn’t hesitate for even a second.”
“Mommy,” he said hoarsely, his voice obviously affected by the anesthesia that hadn’t completely worn off. “I don’t think anyone can even hesitate on such a question.” And then his throat grew very dry, the words got stuck in his throat, and he asked for a drink.
Yerachmiel got up from the old chair in his room; his throat felt as dry as it had then after the surgery, and as it had thousands of times in the years that had passed. Initially, in the hospital, he’d wondered about this thirst that would assail him suddenly, without any apparent reason, and which didn’t go away until he’d down at least three cups of water. But he assumed it was part of the side effects of the surgery. When the attacks hadn’t abated more than half a year after the operation, though, he went back to the hospital where he and Dini had undergone the surgery.
The elderly surgeon remembered him well. “Oh, it’s you, Rachamim! You gave such a huge gift to your sister! What brings you here to us now, young man?”
Yerachmiel didn’t bother to correct the mistaken name. “I’m thirsty,” he told the doctor. “All the time. Is that normal?”
Dr. Gur grew serious and invited him to come into his office. He asked a few questions and his forehead creased in concentration. “I think we’ll send you for some tests, just to be sure. But I don’t think there’s any reason to worry. It looks to me like an unpleasant side effect of the surgery, Rachamim, or maybe the result of the medications you took. Some gifts are very expensive…”
“I know,” the twenty-two-year-old Yerachmiel had replied. “Do side effects pass?”
“This type of thing, usually yes. Your body needs time to get rid of the effects of the surgery, and it could still take a few months. But it could also take longer.”
The tests—as the doctor had expected—showed that everything was in order. He was completely healthy. The doctors thought perhaps it was just a long-lasting reaction to one of the infusions he’d received prior to the surgery. Yerachmiel was reassured, but continued to be exceptionally thirsty from time to time. Sometimes it happened once in three days, and other times, it happened three times in one day. Sometimes it bothered him terribly; other times, less so. The phenomenon faded significantly with each passing month, until it became history.
He just asked that Dini not find out about it. She had enough on her shoulders without having to worry about the side effects her brother was suffering. It would be very hard for her, and Yerachmiel couldn’t stand the thought that someone might have things harder because of him.
Zevi left only his pajamas and tefillin bag out of his open case. If he could have, he would have taken the 10:30 bus home tonight, but Savta claimed adamantly that a seventeen-year-old boy could not travel this late at night himself. So instead, he would have to take the 3:30 bus tomorrow. Hopefully, by five thirty or so, he’d already be home, in Yerucham, with everyone. He’d see his father, whom he hadn’t seen for three months. He was happy for himself, for his brothers, but mostly for Ima, who was so happy, and different, when Abba was home. Even her constant worry about him eased when Abba was around.
And the week after, he’d be going—maybe—up north with Yehuda. He felt excited for a minute—a feeling quickly replaced with annoyance. He didn’t like the fact that he was looking forward to spending two days up north with Yehuda, but the apathy that he had tried to enforce upon himself regarding his roommate had such a thin membrane that it did not withstand the numerous cracks it was being dealt.
Fine, so I’m happy about going! he finally told himself, caving in to the excitement he felt about the idea. Two days, just two days. Yes, I’m happy to spend time with him. So, is that not allowed?
But he’s going to continue trying to “educate” you! that thin membrane cried.
So what? Let him. Who said it’s bad? Zevi shrugged rebelliously and went to read a book.
Chasida was standing at the door talking to someone. “…never recommend without knowing myself,” Zevi heard her say. “So I’m just telling you what I heard about the product. It’s an excellent company, and it’s hard for me to believe that their products cause problems. But if you’re worried, then you really shouldn’t try it again, Shevi. I wouldn’t want you to take a risk because of me.”
The Shevi at the door said something in a low voice.
“Okay, I’ll just go and get the keys,” Chasida replied. “Do you feel up to coming down with me?”
Zevi passed them on his way to the kitchen. “Did you see a book here, Savta?” he asked.
“The book you were reading at lunchtime?” she asked, bending toward the oven door. “You’re planning to read now?”
“I think you should go to sleep early, Zevi’le. You have to be refreshed for the trip tomorrow!”
Zevi shrugged. “It’s not even ten o’clock, Savta. It’s too early for me.”
“You mustn’t be tired tomorrow under any circumstances, and now is not the time to read. Come and eat supper with Saba, learn something together, and you’ll go to sleep. You don’t need to be reading now.”
Zevi didn’t try to argue. He knew that Savta would win the argument, as she always did. He washed his hands quietly and joined his grandfather at the table.
“Has your friend backed down from his plan?” Saba asked as he peeled back the foil cover of his yogurt.
“Not completely,” Zevi admitted. “He wants me to go with him next week.”
“I still say that you don’t need this whole trip,” Savta suddenly interjected as she served him scrambled eggs. “Who needs to be bothered with trips? It’s just dangerous, Zevi’le, and I told your mother that, but it didn’t help.”
“Well, it’s not definite that I’m going with him. And even if we do go, we won’t be doing any hikes or anything. I promised my mother,” Zevi said, spreading a thick layer of butter on his whole-wheat bread.
“Traveling to this moshav up north is the same as a hike. A seventeen-year-old boy who goes on a bus he doesn’t know—that in itself makes me nervous. How will you know when to get off? Will you ask the driver? You’ll probably be too shy, huh?”
“I’ll go with my friend, Savta.” The sensitive grandchild felt a need to defend himself, although he didn’t know from what. Savta was not usually such a worrywart, contrary to many other grandmothers. His mother had told him how her mother had been the exception among her friends’ mothers in those days, and had let her girls have a free reign when it came to trips, camps, and sleeping at friends’ houses. Where had that gone when it came to him? Maybe it went where everything else went when things had to do with him.
He nibbled at his eggs; his appetite was gone. Savta had once again forgotten that he didn’t like eggs like this. But he knew he had no choice but to eat them. There was no quibbling with Savta. What would it be like at Yehuda’s grandmother’s house? Yehuda had better warn his grandmother that he wasn’t bringing a big eater along.
“Your head is already on your friend’s moshav?” Saba smiled at him. “You can see it in your eyes, Zevi. Go on, keep dreaming. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
Zevi smiled back at Saba, musing about the day ahead. The morning would be like today, a full breakfast that Savta wouldn’t let him out of, waiting at the bus stop, and then a long bus trip. He actually liked traveling, but the familiar route was beginning to get a tad boring.
“Be careful—the cup!”
Savta’s last word was drowned out by a loud crash. Zevi gaped in shock at the green glass shards resting in a brown puddle. When had Savta given him a glass of tea? Why hadn’t she said anything?
Saba remained silent. So did Zevi. With flaming cheeks, he got up to go bring a mop from the porch.
“No, stay here!” Savta said, almost pushing him back into his chair. “That’s all I need, that you should get glass in your finger. You didn’t spill the tea onto yourself, did you? It was boiling hot. Are you sure you’re okay, Zevi’le?”
That was the last straw, the straw that came and broke the last shred of spirit that the boy still had.
“I didn’t spill the tea on myself now,” he said, his lips trembling. “What happened when I was three was enough for a whole lifetime.”
And then he stood up, and without stepping on a single piece of glass, went into the bathroom. It was terrible enough that a seventeen-year-old boy cried. It didn’t have to happen in front of Saba and Savta, and worse even, Chasida, who, by the sound of it, had just come in.
“Why did Motty from U & B get so angry today?” Zalman Dresnick asked his daughter causally when Zevi was getting ready for bed.
“Because I changed part of the order at the last minute.”
Zalman didn’t say anything about the fact that Chasida was taking the liberty to decide things herself. He wasn’t happy about it, but there was something more important at hand. “Why?” he asked.
“Shevi suspects that their ear drops caused her ear infection to come back.”
“You can’t know that for sure.”
Chasida turned away from the sink and hung her wet apron on its hook. “I didn’t want to take any chances, Abba—you know what I mean?”
“I do.” He paused for a minute, leaning on the windowsill. “Yitzchak actually told me that the ear, nose, and throat doctor to whom they took Shuki said that most of the fluid drained itself, and in the end he won’t need the tube surgery.”
“Did they give Shuki the U & B drops?” Her father nodded, keeping his eyes on her as she dried her hands. “Well, I’m happy he won’t need surgery. But that doesn’t mean the drops aren’t to blame for Shevi’s infection.”
“You’re right,” he replied in a measured tone. “With natural medications—and not only with them—there’s a rule: it’s possible that something that helps one person, harms another.”
“And what happened then?”
“Then?” He stared at her.
“That was something else. That was a fake cream that someone had sold under a well-known brand name.”
“And then, too, people said that it helped them.”
“Yes, but apparently what helped them was the real cream, not the dangerous forgery that this guy cooked up himself.” He sighed for a moment, shocked at how the topic had suddenly arisen. How much guilt was still eating at her? “No one could have known,” he said firmly, “what exactly that salesman brought. The fake creams looked exactly like the originals. He used the same packaging, and the company sued him for it.”
“No one could have known?” Chasida repeated. “I know someone very smart who was not excited about the cream, and its salesman, even without knowing about the forgery.”
Her father didn’t reply. Suddenly, in an unexpected turn, she went back to their original topic. “And I think that even if the U & B drops harmed only Shevi Auerbach, it’s better not to get involved with it.” She smiled dismally—a smile that did not reach her eyes.
“But antibiotics can also be harmful, according to all opinions. So, we don’t give it to someone who has…let’s say, strep?”
“When I was a girl and I had strep, you didn’t want to give me antibiotics, Abba,” Chasida said, trying not to sound insolent. “How did they call that horrible-tasting liquid?”
Zalman didn’t reply immediately. And when he did, it wasn’t with an answer to her question. “So not strep,” he said. “With strep you really can manage without antibiotics. But there are all sorts of illnesses that can only be stopped with antibiotics, and even I, as much as I’m against all these chemicals, know that sometimes there’s no choice!”
“But here there is a choice. Olive oil, for example,” his daughter said, and her stubborn, somewhat childish tone reminded him so much of days of long, babyish fights. How Chasida and Eliyahu had loved to argue, and about foolish things. Shoshi liked to observe them.
Zalman remained silent. Not that he didn’t have what to say. He could have told her that olive oil perhaps mitigated the pain, but didn’t cause the excess fluids to drain from the ear. He knew, however, that whatever he would say—Chasida would have a detailed response for him. The topic here was not U & B’s drops versus a bit of olive oil or something along those lines. The issue here was heavily loaded, complicated to the point of being painful and very stinging. Stinging as a burn.
Chavi welcomed Tissa—head covered in a kerchief—with a smile. The two women went into the kitchen, leaving their husbands to converse in the dining room. “He’s a good husband, Arthur,” Tissa said in a clipped German accent. “He really thinks that I should continue working, not because of the money it brings in, but because I can’t survive without my career.”
Chavi nodded, slicing cake and arranging the slices onto a small tray. She wasn’t particularly active in her husband’s kiruv activities, but from time to time she had visitors that Eliyahu arranged for her to meet, people who perceived her as a respected rebbetzin and expected her to solve their deliberations with the wave of her invisible wand—which Chavi absolutely did not possess. Not the rebbetzin-related talents, and certainly not the wand.
“You need to consult someone for advice about this,” Chavi said to Tissa, who sat with her forehead creased in worry, and then picked up the tray. In the dining room, Chavi announced loudly, “I think Tissa has to seek the advice of someone who understands these things better than me. There’s a rebbetzin in Yerushalayim who many women go to, and she gives very good advice.”
“That’s a good idea,” Tissa said, her eyes sparkling.
“Good ideas?” Arthur echoed as he helped himself to a piece of cake from the tray. “I’m sorry, Tissa, I don’t remember the brachah. The Rebbetzin will surely tell her to stop working, won’t she, Rabbi Eliyahu?”
“Let’s leave the answer to the Rebbetzin,” Eliyahu said with a smile. “That’s why she’s a rebbetzin, and I’m not.” He looked at Chavi, trying to read into her eyes whether she thought it was a good idea to go now with Tissa and leave him babysitting their children, who were in various stages of falling asleep. “I think you should go to Bnei Brak now,” he concluded. “Arthur will stay here with me. We have lots to talk about.”
“And if I get bored in your company?” the ophthalmologist queried as he helped himself to yet a third piece of nut cake.
“Then I’ll send you to the children’s room to sing them a lullaby,” Eliyahu said. “And my older son should be here soon; maybe he’ll keep you more fascinated than I can.”
An hour later, as the two women were en route to Yerushalayim, Eliyahu sat across from Arthur, who was flipping through the newspaper he had found on the table in the hallway, and said seriously, “Arthur.”
“I hear you, Rabbi Eliyahu.”
“Did you notice that the topic of plastic surgery interests me?”
Arthur raised his eyes. “Maybe. Uh, yeah. You did ask me lots of questions.”
“There’s a boy…” Eliyahu scrambled for the right words. “A relative of mine. He’s seventeen, and he’s missing, I think, four of his toes. Do you think there’s a possibility of…um…treating this?”
“It depends,” Arthur said, uncharacteristically serious. He suddenly looked so doctor-like that Eliyahu found himself shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “It depends if he’s still growing; what exactly is missing and what’s left; and a few other factors that I don’t remember right now. You have to ask Tissa. How did it happen?”
“The truth is, I don’t really know,” Eliyahu replied, fixing his gaze on the corner of Arthur’s tie. It was green with brown polka dots. “It began with a serious burn, and there must have been complications after that.”
“When did this happen?”
“Oh, when he was three.”
Arthur leaned back in his chair. “And why haven’t they tried to do anything until now?”
“Because they don’t have money,” Eliyahu replied, recalling Shoshi’s small, wallpapered house, and knowing that even with the salary that Chanoch sent from South America, they didn’t have any extra money. Maybe they didn’t lack for anything but—“It’s an expensive proposition, isn’t it?”
“It is. Where will they have money from to do something about it now?”
“I want to pay.”
Arthur glanced at him for a fraction of a second, opened his mouth, closed it, took the newspaper again, and then said in a typical Arthur voice, that made you believe the whole exchange hadn’t taken place, “Wait, wait. I’m very interested to hear what the Rebbetzin tells Tissa.”
And then their conversation turned to matters of religion, which they debated long and hard. Arthur looked at the serious young man opposite him, explaining his stance clearly and persuasively, until Tissa and Chavi returned, more friendly with each other than they had been before they left. In a voice half victorious, half defeated, Tissa reported to Arthur that, “The Rebbetzin asked the Rav, and he said I should continue practicing, but only on women.”
Perhaps Tissa was surprised that Arthur’s only response was to ask whether she’d at least be allowed to render an opinion on a boy’s x-rays, without treating him. And maybe she wasn’t surprised. After twenty-eight years of marriage, she knew what to expect from her very unpredictable husband.