After Kidushin 31a–b
“Baruch! Cheer up! You look like your mother just died!” The shouter of this greeting is Tzefanya, my new locker neighbor at the Jerusalem YMCA Sports Center, which I just joined, after the Jerusalem Pool closed. So I’m actually his new locker neighbor. Actually, we’re both new, because while Tzefania has swum and worked out at the Y for, he claims, at least 50 years, it was at the old facility, which has just been replaced by this spanking new one.
Baruch is probably half Tzefanya’s age, so thin that his tzitziot barely have a shoulder to hang from. Tzefanya is large and hearty and always calls, never speaks. He sounds like the guy who makes the rounds in my neighborhood at 4 a.m. during the month of Elul shouting “Se-li-hot! Se-li-hot!” I’ve never seen that guy’s face, because I never get up that early, even to ask God’s forgiveness, but he probably looks a lot like Tzafanya.
Baruch, Tzefanya, and I are packed onto a bench a meter and a half long, between two banks of closely-placed lockers, along with Nayal, a super-fit software engineer of about Baruch’s age, with close-cropped hair and blue eyes. He’s just putting on his glasses so as to better glare at Tzefanya, which is his usual attitude toward the Tunisian-born grandfather with the muezzin’s voice.
“That’s a really insensitive thing to say to Baruch,” Nayal reprimands him, “given that his mother has, in fact, just died.”
Tzefanya looks at Baruch, who is buttoning a white shirt over his tzitziot, and says, at the top of his voice, “What, Baruch, your mother died? So why are you here?” Baruch sways back, almost falling on me, as if the force of the wind coming out of Tzefanya’s mouth is about to blow him away.
“This is how you honor your mother?” Tzefanya pontificates. “You should be home sitting shiva for the woman who worked so hard to bring you up, not giving girls the eye in the pool!”
Nayal puts his hand out to steady Baruch. “Waqef, Tzefanya, stop it, leave the guy alone! What do you know about honoring your mother?”
“What do I know about honoring my mother?” Tzefanya shouts. “Jews are famous for honoring their mothers! No one honors mothers more than Jews, and you Muslims know it!”
“Hey guys,” I say softly, afraid a religious war is about to break out here in the locker room.
Nayal stands, puts his left foot firmly on the bench, leans on his knee, and looks Tzefanya straight in the eye. “I’ll tell you how much I honor my mother. Once I was visiting my Mom, it was late at night, she’s already fallen asleep on the couch, and there’s a knock on her door. I open it and it’s Shaul from the office. ‘Nayal, what’s going on with you? I’ve been calling for an hour! Remember that CEO from Basel who visited us and saw your demonstration of the system? He’s ready to sign a contract but he wants to talk to you personally! You’ve got to call him!’ And I look around and I can’t find my phone, and then I see. ‘Hey Shaul, sorry, but my Mom fell asleep on my phone. Big contract, big deal. I respect my Mom and I’m not going to wake her up.”
“So why didn’t you call from Shaul’s phone?” Baruch asks timidly.
“That’s what I did,” Nayal says triumphantly. “I took Shaul’s phone and went into the other room and called. But I didn’t wake up my mother!”
“Ah, what do you know about honoring your mother,” Tzefanya scoffs. “Do you know how I used to honor my mother back in Tunis? Do you?”
“My mother was kind of strange,” Baruch whispers to me.
“When I was in high school,” Tzfanya announces to everyone in the locker room, “every evening, when my mother was ready to call it a night, I got down on all fours so that she could use me as a stepstool to get into bed.”
I never know how to respond when someone tells me that their mother was kind of strange, so I just tighten the towel around my waist and stare at Baruch.
He takes a deep breath, as if he is about to unburden himself of something that had sat inside for too long. He looks down at the floor, so I can barely hear him over Tzfanya’s shouting. “She always was. But very demanding. All sorts of demands. When I was a kid, it was hard to handle. But when I grew up it just continued.”
“Well, mothers …” I begin to say, but Baruch doesn’t listen, just goes on.
Then, about a year ago I went to see her in her nursing home in Tiberias, that’s where we all lived, just before her 92nd birthday. She wasn’t in great shape, to say the least. But she says to me, ‘Baruch, I want you to buy be jewelry for my birthday. The whole works. Necklace, bracelet, earrings, pin. Lots of dazzle and gold. Diamonds, too.”
“Big deal,” Nayal scoffs. “Big deal. Tzfanya, letting your Mom step all over you is easy. Let me tell you how much I respect my mother. I took her took her for a vacation in Alexandria …”
“Alexandria!” Tzefanya shouts. “Alexandria, for your mother! I took my mother to the French Riviera.”
“Shut up and listen, Tzefanya,” Nayal orders. “We’re taking a walk on the beach, and I stop to buy her ice cream …”
“Ice cream!” Tzefanya bellows. “You know what I …”
Nayal ignores him. “And suddenly she grabs my wallet and throws it in the sea! I didn’t think she had such strength! I watch my wallet arc above the sand and descend, with cash and credit cards and the works, into the waves. And I didn’t say a word! I just smiled at her and asked her if she wanted to keep walking or go back to our hotel. Try respecting your Mom when she does something like that!”
I’m looking from Tzfanya to Nayal and back with great concern as I whisper out of the corner of my mouth to Baruch: “Sounds expensive.”
“And we barely get through each month,” Baruch says. “But we had some money saved up for a vacation, and I talked it over with my wife, and we took that money and I bought Mom some really high-quality jewelry.”
“She must have been delighted.”
“She was,” Baruch tells me. “But then she says: Now I want a man.”
I can tell from Baruch’s cringe that my eyes are popping out of their sockets.
“Not just any man, she says. I want a man who is as handsome as you are.”
Now Baruch’s not much to look at, but I figure that for every Mom there’s no man more handsome than her son, so I get the drift. “Sounds,” I say, “well, I mean …”
“Kinky,” Baruch suggests.
“Like you said,” I say.
“So,” says Baruch.
“So,” I echo him. “What did you do?”
“I couldn’t take it. I went home and told my wife and a week later we packed up everything and moved here, to Jerusalem.”
“That’s nothing,” Tzefanya proclaims. “At my college graduation ceremony in Tunis, my Mom came up to me, ripped my gown in two, and spat in my face. And you know what I did? I hugged her and presented her proudly to my friends, with the spit still dripping off my nose.”
“When I was in college,” Nayal counters, “and I came home for the weekend, my father and mother were all over me. They’d welcome me as if I’d been away for years, sit me down in the most comfortable armchair, and they’d both bring me a glass of water. And you know whose glass I took? My Mom’s! So as to give her the greatest honor.”
I see a tear in Baruch’s eye. “Was that the right thing to do?” he asks me. “Leave my mother and move to another city?”
“Well,” I say cautiously, “of course it’s a mitzvah to live in Jerusalem.”
“Then, a couple months later, I get a call from my sister in Safed. She says, ‘Baruch, I just think you ought to know that Mom has insisted on moving to a nursing home in Jerusalem. She’s on her way right now.’”
“You’re just making it up,” Tzefanya says, jabbing Nayal in the chest. “Everyone knows that Arabs just make stuff up. I pity your mother for having such a son.”
Nayal is not fazed. “Just like all the Yahud,” he says. “You think if you shout something loud enough, that makes it true.”
Ducking under Tzefanya’s jabs, Baruch continues his story. “So of course I drop everything rush over to the address that my sister gives me to be there when my mother arrives.”
“That sounds just like what a son should do,” I try to comfort him. “What did she say when she saw you? She must have been really surprised!”
Baruch swallows hard. “She didn’t say anything,” he says softly. “She was dead.”
“Anyway,” says Nayal, looking down at Baruch on the bench, “this whole thing started because I told you to be a little more considerate of Baruch here, whose mother died last week.”
“Oh, last week!” Tzefanya proclaims. “So you’re already after the shiva!”
Nayal sits down next to him, puts his arm around his shoulders, and looks up at Tzefanya as if to say, this is how you treat a guy whose Mom has died. “Hey, Baruch, tell us a little about her. What kind of woman was your mother?”
Baruch clasps his hands in his lap and talks to the floor. “She was kind of strange,” he mutters.
Tzefanya gives him a look, shakes his head, and then, for the first time today, lowers his voice. “Kind of strange,” he mutters to himself as he sits down to tie his shoes. “He’s a religious guy and look how he talks about his mother. Go figure. Talking about his mother that way. Who ever heard of such a thing?”
Nayal removes his arm, stares at Baruch, and says: “That’s not a nice thing to say about your mother.”
“Wait until you hear his story,” I tell them. “You need to listen to his story.”
Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is now available as an e-book and paperback on Amazon and all other vendors. Click here for purchase links and more information.
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