When family ties can’t bind

From the sound of his voice, I knew Shimmy was in trouble. It was mid-morning, and I was in the car, rushing to the gym. As usual. I’m one of those exercise addicts, working out five mornings a week, rain or shine. If I skip a day, my chronic backache sets in towards the evening. How do I fit the daily workout into my life? Simple. I make it a priority. Regardless of what my work schedule looks like. Or how late I went to sleep the night before. Otherwise, the pounds I manage to hold at bay will come back to haunt me. I’d just pulled into the parking lot of my gym when my phone began to vibrate. I glanced at it quickly, thumb already on the Off button. The manager at the club has a strict rule: More than five minutes late, and you’re docked from class. When I saw it was from Eretz Yisrael, where my son is in yeshivah, I hesitated, and picked up the phone. “Shimmy? Running to exercise. Call you back,” I said, already out the door. “Ma?” there was something forlorn in his voice that made me stop in my tracks. “I need to talk to you.” When your kid says something like that, you know it’s serious. And Shimmy’s a good kid. Really. He’s had some rough spots here and there, like most teenagers nowadays. There was this period when he was 14 and got involved with the wrong type of friends. It took a switch of yeshivos and a lot of tefillos to set him straight. Shimmy’s got a great head on his shoulders, but he’s also an adventurous young man, eager to try new things.

There was the time he was suspended from yeshivah for two days after organizing a student protest, because the yeshivah food tasted like straw. Naturally, Chaim and I weren’t too happy, but Shimmy was so serious about his quest. He didn’t even mind getting into trouble, as long as the menu changed. He had to switch yeshivos the next zman, and it was a great move, in hindsight. He needed that change. When he turned 18, Shimmy grew restless again, and wanted to go learn in Eretz Yisrael I hesitated to send him, because it’s hard to know whom to trust, and what’s really going on so far from home. Yet Shimmy had outgrown his current yeshivah, and desperately needed a change. “I promise I’ll stay with the right crowd, and that I won’t do anything silly, or dangerous,” he pleaded. “You can trust me, Ma.” Chaim went to speak to his rosh yeshivah, who encouraged him to let Shimmy spread his wings. And so shortly after Pesach, my eldest boarded a plane to his new yeshivah. I cried for two days. It was a good move, I kept telling myself, because Shimmy sounded very upbeat. But we didn’t take his word for it. Chaim spoke to his rebbeim several times, and they had only great things to say. I was beginning to relax and pat myself on the back when he called. “What’s the matter, Shimmy?” I asked, my voice sharp with worry. I glanced at my watch.

Only minutes to the start of the class. But my son’s needs were more important than my exercise. “What time is it on your end?” “It’s just after four. Lunch break,” said Shimmy. “Sorry, I know you work out in the morning, but I really needed to talk to you. It’s about Reuvy.” My heart sank. Reuvy was my nephew, a young man who caused me no end of aggravation. He’d been a tough kid from day one. My brother Yossi and his wife, Shuli, were at their wits’ end. During his short-lived yeshivah career, Reuvy had been in ten different yeshivos. Literally. From one to the next. He was brilliant, charismatic, and had a perpetually innocent look about him, which fooled his rebbeim—at first. Eventually, though, he’d get into trouble, and would be sent to a new place where there would be a repeat performance. I felt very sorry for Yossi, who’d been the cream of the crop in his day. To make things worse, Reuvy was the only boy, with four younger sisters. Reuvy’s issues wouldn’t concern me, were it not for one small detail: From the time they were toddlers, Reuvy and Shimmy shared a common bond. They were both intelligent, with great people-skills and tremendous potential, most of it untapped. They were the kids who called the shots in kindergarten and played hooky in elementary school. But then things changed. Reuvy was a year older and way “cooler” than my son.

While he made a name for himself as a “rebel,” Shimmy somehow managed to straddle the fence and stay within the mainstream yeshivah world. No credit to me, let me make that clear. There was no triumph or superiority when I thought of Reuvy’s parents and what they were going through. “There, but for the grace of G-d, go I,” was my primary emotion. By the time I sent Shimmy to Eretz Yisrael, Reuvy was working locally, helping a well-known contractor with several high-end building projects. I don’t know what happened at his workplace, but it must have been unpleasant, because Reuvy suddenly lost his job. Next thing I knew, he was on a plane to Eretz Yisrael, where he joined a small work-study program in a kibbutz up in the north. My brother was very upset about Reuvy’s departure, and rarely mentioned it. Shuli, a great conversationalist, was also reticent. Reuvy’s struggles were the “elephant in the room” that we tiptoed around. It was painful enough without turning it into a family discussion. Though Reuvy was far from Yerushalayim, he visited the city frequently, and met with Shimmy a couple of times. I heard this casually, in passing, during conversations with my son. To say I wasn’t thrilled was an understatement. Yet how could I tell my grown son to stay away from the cousin he adored? Shimmy was talking, and I tried to block these unpleasant thoughts from my mind. Reuvy was none of my concern. Now my son needed me.

Something was obviously bothering him. “So he said he needed some money right away, and I gave it to him,” Shimmy said. “He promised he’d pay me back.” “How much?” I asked, worried. We weren’t exactly rolling in dough.“Six hundred dollars, cash.” “You had that much money with you?” “Well, yeah. You know the odd jobs I did during bein hazmanim. And I took along my savings from home, just in case. And you give me an allowance, for laundry and nosh.” “So you gave it all to Reuvy.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “He was so pitiful, and sounded really desperate. He said he wanted to invest in a falafel stand up north, a great deal, and then he’d get 30% of the profits. But he didn’t want his parents to know.” “Aha,” I said, and was silent. I knew, from experience, that it was best if I listened. “I didn’t want to give him everything, but you know Reuvy. He won’t stop till he gets what he wants.” “When did you lend him the money?” “Three weeks ago. He said it was just for a week, two weeks tops. But I haven’t heard from him. And now I need money for the laundry lady, and for food for Shabbos, and I need new shoes. But all I have is ten shekels.” My blood boiled. “Do you want me to call him?” “No. Please. He’ll be furious. I’ll take care of it.” “Tell him you need the money, tzaddik. Be firm. And in the meantime, I’ll wire you more. Just…don’t lend him anything again. Okay?” “Thanks, Ma, you’re the greatest. I knew I could count on you.” “Anytime, Shimmy. But please.

No more lending money. Especially to people who don’t repay.” We spoke for a few more minutes, and then I put down the phone. It was too late for the class, but perhaps I could clock in some time on the treadmill or elliptical. I walked into the gym, still distracted. I needed to work up a sweat, to drive the fury out of my kishkes. That afternoon, I wired more money to my son. Shimmy’s shoes were torn, and he needed a warm sweater. Shimmy called to thank me, and I reminded him to be cautious. Two days later, during our regular phone call, I noticed my son was troubled. “What’s bothering you?” I asked. “It’s Reuvy. He wants more money.” “The nerve!” I sputtered. “Don’t you dare give him a red cent. Not one shekel. Tell him to call me instead.” “I’m afraid to start up with him,” stammered Shimmy, my strapping, five-foot-nine son. “Give me his cell number. Let me call him.” “Uh, Mommy?” “Yes?” “I already gave him another hundred.” “You did what?” I shrieked. “What did I tell you?” “I know, Mommy. But I just couldn’t say no. He promised me he’s paying me back—every last cent—at the end of the week. And he says he’ll make it up to me, once he earns the profits.” “Oy, Shimmy,” I sighed. “You know the expression, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me?’” “I guess you’re right, Ma,” he muttered. “But I wanted to help him. Didn’t you always teach us that family comes first?” Shimmy did have a point. I always stuck my neck out for my family. But this was different. This was really being taken advantage of.

The strangest thing was, Shimmy hero-worshipped Reuvy. I don’t think he realized just how sly and conniving his cousin was. “So, Ma, can you wire me more money?” “I’m sorry, but I really can’t. If I give you more money, Reuvy will just borrow it. I’m going to send the yeshivah money instead, for your tuition and laundry. That way I know your bills will get paid.” Shimmy wasn’t too happy about the arrangement, but I knew it was for his benefit. Maybe if he was forced to tighten his belt for a week or so, he wouldn’t be so eager to give away his money to my nephew, who was clearly taking advantage of him. To be honest, I had an urge to call my brother Yossi and tell him the story, but I knew it would accomplish nothing, other than to give him grief. What would my words accomplish other than to compound the pain? Yossi’s struggling in his business, and he wouldn’t be able to pay me back. In any case, it was none of my business. “Write it off as a kapparah,” my husband said. “So you gave your nephew $700 dollars. It’s not the end of the world. After all, family is family.” I had a hard time accepting his advice, but eventually I put it out of my mind. I started sending money directly to Shimmy’s yeshivah, asking them to take care of his laundry and other expenses. Reuvy came to Shimmy to borrow money once or twice, but when he realized Shimmy didn’t have anything left, he eventually went to more likely sources. Naturally, he never got around to repaying Shimmy, but I was grateful that the borrowing had ended. A few months passed, and soon bein hazmanim arrived.

By now, Shimmy had been in the Eretz Yisrael for a year. It was time for him to come home and start with shidduchim. We booked a ticket for Shimmy to come home two weeks before Pesach. In the meantime, a shidduch was suggested that seemed eminently suitable. We spent weeks researching the girl, Shaina Kaplan, and her family, and had high hopes for this shidduch’s success. “She’s a great girl from a star family,” the shadchan said. “If you can get her, you should grab her.” Two days after Shimmy arrived home, I broached the shidduch suggestion to him. Though he acted nonchalant, I could tell he was very interested, and I called the shadchan to give him the goahead. For some reason, however, the shadchan was no longer as gung-ho as he’d been before. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure it’ll work.” “Why not?” I challenged him. “You were the one who told me what a great idea it was.” “I thought it was, and I still do. But the Kaplans are having second thoughts. They need a few days to think about it.” I regretted having told Shimmy about the shidduch, if it was still up in the air. Why get his hopes up? We spent the next few days on tenterhooks, wondering if—and when—the shadchan would call. In the meantime, it was Erev Pesach, and we were busy scrubbing, lining the shelves, and cooking.

On the day before bedikas chametz, the shadchan finally called back. “I’m so sorry, but they’re not interested right now. Someone told them they couldn’t see it happening, that it wasn’t a match.” “I see,” I said, trying to be diplomatic and hide my disappointment. Inside, though, I was seething. How dare an anonymous voice ruin what could have been a very promising shidduch? “Well, if you have anything else for us, please don’t hesitate to call,” I said. The shadchan assured me he would, and ended the call. I tried my best to put the disappointment out of my mind, and almost succeeded. As my husband kept on reminding me, shidduchim were bashert, and if someone poured cold water on the shidduch, it wasn’t meant to be. Shimmy’s disappointment was more acute, but we assured him that something better was in the works. Soon it was Chol Hamoed Pesach, when my sister hosts our annual family gathering. Every year our six siblings gather in her spacious home to spend time together and catch up on each other’s lives. Shimmy wasn’t sure he wanted to attend, but then he heard that Reuvy, who came home for Yom Tov, would be there. All of a sudden, he was eager to go. He’d long forgotten about the money Reuvy leeched out of him. By the time we cleaned up the house, dressed all the kids and piled into the car, it was mid-afternoon. We arrived at my sister’s place in the early evening, and the place was hopping.

All my siblings were already there, munching on nuts and macaroons. After the enthusiastic welcomes, we all settled into our usual spots: the adults in the dining room, children in the playroom, and teenagers in the den. After a while I decided to check on how my kids were doing. To my surprise, I couldn’t find Shimmy anywhere. “I think he went out,” ten-year-old Adina said. Now that was rather strange. Where could he have gone? I went outside and found Shimmy sitting in the car, staring into space. “What’s wrong, Shim?” I asked, opening the passenger door. “You were right, Ma,” he said to me, his voice breaking. “He’s TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES a snake.” “Who are you talking about?” “Reuvy. My favorite cousin. He stole seven hundred dollars from me—all the money I’d worked so hard to earn. But that wasn’t enough. He also had to ruin my shidduch.” “W…what are you talking about?” I asked, bewildered. “We were shmoozing in the den, and Reuvy asks me, ‘So what’s doing with shidduchim?’ I just shrugged and said nothing. So then he told me, ‘A guy asked me about you for a shidduch for his sister. His name is Mendy Kaplan. Ring a bell?’ I didn’t say anything, so he said, ‘I didn’t think it made sense. They’re very  “shtark,” you know?’ And then he just smirked. So I got up and left.” “I see.” I swallowed, hard. “But Shimmy, you have to remember that shidduchim come from Hashem. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen, even if Reuvy thinks it’s not a good idea. He’s only the shaliach.” “Ma, I still remember what you said. ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ Reuvy might be only a messenger, but he’s a bad messenger. I don’t want to talk to him again.” I nodded, not trusting myself to talk. Then I walked into the house, determined to confront my no-good nephew, once and for all, and tell his parents the truth. I had kept quiet when Reuvy strong-armed my son into lending him money—twice. I calmed myself by saying that money comes and money goes, that it should be a kapparah. But what he did now was unforgiveable.

As I walked to the den, I nearly bumped into my brother Yossi. I suddenly noticed how weary he looked. “How’s everything, Shif?” he asked. And without waiting for an answer, he sighed. “How’s everything by you?” “Not so good, actually. I lost my job two weeks ago. And Reuvy is giving us a very hard time. I actually….It’s been very rough.” And then he broke down. I had never seen my brother cry before, and I hope never to see it again. I was still furious at his Reuvy, but the anger had lost its edge. Now all I felt was my brother’s sorrow and pain. So I bit my lip, collected my family and drove home in the darkness. And I never said a word.


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