It was Cohen in mesivta who first let the cat out of the bag.
“Hey, Spitz,” he said companionably as the group of 15-year-olds headed for the dining room after a long day of learning. Supper smelled like meatballs in that spicy sauce that was missing salt but heavy on the black pepper.
Meir Spitz half-turned to face Menachem Cohen. “What?” he asked.
“I didn’t know you had a house.”
Meir kept walking, missing Menachem’s raised eyebrows and slight pause. “What, you thought I lived on the street?”
Berger elbowed Cohen. “Leave him alone. Get off his back.”
“Why, it’s a secret?” Cohen shot back as Meir reached the dining room entrance.
As the group of bachurim sat down at their usual table—metal bowl and serving spoon in the center, Styrofoam plates stacked on the side, but no napkins—it was Meir, ironically, who picked up the thread of the conversation.
“What’s the problem with where I live?” he asked Cohen again.
“Not that you live there. That you own a house.”
“I do?” There was an incredulous short burst of laughter. “Wow! That’s wonderful.” For a second it seemed as if everyone had stopped breathing. “Wait. What did you say?” Meir Spitz asked his friends. “I own a house? Are you nuts? I’d love to, of course. Maybe one day.”
Menachem Cohen stabbed a meatball with force. “I didn’t say anything. Forget it. It was a joke, that’s all.”
Meir looked at his good friend Chilik Weinberger for clarification. “What’s he talking about?” he inquired.
Chilik shrugged. “I don’t know.”
But Meir was persistent. “What’s going on? Why the sudden interest in these meatballs, everybody?”
Menachem looked at his watch. “We’d better eat fast. It’s almost time for night seder.”
Chilik stood up suddenly. “Oops! I just remembered I left something in the shiur room. I’ll be right back.”
Meir blocked his path, accidentally dropping his fork. A splatter of sauce appeared on the ancient linoleum, but he didn’t notice. “I’ll come with you.” It was a command, not an offer.
Chilik sighed. “Sure.”
“Okay.” Meir faced his friend in the hallway. “Can you please tell me what’s going on?”
Chilik took a deep breath. “It’s not such a big deal. I thought you knew about it, but obviously you don’t.”
“Tell me more,” Meir said, trying to sound casual.
“The house you live in, 14 Lincoln Drive. Who’s the owner?”
Meir looked confused. “I don’t know. My parents, I think.”
Chilik drew a circle on the floor with his toe. “Maybe. You should ask them.”
“Stop, you’re scaring me. Who owns the house, the Mafia?”
Chilik Weinberger was only 15, but at the moment he felt more like 50. “You do. Your grandparents, the Fried ones, bought it for you. It’s in your name.”
Meir blinked rapidly. His father, Yisroel Fried, had passed away when he was only a baby. His mother had remarried his stepfather, Lipa Spitz, the following year. His grandparents, Zaidy and Bubby Fried, were a steady presence in his life. He visited them, they gave him nosh and a peck on the cheek, and all was good. A house? In his name? Why didn’t he know about that? Why did everyone else know?
“How do you know?” Meir felt the need to verify the information.
“I overheard my parents talking about it a while ago. The men in Beis Yitzchok were discussing real estate, and it came up.”
Meir put his hand to his head. “I feel a headache coming on.”
Chilik looked contrite. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. What’s the big deal, anyway?”
Meir looked at him as if he’d fallen from the sky. “What’s the big deal?” he asked. Then he whispered it again, as if to himself. “What’s the big deal?”
* * *
“Spitz Cafeteria, how may I help you?” Meir’s 13-year-old sister Shaina greeted her brother at the door, waving a spoon. “Our Erev Pesach specials are frozen cherry pie from Sukkos, frozen green beans or frozen gefilte fish. Take your pick.”
Meir laughed. “This cafeteria could use a menu upgrade. I think I’ll talk to the manager,” he said as he rifled through the paltry choices in the pantry. “Seriously, where’s the cereal? We’re down to only crumbs. What are we supposed to eat?” He might have been almost 16, but he sounded like a whiny three-year-old.
“Pesach cakes,” Shaina said, pointing to the laundry corner where the Pesachdike oven had been connected to an outlet in the wall.
“No, thanks. I think I’ll just go buy a sandwich.”
Shaina regarded him accusingly. “Sandwiches, dear brother, cost money. So does making Pesach. I don’t think Mommy would appreciate your buying a sandwich when there’s plenty of bread in the freezer. How about some toast and peanut butter?”
Meir kicked the bottom of the stool that was standing in his path and left the kitchen. A rent-free life, no mortgage, and they still thought that basics like sandwiches and pizza were beyond their budget?
“What’s the matter?” his mother asked tiredly as he passed the counter where she was mixing yet another bowl of batter that looked like pure egg yolks.
“There’s nothing to eat,” Meir said, a bubble of resentment working its way up inside.
“Oy, I meant to make some eggs for lunch. Try the freezer. There might be some frozen pizza. Also, could you please take the garbage out?”
Meir reached for the bag wearily. The mailman was leaving just as he opened the door. On a whim, he opened the mailbox and took the bundle inside, sorting it as he walked. Macy’s. Gas Company. Special Credit Card Offer Enclosed. Tax Documents for 14 Lincoln Drive. Bais Shifra Chinese Auction. He stopped, then went back to the tax document envelope.
There was no name on it. Just an address, 14 Lincoln Drive. Should he open it? Would there be more information inside? He turned the envelope over, then flipped it again. “I brought the mail in,” he announced loudly over the noise of the mixer.
“Thanks,” his mother said, gesturing toward the kitchen table.
Meir waited a second and then asked, “How come there’s no name on this envelope? It just says ‘Tax Documents for 14 Lincoln Drive.’”
His mother looked up, seemingly surprised at his sudden interest in tax documents.
“I don’t know. It’s something official, I guess.”
“Can I open it?”
“No! I mean, I don’t think you should. Just leave it for Tatty. He’ll take care of it. I don’t want it to get lost.” She stumbled over her excuses, a sudden cloud of discomfort on her usually placid features, and Meir retreated.
* * *
It was Chol Hamoed when the topic came up again. As usual, Meir had gone to visit his Fried grandparents. His mother had said she’d meet him there at 12 with the other children, but he took the opportunity to go earlier, wanting to ask them about the house himself. But they preempted him.
“Hi, Meir!” His bubby sized him up, nodding approvingly. “You’re growing taller every day.”
“A gutten moed, Bubby,” he answered, accepting the glass of seltzer she offered him.
“A gutten moed,” Zaidy echoed from his armchair. “Come, pull over a chair. There’s something I want to discuss with you.”
Meir sat down, hopeful.
“We wanted to tell you this before, but there was never a good time, so here we go,” Zaidy began. “When your father passed away, we wanted to do something special for you, to hold on to our connection with our son and give you a good life.” There was a catch in his voice and Meir looked down, unsure of what to say.
Bubby took over the narrative. “So we bought you a house!” She announced this cheerfully, as if she were handing him a new toy.
“We loved him so much,” Zaidy explained. “It was such a tragedy. He was a good person, your father. He was special.” He peered off into the distance, his eyes misty.
“We put it in a trust,” Bubby continued, not letting her husband’s melancholy interrupt the conversation. “A trust is basically a bank account that’s waiting for you. When you turn 18, we’ll transfer it over to you directly. It’ll be all yours!”
The bell rang just then, bringing their discussion to an end.
Meir watched, as if from a distance, while his siblings interacted easily with his grandparents. They weren’t family per se, but his mother had kept the relationship with her first husband’s parents alive, and his stepfather had agreed to it as well. It was nice of them, wonderful even.
He swallowed a sense of sadness and foreboding. Now that the words were out in the open and the house was his, what had he gained? He blinked rapidly. Instead of joy, all he felt was an aching emptiness. He wanted to cry.
* * *
Exercise class was a must for Faiga Fried. She’d been going to it for years, and she thrived on the companionship more than she did on the lunges and squats. The ladies got together twice a week, during which Devoiry, the instructor, kept them on task and taught them different breathing techniques. They swapped recipes as they tied their sneakers, shared anecdotes about their einiklach as they swung their arms to warm up, and laughed over life’s mishaps as they cooled down before heading back to their lives.
“I used to feel every muscle in my back,” Chava Stein said as she pulled the rubber exercise band to the right. “But ever since I started using the hot water bottle, it’s all better.”
Perel Landau snorted. “Hot water bottles are good for your muscles, but ever since I started eating fermented cabbage and beets, my whole body feels ten years younger. You should try it!”
Ten years sounded good to Faiga Fried, who had been feeling her knees and hips every time she got up from the recliner.
“Fermented cabbage? Tell me more,” she had panted as she carefully followed Devoiry’s down-and-up-and-back-again steps.
“Fermented cabbage?” Zaidy Fried now snorted as he watched her pour vinegar into a jar. “That’s what my grandmother did in der alter heim. These days, we have electricity. Refrigerators, remember? We don’t need to eat cabbage that’s past its prime. We can have coleslaw. Fresh.”
Bubby just shrugged. “Laugh at me all you want, Hershel. But I reserve the right to say, ‘I told you so!’ when I feel much better and your arthritis acts up.”
Zaidy shrugged good-naturedly. “Suit yourself. But you can’t make me eat any of that stuff. And please, no sourdough!”
* * *
It was two days before Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan when the annual phone call came. “Meir’ke, what time works for you?” It was Zaidy Fried, and his voice was quiet and reserved. The visit to the beis hachaim always had the same sobering effect on the older man.
Meir stared at the matzeivah in front of him. His uncles had all made their schedules work for him; it was only nine in the morning, but Meir had some errands to run in the afternoon in preparation for the new zman so they had accommodated him, as they always did.
“Yosheiv b’seiser elyon,” Uncle Yonoson from Philadelphia chanted slowly. It was a sunny day but there was a chill in the air, and Meir’s teeth were chattering. He read the name on the matzeivah: Yisroel ben Tzvi. His father had been only 22 when he passed away, barely an adult. What had he been like? What had he hoped for? What would he have been like as a father?
Meir’s hands trembled slightly as he struck a match. The flame flickered for a few seconds before the wick of the memorial candle caught on. Then it swayed back and forth before breaking into a solid upward burn. He felt removed, numb. It was always the same. The men were teary-eyed over the early loss of their brother, their son. But he, the child left behind, seemed indifferent.
“L’iluy nishmas Yisroel ben Tzvi.” Meir mouthed the words. He didn’t do enough for his father’s neshamah. He resolved to do more, learn more as a zechus for him. He looked at the stone again, overwhelmed with sudden melancholy. He really would.
* * *
“Hello? Is that you, Shaina?” Meir lowered his voice, not wanting to attract attention. The hallways in Yeshivas Beis Torah had no heating, and with Eretz Yisrael experiencing downpours that seemed to be apologizing for their long delay, right outside the door of the beis midrash was the best place to make a phone call.
“What’s doing? How come you’re home from school already? It’s after 4? Oh, wow! It’s later than I thought. Can I talk to Mommy?”
Meir found these conversations soothing because of their monotony. What’s doing? Nothing special. Do you have enough money? Don’t catch a cold. Repeat.
“Oh, and Meir,” his mother continued, her voice fading; she was probably walking toward the back bedroom, where the service was spotty. “Don’t forget to call Bubby Fried next week. It’ll be your birthday, and you’re turning 18 and everything. Just call them, okay?”
Meir felt the cold draft in the hallway wrap itself around him like an icicle. Turning 18 and everything.
* * *
“Meir!” There was pure joy in the older woman’s voice. “It’s so good to hear from you. How’s the learning? Tell me everything, sheifaleh.”
Meir gave a little laugh. “Nothing exciting, Bubby, unless you want to hear about the sugya my chavrusa and I are learning right now.”
“Tell me what’s doing by you,” Meir solicited. “How are your sour pickles coming along?”
“They’re amazing. That crunch, by the way, cannot be imitated. Who needs store-bought pickles when you can make them yourself?”
This time Meir laughed. “I do, Bubby. Israeli pickles in a can don’t come close to the real thing!”
“I tried something new,” Bubby continued as if he hadn’t interrupted her, excited to have an audience. “I’ve started to ferment fruit. The result is sort of sweet and sour, very interesting. They say that all the problems in the body start in the gut, and fermented foods make your kishkes like new.”
There was some muffled noise in the background, and then Bubby was back. “Zaidy says that I shouldn’t bore you with my theories. He wants to say hello.”
“Meir! Happy 18th birthday! You’re an adult!” Zaidy got straight to the point. “First we have to take care of some paperwork, and then, when you come home for Pesach, you’ll need to come with us to the lawyer for a few minutes, okay?”
Meir felt a headache brewing. After a little more chitchat, he hung up and walked slowly down the hall. Rabbi Eisen, who was headed in the opposite direction, caught sight of Meir, who looked like he was carrying the world’s problems on his shoulders. He approached Meir, and with the directness possessed only by born-and-bred Israelis, said to him, “You look like you need to talk. My office is warm. Come with me.”
Meir followed him into a small room that would have been a broom closet in America but somehow held a couple of chairs and a shtender.
The words poured out of him in a steady stream. He used no filter, just shared the details of his quandary. “And now I feel terrible!” he told Rabbi Eisen. Verbalizing his feelings made him able to articulate the problem more clearly in his head.
“My parents live in this house. What happens when it becomes mine? Will they pay me rent? That would be awful; I’d never do that to them. Do they move out and I go look for another tenant? That would also be awful. Do you know how much I owe my parents for everything they’ve done for me in life? For them to have to go and find an apartment that can accommodate a family of eight is a huge expense. They aren’t wealthy by any means. My stepfather is a rebbi in a cheder! Where does all of this leave me? So I own a house, but what does that do for me?”
Now that Meir had started, he couldn’t stop.
“To let them live there forever and then inherit it from them when I’m 70 years old seems unfair to my grandparents. And I don’t want to think of the family fights we’ll have. My siblings might hate me for being singled out as special. I don’t want my parents to feel as if they owe me anything. The whole thing is a big fat mess.”
Rabbi Eisen, who had heard plenty in his life, was speechless. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he admitted. “This is an issue that’s bigger than both of us. You should probably speak with the rosh yeshivah or your family’s rav. But for right now, my advice is straightforward.
“You’re a young man. You have your whole life ahead of you. Put your head into your learning and this problem on the back burner. It’s not an issue for today or tomorrow. Don’t worry, yihiyeh tov. Everything will be fine.”
* * *
“I hear there’s an apartment available on Adair Road,” Yitta Spitz said to her husband, Lipa, as she scanned the fridge for milk.
“And?” he asked, wondering.
“Should I go check it out?”
“What for?” Lipa was staring at her uncomprehendingly.
“So that Meir will stop feeling uncomfortable. So that he’ll actually sit with us for breakfast instead of hanging back around the edges. I feel like I’m stealing something that belongs to him, and I guess I am. The Frieds bought the house for him, not us—”
“Good morning!” Shaina said cheerfully, choosing the perfect moment to waltz into the kitchen. The discussion was officially over. Except that it wasn’t.
A few hours later, Lipa Spitz called his wife. “I don’t feel comfortable about this whole parshah. Meir doesn’t need this headache at this point in his life. This worrying has got to stop. Do you think I should discuss it with the Frieds, or would that be too awkward?”
“I don’t want to make them uncomfortable,” Yitta countered.
“Neither do I. But I definitely don’t want you tiptoeing around Meir. All this secrecy is crazy. If moving somewhere else is the only solution, I’ll look into our options. You don’t have to worry. Leave it to me.”
* * *
Faiga Fried was in her element. The participants in the exercise class were in various stages of cooling down, and she was describing her latest success in finally—finally—getting the string beans to ferment.
“The problem was the ends, the corners. They were poking up!” She ripped open the Velcro on her new sneakers; the old ones with the laces had been getting harder and harder to tie.
Perel Landau looked at her in amusement. “You’re still fermenting?” she asked incredulously. “I gave it up ages ago!”
Faiga laughed. “Looks like the student has surpassed the teacher!” She then turned her attention to her sheitel, patting a stray hair into place.
“Are you ready to leave?” her friend Blimi asked, zipping her bag shut.
“Yes. Let me just wash my hands.”
The two women went outside together with measured steps, watching for cracks in the sidewalk that might trip them up.
“Why are Meir’s parents looking to move?” Blimi asked her companionably.
“What? They are?” Faiga asked in surprise.
“So says my Zalman. He’s a real estate broker in the area, and he said that Lipa Spitz approached him.”
“What are they looking for?” Faiga’s heart started pumping more rapidly than it had while she was pedaling the stationary bike.
“A rental, something affordable, they said. What’s wrong with where they live? Didn’t you buy them that house on Lincoln Drive? Are they selling?”
Faiga swallowed. What was going on? Was Meir putting them out? Then again, maybe it was their decision. She suddenly felt dizzy and disoriented. “I think I need some more vinegar for my cucumbers. I’m going in here,” she said, pointing to the grocery store and waving goodbye to her friend.
Faiga paced the aisles in the store but walked out empty-handed. Her thoughts were all jumbled. What had she thought was going to happen? Yes, the Spitzes had lived there all these years. But now she wanted Meir’ke to have it. Would he live there? Would he ask his parents for rent? Somehow, she hadn’t really considered the details.
When was Hershel coming home? She felt sick. She closed her eyes and settled into the recliner. What was going to happen now?
* * *
The scene at the airport looked like a bunch of robots greeting each other with big metal smiles glued to their faces. His parents were happy to see him, and he was happy to be back. But something had changed. Something big—the size of a house—was lurking in the shadows behind every interaction.
Meir was tempted to run back onto the plane and fly anywhere else in the world rather than spend time with the people who loved him most. Even his three-year-old brother seemed to have forgotten who he was. He needed someone to talk to.
“Spitz!” The slap on the back stung, but Meir was so happy to see Chilik Weinberger that he forgave him immediately. Some of the tension in his jaw relaxed as they reminisced and caught up.
“So what’s the story?” Chilik was saying. “I heard that your parents are looking to move. You’re putting them out?” He was joking, almost.
Meir swallowed. So it was true. The tension at home was there; it wasn’t his imagination. His parents felt forced to move because of him.
On Tuesday morning, Meir stood before his father’s grave. This was the first time he had ever come by himself. A car service driver was waiting right outside the gate. Yisroel ben Tzvi. His fingers felt the etching in the stone as tears blurred his vision. There were no words, just tears. For the past. For all the sadness. For the future. For the unknown.
On Chol Hamoed Pesach, Meir walked into his grandparents’ well-worn living room. He knew exactly where the couch sagged and could almost predict where the lace curtains would ripple when the breeze came in through the bay window.
He looked at the two lined faces and felt a twinge of sadness. They weren’t getting any younger. He hoped they wouldn’t resent his decision, but he felt as if he was throwing their generosity back at them.
“You want to what?” Hershel Fried looked like he was going to have a conniption.
Meir swallowed. “I want you to give the house to my parents. Maybe you can sell it to them for a good price to make them feel better about it. I can’t put them out on the street.” He was trying to be sensitive to his grandparents’ pain but realistic about his own as well. “I want to do it for my father’s neshamah, so he can have the zechus. But I can only do it with your approval.”
Mr. Fried looked horrified, but a warning glance from his wife made him shrink back into his chair.
“Here, Meir’ke,” Bubby said. “Taste this fermented carrot with lemon zest. Make a Ha’adamah.” The conversation, as far as she was concerned, was over.
Less than an hour later, she walked him to the door. “Don’t worry about your zaidy,” she told her grandson. “He’ll come around.” She glanced around furtively, making sure her husband was out of earshot, and sighed. “I’ve been thinking about your situation a lot lately. We wanted to do the right thing, to make you happy. Or maybe we wanted to make ourselves happy; it’s hard to know. We should have asked someone, a rav. Planned for this eventuality. But we didn’t.”
Her eyes grew misty. “One thing I’m sure of,” she said softly. “Your father would be very proud of your decision.”
* * *
The cold in Eretz Yisrael was something he couldn’t get used to. Why didn’t they seal the windows, close the doors? The wind came in through all the cracks. It was freezing.
“Yes, Mommy, I’ll remember to call Zaidy and Bubby Fried. I know they like to wish me a happy birthday. I’m practically an old man already, 19!” He said it in jest, but his heart skipped a beat. His mother had gotten engaged at 19. What did he know about life?
Bubby answered the phone on the first ring. “Meir, is that you? Happy birthday!” Then she lowered her voice and whispered, “Everything is already taken care of. Zaidy is okay with your decision. Just say thank you to him nicely.”
Meir’s heart lifted. He had gone back to Eretz Yisrael with very little clarity and a lot of discomfort, but Someone was obviously looking out for him.
“I will. And thank you, Bubby,” he said with feeling.
* * *
It took almost a year for the legalities to fall into place. By then, he was already back in America and settled in beis midrash. On the day the papers arrived, the family celebrated by ordering Chinese food. His siblings looked at him with adoration, his parents with appreciation. Meir immersed himself in the feeling of belonging once again, no longer the outsider. He might have given up a house, but he’d gained a family.
“L’iluy nishmas Yisroel ben Tzvi,” he whispered as he closed the window shades.
That Friday, when he observed his mother lighting the Shabbos candles, he could feel the holiness seeping through him. In the presence of his siblings, he suddenly felt uplifted and whole. He had done the right thing—and it felt good.
Later, when his stepfather bentched him as he did every week, he put his hands over Meir’s head; this was the son who wasn’t his biological child but who was so much his own.
“Gut Shabbos,” Meir answered him softly, and their eyes met for a brief moment.
The gratitude in his stepfather’s eyes brought tears to his own. He was so happy he had given up the house. This was worth more than any piece of real estate could ever be.
To read more, subscribe to Ami