Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

23 Tammuz 5763 - July 23, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Hand in Hand

by N. Sheinberger

Two hands grip each other. Two soft and warm hands lovingly clasp each other every morning anew, as a mother and her son pass through the narrow alleys of the Beis Yisroel neighborhood

The mother, who is tall, dresses in a simple manner like all of Beis Yisroel's women. Her child is small and pale, and the long black payos which ripple down his cheeks give him an especially endearing appearance. He is wearing a small blue-green coat whose sleeves reach only halfway down his arms -- a coat which has apparently served him a number of years.

As the two walk to the little boy's cheder in the crisp Yerushalmi air, a light wind penetrates their bones. White doves side by side with black ravens circle above, imparting a unique ambience to the red- roofed neighborhood.

The refuse truck has already emptied the trash bins. The Tenuva dairy and the Angel bread trucks unload their wares beside the nearby grocery store; yellow vans pick up children from the yards, and the street fills with people going to either their places of learning or their places of work.

All these typical Beis Yisroel scenes blend perfectly with the sound of the tefillos emanating from the shteiblach at the corner of the street.

I observe the delicate features of the mother and see her threadbare garments every morning without fail, and they bring back old childhood memories.

* * *

When I was growing up, I lived in a small neighborhood in the city. Our particular street was actually composed of two narrow streets which converged in the center, forming one large square where the neighborhood children played in their spare time.

The Holtz family, which had fourteen children, lived on the left corner of that square. They had a Deenush, a Tzadok, an Alexander and a Raizy, among others. Life for Mrs. Holtz was not easy, to say the least. She was nervous and had many reasons to be so.

The situation of her husband, a short man who seemed perpetually depressed and bitter, surely did not dispel her blues, nor did his artificial right arm which only heightened his already despondent look. Apparently, his contribution to his home and family was meager, or even less than that. The constant din of the children in the house didn't particularly ease her situation either.

Despite all this, the Holtz girls were full partners in the joint experiences of the neighborhood children who played in the street. Actually one could call them permanent residents of that street, because it was their natural habitat most of the time.

One day, news that the Holtz family had moved to New York spread like wildfire on our small street.

Although all were stunned by the suddenness of their decision, everyone sincerely hoped that the Holtz's would fare better in America, and come to know better times. In time, news filtered back that people had seen Mrs. Holtz in Brooklyn, promenading on 13th Avenue, smiling from ear to ear and sharing her experiences with everyone. Indeed, on the surface everything seemed to be going well.

Another family rented the Holtz apartment in Yerushalayim, and quickly became an integral part of the scene.

Man's memory refills on a daily basis with new data, the small details from the past making way for newer information. If not for the following incident, the Holtz family's story might have gone the way of all data, and nearly all of the occupants of the street would have had to scan their memory banks intensely in order to call up the name Holtz.

It was twilight of a day which was no different than all those which had preceded it. A chorus of birds happily chirped the Perek Shira of mincha. The purple firmament, whose hue intermingled with the calm blue of a spring sky, heralded the rapidly advancing shki'ah.

Eizik Shprecher, the shul's gabbai, waited for the tenth man so that the regular mincha and ma'ariv minyanim could begin. In his hoarse yet compelling voice, he called out, "A tsenter (tenth man)! A tsenter!"

In the meantime the gay laughter of the little girls jumping rope in the square, and the beeping of the horns of the scooting tricycles intermingled with the rustle of the leaves of the bent locust tree which stood in the middle of the square, trying to declare its presence. The two children who sat on its upper branches and swayed them strongly, helped the old tree achieve its aim.

Suddenly, a large white vehicle pulled up at the left corner of the square. Then three people jumped out and took a number of suitcases from its baggage compartment. At first we couldn't make out who they were. However very shortly we identified Mr. Holtz and his two oldest daughters as they entered what had until a few years ago been their home.

We whispered to each other, and with childish curiosity tried to guess why Mr. Holtz and his two daughters had left "the land of golden opportunities" and returned to Eretz Yisroel. We also wondered why all of them hadn't returned, a question which even today has received only speculative answers. The two Holtz girls, who once more joined the chevra in the square, explained only that they hadn't found their places in the large city. They offered no more information and we asked no questions.

Only, a few months later the Holtz girls were no longer seen in the square on the street. The neighbors weren't types who inquired about the affairs of the other residents of the street, not even out of courtesy. Each one was busy in his own home and up to his neck with his own problems, or as our bubbies liked to say, "with his own pekelach."

I have no complaints about the residents of our small and very special street. Quite to the contrary, I feel that unity and camaraderie are its high points and that its residents excel in holding prayer and chizuk rallies at which they make resolutions and beg Hashem to grant every family on the street its needs. But because everyone was forced to focus on his own problems and difficulties, no one knew what factors had brought about the changes in the Holtz family.

I also wasn't the curious type and probably wouldn't have displayed much interest in the saga of the Holtz girls, if not for my unwitting exposure to various chapters in their life. Actually, large time gaps separate these chapters, and the story contains many holes, which even my highly developed imagination still hasn't managed to fill. Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating, unbroken tale of human interest.

* * *

A year and a half before I got married, I decided to volunteer my free time as a counselor in a girls' dormitory.

As a counselor, I knew all of the girls, and was a full partner to all of their experiences in school and out of it. We got along very well, and they liked to spend their time with me, talking, singing and joking. They didn't even care if it cut into their meal times or sleep times.

One day at lunch time, as I was setting the table, the housemother called me into her office.

The tone of her voice made me suspect that something was wrong or that she wanted to comment on a faux pas I had made as a counselor. As a result, I entered her room with trembling knees.

The housemother was a very unique person. She was an amazing blend of softness and authority, patience and decisiveness. She offered me a seat, and when she began to speak I squirmed.

"As you know, all of the girls in the dormitory come from broken and problematic homes. Even though it is always hard for such girls to leave their families, they come here out of their own free will, with the hope of improving their situations, either by means of the financial or the scholastic aid we offer them. Whatever the case, the girls are happy here and they say so."

Until then the housemother looked straight ahead of her as she spoke, as if she did not care to see my reaction as she praised the dormitory in so delicate a manner. But suddenly she looked me square in the eye and said: "Today two new girls who need extra attention are coming to the dorm. One is sixteen and the other seventeen-and-a-half. They were forced to come here. They left behind a home which, during the past four years, has undergone many upheavals and for various reasons they have remained without a roof over their heads. In that way they are unlike all of the other girls here, who at least have homes and who come here willingly. I see that you form relationships with the girls easily, and that they open up to you quickly. Therefore I have chosen you for the task of making these two new girls happy and welcome here. I hope that you succeed."

The housemother finished. Then she quickly got up and left the room because, as an active and dynamic housemother, she had many more things to attend to that day. I though, stayed in her office for a long time, staring at some imaginary point in the air. I felt that my shoulders were two narrow to serve as a support for such girls. Besides, I wasn't familiar with their case, since the housemother had forgotten to tell me anything specific about them.

She also hadn't even told me their names. Perhaps she hadn't forgotten that point, but had thought that such a detail wasn't crucial to the task she had assigned me. Perhaps she thought that it was better for me to receive the answer to that question in a natural manner, when I met them for the first time. However, had I known their names in advance, I would have refused the task immediately, and might even have considered leaving the dorm.

Those two girls were none other that the two oldest Holtz daughters. It is difficult for me to recall, how much more to describe, my first meeting as a counselor with those two girls who until recently had been my companions in the square on my street. It is sufficient to say that every time I met them in the hallway or on the staircase leading to the dining room, my heartbeat accelerated. It is obviously needless to say that instead of opening up to me whenever they saw me, they became even more introverted, impervious and hypersensitive. On my part, I didn't try to unearth the circumstances which had brought them to this dormitory. However, connecting the very few facts I knew, and calling upon my intuition, I easily surmised that their life wasn't a bed of roses.

After a few months, the younger Holtz daughter accepted the fact that she had to stay in the dorm and began to cooperate with the staff. However her older sister was incapable of acclimating to dormitory life and felt that she would fare best in a warm home environment, something she had never in her life experienced. The administration understood her feelings, and when the housemother saw that the girl really wasn't happy in the dormitory, she began to search for a suitable framework for her, one in which her stress would be alleviated. Eventually the school found a wealthy foster family which was willing to take her in. To the delight of all, this solution succeeded beyond the expectations of the dormitory's staff.

A few years passed. I married and had children. One day, when I was waiting in line at my neighborhood bank, I found myself in a very strange situation.

It was very hot that day and the long line, which had advanced at a snail's pace, caused many of the clients to complain about the poor service. One of those clients was particularly conspicuous: a woman who shouted at everyone near her. Beside her was a two year old boy, apparently her son.

She was conspicuous not only because of the high tone in which she spoke, but also because of her dress. This bank caters primarily to a chareidi clientele because of its location and, as evidenced by her form of dress, that woman was not religious. Since she stood in front of me, I unwittingly saw her identity card and recognized her maiden name and her picture right away. A quick glance at her face confirmed beyond a doubt that she was the Holtz's oldest daughter, the girl I had played with in the square until I was fifteen, and the girl who had been so unhappy in the dormitory.

When I left the bank, I was so preoccupied by my encounter with the Holtz girl that I barely made it home. Seeing her in such a situation and knowing what she had undergone, caused me to weep inside. Poor thing. Since I know her, she has been searching for support and a source of strength on whom she could lean. For years she has been seeking to place her hand into another firm and warm one which would pat her gently. But there was no such hand. The hand and along with it the heart, remained dangling in the air in the middle of nowhere, and she remained high-strung, grumpy and unfortunate amidst the long line in the bank.

* * *

Three months later I met her again.

It was nearly midnight on a crisp night in Cheshvan. Nonetheless, Meah Shearim's streets were filled with people who were apparently returning from the simchas of friends and relatives which had taken place in the various halls in the area. I was among that throng.

While I was rushing home, who came toward me if not Holtz's daughter -- the one I had seen in the bank. This time, though, she looked much more like the Holtz girl from my childhood than the Holtz girl I had seen in the bank. Her dress was far more modest than that of the woman I had seen in the bank.

I thought of passing her by, as if I didn't know her. However she had other plans.

To my surprise, she greeted me with a warm "shalom" like one greeting a long, lost friend and like one totally overlooking her past.

Politely, I asked how she was, and she seized the opportunity to pour out her heart. She spoke for a full hour, while all I did was listen.

She told me how lonely and how hungry for human contact she had been. Then she explained that when such contact came from a chiloni direction, she didn't reject it, but rather crossed over into the chiloni world, only to be disappointed by it very quickly. She added that if she had felt lonely during her childhood, then in the chiloni society, she felt like a solitary voyager in a raging sea, whose waves threatened to inundate her from all sides.

Despite her verbal effusion that night, the message was clear: the Holtz's oldest daughter was returning.

* * *

Two hands grip each other. Two soft and warm hands lovingly clasp each other, as every morning anew a mother and her son pass through the narrow alleys of the Beis Yisroel neighborhood.

The mother, who is tall, dresses in a simple manner like all of Beis Yisroel's women. Her child is small and pale, and the long black payos which ripple down his cheeks give him an especially endearing appearance. He is wearing a small blue-green coat whose sleeves reach only halfway down his arms -- a coat which has apparently served him a number of years.

The two walk to the little boy's cheder in the crisp Yerushalmi air. A small hand extends upwards and slips into a firm, warm hand which strokes it lovingly. The mother, the oldest of the Holtz daughters, walks hand in hand with her small son, as she tries to give him not only her hand, but also her back and her heart -- a mother's warm and overflowing heart.


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