Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

23 Tammuz 5766 - July 19, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









fiction by M. Sonnenfeld

Part 1

"This is the fifth one."

The jeep sputtered along the dirt path and came to a screeching halt. The motor continued running.

"Should I open the door for you?"

The jeep was only a dark spot in the vast fields. Had Michael been able to watch from the distance, he would have avidly followed each stubborn dot that alternately appeared and disappeared along what would become, in the future, the highway surrounding the farm. The speck stopped beside each one of the fences, waited, restarted and drove off, but Michael, to his chagrin, was an inseparable part of the action.

"It's okay."

Michael's smile was sour, like his facial expression. He forcibly dragged himself over the cushioned seat until he could reach the door. He pushed hard on the handle.

"It's about time that we get a new car, Dad, something that can handle the job a little better."

The wind hit Michael in the face as soon as he opened the door. All around him the grass rustled and bowed to him, completely submissive. Waves upon waves of bent grass moved like a golden sea as far as the horizon, bothering to stop only when they reached the fence.

This was one of the oldest fences on the farm — the oldest, if his memory didn't mislead him. His father had told him the story of how the family built the farm more than once.

"In the beginning we had ten acres," Father said, "and we debated whether we should close a deal with a large food production factory. They needed plums and their experts said that the land was ideal for growing fruit. You understand, this wasn't such a large area and we needed every penny."

"And then what happened?"

Back then, in the old days, Michael still asked the question excitedly. Back then, when pillows of grass and the soft bleating of the lambs were still the epitome of the Dream, without strange sounds hovering in the background.

"Then," his father repeated with a bitter laugh. "Something good came out of the bad: we didn't have the money for the expensive trees so we decided to search for something cheaper, something that didn't require such a large initial investment."

The result was broad areas of grazing fields, abundant food for the local sheep. No large investment was required: the fertile ground and lots of watering did the rest. All that remained was to purchase the appropriate harvesting equipment, to erect storehouses for drying hay and to build a fence.

"A single fence!" His eyes would become round with amazement. "Our entire homestead was surrounded by a single fence!"

The thought was too strange to ponder freely. Michael was so used to thinking of the separate sections of the farm: the western hills that were carefully reserved for the late- arrivals in order to allow those sheep to graze in the coolest possible area, of the flat land in the center that was meant for the earliest newcomers. The majority of those that gave birth as early as the spring usually chose the bank of the stream that flowed behind the storehouses. It really was a special experience to peek there during the hazy morning hours of the spring and to discover the new lambs.

"There are two in the large barn." Michael would animatedly recount his discoveries at the table. "One is black and the other is almost completely white. The black one looks big, not like a lamb that was only born yesterday. The white one is so tiny . . . "

Mother made a stern face behind her cup of coffee.

"How many times did I ask you not to go there by yourself, Michael?"

Michael turned to look at his father, searching vainly for help. Father refused to look straight at Michael though, as he spoke. "What you did is irresponsible, son. You could scare the sheep. They're extremely sensitive at this time, you know."

Michael cleared his throat.

"I . . . I was very careful, Dad. I was quiet. It's only that the lambs . . . that they're so small . . . I had to see them."

"It's dangerous." Mother's voice was firm, uncompromising. "The workers wander around there freely. It's far from the house and the office. No one would be able to hear you call for help, if G-d forbid something happened to you."

Mother didn't trust the foreign workers on the farm. "Hands," she called them, a somewhat degrading reference whose purpose was to explain their presence: extra help with the work and nothing more.

"I would gladly chase them out past the fences, every last one of them, without exception," she was known to say.

They were a medley of various types, all of them hardened by the work and so impoverished that they were forced to migrate from farm to farm looking for employment. The birthing season was their busy season: all the farm-owners chased after them, pleading for help.

"We're stuck," Father said. "We need them more than they need us. That's all."

Michael knew that without the "hands" there was no way to make it through the busy season. A large staff was needed to demarcate the grazing areas, to supervise everything, to distribute food and water and to repair the fences. After the annual visit by the government's veterinary inspector at the height of summer, the new sheep would join the herd and participate in the race down the hills. Then life returned to normal, the "hands" disappeared and no more surprises appeared each morning in the barns behind the stream.

Michael sighed: he would have preferred that springtime would last forever. Mother would only let Michael wander wherever he wanted when the workers left in the summertime. There's no bad without good in it, Michael reminded himself philosophically.

But way back in the beginning, there weren't any sheep on the hills.

"They only came two years later when a farmer from the valley below liquidated his business and sold the sheep for next to nothing. He moved north, to live next to his son in the city, and he was determined to turn everything he could into cash."

This was Father's favorite story, the beginning of Father's success. Then, when the farm still meant everything, Father would tell the story over and over, the pleasure clearly written on his face. "Earlier we grew corn and grass. That's it. All the different parts of the farm were just one big field then."

"What about fences?" Michael was always curious.

"You like to hear that over and over, don't you? No, there weren't any dividing fences. Just one around the edge. I built it with a worker that I hired for a night's work. Ask your mother; she made us black coffee the whole night, just to keep us awake."

"We were young then," Mother would explain apologetically, "and lacking experience. Believe me, I have no idea what drove us to finish everything before sunrise."

Michael thought he knew: In the days when the farm was the highest ideal, the proverbial jewel in the crown, it was impossible to go to bed before the fence was completely built.

Even now, years later, Michael could understand it, despite his youth: it's impossible to fall asleep when a project's going full force. It's just simply impossible. It's better to stay awake, to drink innumerable cups of black coffee and to exert oneself until one's strength runs out. The sleep afterwards, even if it is the short, pale disturbed sleep of morning, will be ten times sweeter for it.

Michael could almost sense the amazing feeling of the morning, getting up with the sun already shining, shaking one's heavy head — who would even notice such trivialities? And running, running out to the field first thing to see the fence standing tall, towering above the high grass, solid, perfect and beautiful. Michael could almost feel the great sense of satisfaction penetrate his body like good wine.

The Night Fence remained standing even when the sheep arrived two years later. Changing needs required them to build many more fences.

"We built the other fences at different times," Father explained. "The hired `Hands' and I worked ceaselessly: we built pens and fences and troughs and everything else that was necessary. Then I ran around to all the government offices to get the necessary permits and your mother searched for markets for the future products. We didn't sleep a lot at night then either."

Michael was sure of that. The normal amount of work to be done around the farm was huge. Planning it must have been even all the more so! He loved to imagine those early days, when the grass was tall and fresh and the completely naive sheep tried to taste it carefully. Then the pens sparkled with their fresh coat of paint and the sweet smell of the tree that was uprooted only a short while previously hit the nostrils of anyone who approached the fence.

"There were four," his father said, "in total. Each one had gates tied to it, the kind that you have to completely remove in order for a car to pass. I would drive, stop, remove the gate, return to the car, start it again, drive past the gate, leave the car, return the gate to its place, tie it tightly with strings of wire and continue driving. Just to drive through all the gates took me at least twenty minutes. It was a nightmare."

Michael was convinced that today's situation wasn't any less of a nightmare even though the gates had been updated a lot since then. Now they had well-oiled hinges that allowed the heavy gates to be opened without having to be completely removed. Now all father and son needed to do was to stop, get out of the jeep, open the gate, wait until the jeep drove through, close the gate and rush ahead, to the waiting jeep.

"When I'm alone in the jeep it takes me ten minutes," Michael's father told him. "With you though, it's different: I stay inside and you jump out to open and close the gate. The engine stays running. It's completely different. Much faster."

"It's still dreadfully slow," Michael contorted his face in response. "Old MacBonard from the farm across the road has electric gates with a remote control. He stays inside the car and operates them from there."

Michael's father didn't respond.

"And Shorn's son told me that there are `smart gates' that open and close by themselves. You just need to hook them up to the central computer and they recognize the car from 20 meters away and open the gate."

The silence in the car became unbearable.

"It's good, especially when it's cold and snowy outside." Michael's voice took on a pleading tone. If only the old gate in front of them were electric and it responded to an electronically emitted signal. If only the gate opened automatically without them having to stop, get out of the car and open it all the way, not to mention close it immediately after the jeep went by. But the Night Gate remained exactly as it was on the night it was first built: wooden, primitive, and uncompromising. Michael was forced to abandon his cushioned seat and go out for the fifth time into the wind outside. For the fifth time! And there were still four more gates coming up on the road leading to the main highway.

Father didn't answer. He was focused on the path in front of him, a dirt road not yet paved. Two years ago they still talked about repaving it. Back then when the farm was still the topic of conversation. Michael sighed: Everything had changed. There was no point in raising the topic of the electric fences. Father wouldn't invest a cent in the farm, not when he was desperately trying to sell it through all the local real estate agents.

Sell the farm! Michael groaned. It was a nightmare, a nightmare that he hadn't yet managed to shake off in favor of the bleating of the sheep and the surrounding pastoral tranquility.

"It's easy for you to talk," sneered his mother. "The burden of responsibility isn't yours. The springtime tension isn't an integral part of your life, and the worry about how to find enough `hands' doesn't consume you. It's your father who tosses and turns at night and can't sleep a wink because of the stress. And what about last year's epidemic! Your father spent entire nights in the barn carrying out the veterinarian's orders. If not for that, we wouldn't have anything to eat now. A farmer's work is extremely difficult and your father's been doing it faithfully for nineteen years already. Enough. It's time to move on."

That wasn't the real reason, though. Michael was convinced that his mother knew that, too. Father had never been willing to hear about selling the place. He loved the open, the sun, the wind and the sweet smell of the grass. He was fond of the somewhat rough manner of the experienced farmers, of their determined faces and sinewy hands — because these were the way to the gentle bleating of the new lambs, to the life that sprouted each spring, to the animal motherhood and the small, successful dairy.

Now, after years of work, he could enjoy the good name that he had made for himself in the surrounding towns. Now he could be proud of his connection to the large dairy in the city and of the high regard in which everyone held him. That Father would get up and leave it all was a completely out of the question — if not for the two bochurim.

The two bochurim! Michael couldn't help sighing every time he thought about them. If only the boys hadn't come to them! If only they had gotten lost in the fields and been found a few days later by the local police! If only they had continued further down the road and gone to MacBonard's place! The old man would have dealt with them in his rude way and they wouldn't have been able to ruin everything.

"Ruin everything?" Michael's father didn't like the expression. "They're building us up from scratch, son. Returning us to life."

Michael wasn't so sure.

"In order to rebuild you have to destroy," commented Mother from behind the book she was reading. The book was one of the collection that the bochurim had sent them. Package after package kept arriving after their unforgettable visit. The packages contained strange little hats; sleeveless shirts with strings sticking out of the edges — and books. The packages always contained books. Father read them a lot. Mother also. She kept trying to catch up to his fast reading speed. Michael refused to touch them, even though there were a lot of books appropriate for his age.

"Don't want to," he said with an adamant shrug of his shoulders.

"It's not like you," said Father, surprised. "You always liked to discover new things."

Michael agreed that Father was partially right. It's true that he liked to discover new things, especially day-old lambs at the edge of the stream behind the barn. The misty eyes that blinked in amazement at the world, the fragile little legs that tried to stand up over and over again, only to bend under the weight of the body — these were things in which Michael never lost interest. The new grass sweet after the rain, the colors of a sunset that he had never seen before, these were novelties that attracted Michael, beckoning him. He just couldn't ignore them.

The books, on the other hand, were something else entirely. They were something new that didn't interest him at all, novelties that threatened to drag him away from everything good, from everything familiar and beautiful in his life.

Michael shuddered and pulled his sweater more tightly around him.

"The sixth." Father stopped the jeep and studied Michael through the rear-view mirror.

"If it's too cold for you, I'll go out and open the gate this time," he offered.

"No," Michael was sure of himself. "I mean, no thank you. It's my job. I open them."

He pushed on the door handle and jumped out even before the wheels had completely stopped. This time it was the fence of the sheep-pen, the one that bounded the grazing area of the young adult sheep. This is where the animal traders came each summer to appraise the sheep from afar. This is where the fascinating bargaining process began. It always ended with satisfied smiles over a glass of frothy beer. Everyone benefited. Father would accompany the traders to town and return with a cardboard box bearing the famous logo of the bakery.

"This is a reason to celebrate," he would announce joyously. "A good reason. An excellent one!"

A bottle of wine would always accompany the cake, especially good wine. Mother would always blush a little when she noticed the small box next to her plate; Father was an expert in jewelry.

"You really didn't have to," Mother would protest.

There was always something waiting for Michael next to his plate, too: a new watch, a pair of skates or a fascinating, brightly colored book.

"I had to get it," Father would object. "This is a big time for all of us. We completed another year's worth of work, and all of us worked hard for it, very hard!"

Michael would squelch the guilt he felt deep within and try to concentrate on the memories of the times when he jumped out of the car to open the gates without unnecessary complaint.

Father was the expert on gifts. How Father always knew what Michael wanted, Michael could never understand. Michael was always pleased with the gifts he received, with the look of pleasure on Father's face and with the clean, air streaming freely through the fields.

He breathed deeply, inhaling the freshness of the grass. The gate squeaked a little when he opened it as if it had the courage to refuse. What a plan! And everything would come to an end the minute the real estate agents would be successful at their task.

Tears filled his eyes. He saw the jeep stop in a blur and he rushed to close the gate. A piece of straw got stuck between the iron rungs and the gatepost and Michael bent down to free it with one gentle hand motion.

"Thanks," Father said at the wheel, "it took a while this time. Did something happen to the gate?"

In the past Father would have gotten out himself to check things up close. This time he merely asked a question. Michael sighed.

"No," he choked.

"Only three more, right?" Father tried to liven the tone. "Two thirds are behind us. By the way, they found a tutor to learn with you. He's coming tonight."

A tutor! Michael suddenly sat up straight as an arrow prepared for flight.

"Them?" Michael uttered the word hoarsely, like an old sheep at the end of the winter.

"Them," his father repeated happily. "Good for them. They took us seriously. You know, they could have evaded responsibility, given us a telephone number for further information and disappeared. They were only with us for one Shabbos, after all. That time when they got stuck before sunset and couldn't continue traveling. And what did they do instead? They kept up the connection, visited, taught, explained things, arranged the right classes for your mother and I, and now they've done something for you, too."

Michael shrugged his shoulders in refusal like a small boy.

"I'm not interested."

But Father didn't hear.

"I'm thrilled that they've found someone who's willing to come all the way out here. He's a bochur who returned home for the summer and doesn't want to waste time doing nothing until he goes back to yeshiva in the fall. They say that he's got a good head on his shoulders. He'll learn with you and prepare you for the transition so that you'll be able to start the school year in the city like everyone else."

Michael stared ahead in complete shock.

"T . . . t . . . to start the year," he stuttered.

"Yes." The car lunged ahead on the path, creating clouds of white dust. "Your mother and I decided to let you start the year in the city no matter what. If we'll manage to sell by then, G-d willing, then we'll all move together. If not, then we'll stay here and you'll live there until we can come. They have a great dormitory. I already checked it out."

A dormitory! Michael closed his eyes in revulsion: Imprisoning walls, windows all in a row, corridors, tables. Everything was square and enclosed and emitted a dusty smell. While on the farm, the wind would blow in the open fields and the grass would continue to sprout without Michael's eyes there to witness it all.

"I don't want to," he growled.

"You do want to," his father promised and stopped the jeep. "This is the seventh gate if I'm not mistaken."

Michael groaned and got out of the car.

The tutor arrived in the late afternoon. The golden rays of the late-setting sun crisscrossed the fields and poked in and out of the tree branches. From the stream came the sound of the sheep bleating. The mother sheep led their tiny babies down to the water to get their nightly pre-bedtime drink. There was a light wind that blew the tall grass in dizzying circles, alternately pushing it down and lifting it up like in a dance. The tutor had eyes large with wonder.

"It's so beautiful here," were the visitor's first words.

"Yes," Michael's father agreed, stretching out his hand. "Nice to meet you. I'm Bernard, I mean Baruch."

If Father knew how to blush he would have done so now. But that was Mother's prerogative. He gave the visitor a large, inviting smile. "And this is Michael."

"Hello, Michael," the visitor smiled at the boy, "I came for you."

"I know," Michael's eyes seemed to say: "If only you wouldn't have shown up here ever." But his mouth remained shut.

"And this is Rabbi Avrohom," Michael's father said with emphasis. "Rabbi Avrohom agreed to give up his summer and come to the middle of nowhere to be with us and learn with you."

"I beg to differ." Michael had to admit to himself that the visitor's tone wasn't phony. "I'm not a rabbi and this isn't the middle of nowhere. It's really only an hour away from the city. From the way it was described I thought it was a real desert."

"It is a desert." Michael grasped at the last sentence as if it were a lifesaver. "Run away from here before it'll swallow you up." But Michael's mouth remained shut.

"A green desert, I would say," Michael's father's chimed in happily, "with a lot of life all around. If only all of the world's deserts looked like this."

The visitor looked apologetic.

"That's what I thought initially based on the directions, but I have to admit that I was wrong," he explained. "It's gorgeous here!"

"We put in a lot of effort," Father let out a sigh. "Boruch Hashem."

Michael puckered his lips even more tightly. "We work really hard and you come in order to continue the destruction that your friends started. If only you hadn't come here we would continue living this beautiful life forever. Who needs you anyway?"

Apparently the visitor couldn't mind-read. Michael turned around and looked every which way.

"Your suitcase," Michael's father requested with the customary politeness of a host.

"It's next to the house," the guest spoke comfortably. "I left it there and went to look for you. Your wife said that you went this way."

Father sighed. "My wife," he repeated uncomfortably. "I forgot. I still have a lot to learn. I'm sorry, Rabbi Avrohom. I should've waited for you at the house."

"It's fine." The guest's eyes remained clear. "This was a great opportunity to see a little of the view before we delve into learning. By the way, I also brought you a few more books, the ones that Naftoli and Gershon packed for you."

Father's eyes shone.

"That's good news," he said and started walking towards the house. "I asked for the second volume of a halochoh sefer. I — I mean my wife and I — stopped right in the middle of a topic. We can continue learning immediately."

The house was a spot of light at the edge of the fields. One fence surrounded it, the garden fence.

"It's so that the sheep won't think that your flowers are dessert," Father would always say to Mother. If only the tutor were far away from here where he belonged in the . . . how did his father call it . . . in the yeshiva. Then the evening would have been quiet and pastoral, calm and magical.

Now it would be one long nightmare, worse than opening all the gates in the world, one after the other. Michael plucked the stem of a flower, furious and despondent. He crushed it between his fingers. For some reason no smell reached his nostrils this time.

End of Part 1


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.