Sacrifice and Salvation
When the poverty that was the only reality in Eastern Europe became too much for the Sender family to bear, they made the difficult decision to emigrate to America, the land of diamond-studded streets and golden bridges. It was during the nineteen-twenties, and news of the magical land was trickling over to the tiny village where they lived. In America, they hoped, they would be able to live peacefully, without worrying about how to pay for their next slice of bread or where to obtain firewood on credit with which to heat their home.
Their small family of five set out on a rickety ship: Mr. Sender, Mrs. Sender, their five-year-old twins, and Zaidy, Mrs. Sender’s elderly father. The voyage was long and difficult, consisting of storms and seasickness. Finally, after many weeks, they docked at Ellis Island and were welcomed as immigrants to the land of the free. They settled on the Lower East Side in a crowded tenement building.
They very quickly realized that unlike common lore, the streets of New York were not lined with dollar bills, free for the taking. They had heard all about the unbelievable opportunities available in America, unequal to anywhere else in the world, but their experience taught them that it was not as easy as those tales had made it sound.
In fact, the Senders often felt that their new life was significantly more difficult than it had been back in Europe. The only available jobs were in sweatshops, where one was made to work for eighteen hours a day at a token salary that barely covered even the most basic necessities. Even these jobs weren’t steady, since if someone wanted to remain Shabbos observant, he needed to find a new sweatshop to work in every Monday.
Between Mr. Sender and Mrs. Sender, they brought in enough money to pay their rent and buy simple food, but life was very difficult. Each Friday, they were fired from their jobs again, living in desperate uncertainty until they found more work the following Monday. Life was not easy.
Zaidy, Mrs. Sender’s elderly father, would sit by the table in their tiny apartment, learning from his gemarah. “Chana,” he would constantly tell his daughter, “We made a mistake in coming here. There’s no future here. I don’t have the strength to make the trip, but go with your husband and children back to Europe. Go back. This is not a life.”
Each time he brought up the topic, Mrs. Sender would sigh. “You’re right,” she would agree, coming to sit beside her father. “There’s no future in yiddishkeit here, and life is incredibly difficult. But I’ll never go back and leave you here yourself.”
Various versions of this conversation took place in the months since their arrival, and they became almost routine.
After many weeks, Mr. Sender finally found a job that allowed him to work on Sunday instead of Saturday. While having steady employment was a relief, life did not get easier. Mr. Sender needed to be at the sweatshop at seven in the morning, and he did not return home until very late as night. Soon, he stopped davening with a minyan. It was just too difficult, being that he spent all of his waking hours at work.
One morning, Mr. Sender awoke with a pounding headache and a bad cough. His wife begged him to take the day off, but he explained that they could not afford to lose the day’s wages. “I’ll drink a tea and I’ll be fine,” he assured her as he prepared to leave for work.
Mrs. Sender watched him go, a doubtful expression on her face. He really did not look well enough to do physical labor for so many hours. With a shrug, she began chopping vegetables for a nourishing soup. She left for her own job an hour later, the soup bubbling on the fire. When she returned from her part-time job, she planned on bringing her husband a container of hot soup. If he needed to work while he was sick, the least she could do was bring him soup.
That afternoon, she walked the long blocks to her husband’s workplace, a basket containing a small pot of steaming soup swung over her arm. She entered the sweatshop and asked for her husband.
“You’re looking for Sender?” an industrious looking man asked her, not glancing up from his work. “Second floor, back room.”
Making her way up the narrow, creaking stairs in the dim lighting, a small smile played on Mrs. Sender’s wan face. She pictured her husband’s delight at seeing her, at the soothing relief that the soup would bring him, and she hurried forward to the end of the hallway.
Entering the stuffy room hesitantly, she glanced around at the many heads bent over their work. Where was her husband?
“Chana!” a voice suddenly called, and she saw her husband stand up from his seat.
She walked toward him, holding the small pot of soup, and then her blood froze. Her husband was bareheaded.
“Where is your yarmulke?” she asked quietly, dismay coloring her words black.
Mr. Sender’s hand instinctively rushed to his hair, and he colored. “Well, uh… ahem.” Clearly embarrassed, he cleared his throat and tried again. “My boss doesn’t let me wear it,” he finally admitted. “Says its bad for business. I’m sure it’s fine; it’s not like it’s a dioraysa or anything… And of course, I put it back on the second I leave work.”
His wife was speechless. With tears streaming down her face, she set down the pot of soup and fled from the sweatshop. Her walk home was pained. Not her family! Not her husband! How could it be that her refined and pious husband was succumbing to the spiritual wasteland of America?
“What happened, Chana?” her elderly father asked in alarm when she walked into the tiny apartment a few minutes later, her face ashen.
“What’s the matter?”
She collapsed into a chair, her tears pouring forth like an endless river. Briefly, she described what she had seen when she had gone to bring her husband some soup. “I just can’t believe it,” she kept on muttering, over and over. “I just can’t believe it.”
Her father sat there, listening compassionately, not uttering a word.
“Tatte, I want to go back,” she whimpered suddenly, feeling very much like she was a toddler again. “Whatever happens there, happens, but there’s no way I can remain here, in a place where my husband doesn’t even wear a yarmulke!”
They launched into their usual conversation, with Zaidy insisting that she travel with her family back to Europe, and she countering that she would never leave him in America alone.
When Mr. Sender returned home that night, the atmosphere was strained. He had always been too ashamed to tell her about his boss’s demands, but each time he pictured the look of shock on her face when she had seen him earlier that day, he cringed uncomfortably.
On her end, Mrs. Sender was heartbroken that her family had reached this spiritual low, yet she felt she was powerless to correct it. She began to soak her tehillim nightly as she cried over the devastating circumstances her family was mired in. How deeply she regretted their decision to leave their life of poverty behind in Europe! Instead, they had received a spiritual poverty, far worse than she could have pictured back in the shtetl.
Shortly thereafter, the sweatshop where Mr. Sender had worked closed its doors, and he was back to his weekly job hunting. After enjoying a few weeks of steady employment, he found it very difficult to get fired every Friday consistently, and the pressure of providing food for his family weighed on him heavily.
At his next job interview, he negotiated an arrangement where he would work on Sundays in exchange for clocking in fewer hours on Saturdays. While he had never worked on Shabbos before, he felt he had reached the point where he had no choice. As if to appease his conscience, he resolved not to perform any tasks that required actual melachah.
The first Shabbos was the most difficult. He davened early and then conducted a quick Shabbos seudah. Being that he couldn’t take the train to work on Shabbos, he had more than an hour’s walk to his workplace. When he wrapped up the seudah and prepared to leave the house, he couldn’t look his wife in the eye. Staring at the floor, he mumbled that he was going to work, and left hurriedly before she could ask any questions.
Mrs. Sender wept bitterly as she watched her husband walk briskly down the street. What would be with her family? What would her descendants look like? How had it come to this?
“Chana’le, listen to me,” her father called hoarsely from his place at the table. “Take your husband and children and go back to Europe. Don’t worry about me; I can fend for myself. But if you remain, what will be with your generations?! Purchase ship tickets and go back!”
Tears streaming down her face, his daughter shook her head. “I can’t go back myself,” she whispered. “My husband will never join me.”
Things continued to deteriorate after that. Although he had promised his wife, and himself, that he wouldn’t perform outright melachah at work on Shabbos, it did not take long for Mr. Sender to renegade on this commitment. His boss threatened to fire him, his colleagues jeered, and he capitulated.
Soon, he no longer tried to hide his sliding mitzvah observance from his heartbroken wife. The lack of spiritual guidance and proper friends were taking a toll on his thought processes, and he no longer felt the way he had when he had first arrived in this new land. “We’re in America now,” he would defend himself against his wife’s tears. “It’s different here. These things just aren’t done anymore.”
The atmosphere in their home became tense with friction. Mr. and Mrs. Sender each felt worried, hurt, and misunderstood, and soon, they were barely on speaking terms. Every interaction between them became an argument between the old and the Torah way versus the new and the American mentality.
Mrs. Sender began to despair that her generations would remain religious. Each Friday night, she stood before the two tiny flames, her face buried in her hands as she wept for pious children. How she longed for descendants who would follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, clinging to their faith despite the challenges!
Zaidy was equally afraid of the terrible consequences of remaining in America, and he constantly urged his daughter to return to Europe. “If your husband won’t join you, go without him,” he would plead. “My most fervent wish is that your sons grow up to be yarei shomayim, and that can’t happen if you stay. I beg of you, daughter, leave this land, even if it means leaving your husband behind. Your obligation is for the future of your children.”
The painful situation took a toll on Zaidy’s already frail health, and he took to his bed, ill. As the weeks passed, he grew weaker and weaker, until he finally passed away from the heartache. He had a small levayah and was buried in a cemetery in New York. Mrs. Sender sat shivah for a long, agonizing week, as she pondered her family’s current circumstances.
When she got up from shivah, she turned to her husband with an usual resolve in her voice. “You can make your own decision,” she informed him, “But I have already made up my mind. I am returning to Europe, together with our twin sons. I’ll borrow money, do whatever takes, but I refuse to remain here for another week! You’ve already given up Shabbos! Who knows what’s coming next? As the boys’ mother, I can’t allow them to grow up like this!”
Mr. Sender’s face darkened. “Do what you’d like,” he snapped. “But don’t forget that these are my sons too. If you’d like to walk out on us, you are more than welcome to, but you can forget about taking the boys with you. We made a joint decision to bring them here, and unless we decide jointly to send them back, they aren’t going anywhere.”
“How can you say that?” Mrs. Sender cried. “The boys are only seven years old! They need a mother, not a father who spends his life at work! Who do you think will take care of them while you work every single day of the week, Shabbos included?”
Her husband shrugged. “No one is asking you to leave,” he pointed out. “You are more than welcome to stay and watch them yourself. But if you go back to Europe, the boys stay here, with me.”
“Absolutely not,” she whimpered. “I’ll never leave my boys behind in this spiritual wasteland. I’m doing this only for their sake! I gave birth to these boys! How dare you decide that they can’t join their own mother? I’m not a terrorist; I’m just trying to save their neshamos, to make sure that they are raised with values that you, too, used to care about!”
“I still care about them,” Mr. Sender tried defending himself. “But you have to understand that things are different here. This is not Europe. You can’t expect—.”
“I can expect them to grow up exactly the way our parents raised us, if I take them back to Europe,” she countered quietly.
“You can’t take them, just like that,” he protested. “I’ll never see them again! Listen, let’s compromise. You can take Zelig with you back to Europe, and I’ll keep Ahron here. How does that sound?”
“You are trying to destroy the family!” Mrs. Sender accused tearfully. “How can you suggest splitting the twins apart?!”
“You are the one destroying the family,” he responded defensively.
“I’m not trying to destroy anything. All I want is to keep their yiddishkeit intact!”
Mr. Sender looked surprised. “You don’t want a get?”
“Not at all,” she replied, equally surprised by the thought. “In fact, I would be most pleased if you joined me and came back with me to Europe. I don’t want to break up our family. I just feel that under the circumstances, I have no other choice.”
“Perhaps in a few years, you’ll think differently,” Mr. Sender suggested. “You’ll see how yiddishkeit is flourishing in America, and you’ll realize that this is a place to raise pious children.”
She shook her head. “Perhaps, but right now I see no alternative other than going back, together with the boys.”
“Boy, not boys,” he corrected. “You can’t just pick up with both of them.”
“Here we go again,” Mrs. Sender sighed.
They argued about it for a long time, with Mrs. Sender insisting that she would not leave without both children, but her husband stood firm. In the end, she agreed to his compromise. She would take only one child along with her.
Two weeks later, she stood at the port, both arms tightly encircling seven-year-old Ahron. “I’ll miss you,” she murmured, pressing her tearstained cheek to her young son’s. “Please, remember to stay true to Hashem and His mitzvos. Keep your yiddishkeit intact!”
Mr. and Mrs. Sender gazed at each other for a long moment, each wondering when they would ever see each other again. Mrs. Sender beseeched her husband to raise Ahron as they would have in the shtetl. Once more, they promised each other to remain loyal to the bond they had forged beneath their chuppah, to keep their marriage intact despite the physical distance between them. One day, they pledged, they would reunite.
From the deck of the ocean liner that would bring her back to Europe, Mrs. Sender stood, one hand tightly clutching Zelig’s as she waved and waved until she could no longer see her husband and Ahron.
The journey, while physically uncomfortable, was emotionally excruciating for the young mother. She thought constantly about the son she had left behind, worried about his future and even about his present. He was such a young child!
However, gazing at Zelig, she would remind herself of the spiritual dangers lurking in America. I’m doing this for Zelig, she would tell herself, over and over. Had I remained, I would have lost them both. At least now, Zelig has a chance.
After a long and difficult journey, she and Zelig arrived at the shtetl they had left just three years earlier. The townspeople were shocked to see them. It was unheard of for someone who had reached the golden land of America to return to their backwater village, where poverty was a fact of life and pogroms were a reality.
“It’s better to die here as a Jew then to live as a gentile in America,” Mrs. Sender told her disbelieving neighbors, describing how difficult it was to cling to yiddishkeit in the land of the free.
Someone found her a small one-room apartment, and as soon as she was settled, she immediately enrolled Zelig in the local cheder. To pay for food, heat, and Zelig’s tuition, she began to clean other people’s homes. The work was degrading and the pay was minimal, but she was grateful to be able to raise her son in the ways of his fathers.
Each morning, as she walked with Zelig along the dirt paths leading to his cheder, she would speak of the tremendous sacrifices she had made to enable him to learn. “I gave up my husband,” she would say. “I gave up my son Ahron. I gave up the peace of mind that comes with not having to fear the gentile neighbors. I gave up everything, for you, Zelig! I’m working as a cleaning lady so that you can become a talmid chacham. Shteig, Zelig, shteig! You will be the one who will continue our family tree.”
At night, Zelig would often cry himself to sleep. He was a living orphan, with a father across the vast ocean whom he fathomed he would never see again. His twin brother, too, was an unimaginable distance away. Still, he was determined to live up to his mother’s expectations, to make her sacrifices worthwhile. He threw himself into his learning with zeal and enthusiasm.
They lived together in their tiny, one-room apartment for five years as Zelig made tremendous strides in his learning. His mother shed tears of joy as she watched him swaying over his mishnayos and then gemarah. The nachas she reaped from Zelig’s spiritual growth sweetened the difficulties of her lonely and difficult life.
When Zelig was twelve years old, Mrs. Sender sent him off to learn in yeshiva. Ensconced in the yeshiva environment for weeks at a time, she hoped he would grow even more in his learning. Her loneliness intensified, but she did not care. Zelig was becoming a talmid chacham, and that was all that mattered to her.
For the next five years, Zelig grew and matured, and his grasp of Gemarah was strengthened. Whenever things got rough, he reminded himself of his mother’s mesiras nefesh for his sake, and that was enough help him get through it intact. By the time he hit his seventeenth birthday, he was already an accomplished talmid chacham, the light of his mother’s life.
It had been ten years since Mrs. Sender had left her life in America behind and returned to Europe with her young son. Ten years of loneliness and difficulty, ten years of growth and sweet nachas. In those ten years, new winds began blowing across Europe, menacing winds of hate and evil. Danger was lurking.
Most Jews had nowhere to go. They had been living in their hometowns for generations and would not be scared away by the rhetoric of a madman in a nearby country. For Mrs. Sender, however, it was different. She did have a place to flee to—America, where her husband and son, whom she had not seen in ten years, awaited.
The news from America had begun to sound more positive spiritually, with yeshivos opening and small, Torah-true communities forming. Mrs. Sender began to seriously entertain thoughts of returning to America and reuniting her family. One day, as she flipped through her calendar, she noted that her father’s yartzeit was only a few months away. Her heartrate began to quicken. How she longed to be at his grave on the day of his yartzeit! Zaidy had been the force behind her decision to leave the spiritual desert of America behind. She owed Zelig’s success to him!
Making up her mind, she sat down and composed a letter to her beloved son in yeshiva. In it, she described her concerns regarding the political situation in their country and her great longing to reunite the family after so many years apart. She explained that she wanted to set sail as soon as the current yeshiva zman ended so that she would make it to America in time for Zaidy’s yartzeit. She ended the letter by beseeching her son to speak to his rosh yeshiva for permission to return to America together with her.
To her immense joy, Zelig’s rosh yeshiva advised him to join her on the journey away from the suddenly perilous European continent. Mrs. Sender immediately purchased ship tickets and began selling her few meager possessions. The bittersweet mixture of anticipation and apprehension became a familiar feeling in the weeks leading up to her departure. Who knew what kind of husband and son awaited her in far-off America?
When the ship finally set sail, she and Zelig aboard, they looked very different from the pair who had made the journey back to Europe ten years earlier. She was older, with a bent back and aching limbs. Zelig was tall and broad-shouldered, with a straggly beard and tzitzes dancing on either side of his waist. They weathered the stormy trip stoically, their minds constantly thinking about the remainder of their family.
What would Mr. Sender and Ahron be like? How had their years in America affected their yiddishkeit? Was there any hope for the family’s reconciliation?
When Mrs. Sender had left with Zelig back to Europe, it was very difficult for Mr. Sender. He felt betrayed and abandoned and nursed his hurt feelings for a long time. And with the passing of time, his yiddishkeit began to slide.
While he had already begun working on Shabbos while his wife was still in America, he had tried as much as possible to avoid outright prohibitions in the workplace. Without his wife’s constant monitoring, however, Mr. Sender began to find it impossible to stand up to his workmate’s constant jeering and he soon succumbed to the pressure, working a full shift on Saturdays and doing all the tasks he had done during the week.
Both Ahron and Zelig had attended the local public school, as required by law, but they had also attended an after-school Talmud Torah where they were taught Jewish subjects. However, once Mrs. Sender left and her part-time paycheck was a thing of the past, finances grew very tight in the Sender household. After just a few weeks, Mr. Sender stopped sending Ahron to the Talmud Torah. He could no longer afford the tuition they charged.
Things continued to tumble downhill from there. Ahron became Aaron, busy with school and friends and ball, and Mr. Sender continued to work long and difficult hours. With the absence of a nurturing Jewish mother, the Jewish practices in their house slowly disappeared.
Aaron would lay awake every night, haunted by the absence of the woman who had given birth to him. How could she have left me? he would wonder brokenheartedly, soaking his pillow with a fresh round of tears. What kind of mother leaves her son behind? But there was no response from the dark and silent room, and Aaron would eventually fall asleep.
Like all immigrants, the Senders began in primitive conditions and were constantly looking to improve their lifestyle. As Mr. Sender began to earn more money, they were able to move to a slightly larger apartment in a cleaner, less crowded building. When Aaron entered his teens, he, too, began to work after school to contribute toward the family coffers so that they might be able to leave the tenements for a place with more sunlight and privacy.
Aaron began working as an errand boy for a hat factory, but with his charisma and cleverness, he was quickly promoted to salesman and then manager. At sixteen years old, he left school and threw himself full time into the hat business, opening new and popular franchises of his boss’s company and establishing a name for himself as a successful entrepreneur.
Just seventeen years old, Aaron was earning more in a day than his father had earned in a lifetime. He purchased a beautiful home for himself and his father to live in and gave his father a respectable position managing one of the hat stores. Materialistically, they were doing very well.
On the spiritual front, things weren’t looking as great. While both Mr. Sender and Aaron considered themselves religious, their religious observance was far from what it should have been. They kept kosher as best as they could, put in token appearances at the closest shul a couple of times throughout the year, and celebrated the yomim tovim and Shabbos with lavish meals. But with the lack of a religious framework, and with both of them so occupied on earning more and more money, yiddishkeit had taken a very back seat in their lives.
One Sunday evening, Mr. Sender was at his desk at home, mapping out the week’s schedule with the aid of his trusty appointment calendar. “Hey, Aaron,” he called.
“Mmm?” Aaron called back, still engrossed in the newspaper he was reading.
“I just noticed that Zaidy’s yartzeit is this week,” Mr. Sender continued. “What is it now, ten years? We’ll have to take off a couple of hours on Thursday morning and drive down to the cemetery.”
“Fine with me,” Aaron said. “At least I can drive us there this time. Remember last time you took me shortly after he passed away? We took three trains to get there. Not fun.”
“Remember how Zaidy would learn with you and Zelig?” Mr. Sender asked nostalgically.
Aaron shrugged. “I remember how he sang at the Shabbos table. A sweet old man, huh?”
They reminisced together for a while, trying to ignore the elephant in the room: the memories of Mrs. Sender and Zelig that were part and parcel of their memories of Zaidy. As they conversed lightly, Aaron found himself looking forward to reconnecting with his deceased grandfather at his grave later that week.
Thursday morning dawned bright and cold. Dressed in his nice three-piece suit with a matching fedora, Mr. Sender settled into the passenger seat of Aaron’s brand-new Oldsmobile. Aaron, also spiffily dressed in honor of the occasion, slid into the driver’s seat and turned on the ignition. They spent the drive discussing their business and company politics.
They stopped at the cemetery’s small office when they arrived. Not having been to Zaidy’s grave in nearly a decade, Mr. Sender had no idea where he was buried.
“Mr. Tuvya Blum?” the secretary asked, standing up and scanning the rows and rows of files behind her. She removed a thin file, looked something up, and jotted down the simple directions to Zaidy’s kever. “Here you go. It shouldn’t be difficult to find.”
They walked slowly through the rows of stone markers in the silent and solemn graveyard. Mr. Sender felt his heart contract painfully as he spotted Zaidy’s lonely grave. Leaning his head on the cool stone, his emotions overtook him and his shoulders began to heave. What have I done with my life? he thought to himself as his tears rolled down the gravestone. How did I get to this point?
Memories of his previous life in Europe began rushing back. Life had been difficult and often dangerous, but simultaneously, it had been so, so sweet. He pictured his wife standing before the stove in their two-room shack, cooking a delicious pot of soup as their two-year-old twins giggled cheerfully in the background. He saw himself presiding over a real Shabbos seudah, in a home where the Shabbos Queen was welcomed with full glory. How far he had fallen since those simple, beautiful times.
The tears were coming quicker and stronger. How could I have let myself give it all up? he cried silently. How did I get to this point, where there is almost no yiddishkeit in my life, and that which does remain is cold and watery? When we first came to America, life was difficult, but Chana and I were in it together. What do I have now? Nothing other than money! No yiddishkeit, no wife, no purpose or meaning in life. Ribbono shel olam! Help me out of this rut!
Standing off to the side, Aaron watched his father sob. He had seen his father cry before, when his loneliness got the better of him, but this kind of weeping was something new to him. Uncomfortably, he looked around, unsure what to do with himself.
Remembering that one is supposed to recite Keil Maleh Rachamim, he opened the pocket-size siddur he had brought along and began stumbling through it. His Hebrew reading, a memory from his Talmud Torah days, was rusty. When he finished, he closed the tehillim and slipped it into his pocket. It didn’t appear that Mr. Sender would be ready to go anytime soon, so Aaron began wandering among the tombstones, reading the inscriptions of each marker.
Another ten minutes passed. Then twenty, then thirty. Aaron grew bored of reading the gravestone inscriptions and went back to Zaidy’s kever. His hands in his pants pockets, he tapped his feet impatiently, but his father did not seem to notice. Too polite to ask outright if it was time to head back, he sighed and walked out of the cemetery to wait for his father outside the office.
He lit a cigarette and leaned against the outside of the building, wondering when his father would finally be ready to leave. A glance at his watch told him that it was already early afternoon. He had not intended to waste the entire day at the cemetery, and they still had a ride back home. Sighing, he took another long, calming draw on his cigarette and exhaled a plume of smoke.
A cab pulled up and braked, its tires crunching on the pebble-strewn gravel. The back door opened, and a young man emerged. He wore a black hat and jacket and his face was framed by a wispy beard. Greenhorn, from the looks of it, Aaron thought as an older woman followed the man out of the cab. Then the taxi driver emerged from the front and began unloading suitcases from the trunk of his cab.
The young man hesitantly approached Aaron as the woman, presumably his mother, supervised the unloading of their luggage. “Excuse me, are you familiar with the cemetery?” he asked in yiddish.
“Sorry, not really,” Aaron said, shaking his hand. “You can ask inside the office; they should be able to help you. You must be new to this country, is that right?”
“We just docked this morning,” the man admitted, his half-smile strangely familiar. “It’s my grandfather’s yartzeit, and we came to pray at his grave. I’ll ask inside the office where he is buried. His name was Reb Tuvya Blum.”
“Reb Tuvya Blum!” Aaron echoed. “That’s my grandfather! Who are you?”
“Zelig, Zelig Sender,” the other young man said slowly. Could it be that the young man standing outside the cemetery, stylishly dressed in modern garb was his twin brother?! “Ahron?! Ahron, is that you?”
“It’s me,” Aaron said, a tad awkwardly, unsure what to do next. However he had pictured his reunion with his brother and mother, it had not looked like this. With his outdated clothing, lilting Yiddish, and straggly beard, Zelig appeared hopelessly old fashioned. How would they every get along?
The brothers looked away from each other uncomfortably.
“We must be cautious,” Zelig finally said. “Mama is not strong enough to handle a terrible shock. We’ll have to break the news to her slowly.”
Aaron nodded. Another awkward silence fell between them.
“I can take you both to Zaidy’s grave,” Aaron offered, just to break the discomfiting silence. “Tatte is there now.”
Zelig nodded gratefully. “Thank you.” He walked back to their mother, who was standing with their luggage and whispered to her. Mrs. Sender inclined her head, and the two began following Aaron through the rows of graves.
“This is it,” Aaron said, gesturing at the gravesite, where Mr. Sender was still weeping profusely.
Mrs. Sender took a few steps closer, her heart beating painfully in her chest. Tatte, I’m back, she thought emotionally, ready to pour out her heart. She stopped suddenly, noticing the stranger already leaning on her father’s grave. He was partially blocking the inscription on the gravestone, but she could clearly make out her father’s name, Tuvya Blum.
She shrugged, unable to fathom why a stranger was crying over her father’s grave. “Tatte!” she cried, rushing toward the resting place of her beloved father. “Tatte! Tatte!” Covering her face with her hands, she continued to cry, “Tatte! Help me!”
Her cries pierced through Mr. Sender’s own wall of emotion. He lifted his head in disbelief. “Chana?! Chana!”
Mrs. Sender uncovered her eyes. She looked at the man standing beside her at her father’s kever and felt her world go black. She reached out blindly for something to steady herself with, and her hand grasped the smooth, cold headstone.
This was her husband! This is what had become of him in the years since their separation. Where was his beard, his payos? What kind of clothing was he wearing?! Could it be that he had become so removed from yiddishkeit?
Another awful understanding suddenly dawned when she realized that the modish young man who had led the way to her father’s grave was her long-lost son, Ahron. She turned around and saw him and Zelig, their arms around each other, bawling emotionally. It was all the confirmation she needed.
She threw herself onto Zaidy’s grave. “Tatte! Tatte! Take me with you! I don’t have the will to live anymore! Please, take me with you! I want to die!”
Mr. Sender watched in horrification as she expressed her desire to pass on, to leave the pain of his behavior and decisions behind. I caused all this, he realized belatedly. It was my decisions that caused this separation in the family. I am responsible for the anguish and heartbreak my wife is currently suffering. There is no one to blame other than me.
“Tatte, Tatte, take me with you!” Mrs. Sender continued to yell, her voice raspy from her incessant crying. “Tatte, Tatte, I have nothing to live for! Take me with you!”
Zelig crouched beside her, speaking soothingly. “Mamme, let’s go now. We’ll go back with Tatte and Ahron and rebuild our family.”
“Rebuild our family?” Mrs. Sender echoed, hiccupping. “Rebuild our family?! What, without Shabbos and mitzvos? I’d rather die!”
Zelig glanced up at his father helplessly.
“Zelig, let’s go back,” Mrs. Sender continued hoarsely. “I don’t want to sleep here even one night. It was a mistake to come here. Let’s go back.”
Zelig stood up and brushed off his pants. “You’ve both heard what she said,” he said quietly. “Are you ready to make the necessary lifestyle changes so that we can feel comfortable enough to live together with you?”
Aaron looked at the ground uncomfortably, waiting for his father to speak.
Mr. Sender found that he could not get any words out. A gigantic lump clogged his throat. He swallowed once, and then again, the tears coursing down his cheeks.
“Tatte?” Zelig asked softly.
Mr. Sender knelt down beside his weeping wife. “Please, Chana, please forgive me. This is all because of me, because I was too weak to stand up to the pressures of American life. You had the strength of your father, but I was lacking that strength. Forgive me!”
Mrs. Sender did not respond. “Tatte, take me with you!” she cried, ignoring his words. “I don’t want to live anymore! Take me with you!”
“Chana, I promise to try to change,” Mr. Sender continued to plead, but she would not hear him.
From where he was standing in the background, Aaron suddenly found both his father and newly-discovered twin brother looking at him. “What?” he asked, a tad defensively.
Then he understood. The words of both his father and Zelig had little effect on Mrs. Sender, who was still weeping hysterically. It was time for him to try.
He walked closer to his mother and cleared his throat hesitantly.
“Mamme?” he asked hesitantly, still unused to the word. “Mamme, it’s me, your son Ahron. Please, look at me!”
To everyone’s collective relief, she finally reacted. Lifting her wet face from the headstone, she treated Aaron to a piercing stare. “Ahron, Ahron. What did you do to me? Do you realize what it was like for me these past ten years? Do you think it was easy to be separated from my child for so many years? The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that perhaps you were keeping strong in yiddishkeit. That’s the only thing that kept me going! Now I return, and how do I find you?” She burst into a fresh round of tears.
Aaron felt as though his heart would break in two. He began to cry along with her. “Mamme, Mamme,” he whimpered, like a small child. “You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed you! Do you think it was easy to grow up without a mother? You can’t just turn around and walk away a second time!”
“How can I be a mother to you, a young man who lives exactly like the gentiles?” she retorted. “I left behind a pure, innocent Jewish child, and in his place, I find a young man who doesn’t keep the mitzvos! How I wish I could die!”
“Mamme, forgive me,” Aaron begged. “I promise you. Stay with us, and I’ll return to a life of Torah. I promise to keep Shabbos and all the halachos, to perform the mitzvos properly. Please, stay with us and rebuild our family as a proper Jewish family.”
Watching the two of them, sitting on the floor beside Zaidy’s grave and weeping profusely, Mr. Sender and Zelig could not retain their composure. Soon, the small family was sitting in a small circle, crying and crying and crying together.
Zelig glanced around helplessly, from his brokenhearted mother to his newly-discovered father and brother, all sobbing loudly. Desperately, he tried to think of something, anything to get them past this hurdle.
Tugging out his tzitzes, he declared, “Let us each take hold of one corner of my tzitzes and declare our loyalty to Hashem and His Torah.” He pushed a strand into Aaron’s hand, handed tzitzes strings to each of his parents, and grasped the last corner for himself. “Shema!” he cried out, his family echoing after him. “Yisroel! Hashem Elokeinu! Hashem Echad!”
It was a Shema like never said before, a declaration from deep, deep within. The cries of this family pierced the heavens, a desperate cry of teshuvah, of renewal. It was a cry that opened something up inside Mr. Sender and Aaron, instilling an intense longing within them to return to the ways of their ancestors.
A stunned silence followed. Then, they all fell on to each other’s shoulders, weeping emotionally. There was something different about these tears. Instead of pain and heartache, these were cleansing tears, tears of anticipation and hope.
When things calmed down a little, the two boys left their parents to converse quietly and began loading up the trunk of Aaron’s Oldsmobile with the luggage that Mrs. Sender and Zelig had brought with them from Europe. They conversed congenially as they worked, united by the emotional experience they had just shared.
“There’s going to be a lot of work to do in the house in order for you and Mamme to be able to live there comfortably,” Aaron admitted.
Zelig maneuvered a faded leather suitcase between two others in the small trunk. “We’ll work together. It could even be fun.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Aaron replied. “I’m embarrassed for Mamme to see the house. She might just decide to go right back to Europe. We weren’t so careful with Jewish practices, and it kind of shows.”
Zelig shuddered inwardly, wondering just how far his American father and brother had strayed. “Don’t worry, Ahron. We’ll take care of everything right away.”
Mr. and Mrs. Sender walked slowly up toward the car, still engrossed in conversation. Watching them, Aaron and Zelig shared a wink as they drove off.
When they pulled up outside the private townhouse, Aaron tried to stall for time. “Maybe Tatte and Mamme want to take a walk around the neighborhood?” he suggested. “It’s a beautiful day today.”
“Thank you, Ahron, but I’m feeling rather tired,” Mrs. Sender said, climbing out of the car. “We docked just this morning from a very difficult journey, and it has been an emotional day. I’m exhausted.”
She stood outside the car as her two sons unloaded the trunk and then followed them up the stairs into the house. Aaron hovered anxiously at the door, waiting for the axe to fall.
Mrs. Sender sank into a chair and put her head in her hands. What had she been thinking? Why had she ever left Europe? This was a house without a mezuzah, with a treif kitchen, and nary a sefer in sight. How could she ever live in such a place.
Standing protectively behind her, Zelig tried to calm his tense body. He would not be judgmental. He could not be judgmental, for his mother’s sake. He would stay calm, he would judge them favorably, and he would work with Aaron on fixing up the house to make it into a proper Jewish home.
“Give me two hours, Mamme, and we’ll get this place back in order,” he whispered to her.
“Zelig, I can’t even drink a glass of water here,” she moaned. “Oy, why did we ever leave Europe?”
“Give me two hours,” he repeated. “Two hours, and everything will be fine.”
For the next few hours, Aaron and Zelig ran from store to store. They purchased mezuzos, tefillin, and tzitzes. They shopped for new dishes and kosher food. They bought siddurim, talleisim, and even a new Shabbos tablecloth. Loaded up with packages, they returned to the house.
The mezuzos were lovingly installed on every doorpost. The dishes and kitchen utensils were thrown out and new ones were placed on the shelves. By the time Mrs. Sender awoke the next morning, the house had become a fully Jewish one.
The passing weeks brought much healing to the Sender family as their relationship slowly knitted back together. Under Zelig’s patient tutelage, Aaron slowly transformed into an authentically frum young man, davening three times daily and observing all the mitzvos scrupulously. Shabbos was no longer a contentious time between Mr. and Mrs. Sender, but a time of peace and happiness as the family celebrated it fully, together.
Indeed, Mrs. Sender’s supreme sacrifice for the yiddishkeit of her generations reaped tremendous rewards. While she had only been able to rescue one of her sons from the furnace of America’s melting pot, she merited to see her entire family return to a Torah lifestyle, as well as many beautiful, frum generations afterward.
Have a Wonderful Shabbos!
This story is taken from tape # A337