Victory Gardens – Chapter 73

Novel

Manny and Mutty arrive at the Zayit home before Shabbos. They are greeted by the spicy words and spicier food that Mrs. Zayit offers them.

*   *   *

That Shabbos was unlike any Manny had ever experienced. Over the twenty-five hours of rest, various Zayit family members wandered in for a visit. Each one was greeted like an exalted guest, feted with food and drink and warm attention. Beni lay on a cushion of pillows and was treated like any other member of the family.

Manny could not help but contrast this Shabbos with his memories of Shabbos in the United States. When he and Esther ate at home, she served a tasty albeit standard menu of Shabbos food, which they ate together  at their long dining room table; they rarely had guests, and when they did, Esther was a nervous hostess. Fridays were a hectic mixture of stress and, often, tears, as Esther struggled to get everything just perfect, and by the time Shabbos came in, she’d light her candles and collapse on the sofa to recover. As much as he wanted to speak divrei Torah at the table, he would find himself getting swept away in some story or another.

Shabbos at his parents had its own routines as well. His father was strict about speaking only of Shabbosdig things, but Esther would sometimes forget, only to receive a silent rebuke from Papa Rothstein. His mother would try to smooth it over, but Esther’s feelings would be wounded nonetheless. They sometimes ended up leaving earlier than he would have liked. But this was the way things went, and like most people, he became so accustomed to the rhythms of his life that he had closed himself off to the possibility that they could ever be any different.

But Shabbos at the Zayits was nothing if not eye-opening. Zayit donned a beautiful white silk robe and white yarmulke that covered most of his head. His payos, which had been left to fly free all the times Manny and he had met, were now neatly curled and lay majestically on either side of his lean face. The house, sparsely furnished as it was, was glowing in the light of the Shabbos candles and the many oil lamps Zayit had lit before the holy day had arrived.

A large, low table had been set in the middle of the room and, to Manny’s surprise, an array of pillows was set up around it. He looked around for chairs. Although there were several, the family arranged themselves around the low table with their backs against the pillows. Manny had a hard time folding his long legs underneath himself, his awkward motions resembling a camel’s, but far more ungainly. He studied carefully how the smaller and more compactly-built Zayits sat themselves down with agility and ease.

Many, many tiny bowls  — it seemed like a hundred to him — filled with brightly colored foods were already set out, and Mrs. Zayit and assorted family members brought out what looked like a hundred more as the meal progressed. The pita was still warm and piled high, the wine was thick and sweet and plentiful.

Manny felt a lethargy come over him that was entirely unfamiliar. He couldn’t stop eating and drinking; if he were a more spiritually inclined person, he might have said that the food was nourishing his soul even more than it was nourishing his body. Since he’d never experienced this type of nourishment in this way, he was soaking it up like a sponge. He glanced over at Mutty to see if he was having a similar experience and was not surprised to observe a slightly vacant but deeply blissful expression on his brother’s face as well, as he tore off piece after piece of pita and dipped them into one after the other of the bowls.

Shlomo and Orna Zayit regarded the two Americans fondly as they experienced Shabbos the only way the Zayits knew how to make it. They had no way of knowing how different it was from the Rothsteins’s experience, but the expressions on their guests’ faces said more than words ever could.

Manny couldn’t understand much of the conversation. Occasionally Zayit or Mutty would say a few words in English to him, but Manny found the sounds of the seudah very fulfilling. After a few hours, one of Zayit’s brothers filled a becher of wine and began to chant Birkas Hamazon in an ancient melody that Manny had never heard. He whispered along, and and finished bentsching only a moment before his eyelids closed shut. He was powerless to stop them, and rather than stand himself up and take himself off to bed, he curled up where he was, on the soft and yielding nest of pillows that surrounded him, and drifted off to sleep, enveloped in a sense of well-being. The last conscious thought he had before falling into the deepest sleep he’d ever had in his life was: Shabbos.

 

To be continued . . .