Victory Gardens – Chapter 74

Novel

Manny and Mutty experience a very enjoyable Shabbos meal in the Zayits’ home, very unlike Shabbos in America.

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By the time Manny opened his eyes again, most of the lamps in the room had gone out. A few hardy flames still flickered, giving the room a dim glow. Manny was stretched out on a series of pillows. A sweet and unfamiliar melody filled the air, and it was so pleasant to listen to that it took Manny a moment to realize that it was not coming from inside his own mind. He was not alone.

He struggled into a sitting position with that same camel-awkwardness and turned to face his host. “Good Shabbos.”

Shabbat Shalom,” said Zayit, pausing his hum for a moment to return the greeting.

“I fell asleep,” he murmured.

Zayit chuckled. “Passed out is more like it.”

“I’m sorry,” said Manny.

“You’re sorry? Chalilah va’chas! It was my greatest pleasure to watch you enjoy yourself!”

“A little too much enjoyment I’d say.”

“On Shabbat? No, that’s impossible. The potential for enjoyment is limitless.”

Manny closed his eyes and when he opened them again, he was surprised to find them wet.

“How do you do it?” said Manny, the words wadding up at the base of his throat like soft dough, making it difficult to speak.

Zayit’s large brown eyes were liquid in the dim light. “What do you mean?”

“We are not so different, you and I. So how is it that your life is full of joy and love and purpose, and mine is like an empty shell in comparison?”

Zayit nodded and swayed back and forth, continuing his hum.

“What you see is not the work of a day or a week or a month,” said Zayit softly. “It’s the work of a lifetime. I wanted my life to be like this, and I worked to make it so.”

“But how do you do it?” asked Manny.

“I keep my eyes open all the time,” Zayit replied. “I look for ways to be of help, to be of service. I make it my business to get involved, even though it goes against my nature.”

Manny shook his head. “No, I think it is because you are surrounded by your family. You don’t need anyone else.”

Zayit’s expression grew serious. “Again, I would like to think that my life would look the same even under different circumstances. It does help to have my family around me, of course. There is nothing more important than family.”

Zayit emphasized the word like he was biting down on something hard, and his tone caused Manny to look up at him.

“I view my family as the greatest gift Hakadosh Baruch Hu could ever give me, and I try to act on that. Do you do the same?”

Manny looked down at his lap in shame.

“That’s right,” said Zayit. “I don’t think so. I hear the way you speak to your brother, and if that is any example of the way you view the rest of your family, I do feel sorry for you. If I were you, I’d start there.”

“Start where? Didn’t I come halfway across the world to rescue him?”

Zayit stared at him with knowing eyes.

“A little respect, my friend, goes a long way. I hope you treat your wife and your parents a little better.”

Manny snorted. “Of course — I know that!” he said hotly. But as he spoke, a montage of little scenes flashed through his mind: there he was criticizing Esther for spending too much on a floor lamp for the salon, and not enough on a wedding gift for a business acquaintance he was trying to impress. And another snapshot, this time feeling impatient with his mother while she helped him put his coat on. Manny shook his head and tried to clear the thoughts away.

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” said Zayit. Compassion infused his voice, along with a ring of pity. “You’re still a young man. You have your whole life to keep working, to keep making things better. Your nisayon is an opportunity.

“How so?”

“In many ways. First, of course, it is a way to come close to the Ribbono shel Olam with an intensity that few people experience. Every day can bring new hope.”

“Do you still believe that you will have children?” asked Manny. “My father wants me to divorce my wife and remarry.”

Zayit’s face hardened. “And you are considering it?”

“I tell my father I’m not, but deep down I can’t help thinking about it.”

Zayit shook his head.

“Don’t tell me you never thought about it,” said Manny.

“I did,” said Zayit. “And I discussed it with our chacham. I will not divorce my wife. I daven all the time that we will merit to have children. And in the meanwhile, I spend every moment looking for merits to help make it happen.”

“And if it doesn’t? Seriously, what if it doesn’t?”

“Then all I have done is built myself a far more beautiful and meaningful life than I ever would have if everything had come easily to me. Either way, I win.”

“That is really how you see it?”
“Absolutely,” said Zayit. “Every single day of my excellent life. Shabbat Shalom, Manny.” He rose majestically from the floor pillows, like a king taking leave of his throne, and held out a hand for Manny. He pulled gently to help him stand, and for a moment, the two men stood face to face.

“You are a good man,” said Zayit.

“Thank you,” said Manny. But Zayit’s kind words only made him feel ashamed.

To be continued . . .