Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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5 Shevat 5760 - January 12, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Living Out of a Suitcase

by M. Zonnenfeld

Part I

It was his valise.

Yes, it was really his. Do you hear? It was his very own valise, from the grooved handle down to the broad zippers which skidded towards each other from both sides and met in the middle -- if of course he had planned that meeting in advance.

It was possible to grasp each one between the index finger and the thumb, and to hold a competition. In general the zipper to the right would win, and close a larger part of the valise. But every now and then, the left one would overtake the right one. On one occasion, it even reached the pocket, because the pocket also belonged to the valise, if you didn't know that until now, and the valise, as we have already told you, belonged to Yonasan, and to no one else in the whole wide world.

It wasn't that Yonasan was acquisitive, like certain children who tend to think that everything they chance upon belongs to them. Quite the opposite. He was prepared to wholeheartedly admit that the plaid shirt folded so neatly in the valise was actually Shmulik's, as were the black Shabbos pants. The tzitzis, if you really want to be exact, were the gift of Abba Gold, who upon his first look at him, quickly exchanged Yonasan's tattered tzitzis for a new one from the closet. Ima Lenfeld had bought him the Shabbos yarmulke during one of his last weeks there, and he was very careful to cover it with a small plastic bag before packing, so that the fibers of the clothes and the dust wouldn't cling to the festive velvet. He had forgotten the precise origins of the sweater, the colored shirts, the pairs of socks in the valise, and the handful of books which were stashed into the briefcase.

But the valise, I repeat, was his -- don't ask from where. It had always been alongside him: in the upper closet in the Lenfeld kids' room, under the bed at the Gold's, near the desk in Shmulik's room. In general it was empty. But it always pretended to contain the very best, somewhere in its dingy depths.

Sometimes, before he fell asleep, the zippers would hold an impish race. But by morning, he would always find them where he had left them the night before. He thought about them many times. But the valise was very tight-lipped, and it was impossible to prod it to reveal those secrets.

"It came with you," Ima Lenfeld told him in her soft voice, when he asked. "All of your belongings were packed inside it. We opened it together, very carefully, and put everything away, and then put the valise on the upper shelf so that it wouldn't bother us."

"Did you give it to me, Kinneret?" he once asked her from the depths of the old upholstery of the back seat of the blue car.


He was totally surprised. "The valise, of course. What else?"


"Then who gave to me?" he didn't relent.

"I think that it was always yours."

"In the first house too, Kinneret?"

"I don't think so. But then, maybe yes."

Kinneret never answered a simple "yes" or "no." In the special school in which she had studied, they had apparently taught her to always say: "I presume that . . . " "Or it seems to me . . . "

One winter afternoon, she entered Lenfeld's puddle-filled yard, took a good look at the fascinating boat game he was playing with the neighbor's kids, and said casually: "Yonasan, it seems to me that you won't be able to stay here any more. Perhaps it would be a good idea for us to go inside. We'll take what you need, say good-bye to everyone and find another wonderful house. I know some very nice parents who would be very happy to meet you."

For a moment all of the puddles in the yard darted before his eyes like millions of sparks from a blinding light. The Lenfeld's house had been his home since he had been five. Abba and Ima Lenfeld were his parents and, except for the valise, nothing set him apart from the other children.

"Are you sure?" he asked with seriousness. "I -- I don't think they'll let me go."

But inside, the valise was already on the bed, its mouth ajar. Ima Lenfeld was busy packing all of his belongings, in exemplary order.

"He's a wonderful child," she said quietly as she stood beside the door. "I thought that we would always raise him along with everyone else. But under the present circumstances . . . " she laughed. "It's impossible to ask my sisters, who have so many children of their own."

Kinneret smiled her professional smile, with pursed lips. "Feel at ease. You've done far more than was expected of you. We are all very grateful to you."

She laughed in confusion into her flowered duster. "When everything works out, we might take him back. I really hope so." Then she turned to him and said. "We'll miss you very much, darling. Here! Take something for the trip." Then she gave him a milchig candy, a special rosh chodesh treat.

Malki, the baby, was to "blame." Until she was born, everything was fine and dandy -- the Rebbe in the cheder and his fascinating stories, the yard with its never- ending surprises. At the Shabbos table, there was always a long line of little darshanim, eager to tell about the parsha. Abba Lenfeld said that Yonasan would be first on Shabbos morning, right after the gefilte fish. Shmulik made a sour face. But Yonasan was two months older than Shmulik and had adamantly insisted on his rights.

When he related the parsha, Ima Lenfeld would listen intently, her eyes half shut. "This is my Yiddishe nachas," she would say.

The neighborhood kids didn't hide their jealousy. "You're like quadruplets," they would claim. And it was true. They were four boys who had been born within two- and-a-half years. They were the kings of the front yard, first in every discovery, and with unbounded imaginations.

"Isn't it hard for you?" neighbors would ask Ima Lenfeld in commiseration, when she came down to call the four formerly neat and clean children to supper and would find four messy kids, decorated with scratches and mud and laden with junk and scraps.

"Hard? Not at all," she would say in her calm voice. "They have energy, and I have a washing machine and two hands."

Yonasan loved her smile.

She never spoke to him angrily or impatiently. She always had time to listen to him and to help him with what he needed, whether with homework, with the memorizing of mishnayos, or with making an impressive tower from a matchbox collection.

But when Malki was born, everything changed. At first Ima Lenfeld was away from home for two weeks. "That's the way it is," the kids in cheder knowingly told him. "And so that you won't have high hopes, know that when she comes home, the baby will cry all day and your mother won't have time for anything."

But she didn't return with the baby. The pink crib which they had prepared remained empty. "Malki had to stay behind in the hospital," the parents explained. "She's so tiny and fragile that the doctors have to take special care of her."

Even though he wasn't the bechor, he was still the oldest in the house. Abba Lenfeld took him aside and, like an adult talking to a friend, said: "The baby's heart isn't developed enough. She needs special medicines which only hospitals have."

Malki came home after three months, surrounded by all sorts of devices. Ima was tired and tense, and fell asleep beside the Shabbos table when he told a wonderful vort that he had heard in cheder. A heavy pall of worry clouded the house. People he didn't know came and spoke for a long time about a medical center, a transplant, and going abroad. The aunts -- Ima Lenfeld's sisters -- spent a long time trying to persuade her. "We'll manage. Don't worry. The little one needs a strong mother. Take care of yourself."

At night, her hands trembled when she covered him. But she didn't say a word. It seemed to Yonasan that she was evading him. All that night, the rain tapped on the shutters and the next day, Kinneret arrived.

"I know them," she smiled at him. "They're very nice people. You'll be very happy there during the next few weeks, if you behave nicely yourself." According to Kinneret, everything was blue and nice.

He really tried. He didn't protest when Ima Gold called him "Yoni," and stroked his cheek as she had done moments before to her two-year-old. He didn't protest when Eli, the oldest Gold son, dragged the valise into the small room and hid it under the new double-decker.

"This is ours," he announced energetically. "I'll let you sleep on the upper bed, if you like. Are you afraid?"

"Me? Afraid?" he replied immediately. But at night the bed was too high for Ima Gold to reach, and he had to make do with her pleasant "good night" instead of a hug. "Sleep well, Yoni," she said. "I hope it's warm up there."

For a moment he was happy that she couldn't cover him. That had been Ima Lenfeld's job. But this time, the ceiling was strange and unfamiliar and the valise's zippers were somewhere under the bottom bed.

In the morning he prepared to go to a new cheder, with kids he didn't know. But Yonasan kept trying. He saw that there was no yard in front of the Gold house. However, near the entrance to the house he discovered an old pine tree, on whose branches the morning dew shone like pearls. Whenever he left the house, the branches would wave good-bye to him.

On Shabbos the children didn't give droshos at the table. But Abba Gold would tell marvelous mesholim about the parsha and inyonei deyoma. In the afternoons, Yonasan used a variety of ideas from the Lenfeld yard and the neighborhood kids were agog, and did whatever he asked. Kinneret came often and asked how he was doing. She also brought candy. Eli, though, was angry and uncompromising. He remained closed to his parents and cried at night and was cold to Yonasan.

"It's too hard for Eli," Kinneret nodded in understanding. "A new brother in the house, a new friend in the class; it's not easy. But don't forget: this is only a transitional stage. We're looking for a suitable family for him. It's not easy to find a home for a child his age. Most of the families on the list prefer a younger child."

Eli wasn't sorry when the welfare office called and asked Ima Gold to pack the valise. Yonasan wasn't surprised either.

"I knew," he said simply, when Kinneret came with the car to take him. "You told me all along."

"Yonasan?" The scenery which was seen from the car's windows changed rapidly. The old pine tree had disappeared long ago. "Do you know where we're going?"

"To nice people," he said, rather wearily.

"Ah so," Kinneret peeked at him from the front mirror. "That's how I would put it. Yes, surely."

The nice people changed quickly and they all merged in Yonasan's mind like a colorful but intricate mosaic. The Lenfeld parents, Abba and Ima Gold, the Shalom family with the small twins who reminded him of Malki, and Abba and Ima Don. Ima Tzorfati called him "Yoni," because Kinneret had introduced him as "Yoni." But the Don's little girl called him Yo-yo, with her childish inflection, and that name stuck to him at home and in school. Kinneret once called him Yo-yo by mistake, and he made a fist. "I'm not Yo-yo, and you know that."

"Yes, I suppose so," she answered elegantly. "But it's so nice."

The Shalom family had a yard. But he barely went outside because it was so cloudy. By the time the weather cleared, the blue car had come to take him to a new home. Near the Don's there was a printer's shop, and Yoni liked to watch the brisk work of the printers. Tzorfati had a small garden, and Yonasan helped them with it in the summer. Wherever he went, there was something nice he could cling to, something he could like, something which enabled him to forget the old and familiar things which were no more.

"I would call that maturity," Kinneret noted when he told her about that. "A realistic person tries to find the good in every situation."

But not all of the circumstances were that rosy. School, for example, caused serious obstacles. In each cheder, the pace was different. In one cheder, they studied material which he had already learned the year before. Suddenly the classroom became narrow, stifling and boring.

In another cheder, they were learning concepts which were totally unfamiliar to him. The Rebbe's language was strange to him and he knew that even if he tried to catch up with the class, Kinneret would soon come and he would have to begin all over again. As a result, his concentration level dropped drastically. He would take his briefcase every morning, and walk to cheder heartlessly. No more the outstanding student, he knew that his classmates nodded behind his back.

It all began in the cheder which Abba Shalom had found for him. There, he didn't understand the lessons at all. At first he had tried to listen. But after a week, he regressed, despaired, and looked for other things to do. That was when he began to cut.

Where had he found the scissors? It seems that they were part of the school supplies Ima Shalom had given him. She had filled his pencil case with writing implements, crayons, paste, scissors and assorted supplies. An old circular for parents lay on the table, and Yonasan began to cut it.

At first, he enjoyed the contact between the metal and the paper. Then he began to practice cutting straight lines. Slowly, he moved on to circular forms and one day, during a particularly incomprehensible lesson, he began to cut out windows.

Have you ever tried to cut out windows? If so, you surely know that it's not an easy feat. First of all, you have to decide on the form you want: a round window, a triangular one, a square one, or any other form you drew so nicely in your imagination. Then you have to insert the scissors' point in the middle of the form, move towards its edges, and cut very nicely around it, taking care not to rip the paper. If you succeed, you'll end up with a smooth and whole piece of paper, with a well-cut hole in its middle -- a window.

Yoni began with endless patience, while destroying countless numbers of sheets of paper. In time he learned how, when cutting, to fashion forms with clean lines. Soon, he improved his methods and learned how to fold the paper so that the cutting would be easier and the form symmetrical. Later on, he advanced to folding papers a few times in order to achieve a special effect, and then to working with half folds, and creating gorgeous forms, which still had no names, arranging them in a striking manner on a sheet of paper.

"Hey," one of the kids who noticed a well-cut piece of paper Yoni had worked on for three whole lessons. "It looks like a napkin.'"

"Is that what you do in class instead of listening?" someone asked. But Yonasan quickly picked up the paper and hid it in his book. He didn't want to share the magical secret of his scissors with his temporary friends, because his cut-outs had a very special charm. The small shapes which merged and formed the delicate cut-outs were really miniature dreams.

After Yonasan would finish cutting, he would gaze at his creations for a long time, and make up stories which filled the vacant time slots of the lesson. With a bit of imagination, the cut-outs soon became permanent windows in the walls of homes.

Precise squares always reminded him of the Lenfeld's children's room, and he liked to arrange them in rows, a window for each one of the three boys, and for little Malki, with the hope that she had returned home healthy.

Diamond shaped windows were more interesting. If he placed them in front of a light bulb, they shone like bustling houses of people and happy children. When the cut- outs faced the table, the light would be extinguished, and darkness would prevail. They would stand there, impatiently, waiting for Kinneret to find them a new home.

Near the Shalom house was a small printer's shop. At first, he was attracted by the noise and the pungent odor of the ink, and would spend many hours watching the printers at work. But when he started on his cutting, he discovered the garbage bags on the sidewalk near the shop's entrance. In general they were filled with narrow scraps, the remains after the galleys had been cut. But sometimes, extra title pages printed on large and ornate paper had also been thrown out. This was perfect raw material for his cut- outs.

The owner of the printing shop let him take as many scraps and discarded pieces of paper as he wanted, as long as he didn't scatter the garbage on the sidewalk, and Yonasan was very careful about that. Very often he would pick up scraps which had been strewn on the street even before he had come and, in his appreciation, the printer would give him extra colored papers -- which for Yonasan were a veritable treasure.

When he moved to the Don's, he didn't have these papers. But he soon found another source. The Don family lived in a very large building which rose up at the edge of the street. Flier distributors would leave piles of advertisements near the mailboxes, either because there were so many occupants in the building or because, although the street ended there, their satchels still contained fliers to give out. Whatever the reason, large quantities of good papers awaited him, some white, some colored. All of them had one thing in common: the ads appeared on only one side of the sheet. The other sides were perfect bases for cut-outs.

Slowly, his cut-outs improved. When Kinneret brought him to the Tzorfati's, he was already an expert in symmetrical, square and circular cut-outs and he began working on more intricate forms, such as half moons and stars. He stuffed all sorts of ads into his valise -- in case of emergency. After all, he had no idea where he would get those vital papers next time around.

And he continued to try.

"When we reach the Tzorfatis," he told Kinneret on the road, "I'll unpack my valise immediately. I won't scatter my belongings throughout the house, and won't make a mess." Then his voice became pleading and a bit childish. "Do you think that if I am very, very neat, they'll want me there?"

Kinneret looked at him for a long time from the front mirror. "Are you so certain that your behavior is the cause of all these changes?"

He smiled an innocent yet sad smile. "If not, then what is?"

"I venture to say that circumstances that are out of your control are the reason. It's not easy for people to take in a boy your age. You have your tastes, your habits, your hobbies. At the age of nine, you're not a baby anymore." Sometimes, Kinneret spoke with him in a very adult manner.

"I'm nearly ten."

"Then how much more so."

"Then . . . " his voice resounded quietly in the blue car. The scenery changed quickly. Kinneret believed in quick and safe driving. "Then, this time I'll try harder. You know, I'm ac . . . ac . . . and ex . . . ex . . . What did you say last time?"

"Accustomed and experienced."

"Yes, experienced and accustomed. I know how to unpack a valise in a jiffy, to get used to a new room and bed on my first night. I'll offer to help with the little kids. Do they have any?" he said with an outburst of good- will, readiness and acceptance.

Kinneret stopped the car. Her lips were pursed. "They have a baby, Yoni."

"At least she didn't say Yo- yo," he thought to himself with a sigh of relief. "I just hope she remembers that when she introduces me to them."

"We have to hurry," Kinneret said. "It's late, and I don't want to bother them in the middle of supper."

He was true to his word. He didn't make a face when they served him food with unfamiliar seasoning. He played on the floor with the baby for many hours, and tried to pay attention in class. The front pocket of the valise remained filled with the colored papers. Deep down, he hoped that Abba Tzorfati wouldn't rush to give up a boy who was so diligent in school. But one stifling morning, when Kinneret arrived, he knew that his efforts had been in vain.

"It seems to me that you can't stay here any longer," she told him, her blue eyes evading his gaze. "Come. Let's pack quickly. There's a long way ahead."

He pulled his valise from under a bed, like a pro. "You don't have to help me," he said quietly. "I'm, accustomed and . . . "

"Experienced," she completed the sentence with a smile. The shirts were folded. He took the pants off their hangers and threw them inside. Suddenly it didn't matter whether or not people thought he was neat. He shoved his notebooks inside, and lovingly patted the pocket which was half filled with papers. In the new cheder they would have an important job. Now you tell me: was there any reason for him to try to succeed?

Outside the blue car was waiting. He gave one of the neighbor's kids the cookie Ima Tzorfati had prepared for the trip. It suddenly seemed to irritate his hand.

"Don't be so sad," Kinneret told him as she was driving. "I think you're a very nice little boy. We just haven't found a permanent home for you, and have been trying to find temporary arrangements in the meantime. You aren't transferring became they don't want you. The Tzorfati's told us in advance that you could only stay until school began. Both of the parents are teachers, and they only wanted to take in a child for the summer."

"So you knew in advance that I would have to leave today."

The thin line on her lips opened a bit. He suddenly seemed so small and so lost.

"I knew, but . . . " she pursed her lips. What could she tell a nine-year-old child whose hopes did not always coincide with reality? Instead, she chose to change the topic. "Did you notice those lilies. Yes, those tall, white flowers?"

It was only when he had gotten out of the car that he realized that he didn't know the name of the new family. He hadn't spoken much on the way, and had forgotten to ask. He had also forgotten to remind Kinneret not to introduce him with one of those strange nicknames which had adhered to him during his wanderings. But, actually, what did he care?

He clutched the grooved handle of his valise, and slowly walked in. "They" lived in an old neighborhood. The rusty gate creaked loudly when Kinneret opened it. Beside the gate, an old pine tree smiled at him, in greeting. But he stubbornly turned his head aside. This time he wouldn't try. What for?

It was nearly evening. Mothers stuck their heads out of windows, calling their children to supper. Lights went on in houses and cut small bright windows amidst the new-sprung darkness, glistening squares, all in a row. The antiquated stairwell with the winding staircase absorbed the sounds of their footsteps.

"I think we should drag the valise together. It'll be easier for both of us that way," Kinneret said. He didn't answer. Instead, he clutched the handle tighter. From the corner of his eyes, he saw that this time the left zipper had won. But even that didn't cause him to smile.

Kinneret gently knocked on the door, whose paint was peeling. Someone had once told Yonasan that foster families had to meet certain financial criteria. But he wasn't particularly surprised.

Something inside totally sealed him off from his surroundings, and even from the greeting of the bearded man in the doorway. "Nu, at last. We've been waiting. Beruchim habo'im"

End of Part I

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