Sarah Shapiro

The Other Mother

One long-ago morning during the Hezbollah War, when the skies were baby-blue, clouds drifted sweetly, and fragrant trees were reborn and blossoming, a sleep-deprived mother, running on E for Empty, was rushing out to the cheder bus, her 6-year-old in tow. She was mentally composing her note to his rebbe, in case they missed it, when on the other side of the neighborhood playground, she caught sight of two boys coming toward her along the path. She stopped short,


The taller one…an angle of his head, a hand gesture…and a wave of longing swept her away.


Though no one but she had witnessed her confusion, she was embarrassed. Her bachor wasn’t even that age anymore. And wasn’t anywhere in the vicinity.

But her heart had already flooded.

Fifteen, maybe sixteen… Ari and Danny, childhood friends on their way to yeshiva. Their adolescent grace, and suave teenage cool. The white shirts, black pants…standard garb in their haredi neighborhood….Her mind paused, stumbling over itself a little, then regained balance. What was it he’d said on the phone last night? Up north. In Haifa. Or had he said near Haifa? She’s pretty sure he said near Haifa.

Waiting for his weekly 10 p.m. call from the base, she’d dozed off on a kitchen chair. (No cellphones in those days, the late 1990s.) The brrllrrling brrrlllrring of the phone blasted like a rocket through a dreamy membrane.


“Sweetheart! I’m so happy to hear from you! Where are you, Danny?” (Refraining consciously – a form of abstention–from the more selfish I’ve been so worried, I’ve been going out of my mind!

“Oh, I’m fine, Mama. Nothing to worry about. We’re up north. Hakol be sheket.”

‘Really? Oh, I’m so glad! Where up north?”

“Near Haifa. That general area. up north.” Over the crackling connection. “Sorry I couldn’t call earlier. How about you, Mama? How’s everyone?”

“We’re fine, Danny, everyone. How are you? Tell me! Where are you?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine. How’s everyone? How’s Daddy? Is he home? Can I speak to him?”

“Daniel, Daddy’s at kollel.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course, I forgot. Listen, so everything’s good?”

“Yeah, we’re all fine.” I’ve been going out of my mind! “I’ve been trying to reach you. No one answers.”

“Right, the connection’s not great up here. Not to worry.”

“Daniel, please give me the right number. I’ve got a pen! What is it? The Haifa area code. 04?” Commotion in the background, people yelling. “Danny? What’s all that noise? Who’s screaming like that?” She felt herself waxing irrational, wanting to shout back, Excuse me! Don’t you dare scream at my son like that! I’m his mother! “So give me the number, please. Go ahead. Who’s that yelling? I can’t hear you! Move away from them!”

“So listen, I love you. I’ve got to go. Give my love to Daddy. And to everyone!”

From across the grassy expanse of yard, she drinks them in. Fifteen, maybe sixteen. Still children, really…strolling this way and that along the curving path, in and out of the light-dappled shade…That shyness of his, that she always loved…Black white, black, white, underneath the trees. Engrossed in their chavrusa. The distinctive style and gestures of learning. One fair, one dark. One tall. One short. Danny and his friend Avi on their way to yeshiva after davening. In and out through the flowery shade, coming toward her now on the path.

In and out of the dappled light, through springtime they’re walking. Heads inclined one toward the other, talking in learning, walking through the leafy shade. Impossibly young and fair, idealistic boys. They’ve no reason, of course – walking along purposefully through the green and pink dappled shade–to notice one of the neighborhood mothers up ahead of them on the sidewalk. She’s rooted to the spot, like someone enchanted, staring.

They’re reaching her now, and then–unaware of her–they pass around her, and past her, like water around a rock. And for some reason, it’s at that moment that she gets it, and with a jolt wakes up.

The understanding has struck like lightning, but had actually been striking all night. She’d chosen not to understand.

Up north.

That’s Lebanon, stupid.

Nothing to worry about, very quiet here. Mommy, can I speak to Daddy?

How could she have been so thick? Forbidden to reveal the unit’s location. Hadn’t wanted to worry her. Didn’t want to lie, though, either. He knew his mother, as she knew him. How she detested lies.

So young, impossibly young. He used to remind her of a long-stemmed dandelion, gangly, ungainly, unconscious of his own beauty. Leaning here in the wind, and there. Sometimes in light, sometimes in shadow, inwardly responsive to every idea…searching for himself. His learning…what she’d always wanted… children who were by nature truth-seekers. Making his way through the wilderness, the magical unexplored frontiers, the no man’s land post-bar mitzvah: the promising minefield of unknowns shimmering with Torah, ambition, hope, spirituality, religious and philosophical questions, fears. All life ahead of him.

His neat and tidy, lovely frame. Goodness under cover of male teenage cool. His ill-concealed vulnerability and uncertainty….The adolescent’s pretense of casual insouciance. Impossibly swift, and young. The affectation of indifference covering tenderness, sensitivity, the light beneath his translucent cover-ups.

First it was Ari who enlisted.

Then Daniel. Mommy, he told her, you and Daddy have to know, I’m going in.

And half a year later, the second time he was home on leave, the first cannonball: Mommy, you have no idea how much my friends in the unit hate haredim.

“Mommy, my bus!”

Who are those two? she wonders, paying scant heed to the voice at her skirts. From the neighborhood? Do I know his mother? I bet she’s not as tired as I am this morning. And if she is, it’s for some other, normal reason. (Here’s when the flood first turned into bitterness.) A baby kept her up. One of her other children My son’s off fighting Arabs in some horrible place too dangerous to name; the Army won’t even say where. But as far as that other mother’s concerned, (the thoughts hiss around her now like bullets…a sarcastic whine) but as long as her son’s safe and sound, strolling along to yeshiva, shooting the breeze in the Holy City, shmoozing among the leafy trees, preparing for a quiz…not to worry. Oh, the sun rises, the sun sets…. It’s not hers who’s in Lebanon. Not hers, undergoing a different test, of life and death.

Does she G-d forbid think that her son’s more entitled to safety than mine? Mine‘s in some crazy dangerous place while hers strolls along to yeshiva. How about thanking him! How about praying for him, as if he were your own!

Because I’ve got news for you, he is! Your own! Your son, too!

But just bear in mind, lip service won’t do.

Oh, and while you’re at it, lose some sleep on my account, too. Pray for me. No identification necessary. Just say I’m one of Israel’s thousands of Jewish mothers who thrash around half-crazed all night.

Who was it, exactly, entertaining such thoughts? The same person who as a girl had instinctively turned her back on America’s secular privileges and pleasures to make aliyah? Whose first destination upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in 1976—even before construction of her belief’s intellectual scaffolding had gotten underway– was the Wall she’d seen pictures of in National Geographic? She couldn’t wait to say thank You, G-d, thank You! ….Modah ani!

And now such unholy thoughts, shooting around through the mind of a kollel wife? Whose daughters (and nowadays, granddaughters) were Bais Yaacov girls…and whose 6-year-old cheder boy (who today, 3 decades later, is a Rosh Kollel) even in those moments, was tugging at his mother’s skirts, pleading, “Mommy, what are you looking at! Mommy! I’ll miss the bus!”

Yes, one and the same. She who acknowledges the Creator of worlds (typing this thirty years later on my laptop) and the Master of war and of peace…Hodu le Hashem ki tov ki l’olam chesdo, and realized then and realizes today that Torah is the central pillar of our lives, yes, the same person. Oh for my long-lost idealism about the unity of Jews in the State of Israel! She whose son’s designation by the unit commander as the sole paratrooper to be trusted with possession 24/7 of a dangerously more powerful, newly invented automatic weapon filled her with pride…until she asked herself The Innocent Baalas Teshuvah Immigrant’s Classic Million-Shekel BONUS QUESTION:

But how does a shomer-Shabbos IDF soldier observe Shabbos?

ANSWER: (Ha ha!) He doesn’t!

“You’re in the Army now.” Remember that song? Except now it was the Israeli version, circa 1998, when Nahal Haredi was still just a glimmer in Rav Shteinman’s zt’l eye, and nothing had been set up to accommodate religious soldiers.

If there had been a religious unit, would it have made a difference?

No use tormenting yourself now with futile questions. Too late. Upon induction into the IDF, her child entered a different world, a different ambiance and society altogether, in which the society that educated and raised him was scorned. Shabbos observance? Ha! That was just the first to go. Did she think there’d be mechitzahs, too, for the handsome young men and pretty girls in training? A lifetime of separation abandoned. in one day. Anyone for a Parasha shiur, out on the shooting range?

Yes indeed, she was I and I was she, that boy’s mother in my mind. As blind to her as she was to me, and as wounded by me as I by her, her peace of mind infuriated me. Imagining her into existence, I resented and envied her.

Standing mutely in those moments on the sidewalk–an expanding bubble of maternal longing – it was then my heart broke into left and right: the divided Jewish Nation in microcosm.

A house divided against itself, Abraham Lincoln famously taught us, cannot stand.

To hate that boy’s mother was to betray myself.

Light years have passed since that morning on the path, but the memory surfaces instantly, no search engine necessary.

For that was the day I earned my stripes as a Jewish Mother in Eretz Yisroel. I became whole in myself, and wholly myself, when I stood in her shoes and mine, and saw myself through the other mother’s eyes.

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro's newest book is "An Audience of One, and Other Stories" [Mosaica/Feldheim]
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