Everybody knew Leah Franks had a gem of a cleaning lady.
Not that she was an ordinary cleaning lady – oh, no!
“I love her smile. It lights up the room. But besides that – she’s such a special person, really kind-hearted. And she’s so reliable, she’s a dream,”
Leah sighed happily as she snatched a few minutes on the park bench with her best friend Golda. They both had such busy schedules that they hardly saw each other.
“She’s always on time,” she went on, “and she makes a point of calling me if she’s sick or if something has come up with her children. I have to beg her to take public holidays off.”
“Well, she loses money when she’s not working,” said Golda.
“No, I’ve even offered to pay her for the time.”
“Maybe she has to pay someone to take care of her children.”
“They go to her mother and she tells me they can’t wait to visit her. She simply thrives on work!”
Golda reflected that her own cleaner had asked for time off for five grandmothers’ funerals in the last two years, and her appearance at Golda’s house was erratic.
“Aside from everything I have her do in the house, she even begs me to let her mow the lawn! I can’t, of course – the gardener is Jewish and I can’t take parnossa away from him. But the house is so clean that my dust allergy is only a memory. And she’s utterly trustworthy,” Leah added.
“That’s what she wants you to think,” Golda retorted.
“Not at all! She’s been with us for fifteen years, don’t forget!” Leah laughed. “She’s so honest that I really think I could give her my card and PIN to get her pay out of the ATM herself!”
Golda jerked upright. “You wouldn’t! She could clean out your account and disappear!”
Leah shook her head.
“Not Consuela. There’s never been a penny unaccounted for in the house. But I’m not completely crazy! Of course I wouldn’t give her my card. I even try to put valuables away when she comes – it’s not right to tempt people – but really, she wouldn’t be tempted any more than I would.”
“I’ve heard stories…” Golda said darkly.
“So have I. But they didn’t know Consuela. She’s absolutely honest and she really believes in her religion.”
“Which is – ?”
“Oh, she’s a Catholic, of course. But in fifteen years she’s never tried to missionize.”
“But you wouldn’t leave the kids with her, I hope!”
“Don’t be silly, of course not! But I still think she wouldn’t take advantage. You don’t know what a privilege it is to have her. She doesn’t drink, smoke, or swear, and you should see how decently she dresses! Do you know, she brings her own housecoat with her when she comes to work?”
“To keep her clothes clean?”
“No, for tznius! She already knew to cover up when she first came to me. Collarbone, elbows, and knees – her English isn’t that good, but she knows all those words. I can’t imagine where she learned. I think I gave her her first regular job in the community. I assume she must have had some casual work before that where she picked it all up.”
“I still think you ought to be careful of her. You never know what you may be unconsciously absorbing from her.”
Leah laughed. “You have a cleaner yourself! Aren’t you worried about picking things up from her?”
Golda folded her hands primly. “I hardly speak to her.” She gave a superior sniff.
Leah suspected she knew why Golda found it hard to keep cleaners.
“Well, anyway, in our case, it seems to be the other way around.”
Golda turned on the park bench. “What do you mean?”
Leah leaned back comfortably.
“She picks up lots of unlikely things from us. Like Rabbi Meir Baal Haness. She’s seen how we put money in the pushka when we can’t find something. Last week, she couldn’t find her cellphone. She put a few coins in the pushka and I saw her fold her hands and say a little prayer. And I know it wasn’t the first time.”
“Did she find it?” Golda was cynical.
Leah chuckled. “Yes, the phone turned up ten minutes later. It had fallen between the sofa cushions. She doesn’t always find everything, of course. But she’s very forgiving. She says she can’t boss him around.”
It occurred to Golda that this was an approach that a lot of people she knew ought to take, but she didn’t say so.
“Of course, she believes in her own religion, too,” Leah went on. “She was telling me about some kind of nine-day prayer commitment she undertakes. She said she had a tradition that if somebody gave her roses during that time, it meant her prayers would be answered. Whenever she did it, she got the roses, sometimes in the unlikeliest way. And her prayers were answered. Isn’t that nice?”
“Of course. But nice, too. And if it strengthens her belief in her own religion, isn’t that good?”
Golda shrugged. “As long as her religion isn’t telling her to convert Jews. Or attack them.”
“I don’t think a religion like that would appeal to Consuela. She’s totally non-violent.” Leah checked her watch. “Gotta go. Time to pick up the kids.”
Golda watched Leah’s retreating back and wondered how you found cleaning women like Consuela – if everything Leah told her was true.
Wednesday was the day Consuela started early.
On a Wednesday not long after this chat, she arrived as usual at eight and set to work while Leah got the younger children ready for school. When everybody had gone, Leah discovered that there was no bread left.
“I have to run out for a couple of minutes,” she told Consuela as she snatched up the car keys and a purse.
She returned, fifteen minutes later, to find Consuela in tears.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
“School phone,” explained Consuela, whose English had never really progressed in all the years she had been in the country. “I no pick up. School leave message, I hear on speakerphone. School say come get Binah. Skirt too short.” Her voice broke on a sob. “Meesis Leah, I tell her today skirt not good. She say okay! She say fashion. I say you dress Jewish fashion, but she no listen!”
Patting Consuela on the shoulder, Leah said comfortingly, “You did the best you could. You shouldn’t have had to tell her. She should have known. She does know! And I should have checked her myself before she left. But I didn’t think – “ She put the bread on the kitchen table. “Never mind. I’ll go get her.”
It wasn’t a long drive, though Leah made the most of her time with Binah, sitting stiffly on the seat beside her, unable to escape. “You knew perfectly well you were wrong. So you can take that little aveirah for your very own. And now Consuela’s upset, too,” she finished.
Binah shrugged rebelliously.
“Well? What do you have to say?”
“Nothing. Only I’m sorry Consuela’s upset but why did she have to mish arein? She isn’t even Jewish!”
“All the more reason to be sorry you made a chillul Hashem just for her, when she knows the din as well as you do – and keeps it better, too.”
Binah was silent, but when they got home, Leah noticed she found a moment to take Consuela aside – to apologize, Leah hoped – before locking herself in her bedroom.
“I’ll take you back to school after lunch,” Leah called through the door. “And if it’s still clean, put that skirt back in Pninah’s closet. I’m sure it’s hers.”
She and Consuela had coffee together and talked of other things.
After washing the kitchen floor – her last job of the morning – Consuela said,
“No worry. She is teen. Fight, fight. Real teen!”
Leah laughed. “Oh, I do know, Consuela. But teens can be so aggravating!” As she paid her, though, Leah added, “But thank you for trying.”
Consuela flashed Leah her brilliant smile. “Always try!” she said, and left.
It was not an episode Leah shared with Golda. It was enough to have said that her cleaner was aware of tznius. She left it at that.
Binah did continue to be difficult, though, and not only about clothing.
“I wish I knew who Binah’s friends were,” Leah said to her husband Chaim one evening.
“You don’t know?” Laying his fork down, Chaim gave her a look of concern. “Since when? Why?”
“A few months. I don’t think she’s in with the same group, now. Before, she used to tell me what girls said, with their names. Now, it’s all anonymous. And most of it doesn’t sound good. She doesn’t even speak the way she used to. I wish you’d try talking to her.”
“Will it work better than when you do it?”
Leah sighed. “Probably not. But I wish I knew how to stop this – this sliding downhill. What’s bothering her?”
“Maybe nothing. It’s a big, attractive world out there.” Chaim pushed his plate away. He was almost finished, anyhow. “We’ve tried to protect our children, but you know how it slips in.”
Leah nodded, frowning. “All you need to do is walk down the main street and see the clothes in the windows. And if her new friends have smartphones…”
“What do we do? We can’t lock her up.”
“But our other kids…” Leah said. “Pninah shares the room. Is she being influenced?”
“I don’t know. Is she?”
Considering this, Leah said slowly, “Not yet, at least I don’t think so. Could we move the kids around so nobody shares with Binah?”
“Has Pninah said anything?”
“Wel-l-l-l, she looked at the skirt Binah took that day and noticed it was dirty, and when Pninah told her she’d worn it, all Binah said was ‘Ewww! Gross!’ and threw it in the laundry.”
Chaim laughed. “It doesn’t sound as if Pninah’s going to catch Binah’s disease any time soon!”
“They don’t seem to communicate much,” Leah agreed. “But as far as Binah is concerned…do we know anybody to ask for guidance?”
Chaim chewed thoughtfully on the end of his beard.
“Umm…Rav Popotovsky works with boys on the edge, doesn’t he? He ought to have some advice.”
When they called him, they pushed the speakerphone button so both of them could listen.
“Unconditional love,” said the rav, predictably.
“Exactly what does that mean?” Chaim asked. “Do we have to let this monster of ours get away with anything she likes?”
“Are you listening on speakerphone?” the rav asked. “Switch it off in case your daughter’s listening.” As soon as Chaim assured him he had, Rav Popotovsky went on with his advice.
“That’s amazing!” Chaim exclaimed. “I’ve never had it explained so clearly before! Thank you!”
After the call ended and Chaim had told Leah what the rav had said, they called Binah in for a family conference.
She swaggered in, wearing a skirt that was too tight and too short (but not Peninah’s) and a clinging T-shirt. Leah wanted to throw something at her but reminded herself that she was supposed to be mature.
“Binah, we need to set some boundaries,” Chaim began. “This is a frum home and everybody in it is expected live according to Torah.”
“For the good of all the other children, Binah, we’ve discussed it and we think maybe you should move out,” Leah said.
Binah took out a cigarette but didn’t light it.
“What happened to unconditional love?” she demanded. She knew all about Rav Popotovsky.
“Unconditional love doesn’t mean being a patsy and enabling antisocial behavior,” said her father firmly.
Her mother nodded in agreement. “If you want to live here you have to toe the line. Unconditional love means you’re welcome back as soon as you’re willing to conform to house rules.”
“Life isn’t just a free ride,” her father added. “It’s time you learned that.”
“Please close the door on your way out,” Leah said.
Binah scowled but as she stalked away she looked thoughtful.
There was no obvious improvement, however, so her parents set a date – two weeks after Shavuos – for her to find somewhere else to live.
It wasn’t a topic Leah shared with Golda. And Golda, loyal friend that she was, though of course she knew what was going on (who didn’t?), didn’t refer to Binah at all. They just talked inconsequentialities.
Working in the Franks’ house so often, and having such an interest in their lives, Consuela was well aware of the ongoing problem with Binah. Unobtrusively she tossed some loose change into the Rabbi Meir pushka and murmured a prayer, but it didn’t seem to her to be producing any results. Binah’s dress and behavior continued to deteriorate.
Consuela desperately wanted to help her beloved Mrs. Leah.
That year, Shavuos fell on a Motzoei Shabbos.
Since one of her regular days was Shabbos, and there was plenty of dishwashing, Consuela told Leah in advance that she’d stay a little longer on Saturday night.
And so Consuela was present when Chaim, about to make Kiddush with Havdala, showed Leah the wonderful new invention he had brought home. “Yaknehuz candle”, the package read, and inside was a twisted candle with a double wick that fit into an ordinary candlestick.
“A Yaknehuz candle!” Leah exclaimed, reading the text on the packaging. “What a brainwave! No more trying to blend the flames while trying to keep the candles from touching! What a brocha! Whoever invented this thing is a genius! And Chaim, you’re a genius for buying it!”
Taking the wonderful candle into the kitchen, Leah slid off the wrapper and lit the candle at the gas stove. Carefully shielding the flame, she walked back to the dining room and Chaim made Havdala.
In the kitchen, Consuela looked curiously at the Yaknehuz candle’s packaging. This was something she’d never encountered. Her eyes lit up. Maybe this was the solution!
After the holiday, when the Jewish groceries reopened, Consuela went shopping, carrying the empty wrapper. Most of the stores had sold out, but Consuela was determined, and eventually she bought her very own Yaknehuz candle.
The following Sunday, she went to church a little earlier than usual, the Yaknehuz candle carefully packed with the other candles she always lit to whichever saints seemed appropriate for her requests at the time.
Standing the tapers in the holders provided, she set the Yaknehuz candle in a prominent position.
With an indrawn breath, she touched a match to the wicks, one by one, finishing with the Yaknehuz candle. When they were all burning strongly, the big Yaknehuz candle, of course, outshining the rest, Consuela pulled her lace headscarf further forward, knelt, closed her eyes, folded her hands, and began her prayers, with particular devotion for those to Saint Yaknehuz.
And the Shabbos after that, Binah, who had jettisoned Shabbos meals in favor of Friday night activities with her new friends, reappeared at the Shabbos table. She was even properly dressed.
Expecting someone to make a scathing remark, she sat tensely, but nobody said anything.
“Don’t you want to know why I’m not out with them?” she demanded.
Her mother gave a little shrug. “If you want to tell us, we’re happy to listen, but we won’t pry.”
“Well, it’s because their lives were going nowhere, that’s all. Just a bunch of empty nothings.”
Leah wondered what had happened but had too much sense to ask.
Consuela came on Shabbos morning and helped to serve. While setting platters on the tray at the kitchen hatch, she caught a glimpse of Binah, sitting demurely at the table, again in appropriate Shabbos wear. Consuela’s eyes widened. She gave a little gasp. Her prayers to Saint Yaknehuz had been answered!
“Oh, I know she be good, now,” Consuela told Leah as she left, her face shining with relief and happiness. “I light candle to Saint Yaknehuz and I pray so, so hard he ask G-d make Binah a good girl again.”
Leah stared. “What do you mean, Consuela?”
Leah couldn’t possibly laugh at such sincerity. Consuela was so deeply, honestly religious. Leah had read somewhere that the tefillos of non-Jews at the Bais Hamikdash were answered more quickly than those of Jews, to make a kiddush Hashem. Maybe Consuela’s heartfelt prayers had fallen into the same category.
She put her arms around Consuela. “That was so kind of you!” she told her. “You have such a good heart!”
“And it work!” Consuela beamed and trotted off.
Leah’s gaze followed her.
She thought about her own davening, and Chaim’s davening. They had had such kavonah for months and months; they’d given extra tzedoka; they’d taken on extra chasodim. Surely it was their tefillos that Hashem had answered.
But who was to say that Consuela’s confused prayers – and her mistaken Yaknehuz candle – hadn’t helped?
“You know, Consuela,” she said hesitantly on Consuela’s following visit, “the Yaknehuz candle isn’t quite what you think it is.” She explained its purpose.
Fortunately, Consuela laughed over the misunderstanding.
“You see, we don’t really have saints as you do,” Leah went on. “You ask your saints to take your prayers to G-d, don’t you?”
Consuela nodded, a little at sea.
“Well, we pray direct. It’s our privilege because we’re Jews.”
Puzzled, Consuela said, “But you have Rabbi Meir. You not pray to him?”
“I know it looks like that,” Leah said, “but it’s just asking for something in his merit because G-d loved him so much, and in the merit of giving to charity, to a charity that supports people who learn his teachings.”
“Work anyway,” said Consuela comfortably. “Still say prayers.” With a brisk, contented nod, she went to get the vacuum cleaner.
When Leah next joined Golda on the park bench, Golda said, “I hope you don’t mind my mentioning it, but I’m so glad Binah’s back on the straight and narrow. My husband and I have been davening, but I didn’t want to say anything to you about Binah. It’s hard to know the right thing to say and we’ve been such good friends for so long, I didn’t want to ruin it.”
“You did exactly the right thing, and thank you so much for davening! Of course, Chaim and I were davening and saying Tehillim and doing chesed and giving to tzedoka, but you know, everybody’s tefillos help. I’m positive yours did.” She paused, then added, “Do you know, even Consuela was praying!”
“What, in church?”
Leah shrugged. “I don’t care where she did it. It was just nice to know she cared. Comforting.”
“Mm,” Golda agreed, not really believing that Consuela’s prayers could have any effect.
Leah smiled. She thought otherwise, but there was no need to argue about it. And she said nothing about Consuela’s Saint Yaknehuz. Golda would laugh, she was sure.