Yitzvi is officially no longer a baby, but a toddler. He waddles around the house with his unsteady gait, moving his legs without bending his knees and falling every few steps before lifting himself right back up. He refuses to stay in one place, preferring to toddle from room to room such that every few moments I have to ask myself, “Wait, where is Yitzvi?” And then I find him crouched in front of the washing machine watching the laundry spin, or sucking on one of his sister’s toothbrushes while trying to get down from the bathroom stool, or picking the raisins one by one out of a plastic container that we inadvertently left on the lowest shelf of the pantry. When he realizes that I’ve spotted him, he will gleefully belt out, “Dad-DEE, Dad-DEE,” which bears no relation to Daniel but is simply his preferred combination of sounds. This is all fine, though. The only real cause for alarm is when he goes into Matan’s room – not just because Matan will be furious, but also because, thanks to Matan’s networking skills, an actual alarm is likely to go off, sending a notification to his computer.
Matan is the only person in our house who has his own room, and with good reason. He has an extensive collection of electronic devices, most of them long-ago outdated, all of which have a specific place that is known only to him. He has also set up an elaborate system of cameras which track all motion in his room, such that even if Yitzvi merely opens the door a crack, Matan will receive a notification. But usually Yitzvi does much worse. He’ll enter Matan’s room, rattle his night table so that his water bottle falls to the floor like a loosened coconut, tug his blanket down from his bed, and pull his bookmark mischievously out from his book. “Yitzvi!” Matan will shout as soon as he discovers the damage. And then Yitzvi’s grin will freeze on his face for a moment before his lips turn down, his eyes scrunch up, and he bursts into tears of fright.
And so perhaps it is not surprisingly that Matan identified so much with Peter Hatcher, the hero of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. He and I read the book together in bed over the course of the last few weeks, alternating pages – he read all the shorter pages where a new chapter starts or stops, while I read the longer ones. Matan, who learned to read in Hebrew long before he learned to sound out words in English, remains disturbed by the unphonetic nature of English orthography, and insists on using his own original pronunciations for various proper nouns. “Peter” is pita, like the bread. “Fudge,” in Matan’s rendering, sounds like “Fudaja.” But there’s no question about the identity of these characters in Matan’s imagination: He is Peter, and Yitzvi is Fudge. He is the nine-year-old responsible fourth grader; Yitzvi is his toddler brother who is always getting into scrapes. Never mind the three sisters in between Matan and Yitzvi; now that he has a brother, Matan can finally appreciate this novel, which I remember fondly from my own childhood and have wanted to read with him from the moment Yitzvi was born. With each chapter we complete, Matan compares their antics and quotes Fudge’s more memorable lines.
“Eat it or wear it!” Fudge’s father shouts exasperatingly at Fudge, an extremely picky eater. He refuses stew, milkshakes (even when his grandmother promises him a surprise at the bottom of the cup), and the lamp chops his mother made especially for him. At dinner he hides under the kitchen table and barks like a dog, and his mother is so desperate for him to eat that she gives him food under the table, which he eats between barks. Finally, when Fudge refuses even cereal—the one food he’d always enjoyed—his father decides he has had enough. “Fudge, you will eat that cereal or you will wear it!” he pronounces angrily. When Fudge remains firm in his refusal, he carries Fudge and his cereal into the bathroom, places Fudge in the tub, and dumps the entire contents of the bowl onto his head, to Peter’s—and Matan’s—amusement.
Yitzvi, too, loves cereal. He used to have oatmeal with goat milk yogurt every morning while the other kids ate corn flakes and sweetened cheerios; then one day I let him finish someone else’s bowl of cereal. That was the end of the oatmeal. The only problem, though, is that he refuses to be spoon fed, and when it comes to directing the spoon to his mouth, he does not have very good aim. Most of the milky cereal usually ends up in his lap or in his hair, and when he is finished, he will toss the bowl to the ground even if it’s not yet empty. At that point, I lower him to the ground and begin sponging the counter – only to discover that he is kneeling on the floor, picking up soggy cornflakes to nibble on as if he, too, thinks he’s the family dog. At this point the cereal is not just in his lap but under the soles of his feet, smeared across his face, and stuck to his hair as well. At dinner, we have a repeat performance – by the end of the meal, Yitzvi looks like he has couscous dandruff. “Eat it or wear it,” Matan quotes gleefully.
Not only does Fudge refuse to eat with the family, but he also puts all sorts of objects in his mouth that he is not supposed to ingest. He eats two flowers from his mother’s silver flower bowl. He grabs a rose off his own birthday cake and gobbles it down even before it is cut. And worst of all, he sneaks into Peter’s room when Peter is at school—in spite of the chain latch that Peter’s father affixed after Fudge scribbled all over Peter’s homework—and eats Peter’s beloved pet turtle, swallowing it whole in one gulp. Matan does not have a pet turtle, but his network of wires and cameras is just as dear to him, and he would love a chain latch on his door so that Yitzvi can’t get in. So far Yitzvi can’t open doors, so we’re pretty safe – as long as we all remember to keep Matan’s door closed. Otherwise, we find Yitzvi emptying the electronics box in Matan’s cubby, wrapped in a Walkman, a talkman, several sets of broken headphones, and various cables with colored tips that Yitzvi seems to mistake for licorice. I try to swoop in before Matan discovers the damage – I’m more concerned about Matan’s wrath than about Yitzvi’s welfare.
And yet like Peter, Matan can actually be surprisingly helpful with Yitzvi. Sometimes at night, when Daniel and I despair of getting him to bed, Matan offers to take over. He stands beside the crib rubbing Yitzvi’s back with endless patience. For him bedtime is so much less fraught, and Yitzvi senses his calmness and drifts off into a peaceful slumber. When the last lockdown restriction finally eased a bit and we could at last take Yitzvi shopping for shoes, Matan seems to have taken inspiration from Peter, who managed to bring Fudge back from the brink of a temper tantrum in the shoe sore when Fudge refused to buy the saddle shoes his mother wanted. Matan, who dutifully waited outside with the stroller because Corona restrictions allowed only two people in the shoe store at a time, tried to cheer Yitzvi on when I brought him out to the sidewalk to squeeze his tiny foot into his first shoe, his whole body writhing in protest. “I know what you’re thinking, Yitzvi. What are these heavy weights they are putting around my feet? But don’t worry, you’ll see, shoes are cool,” Matan encouraged him. And then Matan gave me advice too: “Just put them on his feet while he’s sleeping. When he wakes up, he’ll forget there was ever a time when he didn’t wear shoes.” We’ll have to see if it works.
When we finished Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, we moved on to the sequel, Superfudge, in which Peter and Fudge’s parents announce that they have news: They are expecting a new baby and the family will be moving from New York City to Princeton for a year. Peter is none too happy– he worries that his new sibling with be as difficult as Fudge, and he can’t bear the thought of starting a new school and having to make all new friends. The day after we read that chapter, I picked up Matan at school, eager to share with him that we had finally received Yitzvi’s passport in the mail – Matan, who checks our mail every day, had been eagerly anticipating it. “I have news,” I said to Matan outside the schoolyard gate. “What?” said Matan. “You’re having a baby? We’re moving to Princeton?” I laughed. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “No more babies, and we’re not going anywhere – though finally we all have passports now.” Matan smiled excitedly. “That’s great!” he told me. “As soon as Corona is over, I can take Yitzvi on a trip to America.” I guess I looked skeptical. “It’s OK,” he assured me, “I’ll put a security camera on him so he doesn’t get lost. You just have to promise that no one goes into my room while we’re away.” I’d have to discuss it with Daniel, but we might just take him up on it.