Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen
From as far back as she could remember, even before she reinvented herself as an orthodox Jew, Molly Tumim believed in synchronicity, and August 4, 2015 was one of those days when she believed in it most of all. On this particular morning she was on the bus returning to Har Nof from a women’s only gym where tried to teach a yoga class. Instead of demonstrating sun salutations, she spent forty five minutes in lotus position on the fake parquet floor until Reva, the supervisor, a perky twenty something redhead in a floral headscarf sent her home. “Sorry. I guess my ladies prefer Pilates.”
She didn’t sound sorry enough.
Molly exited quickly disappointed but not devastated— the job paid poorly and Molly didn’t believe that yoga should be taught in a gym. She was disappointed of course; rejection never feels good but she was pleased with herself too. While she waited she was able to think deeply about her first born son Asher now a twenty two year old yeshiva student in need of a bride. He was now old enough to date and to marry and she had the perfect girl — her upstairs neighbor Dena Maisels whose slender blonde green eyed form resembled a much younger Molly. Not that looks were the only criteria, far from it. Asher’s bride would need to have sterling character and come from a fine family. The daughter of a noted Torah scholar and herself a social worker in training Dena had the goods and there was chemistry, or there had been between her and Asher.
When they were still old enough to play together Dena and Asher had spent hours together constructing Lego metropolises.
It wasn’t unusual for a boy to marry the first girl he ever dated. It happened all the time. Even in her own family to two of the children of her husband’s brother and law partner Scott. What remained was the matter of logistics. Should she reach out to Dena’s Mom or would she require the services of a matchmaker?
The bus took a long time coming. When it pulled in it was packed . Molly stood until a moon faced Bais Yaakov girl offered up her seat. While she appreciated the gift and thanked the girl profusely it only increased her sense that she was washed up. Her career was clearly in the doldrums but at fifty three she wasn’t ready for retirement.
The soporific effect of the bus’s motion kicked in and Molly fell asleep. When she woke the bus had emptied out and the only remaining passengers were herself and an extremely tallwoman in black sunglasses a turquoise maxi dress and a dramatically cut black bob wig. When the woman spoke into her phone -loudly in bad Hebrew coated with a flat Midwestern accent, she was Ellen, now known as Esther Bernstein — a former neighbor who’d struck pay dirt as a matchmaker.
They had been neighbors when their children were small, Esther catching Molly’s ire by , leaving her children, sweet girl twins and a horrible hyperactive boy for hours of gratis babysitting but the years had bleached those memories away. Molly’s lips curled into a luminous smile What an amazing “coincidence,” finding herself alone on the bus with a matchmaker now! This was synchronicity at work.
Carefully balancing as the bus swerved through the hilly neighborhood Molly made her way to Esther. Still son her phone, Esther turned in her direction. “ Hey. You’re looking gorgeous as always.”
A slim woman in a fat world Molly heard those words a lot. Most of the time she shrugged them off, but after the mornings events she purposely allowed them to sink in.
“And what about your adorable son Asher? He’s at Hadar isn’t he… Great yeshiva! Is he dating?”
“Well actually,” Though she was usually fluent Esther’s uncanny ability to read her mind caused her to stammer. “What about De, De Dena Maisels.”
Esther winked. “Cute. I like that. A Mom who knows what she wants. I think I can help.”
Molly face glowed as if she was already standing under the huppah next to Asher and Dena. Just then the bus jolted to a stop and Esther rose to get off.
“We’ll be in touch,” she yelled as the bus rolled away.
As she walked home in the heat Molly hummed “Od Yishama,” the Jewish wedding march her feet treading lightly on the concrete. While she waited for the elevator she whatsapped her husband Nahum in New Jersey. He was away working again practicing law at his brother in law’s firm. Molly hated these trips; she missed him terribly but she couldn’t see how the family would survive without his American paycheck.
“Sounds good, I think he’s ready to go out and Dena seems like a nice girl.” But then he added something that shook Molly out of her reverie.
“Find out how much the Maisels are offering.”
Molly knew that in many families, financial arrangements went along with marriage but she never expected to be involved in such things. Her children would marry as she did—for compatibility, for shared values but also for love.
“Are we selling Asher to the highest bidder? “ Her voice dripped with irony.
“Do you want the kids to have an apartment or would you rather they live in a tent. Think about it. Having inlaws who can share costs is not a bad thing.”
When Molly got home she discovered Asher standing in the kitchen fixing himself sandwich.
Instead of greeting him with a smile or a kiss she grew tense. “Aren’t you supposed to be at yeshiva?”
“The air conditioner broke down so I came home until they can get it fixed.”
“Hmm,” Molly fought her natural tendency to react to remind Asher that a yeshiva student should be so thirsty for Torah that a malfunctioning AC wouldn’t matter to him but she held herself back.
“Asher,” Now she smiled, her eyes dancing with her secret.
“Remember you told me that you’d like to start dating.”
“Yeah so….. Asher looked at her queerly as if he sensed that she was up to something.
“Well I’ve got an idea.”
“With whom. I need to know.”
Asher was her best kid, a refreshing contrast from the rebellious younger brother and sister who came after him. He wore his black suit, white shirt and black fedora every day winter and summer. He stayed in the study hall most of the time, listened to Schweky on his MP3 instead of Beyoncé on his iPhone, didn’t even surf internet very much. She thought he’d be excited. Instead he sounded like he didn’t trust her.
“I’ve been thinking and I think that you can Dena Maisels…..”
Asher crossed his brow. “You mean that giggly girl from the seventh floor?”
“I think it’s worth one date. Remember how nicely used to play together?.”
“Mom, I don’t know if you noticed but I don’t’ play with Lego anymore and besides she’s got all that frizz and freckles. She’s not my type..”
Since when did Asher who wasn’t even supposed to look at girls have a type. What a morning. No job and now no bride either. Molly suddenly felt unsteady on her feet, the combined result of the morning’s disasters with a bit of dehydration added in. She escaped to her air-conditioned bedroom for a long nap and she was just getting up when Esther phoned her back.
“Sorry but I called the Maisels. It’s not happening. ”
“What? Any reason? “Molly’s voice was thick with emotion.
“They said she’s busy now.”
Molly leaned into the pillow. “Busy with what?”
“Trust me,. If the match is for you, it will go through and besides, I’ve got an even better idea. Between me you and the lamppost this girl is a bigger metziya, better looking, smarter and more gelt. I’ll give you the basics. Her name is Ayelet Gold. She’s a Beit Batya girl. Graduated last year. “Beit Batya , that named called to her.
Beit Batya was the best religious girls’ high school in Jerusalem famed for its blend of sincere piety, high level academics, a refreshing open-mindedness – each a week a rabbi wandered between the classrooms encouraging the girls to ask any question at all no matter how outrageous.
Molly dreamed of sending her only daughter Bella but Bella didn’t make the cut. She went to Beit Rina instead, which was far easier to get into and even there was she always in trouble. If Molly couldn’t have a Bait Batya girl for a daughter having one for a daughter in law was more than adequate consolation. Was there anything else Molly needed to know? Money? Nahum said to ask about money, but she’d leave that for now. Hmm. How did one go about having this conversation. Family.
“Who is the family?” Molly felt pleased that she’d asked the right question.
“Big yichus. Thirty generations of rabbis. They have a chart in their living room. You’ll be proud to have them as in-laws,”
The last rabbi the Tumim tree died over a century years ago. Then she had an anxious thought. What if this family, the Gold’s were Israelis? How would she cope with Israeli in-laws? After over a quarter century in Israel she spoke Hebrew well enough, but it wasn’t just that. It was the mentality. How would she cope with Israeli in-laws but then again Esther didn’t say that they were Israeli.
”Do they speak English?”
“Are you kidding? “Esther let out a loud guffaw. “The Mom’s from Cleveland , Dad is from Baltimore. Here, I’ll read out the references?”
The word with it’s harsh employment agency associations confused her. Why should one need references for love, for marriage?
Esther dictated a long list of phone numbers of Ayelet’s teachers, friends, rabbis.
“Call them. I’m sure you’ll be pleased.”
Now Molly felt a ripple of fear. “How can I call people I don’t know. Isn’t that like spying. “
“Trust me, “said Esther. “This is how it’s done.” Molly paused dumbstruck. It was as if she’d been hurled back in time to the beginning of her religious journey . How confused she’d been by the simplest details such as remembering how many times to pour water over your hands before after waking from sleep and how many times before eating bread.
“Is it really, “ she asked but by the time the words left her lips Esther had hung up. Hardly a day went by when the Tumim’s mailbox didn’t bulge with a wedding invitation and or a wedding or engagement party but the back story, that is how these couples actually came together together was a mystery. That was intentional . It was a Jewish belief that by talking too much one attracted the evil eye that quiet even to the point of secrecy invited blessing.
These days there were books with titles like “A Diamond for Your Daughter,” Molly had glanced at them but making a shidduch from a book was like trying out a recipe without tasting the food and yet she needed help, a flesh and blood mentor to guide her through.