Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.
You can read Chapter 1 here.
You can read Chapter 2a here.
You can read Chapter 2b here.
The day before Rosh Hashana, Molly stood alone in the kitchen kneading dough to bake challahs which she would shape into circles, shofars, even a scale of justice. She’d heard somewhere that the bakers state of mind seeped into the dough. She stared at her hands, sticky and covered. In her present state of mind, perhaps she needed to throw the whole thing into the garbage – otherwise they’de eat her anxiety, which wasn’t inconsiderable.
First there was the matter of her employment — What would she do this year? Advertise to start a new yoga class? Would anyone come? Or perhaps something else. She tore out an ad in a local circular seeking tutors to work with at Ba’al Teshuva woman. Wasn’t she too old? Would they even want her?
And then there were the kids, Asher giving her an unexpectedly hard time and Elazar who just the day before lopped off his hair bizarrely, shaving the sides to near baldness and leaving a mowed patch in the center as a platform for his microscopic yarmulke. His old yeshiva would never take him back looking like that.
He didn’t seem to care at all. He stayed in bed — was he sleeping, playing on his phone? She had no idea — until noon or even later and then went out. To where? She didn’t know and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Was he on drugs? He didn’t smell, didn’t have bloodshot eyes or a runny nose. When he was awake he seemed cheerful, even pleasant and yet…
And then there was Bella, her only daughter who did go to school but invariably got sent home for wearing nail polish, hitching her skirt too short, being rude and sassy and sometimes combinations of all of the above. It was only a matter of time until she’d been kicked out too and then what would Molly do?
She dug her hands into the dough, The mystics said that one could pray while kneading. What would she pray for? The kids? Even Moshe, the youngest who seemed like Asher the second worried her. He disliked his new teacher and in seventh grade that could spell problems.
This was the season to introspect. Where had she gone wrong? Had she been too lenient, too easy going, not strict enough? The first time Bella was sent home to remove her nail polish she’d giggled. Did that demonstrate a lack of respect for authority? Was that the problem?
Maybe she needed to start with herself. She looked down at her skirt, white denim barely below her knees and above them when she sat down, and her blouse, that lightweight denim colored rayon that was so popular these days. What if she’d lengthen the skirt and put away the blouse?. Would G-d care about that? As frightening as it felt to think that G-d was observing her and recording all of her deeds into His supernal computer the opposite idea, that is that He didn’t care or even worse, didn’t really exist was even scarier. She’d banked her whole life on G-d, that He was there, that even as He made demands on her, He was her loving father. She’d adjust her wardrobe; this would be her sacrifice, certainly easier than the sacrifices Jews had made through the ages. Maybe then G-d would hear her prayers.
Rosh Hashanah passed quietly. Asher remained at yeshiva where the prayers were recited with extreme slowness. For the first time in his life he prayed to find his bride. His prayers didn’t have a real intensity. He wasn’t desperate; just as everything else in his life had fallen into place this would too but for the first time he identified a part of him that was scared. One of his friends was an alter, that is an elderly student, a guy in his mid twenties who’d gone on hundreds of dates and had yet to find his soul mate .For the first time in his life he asked G-d not to make him an alter.
The rest of the family attended services on time.— no small thing as most Shabboses she couldn’t peel some of them off of their beds. The family attended a small synagogue in a basement really a converted storage room, simple undecorated.
Molly poured herself into her prayers which offered a long litany of possible disaster. “Who by sword, who by fire, who by fierce animal” as well as an antidote. “Repentence, prayer and good deeds would annul the evil decrees” Could that really happen for her? Perhaps.
The day after Rosh Hashana, Molly attended an adult ballet class. She’d done ballet as a child but now it felt too hard on her knees but while she was changing she overhead a woman in pink flurescent yoga pants raving about a new yeshiva where the boys weren’t hassled about having the wrong haircut.
“Excuse me, I overheard you Would a boy with a short mohawk be accepted.”
The woman laughed. “Mohawk, rastas, ponytails. This Rosh Yeshiva looks beyond the hair at the real boy. “
Molly took his phone number and he accepted Elazar as a student. All that week Molly noticed that Moshe wasn’t complaining and Bella’s expulsions ended. “I gave my nailpolish away. I don’t want to get in trouble all the time.”
On Shabbos Shuva the Tumim’s hosted a pair of visiting college students who had come in search of spiritual adventure This would be their first real Shabbos, that is a full twenty five hours without phones, texts, or cars. The Tumim’s often had these sorts of guests. Considering themselves true children of Abraham the Patriarch, the family welcomes all manner of visitors to share their meals.
When Molly was growing up in New Jersey, Shabbos meant her father’s quick Kiddush and a hurried meal followed by hours of television. When she was twenty three, she experienced her first real Shabbos meal where the conversation was about about the weekly Torah reading and everyone sang the traditional melodies in harmony . Rav Muti a tiny man whose face was dominated with a long white beard and Rebbetzin Goldy, small and birdlike, with an outsized bouffant wig as sprites or perhaps Jewish leprauchans, otherworldy beings sent by G-d to save her life. On the outside, Molly didn’t look like she needed saving; she was attractive, gainfully employed, in an ad agency, teaching yoga at night but on the inside she was a mess. Her mother had just died and she wanted to know why? Why had G-d taken her beautiful mother and how could she live on without her and Rav Muti and Rebetzin Goldy were the only people she met who provided answers that made any sense. Their answer was that there was no answer. “We believe that G-d has His reasons and that we need to live the best possible lives.” That made more sense than anything else Molly had heard and she came back.
During those early Shabboses Molly was never quite sure when to sit down, stand up or wash her hands with a vessel that resembling a huge beer stein. but Rebetzin Goldy sat by her side, quietly coaching her through.
In some ways, Molly was a reluctant covert. It took her close to a year to give up calamari and jeans . Once she brought her father to Rav Muti’s small Manhattan shul and a foul smelling toothless old woman greeted him with a loud “Good Shabbos.” “This is who you are with?” her father yelled in his accented English, yet even he was won over – and he and Rav Muti walked Nahum to the chuppah.
That was three decades ago. The Shul was closed now.. Rav Muti was dead and Rebbetzin Goldy lived in Brooklyn with her daughter in law. These days Molly was the host “Martha Stewart with a sheitel” said Nahum, and her meals usually went off well but this week everything seemed to go wrong. First the hot plate malfunctioned. The chicken soup remained lukewarm. “ Like “pishvasser,” said Nahum echoing his father in law’s crude East European joke and the spicy Moroccan fish was so hot that one of the guests, a willowy looking music student gagged.
Then Bella got into a long and tangled conversation with the other guest, a handsome MIT architecture student named Matthew Wu.; his mother’s maiden name was Kirchenbaum. Molly couldn’t care less if he was black or white or polka dotted. Molly wanted her kids to stay away from the opposite sex until it was marrying time and at fourteen Bella was still a half decade too young.
A few months back Shulamis had warned her about just that. Molly had poo pooed her. “If I don’t have these kids they’ll spend Shabbos in a bar.” “Yes, but your family comes first,”. Now it seemed that Shulamis may have been right.
The guests had often inspired her kids to show their best selves but this week that hadn’t happened. No one joined into the zmiros, and Nahum sang the hauting Sabbath melodies alone in his uneven baritone. And not one of the kids, not even Asher had a word to say about the week’s Torah reading. Once again, Nahum stepped in retelling a Hassidic tale and botching up the punchline as the guests yawned and quickly segued into a conversation about the delights of Waze, the Israeli developed new GPS app for smartphones with it’s user-submitted travel times and route details, all of her kids adding their opinions as Molly gripped her wineglass in her hand. She felt like Moses going down from the Mountain to discover the people dancing – Should she smash it? Then she remembered the Shabbos rules — after thirty years the intricate system of rules that had so baffled her when she first encountered them had become second nature. I love this: Intentional breaking of an vessel was forbidden on the Sabbath.
She loosed her grip and took a few sips instead. Then she yelled, “Does anyone know the weekly Torah reading?,” her words melting into the air
When her cry was met with silence she escaped to the bedroom. A Shabbos meal wasn’t a dinner party. Shabbos was G-d’s day. Why couldn’t her kids get that — especially Asher. It especially disturbed her that Asher joined them. . Where was his spiritual sensitivity. What kind of Jew would he be. What kind of Jews would any of them be? Where had she gone wrong? Molly laid her head down on her pillow and although sadness was forbidden on the Sabbath she began to cry.
Then Nahum cracked the door open and called to her. “We miss you.”
His smile was as sweet and open as a child’s “Come back. We’ll make it better.”
When she returned Matthew Wu was asking the usual questions about Haredi marriage. Did Haredim have sex through a sheet: Certainly not. Molly wondered how that rumor had gotten started and the other question she’d heard so many times before did haredim let their parents pick their mates ?
This time Asher piped up. “Love is very important. The husband has to be attracted to his wife. It’s a holy thing. A Jewish husband has only one woman in his life—that’s why he doesn’t go to the movies, to the beach, to places where he’ll see women who he might think about. His only relationship is with his wife. That’s special and it’s very important. She needs to be beautiful to him.”
Never before had Molly heard her son speak so frankly in defense of Orthodox marriage. She smiled at him but he seemed to avoid her. It was as if her unspoken praise embarrassed him.
After the meal, Asher helped his parents to repackage the left overs and store them in the refrigerator. “By the way, there’s something I want to tell you. There’s a girl I want you to check out.Yidy has a girl for me—his wife’s friend.”
Nahum smiled at Molly but instead of returning his smile she grimaced.
A pudgy red headed boy who’d grown into a large red headed man Yidy was Molly’s favorite of Asher’s friends. Asher had been a shy and awkward child and Yidy had singlehandedly rescued him from rom social oblivion by bringing him to the masmidim, the local boys club where the boys played games and reviewed their Talmud study and made him part of the gang.
Now happily married it seemed that Yidy was overcome with the natural impulse young newlyweds feel to match up their friends. Molly didn’t know much about Haredi dating etiquette but she knew enough to flag this as a flagrant breach of protocol. . Dates were channeled through the parents. That way they could vet matches without involving their children.
“Yidy should have asked us.”Molly raised her brow, furrowing her wrinkles.
“Oh come on” said Nahum. “Yidy knows Asher really well. He might have a really —
–“Ma, “Asher interrupted “People offer me girls all the time. I just don’t tell you about all of them.”
What? Molly felt a pain in her stomach. “Really…. Why do you need to be involved at this level. It will just distract you from your learning. We’re here, Daddy and I .. You’re not supposed to have to deal with this. Yidy should know better. I’m going to speak to him.”
“Mom, please don’t . This really sounds right for me so please check her out, please.”
“Okay your mother will. What’s her name,” said Nahum.
“Bracha Glick. She lives in Bayit Vegan.”
”How? Am I the FBI, the CIA and the Mossad all rolled into one?” Molly’s back stiffened.
Asher smiled and his cheeks dimpled up so charmingly that Molly momentarily forgot how outrageous this all way.
“Mom , I’m sorry. You are right but please help me”
She shook her head despondently. “Okay.” she heard herself say.
One of the most attractive features of haredi life was the shidduch system. As a young woman, she dated without parental guidance. Most of the time her parents had no idea who she was dating and she made terrible mistakes. One of the reasons she stayed off of Facebook was to avoid meeting up with her old boyfriends, one of them a married lawyer–somehow the fact that he hadn’t yet gotten his divorce hadn’t sunk in , another drunken artist, and a third a manic depressive medical student and later medical school dropout. That her marriage to Nahum, was basically good and stable was nothing short of miraculous.
The post Shabbos mess was truly astounding—three meals, eight diners and not an inch of counter space uncovered by a dirty dish or pot or pan or cup or plate . Molly might have shared the work with Nahum and the kids but tonight she took a weird pleasure in doing it alone, a lone warrior, clearing a path through the domestic jungle . Afterwards she’d begin looking into Bracha Glick. Her name translated as “Blessed Luck.” A good omen perhaps. Stranger things had happened.
When she was done and free to begin making the call she didn’t know where to start. Jerusalem is a patchwork of small villages She knew her own village but Bayit Vegan, was almost an alternate galaxy She didn’t know where to start–she didn’t have any Bayit Vegan numbers in her phone, other than those belonging to teachers and yeshiva deans. Should she call them? Maybe but they frightened her. Talking to them was like talking to G-d. No correct that; talking to G-d was cozy, comfortable Molly frequently conversed with G-d. It was sided, that is G-d didn’t answer in the way that a friend would be she felt a relief nonetheless but talking to a principle or a yeshiva dean that was like talking to G-d’s other side, the side with all the judgment and no mercy. Now she wanted mercy. She dug into her drawer and took an old phone book with a ragged cover, which contained the numbers of people who were now out of everyday life, but whom she invited for important celebrations which until now had meant circumcisions and bar mitzvahs.
Chaya Adler’s name appeared on the first page. Tall, ungainly and unfashionable ,Chaya Adler was Molly’s first really orthodox friend though they were hardly in touch anymore. They’d met over two decades ago at a seminary for newcomers to Judaism where Molly took a taking a summer crash course in biblical Hebrew and Chaya already a five year veteran was assigned to be her tutor. Chaya was married now, raising a large brood in Bayit Vegan —at last count she had thirteen.
“Glick? Never heard of ‘em.” She hadn’t lost her flat Boston twang.
“Thanks,” Molly was about to hang up when she heard Chaya. “You can phone Rav Shmiel Shapiro, He’ll know.”
Molly pressed her ear against the receiver making sure that she’d heard correctly.
Rav Shmiel Shapira was, well known, even famous. His bestselling book, a slender pink volume called Hashem is Your Best Friend, had sat on Molly’s night table for months. She took comfort in reading the contemporary miracle stories ; no matter how dire the circumstance everything always turned out just fine..
“Won’t he be too busy?”
“No….. Here’s his cell,” said Chaya.
Molly phoned right away. When the rabbi answered Molly grew so flustered that the translation function in her brain jammed; through years in ulpan classes she’d mastered the language but now the words got lost. Realizing this, the Rabbi switched over to heavily accented but fluent English.
“Bracha Glick is a wonderful girl. You couldn’t ask for better. Her mother is also a fine woman but her father is crazy, crazy. The parents are separated now. I don’t know if they will divorce.”
In her notebook, Molly pointed out that he repeated the word crazy.
“Oy vey,” Molly thanked the rabbi and hung up. In her notebook she drew a red line through the name Bracha Glick . Next to it she wrote “Rabbi repeated the word ‘crazy.”. How many hours had she spent pouring over parenting books. “How to talk so children will listen” training herself to listen respectfully to ask open ended questions to avoid critical comments. And where had it gotten her? She thought of Elazar and his ever expanding do and Bella painting her nails, hiking up her skirts and now flirting.
Molly’s father Max Ostrich was crazy too. Today they’d call him, manic or bipolar but in the years that she was growing up he cycled in and out of businesses, first watches, then mattresses, then sweaters then candy machines while her mother retreated to her bed. Until she met Rav Muti, Molly had been a mess but she’d put on a good front; she looked good, dressed well, held down a respectable job teaching English at a prep school.
Through the grace of G-d , Rav Muti’s Torah classes, good therapy she’d come out the other endbut what of Bracha? .
The anger steamed up from her gut. . What was Yidy thinking? Did he want to destroy Asher’s life? If Yidy would have appeared she would have punched him in the face. How dare he? She phoned him but his phone was off and a recording informed her that there was no room to leave a message.Then she took a deep breath. But maybe Yidy didn’t know. Nobody knew about her either.
In her journal Molly wrote “Where will we ever find the right girl? Oh G-d help Help help.
Even though it was late she was too wired to sleep and these last moments before Yom Kippur were too precious to waste . She’d go out to the kotel, the Western Wall. She’d take herself and her fears to G-d. With floodlights illuminating its base, the roughhewn beige stones shone like gold against the dark starry night and thousands of worshippers, even at midnight.
In the center stood a young Sephardic woman her hair wrapped in a high turbanreading out a long list of the sick, of prisoners in jail, of people facing bankruptcy, and people seeking their mates the crowd around her shouting “amen “after every one. was called. Molly she watched from the sides wishing she had the nerve to add her own collection of names. Bella whose latest crime was being discovered at the Malcha mall wearing a denim skirt. Molly had been summoned to meet the principle, Rabanit Stark right after Yom Kippur The latest thing to worry about. Then her mind spun back to Bracha Glick.
Poor girl. How did she cope? For a moment Molly got teary yet her opinion was unchanged. Mental health was genetic. Molly and Nahum had enough bad genes of their own. Bad genes could cause all sorts of terrible things, addictions for one thing, Nahum’s father had been alcoholic and he caught that. Thank G-d he wandered into AA but there were many others who didn’t even get that far, among them , Nahum’s brother Ned, a lifelong drunk who’d done multiple stints in rehab without ever managing to get sober for long. They had enough bad genes of their own. They didn’t need to get more from strangers
The Sephardic woman lead her flock in the Nishmat prayer, Listening to the words “Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, HaShem our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us Molly’s heart filled with gratitude. She should have joined in the prayer too. Rav Shmiel had just saved Asher and by extension her whole family from disaster. A stranger had come into their lives, a Divine messenger, and an angel who had dropped from heaven to save them.