In the morning , Nahum joined Asher for prayers . It was the final day of vacation and the tiny synagogue was packed with yeshiva students, their tefillin strapped over their foreheads and forearms. Later on, they would return their yeshivas and wouldn’t be seen until Passover. Nahum loved praying with them—such nice kids, clean cut, polite; they even smelled good, as if they’d all just come out of the shower.
Not like he was at their age. Back then he was a scruffy faced party guy who frequently began his day with a massive hang over. Then his Mom got sick with stomach cancer. The doctors gave her two months, possibly less. He left Tufts, where he’d been flunking out anyway and went back home to Minneapolis. His mom looked scary; deathly white , skinny as an alley cat except for the big hard bump in her middle; her tumor.
A hospice rabbi visited the house—a young guy with a goatee beard , fresh out of Rabbinical school . He and Nahum , back then he called himself Noel talked a lot. Nahum liked the guy. He was the only person Nahum talk to about his fear, his anger and how G-d figured in this picture. He was mad at G-d. for giving his mother this awful sickness, his mother who was always so nice.
Then one day the lump vanished. Like a fairy tale with a happy ended. He was in the den watching football when she called him to her room to show him. She put his hand on her stomach and all he could feel was flab. The mass was gone.
Her doctors didn’t believe her but when the tumor didn’t show up on the scans they agreed.. It was a miracle. After that his Mom returned to Judaism. .It wasn’t entirely new to her. She’d been raised with it and then dumped it to marry his Dad
She also changed her name back from O’Connor, which was his Dad’s name to her maiden name Tumim and so did his sister Glenda. Nahum was reluctant, He liked the goyish sound of his name but when he transferred to the University of Minnesota, he changed his too.. Tumim made him think of his grandpa Asher Tumim, his son’s namesake, , A great guy and also a religious Jew.
His Mom’s religion was nice—Friday night home made challah and freshly roasted chicken. She even invited his girlfriend Stef even though she was Lutheran. You need an extra beat here. His mom’s religion was nice, but he wasn’t ready to change yet. He still liked partying too much.
It took Nahum another half decade to get religion. It happened the summer after he graduated from law school. He was living in New York, studying for the bar and going on job interviews. On his way home from a party in the Hamptons he got breathalyzed. His blood alcohol level was .10, two points over the legal limit. It was his second offense. He could have ended up in jail but one of his law school professors intervened and the judge let him off easy. He was sentenced to AA– ninety meetings in ninety days..
He showed up to his first meeting wearing a Walkman loaded with James Taylor cassettes – but he felt a special energy in that old church basement. All those people, slick New Yorkers, street people and regular folks sitting in a dingy room on old folding chairs their hearts so open you could almost reach inside and feel around. A really old guy got up to talk. He told a story about waking up in a strange place in the afternoon. ‘The clock said two and I didn’t know where I was and then I threw up all over someone’s Persian carpet. And then for the first time a voice came into my head. It said. Do you really want the rest of your life to look like this.” Nahum scooted to the edge of his seat. That was him,. That stranger described a scene out of his life, “That day I walked into my first meeting. For the first time I felt like I’d come home.”
With all the “Higher Power” talk the meetings go him thinking about G-d so that when Rav Muti got him he was already a believer. He met Rav Muti as he was walking down West End Avenue at dusk on his way to buy a quart of milk. “Hey are you Jewish?” The questioned startled him. “Yeah so what”.
“I need you for a few minutes. Nothing heavy to lift. By the way, I’m Rav Muti,” The man smiled at him and shook his hand. His handshake was solid, firm but not hard. Nahum followed him down a side street and up a set of rickety steps into the musty shul He sat down on one of the broken benches and took a tattered prayer books . The other worshipers looked like the people at AA—rich, poor, young, old even a black man who came over and hugged him. “Hey man, thanks . Because of you we can daven.”
And Nahum was overcome with the same rush of feeling he experienced at AA; he’d discovered where G-d lived.
And now in the small shul Nahum looked out at Asher and the other young men standing in deep prayerful silence now, finishing the amida. Such good guys. He wished Molly could see how good they really were.
Walking back home, Nahum tried to talk to Asher.. It wasn’t yet nine and the day was already too warm, the Israeli summer extending into what should have been autumn.
“It’s about the date right?” Asher pulled away.
“Son, isn’t it worth another try? ”
Asher kicked a crushed soda can into the gutter. “Mom put you up to this.”
“Kinda” Nahum smirked
“I know she’s not it and I don’t want to waste my time or hers. ”
What could he say? He agreed. Nahum clasped his hand . They walked home together in silence the way they had walked home from shul when Asher was still small.
When they got home Nahum threw his hat onto the kitchen table and declared defeat. “Molly, there’s no point,”.
“But Nahum, We can’t just let her go….”
“She’s not his… ” He turned to fix himself a cup of coffee.
“Molly a guy needs to feel something..”
“But you’re his father. He’s supposed to listen to you, This girl could be really good for him. What does he know anyway about life, about marriage? Isn’t it our job to direct him?” She had an edge to her voice.
“He’s not a robot. He’s got his own feelings just like you do. If this girl doesn’t feel right to him, we have to respect that.”
“So who is going to tell Simi?”
“I’ll do it but I’m going to put you on speaker in case you’ve got something to say. ” Nahum picked up the phone and dialed
“Was it her look?” Simi wanted to know
“How did you know?”said Nahum.
“I had a feeling. You know that Hashem gives the girl a special chein, a mixture of grace and beauty. If the chein isn’t there it just isn’t right.”
“But don’t you think that couples can grow into loving each other?” said Molly.
“Yes… but there needs to be a feeling..”
Molly didn’t want to hear any more. She went to her bedroom opened up her diary and wrote..
Dear G-d. What is wrong with the world? Hollywood has screwed everyone up, including your chosen people. My yeshiva bochur son wants to be shot by one of cupids arrows. He wants Hollywood love and the shadchan who should know better agrees!!! Can you believe that? I thought that marriage was work and the work was fixing yourself but my son begs to differ and my idiot of a husband agrees with him. I think they are all nuts. Oh G-d help fix them all. Their brains are out of order. Love Molly (Malka).
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,
Chapter 2a here,
Chapter 2b here,
Chapter 3a here,
Chapter 3b here
Chapter 3c here
Chapter 3d here
Chapter 3e here