All through the long plane ride, Molly thought about Asher’s date. Maybe it had to happen with her off the stage. She daydreamed about coming home to a celebration and it excited her; it distracted her from her other preeminent emotion; fear. . How could her father the former Partisan who’d battled the Nazis in the Polish forests have turned into a wobbly old man? As a child he’d been her hero; she spent hours retelling his stories to her dolls.
Religion that drove a wedge between them. Years ago when she was making her initial steps into religion she made the mistake of visiting him on a fast day. Oblivious to the significance of the date he offered her a coke.
“It’s Tisha B’Av Dad. I’m fasting over the destruction of the Temple”
Molly thought he might be pleased to know that she was doing something Jewish; for years he’d been terrified that she’d leave the fold completely, even marry out, but instead he went ballistic.
“You don’t’ need to bother. I already fasted for both of us. ”
After that Molly shared little of her spiritual journey. In fact she shared little of herself at all. Once she moved to Israel they spoke only at birthdays or before holidays, inquiring after each other’s health as if they were casual acquaintances. Ironically that mirrored the relationship she now had with her own kids. Bella and Elazar for sure. Moshe was still young enough to be friendly. Until recently she’d felt close to Asher but ever since he’d started dating he’d also grown distant. But maybe. Maybe he’d meet the girl of his dreams and then he’d be happier and he’d go back to being the sweet son she missed so much. Right now her Dad needed her. Maybe this trip could draw them closer. She still missed the days when she loved her Dad more than anyone in the world Now he needed her—how long would he be here, in this world anyway? Maybe this would be their chance.
She had a plan. She’d go to an agency, hire an aide. Make her father safe.
From behind a window framing the skyline of Third Avenue her father stared into his computer. His skin tone matched the cigarette ashes cooling at the bottom of his cardboard coffee cup. His brow was with an elaborate lattice of intersecting of band aids.
“Why did you come maydaleh,You shouldn’t have left the kinderlach. Mrs. Goodman exagerates I’m fine.”
But he wasn’t fine. As he moved about he cupped his palms to the wall to steady himself.
The apartment was so cramped that she couldn’t find a place to sit. Every inch was full of tools and documents, thousands of them crammed into folders; an archive of her father’s life. He even kept them inside of the fridge which he’d disconnnected. He used a tiny office fridge for his, milk and cottage cheese.
From a nearby Starbucks she picked up her email including a message from Nahum. “Shadchan called. The date is scheduled for Saturday night.” Her heart fluttered a bit. She got a vicarious thrill from this, as if it was she and no her son who had the date. Five more days and then please G-d she’d hear some really good news.
She shifted back to her father phoning an adult care agency recommended by a Jerusalem friend. “yes I think we can help but you’d do best letting your father help to select his aide,” said the agency rep.
Molly agreed but how? Whenever she introduced the matter, her father refused to continue the conversation. The following day she interviewed potential helpers, men and women of various ages and colors from all corners of the globe; a dizzying veritable UN, all of them ready to care for her father. She was afraid to hire anyone. Afraid that her father would throw the aide out. In a way the process reminded her of shidduchim; how she could make dozens of phone calls , lose sleep agonizing and then have the girls parents or Asher give her a thumbs down..
As the faint winter sun set in a grey sky, Molly phoned Nahum. “Please come. I can’t do this alone. ” She wept
Nahum was in Jerusalem asleep. “How can I leave all the kids?”
“Tell Shulamis Black to keep an eye on things. She will.. Please….”
“And what about Asher’s date. It’s coming up right after Shabbos.”
“Really?” In all the tumult Molly had forgotten.
“Yes Klapper’s sister took care of the whole thing.”
“Just come, ” said Molly. Nahum booked a flight for the following night. On Shabbos, Asher ate lunch with his old friend Yidy and Yidy’s wife Feigie in their basement apartment. When Yidy moved in Asher pitied his old friend. How could any he begin married life in such a tiny airless hole? Somehow Yidy and Feigie turned the place into a home, painting the walls bright colors and hanging curtains and plants.
Feigie was terrifically pregnant, her belly overwhelming her tiny frame, but she seemed so sweet, always smiling—it was as if she didn’t know how to stop smiling. Asher had heard that women could turn weird and mean when they were with child but Feigie happily defied that stereotype. Maybe Elisheva would, too. She was on his mind constantly. He pictured in his mind’s eye; a honey blonde, with green eyes delicate features and an electric smile..
As soon as Shabbos ended he began to get ready. He’d napped during the afternoon . He felt well-rested, content, and eager to meet his life’s partner. Following his last trip the US his father had brought him a pair of expensive glossy black tasseled loafers, the style his Dad wore. Asher loved them. They were unlike the slim oxfords or driving mocs, everyone else wore and they almost smelled of New York, of Wall Street of his Dad. Asher had saved them ,waiting for some special occasion and this was it.
After a whole day of rain, the air was so fresh that he walked. The hotel wasn’t far from the yeshiva. He had the sidewalks all to himself and walking felt good at first. But pretty soon his feet started to hurt. At first his excitement about the date allowed him to ignore the pain but by the time he got to the hotel all he wanted was to kick off his shoes.
He was five minutes early. The reception area where they’d arranged to meet was empty, just him and a security guard, a Slavic looking man about his age with an earring and a soul patch.
The guard glared at him. “A date man?” He spoke with a thick Russian intonation.
“She’ll get drenched.”
Just then lightening split the sky followed by thunder. Asher recited the blessing thanking G-d who’se “courage and bravery created the world. “Then the rain began pouring down, each drop long and hard like a dagger.
“Text her and find out if she’s alright,” the Russian ordered.
Asher shook his head.
“Yeah, I know. You guys, “No smartphone and no text Asur hakol asur (forbidden, everything forbidden). Only through shadchan”
If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with his feet, he would have answered back. He had answers, good ones. . Last summer he’d had a long talk with a Shabbos guest. The guy was a recent ba’al teshuva who’d given him the run down on , what it had really been like in the other world, that is meeting random girls at parties and at bars. “Sure it looks like fun from the outside but it’s hell.. You should thank your parents every day for sparing you.” He would repeated this to the guard but his pain stopped him. He looked down at his feet clad in those elegant shoes.. They were dying—suffocating to death. When would Elisheva come, so that he could sit down.
Just then a girl entered– alone. She was right-sized, neither short nor tall, slim or fat, but instead something in-between. While Ephraim had accurately described her as a blue eyed blonde , her eyes were watery and pale and instead of honey blonde, her hair, a tangle of unruly curls tied into a pony tail was the same shade of mottled yellow as his father’s beeswax havdala candle. She wore black, a black raincoat a long black skirt , black top, black shoes and hose no jewelry or makeup and she was dripping with rain…
Asher turned for a second look. Girls didn’t usually arrive at their first dates alone but she stationed herself at the reception area and waited . Then a terrible thought crossed his mind. What if that girl was Elisheva?
“Elisheva?” He pronounced her name in a low and quivering voice.
“Asher.” She turned toward him without smiling
“Yes.” Asher’s feet were ready to explode. He led her to an empty set of couches quickly settling himself in one. .
Unfortunately sitting didn’t solve his problem. He needed to take more radical action. Could he kick his shoes off under the coffee table liberate his feet? But what if she’d notice? And what if she told the matchmaker–would that damage his reputation . No. He took a deep breath and kept them on.
Her hair was dripping and she seemed to be shivering. “Can I offer you a tea?” he asked. He felt very gentlemanly for thinking of it.
“No thanks, I’m fine. ” she demurred still not smiling.”Please can we speak in English.”
Asher hadn’t been expecting this. He didn’t know what to answer. Though he spoke a good unaccented English he lacked the richness of expression he had in Hebrew. In Hebrew he was a scholar; in English a dolt. No he didn’t want to date in English.
They sat opposite each other in silence, his feet still sore Finally he gave into his pain kicking off his shoes and wiggling them to freedom under the coffee table. , The relief caused him to smile. Elisheva didn’t smile back. She didn’t seem to notice what he’d done. She sat silently staring off into the distance as if she was tranquilized.
How long could they sit here like this? In his talks Rav Benzi said that one should aim to accommodate the girl. He was being stubborn but it he couldn’t understand why a girl who’d been raised and educated in Israel should refuse to speak in the language of her own country. Then again maybe she’d lighten up in English. He flashed a weak smile and then in English he asked her how she’d spent the Succoth holiday.
“I helped my mother.” Her voice was flat, robotic.
Then she pressed her hand to her forehead. “I don’t feel well. I’m going home.”
Huh. Could a girl bail out of a date? She ran off so quickly that he didn’t even have time to put his shoes back on.
Asher hailed himself a taxi to go back to the yeshiva. As he sat in the back seat he reflected. No this wasn’t a natural disaster like a tsunami or a hurricane. Tonight’s disaster was manmade. Ephraim Klapper, Klapper’s sister and whole slew of others conspired together –against him. Was he such a complete dork that they could pull this over on him; The Talmud said that forty days before his conception, a heavenly voice had called out the name of his future wife. It seemed like no one had been around to listen.
As the taxi drew up to the yeshiva Asher heard the plaintive singsong melody of Talmud study. Soon he’d join that chorus. Learning protected him; the ancient words were like antibodies pushing anything away his negativity; he’d study through the night. That would heal him but as he entered the study hall he saw Klapper sitting over a Talmud alone. He stood near the door composing the speech he’d deliver, a masterpiece of oratory, about honesty and trust and not doing favors at someone else’s expense.. He took a deep breath cleared his throats and walked over to Klapper but when he opened his mouth but his throat closed up and no sound emerged. He couldn’t yell at a guy who needed two sets of crutches just to walk?
Instead he went back to his room and changed into comfortable shoes. Then he headed outside. After the rains, the night sky was purplish and murky, the stars hiding behind the clouds He’d walk; walking would clear his head, absorb the anger and the hurt which swaddled his brain like a rank dishtowel.
He a kept on walking until he reached the Malcha Mall. Regular Hadar guys didn’t go the mall. It was , too secular, too crude. They shopped in Geula. Years had passed since he’d last been inside but Asher knew the mall.. Not realizing that it was verboten, his mother had taken him there when he was still a kid. While she and Bella shopped at Zara, he and his brothers went upstairs to the video game s parlor where they’d play car races, their pumping the mock accelerator, their hands jerking the joystick hearts wild with excitement. He wanted to return to that now. to feel that mindless exhilaration.
The security line was long. Even without his hat and jacket, Asher felt like an alien amid the spikey haired leather jacketed guys and their girlfriends. Were they getting a better deal? What if all his future held was an endless stream of Elisheva Lefkowitzs?
Despair pulled at him like an undertow. No. He wouldn’t sink. He’d fight back. He’d find that video parlor, play that cars game, and delete the memory of this night from his consciousness forever but when he arrived at the place where the video games parlor had been it was gone and it its place stood a men’s shoe store.. Where was the games parlor? Had he lost his bearings? He walked up and down the aisles of shops and restaurants searching but he couldn’t find it. Finally he asked proprietor of a candy kiosk, a young Ethiopian with a white knitted yarmulka. “Sorry, it’s gone, Out of business for a year , maybe longer.”
Asher swallowed his tears. All around him people were shopping, talking, laughing, joking having fun .. Maybe he could see a movie. He liked movies; he’d seen a few, the “kosher” ones, Indiana Jones, the Ushpizina censored version of Schindlers List, a couple of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chans but he’d seen them computer;. Going to a movie theatre would violate the yeshiva’s unwritten code of behavior. But he’d already busted that by going into the mall on a Saturday night with no clear purpose. He scanned the marquee; A drama about soldiers during the last Lebanon war. No, too depressing.
He went downstairs to buy himself a sahlav, thick and creamy white and sweet, like mother’s milk . “I’ll take one with cinnamon and ground nuts, hold the coconut.”
“You certainly know what you want, ” said the server. She looked young, sixteen or seventeen with strawberry blonde hair tied , deep blue eyes like a Barbie Doll only real.
Why couldn’t he marry a girl like that? Well not quite like that. . His wife would be a modest; this girl wasn’t but why couldn’t his wife be at least as pretty as she was?
When he got back to the dorm he was still feeling blue. At least now he could take refuge in his bed, sleep away his grief but Itamar Levy was in his making a grilled cheese sandwich using Asher’s panini maker . He would have said something but he couldn’t; Levy was an alter,–a senior member of the student body; he’d been at Hadar for almost a decade. One didn’t challenge an alter.
Levy rarely exploited his power; he was a good guy, a good learner and he tutored weaker students. Tall and thin, his straight brown hair that hit the edges of his fashionable black plastic glasses he was not bad looking. How did he survive the torture of attending weddings of guys three and four years younger than him? Was this the template for Asher’s future life?
Just then Levy turned to him. “Sorry I’m here so late….What’s with you? A bum date?”
The words went off like bombs
“How do you know? ”
“Klapper fixes her up with everyone. He’s on a mission to get her married and because it’s Klapper nobody dares to refuse . Lefkowitz is a burn-out case. I think she’s dated half the dormitory. Klapper fixes her up with everyone..”
“Really?” Asher’s mouth was agape.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“Well, could be she’d be your type.” Levy’s lips curled into a smile.
“Well, someone should say something. It’s wrong! Klapper can’t exploit his handicap to get away with this. He wasted my precious time!” He hid his pain under the cloak of righteous indignation. Being mad appeared more manly than being sad.
“Yeah sure, but you know you have to meet a certain number of girls before you find the right one. Chalk her up to experience.”
Asher didn’t want to tell Klapper that this was his second bum date. Both the girls he’d dated were so distant from his ideal that he doubted that the matchmakers and his mother knew what he wanted.
As he lay in bed waiting to fall asleep he inventoried the females in his life; neighbors, , his friends mothers and sisters, his rabbis wives. Most of them were dumpy, ugly, drab. There were only a select few who sparkled; Yidy’s wife Feigie and Bella his sister and even his mother in her youth — he’d seen pictures, but everybody else? Yuck. Was this part of being religious. He didn’t want to believe that G-d wanted him to marry a fat frumpy girl.
The next morning when Asher woke up feeling unclean.Why had he gone to the mall in the first place? As soon as he stepped he knew he didn’t belong and yet he lingered and now…… Quickly he dashed off to the men’s ritual bath dunking himself in the water three times to purify himself. After that he returned to the study hall for a day of study and prayer.
Just after lunch Klapper’s sister called. ‘So how did it go?” “Sorry” He didn’t need to say more. “I get it,” she said and that was the end. After that he phoned New York. It was early morning there. His mother was showering and his father answered. “So how did it go.” “Not for me,” “Sorry about that.” That was the end of the conversation.
When Molly heard she couldn’t believe it. “Why? Did you ask him? He doesn’t want to give it another try? I heard that the rabbis say that you shouldn’t rule a girl out after just one date, Maybe you could work on him …..”
“No Molly. Let’s just trust him on this one.”
After a week in New York Molly and Nahum came home. Their trip had been a flop. Her father was still on his own; all their efforts for naught. The day they left, Molly hired Walter a young Polish immigrant, who seemed sturdy and strong enough to lift her father up if he fell. . Yet when they brought Walter to Max’s apartment he refused to let her in.
“You and Nahum, but not that’shaygetz .” He spoke softly but firmly.
“He doesn’t want me?” said Walter. His face was as expressive as a rock.
“No, just wait. Everything will be fine,” said Molly.She feigned a calm she didn’t really possess, a skill she’d learned from years of parenting..
“You not him” Max said from the other side of the locked door, turning the short phrase into a kind of mantra.
After many minutes of shivering in the under-heated hallway, Nahum broke. “Baby, this is crazy. Tell Walter to go home. If your Dad doesn’t want him he’s allowed.”
Molly started to cry. “We can’t .. ..he’ll die and it will be my fault.”
“Yes, we can. We can’t do miracles. We can’t go on like this and besides it’s freezing.”
Walter stood in a corner hunched over a smart phone. Molly turned to him. “I’m sorry….no.” Then Nahum slipped a fifty dollar bill into his hand. “You go now. We’ll call you later if we need you.”
When her father opened the door, Molly cried loudly. “Now now,” he put his thin gnarled arm around her. “Don’t cry for your old Dad.. “He offered a crooked smile. ” The Aybeshter will look after me. Please stop your worrying and go home.”
“The Aybeishter?” Her father had discarded the religious practices of his youth as a personal protest against the holocaust It was Molly’s weak and sickly mother who’d demanded kosher food and Jewish education for her.
“You go back to your children”. He smiled wanly and kissed Molly goodbye and Molly burst into tears. Yet as maudlin as their leavetaking had been it was oddly hopeful as well. Her father was changing, in his final days returning to the G-d of his youth. The acts of the fathers are signposts for the children. Maybe this was synchronicity again, G-d’s way of telling her that her own straying children would also find their way back.
Newark airports steely grey waiting room seemed designed as the perfect setting to receive bad news, not cataclysmic but bad enough to dampen Molly’s spirits.
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
Chapter 3f here
Chapter 4a here