When she heard Bella’s voice on the phone they both burst into tears. At times like these that Molly wished she’d lived in an era when communications weren’t quite so instantaneous. Why couldn’t she spend the waiting time idly paging through food and shelter magazines blithely ignorant of her daughters woes? Why did Bella break the rules by going to school? And the polish? Ugh. Not even a subtle delicate pink but garish dark red! As Bella was classified as repeat offender the principle ordered her to remove it ASAP or find another school.
“The principal hates me,” Bella wailed into the phone “Naama and everyone else does gel but I’m the only who takes the rap,”
“I can’t deal with this, “Molly handed the phone to Nahum.
“Okay honey, it will be fine.” he cooed. And then he solved the problem with a quid pro quo. A month’s worth of horseback riding lessons—Bella’s longtime dream —in exchange for a fingernail cleanup.
“So it pays to break the rules, “said Molly
“Shh.. She’s agreeing”
Bribery had long been an important part of their parenting arsenal? When the kids were tiny both Molly and Nahum traded lollipops and bisli for momentary quiet. They didn’t know better—Molly had been an only child. Nahum had one sister. Neither of them knew the first thing about parenting especially in a family in which the kids outnumbered the parents and bribes worked, at least in the short run.
When the plane landed there was more bad news– a call from Elazar. “I’m kicked out. the dorm counsellor, a jerk came in to my room and found my iphone”
“You have a phone.”
“Mom, you didn’t know. I bought one during the summer and I took it to yeshiva and put it in my mattress and the jerk comes in at dawn wakes me up and confiscates it and now I’m kicked out.”
“Oy.” Molly was suddenly struck speechless. What could she say. In exactly one month , Elazar would turn eighteen. If he was not registered in a yeshiva he’d be drafted.
“Nahum,” She clutched his hand reaching for comfort in his warm grip.
“What are we going to do about this?”
“He’s not doing much in that yeshiva. Maybe the army will make a man out of him.”
The plane bumped to a halt. Everyone left go up and reached into the overhead bins for their carry-ons but Molly remained seated sobbing into a crumpled tissue. “Look at the Roth boy. When he went into the army he was still wearing a yarmulke and tzizis. Last time I saw him he was bareheaded and he had a tattoo. ”
Nahum patted her shoulder. “We’ll figure something out.”
“What? He already gets those he triangle stamp letters all the time. They want him. He took the physical. He’s got a 99 profile, he’s combat ready. I bet they’ll put him into some elite unit and he’ll turn into a goy.”
The Tumim’s were greeted by a homemade welcome sign taped to the front door. Moshe’s rendering of the famous Steinberg New Yorker cartoon in magic marker. A childishly drawn airplane with circles for windowsthen comic book style balloons with the words Mommy and Daddy. and a crude map of the world below, Jerusalem, Har Nof, the Mediteranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and Manhattan.
Once inside Molly’s mood darkened. The kitchen reeked of overflowing garbage and dishes were piled high in both sinks.
It wasn’t yet dawn. Outside the rain fell softly. In their warm bedrooms Bella and Moshe slept deeply, like angels. Elazar slept too, his head pressed against his pillow and white ear buds dangling off the side of the bed, his iphone tangled up in the blankets.
Molly snatched the offending object which threatened to upend her son’s future as a Jew—not that you couldn’t be a Jew in the army but the army seethed with immorality. Her children would be chaste; they would walk to the huppah in a state of purity. She carried it into the kitchen. Then she took out the mallet, she used to pound chicken breasts, but just as she was about slam it against the screen Nahum appeared.
“No,” he said.
“It’ll just make things worse. He’ll go ballistic and you’ll lose him.”
Molly put down the mallet and handed the phone to Nahum. “So you deal with it.”
A week later, after a visit to a soldier’s supply store where he purchased a pair of thick grey socks for wearing under combat boots, Elazar enrolled at a new yeshiva. True, the place didn’t produce a great scholar or even middling ones but Elazar attended.
At a Hanuka party thown by the neighborhood N’shei, Esther Eidel made her way over to Molly who was standing at the buffet filling her plate with salad and lasagna Tall heavyset and ruddy, Esther was a powerhouse; she sat on the board of everything; the mikva, the synagogue, the school. “So what can I do for you?” Molly asked. Esther Eidels usually needed a donation, a job done, a favor, not for herself but to benefit her numerous causes. “No, nothing. I’ve got a girl for you’re Asher. She’s my daughter in law’s sister—a fine, fine girl ”
Molly had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes. She’d heard this line too often even from people of Esther’s esteemed caliber and lately the suggestions had grown increasingly outragouous. First Elisheva Lefkowitz of course. Molly had gotten over her but right on her heels a well known neighborhood matchmaker suggesed a seventeen year old girl with a mentally ill father. Seventeen! Didn’t the shadchan see that this girl was using marriage to run away from home. After that another matchmaker wanted to pair Asher with a divorcee. A young single guy with a divorcee. Why? And then after that the most bizarre suggestion of all– a brand new convert allegedly model gorgeous but she spoke only Portuguese.
“Tell me a little bit about her.”
“Well what can I say, Beautiful inside and out and she teaches Torah. at a school for Russians and she even goes back to her old high school to inspire the girls. You know how hard it is with the kids these days.. .”
A Torah teacher. That pushed her above the pack of accountants, computer programmers interior designers and occupational therapist competing for the role of Asher’s wife .
“Okay send the resume.”
On paper it all looked good. Henny Weiss was the right age 20 and a half. She had the right eduction. Her parents, Dad a doctor, Mom and nurse came from good US immigrant stock. “They’ll become our friends and imagine what she’ll give our grandkids.” she told Nahum. “I’m going to call Asher. Let’s hear what he thinks,” he said but Asher was nonplussed.
“I need a photograph.”
“Really?” Was this her son talking, What happened to Grace is elusive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears God — she shall be praised. Was that just a pretty rhyme for Friday night? But that will make you look shallow.”
“Don’t you care about that?” Molly’s voice had turned shrill.
“Mom, Trust me. This is the way that everybody does it.”
“Really?” Molly had never heard this one before. A photograph. Soon he’d demand a full length video.
“Get him the picture, “Nahum said.
“Do I have to do this?”
“Yes, or else I’ll do it, ” said Nahum. “Okay,” said Molly but when she phoned Esther back her fingers tripped on the buttons and her voice nearly went AWOL.
“My son wants to see a photograph.” She spoke in such a faint croaking tone that it was a miracle that Esther understood her at all but the message got through because early the next morning she arrived at Molly’s door.
“Don’t let anyone know.” Like a small child with a secret, Esther placed her forefinger to her lips handing Molly a photograph encased in a baggie. It showed Henny in an aqua chiffon bridesmaids gown, her silky honey blonde hair swept into a chignon. “Pretty,’ Molly said.
“She’s pretty. Her gown matches her eyes,” Molly told Nahum.
“Yup, Looks good. ” He winked at her.
When Asher came home late Thursday night Molly removed the picture from her dresser drawer and showed it to him. She tingled with anticipation. Henny was indisputably pretty; he’d surely see that but instead of smiling Asher’s lips drooped into a frown. “That dress is awful, ugh”
The gown was excessively draped and the collar bow was tacky but Henny had a dimpled cheeks and a lovely smile. Why couldn’t Asher see beyond the dress? “Cross her off your list,” said Nahum dryly.
“Molly swiped her hand against her brow in a show of despair. “There will be others,” said Nahum and there were. In the weeks that followed Molly her herself refuse three more possibile matches.
The first young woman cared for toddlers in a day care center. While her references called her sweet and simplewhich Molly interpreted as simpleton. A week later she refused to allow Asher to meet a smarter sounding girl a South African born computer programmer who even when wearing a custom made brown taffeta bridesmaids gown appeared to be in need a serious diet or a lap band.
Then came an accountant from Unsdorf who seemed to have the right stuff but when one of her references described her as “loud , crass and not quite modest” Molly quickly crossed her off the list.
The phone calls stopped. No pile up of resumes in her inbox. Just silence as of the supernal channel through which the names had flowed had been squeezed shut. At first Molly enjoyed the silence. It gave her time to return to other activities. She still gave her Tuesday morning yoga class but on the other mornings she began to attend more Torah classes trying to fill herself with faith even as her matchmaking attempts were flagging. . As the weeks dragged on Molly began to ask herself whether she’d been too quick to say no. Who was she to say that a girl who babysat for a living was dimwitted? When her kids were small she hired them by the dozens, not a single one short on brains.
And the “crass immodest girl.” Perhaps that reference was insane or saddled with a weird personal vendetta against the girl or her family. The only match she didn’t regret refusing was the chubby girl.. She had to say no or risk blowing it with Asher.That wasn’t the Jewish way, but as one as her favorite Torah teacher Rebetzin Kluger expressed it “there’s only a thin curtain separating our world from theirs and their thinking slips in and it’s very hard to winnow it out.” And yet she hated herself for being unable to say no to her son.
On the first morning of an epic three day snow storm, Esther Bernstein the matchmaker phoned. Molly hadn’t quite forgiven Esther for the Ayelet Gold, the first in a long string of disappointment but she wasn’t yet so numb that her heart didn’t flutter just a bit when Esther explained her reason for calling.
“You’ll bless me” said Esther and she described the young woman,. Shifra Dellman the part of an excellent family, the kind in which all the uncles and aunts and cousins are doctors and lawyers and yeshiva deans. And the apple didn’t seem to have landed far from the proverbial tree. Shifra was bright too, training as a speech therapist, her mother’s profession, which caused a twinge of jealousy in Molly. Bella had recently told her that the last thing on earth she wanted to be was a yoga teacher even though Bella had a natural talent for yoga. According to Esther, . Shifra had a fine character, pious and kind . In the photograph Esther sent, without Molly having asked for it, Shifra appeared , a dazzling red head with a huge smile. Red wigs were costliest of all, far pricier than brunettes or even blondes but that wasn’t a reason to veto the match.
The great blizzard really five paltry inches of snow but that was enough to put the entire city on lockdown. For three days schools, banks, and many stores were shut. . Holed up indoors, Molly made endless phone calls as if she was earning her PhD on Shifra Dellman.
By the time snows melted she felt “99 per cent sure,” that she’d agree . The doubtful percent crept in following a conversation with one of Elazar’s old teachers who lived on the Dellman’s block. While Rabbi Brody, the teacher confirmed the general excellence of Shifra and her family he mentioned a younger brother who had recovered from a “nervous breakdown.”
Was a “nervous breakdown” a code phrase for depression, anxiety disorder or something darker and harder to treat like schizophrenia? Were any of these conditions genetic that is could they affect Shifra’s potential offspring. but when Molly phoned Esther to ask, Esther’s voice was crisp and cool. “You don’t need to bother now. The Dellman’s are exploring something else.” Not even a sorry.
Molly balled her hands into fists and bit down on her lip. Was this miserable matchmaker determined to torment her? Molly slammed the phone down so hard that the battery popped out.
“Oh c’mon….I can’t believe this..” She lifted her hand up to the ceiling like an television evangelist. “G-d, I’m doing my job. Make this easier. Please ?” She pounded the table with her fists but that caused her hands to hurt . This was pointless. Then she removed the tub of Ben and Jerry’s French vanilla she’d hidden in the freezer. Creamy, sweet consolation at a million calories a spoonful. She didn’t care about getting fat. It would be a long time before she’d have to slide herself into a mother of the bride gown
After a few spoons she calmed down. Maybe the rejection was really good news. What if Shifra was unwell or carried bad genes. but Shifra had been the best offer in a long time and it was hard to watch it slip away.
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
Chapter 4b here