February marked three months since Asher’s last date. During that time, he’d attended six engagement parties, four weddings, a bris and a pidyon haben (both of them for Feigie and Yidy’s first born son Elhanan). In the past he’d savored the thrill of piling into a borrowed car with his yeshiva buddies and singing all the way to the hall but lately his buddies had been disappearing, everyone dating some more seriously than others. Lately he’d been spending long hours in the study hall by himself as his partners were out on dates.
Tonight his roommate and study partner Shmulik Refaeli would be getting engaged and Asher sat on his dorm bed, immobilized..
“Come on,Get your tie on. Our ride is coming,” said Itamar Levi.
Levi reached out to pull Asher’s arm.
“Do you think Refaeli’s kallah knows about his feet?”
At the hall Asher peeked through a hole in the makeshift of tablecloths held tight with clothes pins separating the women from the men to catch a glimpse of Refaeli’s bride. He had no valid reason to gaze at her but his curiosity overwhelmed him.
“So,” Levi lifted his brows.
“She’s wearing one of those mermaid gowns and the makeup is glopped on but she’s good looking.”
“Glad to hear,” Levi smiled.
“How do you do it? I mean, how do you stand these things? Don’t you feel like life is passing you by?”
“Oh come on. I can’t let Refaeli down.”
“Well, I feel like I’m going insane.” Asher began walking toward the door Levi following behind.
“I know it’s tough. It’s tough for me too. Last night I met girl number forty-seven – and she ain’t it.”
“So what do we do?”
Levi pointed a finger toward the dark starry sky. “I know that there’s someone there for me and Hashem will reveal her when the time is right, Meanwhile I’ve got an idea for us. The Zviller Rebbe. That’s what Refaeli did.”
Asher knotted his brow. “But I’m not a Zviller hassid and no way I’m becoming one.”
“And neither am I and neither is Refaeli, if you haven’t noticed. It’s a grave. You go three times, say some psalms, and then the tzaddik pulls strings in heaven.”
“Isn’t that like putting one over on G-d?”
Levi tilted his head and winked. “Don’t worry. G-d can handle it.”
The rebbe’s remains lay in an old, tumbledown graveyard in a park near the center of the city. Even on a cold, wintry afternoon, the dead tzaddik pulled a crowd ; dozens of yeshiva students and Bais Yaacov girls, and other kinds of people too, beggars of course and also Moroccan bleached blondes and even a few burly ex-paratroopers. Taped to the fence surrounding the grave were notes – some hand-written, others computer generated: “I came here and I was saved in the merit of the tzaddik”. Some of the notes described tales of forestalled woe, anything from court cases, to money troubles, to illnesses, childlessness to singlehood.
A beardless young hassid handed them booklets. “Oh, man,” Asher gazed at the long laminated pages containing dozens of psalms. “I can’t do this.”
Levi smiled mysteriously, “Come on . You do much more each day. This isn’t a big deal. ” The Asher following him a large empty area like an outdoor synagogue where dozens of men swayed rhythmically while silently pronouncing the holy words.
Asher raced along but then he came to Psalm 3 and the pslamists words hit him on the head. “For G-d’s eternal scheme is mapped out with permanence.” He knew that G-d had already chosen one’s life partner. but he couldn’t bare the wait. He continued reciting.”What consoled me in despair was Your promise for life.” G-d wanted his bride to arrive. G-d wanted his life to be good. All he had to do was trust.
Just then, Levi looked at him pointing to a plastic laundry hamper filled with thousands of pebbles.
“Take one and lay it on the grave.”
Asher reached deep into the hamper and pulled out a tiny piece of grave. As they drew closer to the tombstone, the crowd grew thicker. Asher had never known himself to be claustrophobic but he suddenly realized that if he didn’t get out he’d faint.
“I leaving,” he called but Levi had disappeared into the crush of men pushing toward the tombstone.
The fresh air settled him. He phoned Levi. No answer. Then he looked at his watch and started walking to the busstop the tiny piece of gravel still in his coat pocket. The tsaddik would forgive him for failing to mark his visit.
As he climbed the steps leading to the street, Asher felt a knock on his back. He turned around, but instead of finding Levi he saw his sixth grade teacher, Rabbi Meshullam Marks, the man who’d caused him to fall in love with the Talmud so many years before. They embraced warmly, like father and son.
The Rabbi’s handsome face was crisscrossed with wrinkles , his black beard now snowy white – but his eye still flickered with a pristine light.
“You probably want to find your zivug,” Rabbi Marks expressed it as a statement, rather than a question.
Was his desperation that apparent?
Rabbi Marks reached into his wallet and pulled out a pale pink business card.
“Genia Marks is my sister-in-law. Tell her that I sent you.”
Genia Marks was the uncrowned queen of Jerusalem matchmakers. Genia also charged three times more than the other matchmakers. But you couldn’t approach Genia on your own, you needed an invitation – and now he had his.
Asher knew that Genia had made Yidy’s match. “She’s worth every penny. She’s got a way of figuring out who will be right for you. That was how it was with me and Feigie…unreal.”
Asher’s feet seemed to fly as he ran to the bus stop. He imagined himself returning with his own sign. His only wish was that Levi could join him too. He would have loved to bring Levi to Genia Marks but the invitation was his alone. Later, once he got married, then, , he’d do help Levi.
As soon as he sat down he phoned. Busy. Well that was no surprise. At a red light he phoned again. Still busy. Once the light turned green he made another try. Still no success. He gave up slid his phone into his pocket and watched the city unfolding, the newly widened roads clogged with cars the new luxury high rises. After his marriage he’d probably move out to a suburb but he loved old Jerusalem with its the old red clay roofed buildings, the bright geraniums and tumbling bougainvillea, and palpable air of holiness, which he hoped the developers wouldn’t demolish.
As he got off the bus he made a fourth attempt to reach Genia and this time he succeeded.
He had imagined her as a native Israeli or a Russian immigrant, not an Australian ex-pat.
“Let me check my computer. Is Thursday at two okay? Email me your references, and your address, the name of your yeshiva, family details, the usual…” Her accent surprised him. He had expected her to Russian or native Israeli not an Australian ex-pat.
“Fine,” Two o’clock was break time.
“Email me your references, and your address, the name of your yeshiva, family details, the usual…”
“I can’t,” Asher’s exuberance leaked out like helium leaking from a punctured balloon.
“No computer? Fine. Write it out by hand, but neatly please. I charge for deciphering hieroglyphics.”
That evening Asher spent an unusually long time hand-writing his references. The last time he’d worked this carefully on his penmanship he was in elementary school. He brushed his Shabbos hat and shined his Shabbos shoes, and ironed his best white shirt, the one with the French cuffs as if he was preparing for a date.
It was still winter but this particular Thursday had been borrowed from the spring. The sky was a pure deep blue and the air was cool but not cold and Asher left his winter coat back in the dorms stepping out in his suit jacket.
Genia lived on the fifth floor of an ageing Jerusalem stone apartment building with a broken elevator. He sprinted up the stairs arriving panting and breathless.. Before knocking he took few breaths to quiet his body. Then he whispered a silent one word prayer “help.”
A tall, red bearded man opened the door. “Mummy!” he called into the kitchen. Dressed in a long black skirt, long sleeved black T shirt and a bright orange bandana Genia balanced on a ladder as she aimed her dust buster above the kitchen cabinets.
“For me it’s erev Pesach,” she called out.
There were still two full months left until the holiday, but Genia was of those fanatics who spent the entire winter preparing for the week-long spring holiday.
“I’ll only be a minute,” Genia called from the kitchen. She instructed her son to bring Asher a drink.” Hot or cold,” he asked in Hebrew.
Asher refused the offer instead turning his attentions to the large library of the leather bound gold-stamped scholarly books lining the entrance hall. They were the same books one found in any religious household, Talmuds, bibles, commentaries and codes of Jewish law but in front of many of the shelvers were silver frames, holding a photographsof smiling brides and groom.
“I see you’re looking at my pictures,” said Genia. “Everybody does.” By now, she’d climbed off the ladder and settled herself into a huge black office chair which faced a tiny desk that pulled out from one of the bookcases.
“They are all mine, The couples I matched up. Two hundred so far and my own kids too Boruch Hashem. I did all my kids’ shidduchim.”
Asher let out a tiny moan. He hoped his own mother wouldn’t hear about that. It was bad enough to have his dates pass her inspection. To have her chose the girls would be too much.
“I see, you think it’s crazy – well, you’re not alone. Most people do,”
“No, whatever works.” Asher smiled wanly.
“I can say that they are all happily married.”
Genia leaned in towards him.
“Now, tell me, what can I do for you?”
“Here.” Asher removed the handwritten résumé from his jacket pocket.
“Very nice. Hadar. Very nice…long term learner?” She smiled, revealing perfect white teeth.
“English-speaking girl, English-speaking home, I take it?”
Asher remembered his date with Elisheva Lefkowitz.
“Well, yes, but I want to speak to her in Hebrew.”
Genia nodded and then turned around to face her computer. “Anything else?”
“Good-natured. She should know how to enjoy life.”
She swiveled toward him again.
“And, of course, she needs to be pretty and smart and rich and slim,” Genia smiled conspiratorially.
Asher felt the blood rushing into his cheeks.
“Sure, you’re like every other guy I see.”
Genia threw her head back and clapped her hands. “Yonina Haber . I would have grabbed her for one of my sons, but they are all married, thank G-d. She’s gorgeous, blue eyed and blonde and smart, and frum.” She pronounced it “frooom”, which made Asher smile.”And her grandfather is Rav Yankev Haber –perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
Asher shook his head.
“He’s a big philanthropist in Los Angeles. A holocaust survivor. Rags to riches. Yonina’s father is in business with him. Import-export something electronic and the father is also in kollel half-days. Very serious guy. He’s looking for a serious learner, long term of course, and I’ve heard that they support their married children quite generously.”
Yonina “. It was different from the usual Rivkies and Chanis and Shanis, not a name you heard every day. Asher liked the sound – it meant “little dove”.. He imagined this Yonina, his Yonina, lithe and lovely with soft cheeks and long, swinging blonde hair.
Genia began to read from her resume. ” Bnos Sara, after that a year of seminary . She teaches modern dance , yoga and Pilates and she’s a personal trainer.”
Yonina “. He tasted the sound on it’s tongue. It was different from the usual Rivkies and Chanis and Shanis, not a name you heard every day. It meant “little dove”.. He imagined this Yonina, his Yonina, lithe and lovely with soft cheeks and long, swinging blonde hair.
And while he wouldn’t date a girl who was a ba’alat teshuva or an American immigrant. Those things were too foreign to him, the fact that Yonina and his mother were in the same profession pleased him. It was a sign, an omen, the tzaddik’s blessing coming true.
“Wow. I mean, thanks. Really thanks,” Asher smiled so broadly that his cheeks hurt. As he climbed down the stairs, he whispered her name. Yonina, Yonina, Yonina, Yonina. Yonina. Yonina Tumim. He liked the sound.
During the first week in February, Ruth Beller Molly’s most stalwart fan, an exceedingly tall and painfully thin woman broke her leg while practicing the crow position at home, (thankfully not during Molly’s class) With that, the roster of students in the Tuesday morning yoga class dipped down to two: one very old woman and a very young newlywed, who would certainly quit once she became pregnant and Molly began thinking once again about a career change.
She still loved teaching yoga but having to constantly seek out new students and chase down the old ones who’d given her bad checks or no checks at all was a pain in the neck. and she was getting older. Nobody wanted to hire an ageing yoga teacher.
But what else could she do to bring in money? Nahum’s salary had remained stable but he was still worried about his workload being cut. She’d always been great in the kitchen. Maybe she should do something in food? Today, she prepared a spinach salad dotted with dried cranberries, roasted pine nuts, and tiny squares of feta cheese and posted it on Instagram to kick off her new career – as what? A cooking teacher? Caterer? Private chef? That remained to be seen.
Now that the salad had been immortalized she sat down to eat; but at her first chew, the Asher phoned.
“So, Mom,” he spoke quickly and breathlessly. “I went to a shadchan and she gave me this girl’s name.”
What? Molly nearly gagged on a spinach leaf. She and Asher were supposed to be a team. How could he have gone to a matchmaker without telling her?
“I just thought you’d let me know before…”
“Okay Mom…” She didn’t want to press him too much for fear of alienating him even further.
“So how was it?”
“It wasn’t just an ordinary matchmaker. I got into Genia Marks. I had a connection that got me in. Remember Rabbi Marks from sixth grade?”
“Yeah—” Molly had actually never heard of Genia .
“And she spent almost an hour talking to me…she thinks I should meet Yonina Haber from Ramat Eshkol. Could you check…”
With that comment Molly’s stomach twisted with jealousy. When had she last spent a full hour talking to her son?
She returned to her salad but her appetite was gone. As she put the left overs into the fridge the phone rang again. It was Genia Marks.
“I’d like to meet you. It will help me to get a better picture. I take it that you’ll be at the Freidmanchasunah tonight ?”
“Is that tonight?”
Molly had completely forgotten. Ever since their leaking Jacuzzi caused Molly’s bathroom ceiling to bubble and the Friedmans’ refuse to pay for the repair, Molly had deleted Mashi Friedman from her list of friends . When Mashi’s daughter hand delivered the invitation, Molly she flung it into the trash–once the girl had gone. Nahum promptly fished it and, using four thumbtacks, he attached the tomato sauce stained vellum paper to the kitchen cork board insisting that the Friedman’s would do the repair once the wedding was behind them. Molly wasn’t so sure.
After putting away the remains of supper fried tofu and brown rice, enjoyed only by her and Nahum – Molly headed out to Glitznik, a hall just outside of Har Nof at least it wasn’t far away, where one could celebrate a wedding beneath outsized crystal chandeliers and mirrored ceilings without breaking the bank.
Mashi, was all dolled up,her cheeks deeply rouged, her fleshy body stuffed into a puffy peach gown and her golden wig was set with banana curls like ageing Shirley Temple.
“Let’s dance!” Mashi shrieked. She yanked Molly to the middle of the dance floor, a crowd of women watched as they swirled and leaped and dipped in sync with the music, Molly smiling contentedly as she pretended to be at Asher’s wedding dancing with her new machatenesteh , the mother of Asher’s bride .
Then Mashi put down her hands and reached out to someone else. Molly’s turn had ended. As she walked away her phone began to ring, her new ringtone, “Snow” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing ceaselessly from the bottom of her large weekday purse–she’d forgotten to switch to her evening clutch.. When Elazar played the song on his guitar, she had loved it; now she regretted allowing him to install it on her phone. It was one thing to listen to non-Jewish music on the sly, but quite another to play it in public.
“This is Genia . I’m waiting for you . I’m near the elevator.”
Molly found Genia in the lobby surrounded by a cluster of single girls who parted as Molly approached, and raced back to dance with the bride, who was now encased in a white silky hoop , a new and ever more bizarre wedding gimmick.
“So, you’re Asher’s mum.” Genia extended her hand.
“I’ve got the perfect girl for your lovely son. Michal Farber.”
“I thought I heard Asher tell me that her name was Yonina?”
“Yes, ” I think so. Molly smiled.
“I think she may get engaged this week, but let’s be real. She’s not for your son. You’re ba’alei teshuva – not that I have anything against ba’alei teshuva. I’m one myself. I used to be called Jillian Bank…” she spread her thin lips into a grin, “but the Habers are aristocrats.”
Molly felt an urge to grab Genia/Jillian by the neck and shake her but Asher would be furious, nor was she prone to violence. No she wouldn’t act act. She’d handle this like a lady. She took a few deep breaths and lowered her tone.
“So why did you suggest Yonina to Asher?.”
Genia waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal. “My dear Malka”.
“Molly, Please believe me. I have so many people coming to me in the space of a day. You just don’t know what it’s like Again I apologize but trust me Michal Farber is a rare gem, a ruby, a sapphire, an emerald, a diamond. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, a good balabusta. She’ll keep a clean house even with a newborn baby and she’ll bring in a parnooossa so that he can learn.And her parents will help out too. If I had a son on the market, I’d grab her.”
Just then Genia’s phone rang. “Sorry, I have to take this call.”
Much to her surprise Molly’s anger was replaced by an unexpected calm. Either Genia had spoken the truth or she was an amazing actress because Molly actually believed her.
She looked at Michal Farber’s photograph—Genia had sent it together with the resume:Deep blue eyes, clear skin (though the pimples may have been photoshopped away), and wavy auburn hair and judging from the shape of her facial bones she appeared to be slim.
The resume was interesting, not run of the mill. “It says here that she grew up here but when she was sixteen her parents went back. They are in Miami Beach. Her father owns a bingo parlor.”she told Nahum.
“He’s the guy who yells 24B, 47F, 89G…and the winner is!”
“She’s become a music therapist”
“That might be nice.”
“And she does airbrush makeup, programs computers, and teaches in a nursery school.”
“A real jack-of-all-trades,”
Molly stared at her husband.
“That’s a total of four professions. What is this girl about?”
“So she has multiple talents. Who cares? The main thing is that she’s nice. And if won’t hurt if she’s smart and pretty and rich.
Just then, Asher phoned. “So how was it, with Genia?”
“She suggested a girl…”
“Yonina Haber, right…the one I told you about.” His voice was so full of puppy dog eagerness that Molly found it heartbreaking.
“I think her name is Michal, and—”
“I’m not interested.”
“Are you sure but she……” But there was no point in arguing; Asher had hung up.
Molly went along with Asher; it was his life ; it seemed pointless to forfeit whatever little credibility she had by pushing the match but then Genia began her texting campaign.
Several times a day the message would appear. Wtg4U2dcide
At first Molly paid no mind but then Genia phoned catching one morning as she washed the living room floor, with an oversized squeegee and a rag.
“Please hear me out. I hate to give up on a such a good idea. “Molly put her squeegee stick down for a moment.
“Tonight Michal Farber will be attending an engagement party at a shul on your road. I’ll tell her to step outside at 9:30. that way you wont even need to walk in. You just meet her. See for yourself.”
She sounded so logical and the plan so ridiculously easy that Molly agreed and other than this nothing else was happening.
“How will I recognize her?”
“She’ll be wearing black pencil skirt with a floral applique.”
Molly noticed Michal from a distance. As arranged she stood in front of the synagogue, as pretty as her picture. silky brown hair smooth skin, high cheekbones and a slim figure And yet even with Genia’s arrangments Molly felt herself clamming up. How could she introduce herself ? How incredibly awkward and yet hassidim did this all the time, the erstwhile mother in law and daughter in law always meeting in advance of the date. In her non Hassidic circles this wasn’t usual and yet it was also an opportunity and Michal did look appealing. And yet it was also an opportunity.
In her sweetest voice Molly introduced herself. The conversation was formulaic, Molly asking questions whose answers she already knew but Michal’s responses were perfect, that is neither too short or too long, too revealing or too clipped.
“She’s a very nice girl,. Do you think you can convince Asher” Molly told Nahum when she got back home.
“You speak to him, Nahum. He listens to you.”
“He said he didn’t want this girl. Why force him? Respect his judgment.”
“But there’s nothing else on the horizon . She’s a lovely girl. Why not give her a chance.”
“Then you do it Molly.”
All the next day Molly procrastinated while Genia flooded her phone with texts. First. “Let’s set a D8.
And then . teL me wen he cn MEt hEr & whr
And then I’m w8N 4 yor rply. Finally just as Molly was about to go to bed Genia phoned.
“She was great right… just as I told you. When does your son want to meet her.” Molly realized that she had to provide an answer. “Okay,” she said.”I’ll call Asher.”
Asher had just left the study hall when Molly phoned.
“Mom, I told you. No. I’m not interested.”
“But please, just one date.”
“No.” And then the phone went dead.
Even though it was the middle of the night, Molly phoned Genia. “He refuses. He’s really not interested. Please stop texting me.”
“I’m sorry for the pressure but you know as well as I do that a girl like Michal doesn’t come along every day. And not for your son.”
As she lay in bed trying to fall asleep, Genia’s words spun around in her brain. What was with Genia and what was with Asher.
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
Chapter 4c here