Musical Chairs – Chapter 3d – Preparing for the First Date

Chapter 3d.

One morning shortly after the holiday ended Shulamis appeared at her door holding an an article which she’d clipped from one of the Jewish magazines and encased in a plastic sleeve. “. I thought you’d find it helpful.’ It was all about coaching your child through the dating process. Until now it had never occurred to Molly that she’d need to play dating coach. Wasn’t she doing enough just finding him dates but the article made a convincing case.

“Think of how scared these kids are sitting opposite a stranger and wondering if that stranger should be their partner for life—for keeps ! Think back to how scared you were!

“Be your child’s dating coach,”

By the time she’d finished she was convinced. The article had a side bar containing sample questions.
1. What does marriage mean to you
2. Where do you see yourself in one year, five years, ten years, at the end of your life….

What amazing questions. She’d never asked them, never been asked them, never even thought of them until now but she wanted Asher to go into his date with this list. But how? If she’d hand the article to Asher he’d smile and then shove it into a drawer but maybe Nahum. Nahum could get through but Nahum was on a plane now heading for New Jersey. She scanned the article and sent it to him.

In the evening his response appeared in her inbox. . “Trust Asher. I think has enough sense to date without reading this article.”

Molly shook her head and typed . ” I think this could have helped. ”

And the Nahum typed back “So then you do it.”

Asher was in the kitchen wearing his bicycle helmet, his trousers tucked into his socks filling up his hydration pack from the filtered tap.

“Please give me just five minutes. It’s important,”

“Later…I’ve got to go Mom,they’re waiting for me.” He sprinted out the door.
She followed him.

“This won’t take long….”She handed him the article .

“Ma, I know all of that. Trust me, I get an earful in yeshiva. They have classes about this stuff.” He bounded down the stairs leaving.
She closed her eyes. “Oh G-d” she moaned. How in the world will this ever work out?”

Asher came home at midnight on the day before the date sunburned falling into his bed exhausted but unable to sleep. His parents thought he didn’t care about the date but nothing was further than the truth. He was terrified. How would he get through this? Some of his friends were jealous of him. Ezi his morning study partner for example. A short ruddy fellow with a boxer’s physique Ezi was stuck in a matrimonial traffic jam . His parents wouldn’t even consider letting him date until his four single sisters were wed.

“You know how it says in the gemora that if you don’t get married by age eighteen your bones start to rot. Mine are rotting. I can feel it ” Ezi had told him just the day before while they drifted down the Jordan River in a kayak.

Asher couldn’t find much empathy. His own bones weren’t rotting. They felt felt fine, even strong.. He couldn’t imagine a better life than the one he was already living- great friends, great rabbis and his studies, challenging but also geshmack, delicious and yet he knew that the Talmud said a single man lacked joy, blessing, goodness. He wouldn’t have thought so, but maybe this date would uncover feelings he didn’t know he had.
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 3d – Preparing for the First Date

Musical Chairs – Chapter 3c – A BT’s Shidduch Search for Her FFB Son

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

Over breakfast, Nahum texted to Yidy. “I want them to go out next week, during Hol Hamoed.” Hol Hamoed, the intermediate days of the Succoth holiday was prime dating season.

“Any answer?” Molly feigned interest.

“No. He doesn’t get back to me. ” Nahum took another sip of coffee.

As he left for work Yidy’s text came through. “Sorry she’s busy now.”

“Drat,” Nahum’s head sunk into his chest like Rodin’s thinker.

Then Nahum looked up. “Yidy says that Bracha is busy. Its off for now.”

“Wow” Molly hoped she’d expunged any evidence of happiness from her tone.

“Your prayers must carry a lot of weight in heaven.”

Molly smiled wanly. Who would have ever thought that rejection could be so pleasant.

“Was it the money….? She’s not the only girl with money.”

“Well. that was nice but she sounded like a nice girl for Asher. I don’t want to see him hurt.”

“Do you think he built this up in his mind.?”

“It sounded like he did.”

“Guys think about girls. Normal twenty two year old guys, even guys in the Hadar yeshiva.”

“I thought it was all gemara, all the time.”

Molly looked deeply into her husband’s eyes. “Then this will hurt him.”

“Yes, I suppose it will.”

Molly’s early life had been suffused with just this sort of pain—In sixth grade—she cried for three full days when Robert Glen told her that he’d no longer walk her back home from school.

“I thought the parents took care of all this stuff and the kids could be spared the pain.”

“I wish It were that easy but I think he’ll be okay. I’ll call him,”

His fingers were on his phone.

“Right now?”

“No sense letting him build up false hopes.”

As Molly listened she had the same uneasy sensation she used to get when Asher was a baby and she had to take him for shots.

“The shidduch…” said Nahum.

Silence, Nahum listening as Asher talked. Was he devastated? Was he weeping? And then she heard “goodbye and a click. ”

“So” How did he take it?”

Nahum smiled. “How do you think he took it? Like a man.. He knew that Bracha was in high demand these days. He said that if it was meant to be then it would work out….”

“Wait a minute..” Molly’s mouth turned very round. “Does that meant that the guys in his dorm talk about girls? ”

“Of course they do. “Yeshiva boys aren’t Jewish monks. Stop thinking he’s not normal and he was cool. He took it well. What more do you want.”

She just wanted Asher to meet the right one. He’d barely started, had yet to go on his first date and already she felt weary of the process.

“Lets take a break. Let’s just forget about shidduchim for a while– until Hanukah.”

Nahum smiled at her. “This year or next?”
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 3c – A BT’s Shidduch Search for Her FFB Son

Musical Chairs – Chapter 3b – A BT’s Shidduch Search for Her FFB Son

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.

You can read Chapter 3a here.

Chapter 3b

When she got home Nahum was warming up the left over chulent from Shabbos for Melaveh Malka, the meal that King David had instituted as a gesture of gratitude. “Can I warm a bowl for you? It’s really good.”

For a moment Molly almost said yes but then she thought of how her insides would feel if she ate that stuff now.”No thanks.”

“By the way, did you check her out? Asher really wants to date this girl.”

“Yes, I don’t think it’s going to work out .” She rubbed her eyes and began walking in the direction of the bedroom.

“Hey wait a minute. We’re not done. What is the problem with her?” said Nahum.

“Take my word. It’s not for us.”

“Well why not?” Nahum put down his spoon.

“Well, how shall I say this….” Why besmirch Mr. Glick or was it Rabbi Glick’s good name but now she felt she had no choice. “I heard on good authority that Bracha’s father is a very troubled person and her parents are on the verge of divorce.”

“Hey, wait a minute. My parents were divorced and your’s—well you yourself said it was no Hollywood romance.”

“Excuse me.” Molly arched her brows.

“Well sorry to be so blunt but you told me yourself..”

“Yes , so do you want that for Asher? ”

“They struggled and we struggled and Asher will struggle. The lives of the sons echoes the lives of the fathers. Isn’t that what the Torah says?..”

“But I don’t want them to struggle.” Molly’s voice thickened with emotion.

“Well maybe they won’t and anyway, the father isn’t the girl”

“Yeah but this is bad news and we know about it. I don’t want to go near this girl Do you need a neon sign saying that?” Her voice had turned high pitched and shrill.

“Yeah but Asher really wants this. Just do a little bit more research. One or two more calls. Maybe that will put a different spin on this.”

“No. I fill like I’ve done enough.”

“So I’ll do it . I know how to ask questions” Nahum stood up from the table as if he were speaking in court.

“Are you firing me?”

“No, but I don’t want to overburden you.”

“Okay. I’ll do it .”She sounded like a trapped animal.

When she finally lay down to sleep she felt sick.

Molly spent Yom Kippur at the synagogue. On other years she’d enjoyed the holiday especially the feeling of community as the fast ended, and the spontaneous at the end of the end but this year she began the fast feeling anxious her anxiety only increasing as the day wore on.

In a way tomorrow would be the real day of judgment for Bella and by extension for Molly. Until now, Bella’s disciplinary slights had been the province of the vice principle, Rabanit Mor a small stout woman with a high voice and thick French accent who handled them by telephone. . The conversations had a set time for them 10 am–Molly wondered if Rabanit Mor had blocked out those moments anticipating the need even before Bella commited her crime

“I’m sorry to bother you, ” Rabanit Mor would begin which always tempted Molly to say, if you’re so sorry then you don’t have to call, but she never did. After that Rabanit Mor would describe the offense of the week–such petty crimes. Why couldn’t they cut the girls a little slack? . After several weeks of these calls Molly could hardly hold herself back from asking the Rabanit whether if was about the nail polish, the blouse button or the cell phone

Rabanit Mor would apologize again–the woman seemed to have a need to apologize profusely and then she’d end the call with blessings for ” sach nachas, a Yiddish expression meaning denoting a potent blend of love and pride and peace of mind that was akin to nirvana

Molly eventually became so accustomed to Rabanit Mor’s calls that she didn’t even break a sweat but a summons to the principal Rabanit Stark implied a new level of severity. Beit Rinah was a huge school–over five thousand girls. Rabanit Stark didn’t have time to mess around. Would she give Bella the boot? And then what? Beit Rinah was the least selective and also most tolerant of the mainstream schools, that is schools for regular girls. After Beit Rinah the only place to go was to a school that specialized in problematic girls. It was hard enough that Elazar had fit himself into that category, but Bella too. As the congregation recited a long litany about the ten holy martys Molly visualized her sweet beautiful daughter with her tiny upturned nose, Molly’s green eyes and Nahum’s thick dark hair in dirty torn jeans , track marks on her arms and a silver ring hanging from her nose.

It was only Molly who had freaked out. Nahum was his usual blithe self . As he left for services looking angelic in his crocs and white kitel he told her not to worry. “I’m going to daven and it will be fine. ” If only she had his faith.

When Molly appeared at Bella’s door to wake her for services she claimed a headache. “I’ll get there later, I promise, “she said. Did she really have a headache or was it that she just didn’t care about t Yom Kippur, or school?

Why was this all so hard? Years ago, that is when she was peering at the orthodox world form the outside one of the things that impressed with her was the lack of a generation gap, the lack of generations. Rav Muti’s children seemed to move seamlessly from childhood to adulthood to parent hood walking in the shadow of their elders. Why hadn’t that happened to her?
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 3b – A BT’s Shidduch Search for Her FFB Son

Musical Chairs – Chapter 3a – A BT’s Shidduch Search for Her FFB Son

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.

Chapter 3a
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.”
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 3a – A BT’s Shidduch Search for Her FFB Son

Musical Chairs – Chapter 2b – A BT’s Shidduch Search for Her FFB Son

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.

Chapter 2b

Rebbetzin Brill was a skinny woman with a pinched face she wore a dark formless dress and an old fashioned foam lined headscarf, which gave her head a Spongebob look Her thinness was really quite astounding because she was always cooking. Did she diet? Did she suffer from stomach problems. Her husband was a Chassidic Rebbe, the Rebbe of Hohok, Nahum called it Ho-Ho-Kus after the posh New Jersey suburb, which caused her to chuckle even though it wasn’t the funniest of jokes, was even thinner. But they were good people, sincere, kind, the real deal.

After her ectopic pregnancy, when her fallopian tube had exploded leaving her close to death, Molly went to see him. The doctor who had saved her life, declared her child bearing years over. ‘Just be happy with what you’ve got, “but Molly was unspeakably sad and weepy Nahum brought her to the Rabbi Brill, a feat which required no small amount of cajoling as Rabbi Brill didn’t usually see women. He sat the head of the dining table, a huge bookcase filled with Talmudic tomes behind him looking down at the stone matza patterned floor to avert her gaze. His voice was so soft that Molly strained to hear him but he promised that she’d have a baby within the year and the next month she fell pregnant with Elazar.

On the morning of Molly’s visit the Rebetzin and several of her daughters, were peeling potatoes and the apartment was redolent with the scent of potato kugel baking in the oven.

“We’re celebrating my grandson’s bar mitzvah tonight. Would you like a piece?” said the Rebbetzin.

“No thanks. I just wanted you opinion, about a girl for Asher.”

“Of course… “

Rebbetzin Brill titled her head upwards as if she were inviting G-d into the conversation and she smiled.. “Ah…..You couldn’t do better. Such a girl, such a family…,.”

“You’re very lucky to have such a good suggestion but then Asher is an excellent boy.” Molly looked around at the Brill’s apartment, the worn carpet, the sagging bookcase and broken furniture. How could she dare to ask about money? She didn’t want Rebbetzin Brill see her and Nahum and even Asher as gold-diggers.” It’s so hot today. I’ll get you a drink.” The Rebbetzin motioned for the smallest of her daughters who appeared with a tray and a large bottle of cold water. “No, no thanks.”

“You didn’t just come to smell the kugel. What else do you need to know. Money?”

Even though it was summer goosebumps appeared on Molly’s arms. Rabbi Brill had mystical powers but until now she hadn’t known that his wife had them too. “Yes,” her voice was so choked she could hardly speak.

“I can’t give you a figure but I can tell you that they live very nicely and I’m sure that they can help very nicely.”

Molly smiled. That sounded like enough.

“Call me to share the good news, “said the Rebbetzin as she waved goodbye. As soon as she left the apartment she texted Nahum with the good news and he gave the match his blessing.

How many dates would they need? Molly and Nahum had dated for six weeks before he proposed but with these couples things could move more quickly. It was July now. Tammuz. A month long courtship would bring them into the summer yeshiva vacation. Maybe they could have an outdoor ceremony in a garden? She imagined a chuppah covered with flowers, Asher and Ayelet tying the knot on a late summer evening the sun setting in the distance.

The next day the sky was a murky grey even though the temperatures were hot. Bella woke up with a headache and then vomited all over her bed linens and bedroom floor. Moshe complained of feeling sick too and Molly a bucket next to his bed.

The malaise extended to inanimate objects. The drier broke and the dud shemesh, the water storage tank which attached to a solar panel that sat on the roof of their building, to harvest the sun’s rays to heat their bathwater, malfunctioned.

Still Molly’s mood was bright. Soon all of the broken things would be fixed. Soon, the children would get better and soon Asher would meet a Ayelet Gold and marry her and she’d become a grandmother, an experience which everyone she knew insisted was the pinnacle of life.

In between calls to the various repair people and the doctor Esther phoned.

“Sorry to tell you this.. they said no”

Molly’ felt a thud in her chest. “Why?

“What can I say? They didn’t think it was right for them.”

“What does that mean?” What did the Gold’s find out about them? Was it Elazar’s yeshiva troubles, Bella’s rebelliousness or was it them. Nahum’s alcoholism, his years in AA or perhaps Molly herself. How much did anyone know about her past? She didn’t see herself as secretive. She wasn’t ashamed, after all once a person repents, his sins are transformed to merits but she did have experiences she wished she could have deleted from her life. Could it be that someone knew?

Sh*t she yelled. Sh*t Sh*t Sh*t.. She rarely used four letter words but then again she rarely, indeed had to deal with her son’s rejection by the girl who was surely his soulmate…She slammed the phone down hard against the table which caused the battery to pop out. She nudged it back in.

Just then Bella came into the kitchen. “Ima….”

Molly suddenly came to. ‘Did I hear you?”

Though she was generally careful with her speech Molly did use bad language, very rarely , in traffic or under situations of extreme stress of which this was one.

Molly didn’t’ respond hoping that would make the question go away but it didn’t’.

“It’s tough Mom,” said Bella putting her arm on Molly’s back. “Everyone knows that the Golds are super picky. They turn down almost everyone.”

“Huh?” Molly “How did everyone know except her.”

When she called Nahum he said the same thing. “I knew it wouldn’t work.

They are a line of Rabbis. Thirty five consecutive generations..”

“So our genes aren’t good enough? How could people be so prejudiced? They they want us to become like them and then they they refuse to let their kids marry kids. They probably wouldn’t have allowed their child to marry any of the patriarchs either, Okay maybe Jacob but certainly not Abraham and Isaac would have been iffy. How can they be such prigs!”

“Can you turn down the volume My ears are getting sore.”

“Calm down.” said Nahum “Remember rejection is G-d’s form of protection.”

Almost reflexively, Molly cracked a Gold smile. It amused her to hear her own bromide coming out of Nahum’s lips

***

Later after the day was finally over and everyone asleep Nahum and Molly sat alone on the porch.

“What do you really know about the…

“Plenty..”

“I could think of a few more questions I bet you never asked. “

“Such as……”

He dipped his head down as if reading from his cell phone but Molly noticed that he had a gleam in his eye.

“I want their complete financial, medical and genealogical records.”

“Come on….Where on earth to you expect me to get those.”

“I don’t know but get them and there’s something else I want to know. Do they chain their children to the bed at night?”

“Yes that is something we need to know—we don’t want Asher marrying a girl who was chained to her bed.”

“Do they belch at the table?”

Do they cover their faces when they sneeze? “

By now Molly laughed so hard she couldn’t speak.

“Molly, these people are crazy, If they don’t want Asher it’s their problem.”

Just then Molly stopped laughing. “I just thought of something.”

“What?” Nahum tilted his head toward hers.

“Something really remarkable just happened. We need to take note of this. Our son Asher had a romantic rejection and he didn’t even know about it. He got hurt without feeling any pain or having a bruise.”

Nahum nodded. “I had my first heartbreak in third grade. I still remember her Judy Katz. She was the prettiest girl in the school.”

Molly hated Nahum’s uncanny ability to recall old flames—why was his memory so perfect when it came to women as opposed to say grocery lists, but she knew what he meant..

“I’m so glad that Asher can learn in peace. That he’s never even heard the name Ayelet Gold.’

It was true. Asher had been away at yeshiva the whole time. He hadn’t heard one word about Ayelet.

Nahum smiled. He leaned over and kissed Molly

“What was that for?” Molly smiled.

“Hey honey this is a moment to celebrate. To Asher. Le’chaim. May he find his kallah his bride without pain.

Nahum nodded. Then he yawned and stretched his arm to turn out the light.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 2a – A BT’s Shidduch Search for Her FFB Son

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

Late Saturday night Shulamis Black’s son Ari took the family’s ancient Citroen for a spin and totaled it. Thankfully he’d come out unscathed but now Shulamis needed Molly to drive her to the “shops” her quaint English way of referring to the supermarket.The day broiling hot-that doesn’t change until well into the fall. The the sky bleached out and white, the sort of weather that middle eastern connoisseurs of heat called Sharavbut Molly’s mini van and the supermarket had good AC.

Physical opposites, Shulamis, was pale faced, round and frumpy to Molly’s slender elegance but the two women had been the best of friends since they both moved into the apartment building on the end of Kablan street in in early nineties, with newborn babies in tow. Shulamis was FFB frum from birth, that is born into the religion, the fourth daughter of Manchester’s best loved cantor whereas Molly was the only child of a businessman a wheeler dealer who’d made and lost fortunes in real estate, construction and the commodities market. Where Molly had four children, three sons and a daughter, Shulamis’s brood numbered fifteen, an eyebrow raiser even in Har Nof. Nine were married which meant that she’d earned her PHD in the shidduch process.

“I got my first shidduch offer. What’s the word they use red.”

As the two friends stood by side at the supermarket entrance admiring a colorful pyramid of imitation crocs for Tisha B’Av, the supermarkets even managed to commercialize the saddest day of the year the words slipping from Molly’s mouth like ice cream dripping from a popsicle on a hot day.

“Not red the color. Redt, It’s Yiddish. Welcome to the club, girl.” Shulamis laid a hand on Molly’s shoulder.

“I thought the shadchan took care of everything but Esther read me references.”

Shulamis chuckled.” Don’t you know that joke in Hebrew sheker dover, speaks lies, kesef noteil, takes money.”

Molly’s jaw went slack.” Does that mean I can’t trust Esther?”

“No, Of course not. Esther is a fine shadchan but you are in charge. You need to do your own investigation.”

“Huh…Do I really need to call strangers.” Molly’s voice trembled with nerves.

“It’s not rocket science girl. Just think of everything you’d want to know about the girl and her family, and then call anyone and everyone you think might be able to help you oh and the last bit.”

“Me? I can’t do this.” The impact of the Dena Maisels fiasco suddenly hit her like a punch in the stomach. Why couldn’t that have worked out? It seemed so simple so, perfect, so much better than this.’

“Listen to me, Get a notebook and write everything down.” Shulamis sounded like a general giving orders to a buck private.

“Any special kind?”

“I use a loose-leaf with a new tab for each girl but any notebook will do The main thing is to keep a record of your research.”

The two women returned to their shopping but then as they were filling bags of nectarines Molly tapped Shulamis on the back. Her voice was shaky, trembling and her eyes were trained to the floor like a small child who’d been sent to the principle’s office.” But you don’t understand I can’t call strangers. I once had a summer job cold calling and I got fired. I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t I just hire someone, a private investigator, someone from the Mossad…”

“Nonsense.” Shulamis loaded her bag of nectarines into her cart. Then she looked Molly straight in the eye.” You’ll rise to the occasion. Everyone does.” I’ve got a list of questions.I’ll send it over. Just read it out to the the people the shadchan provided and anyone else you can find who really knows the girl and her family. Write down everything they say and read it over. You’ll figure it out.”

“Yeah, Easy for you to say.”

Shulamis put her hand on Molly’s shoulder.

“I’ve got a list of questions I use. I’ll send them to you and ring me whenever you like. I’m happy to help.”

It wasn’t almost midnight by the time Molly sat down to read the list. She was alone at the kitchen table, seated in one of the blonde wood Windsor chairs she and Nahum had imported from the US in their lift, an entire household stuffed into a freight container. In the nineties, they didn’t sell Windsor chairs in Israel. Her fingers were curled round a glass of water filled to the brim with ice cubes and lemon slices.

The list began a single word. “Smoke?” When Molly was a teenager, she had smoked. becoming expert in the art of blowing smoke rings, a talent which impressed children and increased her social currency She’d quit of course, when she took up yoga—the two were incompatible and she never picked up again.. In the circles she moved in today only men smoked in public. Molly remembered that Shulamis’s last child to get married was a daughter–many yeshiva students still smoked. That was probably why she asked.

As to Ayelet Gold, in the highly unlikely event that she did smoke, she’d probably keep it so quiet that no one would ever know. After that came basic questions, age, height and, build which was a coy way of asking if the girl carried excess poundage. She had yet to ascertain a precise definition of Asher’s type but she knew one thing—no fat girls need apply. “No semi trailer,” he said and the unfortunate and shocking vulgarism stuck in her mind.. She continued to read Shulamis’s questionnaire

“ Is he/she easy going/bossy,/demanding.” Select one.” Molly crossed it out and instead wrote.” Describe her temperament.” Open ended was surely better than multiple choice.

Then came a question that made Molly wince. “Did the family yell?”

When she’d returned home weighted down with dozens of pink cellophane bags full of groceries and hardly an ounce of strength to lift them from the car into the house Bella wouldn’t leave the computer to help until Molly let out a roar. Would that disqualify the Tumim’s.

There was a question about siblings, what they were doing. She thought of Bella’s many troubles and about Elazar who’d been had today been sent home to get a haircut. Molly didn’t mind long hair on men. When she’d first met Nahum his hair was longer than Elazar’s. Why did a slight lengthening of the tresses cause the rabbis to get all bent out of shape?

And then the final clincher. “Expecting money?”She neatly folded the questionnaire and slid it into her kitchen desk right next to the slip of paper containing the phone numbers of the references. When would she get to this? Tomorrow perhaps, once Nahum got home.

***

The morning was bright and sunny and only mildly hot. When she and Shulamis took their six AM walk Molly hugged her arms to her chest to warm herself.–a rare delight during the searing Israeli summer. As they strode back home from the forest Shulamis asked about the questions.” What did you think Were they helpful?.”

“Oh yes but I still don’t’ see myself doing this. But I’ll gladly pay you to do it for me. What do you say about that..,”said Molly.

“No,”said Shulamis. She walked as briskly as she spoke.” You’re not only listening to what people say but to how they say it. You’re the mother, You’ll be attuned to the nuances.”

Molly stopped freezing in place..” But I can’t.”

Shulamis stood next to her waiting for her.

“Come on. Didn’t you once told me that you used to act a bit.” In college Molly been played Big Nurse in”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

“Oh gosh, that was in another lifetime..”

“Well pretend that you’re on stage, saying your lines.”

When she got home she took out the questionnaire. Was she really ready. She stared at it again and returned it to the drawer. Then she took it out along with the list of references. Such long and complicated names Kopolovich, Genechovsky, Hasonvitch, Wildomirsky and Weiss. Such long and complicated names–would she mispronounce them. What if they only spoke Hebrew. She lifted the receiver. Which number should she dial. Weiss-. Weiss’s line was busy. She put down the receiver and poured herself a cup of coffee. No, she’d wait until Nahum would come home. Maybe he could do this. He was a great talker, but what if these people spoke only Hebrew. Then he’d be sunk. She looked at the calendar tacked above her desk. Today was Wednesday and tomorrow would be Thursday which was almost Shabbos and then Nahum would arrive and she’d need to get ready for Shabbos. She had Nahum had already invited a houseful of guests, mostly students who were visiting Israel on a birthright tour. The Tumim’s regularly had these guests. Molly loved being the one to introduce them to Shabbos for the first time. No , tomorrow she’d be too busy. Shulamis’s exhortation rang in her ears. Be an actor. She straightened her spine and took a deep cleansing breath just as she would before giving a class. Then she punched Mrs. Kopolovich’s numbers into the phone.

She answered and she spoke a perfect Brooklyn accented English.” Oh what a wonderful girl.” .She regaled Molly with tales of Ayelet ; how she had calmed her classmates down on the morning of a big test by treating them cookies she’d baked and decorated to look like accountant’s ledgers.

“You must have davened well.. This is a zechus.”

From Genechovich who turned out to be Genendy Genechovich, Ayelet’s best friend since childhood she learned Ayelet’s schedule. On Monday a Torah class. Every Tuesday she was off to the hospital to help care for a desperately ill infant. Every Wednesday she went to the gym and everything Thursday she mopped the floors for an elderly widow who lived down the block. On Friday she helped her own mother or married sisters.

Just hearing it made Molly dizzy. And from the other references she heard similar tales which she duly transcribed into a notebook. As to money, well, Molly didn’t quite get to that. It seemed a shame to interrupt all of those wonderful stories with such a base question.

***

Nahum came home on Friday morning, his eyes deeply ringed and his business suit rumped. Molly had gotten up early and prepared his favorite breakfast, freshly brewed coffee and blueberry pancakes but he barely picked at it.

“But can’t we talk just a little bit?”Molly asked.

“Can’t it wait… I’m just zonked.”

“What about just a short talk.” She’d tell Nahum all the wonderful things she’d heard– she’d already undated him through Whatsapp.

“Do this concern that girl, what’s her name”

“Yes, I think we should say yes.”

“I was guessing that.” Nahum got up from the table.

“So,”Molly stood next to him her arms rested at her waist her elbows pointing out.

“So what are they going to live on?”

“What do all couples do? She works. She’s got a job. He learns and we help.”

“Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Scott is cutting back on my hours.” Scott was Nahum’s brother in law and his employer.” His new daughter in law the one who just passed the bar. She’s getting my work.”

“How can he replace you like that, you’ve got so much experience.”

“It’s not that difficult and she’s a smart cookie ….so we really need to know the financials. You want the kids to have an apartment right? Not to sleep in a tent.”

“Well so. You don’t have to be sarcastic.”

“I told you I’m too tired now and I’m not being sarcastic. I’m being realistic. We need to know if we have partners.”

“So?” Molly raised her hands into the air.

“So. If you really want this thing to happen find out the financials.” Was her husband asking her to pry into the private financial affairs of strangers?

Alone in the kitchen Molly felt as if her heart had been edged out of her chest. She’d already allowed herself to design the invitations, select the gowns she and Bella would wear, even , imagine the future grandkids. How many girls like this would come around and how could she let a little thing like money blow the match?

She looked at her fridge, completely covered with wedding invitations. Until now she hadn’t appreciated what a miracle it was that anyone got married at all. Just before candle lighting Nahum brought Molly a bouquet of roses.” What is this for?”

“Well I was a bit hard on your, but I have an idea?”

“What?”

“Go to see Rebetzin Brill. Ask her. If she’s okay with this then so am I.”

Just then the air raid whistle blew announcing the arrival of Shabbos. As she covered her face with her hands to pray near the Shabbos candles, Molly felt an overwhelming feeling of peace. It would happen. Asher would marry a wonderful girl. Everything would be fine.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 1 – a Jerusalem American BT Family’s Struggle to Find a Bride for Their FFB Yeshiva Bochur Son.

Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.

Chapter 1

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen

From as far back as she could remember, even before she reinvented herself as an orthodox Jew, Molly Tumim believed in synchronicity, and August 4, 2015 was one of those days when she believed in it most of all. On this particular morning she was on the bus returning to Har Nof from a women’s only gym where tried to teach a yoga class. Instead of demonstrating sun salutations, she spent forty five minutes in lotus position on the fake parquet floor until Reva, the supervisor, a perky twenty something redhead in a floral headscarf sent her home. “Sorry. I guess my ladies prefer Pilates.”

She didn’t sound sorry enough.

Molly exited quickly disappointed but not devastated— the job paid poorly and Molly didn’t believe that yoga should be taught in a gym. She was disappointed of course; rejection never feels good but she was pleased with herself too. While she waited she was able to think deeply about her first born son Asher now a twenty two year old yeshiva student in need of a bride. He was now old enough to date and to marry and she had the perfect girl — her upstairs neighbor Dena Maisels whose slender blonde green eyed form resembled a much younger Molly. Not that looks were the only criteria, far from it. Asher’s bride would need to have sterling character and come from a fine family. The daughter of a noted Torah scholar and herself a social worker in training Dena had the goods and there was chemistry, or there had been between her and Asher.

When they were still old enough to play together Dena and Asher had spent hours together constructing Lego metropolises.
It wasn’t unusual for a boy to marry the first girl he ever dated. It happened all the time. Even in her own family to two of the children of her husband’s brother and law partner Scott. What remained was the matter of logistics. Should she reach out to Dena’s Mom or would she require the services of a matchmaker?

The bus took a long time coming. When it pulled in it was packed . Molly stood until a moon faced Bais Yaakov girl offered up her seat. While she appreciated the gift and thanked the girl profusely it only increased her sense that she was washed up. Her career was clearly in the doldrums but at fifty three she wasn’t ready for retirement.

The soporific effect of the bus’s motion kicked in and Molly fell asleep. When she woke the bus had emptied out and the only remaining passengers were herself and an extremely tallwoman in black sunglasses a turquoise maxi dress and a dramatically cut black bob wig. When the woman spoke into her phone -loudly in bad Hebrew coated with a flat Midwestern accent, she was Ellen, now known as Esther Bernstein — a former neighbor who’d struck pay dirt as a matchmaker.

They had been neighbors when their children were small, Esther catching Molly’s ire by , leaving her children, sweet girl twins and a horrible hyperactive boy for hours of gratis babysitting but the years had bleached those memories away. Molly’s lips curled into a luminous smile What an amazing “coincidence,” finding herself alone on the bus with a matchmaker now! This was synchronicity at work.

Carefully balancing as the bus swerved through the hilly neighborhood Molly made her way to Esther. Still son her phone, Esther turned in her direction. “ Hey. You’re looking gorgeous as always.”

A slim woman in a fat world Molly heard those words a lot. Most of the time she shrugged them off, but after the mornings events she purposely allowed them to sink in.

“And what about your adorable son Asher? He’s at Hadar isn’t he… Great yeshiva! Is he dating?”

“Well actually,” Though she was usually fluent Esther’s uncanny ability to read her mind caused her to stammer. “What about De, De Dena Maisels.”

Esther winked. “Cute. I like that. A Mom who knows what she wants. I think I can help.”

Molly face glowed as if she was already standing under the huppah next to Asher and Dena. Just then the bus jolted to a stop and Esther rose to get off.

“We’ll be in touch,” she yelled as the bus rolled away.

As she walked home in the heat Molly hummed “Od Yishama,” the Jewish wedding march her feet treading lightly on the concrete. While she waited for the elevator she whatsapped her husband Nahum in New Jersey. He was away working again practicing law at his brother in law’s firm. Molly hated these trips; she missed him terribly but she couldn’t see how the family would survive without his American paycheck.

“Sounds good, I think he’s ready to go out and Dena seems like a nice girl.” But then he added something that shook Molly out of her reverie.

“Find out how much the Maisels are offering.”

Molly knew that in many families, financial arrangements went along with marriage but she never expected to be involved in such things. Her children would marry as she did—for compatibility, for shared values but also for love.

“Are we selling Asher to the highest bidder? “ Her voice dripped with irony.

“Do you want the kids to have an apartment or would you rather they live in a tent. Think about it. Having inlaws who can share costs is not a bad thing.”

When Molly got home she discovered Asher standing in the kitchen fixing himself sandwich.

Instead of greeting him with a smile or a kiss she grew tense. “Aren’t you supposed to be at yeshiva?”

“The air conditioner broke down so I came home until they can get it fixed.”

“Hmm,” Molly fought her natural tendency to react to remind Asher that a yeshiva student should be so thirsty for Torah that a malfunctioning AC wouldn’t matter to him but she held herself back.

“Asher,” Now she smiled, her eyes dancing with her secret.

“Remember you told me that you’d like to start dating.”

“Yeah so….. Asher looked at her queerly as if he sensed that she was up to something.

“Well I’ve got an idea.”

“With whom. I need to know.”

Asher was her best kid, a refreshing contrast from the rebellious younger brother and sister who came after him. He wore his black suit, white shirt and black fedora every day winter and summer. He stayed in the study hall most of the time, listened to Schweky on his MP3 instead of Beyoncé on his iPhone, didn’t even surf internet very much. She thought he’d be excited. Instead he sounded like he didn’t trust her.

“I’ve been thinking and I think that you can Dena Maisels…..”

Asher crossed his brow. “You mean that giggly girl from the seventh floor?”

“I think it’s worth one date. Remember how nicely used to play together?.”

“Mom, I don’t know if you noticed but I don’t’ play with Lego anymore and besides she’s got all that frizz and freckles. She’s not my type..”

Since when did Asher who wasn’t even supposed to look at girls have a type. What a morning. No job and now no bride either. Molly suddenly felt unsteady on her feet, the combined result of the morning’s disasters with a bit of dehydration added in. She escaped to her air-conditioned bedroom for a long nap and she was just getting up when Esther phoned her back.

“Sorry but I called the Maisels. It’s not happening. ”

“What? Any reason? “Molly’s voice was thick with emotion.

“They said she’s busy now.”

Molly leaned into the pillow. “Busy with what?”

“Trust me,. If the match is for you, it will go through and besides, I’ve got an even better idea. Between me you and the lamppost this girl is a bigger metziya, better looking, smarter and more gelt. I’ll give you the basics. Her name is Ayelet Gold. She’s a Beit Batya girl. Graduated last year. “Beit Batya , that named called to her.

Beit Batya was the best religious girls’ high school in Jerusalem famed for its blend of sincere piety, high level academics, a refreshing open-mindedness – each a week a rabbi wandered between the classrooms encouraging the girls to ask any question at all no matter how outrageous.

Molly dreamed of sending her only daughter Bella but Bella didn’t make the cut. She went to Beit Rina instead, which was far easier to get into and even there was she always in trouble. If Molly couldn’t have a Bait Batya girl for a daughter having one for a daughter in law was more than adequate consolation. Was there anything else Molly needed to know? Money? Nahum said to ask about money, but she’d leave that for now. Hmm. How did one go about having this conversation. Family.

“Who is the family?” Molly felt pleased that she’d asked the right question.

“Big yichus. Thirty generations of rabbis. They have a chart in their living room. You’ll be proud to have them as in-laws,”

The last rabbi the Tumim tree died over a century years ago. Then she had an anxious thought. What if this family, the Gold’s were Israelis? How would she cope with Israeli in-laws? After over a quarter century in Israel she spoke Hebrew well enough, but it wasn’t just that. It was the mentality. How would she cope with Israeli in-laws but then again Esther didn’t say that they were Israeli.

”Do they speak English?”

“Are you kidding? “Esther let out a loud guffaw. “The Mom’s from Cleveland , Dad is from Baltimore. Here, I’ll read out the references?”

The word with it’s harsh employment agency associations confused her. Why should one need references for love, for marriage?

Esther dictated a long list of phone numbers of Ayelet’s teachers, friends, rabbis.

“Call them. I’m sure you’ll be pleased.”

Now Molly felt a ripple of fear. “How can I call people I don’t know. Isn’t that like spying. “

“Trust me, “said Esther. “This is how it’s done.” Molly paused dumbstruck. It was as if she’d been hurled back in time to the beginning of her religious journey . How confused she’d been by the simplest details such as remembering how many times to pour water over your hands before after waking from sleep and how many times before eating bread.

“Is it really, “ she asked but by the time the words left her lips Esther had hung up. Hardly a day went by when the Tumim’s mailbox didn’t bulge with a wedding invitation and or a wedding or engagement party but the back story, that is how these couples actually came together together was a mystery. That was intentional . It was a Jewish belief that by talking too much one attracted the evil eye that quiet even to the point of secrecy invited blessing.

These days there were books with titles like “A Diamond for Your Daughter,” Molly had glanced at them but making a shidduch from a book was like trying out a recipe without tasting the food and yet she needed help, a flesh and blood mentor to guide her through.

Bob Dylan and Me

A True Story

St. Paul Minnesota is not a popular tourist attraction in winter, but there I was in December 1984, wandering around the lobby of Bais Chana. Perched atop a hill, in a monastic looking building situated amongst large sprawling suburban homes, would be the place where I would confront myself as a Jewess for the first time.

The Lubavitcher shluchim at StonyBrook University where I had been a student hadn’t told me too much about the place except, that there was a certain Rabbi Manis Friedman there who specialized in answering questions for girls like me, whatever that meant.

Feeling lost and aimless, I tentatively stood in the empty lobby. It seemed that I had been one of the first to arrive for that winter session, and the place was not yet as packed as if would get later on. Few people were around and all was silent.

Then suddenly I saw a figure appear at the front door and I gasped. It couldn’t be real, but it was. Right in front of my eyes stood none other than Bob Dylan. At the time I didn’t know that this was during Bob Dylan’s Torah ‘stage’, and that he had been studying privately with Rabbi Friedman and was a regular visitor to Bais Chana during those years.

There Bob Dylan stood, right in front of me, in all his glory, wearing his signature faded jeans and black motorcycle jacket. “Hi,” he said to me softly, ‘How are you doin’?”

This was all a bit too much for me to take in. Here I was going to a place that I thought would be trying to teach me to go back into time, to become like my grandmother, and here was the king of all things hip and cool, a 1960’s prophet, the master of rebellion against the establishment, right there in front of me, in the flesh.

Despite feeling as if I had been just struck by lightening, I mustered up a meek,’ I’m fine.” Then Bob Dylan came over to me and gave me a gentle pat on my back and said, ’It’s cool, don’t worry, everything is cool. It’s gonna be alright.” And he walked away, through the hallway and disappeared as fast as he had come.

I immediately found a payphone and called my friend David.

‘Bob Dylan is here! And he talked to me”

‘Then that must be a cool place,’ David said, and he later followed me to Crown Heights. After all, if Bob Dylan was there, then David was right, this was a cool place, and I felt better about being there. In fact, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time, and at that moment, I decided that if one of my teen idols was studying there, then I would stick it out too.

Bob Dylan never stayed the course as far as Yiddishkeit goes, he travelled a very zig zagged road, in and out of a number or religions. In a strange way though, one could say that Bob Dylan brought me back, with just a few kind words, when I was facing a fork in the road, he showed me the correct path.

Originally Posted on March 13, 2006

We are ‘Jewish’ Stardust

By Avraham Rosenblum of the Diaspora Band

On January 4th, 1971, I disembarked from the EL AL Boeing 707 at Lod Airport, suitcase and guitar in hand, in need of a change of scene. What I didn’t expect was the total change of direction I would take from following my dreams as an up-and-coming teen-aged rocker on the Philadelphia (my home town) and New York music scenes. But I need to back-track a little, to mid-August, 1969.

I was driving up the New York Thruway in my little brown Austen-America, heading to Montreal to drop in on some friends. I was running away from two heartaches; breaking up with my high school sweetheart, and my band, Valentine, falling apart. It was a great band. Philadelphia loved us. My girlfriend didn’t ‘get’ me anymore and so we broke up. Missing her gave me some good songs, though.

Somewhere around Yonkers I picked up a hitch-hiker whom I almost immediately poured my heart out to because, well, he dressed like me, had long hair, and had the same goofy sense of humor. As we got ‘goofier’ he asked me if I might want to distract myself at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, starting the next day near Monticello, NY. I had heard about it but had not planned to go. “Hey, dynamite idea!” I said.

‘By the time we got to Woodstock’

It was still pretty early on that Thursday, the day before the concerts started, when I parked near the festival site, somewhere just below Happy Avenue, one of the roads leading to the sloping, expansive meadow of Max Yasgur’s Farm. Along the upper ridge were the campers, tents, artisans and vendors, where it felt like a medieval village populated mostly by jesters. At the bottom of the meadow stood the huge hand-built stage, and the speaker towers. You could hear a band jamming in a closed rehearsal area. My passenger soon drifted away never to be seen again, and as I waded into the growing sea of happy people who also dressed and talked a lot like me, I got an epiphany that this was going to be a life changing event. “Far out, man!”.. I thought.

I was elated to be part of this new social order. I belonged in it. I had worked hard to forget my origins as a First Generation Yiddish speaking Holocaust Survivors kid from Northeast Philadelphia. My music and this culture were my way out and into the melting pot of America. My band-mates and friends were mostly children or grandchildren of Italian, Irish, and Scottish immigrants. Few were Jews. We were all looking for the same thing. And, me being me, I interpreted my Woodstock experience as spiritual, in the sense that our generation was in search of peace, love, harmony, anti the Vietnam War, and I was very impressed by the well-known turban clad swami who gave the opening benediction. For those few days we all partied, heard some great musicians and bands, and sang, “Come on people now / smile on your brother!/ everybody get together / try to love one another right now!” Peace brother! The swirls of images of ‘Woodstock’ that remain in my mind are proof- to myself – that I was there. Years later I even caught a glimpse of me in an early scene of the movie. See – I really was there!

One thing led to another quickly; the crowd got larger (500,000!), the music more intense, the weather rainier, and my sense of direction- which normally was quite acute – limited to ‘up or down’ mode. On Saturday night, after some hours of searching, I found my car. Six very helpful hippies helped me roll it out of the mud. I clearly remember feeling grateful to ‘someone’ that my guitars and belongings were still there. I was wet, chilled, and hungry, and stupidly determined to continue northward to Quebec even though the hour was getting late. But a few miles up the road I realized that the snaking center line was not a good sign as my head began to hurt and I started to feel feverish. I turned around and ‘somehow’ found Monticello General Hospital where, after a cursory look by a staffer, I was very kindly shown to a chair in the waiting room, in which I fell asleep.

‘My Yiddish Kite’

I awoke as people began to enter the room at 9 AM. I noticed a number of them were “frum” (although in those days I had no clue about Chassidim vs Misnagdim or Sefardic vs Ashkenazic. But I knew my family was from Vilna and that that made me a Litvak). So there I was – my unwashed shoulder length hair, love beads, well-worn denims, and muddy shoes on display, when I caught the glance of one young ‘yeshiva bochur’ whom I instantly greeted:

“Shalom! Vos machts du?” (Peace! How are you?)
“Vos tust’DE doh?”, (What are YOU doing here?) he asked with surprise.
“Ich hob kekumen tzu Woodstock!” (I attended Woodstock!) I answered forthrightly, as if to impress him.
“Un vus host’du gezucht bei Woodstock?” (And what were you looking for at Woodstock?) he asked with some genuine interest.
Switching to English, I said something about finding G-d in the big experience of unity, and not being limited to a synagogue. Unfazed, but needing to fulfill his mission of visiting a sick friend, the yeshiva bochur apologized for not having the time to continue our conversation and wrote down a phone number and address on a piece of notepaper which he handed to me while recommending “If you’re really looking for G-d and spirituality check this out. Shalom. Zei Gezundt!” (Be well!)

I did continue looking for G-d for the next year – in a small Jewish-Buddhist-Christian cult and through the Timothy Leary – ‘Doors of Perception’ method, while writing and performing songs written in that vein. But by September of 1970, when my last American band, Freehand, was getting good reviews in New York at the most notable Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, I was a mess and felt lost. I quit the band and within a month I reluctantly went home to my family back in Northeast Philadelphia. They were actually quite glad to see me. But the family dog, Dolly, was not happy to meet my cat, Thumb, who disappeared soon after.

I had one last encounter with possible fame that December, when a show business contact personally introduced me to legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway” and more) who took an interest in me for their new record label.

‘A Greener in a Green Land’

Well, I actually took that trip to Israel in 1971 with my mother, Edith, Aleha Ha’Shalom, and my Aunt Helene, Aleha Ha’Shalom. The family thought it would be good for me to get away from ‘everything’ and I decided that taking a break to see some of the world couldn’t hurt before I resumed my career. I called Barry and Cynthia to postpone my test sessions in New York for few weeks, which they were OK with.

When we landed all I could think was how green and fresh everything looked. It was in fact a brand new country – only 23 years old! I was 20. Something began to stir. I was excited to be there. Why? I wasn’t observant. I hadn’t gone to synagogue in years. What could it mean? I did try to volunteer to go to Israel in 1967, during the Six Day War. I was only 16 so the consulate rejected me. That was it. I also went to my Godmother’s funeral around that time too. That was Jewish, but.. Yes, I was feeling all kinds of feelings, seeing things I didn’t expect to see, asking all kinds of questions, and hearing the sounds of bubbles frequently bursting.

One afternoon as I walked along Rehov Allenby near our hotel, I noticed another guy carrying a guitar case. He looked American, the case looked like it might be carrying a quality instrument, and so I flagged him down. I was right on both counts, and soon Sam from Chicago and Allen (my English name) were jamming our way across Israel on buses, at Hebrew University Campus, and one cloudy but enlightening afternoon in the back of an Old City Arab smoke-shop, where we got “hookahed up” and played some good ole boy country music for the un-country-like, loose garbed patrons – and they loved it! From there, Sam led me to my first encounter with The Wailing Wall (which of course I now only know as The Kotel HaMaaravi) and a rabbi who had me put on Tefillin for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. The sounds of Hebrew prayer all around me woke something up, and as the rabbi attempted to coach me in reading the blessings, my mouth had already formed the words – that flowed sweetly out across my tongue: “Shema Yisrael / Ado-Shem Elokeinu /Ado-Shem Echad…”

Just like that. What a long, strange trip it had been.

End of Part 1.

I, Rabbi (Part Three – Conclusion)

Part One of this three-post series is here.

Part Two is here.

It was a nice wedding. Not a heimishe wedding, despite my best efforts in that direction, but nice all the same, and kosher, too.

Well, the food wasn’t kosher. Oh, mine was, as was that of the other “special kosher” diners, but it was kind of the “airplane food” scene. I was a little disappointed. Not over the food, but over the clear (and accurate) appearance that we were eating “the kosher food” and everyone else was not. No, it was not lobsters or over-the-top treif, but I think my groom was in a bit of denial over what the contrast would look like.

But by then I was mostly done. The ceremony went off without a hitch, though I was glad to have my “real rabbi” backup and witness whispering in my ear when I got nervous (and I was nervous!) and stammered over the pronunciation of a word in one of the Sheva Brochos. (For all my glibness, I had stammered considerably at my own wedding over 20 years earlier!) The chupa [“canopy,” i.e., the ceremony conducted under the canopy] wasn’t conventional by orthodox wedding standards, but it was as kosher as what I put in my mouth later at the meal. Evidently my cantorial skills held up respectably as well (always a touchy topic with me!), but no one rushed up to me at dinner with a recording contract or a request to preside over Yom Kippur services on an ocean liner either.

I did decide that I’d have to wear my “Rabbi Suit” (dark suit, straight tie and fedora) and give them their money’s worth, so I lost the rare opportunity to wear black tie, in which I look so dashing, as the invitation indicated. It was more than compensated for, of course, including by the pleasant comments I got from attendees as the evening went on. Many were very grateful for how I had described the respective stages of the ceremony as we went through them, noting that they had been to many traditionally-structured weddings but never understood what was going on. I also answered questions that people had, which tended to be very basic. Also the staff at the hall and with the caterer called me “rabbi” all night, which was kind of fun and pretty harmless. No serious halachic inquiries were broached.

One very pleasant encounter was from a cousin of the groom’s father who had, along with her husband, flown all the way from England for this wedding. They were frum, in fact, and were steeling themselves for who-knows-what of a wedding ceremony. They were surprised and delighted that the wedding had been conducted, per the words used by the groom, k’das Moshe v’Yisroel [in the tradition of Moshe and the Jewish nation].

Another nice moment came from the groom’s father. He was a Sephardi, but like many families who had left the world of Oriental Jewry one or two generations ago the old ways were only a memory for him. They were, however, a vivid, warm memory, and he told me gratefully and emotionally how the wedding, as well as the Friday night Shabbos meal the couple had arranged the Shabbos before, had brought him back with bittersweet memories of his youth. He seemed to feel some regret for what he had left behind.

My work here was done. I am back in rabbinic retirement, and not seeking additional engagements (so to speak). Marrying twice — marrying my wife, and marrying this couple — is plenty of marrying for me! I’ll stick with the low-pressure environment of federal court, thank you.

My Brother’s Big Fat Secular Wedding

Blast from the past, first posted on Nov 8, 2006.

We had asked our rabbi if we were even allowed to attend, and he told us since there is an assumption that Jewish weddings on the whole are at least kosher style that we were permitted to go but that, of course, we shouldn’t eat anything. I was relieved since I knew that telling my family, my mother in particular, that we wouldn’t be able to make it would be the start of World War Three. Besides, I had already rented the tux.

I was asked to speak and, as you might imagine, I was quite nervous. Besides trying to put feelings into words, which is especially hard for me, it was to be in front of an audience of three hundred or so secular Jews and I hoped that I would be a Kiddush Hashem. When I told another rabbi that I would be speaking he
advised me to try to convey some kind of positive Jewish message.

I spent the good part of two days trying to find the right things to say. I managed to borow a good line or two from a couple of speeches I had heard and to recycle a poignant d’var torah that I planned to give over. However, because of an incident, both tragic and sadly ironic, that occurred shortly before the big speech, much of my plan changed.

We listened to the father of the bride k’vell over his daughter and make the typical jokes about how he’d be paying for the wedding for the next twenty years. Then the bride’s sister spoke about the time she stole her sister’s sticker book and paid the price for it. The best man was very heartfelt as he congratulated the bride and groom, and then I, the brother of the groom, was summoned to speak.

I briefly acknowledged the presence of some of the more senior family members in attendance and related that it was an honor to be asked to say a few words. I swallowed hard and decided for sure, at that moment, that I was actually going to say the words I had concocted in my head, only a half-hour earlier as a result of that tragic and sadly ironic “pre-speech” incident. I continued, “I had prepared to say something very deep and meaningful about G-d and torah…” At this point I felt the collective breath of the crowd drop as they clearly had no desire to be bored by some religious guy talking about the one thing that they absolutely didn’t feel like listening to at that time. I continued “…but after one of the waiters offered me a scallop wrapped in bacon at the cocktail hour, I decided that maybe speaking about G-d and Torah wasn’t the way to go at this event.”

Would you believe me if I told you that the roar emanating from that reception hall was so loud and filled with laughter that it could wake a dead man? Well, it was.

Now I knew that the line was funny and ironic before I said it, but I guess I didn’t really comprehend its genius until I heard the crowd’s reaction. After that I could have gotten away with saying just about anything! It’s true! Chazal wasn’t kidding when they said that a person should open his speech with a joke! Good advice!

In the end, I did manage to discuss a Jewish concept, albeit very briefly, and with the response of a good deal of laughter from the crowd. I focused on the concept of breaking the glass underneath the chuppah. I related that Chazal instructed us to break a glass under the chuppah because at the time of our greatest joy we are to remember the great loss we suffered with the destruction of our holy Temple in Jerusalem. I emphasized, however, what was implicit in the words of Chazal, that this day is the time of the couple’s greatest joy, that indeed today, their wedding day, is the happiest day of their lives and that from this day forward….it would be all down hill. I was joking of course…and did they ever laugh! Who knew I was so funny?

May we all soon merit a time when we Jews witness the rebuilding of our holy Temple in Jerusalem and a time when Jews no longer serve scallops wrapped in bacon at their simchas!

I, Rabbi (Part Two)

Part One of this three-post series is here.

I found another rabbi to speak to about this question. Two, in fact. The first, very engaged in outreach, told me how he had wrestled with the issue of conducting wedding ceremonies for non-observant Jews. He acknowledged the serious halachic challenges, and responsibilities, implicated by doing so. But his mentor and rebbe had, when asked this question by him, all but laughed at him for asking it: “Two Jews want to get married in our day and age — you shouldn’t do everything possible to make this happen?” Well, that is how I had seen it. He gave me some tips.

The kashrus, he said, isn’t likely to be under your control, but you can’t agree to do this if they’re going to be serving “conspicuously treif” food; that just debases your involvement and could eventually come back to haunt you, rabbi, as well. You can say that the bride must go to the mikveh first. You can make sure the kesuvah is halachically competent. And because you have a relationship with the couple, you can sort of at least hope to “own” the “get issue” if it comes to that, which is a chief concern of those who are reluctant to get involved in such marriages. His words encouraged me.

The second rabbi was helpful in a completely complimentary fashion. He was in fact almost never referred to as a rabbi, and though people know he is learned, not too many people know that he was ordained by a major yeshiva as a young man decades ago. But not only is he ordained: He told me, when I recounted all this to him, that he could help with two of the missing pieces: Being witness number two at the chupa [“canopy,” i.e., the ceremony] (an easy one), and being recognized as ordained by the clerk of the City of New York — thus the official “officiant” for purposes of the law. He had one question — well, two. The first one was, “They’re getting proper glatt meals for people who want them?” Yes, I said. The second one was, “So they’ll give me dinner for this?” I laughed — of course dinner! (“Only half price!”)

Rabbi #2 also was very familiar with the precise halachic issues we’d have to nail down, and helped guide me through them. One of them involved the kesuvah. Assuming, correctly, that the couple would want to have an “art” kesuvah, he explained to me what the halachic issues, and controversies, were, and what wording I had to look for and look out for. Let’s just say that at the end of the day I prevailed on the couple to use whatever they wanted for their living room wall, but to privately allow me to use a standard, halachically valid kesuvah that they could keep in their filing cabinet “so your kids will always know it was done according to all opinions.” That was a formulation the first rabbi had suggested to me, and, used sparingly, it came in quite handy.

So I had my rabbinical advice, across the board. I had, eventually, cooperation from the couple, who agreed to the form of kesuvah, the mikveh (huge, right?) and pretty much everything that mattered. I, in turn, had to agree to come early; to be called “rabbi” by the staff; and, I decided, to forego dusting off my tuxedo in order to achieve the proper clerical decorum on that night. And I had to commit, of course, to actually take a hard look at the seder kedushin [the wedding ceremony], learn it, and be prepared to execute it! At my age, I don’t do new things every day. This turned out to be a simple matter, but, even for me, a little scary.

The happy ending, along with the nerves, the detours and the airline food, I will tell you about in Part 3, IY”H.

Ron Coleman is married to his everyday blog about intellectual property law. It’s called LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

I, Rabbi (Part One)

I’m no rabbi. Except, in too many cases, compared to everyone else on the guest list.

So in addition to “fielding questions,” as we all do, I’ve “done” or “presided over” or “conducted” too many unveilings, burials — pedestrian stuff, of course, but you have to be willing to stick your neck out and be, well, rabbinic, when friends and family call and are counting on you for this stuff, or where it’s the only way to avoid having things done horribly wrong by a “rental.”

But a wedding?

A co-worker, a good friend, was engaged. Jewish guy to a Jewish girl. Both in their mid-30’s. A big simcha in this day and age! One a lawyer, one a doctor. Very nice, sincere people. And I suppose it’s no surprise that in what has been described as a “post-denominational era” in Jewish life that, as far as Danny (not his real name) was concerned, the only “rabbi” he could have “perform” the wedding was his boss. Me.

I tried to squirm out of it, but halfheartedly; I knew this was going to happen. You don’t have to be a rabbi to be mesader kidushin — get two kosher Jews eligible to wed married. You need two kosher witnesses and a some wine and a ring and … a few things. I realized that this could be an opportunity to influence the couple and perhaps elicit some halachic observances that might otherwise be lacking.

But I also knew I needed guidance. So I called my Local Orthodox Rabbi. Well, one of them.

I was surprised at his reaction. “Don’t do it,” he said, emphatically. “Today’s non-frum Jews are completely hefker [libertine]. You’ll make this girl an eishes ish [halachically married woman] and then who knows what? It’s no mitzvah.”

I explained that I thought this case was different — the couple’s age, professional status, my personal relationship.

He was unmoved. “You don’t need it,” he insisted. “Run in the other direction.”

Well, I explained, I felt some responsibility to help them out, however. I was his only orthodox Jewish friend — really, his only “Jewish Jewish” friend — and he’d turned to me for help here, and moreover for something personal, meaningful, and beautiful. What should I tell him?

“Use your imagination,” he said.

I thanked him.

Then I closed my eyes and imagined I’d never had that conversation.

To be continued.

Ron Coleman’s “outside world” blog about intellectual property law is LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

Sharing the Joy of Others

We’ve recently discussed some of the generalities of which Shuls are right for which people.

Perhaps a sometimes overlooked benefit is sharing in the joy of others and the positive character development that brings in its wake.

There’s a nice story about a “Shlishi to Remember”, on Shul Politics in which shul members experience spontaneous communal joy on a December Shabbos morning.

Upper West Side Story: My True Jewish Story

By Mr. Cohen

It was approximately 1985, and in the summertime, on a Saturday night, that I saw her. We were in Manhattan’s Upper West Side neighborhood. She looked very lost. People of various races and ages passed her by, indifferent to her plight. I, as a native of New York City, wanted to help her.

Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, had just finished, and I had not yet returned to the apartment of my host. She looked so lost, that I just had to offer my assistance. She told me her story. She was a black woman from South Africa, visiting New York City, and the only clue that she possessed as to her required destination was on a piece of paper that she showed me. She was never in New York City before and probably was never outside South Africa before either.

I did my best to figure out what her paper meant, and listened to her problem at length. Finally, I figured out where she had to go and helped her find a car service. But I did not want to leave a young lady alone on the dark streets of post-Shabbat Manhattan, so I waited with her on the street until her car arrived.

When her car was already in sight, she said to me: You must be a Jew.

Perplexed, I took note of the facts that I did not have a beard, had not used Hebrew or Yiddish words in my conversation, was not wearing Jewish clothes, and certainly had not made any mention of my Jewishness.

Curiously, I asked her: How did you know that I am a Jew?

Her response to my question has never stopped echoing in my ears: Because you were so kind to me.

Bronx Boy Takes His Talents to the Holy Land

While most of his classmates in the graduating class of 1986 headed west, south and north to Ivy League universities throughout the USA, Rabbi Daniel Travis traveled East to the land of Israel to explore his heritage and eventually built his life and his family there.

After a number of years of graduate and postgraduate study, Rabbi Travis, who was an honors student and a member of the track team at Bronx High School of Science, received semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

Shortly after the birth of his first child, Rabbi Travis had an experience that shook his life. He was crossing the street in Israel, and a young, newly licensed 17-year-old driver smashed into him. Rabbi Travis’ head went through the windshield of the car, he was thrown ten feet into the air and across the street landing headfirst on the concrete. A watermelon truck coming in the opposite direction came to within a fraction of an inch of running him over. The non-religious driver ripped the shirt off his back and used it to stop the rush of blood coming from his head.

To the amazement of the hospital’s medical staff, tests showed that Rabbi Travis had suffered no major physical or neurological damage. Aside from cuts, bruises and some broken bones, the doctors found nothing wrong. Everyone in the hospital agreed that the hand of G-d had definitely worked a miracle in his case.

Within a short time he had recovered completely and felt that such an experience was an indication that bigger things were expected of him. He decided to make use of the journalistic talents that he had cultivated in high school, where he had served as editor-in-chief of the school paper, Science Survey, and began to write inspiring articles on timely topics for newspapers in Israel and the US. These articles were latter published by Feldheim publishers under the title “Days of Majesty.” In addition, he has published six other books in Hebrew and English on a diverse range of topics.

Rabbi Travis’ articles have gained him popularity in the English-speaking community in Israel. In time, in another manifestation of the gratitude he felt for being alive and able to give to others, he opened his own institution of higher learning, which he called Toras Chaim, “The Teachings of Living.” The institution is growing quickly and has attracted a number of bright young Americans.

Until the age of 16 Rabbi Travis had almost no formal Jewish education and had to struggle to make up the lost years. With hard work he was able to catch up and make a name for himself in the Torah world. Although the learning in Toras Chaim is on a very high level, Rabbi Travis welcomes students who started with a weaker background, recognizing from his own experiences that a late start can give a person the momentum to achieve great heights. In fact many of the top students in Toras Chaim are themselves baalei teshuva.

Rabbi Travis will shortly be publishing his eighth work Shaylos U’Teshuvos Toras Chaim, responsa on modern day issues, many of which have not been touched by current authorities. In many ways it is a milestone work, and has already received approbations from many of the leading rabbis in Israel and America.

Rabbi Travis is seeking dedications for this work. The money will be used towards publication and distribution of Shaylos U’Teshuvos Toras Chaim. All contributions are tax deductible, and all of the revenue will be used solely to support the yeshiva in the upcoming year.

For more information about contributing towards the publication of this work, his other books and his lecturing schedule, contact the Toras Chaim office at dytravis@actcom or in Israel at 972-57-316-3111. Their website is at www.toraschaim.org. Rabbi Travis also writes classes on Jewish Integrity and Prayer on the website of torah.org

The Hidden Hand – Day of Infamy

Beyond BT contributor, Yaakov Astor has just published his latest book, The Hidden Hand. Here is an excerpt.

1941, a week before Chanukah.

Hitler’s armies are only twenty miles from the Kremlin and German soldiers even joke about catching a bus to see Stalin. Stalin, no friend of the Jews, is nevertheless vital to the safety of Jewry, as well as the world. If the Soviet capital falls, then the two-front war the Germans feared becomes only a one-front war. If Germany has to fight on only one front… the implications are truly frightening to ponder.

Same date — almost dawn — thousands of miles to the east, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: Six aircraft carriers have moved into position. On their decks and in their holds, some 350 modern fighter aircraft primed for action have received the go signal. Their target: Pearl Harbor.

7:40 A.M., Hawaii time. The Japanese achieve total surprise. In fact, surprise is so complete that even before the first bomb is dropped, Squadron Commander Mitsuo Fuchida radios back to the carriers the code words for victory: Tora! Tora! Tora! (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) In less than three hours his pilots will wipe out much of the American Pacific Fleet. It will truly be a day of infamy.

However, even more infamous and insidious events are occurring this day. In German occupied territory, hundreds of miles behind the front lines, in the tiny town of Chelmno, a diabolical experiment is taking place. The hierarchies of Nazidom have already ordered the “final solution” to the Jewish question. But, practically speaking, can it be done? Can you get masses of people to walk into a death camp? Can you then exterminate them using a minimum amount of ammunition and soldiers?

In Chelmno on December 7, 1941 the Nazis find out the answer to both questions: Yes. They transport scores of Jews under the guise that they are merely being relocated east. Then they gas them in specially made vans. Historian Martin Gilbert marks Chelmno as the beginning of the Final Solution. To be sure, the Wannsee Conference in early 1942 would set the bureaucratic wheels in motion, and the wheels of the cattles cars transporting Jews to the death camps would not be rolling for several months. Nevertheless, December 7, 1941 is a particular day of infamy of the infamy known as the Holocaust, because on that day the Nazis knew their plans for making Europe Judenrein could become reality and were within their grasp.

Of Historical Moments
We are helpless, hapless creatures in the absence of divine perspective. Our helplessness is even more pronounced during momentous events. Most people are impotent to realize what is happening. And the few who do realize are at a loss to understand. And the rare individual, who perhaps understands the historic moment as it occurs, nevertheless is almost sure to lack detailed comprehension of all the implications.

Caught up in the myopia of life, historic moments cannot be fully appreciated. Time, though, is a kind of divinity in that it affords us that superhuman perspective. Even the layman armed with “time” can perceive patterns and forces the most learned, perceptive person trapped in the myopia of the moment does not have the slightest inkling of.

When divergent threads of historical movement, dancing and bobbing without seeming rhyme or reason, converge into a single moment such as December 7, 1941 even the ardent secularist is hard-pressed to call it coincidence. Coincidence has been described as a letter from God delivered anonymously. Judaism employs a specific term for such coincidence: hashgachah — “Divine Providence”: the acknowledgment that everything that happens happens because there is a Master Weaver expertly spinning a perfectly patterned tapestry. Sometimes the pattern is not immediately apparent. But we who know the Weaver have faith that the final design will be awe-inspiringly evident.

The truth is, however, though people invoke “Divine Providence” for every good occurrence, we often shy from invoking the term when events work against us. Is that fair? If God is all-powerful enough to manipulate events for our good does He lose His omnipotence when events work against us? Perceiving Divine Providence in good events is valuable; however it is relatively easy when all the parts fall into place. Knowing that Divine Providence is in full effect during bad events, though, is a higher level. It requires faith. It requires believing that there is much more happening than what meets the eyes. Therefore, Judaism teaches that Divine Providence — the Almighty’s absolute power of manipulation over every little and big detail of our lives — is every bit in operation to bring about events such as the rise of a Hitler as it is in bringing about his fall.

It should come as little surprise, then, that although December 7, 1941 looked to be the bleakest of times, in reality the reverse is true. Though President Roosevelt himself called it “a date which lives in infamy,” nevertheless in the perfect 20-20 hindsight of history we can say that the dark historical moment that was December 7, 1941 was not completely dark. In fact, like the tiny flask of uncontaminated oil discovered by the Kohanim on Chanukah it contained within it the most sublime luminescence.

There Are No Coincidences

I was reviewing the Parsha Friday morning and I realized that I hadn’t informed my Partners in Torah chavrusa that it was a double parsha. My chavrusa loves to learn and each week he reads *every* Art Scroll note and translation on the parsha.

I gave him a call around 10:15 to tell him. He said that he was just sitting down to learn and he noticed Behar was short and he wondered if perhaps it was a double parsha. At exactly that moment my call came in to tell him that it was a double. Pretty cool.

What’s in a Name?

When I began my journey of return six years ago, one of the first things I was encouraged to do was start using my Hebrew/Yiddish given names, Leah Hudis Esther, or at least Leah.

Not only was it meant to be a new form of self-identification, reflecting my journey of teshuvah, but it also would help me reconnect to my distant past – my Jewish past. How weird, though, like discovering a second personality or running into an old childhood friend.

It had been so long since I used the moniker as a child in parochial school, I had to knock the rust off. I remember my first time at an Orthodox Shul six years ago, meeting the strange panoply of characters that would become my kehilla. Tongue-tied and blushing furiously, I introduced myself as “Leah,” but it came out goyische-style, “Lee-uh” not “Lay-ah,” simply because of nerves.

I realized right away I had blown it. I was mortified. Someone corrected me, not unkindly, informing me, “We say, Lay-ah, not Lee-uh.”

“G-d,” I thought, “It’s just me here. If I really matter to you like they say I do, simple me, can you please help me through this horrible moment ….”

And he did. But that’s a story for another day.

It took me a long time to reconcile the Melanie I remained in my secular (work) life and the Leah I was becoming in my Jewish religious private life. Given my family’s strong opposition to my becoming observant, we fought over it. They thought my using the name Leah was pretentious, which is ironic, since we were all given lovely Hebrew/Yiddish names at birth, like Simcha, Reizel, Devorah and Dovid.

I’m not sure what label you’d affix to my family. We kept “pseudo kosher,” with separate milchig and fleishig dishes and utensils, same for Pesach, but ordered in Chinese every Sunday night. My mother made Shabbos Friday night meals, replete with white tablecloths, gefilte fish and chicken soup, faithfully bentsching licht. Same with the yomim tovim meals, after which we’d watch the hockey or baseball playoffs depending on the season.

We were staunchly affiliated with a large Conservative shul, but were devoted once-a-year attendees.

For better or worse, my parents insisted that I have a “Jewish education” at a Zionist secular day school, where I was taught next to nothing about Torah observance but did learn to read Hebrew, quite handy some 40 years later when I davened for the very first time.

The penultimate middle child, somehow I got overlooked and missed the particularly torturous experience of “serious” Hebrew school learning (Conservative style) and Bas Mitzvah prep. My brothers weren’t so lucky – they had upcoming Bar Mitzvah bashes to worry about. My big sister, the trail-blazing family feminist, had to get ready for a class-action Bas Mitzvah.

Imagine the brain lurch when I came to understand that in the Orthodox world, we devote our entire lives to learning.

Still unfolding, my journey of teshuvah began with an internet conversation several months before 9/11. I stumbled upon an internet messageboard on religion, where I found myself fighting the most virulent anti-Semitism.

And then I argued with an Orthodox Jewish poster, who woke me up to the knowledge that without love of Torah and fear of Hashem, our connection to Judaism was tenuous at best. I ended up marrying that poster, but not before we had a donnybrook over what it meant to be Jew.

What did it mean to be a Jew from my perspective? First you admit you have a problem, put pictures of Sandy Koufax and Leonard Nimoy on your wall, then whip out the checkbook and donate to a Jewish cause. Your job is done.

So when I encountered Eliahu, my husband of almost four years, I began to understand that my definition of “What it means to be a Jew” bore no resemblance to what Hashem expects of us as Jews. I also learned I was on pretty thin ice. As Eliahu wrote, “think of yourself as standing in the middle of a busy freeway, not realizing you’re in danger.”

That splash of cold water woke me from a 46-year slumber, and some days I still feel like I need a proverbial cup of strong coffee to get on with it.

But I always had my given Hebrew name, that tenuous tie to ancestral Torah devotion that somehow got lost in a generation of prosperity, comfort and assimilation.

Six years ago, not long after I told my shocked and worried family that I had become shomer Shabbos and was starting to live my life as an observant Jew, I went to a nephew’s birthday party. Despite the hostility, and the strangeness of my dressing visibly Orthodox (tsnius skirts and shirts) in a very secular family, I insisted on maintaining ties, and made every effort to attend their family functions, studiously bringing along kosher cakes and plastic utensils and participating to the degree I could.

On this occasion, I was perusing the birthday cards my nephew had received and picked up the one I gave him.

And it was signed, “Aunty Leah.”

I hadn’t intended to sign it “Aunty Leah” (I didn’t want start a fight). I didn’t realize I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” I was as shocked and dumbfounded as they were that I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. When had it become so ingrained?

And now, years later, the shock and surprise has worn off. My family is used to the way I live my life and are no longer angry and resentful. I showed them it wasn’t a flight of fancy or a whim, nor had I been kidnapped by a cult.

I showed them I am as much Leah now as I had been Melanie before, yet it is still all me.

So now they send e-mails addressed to Leah. My mom tries to call me Leah, but still lapses into giggles of discomfort and gets mixed up. I take it as a sign of real progress.

The gematria of Leah is 36: 36 candles of Chanukah, 36 righteous people in the world, Yaakov returns to Eretz Ysroel after 36 years away from home, and Rachel dies at age 36.

There is a lot in a name, it turns out.

Two of our newest contributors, Leah and her husband Eliyahu run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.

Music Lessons

As I was putting our seven year old to bed the other night, we were trying to decide what CD he should listen to. He was pushing for something lively (a Piamenta Band disc), but I put on something a bit more mellow instead (Jonathan Rimberg’s Kumzitz CD).

When it started playing my son said, “Abba, is this the guy who wasn’t Jewish?”

Puzzled I asked him what he meant. My son said, “You know, the guy who didn’t keep Torah and Mitzvos when he was a little boy, like you?”

I explained to my son that the artist he was thinking of (Yitzchak Halevi) was born Jewish. He didn’t become Jewish like Tzipporah and Yisro did (he had just learned about them a few weeks ago).

I told him that some people like me, just didn’t grow up knowing about Hashem, his Torah, and never had a chance to go to a day school. To say that they were “not Jewish” isn’t the appropriate term.

I then said that The appropriate term is Baal Teshuvah, someone who returns to Hashem and a life of Torah and Mitzvos. The concept wasn’t new to him, as he remembered when my wife and I were NCSY chapter advisors.

My son then said, “Abba, you’re a Baal Teshuva, right?”

I answered, “Yes.”

He then said, “Cool. So it’s, like, Elul and Tishrei for you the whole year, huh? That’s awesome.”

Impressed and moved by his observation, I could only reply, “It should be,” and I gave him a hug and said, “Shluff Gazunt” (good night in yiddish).