Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.
â€œIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.â€ 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 womenâ€™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. â€œSorry. I guess my ladies prefer Pilates.â€
She didnâ€™t sound sorry enough.
Molly exited quickly disappointed but not devastatedâ€” the job paid poorly and Molly didnâ€™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 â€” 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. Asherâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 husbandâ€™s brother and law partner Scott. What remained was the matter of logistics. Should she reach out to Denaâ€™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 wasnâ€™t ready for retirement.
The soporific effect of the busâ€™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 â€” a former neighbor whoâ€™d struck pay dirt as a matchmaker.
They had been neighbors when their children were small, Esther catching Mollyâ€™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. Mollyâ€™s lips curled into a luminous smile What an amazing â€œcoincidence,â€ 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. â€œ Hey. Youâ€™re looking gorgeous as always.â€
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.
â€œAnd what about your adorable son Asher? Heâ€™s at Hadar isnâ€™t he… Great yeshiva! Is he dating?â€
â€œWell actually,â€ Though she was usually fluent Estherâ€™s uncanny ability to read her mind caused her to stammer. â€œWhat about De, De Dena Maisels.â€
Esther winked. â€œCute. I like that. A Mom who knows what she wants. I think I can help.â€
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.
â€œWeâ€™ll be in touch,â€ she yelled as the bus rolled away.
As she walked home in the heat Molly hummed â€œOd Yishama,â€ 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 lawâ€™s firm. Molly hated these trips; she missed him terribly but she couldnâ€™t see how the family would survive without his American paycheck.
â€œSounds good, I think heâ€™s ready to go out and Dena seems like a nice girl.â€ But then he added something that shook Molly out of her reverie.
â€œFind out how much the Maisels are offering.â€
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 didâ€”for compatibility, for shared values but also for love.
â€œAre we selling Asher to the highest bidder? â€œ Her voice dripped with irony.
â€œDo 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.â€
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. â€œArenâ€™t you supposed to be at yeshiva?â€
â€œThe air conditioner broke down so I came home until they can get it fixed.â€
â€œHmm,â€ Molly fought her natural tendency to react to remind Asher that a yeshiva student should be so thirsty for Torah that a malfunctioning AC wouldnâ€™t matter to him but she held herself back.
â€œAsher,â€ Now she smiled, her eyes dancing with her secret.
â€œRemember you told me that youâ€™d like to start dating.â€
â€œYeah soâ€¦.. Asher looked at her queerly as if he sensed that she was up to something.
â€œWell Iâ€™ve got an idea.â€
â€œWith whom. I need to know.â€
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 BeyoncÃ© on his iPhone, didnâ€™t even surf internet very much. She thought heâ€™d be excited. Instead he sounded like he didnâ€™t trust her.
â€œIâ€™ve been thinking and I think that you can Dena Maiselsâ€¦..â€
Asher crossed his brow. â€œYou mean that giggly girl from the seventh floor?â€
â€œI think itâ€™s worth one date. Remember how nicely used to play together?.â€
â€œMom, I donâ€™t know if you noticed but I donâ€™tâ€™ play with Lego anymore and besides sheâ€™s got all that frizz and freckles. Sheâ€™s not my type..â€
Since when did Asher who wasnâ€™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 morningâ€™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.
â€œSorry but I called the Maisels. Itâ€™s not happening. â€
â€œWhat? Any reason? â€œMollyâ€™s voice was thick with emotion.
â€œThey said sheâ€™s busy now.â€
Molly leaned into the pillow. â€œBusy with what?â€
â€œTrust me,. If the match is for you, it will go through and besides, Iâ€™ve got an even better idea. Between me you and the lamppost this girl is a bigger metziya, better looking, smarter and more gelt. Iâ€™ll give you the basics. Her name is Ayelet Gold. Sheâ€™s a Beit Batya girl. Graduated last year. â€œBeit Batya , that named called to her.
Beit Batya was the best religious girlsâ€™ high school in Jerusalem famed for its blend of sincere piety, high level academics, a refreshing open-mindedness â€“ 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 didnâ€™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 couldnâ€™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 sheâ€™d leave that for now. Hmm. How did one go about having this conversation. Family.
â€œWho is the family?â€ Molly felt pleased that sheâ€™d asked the right question.
â€œBig yichus. Thirty generations of rabbis. They have a chart in their living room. Youâ€™ll be proud to have them as in-laws,â€
The last rabbi the Tumim tree died over a century years ago. Then she had an anxious thought. What if this family, the Goldâ€™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 wasnâ€™t just that. It was the mentality. How would she cope with Israeli in-laws but then again Esther didnâ€™t say that they were Israeli.
â€Do they speak English?â€
â€œAre you kidding? â€œEsther let out a loud guffaw. â€œThe Momâ€™s from Cleveland , Dad is from Baltimore. Here, Iâ€™ll read out the references?â€
The word with itâ€™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.
â€œCall them. Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ll be pleased.â€
Now Molly felt a ripple of fear. â€œHow can I call people I donâ€™t know. Isnâ€™t that like spying. â€œ
â€œTrust me, â€œsaid Esther. â€œThis is how itâ€™s done.â€ 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.
â€œIs it really, â€œ she asked but by the time the words left her lips Esther had hung up. Hardly a day went by when the Tumimâ€™s mailbox didnâ€™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 â€œA Diamond for Your Daughter,â€ 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.