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.
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?
The meeting was scheduled for the following morning at nine. Molly woke early reciting her prayers with extreme intention. “Oh G-d help, ” she cried hot tears running down her cheeks. This felt tragic. At eight fifteen Bella was still in her bed sleeping when Molly arrived at her door.
“So nu,” Molly’s hands were pressed against her waist her elbows extending outwards.
“You’re angry at me. The Rabanit is angry at me. Everybody is angry at me.”
She didn’t want to argue. She wanted to get through this calmly but her body language betrayed her.
Molly let her arms hang loosely at her sides. “No, we’re not but we need to get there on time.”
“Don’t you understand? They have it in for me. Everything I do they pick on me.”
“You think they are being unfair.”
Now Bella pulled the covers off her . “Yes I know it. I’m not the only one and it’s alwayss me. Me. Me.”
What was Molly supposed to say? Empathy. Something empathic like “That must be hard or that must hurt.” She tried but she couldn’t quite let the words come out. She was afraid and in a way angry. Why couldn’t Bella just toe the line. It wasn’t such an awful school–the academic demands were relatively light, the hours short–she was home every day at three. A cakewalk compared to Molly’s high school with it’s never ending stream of tests and papers. So they had a strict dress code, No nail polish to school. No jeans skirts. So what. It seemed like a small price to pay to live this life, Bella didn’t realize the hell she’d been saved from, ogling boys, proms, friends who drank and drugged and shop lifted. None of Bella’s friends did anything remotely resembling that.
“Give me five minutes and I’ll be ready.”
“When will you daven?” It horrified Molly to think that her daughter might go to the meeting without having recited her prayers. Though she knew that Bella had passed her Bat Mitzvah meaning that her relationship with G-d was her own business Molly couldn’t hold herself back from meddling.
“I’ll do it when I get home.”
As promised Bella was at the door dressed in her pale blue and dark blue uniform her dark hair combed into a neat pony tail which caused Molly to smile. “Can I eat something?”
“Take a granola bar and a fruit for the car. Otherwise we’ll be late.”
On the way, Molly overheard her daughter reciting prayers…. She’s got some kind of belief. It’s not that bad.
The school was empty, closed for the long Yom Kippur through Succoth vacation and Rabanit Stark greeted them in the hallway where she’d been giving orders to a painter. “Be careful. don’t touch the walls.”
She was large, imposing, nearly six feet tall but there was something about her concern that touched Molly.
” My office is being painted. Come outside, I’ll bring some chairs. Do you want something to drink. ”
Molly and Bella shook their heads . This would not be a kafeklatsch.
“I know it’s hard to come out here today with Succot on the way. I hope Yom Kippur went well. ”
Molly didn’t know what do say. Rabanit Stark certainly sounded friendly , Was that the strategy, soften them up before she kicks?
“I just want you to know. Bella is a lovely girl and I like her very much. I’d like to assign her a mentor. An older girl whom she can spend time with after school. Like a big sister.,” Then she turned to Bella ” I know what you are thinking. She wont’ be a yachne like me. ”
“If you are worried it won’t cost. We’ve done this a lot . Girls need it. I’m trying to set it up for all the girls but right now ….”
“Thank you, ” said Molly. This was a miracle. Was there a blessing to recite?
“Oh I’m just trying to do my job. These kids have so much to deal with. We have to go the distance for them.”
In the evening Molly turned to the matter of Bracha Glick. Yidy sent the numbers of Bracha’s four best friends , a teacher and two neighbors . Why couldn’t she be sympathetic?And yet she knew exactly what she wanted to hear; that Bracha had a green complexion, three eyes and perhaps a tail that she tortured cats for fun and practiced witchcraft, and was a kleptomaniac. She reached into her kitchen desk drawer and pulled out her notebook along with a copy of Shulamis’s list which she’d annotated. Just then Asher pulled up a chair next to her.
“I know what you are doing . I want to be a part of it. ,”
“What?” Molly had never imagined this but then again Asher seemed to be full of surprises.
“My friends listen .”
“Really? That seems bizarre to me.”
“That’s they do and this is my future at stake. This is about my life and I want to be a part of it.”
So much for her naïve romantic notions of the haredi child and his absolute trust his parents. but maybe now that could work to her benefit. Molly was hoping to hear that Bracha had a green complexion, three eyes and perhaps a tail that she tortured cats for fun and practiced witchcraft, and was a kleptomaniac.
“Well okay but lets go some place quiet.”She led him into the study closing the door behind him. She stared at the list of references deciding where to start.
“Let me see the references .”
Molly handed him the list which she’d scribbled on the back of a wedding invitation.”
“This one,” He pointed to a name Efrat Eskin. “She’s my friend sister, start with her.”
“Maybe you want to make the call?” Molly’s tone was edged with sarcasm.
Asher grinned.”No, I’ll let you. But I do have friends who do that too., I’m sorry if I sound disrespectful. I don’t mean to be but this is very important to me.”
Molly began with character. “Is she a mensch,” she asked
Efrat Eskin sounded appropriately breathless sounding girls in the manner of young women barely out of their out of their teens.
” She’s just an amazing girl.” Amazing had become the adjective of choice replacing special which was now synonymous with mentally challenged. Just when Molly was going to request and example Asher slipped a tiny note into her hand. “Ask if she’s a happy person,” it said.
“Would you say that she’s a happy person.”
“Of course,” said Efrat. “She’s amazing. And amazing girl.”
When Molly pressed for an example Efrat described how Bracha had devoted the last three summers caring for kids with cancer .
“And what are her parents like?”
“They’are also amazing. Amazing people. Nice warm giving….”
Molly pressed further. “Anything unusual you can describe”
Efrat paused briefly. “Well the father it a bit atypical. I mean he wears \ baseball caps and sandals but only on weekdays.”
In his tassled loafers and tweed jackets, Nahum was dapper but atypical. Before Asher started kindergarten, Molly begged him to wear a hat and suit during the week like the other fathers . Nahum agreed to wear a white shirt, dark suit and a hat on Shabbos. Asher slipped another note “That doesn’t bother me. I don’t care how her father dresses.”
“And the marriage?”
“Great family. Very happy home. Amazing” At that point Efrat signed off and Asher’s friend Ezi turned up to play basketball.
Just a few weeks before Asher and her whole family had been judged and found wanting. Was it now her turn to do this to someone else? How strange this was the roles shifting, everyone rearranging themselves as if this were in a game of musical chairs
She looked at her watch. It wasn’t yet 10 pm there was still time for anotherr call. She glanced at the list and dialed another stranger. Yocheved Langer was, the Glick’s next door neighbor. Just a few weeks earlier the notion of phoning strangers had freaked her out but now she cold called with experiencee.
“Oh yes, I wanted to know about Bracha Glick, she’s been suggested…..”
“Nice girl and I’m sure you’ve already heard about her father.”
Heard what? Instead digging into the roots of Yona Glick’s emotionally troubles Mrs. Langer revealed that he was an incipient millionaire.
” For years he worked out of his basement by himself. We all thought it would go nowhere but just last week, he sold the patent for smokeless electric cigarette to Reynolds Tobacco for ten million dollars. It got written up in the papers.”
“Wow. “ Molly. Was this why Nahum was so excited. Probably but that he didn’t know but maybe he didn’t. In any case, Molly wouldn’t be the one to tell him. Did that make her dishonest? Perhaps but a mother had to protect her offspring. Nahum could be blinded by the dollar bills. She was not. She would not sell Asher to the highest bidder. In her notebook, she wrote. Still not interested. External factors not relevant. Serious evidence of family dysfunction. Not for us. Then she highlighted her words with a yellow fluorescent pen.
When he returned home after evening services Nahum asked about Bracha. “
“Yeah. I haven’t changed my mind”
“Why are you so into this? “
“Well Yidy knows Asher really well and her father, an American guy like me ran a startup that really makes it?”
“But he’s problematic.” Her voice was loud and shrill.
“He’s just a working guy like me, in a blue shirt.. If only we could all be so problematic.”
“But he has emotional problems. and marital problems. Rav Shmiel Shapiro said so”
“How do you know Rav Shmiel is right?’
“He’s a major Rav. He knows”
“Well maybe he’s got it wrong. or maybe not. Bracha sounds like she came out okay. Everyone has something that isn’t perfect. Baby—stop looking for impossible things This is a great peace of luck.The answer to our prayers. Cant you see that?.”
He was going to overrule her.
On Wednesday mornings Molly attended a psalm reading group which took place across the street in Chaya Schloss’s living room.. It was a collective effort, like a spiritual assembly line each woman reading several chapters until together they completed the entire book. The psalms were like verbal tranquilizers containing every emotion. David had lived through it all, rejection, betrayal, parenting problems, marital problems, work problems and have come out the other end.
After being part of the group for over five years, Molly knew Chaya’s living room by heart, the long teak table, the shelves heavy with holy books, the embroidered pictures of Moses holding the tablets of the law and of Rachel’s tomb on the walls and fragranhomebaked butter cookiesset in a porcelain dish in the middle of the table. Today there was no plate and Chaya, , a robust and ruddy with a good word for everyone was uncharacteristically glum. After the recitation the other women gathered around her in a circle their heads bent and their voices low. Some of them spoke English, others reverted to Chaya’s mother tongue which was Dutch. Molly caught a a few snatches random words “sorry,” “unfortunate” and also “beshert,” or preordained.
It was three days after Yom Kippur. Judgment had been rendered in the world. Something was clearly wrong. Had a member of her family been diagnosed with a serious illness?
She heard a few more words “depression”,”bulimia” “secrets”
“The rabbis were much better than I’d expected. I had been terrified of the Bais Din and my former daughter in law was polite, ” said Chaya.
Hardly a month had passed since Molly had danced at the wedding. Baruch, the bridegroom, the youngest of Chaya’s nine children an old friend of Asher’s. When she heard that Baruch had become engaged to a wealthy girl from Lucerne she felt jealous and now it seemed that was over.
“. Baruch is still young, and thank G-d there are no children” said Mrs. Epstein, a well preserved octogenarian and a regular.
“Yes,” nodded Shulamis Black. “You have to be grateful that it didn’t shlep out. My nephew was stuck with his wife for five long years until—
“So was mine. Terrible. People seem to have these illnesses today. Eating disorders, So sad,” said Esther.
“But I should have know,” said Chaya. “I did so much research. I filled a whole notebook . Everyone said…”
“Yes, but these are the things that nobody talks about, that nobody even knows. It was beshert. This was the way the aybishter intended. Now it’s over and I’m sure that something better will lie ahead. “Shulamis took Chaya into her grasp and hugged her.
As she walked home from Chaya’s Molly couldn’t stop thinking about Shulamis’s comment. “The things that nobody talks about that nobody even knows.” Asher was too young and naive to cope with an unbalanced wife. A girl with an unstable father was likely to be unstable herself, even if her friends thought she was “amazing.” Those friends were children. What did they know. She’d put a stop to this..
When she got home Nahum was in the kitchen “I brought you a treat.”
He held a large frothy cup of iced coffee, her favorite.
“So tell me about the Glick girl. When can we make the date?”
Molly burst into tears. “We can’t. I can’t let this be. It’s not for us, even with the money.”
“Oh honey.” Her crying always left him speechless.
Just then , the skies rumbled and rain began pouring down, too early, a bad omen, long heavy drops like daggers.
“Listen. I’ve got an idea.”
“Yes. “She blotted her face dry..
“Let’s go to Rav Amram. He’ll tell us what to do.”
Molly nodded. Though he didn’t adopt the dress over the past few years , Nahum had become an avid follower of Rav Amram, a Brooklyn born former accountant turned Chassidic Rebbe. Ever since they’d left Rav Muti in New York Nahum had struggled to find a spiritual mentor. Although she herself had difficulty relating to Rav Amram, he rarely spoke with women, she was glad that Nahum liked him.
Rav Amram famously kept strange hours, especially now at holiday time and the meeting was scheduled for two am at the Rabbi’s private office, a tiny book lined cubicle behind the synagogue. The room was overheated and humid, due to the humidifier.
On the dirty whitewashed wall Molly noticed a framed photograph of an old bearded man, Rav Amram’s late grandfather, .. His beard was the same as his grandson’s, steel wool grey and straight and split along the middle.
Gaunt and pale, Rav Amram looked , as if he’d just risen from the grave.His voice was hoarse and low and in between speaking he sipped a murky yellowish drink.
“It’s from my naturopath for my bronchitis. So is the humidifier, “he said in between coughs.
The rabbi instructed them to sit down. Instead of questioning them he began to speak.
“Reb Nahum filled me in. I fail to see the problem.”
“But what about the father and his craziness. Is that what you’d want for your son…..”
The Rabbi leaned forward looking into Molly’s eyes as if he were reading into her soul.
“The girl—not the parents or the brother…, Is there a problem with her?”
She shook her head.
“I know this family. I’m telling you that what you heard is wrong.. Come back to me with good news.”
Molly looked down at her watch. It was now 2:04. They’d entered at 2:00 am on the dot. quicker than a visit to a Kupat Holim doctor.
On the walk home Nahum whistled the Jewish wedding song.
“I wish you’d stop, “
Nahum smiled at his wife through closed lips.
“How does he know? I mean really? Why doesn’t he trust Rav Shmiel. Rav Shmiel is much better known than Rav Amram.”
It was true. Rav Shmiel’s podcasts had thousands of followers whereas Rav Amram was largely an unknown.
“Rav Amram sees beyond what we see….”
“Would Rav Amram would allow this kind of match for his own children? Look at who they are married to—the best families around. One rabbinical all star after the next. It’s all very well to say this kind of thing to the little people but it seems to me that when it comes to his own kids he plays by a different set of rules.”
Nahum stopped walking. Above them the full moon shone brightly in the dark night sky.
“I’m sorry that you don’t’ know the Rav better.
I believe that he has Asher’s best interest at heart.”
Molly began walking away.
“Do you really believe that? Really?”
Nahum caught up with her. “Yes, I do and I wish you would also.”
“Well I can’t. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“Don’t cry,” said Nahum. He stood next to her now, his voice now low and soft.,
“How can I feel?” she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “this is could be really bad for Asher.”
“He’s our Rav. He knows more about this stuff than we do.”
“I know it’s wrong to disagree with the Rav. I know I need to accept his opinion but I’ve got a brain and two eyes. G-d gave me the faculty of judgment, my own instincts. I can’t let go of them..”
“I know this is hard for you baby. It’s hard for all of us but please just let them meet onceokay. Trust me on this one….please…” He sounded like a small boy.
“Do I really have to?” She lowered her voice to a whisper.
“I know it’s hard, but please do it, for me. “
When they got home Nahum fell right to sleep . Molly recited her bedtime prayers and shut her eyes but sleep wouldn’t come. so moved over to the living room and settled into the recliner. In the background she heard a distant rumble of cars and from a faraway hill the ululations of the muezzin,. There was a holiness to these hours
She paged through a book of techinot, women’s prayers reciting prayers to find a spouse for one’s child, prayers to insure one’s offspring’s success and more general prayers for wisdom, for success, for good luck.
Then she read a letter the Spanish Jewish sage Rabbi Moses Ben Nahum which famously promised its readers that their prayers would be answered. It was long, three full pages of single spaced Hebrew . Finally she offered her own prayer. .” Save my son from disaster.” She thought of all of the mismatched couples she’d known in her life starting with her own parents. Her sweet docile mother and her fiery energetic father. A mismatch. Even they acknowledged it. They had met in Austria in a DP camp. “Hitler was our matchmaker, “ her mother used to say but her eyes were so sad, so full of longing. Molly didn’t want Asher to inherit those eyes.