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.
There was a song that the yeshiva guys sang at Sheva Brochos, the seven post wedding banquets. “What shall you tell her, that I am sick with love.” Set to a languid melody, the lyrics came from the Song of Songs . Asher knew that the words were really about the love between G-d and the Jews, but he couldn’t overlook their literal meaning. What was it like to be sick with love?
At his va’adim, , Rav Benzi the short, young, dark skinned rabbi who gave instruction on the art of dating didn’t speak of love or love sickness. He was simple—even simplistic. “Shower, brush your teeth, brush your hat, shine your shoes, iron your shirt and remember you manners.” Rav Benzi had called the first date an introduction. It was supposed to be brief—forty five minutes to an hour.
“Make small talk, Ask her about her family, her hobbies, her job, what she likes to do when she has a day off…” said Rav Benzi. Headier matters of world view, life goals and beliefs would come later.
But the first date seemed the scariest of all. All his life, Asher had been warned against small talk. Idle talk the, the preserve of scoffers and against women—to talk to them minimally or better yet, not at all and not to look at them. How would he make small talk with a girl for forty five long minutes?
“Just be natural. Be yourself. “It’s not that different from talking to a guy, ” said Rav Benzi.
The last time he’d spent that much time with a girl he wasn’t related to was six years old . The girl was cute, pudgy ,with blonde curls. Back then she had been his next door neighbor and his best friend–his mother actually wanted him to marry her. Thank G-d that didn’t work out but back then he’d visit her every day playing card games and building lego cities. Then one afternoon Dena’s mother, a female giant whose wig looked exactly like Dena’s hair shooed him away. “She can’t play with you anymore”. Asher didn’t tell anyone- but that night he cried hot tears into his pillow. After that the only women in his life were his mother , his sister and his grandmother .
How would he get through this night? Right now his stomach was at war with the rest of his body. . What if he felt that way during the date? Maybe he should just call it off. But he couldn’t really Then the word would get out? How he wasn’t quite sure, but he was certain that it would and it might ruin his own reputation.
After davening, he swallowed a spoonful of Imodium and breakfasted on dry toast and coke he’d flattened himself by letting the air out of the bottle and pouring in a pinch of salt. Inside. After that he returned to bed.
Though it was mid October the day was hot and dry, The fan’s rattling jangled his nerves even more. Elazar’s fan was new and quieter,. Asher went into his brothers room, crawled into his brother’s bed and fell asleep.
An hour later woke to the sound of Elazar pounding his palms against the door. “Open up. I need my phone”
“Can’t you wait till I get up. ” Elazar pounded harder.
“It’s a sin to wake someone and it’s a sin to use my room without asking me.”
Asher opened the door wide enough to reach his arm out and hand his brother the phone but somehow his arm swept up against Elazar’s shoulder. And interpreting that gesture as a violent act, Elazar retaliated by ramming his foot clad in a Timberland boot hard against Asher’s shin. Soon the brothers were flailing at each other, their limbs wrapped together in a war dance.
Then Asher stepped back.
” Okay… Sorry okay.” He extended his hand again for Elazar to shake but Elazar kicked him again, hard.
“Just get out of my bed and my room.”
Asher returned to his own bed but he couldn’t fall asleep. Instead his mind swam with unpleasant thoughts. Was he even ready to date? Look how quickly he beat up on his younger brother? Would he’d be one of those brutes who beat their wives. No. He wouldn’t let himself. He’d study the ethical works. That usually helped unless his outburst was the result of a deeper problem.. Might he be mentally ill? Until today he hadn’t thought so but now he wasn’t so sure. He’d been in the dorm since he was seventeen . He was used to living with men. What would be like to live alone with a woman who wasn’t his mother or his sister–women were like the moon, volatile, moody,and mysterious. . How would he cope with that?
The first date could be “it.” Plenty of guys married their first girls, among them his old friend Yidy,— a fact that blew Asher away.
At the engagement party, Asher had asked Yidy how he had made up his mind so quickly.
“I just knew,”. Yidy’s blue eyes glazed over as if he were drunk. Was that what love was … like being drunk?
Asher chose purposely chose Mamila hotel as the venue for the date. It was funky and upscale with a complicated multi-level lobby, spaces divided into small mock living rooms furnished with Italian low slung couches . .It was also relatively new and hopefully not yet on the shidduch radar. He wanted to go to a place where he was unlikely to meet friends.
His parents both stood at the door and kissed him goodbye his father even laying his hands on Asher’s head and whispering the priestly blessing as if it were Friday night. “Dad do you really need to bensch me”
“Yes,” his father nodded.
“I’m glad you did,” said Molly. “This feels momentous, even more than your bar mitzva or your first haircut. I almost feel like there should be a prayer for it.”
“Oh come on, ” said Asher. “You’re making too big a deal of this,” He kissed them both and went downstairs to wait for his taxi. The apparent sangfroid was artificial. Asher was so nervous that his stomach bounced up and down as if it were a basketball being dribbled. The taxi driver seemed to figure out what was going on and as they drove out of Har Nof he began speaking to Asher. Thankfully he didn’t turn around—some drivers did–his eyes focused on traffic. All Asher saw were the temples of his sunglasses and his shiny bald pate.
“You’re going out to meet a girl. ”
Asher didn’t answer immediately. The driver had asked what he regarded as a deeply personal question, none of his business.; Asher hadn’t told any his friend that he was going on a date and yet he realized that by remaining silent he’d appear to be rude.
“Yes,” he mumbled.
“You guys. You go from zero to one hundred. You meet her once, twice , three times maybe and then boom, you’re married, next thing you know there’s a baby on the way.”
“But it’s good, better than our way, the girlfriends. Live together five years, then get married then break up, back again, break up. You people decide quickly but its lasts for life.”
The cab pulled into the hotel driveway. As Asher reached into his wallet to pay the driver rested his hand on his shoulder.
“Good luck,. Don’t be scared and please don’t’ forget to invite me to the wedding.” Asher laughed. Was that a good omen? Perhaps. Asher smiled. He glanced at his reflection in the plate glass re-positioning his hat and tightening the knot on his tie. He felt better; his stomach had quieted and he looked good.
Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.
You can read Chapter 1 here, Chapter 2a here, Chapter 2b here, Chapter 3a here, Chapter 3b here
Chapter 3c here