A Tale of Two Siblings (in Shidduchim)
(This article appeared in Binah Magazine 1-7-16 under a different Title)
In the opening lines to his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." This short story, printed under a different title in Binah Magazine, illustrates the vast gulf between the shidduch experiences of bochurim and girls of shidduch age, who truly experience the best and worst of times in shidduchim, respectively.
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Thursday night, before the phone has a chance to ring, I dial Mrs. Blumberg’s number.
I’m nervous. I’ve never cold-called a shadchan before. I’ve never had to.
To my amazement, she answers the phone — the great woman herself — and remarkably, when I tell her why I’m calling, she says, “Well, I have a few minutes. I would need to meet her to set her up, of course, but I can take down her basic information now.”
“Thank you so much,” I say, pathetically grateful for this small crumb. “She has a friend’s chasunah in Monsey in three weeks so maybe she can come by when she’s there. For now I’ll just give you a brief bio, so maybe you can start thinking of ideas.”
How optimistic I am! She will immediately be thinking of ideas! Yes, indeed!
“Mm-him,” she says, and she couldn’t really sound less interested, but I’m not in a position to be snobby about anyone who will listen at all, interest level notwithstanding, so I forge ahead, rapping out soulless bits of information about my precious girl to this mild, officious woman who “mm-hms” me and presumably jots them down.
“Her name is Elisheva Leah Sternheim; we call her Elisheva.”
“She’s twenty-two and she has one more year to finish her masters in speech. She’s in a program in New Jersey so it’s a good location if she gets married. She also works part-time doing resource room in Bais Binah. The girls love her, she’s so empathetic and warm and….”
“What does your husband do?”
“Oh — he’s an accountant. Anyway, to describe her personality, I would say that she’s somewhere in between….”
“And what do you do? Do you work?”
“Yes, I’m an office manager for a frum company that manufactures table-linens. Can I describe some of Elisheva’s interests a bit more fully?”
“I’ll get to that if I meet her,” Mrs. Blumberg says vaguely. “Grandparents?”
“One living grandfather,” I tell her, frustrated, not thinking that Zeidy Weissfish’s bio is going to land Elisheva the bachur of her dreams. Mrs. Blumberg goes on with questions about our social standing and shul affiliation, and then she says, finally, “And what type of boy is your daughter looking for?”
I’m almost touched that she wants to actually know. That she cares. I launch into my speech. “She wants a really serious ben Torah who is learning now and who plans to continue learning for the foreseeable future. He doesn’t have to know that he’ll stay in learning forever, but he can’t just be learning now because it’s the thing to do — he has to be really passionate about it. At the same time, she needs someone who has a feeling of responsibility to a family, who if he sees that his wife isn’t managing — not that we don’t expect her to manage, she’s a real strong girl and a coper — but you know, who would step up to the plate and take charge of parnassah should it be needed. He….”
“Well, a serious bachur who also has a sense of parnassah can be hard to find,” Mrs. Blumberg interjects. “And if he does exist — lots of other people are lined up waiting for him.”
Thanks. “I know, but this is what’s right for Elisheva. You know, it’s something she’s seen in the boys in our family. Her brother….”
“You have sons?” Mrs. Blumberg asks, and her voice is the most animated I’ve heard yet this phone call.
I tighten my grip on the receiver. I did not want to discuss the boys. In fact I had specifically told myself not to, under any circumstances, mention Elisheva’s older brothers.
“Yes,” I say reluctantly. “But look, I want to give you a sense of how special Elisheva is. She….”
“Are your sons married or single?”
“Well, they’re mostly married. Elisheva is very involved in chessed, she….”
“But you have a single son?”
She’s like a homing pigeon.
“Just one. I really want to focus on Elisheva right now, if we could….”
“How old is he? Where does he learn? Is he looking?”
For a brief moment I want to lie. Say that he’s a surfer in San Francisco with a passion for the Blues. A biomedical researcher in Ohio with no time for dating. An ilui who ran off to Meah Shearim to join a chaburah there and wants a Yerushalmi kallah. But I don’t do that. Because the truth will come out eventually, and I’ll look bad for hiding it. So I blurt it out.
“He’s in Lakewood. He is in shidduchim, but right now he’s busy.”
“Sternheim, in Lakewood.” I can seeshe’s super-alert now. “First name?”
“Avidgor. I really want to….”
“Avidgor Sternheim.” A pause, then a sharp intake of breath. “I heard of your son! He has a phenomenal reputation. I’m so happy I have you on the phone. I always wondered who his mother was. I’m so glad I’ve connected with you,” Mrs. Blumberg says, a pleasant warmth in her voice, and I can see now why people find her so charming. “I have loads of ideas for your son and now that I know you, we can do some business.”
“Do you know anything about him?” I ask, doubtful, depressed over the turn this conversation has taken.
“Well, he’s a chashuve bachur, I know. Rabbi Mintz raves about him and that’s enough for me. Have you heard of Chaya Baron? Or Bruria Pinner? And oh — you must consider Riva Medetsky. Yes, that’s a really shayach idea. Let me send you her resume….”
“He’s busy now,” I say, trying to sound firm. “I don’t want to hear other suggestions while he’s involved with something.”
“Well, let me send you some resumes to have on hand if he’s not busy,” she persists. “Can you tell me your email address? I’ll get these off right now. Medetsky is a great idea, really. You know they offer full support.”
I close my eyes. What about Elisheva?
I really wanted this to be about her — for once. I thought if I called someone who didn’t know Avigdor, we could make it just about Elisheva. But no.
Maybe if I respond to her ideas she’ll be flattered and I can steer things back to Elisheva. Because she’ll feel like she really owes me now. Maybe.
“Well, like I said, he is busy, but I’m willing to listen, in case it doesn’t work out. What does this Riva Medestky do?”
“She teaches preschool, and she’s wonderful at it.”
I take a deep breath. “I’m so sorry, but I don’t think that will work. He prefers someone with a different type of occupation.”
“What could be better than being a preschool teacher?” Mrs. Blumberg sounds personally offended. I close my eyes.
“Nothing could be better. My own preschool teachers had a profound influence on my life,” I tell her. “But nevertheless, Avigdor has found that girls whose vocation is to work with small children do not have the same interests and conversation that are important to him. That’s not a value judgment, it’s simply his experience.”
“Well, Riva is actually a very intellectual girl. Besides, does he want a chavrusa, or does he want a wife? And a mother for his children?”
“Of course he wants a wife and mother for his children,” I say. “But that doesn’t mean a preschool teacher is right for him. The couple needs to be compatible.” Believe me, I feel terrible disqualifying a girl because she is in the wrong field, but what am I supposed to do if it’s just not what works for Avigdor? Doesn’t he count as much as the girl does? I shouldn’t be annoyed at Mrs. Blumberg — she’s just trying to help anxious mothers with their daughters the way I’m trying to help Elisheva — but the whole thing is galling.
Mrs. Blumberg apparently has enough amazing ideas in her arsenal to make her decide not to fight me further on this one, because she gamely moves on. “Kaila Ganszweig,” she pronounces with confidence. “Have you heard of that idea?”
“Ganszweig…yes! I actually have! They have a son, Shimon, don’t they? They’re from the Five Towns? We were pursuing him for Elisheva for a while but we got nowhere. Do you have access to this family?”
“He’s not for you,” she says, dismissive. “They want a very yeshivish family. Klei kodesh father, the whole deal. You should really consider their daughter Kaila for your Avigdor. This is a family that will really support his learning, and I don’t mean only financially.”
I point out, “But Avigdor comes from the same non-klei-kodesh background as Elisheva does. Surely they wouldn’t be interested.”
“Oh, no,” says Mrs. Blumberg, apparently shameless, and speaking in the same tone with which one explains something very obvious to a child. “They aren’t makpid about that sort of thing for their daughter, you understand.”
Of course I understand. Because you can hold out for what you want for your son, but you don’t have that luxury for your daughter. It’s the same reason why I wouldn’t consider a less-than-perfect home for Avigdor but do for Elisheva. You have to know your place in the market.
“A daughter always stays part of her family,” Mrs. Blumberg continues blithely. “But a boy gets absorbed into the family of his wife. So people are more concerned about the family their son will be joining.”
I don’t agree — I think you can’t make a rule like that; it depends on a million different factors. But I don’t want to prolong this direction to my conversation with Mrs. Blumberg any more than I have to.
“About Elisheva,” I say, trying to inject my voice with authority. “You surely must know some good boys who could be a possibility.”
“I’ll go through my file,” she promises. “I bet I can come up with something. I’ll get back to you. But I do just want to suggest, if you won’t consider the Ganzweigs, that you think about Malky Bricker. Lovely girl from a solid family. I think they live in your neighborhood even.”
My heart contracts. “I know Malky very well,” I say. “Her mother and I are close friends.” I close my eyes, it’s a painful wound. We were close friends, and now we are — enemies? Friends on vacation? All I know is that when we happen to catch each other’s eyes in shul, she looks away with a chilly and pained look; she avoids my entreaty.
Because everyone and anyone has been redting us Malky Bricker since forever — probably since they were teens — and it is such a natural idea. Similar backgrounds, parents who are good friends, such compatible children. But we have said no. It wasn’t a flippant, ill-considered no. I have a very valid reason. It’s more than just being afraid to take on the problems that I already know, the blinding by the allure of the unknown. Malky is not right for my son. But I can’t explain it to anyone. And so I look like I have snubbed my good friend, for frivolous reasons, or perhaps delusions of grandeur.
It’s a lonely place to be.
I’m sure Malky, lovely though she is, does not receive one-tenth the volume of phone calls that we do for Avigdor. And that makes me the bad person. I tried to do what made sense for my child and I have lost a close friend, possibly forever.
It’s not just Simi Bricker that I’ve alienated. There’s that nice Mrs. Papenheim who is the receptionist at Bais Chedva, whose daughter we didn’t say “yes” to. And that family three blocks over, the Gruens, who I know would really like the shidduch even though all of our research tells us it would be the most incompatible idea ever. And there’s my ex-sheitel macher, Malia Lowenthal, whose daughter Rikki we said no to, and Chaviva Beer, the mother of one of Elisheva’s friends, who doesn’t understand why we won’t say yes to her Blima, who was so close with Elisheva in tenth grade.
I’m the one saying no to all of these young women — the vicious gatekeeper mother who thinks her son is better than everyone else, too good for these plebian girls from our own social circle — and I am mean, and deserve to be reviled.
This hurts me. I’m just, after all, another mother trying to make the best decisions possible. And people don’t realize that it’s inevitable that for every yes we give, there are ten or twenty nos. Because the number of suggestions is just too high for all be acceptable. If we choose any girl, any girl at all, we are by definition not choosing others, and that is painful.
I hate this. I hate being in this position. But I understand these women so well, because I’m Elisheva’s mother too, and I harbor great resentment towards her math teacher, Mrs. Fogel, who spent Elisheva’s entire high school career raving about what a gem she was, and then promptly turned her down when she was suggested for her own son. I resent that very much and don’t see any justification for her decision. My feelings are painfully sharp in this matter and I know that is how so many people feel about me.
And sometimes I look really, really mean. Mean, callous, and dismissive of the feelings of bnos Yisrael. I remember when that Papenheim shidduch first came up, Rabbi Brunner called every night practically for weeks, urging us to give it a try. When delaying was no longer working, I gave a more blunt no, and he switched his tone. “Even if you don’t think it’s shayach, do it as a chessed,” he told me. “She’s an older girl now, she knows this has come up, and it’s terribly hurtful that you keep rejecting her, when she lives in the neighborhood and knows that you know her. At least be machshiv her by giving her a chance. One date. What’s one date for your son? Then if it’s no, it’s no, but at least they’ll feel that you respect their daughter.”
This makes my blood boil. First of all, what kind of a chessed is that, picking up a shidduch that you know can never happen? And that even if it could, you don’t wish would, because of something you know that is a true impediment to this union? Is it a chessed to get the hopes of a young lady up, have her carve out time and dress and worry and open herself up once again only to be told the inevitable no? Really, she’ll feel better after that than before? That’s how I should treat a bas Yisrael?
And then there’s Avigdor’s perspective — what’s one date for him anyway, to be kind to someone else? I’ll tell you what it is. It’s an afternoon and night off from yeshivah. It’s the cost of renting a car, and time investment of driving in from his yeshivah, spending a few hours on the date, and returning back so late at night that he won’t have any pep the next day. All of this, needless to say, comes along with serious emotional investment and good old-fashioned nerves. Then there is the unpleasantness and sometimes agony of coming to the right decision. It’s a lot more than just an hour or two of pleasant conversation. So please don’t “just one date” me.
With effort I schlep myself back to the conversation with Mrs. Blumberg, angry that I’m even discussing this with her. “Malky Bricker is lovely and not for us,” I say, and something in my tone must be so firm that she doesn’t argue.
“And I suppose if you know Malky you’ve heard of Penina Winter? They were classmates, and they’re neighbors too,” she presses on. Once she has her teeth in me she is not in a hurry to let go, I see.
I sigh. “Penina Winter is also a neighborhood girl, and she’s completely lovely,” I inform Mrs. Blumberg. This one at least is easier to deflect. “I know about the extraordinary amounts of chessed that she does. But she is a very outgoing girl and one thing my son insists upon is more of a quiet type.”
“Let him meet her and see,” is the prompt reply. “You can never tell about personality anyway. Everyone loves her.”
“Yes, and so do I. If I were looking for a friend I would choose her. Why, if I were looking for a daughter-in-law I would choose her too! She is a true gem, solid gold. But I’m not looking for any of those things —I’m looking for a wife for my son. And one thing he is absolutely sure about is that he wants to marry a quiet girl. I would lose all my credibility at his mother if I brought him a shidduch who is well-known for her vivaciousness.”
“But didn’t your older son marry the Perler girl, she’s quite a live-wire, isn’t she?”
“She is, but Avigdor is not the same person as his older brother, and he doesn’t want the same things.” I can’t believe I’m explaining this to a shadchan, of all people. Is the possibility of sibling differentiation really so novel? Apparently.
Finally, finally, Mrs. Blumberg’s voice takes on a more subdued quality. “Well. Excuse my saying so, but you do seem to be on the selective side. If you really want your son to get married, I think you need to keep a more open mind.”
If it wasn’t for Elisheva I would really give it to her. As it is I manage to keep my voice tight and in control. “I do try to, but there’s no point in wasting anyone’s — not Avigdor’s and not the young lady’s —time with ideas that we know for sure will not work. There happen to be four or five things that we are interested in getting to if he becomes available, one at a time, so we aren’t entirely impossible to please. If you would suggest anything that seems more shayach than the names you have given me tonight, it would be my pleasure to consider them.”
I hear a sniff and I imagine that sniff filled with a world of skepticism.
Because to her, I have cemented my place as the mean gatekeeper mom.
I am the entitled mother of a prince, who will not give the mothers of certain girls the time of day, since my prince deserves only the best — yichus, money, profession, looks, what have you, in one package.
She doesn’t know what I can’t tell her.
She doesn’t know how horrible I feel when I meet these local girls, and nod cheerfully in recognition of their warm greetings, and how I feel the burrowing worm of self-disgust and recrimination, as I wish I could give them all the Avigdor or Moshe or Daniel that they need. But I have one son right now and he has one mother.
She doesn’t know the things I do not tell her. That yes, the Bricker girl is lovely and her mother is a dear friend, but I can’t look away from a severe bullying incident in which she was the principal perpetrator in high school, something I saw firsthand when I worked for a brief time as a sub in the school. All the raves in the world will not get me to be flexible on that point.
She doesn’t know that Elisheva has warned us about her friend Blima Beer’s unresolved struggle with an eating disorder. She doesn’t know that I would love nothing more than for Avigdor to try meeting the Lowenthal girl, but that he did his own research and decided against it, and nothing I tell him can sway him — and he is an adult, after all.
I don’t tell her all this. Part of it is discretion and halachah and pride. Part of it, though, is that no matter how much pain I’m holding — for ourselves and for others — I feel that I cannot complain, because the girls have it so much worse. Avigdor’s trouble is sorting out the right choices from the many he has; the local girls’ trouble is having none. Avigdor and his friends are struggling to choose the right one; the young women are struggling to find anyone of quality at all. I feel their pain and I know that truly their lot is harder, and that I am compounding their suffering.
And so I keep quiet.
But even with that realization, I wish I could tell someone — still, all this is not our fault. We care, and we wish every member of our nation to speedily find the right one — and still, we must do the best that we can for our son.
I pull my attention back to Mrs. Blumberg’s voice with difficulty, and I hear her saying, incredibly, something about an idea for Elisheva. “…although she would have to travel to California to meet him, would that be a possibility?”
I think sadly about the many times we have insisted that if Avigdor will seriously consider an out-of-town shidduch, the girl must be willing to make the first trip here.
And I say, humbly, “Yes, of course. If the idea sounds good, it will certainly be a possibility. Thank you for thinking of us.”