A Novel by Nomi Plum
The light bulb moment occurred while Molly Tumim was sitting on a yoga mat in the lotus position at a women’s gym on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
While she loved teaching yoga, she hated the gym with its windowless room, air conditioning set to freezing, and obnoxious Zumba music seeping in from under the door. She plugged her fingers into her ears, closed her eyes, and focused her mind on her life. Was this what she wanted? The room was empty. No-one had come to her class; a clear indication that her career was on the skids. She felt a lump developing in her throat. No, she wouldn’t cry, not about this. Teaching was secondary, a sideline. What really mattered was family; but on that front she was failing, too.
Some families, the lucky ones, had no at-risk kids. Others had one, but she had two. These were her two middle children: Bella, fifteen, and Elazar, seventeen. Both were slipping off the path she’d embarked on three decades before, when she left the US to live the life of an orthodox Jew in the Jewish homeland. Thank G-d, she had two kids on that path. She really wanted them all to be living the same Torah lifestyle, but how? The lump came back even stronger. She swallowed it. She wouldn’t cry.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that blessings can only be contained if one’s heart is full of joy. Her heart needed that infusion of joy, but where would it come from? Once, teaching had brought her joy, but now… She pressed her finger to her nostril and breathed in deeply. A word flashed in her head: baby. Molly adored babies. Having a baby in her life would bring her joy, but at fifty-three she was too old to have one. There had to be another way. Her eldest son Asher, a Jerusalem yeshiva bochur, would surely marry soon and present her with a baby to love and take care of. She’d dote over the baby as a grandmother/babysitter, just like her best friend Shulamis Black. The lump melted. It was replaced by a smile.
At twenty-two, Asher was ready (even overripe) for marriage. Handsome, intelligent, pious, and even rich (on account of Molly’s husband’s earnings from his legal practice at his brother-in-law’s firm in New Jersey), he was prime marriage material. Molly had a girl in mind: Dena Maisels, a slender, green-eyed blonde, lived two flights above them and looked like a younger version of Molly. She’d first cast her eye on Dena when she and Asher built Lego metropolises together in playgroup eighteen years ago.
When the studio director, a skinny twenty-something in a paisley headscarf, came into the classroom to tell Molly that she could leave, she was deep into a daydream in which the now married Asher and Dena handed her their beautiful babe. She was a babysitter/grandmother.
On the bus ride home, Molly bumped into Esther Bernstein, an old friend who had become one of the most successful matchmakers in Jerusalem. That’s how it is. When you find your true purpose, life flows. That baby would be coming soon. She could feel it.
“Thank you, Hashem,” she whispered and climbed into the front seat next to Esther, who was talking loudly into her cell phone.
Esther turned to Molly and said, “Wow! It’s been a long time. You look great.”
The phone was still pressed to Esther’s cheek. Years ago, they were neighbors in the same Har Nof apartment building where Molly still lived. Back then, Molly had enjoyed having another American ba’alas teshuva down the hall, until Esther abruptly disappeared to a remote settlement, divorced, remarried, and began her matchmaking career.
In a just-below-the-knee length white denim skirt, silver sneakers, and a blonde ponytail wig, Molly looked a decade younger than her age. Yoga had kept her slim and taut, but the years had not been as kind to Esther. Large and ungainly, her sagging face was covered with too much makeup. She wore an artificial-looking, curly, black wig; an unflattering, purple spandex dress; and purple orthopedic sneakers.
“How is your adorable son, Asher? He must be getting to that age,” she said. She slid her phone into her purse.
“Yes, Boruch Hashem.”
Ever since she became religious, Molly had adopted the practice of thanking G-d as a part of daily conversation. It limited her self-pity.
“I heard he’s at Hadar Yeshiva. Your phone must be ringing off the hook.”
“He actually hasn’t started dating, but I have an idea for him. Could you help?” Molly asked.
Esther looked into her eyes and smiled. “I like that. A mom who knows what she wants. Shoot.”
“Remember Dena Maisels?”
“I can see that. Do you want me to set it up?”
“Sure,” Molly said. She smiled broadly, the memory of the failed yoga class erased from her mind. The bus came to a halt and Esther rose to get off.
“I’ll call you,” she yelled.
Molly hummed the popular wedding tune Od Yishama on her walk back home from the bus stop. Her feet tread lightly on the hot pavement. Her new life was about to begin.
As she waited for the elevator, she texted her husband Nahum. He was at work in New Jersey.
Find out what the Maisels are offering, Nahum wrote back.
He was the only person she knew who refused to use text language.
R we selling Asher 2 highest bidder?
Some parents made financial arrangements prior to the first date, but Molly never thought that she’d be one of them. Her children would marry as she did: for compatibility, for friendship, for shared values, and, of course, for love.
Of course not, but the kids will need an apartment. Would you rather they live in a tent?
Molly reread her husband’s response. Why was he so obsessed with the bottom line? What was the point of being religious if you couldn’t trust Hashem? Besides, who said the Maisels even had that much money? Rabbi Boruch Maisels taught in a yeshiva. His wife, Evelyn, was a social worker. Sometimes people had money stashed away. She wouldn’t worry about this. Either the Maisels would be so thrilled to grab Asher that they’d find the money, or she’d convince Nahum to drop the demand.
At midday, Asher came home, dragging a small, black suitcase with wheels.
“The yeshiva’s washing machine broke down,” he said.
“I’m so glad it’s you. I’ll help.”
“No, Ima, I can do my own laundry.”
What a good boy he was. How lucky she was. With Nahum’s large, hazel eyes; a full head of thick, brown hair; and an elegant Roman nose, he’d grown into a handsome young man.
“It’s bashert that you’re here,” she said.
“Bashert? Ima, it’s just the washing machine.”
“Remember how you told me you’d like to start dating?”
“I meant after the zeman ends. We’ve still got another five weeks.”
“I know, but something came up.”
Asher grew stiff. “Who? I need to know.”
“How would you like to go out with Dena Maisels?”
“That giggly girl with the braces from upstairs? Are you kidding, Ima?”
“But you used to be such good friends.”
“Ima,” Asher twirled his finger in the air as if he were in the midst of a Talmudic argument. “When was the last time you saw me playing with Legos? Besides, she’s not my type.”
Since when did her son, who wasn’t even supposed to look at girls, have a type?
“What about you two go for coffee? Give it a try.”
“Please. Dena Maisels isn’t for me.” He wheeled his suitcase into the laundry room.
Molly closed the door and flipped into a headstand. Her smart, gifted son had nixed the perfect match. She needed to be upside down to digest this.
“Oh G-d,” she moaned, staring up at the ceiling. “Help.”
How could he not be interested? She picked up the phone to call her best friend, Shulamis Black, but she didn’t dial. Unlike many of Molly’s friends, Shulamis was FFB, the fourth daughter of Manchester’s best loved cantor. Her brood numbered fifteen, nine of whom were married. This gave her a PhD in both motherhood and shidduchim. While the bond of mutual affection between Molly and Shulamis was strong, they were, as Shulamis liked to say, as different as chalk and cheese. While Molly was tall and svelte, Shulamis was short and round. Shulamis dressed in long-sleeved, button-down shirts, shapeless black skirts, a cotton snood, and black New Balance brand sneakers. Should Molly call her about Asher? When Shulamis was involved in a shidduch, she never breathed a word. Molly put down the phone. Asher was her son. G-d had entrusted him to her. She could deal with this herself.
“Help,” she moaned again and then she picked up the phone. Shulamis picked up on the third ring. “I need your advice on shidduchim.”
“I was waiting for that. Asher is certainly ready.”
“I know. I wanted to set him up with Dena Maisels and he refused.”
“Dena, lovely girl. Silly me, I should have thought of it myself.”
“But he thinks it’s ridiculous.”
“What does he know? My kids give me those lines all the time. They don’t want to date anyone from Har Nof, or anyone with red hair, or anyone fat, or anyone with pimples. If I listened to them they’d all be single today. You’re the mother. You talk some good sense into them. That’s your job.”
Even though Shulamis had never set foot outside the orthodox community, she’d absorbed the dry English humor.
Yes. Molly breathed a sigh of relief. She was Asher’s mother. She’d talk him into it. How would she do it? She’d bake him a tray of carrot-dotted muffins with dried cranberries and Chinese sugared pecans and deliver them to the yeshiva. That would soften him up, then… She was smiling again. That baby wasn’t far away.