Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
Out of the Box, by Henye Meyer
Plumping up the big pink scatter cushions, Mrs. Finkelbaum the shadchante arranged them artistically in the deep armchair, stepped back, and surveyed the effect critically.
Sweeping the cushions off the chair, she tossed them onto the sofa.
The armchair would stay uncompromisingly deep, she decided. She had bought it specifically for shidduch interviews. If a girl’s skirt was too short, there was no way she could conceal the fact once the armchair had swallowed her. Besides, she didn’t like to see the girls completely at ease, and the armchair’s pelagic depths ensured that they were sitting uncomfortably.
Of course, she reminded herself, Liba knew all her tricks; but she still left the cushions on the sofa.
Liba. Mrs. Finkelbaum was aware that she was the last shadchante in town who was still trying for Liba. My heavens, the girl was nearly thirty-two! At every monthly meeting of the shadchonim, Mrs. Finkelbaum mentioned Liba’s name, but she had to admit the groans were becoming irritating.
“She’s not fussy,” she defended herself. “She’s never been offered anyone remotely acceptable.”
“Mrs. Finkelbaum, please!” begged Mrs. Ullmann, whose success rate was incredible, primarily because she refused clients without enough advantages. “She has no money, no yichus, she isn’t a beauty, and the closest she’ll ever get to a size 2 is a size 12!”
“Some of us, Mrs. Ullman, believe that even girls who aren’t rich anorexics are entitled to get married,” snapped Mrs. Finkelbaum. She knew for a fact that Mrs. Ullman didn’t just buy slipcovers, she replaced her furniture every couple of years, and Mrs. Finkelbaum resented it.
“Oh, well, if you’re going to be idealistic…” Mrs. Ullman let the sentence trail off into a backwash of scorn.
Stepping back, now, to make sure the scatter cushions were well out of reach of anyone in the chair, she heard the doorbell. Liba had arrived.
It couldn’t be denied that Liba was a big girl. Not fat, not at all, but big-boned. A good, strong farm wife she would have made. I wonder if I can find any farmers for her was Mrs. Finkelbaum’s automatic reflex, but she stopped herself, greeted Liba and took her wet coat.
“Is it raining?” she asked.
Nodding at an umbrella she had left outside the door, Liba said, “Cats and dogs. And elephants. It’s like a waterfall.” Her tone implied that she had soldiered through impossible weather as a personal favor to Mrs. Finkelbaum. “I wouldn’t have bothered, but Mom insisted.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum eyed Liba’s long, shapeless skirt. “You know, you really need to dress a little – a little – “
“I keep this skirt for visiting you. I couldn’t be tzniusdik in anything else. That armchair you always put me in is a menace.”
“Would you like a cushion?” It took Mrs. Finkelbaum some effort to make the offer, but after all, she already knew Liba.
“I’d like four.”
Once Liba was settled in the cavernous chair and Mrs. Finkelbaum had taken her place on a straight-backed chair opposite her, Mrs. Finkelbaum asked, “So how did it go?”
Liba hesitated. “I know I said I’d consider someone with mental issues, but I kind of assumed he’d be medicated.”
“His parents believe in alternative therapies. He gets acupuncture.”
“How do you know?”
“He told me. He was a real sweetie. Until he lost it.”
“I think,” Liba said consideringly, “it was the cherry on top of the ice-cream sundae that set him off, but I’m not sure…”
“What did he do?” Mrs. Finkelbaum asked in a wary tone.
“He attacked the sundae. Then he demolished the table. Then they called the police.”
“They were very nice. I noticed they were on first-name terms. I called a taxi and went home.”
There was a long pause.
Eventually Mrs. Finkelbaum said without much hope, “Would you like to see him again?”
“Would you consider a broader range of possibilities?” Mrs. Finkelbaum asked.
“Broader than health issues? I guess so. But you’d have to talk my parents around. I don’t think they’re as open-minded as I am.”
“As long as they learn in the evenings. But Mrs. Finkelbaum –“
Mrs. Finkelbaum, who was leafing through her file, looked up.
“I have an idea of my own. It would benefit so many older single girls! But I couldn’t do it myself. You’d have to speak to a rav, and not just any rav. Someone on the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. But it’s the perfect solution to the shidduch crisis!”
Mrs. Finkelbaum’s jaw dropped. “A solution?”
“Yes! And it will work!”
“Tell me!” demanded Mrs. Finkelbaum.
“Suspend the takana of Rabbenu Gershom.”
There was a silence.
Mrs. Finkelbaum stared. Slipcovers, dear, she told herself, trying to retain her mental balance. You really need new slipcovers. Don’t react..
“You shouldn’t joke about things like that,” said Mrs. Finkelbaum when she had recovered. “I thought better of you.”
“It’s not a joke,” Liba told her. “I mean it. It doesn’t even have to be a permanent suspension, just a horaas sha’ah, just till somebody finds a better way. After all, technically, the takana expired
hundreds of years ago. Think of the benefits! The primary wife can stay home with all the children and be a full-time mother and homemaker, while the second wife goes out to work full-time. Less stress for both of them. And for the man, too. And think how easy it would be to assess the man – just ask the first wife. Plus, in the early years you could have three sets of parents contributing. The man could stay in learning years longer!”
“The first wife might object.”
“Then, of course, you wouldn’t go further. It wouldn’t be compulsory.”
“I think we both need some tea,” said Mrs. Finkelbaum. When she came back with the tray, she said, “You seem to have forgotten that bigamy is illegal.”
“But that’s why the arrangement would be perfect in today’s society!” insisted Liba, nearly knocking the tray over in her enthusiasm. “Because it’s only illegal if the man marries both wives in a civil ceremony. If the second one is just considered his, ah, partner – no problem!”
Mrs. Finkelbaum sat up very stiffly and sipped her tea in silence.
She put the cup down, precisely, in the saucer. “Let’s go through the new suggestions I got at the last meeting,” she said.
“Not until you take my idea seriously. I think I’ve been very flexible in considering some really strange men you’ve sent me out with. I’d like to see you flexible, too.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum sagged. “All right. I’ll ask the rav of my husband’s shul. Just to see what he says,” she hurried on. “I promise I’ll go further even if he doesn’t like the idea. Now. What about the Benton boy?”
“I’ve heard about him. I’d rather have a werewolf.”
“You discuss your dates with other girls? That’s not very discreet.” Mrs. Finkelbaum’s eyebrows vanished into her sheitel.
“It’s a lot more efficient. My friend warned me about that one. I warned her about the boy with the mental issues before you could suggest him to her.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“You told me he was sane!”
“Well, he is. Some of the time.”
“I rest my case. What else do you have? Men my parents would reject, for instance. What about someone who’s been married before?”
“I have a few, but they’re all older men.”
“I like older men.”
“Oh. I kind of had in mind forty or fifty.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum riffled through her file. “Here’s someone who’s only thirty-eight. He’s looking for another wife.”
“Wait a minute – is that the one with a wife in an asylum and a heter d’meah rabonim?”
“You know about him?”
“Everybody knows about him. He’s abusive, controlling and violent. But charming, they say. Oh – and she’s his third wife.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum quietly extracted the file and tore it into very small pieces. There were some things she wouldn’t do, even for slipcovers. “How do you feel about geirim and baalei tshuva?” she asked.
“Fine by me. Mom would throw a fit but that’s your problem.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum riffled through her cards. “Here’s someone who was megayer the week before last, but he’s not really available yet.”
“He won’t be out of prison for three years.” About to close her file, Mrs. Finkelbaum stopped. “I do have someone but I don’t know if you’ll like the idea. He’s a — a Chinese ger.”
“Yes, so what’s the problem with him?” asked Elisheva.
“He’s – he’s Chinese!”
“At my office, the Chinese clients are the nicest! It’s a maaloh. Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with him?”
“Being a ger isn’t enough?”
“Not from where I’m sitting. How long has he been Jewish?”
“Four years. And a bit. After three months at a baal tshuva yeshiva he went straight into the Mir.”
“Wow, a learner, too?”
“He’s going to go to work, soon. He says he can’t get married till he can support a wife.”
“I’ve got a good job. Maybe he won’t need to work, just at first.”
“So I should set you up?”
“As soon as you’ve spoken to your rov about my idea.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum drew a deep breath. “Liba, you aren’t meant to have a confrontational relationship with your shadchante.”
Working herself forward so she sat securely on the front edge of the abominable armchair, Liba said, “I don’t think you understand my position, Mrs. Finkelbaum. I’m coming here out of derech eretz for you because you try so hard, and out of kibud aim because my mother is desperate to see me married. I may still be single but I’m not putting my life on hold while I’m waiting. I have a good job with a decent boss, I’m out four nights a week at chesed organizations, I have a couple of close friends to hang out with and a bunch of adorable nieces and nephews. No, it’s not the same as being married. But I do have a life, Mrs. Finkelbaum, because I accept that maybe Hashem doesn’t want me to get married and I should do my best with what I have. What I am not, Mrs. Finkelbaum, is desperate. I am not going to take the first zhlob I’m offered just to get a ring on my finger. If I can’t build a bayis ne’emon with a true partner, I’m better off as I am.”
If Mrs. Finkelbaum’s jaw had dropped any farther it would have rested on her knees.
“I just wanted to make the position perfectly clear,” said Liba.
“You have,” said Mrs. Finkelbaum in a faint voice.
Beginning to recover, she said weakly, “I’ll ask my rav about your suggestion. But I think you should go, now, Liba.”
Three days later, Mrs. Finkelbaum, back to her usual optimistic self, called Liba. “Well, I spoke to my rav,” she said virtuously.
Mrs. Finkelbaum’s optimism suddenly faded. “He – he wasn’t very receptive,” she said. “I’ll ask one of the big rabonim in town, I promise. Will you go out with the Chinese boy?”
“Okay,” said Liba. “I’m keeping all my options open. You’re taking me seriously, so I’ll take you seriously.”
A week after that, Liba was back in the horrible armchair.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Finkelbaum,” she said without preamble, “I don’t think it’s going to work.”
“What’s wrong? He’s such a fine boy.”
“He is. I like him. But – remember he said he had to go to work?” Liba reminded her. “Well, he’s very highly qualified. His career will suffer if he doesn’t take the job that’s waiting for him. Only it
means living on the Kerguelen Islands.”
“Nu, so he has to commute.”
“Mrs. Finkelbaum, do you know where the Kerguelen Islands are?” Liba demanded.
“Somewhere near Long Island?” Mrs. Finkelbaum guessed hopefully.
“No, I looked them up. They’re tiny and bare, and almost as far south as Antarctica. Their other name is the Desolation Islands. It’s a very long commute.”
There was a long silence. “You wouldn’t like to try it?” Mrs. Finkelbaum asked at last, without much hope of either this shidduch or her slipcovers.
Liba shook her head. “No. But don’t give up with my solution, Mrs. Finkelbaum! Think of all those singles it would help! Put your heart into your approach and I’ll go out with any realistic suggestion you make!”
Liba drew back a little. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well…” Mrs. Finkelbaum smiled. “You said externals didn’t bother you, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Liba, even more warily.
“Nothing major, just dressing a little differently?”
“And you could put up with slightly different minhogim?”
“Every family has its own minhogim,” said Liba.
“Oh, so then you probably would like this bochur. He’s the right age, he’s working but he learns before Shacharis and in the evenings, and he’s a really nice, intelligent boy with beautiful midos,” said
“So what’s the catch?” Liba asked. “Why are you offering him to me?”
“It’s kind of a non-standard situation. He’s a chosid.”
“A chosid!” Liba sat bolt upright. “That’s impossible! I couldn’t marry a chosid!”
Mrs. Finkelbaum drew herself up. “Why not?” she asked in a chilly voice. “I did.”
Liba’s cheeks flamed. “I’m – I didn’t mean –“ she began.
“Two generations ago people weren’t so fussy. A lot of marriages crossed the line between yeshivish and chasidish. And they turned out fine,” said Mrs. Finkelbaum, feeling defensive.
“You promised. You said if I put my heart into my approach –“
“So far, you’ve only asked your shul rav.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum passed her hand over her eyes. “You have no idea what you’re asking,” she said. “I’m ruining my reputation trying to sell this strange idea for you.”
“I really think it’s important for rabbonim to consider it,” Liba said apologetically.
“And I think it’s important for you to consider a nice chasidishe boy. Think of it – “ she paused for a moment – “think of it as an adventure.”
Of course, things weren’t so simple with Sender, either. Just because there were slightly too many chasidishe boys, it didn’t mean he was a pushover.
The deep chair made him hunch over and his long legs stretch out awkwardly, but he listened patiently to Mrs. Finkelbaum. The scatter cushions on the sofa tempted him. They were almost within reach –
“Have you finished that physiotherapy course, then?”
Sender dragged his thoughts back. “Yes, and I have a job already, with a moshav zekeinim.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum made a note. “Now, about this girl I suggested…”
“Another Litvishe one, you said?”
“Not like the last one?”
“The last one sounded like a lovely girl.”
“You know, when I said I’d consider girls who weren’t chasidish, I didn’t think I had to specify that they had to be frum.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Finkelbaum pulled a card and made another note. “No, this one’s fine. Nice-looking, tzniusdik – “
“Hold on – not a burka type, is she?”
“No, no, perfectly normal.”
“She can’t be if she’s thirty-two and still single,” Sender objected.
“You’re thirty-five and you’re pretty normal,” Mrs. Finkelbaum reminded him.
“Okay. Point taken.”
“She has a good job, dresses nicely, involved with chesed organizations and family, a poshute girl – “
“Until she wants to buy a $4000 sheitel.”
“Now, look here, Sender, do you want to get married or don’t you?” demanded Mrs. Finkelbaum.
“Maybe you don’t understand my position, Mrs. Finkelbaum.” Sender stopped resisting, seized four cushions from the sofa, and stuffed them behind his back. “I’m here out of hakoras hatov because you keep trying and I don’t want to disappoint you, and because I have a mitzva to get married. I don’t really expect to, and I’ve made a life with as much limud Torah and shteiging and chesed as I can without being married. Still, I have to do my hishtadlus, so I come when you call me. But I really would appreciate accurate information.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum’s heart sank. Two reluctant candidates! Her slipcovers receded further and she began to wonder if what she was going through was worth it until she recalled that she was doing it for the mitzva, anyway. After all, Sender’s family didn’t have money, any more than Liba’s did.
“You don’t have to worry about this girl,” she assured Sender. “I’ve known her for years. She’s just agreed to consider someone chasidish. Now, shall I give you her number? She’s home on Tuesday nights, so I recommend you try her then.”
Mrs. Finkelbaum smiled encouragingly. “Think of it as an adventure.”
Liba took the call in her room with the door shut, not because she believed this was The One but because she needed to focus. But the voice on the other end sounded friendly and sane.
When they had agreed to meet, Liba said, “I’m so tired of going places. Can you think of somewhere quiet and non-threatening?”
A warm chuckle answered her. “In my world, we meet in somebody’s house for about twenty minutes the first time. How does that sound to you?”
A wave of relief washed over Liba. Not to be stuck with someone she couldn’t stand for a whole evening! Not to go somewhere they’d run into seventeen other couples, all younger! “It sounds wonderful,” she said, “only please, anywhere but Mrs. Finkelbaum’s house.”
“That horrible chair?”
A shared joke. Well, that was a good sign, Sender told himself. He liked the idea of a wife who knew how to laugh.
They met in his Mime Bryna’s dining room.
“Look,” Liba said without preamble, “I’ve got to get some stuff out of the way before we find out if we’re compatible. Would I be expected to shave my head?”
“It’s not our minhag, but if you really want to – “
“No!” Liba almost screamed. She calmed down. “No, it’s OK.”
“Good. You – you wouldn’t object to my shtreimel, would you?” Sender asked.
“Why should I? It’s your minhag. It doesn’t affect me. Besides, I think men in shtreimlach look…kind of…noble.” Liba took a breath. “Is it absolutely Torah l’Moshe miSinai to wear that stupid waitress outfit for Friday night?”
“Waitress outfit?” Sender asked, bewildered.
“Yeah, the big white tichel and the fancy white embroidered apron you have to wear another apron on top of to keep it clean.”
“You don’t need to bother, as long as you don’t want a $4000 sheitel.”
“Don’t be silly. We don’t have that kind of money.”
“Neither do we.”
“They say all the apartments in your area are crawling with roaches,” Liba said.
“They are, mostly, but I don’t mind commuting to work. Are the apartments cleaner where you live? Or are the exterminators better? And does this mean we’re getting married?”
Liba burst out laughing.
hen Mime Bryna opened the double doors to the dining room fifteen minutes later, Liba and Sender were still laughing.
“You’ve been doing that for almost the whole time!” she accused. “What am I going to tell Mrs. Finkelbaum? You’re supposed to take this seriously.”
“We got through the serious stuff faster than usual,” Sender explained, with a look at Liba that set her off again.
“No, really, you can tell Mrs. Finkelbaum that it’s all right,” said Liba, when she caught her breath.
“What, in twenty minutes?” Mime Bryna said, appalled. “You don’t make a lifetime decision in twenty minutes! Either get back in there for another half an hour or meet twice more. At least. What will Mrs. Finkelbaum think of me?”
Sender and Liba looked at each other and shrugged.
“The big question is what my parents will think,” said Liba. “I haven’t told them. They’re still hung up on ‘the best shidduch’ idea.”
“Are you saying my nephew is second best?” demanded Mime Bryna, ruffling up like an angry hen.
“No, no – I’m looking for the right shidduch, not the ‘best’ shidduch, whatever that is,” Liba explained. “Anyway, Mrs. Finkelbaum promised to break the news to my mother if this worked out. I wouldn’t dare.”
“Yes, well, I’ve been keeping Sender’s parents in the dark, too, when it comes to that,” Mime Bryna admitted. “I can’t imagine what they’ll say. Or rather, maybe I can. So what will you do?”
“Shall we see each other again?” Sender asked.
“Yes, but – can we go out somewhere?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Have you ever been to the Science Museum?” Liba suggested. “I haven’t. All my dates took me dull places like hotel lobbies and the viewing deck at the airport.”
“OK,” Sender shrugged. “This is all new to me.” He grinned. “The adventure.”
To avoid their families’ notice, they met at the museum entrance.
“Gems,” Sender read from one othe signs pointing upwards. “Girls like gems, don’t they?”
“Don’t worry, I don’t go for diamonds. But garnets, now…” Liba gave a deep theatrical sigh of bliss.
They never got beyond the gems and geodes but they enjoyed the visit. More to the point, they enjoyed each other. The next time, they agreed, they might as well go to the zoo, which they both liked, because if anybody saw them it didn’t matter. By then they had pretty much decided.
“You know,” Liba said, “Mrs. Finkelbaum told me to think of meeting you as an adventure – “
“She told me the same thing.”
“Well, I think being married is going to be the adventure,” Liba concluded.
At the vort, Mrs. Finkelbaum basked in the limelight of success. Not only were her slipcovers assured, she now had a name for finding shidduchim for older singles nobody else had succeeded with. Desperate mothers buzzed around her and her pen raced across one card after another. Maybe she should have business cards printed, she thought, carried away by the adulation.
Until Liba took her aside.
“I haven’t forgotten about my brainwave, Mrs. Finkelbaum, “ she said firmly. “Which rabbonim have you spoken to? And how is it going?”
“Oh, uh – “ Mrs. Finkelbaum hesitated, remembering that a reputation for insanity wouldn’t do her business any good. “Well, I spoke to a Rav in the Vaad and he passed me on to Rav Tovelovitch, who
passed me on to the Petroleumer Rebbe…”
“He wasn’t very encouraging…”
“Never mind, Mrs. Finkelbaum,” Liba encouraged her. “You keep on trying. Think of all those other singles who haven’t found their zivugim! Put energy into it. Think of it as a mission! Think of it…” she took a breath. “Think of it as an adventure!”