Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Chapter 6: Brachy's First Date

Meet Brachy. She wasn't going to exist. She was going to be a secret side of Shulamit, or another facet to Karen. Then I realised Brachy is a person in her own right, a complex one, and she deserves a character, all her own. Be patient with her, she'll suprise you.


"My first boy…" Their voices went husky and soft. Sometimes they'd giggle, sweet secrets hidden between the decibels.

The other girls remembered their first Shidduch dates tenderly. Their introduction to the world of Shidduch dating, their first socially sanctioned meeting with a boy. It wasn't just a meeting of eyes across a Shul hall, or a stammered hello in the elevator. This was a real rendezvous; conversing with a member of the opposite sex, a young single man, not a relative, not an elderly rabbi. It was exciting. They saved a place in their heart, for their first Shidduch dates.

Brachy didn't understand. What was so special about the first boys they'd met? They weren't first boyfriends, first loves. They weren't even first dates. She remembered the first boy she'd been introduced to. He hadn't been a date. He hadn't asked her out, hadn't flirted with her. He hadn't even liked her.

Brachy didn't remember what his name was. She never remembered their names. Shmuel teased her, said that one day she'd call him from the taxi, on the way to her engagement party, and ask "what was his name again?" about the boy she was engaged too.

The boy had been extremely eligible, that much Brachy did remember. Brachy's "first boy" was perfect; very religious, serious about learning Torah, from a wonderful family, wealthy, and even intelligent. He was the "top boy", in a "top yeshiva". Shmuel expected no less for her. After all, Shmuel had spent three months investigating the boy, doing a full background check, assuring himself that all was well, before Brachy was allowed to meet him.

Brach felt sick, the day of her first Shidduch date. Her stomach was sending confused messages, or was that her heart? She said Tehillim in the recesses between classes.

Maybe she was about to meet the man she'd marry. Maybe this was the beginning of their life together. Maybe she'd have a family again.

She concentrated while she said the afternoon prayers. She stood with her feet together and head bowed, and tried to envision herself standing before God. From between the Siddur's pages, she pulled out the little laminated card, a present from Shuli, and recited the Prayer for a Soulmate.

They were meeting in Bnai Brak, close to the boy's Yeshiva. It was a two hour journey for her, but this way his learning schedule wouldn’t be disrupted. Torah learning was precious, Yeshiva students' time shouldn't be wasted, squandered on travelling and girls. So Brachy sat on the bus, and used the time to say more Tehillim. She prayed that soon she'd be building a home, a Torah home. She begged God, for this boy to be her destined mate. A part of her was worried too, what if she did marry him? How would she know he was the right one, when she had never met anyone else?

Brachy's first date wasn't in a movie theatre or a bar, the places secular couples went. Nor was she to go to a café, or a hotel lobby; the chosen venues for Shidduch dates. Brachy's first date was in an apartment building, in a stranger's home. Shmuel had arranged it.

The door was covered in crayon drawings, Brachy could just make out the family name on the engraved sign, hidden under the cardboard and glitter. They must have small kids. She sure hoped the kids were safely asleep by now.

She stood on the doorstep, didn't move, wondered how long she could push off what came next. Eventually she lifted up her hand to ring the doorbell. In a couple of hours this would be behind her, she'd be safely back on the bus home. How bad could it be? Really it should be fun, to finally be dating, like everyone else.

But it only lasted an hour. An hour for the carefully selected suitor to decide she wasn't right for him. An hour for him to learn all here was to know about her. A barrage of questions, thrown at her one after the other, so she hardly had time to breath in between stammering out replies. Her throat grew dry, she longed for a drink, but he didn't pause from the interrogation.

After an hour he stood up, brushed off his jacket, and strode towards the exit. He paused for a moment, spun round back to her, "well, good bye then", and with that he was gone. Brachy's first date over. Brachy's first boy had exited the scene, never to return.

Now, years later, Brachy did still remember him, her first date. But she didn't remember him fondly. Her introduction to Shidduch dating had been rather brutal, thanks to him.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Diversity

She looks like a typical young matron from Bnai Brak. She's dressed in a baggy suit, the type the stores on Rabbi Akiva street abound with. Her Shaitel is short and straight, mousy colored. She speaks in weighty, solid, tones.

Where is the girl I once knew? I can't find her inside this staid creature. "It's happened to her too", I think. She's become a standard Chareidi woman. Fitting the mold, following the rules. Marriage does that to you.

She tells me she's studying teaching, in college. "The certificate we got from Seminary isn't enough," she explains, "I need a real degree for doing therapy"
"What type of therapy?" I expect to hear one of the standard specialties; physiotherapy, occupational therapy. Or maybe even art or music therapy, they've also come into fashion.

"Animal therapy." she says.

"Animal therapy?!" I blink. I look at her again, closer this time.

Chareidi women cross the street when they see a dog. Try as I might, I can't picture her, I can’t picture any Chareidi woman, in a barnyard or a stable, surrounded by dogs or horses or whatever animals it is they use for therapy. It doesn't fit the image I have of her. Shaitel and suit meeting feathers and fur. Surely not. Whatever happened to conforming to the unspoken rules? What happened to fitting in?

She's smiling. There's a light in her eyes. "Yes. Animal Therapy. It's always been my dream."

I smile back at her. "Good for you!" I say.

And so I've learned my lesson. Never judge a book by its cover. There are shapes between the lines; there is color beneath the black and white.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

From Barbies to Baby grows

Once upon a time I used to buy birthday presents for my friends. First it was Barbies or dolls house furniture. Later on I'd make their presents by hand; pine picture frames covered with sea shells, or smooth pebbles painted with a poem.

Then the dolls houses we'd once furnished became real houses, newlywed apartments. I collected towels and rugs in Ikea, for pre wedding showers. I selected tablecloths and cookery books, for preparing husbands' suppers.

I stocked up on presents during the sales. They stayed on my top shelf though. What was needed by now was baby outfits, for the newborns. Weekly browsing became part of my routine, in Baby Gap and Golf Kids.

By now it's the second round. The first batch of babies are already toddlers. My friends' stomachs are again getting rounder; the invitations to Brits are reappearing. This time I'm prepared. I have a reserve of baby grows and rattles, ready for when I need them. No need to rush to a store when I hear the happy news.

It's a new way to measure my life, reflected in the gifts I buy. Time passing, life progressing. Progresing for others. Pity I'm still at the birthday present stage.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Irony of Religious Women

It seems to me, that the more religious a woman becomes, the less she's supposed to keep.

Take Chanukah; I've been lighting candles since before I can remember, probably since I first brought a Chanukiyah home from kindergarten. Now really that should brand me as Modern. At home it seemed natural.But my more religious friends, or maybe I should say more Chareidi ones, well they don't seem to be in such a rush to light. They wouldn't dream of bringing flame to wick themselves, that would be far too shocking. Even being there, to watch the act take place, is rather low on their priorities. "my father/husband will be Motzi me" they say.

It doesnt stop there. The more religious women are, the less they go to Shul. The truly Frum woman avoids attending the synagogue altogether, except perhaps for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, on the rare years she doesn't have little kids to prevent her from going.

And if a woman is lucky enough to be Chasidic, she stands a good chance of not having to fast on the fast days, aside for the major ones.

Then there's Succos. I've already written about that. No self respecting Frum woman should be caught sleeping in a Succah. Unless she wants to risk being branded a feminist, that is. Certain Chasidic sects are against women even eating in the Succah. It could give them ideas above their station. One Chasidut holds that if a mother wants her sons to grow up to be Torah scholars, she should avoid the Sukkah as much as possible.

I've decided it's a great tactic, becoming more Frum. It will free up my time for the important things in life, now that I won't have to bother with doing all the religious stuff.

Monday, December 21, 2009

No Arranged Marriages

"No. Stop. Break!" Tires shriek as we grind to a halt. "You almost ran over that puppy!"

"Oops. Sorry. I didn't notice…" I resume driving. My new teacher leans back in her seat, trying to relax despite putting her life in my hands.

"Can I ask you something?" she says, as I circle yet another traffic circle.

"Go ahead" I reply, my eyes firmly on the road, looking out for more stray dogs.

"Do you do that Shidduch business?"

"Yup. I go on Shidduch dates." I have no problem admitting it. Seeing as how it's a subject that fills most of my waking hours nowadays. (I'm still trying to remember what I used to talk about with friends, before we started dating.)

"Have you, like, actually met a boy yet?"

"Oh sure." I say. "I've met quite a lot of boys."

"Ah." she looks suprised. "Does that mean you don't have to marry them?"

I laugh. "A shidduch isn't an arranged marriage. It's an arranged date." And if I'd married all the boys I'd gone out with, well, it would be pretty confusing by now. "It's sort of like a blind date."

"Really? We do those too. I used to go on blind dates all the time" She's trying to take it in. "Then what's the difference from what we do?" We being the secular public.

"Well I don't stam go out" ( Sorry, there's no good English equivalent for stam) "shidduch dating is for a purpose״

"You mean if it doesn't work then on to the next one . No hanging around." She approves. "And what do you do on a shidduch date? Someone told me once that you went to hotels"

"At first it's hotel lobbies. Then cafes and museums and other places. Maybe parks or the zoo."

"The zoo?!" she thinks that's hilarious.

"Yeah, the zoo is filled with religous couples, dating."

"Gosh how boring. You must know all the animals by name by now"

I agree with her. "One guy got a fright when I told him the zoo is only fun with kids. He thought I was hinting."

Maybe I should explain to her about Chasidim doing Shidduchim differently, about the different streams in Chareidi Judaism. Hold on, is that a truck? I better keep my eyes on the road and concentrate. Otherwise there might be one less Shidduch Maidel in the world.

"You know, it doesn't sound so bad. I always thought Shidduchim were like in the films. That you had to marry them, you didn't have a choice."

I'm glad I sorted that out for her. One less misconception about the Chareidi public.

I decide I'd better leave it at that. Not tell her about certain online blogs where Shiduch daters vent their frustrations with the system. Better not to spoil the good impression.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Chapter 5: Reverse Shidduch Crisis

I'm happy, sitting by the window, typing away. A little face peers into mine, mouths words I can't hear. I pull the headphones from my ears, and Matisyahu stops pounding.

"I want to sit here." She points at the seat next to mine. I look across the aisle, at where she'd been sitting quite comfortably with her sister. The older girl still sitting there looks back at me, and shrugs. I pull the purse and coat into my lap, clear the space for the little girl. She clambers into it, settles in. I slide the headphones back in, wake my IPod up from sleep mode. The girl climbs off her new seat, disappears into the back of the bus, comes back a moment later with two activity books.

"This one's mine, and this one's my sister's." She shows them to me proudly.

I turn off the music again. Someone has obviously decided she's my new friend.

She opens the books. Shows me which pictures she's colored in. I admire them. I offer her a pen, so she can do another puzzle. She pulls a line through a maze, looking up at me, for approval, every few minutes.

"Wow. You're so smart." I actually love little kids. Babies are quite boring, (sshhh, don’t tell anyone I said so), but once they begin to talk, they become fun. "You're drawing like such a big girl! How old are you?"

"I'm six." She says. She's called Rivky. She learns in the Gur school. I tell her that I have a niece her age, also in Kitah Aleph. She's disappointed to hear my niece go to a different school.

Then I notice Rivky's big sister, standing in the aisle. "What's your name?" she asks me. The questions carry on. "How many kids do you have?"

"Oh, I'm not married." I pull at my hair, show where it's connected to my scalp. People have been thinking I'm married all evening, I'm used to it by now. I've given up explaining that this afternoon, before the engagement party, I just stepped out of the shower and let my hair dry the way it is. That it's the Shaitels Machers fault for copying my messy look this year.

The "big" sister (She's already ten and a half, she's in fourth grade) goes back to her mother. Then she comes back again.

"Where do you live? How old are you? What Chassidut are you?"

Finally she comes out with it. "My mother asks if you want to marry a Gur Chassid?"
I gulp. Try not to laugh. "Oh. Well I'm not Chasidic you see, so I don't think I'll marry someone Chsasidic. But tell her I say thank you anyway."

At first I'm flattered. I resolve to sit next to a Litvish first grader next time. Who knows where that could lead? Maybe she'll have a big brother? An uncle would do too. Maybe this is why Chareidi girls aren't allowed to drive?

Then I remember that Gur has a Shidduch Crisis going on too, just like we have. Only it's a reverse Shidduch Crisis. There are too many single boys, looking for wives.
You see, not many girls want to marry into the Gur Chassidut. Not even the Gur Girls themselves. They often look for husbands who belong to other Chassiduts.

The reason? Gur has a lot of rules, a whole lot of rules, about marriage. There are the rules on exactly how it's permitable to have marital relations. You know those recommendations in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch? Well by them that's law. Along with a lot of other restrictions. Like they aren't allowed to sleep in the same bed together. Ever. But I won't go into them all here, it being a Frum blog and all.

There are other restrictions too, not only for the bedroom. One that I heard is that a husband isn't allowed to call his wife by her first name.

So now Gur is looking for wives for their boys. Women willing to take on the all the restrictions. And they are having a hard time finding them.

Which leads me to my brilliant idea. A solution to both Shidduch crises. Let's marry our girls to their boys! If a girl in NY is feeling desparate, ship her over here, to the local Gur community! Simple, yet brilliant. I wonder why nobody else has thought of it yet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chapter 4: Raising Illiterates

This was going to be a "real" blog post. Because it's true. It happened last week, and I've been wanting to write about it ever since. And I do have an issue with Chareidi society raising illiterates. But I'm in novel-writing-mode, so this is what came out. There's no reason I can't make the same point in fiction, right?

"So how can I send a document?" Bracha asked.

Karen sighed. There was so much to explain. "You see the paper clip? And underneath it 'attach'? It's called attaching when you add a document to an email."

Michael, sitting over at the next desk, sniggered loudly. Karen swiveled around and glared at him. It wasn't Bracha's fault, that she knew none of this. She was a product of the system.

Bracha sat on a folding chair beside her, eyes glued to the computer screen. "What's an inbox?"

Bracha had called in a panic. "All the tourist sites want to send me emails. They won't mail the brochures. They won't even agree to fax the details. And the principal wants this trip organized by Friday! Listen Karen, I need your help"
And so, an hour later, here she was, sitting in the office, soaking in what a lifetime of education had denied her.

Karen couldn't really blame Michael for laughing at them. The conversation must sound funny. As she explained to Bracha how to open a Gmail account, as her words echoed in the room, they sounded ridiculous. As if she were teaching a child perhaps, or an 80 year old. No, not even that. Children were on Facebook nowadays, and grandparents on Twitter.

"But how will you use your account? You don't have internet access anywhere. You can’t come here every day." It was one thing teaching Bracha how to use email. Karen couldn't have her turning up repeatedly. The bosses would complain.

"Well the secretary has internet on her computer. She'll let me use it."

"So why couldn't she have dealt with this?" Karen was annoyed. The interruption was using up precious work hours. Hours she'd have to make up later.

"Oh she doesn't know how to use it either. I don't know why Rabbi Horowitz bothered to have it installed."

Bracha was a computer teacher at the local Bais Yaacov elementary school. She'd studied with Karen in Seminary. Together they'd been taught programming languages and office programs. They'd done homework, and given practice lessons. But one thing they'd never been allowed near was the World Wide Web. There was a ban on using the internet in the Chareidi world. It wasn't lifted even for those who were supposed to work in the field.

Karen still remembered her first job interview. The face of the man interviewing her, when she didn't know what MSDN was, hadn't heard of any of the popular programming websites. She hadn't gotten that job. She'd learned her lesson by the next one. Going to the local library, and browsing site after site, in preparation.

Nowadays Karen was pro. Despite her long skirts, and prim button down shirts, despite being automatically labeled as religious, and hence obviously backwards, she was "Tech savvy", she was part of the modern world. She would prove it. She could Google with the best of them. She wrote a technical blog. She was on all the online social networks.

She had joined a dating website too, but that was a secret. That was one thing nobody was allowed to know.

Her old friends, the girls she'd gone to school with, the girls she'd grown up with, none of them could understand this new language she was speaking, new universe she was spending time in. Except for the others who'd also rebelled against teaching, who'd also sought to join the secular work force. One by one they too joined her online. Together they formed networks, and chatted, and posted photos; forgetting the Rabbis' warnings, ignoring the bans.

But Bracha, good pious Bracha, never had. She'd listened to what she was taught, followed the instructions given by society's leaders. She'd managed fine in her teaching job, typing and printing and mailing, travelling to libraries in the center of the country when she needed to do research.

Yet now the school Bracha taught in, the Bais Yaacov school, wanted her to organize a trip for them. And for that she needed to use the sinful Internet. So here she was, coming to learn what she'd been told was wrong, having no choice. Sitting clueless and sounding ludicrous, which basically she was. Because she was this century's equivalent of illiterate. She 'd been purposely raised to be ignorant.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chapter 3: Ending the Shidduch Crisis

Every time she saw the long lines of religious girls, waiting at the cash tills of Mamilla with their fathers' credit cards and their mothers' cheque books, Shulamit felt her heart scrunch up. The travesty, the absolute travesty, paying good money, a lot of it, for clothes they wouldn't be able to wear. Well at least not straight away, and by the time they'd finished with the bits of fabric, by the time they'd let down hems and sewn up slits and added buttons and safety pins to raise the necklines, it would all be spoiled. She knew it would. It always was. She felt so sorry for them. Fashion wasn't meant to be meddled with.

Really, if you thought about it, there was a lot that could be done with Orthodox fashion. Women's bodies had to be covered, from top to toe, and that was a large canvas (a very large canvas indeed after seven pregnancies had left their mark), a blank canvas just waiting for her.

When she had a store, it wouldn't sell items blindly imitating the catwalk. She wouldn't copy standard patterns, and then add material indiscriminately in order to deem it modest. When she had a store, it would be stocked with the fashion she designed. Fashion for the Orthodox woman.

Shulamit was following her dream. It wasn't a standard dream, for a frum girl. Wasn't a typical one. She couldn't train for it in seminary, in the same way the other girls learned teaching and special Ed. But it was just as idealistic, just as holy. She knew her store would make the world a better place. She'd be helping the next generation of Frum girls, same as if she were teaching in a Bais Yaacov. She'd be helping them dress well, look good. Maybe she could even end the Shidduch Crisis. In her outfits girls would be so irresistible that no Yeshiva guy would be able to turn them down.

So she had to venture out, into a very different world, which was new to her. Well the truth was she could have learned sewing in one of the girls-only colleges popping up. They promised to teach design too. That's what her teachers had encouraged, when they'd realized she wasn't going to join the ranks of teachers. She'd tried, really she had. She'd gone to the group of white washed rooms, tucked into a dingy building off Rabbi Akiva street in Bnai Brak. She'd sat patiently through a lesson on creativity, fighting off the urge to close her eyes, which grew heavier, as the lecturer, a middle aged woman in a bushy Shaitel, droned on, saying nothing very creative at all.

At the end of that lesson, she stood up, thanked the teacher, waved a good bye to the students, and left.

To make a dream come true wasn't easy. She needed the best. She got on the bus to Tel Aviv, and rode straight to Betzalel. Betzalel was the top art academy in Israel. That's where she wanted to study fashion design. But it was too late. The year had already started. They told her to mail forms in May, to apply for the next year.

Shulamit would wait. Meanwhile she had enough to keep herself busy. After all, she had another profession too. She was a matchmaker. She'd focus on that. Not only fashion could end the Shidduch crisis, she'd give it a good try with her trusty notebook too.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Chapter 2: A Game Plan

Karen was always in control. That's the way she was, the way she'd been all her life.
She was the one who organized the hikes in summer. She was the one who passed round a sandwich bag to collect money for teachers' presents at the end of the year. (Then she'd gone out and bought the presents, that same day. And written the poems to go with them.)

Karen had a mantra. "If you want a thing done properly, do it yourself." Every time she tried to let go, tried to leave things for someone else to take care of, it went wrong. Other people forgot, and delayed, and got mixed up. Not Karen. She learned it was quicker and easier not to rely on anyone else, if she wanted something done right.

First she worked out what to do, and then she did it. And then she dispensed advice, How-Tos for every step of the way. From organizing a hike in the Golan, to winning a treasured Madricha position in sleep-away camp. From picking the best Seminary to finding colleges that would give credits for their near worthless Seminary diplomas two years later.

Once it was time to join the grown up world, she was the first in her graduating class to prepare a resume. Her details were already sitting in the inboxes of all the prospective employers on JobNet, together with a customized cover letter, when one by one her friends traipsed over, and she helped them prepare resumes too.

She knew it all, because she'd done it all first. She had her life worked out.

Karen knew how she'd go about finding a husband, if it was up to her. The same way she went about everything else. She'd research current dating trends. She'd go to the right places, dress the right way, say the right things. She knew she'd find a guy. The right guy. And quickly.

But for the first time in her life, Karen had to let go. Her hands were tied. Bound behind her back by the rules society had invented half a century before.

There was no such thing as speaking to a man directly. She couldn't even hope to catch the eye of a potential mate. Someone else had to be in the middle. Someone else had to arrange it. So she needed help. Had to ask for help. Because that was the system. And there was nothing she could do about it.

In the beginning it wasn't too bad. She thought she could handle it. First she went to the local Jewish bookstore. She came home with all the books her teacher in the Shalom Bayit class in Seminary had recommended; "How to find your Zivug", "The Shadchan Speaks", "Dating made easy", "Splitting the sea". She read them all. She soaked up the advice of rabbis and matchmakers and "dating mentors". She prepared for what lay ahead. Knowledge was power.

Then she prepared a list. Lists were the key. She carefully wrote down every family friend and relative who moved in the right circles, who could know of a suitable boy. She added her teachers from high school through Seminary, because teachers were good at making matches.

Chanukkah was the best time of year to start dating, that was common wisdom. Winter meant Shabbos went out early, with the stars in the sky by five, and so Motzai Shabbos could be used for dates. Also, she'd settled into a comfortable routine in the new job. She was ready for the next stage.

On the first night of Chanukkah, after candle lighting, Karen presented her parents with the list. It was time to train them.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Matchmaker Diaires: At the Bus Stop

The woman's black hair was parted; two smooth waves pulled back tightly from her brow, disappearing under a scarf. The scarf was white, with silver threads running through it. It matched her white skirt and woolen coat. Only her boots, black patent leather, spoiled the snowy effect. She looked like a china doll, petite and perfect. She leaned against the man, who stood at right angles to her. She rested her hips on his, curved into him.

He wore a woolen hat, pulled down low. He looked so obviously irreligious. Shulamit had no need to see his head underneath it, she was sure there was no Kippah there. Stubble grazed his chin, jeans were slung low on his hips. The archetypical secular Israel, confident and fit after army training. And attractive, she admitted that silently to herself.

They stood on the other side of the bus stop. They didn't kiss. The woman rubbed her smooth cheek against his rough one. He moved his arm up, around, to cradle her.
Shulamit was fascinated, horrified. She couldn't look away. When the man's eyes swept the area, checking he wasn't being watched, she made her glaze blank, indifferent, pretended to be staring at the busy street.

The woman was married, religious and married. The head covering showed that. The man was secular. The man and woman were not, could not, be married to each other. Yet they looked right together, they slotted together, fitted together. Like a couple, a couple having a relationship. They were touching. It was like the scenes in the movies she had stopped watching, had given up as sinful.

The woman couldn’t be very religious, Shulamit reassured herself. After all, her skirt didn't attempt to reach her knees. And it was slit at the back, the slit reaching up to her coat, possibly beyond that. No truly pious woman would dress that way.

And what's to say the woman was still married? Once married didn't mean always married. Maybe she was divorced. Divorced women had to cover their hair too.
That would mean it wasn't an affair, wasn't adultery. "It was just," Shulamit stumbled to find the right words, "just a relationship that broke the rules".

She felt slightly better. Despite herself she turned round again. The man was brushing his cheek back against the woman's, tenderly. Shulamit stifled the feelings of envy. Shulamit was studying, pursuing the career she wanted. She didn't want to get married yet. She didn't want a relationship, didn't need a man. She was fine on her own.

The bus came, and she got on it. The couple still stood there, at the bus stop. She carried on watching them through the window, until the bus drove away.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Against Principles

"I don't like people with principles", a boy once told me.

I stopped and stared at him.

"Because they put their principles before everything else. They refuse to step out of their comfort zone, to stretch. People should come first, and that takes flexibility."

"But everyone has principles," I said, "at least, I hope they do. Like in my family, my father stressed honesty, I hope I'm carrying that on."

"That's different. That's Halachah. Think about it. There's Torah, Halachah, we should be acting according to that. Not be adding things on."

"Oh. I see." I said. But I didn't really see. It took a few months, with his words buzzing in the back of my mind, before I grasped the meaning.

Today I remembered him. Today I understood.

A Rabbi refuses to give me the name of one of his Talmidim, until he's met me.
"We can discuss it on the phone." I said. "I'll tell you everything you'd like to know."

"No, I have to meet you. That's my Shitah."

"You can speak to your friend Rabbi C., he knows me well. Or you can speak to your Talmid, Yitzchak Greenberg, I dated him for a while, he’ll remember me."

"No. This is the way I do things. I won't set up my Talmidim with girls before I've met them. On principle."

I also feel strongly about preferring to date single guys, and not middle aged married men and women. I even wrote about it. I didn't pull the "principle" card on him though. I'd just be told I'm stubborn and picky and not doing my Hishtadlus.

I gave up, said goodbye and hung up.

I've begun to notice when principles appear.

When something is wrong, it's simple. "I don't do that.", "I can't do that.", "I don't feel that's right", "Sorry, but that's breaking Halachah."

And when something is right, it's even simpler. Often there's not even a need for justification. Most good things people are happy to accept without explanation.

Principles are used for behavior that is outside what the Torah teaches us, outside what is obviously correct. Principles are used when we can’t find a better argument.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chapter 1: After the Ball is Over

The tiles were cold against her bare feet. Karen dangled the shoe straps from one hand, fished around in her purse with the other. The key had to be in there somewhere. A powder compact fell out, crashed onto the floor below. She bent down, opened the marble plastic. Clay colored lumps lay scattered inside, useless now. She snapped the case shut again, shoved it back into the overcrowded jumble. She'd need to buy a new one before the next date. What a waste. Trust it to break now.

Ah, there was the sliver of purple, peeping out between tissues and a folding umbrella. She pulled at it, tugged until the key ring dislodged from the mess.
With a twist and a push, she was inside. She dumped the purse and coat and keys, all in a pile on the bench by the phone. The shoes, she dropped onto the carpet by the dining room table. She'd taken them off in the elevator. Beauty was pain.

Karen went straight to the first bedroom off the hallway, still wallpapered with pink rosebuds, a remainder from the girly phase she'd had in second grade. She didn't stop to turn on the lights, or pick up the clothes that lay scattered everywhere. It was always a rush before, always a mess left behind. But she ignored it, pressed the computer's big rubber button. When a soft whirring filled the silence, when flashing icons appeared on the monitor coming back to life, she paused, to catch a breath, to settle in.

Tights came off. Fuzzy bunny slippers went on bare feet. Lenses came out, glasses went on instead. She loosened the earrings and necklace and hair clips. She rubbed at her eyes, smudging mascara and eyeliner carefully applied a few hours before. When she looked in the mirror, black panda eyes stared back, out of a pale face. She reached behind, under the shiny fabric of her top, to undo the bra's clasp, and wriggled arms out of sleeves to slip it off. That was better.

She settled into the swivel chair. Squatted on it cross legged, reached out fingers to the keyboard. The web browser was still opening. She didn't move, just gazed at the screen until the homepage had finished loading.

There were messages. One was from that guy who wouldn't take no as an answer. She'd have to be blunter with him, explain again how unsuitable a match they were. On second thought maybe she would ignore him, not answer at all. Maybe that way he'd get the message.

The second was from "Avraham". He'd replied at last. She crossed her fingers, said the only chapter of Tehillim she knew off by heart, chapter 121, and clicked on his message, to open it. He sounded so perfect, so right.

It was a rejection, couched in kinder words. Karen opened up his profile again, compared the "what he's looking for" paragraph with the description she'd written of herself. She couldn't find any contradictions. She wondered what put him off her. Was it worth another try?

The third message was from someone new. She hadn't noticed him on the site before. She'd read that, before going to bed. She hovered the mouse over the envelope, was about to click on it, when the door swung open.

"Sweetheart, how was your date?"

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Matchmaker Diaries: Prologue

She looks nervous. Pretty, but nervous. I wouldn't be caught dead in a suit, and I told her as much last night, when she laid it out on the bed, but it does make her look older somehow. Grown up.

If only she wouldn't keep latching and unlatching her hands together, and would stop with the lip biting. At this rate that shiny lipgloss will be worn right off, before he even arrives.
Is that him? A tall, black suited figure is approaching. I can't make out the face beneath the hat. My angle is wrong. The postcard stand spins around, as I push past it. I catch it from toppling over, just in time.

"Can I help you?" The woman behind the counter does not seem very pleased with me. I've already spent as long as humanly possibly, inspecting every souvenir in the store. I obviously am not about to make a purchase. She's losing patience. I had better leave.

Standing in the doorway, I check out the scene. He's saying something to her. He must be the one. Neither of them is looking in my direction. I make a dash for the opposite doorway.

Inside H.Stern, I lean against the wall, relieved. I haven't been spotted, I'm pretty sure of that. Outside I can see them still talking. He's gesturing now, pointing at a corner of the lobby. She follows him over to a pair of sofas, perches on the edge of one, lays down the shiny purse. He sits at right angles to her. He takes off the black hat, places it carefully on a vacant chair.

A saleswoman approaches me. I avoid her gaze, peer intently at a nearby display cabinet. The jewels inside glitter back at me. I straighten up, trying to look like I regularly go shopping for diamonds, like a potential customer. I don't want to be thrown out of the store before I've completed my mission. It's too risky to stand outside, in the open and wide exposed lobby. Bracha would never forgive me if she caught me spying on them.

Well, spying is too harsh a word. Seeing a job through to its end, that's what I call it. I mean, I set them up. I did all the phoning and persuading. I want to see the pieces fall into place.

Good. They are smiling now. Laughing. I think this is going to work. Time to move on.

The problem with trying to write a novel, is that I miss the feedback. What's been getting me to write is you guys. The comments, the responses, you're great! And I miss it when I plod through my chapters. So I thought I'd give this a try. Introducing my new serial story: "The Matchmaker Diaries". Please, please, nudge me and nag me and beg me for the next installment. Maybe this way I'll actually write it!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Seventy Paths

I almost missed the message. Then I noticed the little envelope in the corner of my cell phone's screen.

"I'm engaged!!!" the SMS shrieks out at me.

She asks me to give the news to her high school teacher, who happens to be a relative of mine. That night I make the call. It starts off pretty typically.

"Guess what? Rachel is engaged!"
"Mazal tov! That's so exciting!"
I can hear the genuine pleasure in her voice. Rachel is one of her favorite students.
"Tell me all about it? Who's the boy?"
"Well, he's in the army."

Silence.

I take a deep breath, and plow on.

"He's an officer. Something quite high up. I don't remember the initials, 'samech' something or other."
"I see."
"It's such a cute story how the Shidduch was made. See she didn't think it would work out, but she thought 'why not', and gave it a try, and voila!'

Frozen replies from the other side of the line. The esteemed Mechaneches suddenly sounds eager to end the conversation.

I could have been imagining it. I don't think I was.

Prize student, pride of the Bais Yaacov system, betrays the establishment by marrying, not only a not-in-Yeshiva boy, not merely a working boy, but a soldier! What can be worse than that?

I think where our society went wrong, is by focusing on negatives instead of positives.

Torah learning is a good value, an important ideal. So is making a living for your family, and contributing to society. So is defending the country, and we all owe those who do it a huge debt of gratitude. You can decide that Torah outweighs the others, decide to focus on that. That's your decision. But please, let it be about "learning Torah'. Don't let it be about "Not serving in the army", and "Not working".

I read the stories and letters-to-the-editor, about fathers running from Gemach to loan shark to bank. Or scheming up improbable get rich quick plans. Or flying abroad to go door to door collecting. Somehow it's OK for a man to spend all his waking hours in a chase to cover debts, rather than learning in the Bais Medrash. It's socially acceptable. As long as he's not working. Chas VeChalilah. Good chareidi men don't work.

And a boy can be doing many things, some of them not so savory. Society can deal with it. The true red line is the army. Shedding the black and white for khaki green. If he does, then he can still be wearing the black kippah, but it's not enough . He's crossed over to the other side.

"Learn Torah" has somehow morphed into "Don't do anything else".

That's how a nice Jewish girl can get engaged to a nice Jewish boy, and instead of being happy for her, some people, out there, can be upset.

Not only Chareidi Society negates other approaches. I mix in many worlds. I hear the remarks about 'parasites'. The disapproval of Torah scholars who 'have their heads in the clouds'.

So many ideals are good and right and true. Let's focus on our goals, whatever they may be, instead of negating the other ones.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is Attraction Important?

You think it is, I think it is, but aren't you curious what the Rabbis of Israel have to say about it?

We are sitting on the sloping hill, alone aside for the trees and the moon. I've convinced The-Yeshiva-Guy-I-Didn't-Marry to sit down on the grass with me, instead of on the customary bench. It's a new sensation, sitting on the grass with a boy. I cross my knees, pull my skirt down to cover them. He sprawls out on his side, a few inches from me. This is so much more relaxed than benches and chairs. It's the first time I've ever done it, on a date. A part of me whispers that that's a rather sad fact.

"Are you attracted to me?" I ask. There's a certain light missing from his eyes, when he looks at me. He doesn't look at me the way the boy before him did. I'm worried. I don't know what they've been telling them in Yeshiva, about feelings coming later, and all that. I know one thing, I don't want that to be the case with my husband. The question is blunt, but I don't care. I'm passed the beating around the bush stage.

Like a true Yeshiva student, he avoids the question. "Is attraction even important in a marriage? Rabbi C.K. say's it isn't."

Rabi C.K. being the venerated Gadol Hador.

Before I can open my mouth to protest, he continues. He is quick. One of the things I like about him.

"Of course, you know what Rabbi S. says."

Rabbi S. being an esteemed Rosh Yeshiva.

"Rabbi S. says attraction is very important."

"Well, I agree with Rabbi S." That sounds better than saying I disagree with Rabbi C.K. I've already learned what not to say about the Rabbis he admires.

"I thought you would. He also says: The reason Rabbi C.K. can say that attraction isn't important is because to Rabbi C.K. the couples come only before they get married, for his blessings. To Rabbi S. they come after the wedding, with their Shalom Bayis problems. "

I'm beginning to like the sound of Rabbi S. Not the kind of line I'd fit with his image.

"And what do you think?"

A dog comes bounding over, breaks the moment. My Yeshiva guy stands up and brushes the clinging greenery from his pants. I follow suit. We make our way towards the park's exit.

The relationship doesn't last much longer. I tell him I want a husband whose eyes will light up, when he sees me. I hold by Rabbi S.