| Calligraphy: Pesach 5784 |

A Short Story (a Tall Tale)     

How could Yaakov, an ordinary bochur with ordinary interests (sports! grilling! power tools!), ever really understand someone who’s so different?

Let me tell you about Yaakov.

Wait. First, let me tell you about Blinder’s Hollow, though I’m sure you’re all already familiar with my hometown. Tzivi, you must be wondering, why do we need to know about Blinder’s Hollow for this story?

It’s all about painting a picture, see. This is how storytelling works. Close your eyes, imagine the quietest place you’ve ever visited. The kind of place where you can look up at night and see the dark blanket of the galactic bulge at the center of the galaxy. Where all you hear on Shabbos afternoon is the laughter of kids outside and women chatting on lawn chairs. Where every apartment advertisement proudly announces in walking distance to shuls — as though there’s a single part of Blinder’s Hollow that isn’t in walking distance.

Our town was built by Zev Blinder, a respected philanthropist who founded a yeshivah out in the boondocks. A half hour from Lakewood, back when a half hour from Lakewood wasn’t still, basically, Lakewood. That was 50 years ago. Now, we have a girls’ high school and everything! We’re basically a city.

Granted, sometimes the people here are a little unusual. Take me, for example. I’m a storyteller — I like to think a storyteller of great renown. I started out telling stories at our school shabbatons, and before I knew it, I was telling stories at other schools’ shabbatons, too. By the time I graduated high school, I was bringing in a nice amount of business telling stories to girls and women. I’m an entertainer, a performer, even though all I’ve got is my words and Blinder’s Hollow.

So it was a relief to know that Yaakov wanted to live here.

Now, let me tell you about Yaakov.

We meet. We’re set up by a woman who hears me speak at a school mother-daughter function and is sure I’d be perfect for her nephew. Now, I date a lot. There’s nothing like existing loudly in women-only spaces while being 22 and single to bring in the shidduchim. It’s like I’m waving a flag that says, I’m hilarious! Marry me off!

Yaakov, I’m assured, is a great boy. Smart, funny, good middos. And as soon as I meet him, I can see that. He’s on the quieter side, but maybe it’s just because I’m so loud. And he’s sharp and gets my jokes. It’s just that he’s so normal, and I’m… not. Quirky, I like to say. Delightful, when I’m feeling daring.

I tell stories for a living, and my mind is constantly whirring with new ones, each more absurd than the next. How could Yaakov, an ordinary bochur with ordinary interests (sports! grilling! power tools!), ever really understand someone who’s so different?

Then, on our fourth date, I say abruptly, “Do you think that a Jewish vampire would only be able to feed on someone who doesn’t eat chometz on Pesach?” And Yaakov rubs at his beard, considers my question instead of staring at me in disbelief, and brings up three rapid-fire proofs to his answer. After that, I’m a little less worried. He might not be as strange as I am, but he is tolerant and he likes me, and that’s enough.

We get married in a standard wedding, just like everyone else’s, and then — very suddenly, right after sheva brachos — we’re on our own. Not completely, of course. My parents live nearby and Yaakov’s are in Lakewood, and they’re helping us out with rent. But it’s a sobering thing the first time I leave a plate out on the counter overnight and realize there is no one else in the house who’s going to wash my dishes.

(The next morning, Yaakov washes my plate after breakfast. At least I’m not learning about adulthood without a partner.)

Yaakov interviews at a local yeshivah and gets a job as a first-grade rebbe. It’s a fantastic match for him. He’s so patient with the boys and so enthusiastic about it, and he stops in for lunch before he heads out to seder in the afternoon. I’m still finishing school, writing essays, and doing modules in the morning, but I do my best to prepare a home-cooked lunch every afternoon.

It’s different, living with someone who was an absolute stranger five months ago. Kind of like throwing yourself into the deep end of the pool to learn how to swim. We talk easily sometimes. Other times, I just want to be alone to work on school or stories, but I don’t know how to say that without being hurtful. Yaakov doesn’t understand that I like my toothbrush on the right side of the sink or that the toilet paper roll should be put on over-roll instead of under-roll. And I still sometimes see his reflection in the mirror and yelp because why is there a strange man in my house?

He laughs at that. It’s just Tzivi being Tzivi.

Everything begins to change on a Tuesday afternoon three weeks after sheva brachos. Yaakov is on his way home from seder. It’s a brisk day, the chill of winter fighting for dominance over the bloom of spring, and Yaakov is wishing that he’d brought a coat to yeshivah. He slips his hands into his pockets, a tiny reprieve, and turns down a dead end that he’s never gone down before.

Later, he can’t explain why. It’s as though he’s being pulled toward it, like the wind has suddenly developed a suction setting and draws him closer. Yaakov has never walked down this block before, not with me or on his way to shul. To make matters worse, he makes it down the block and realizes that since it’s a dead end, he’s going to have to turn around and walk back the way he came. There’s nothing as embarrassing as that, especially when you’re as normal as Yaakov is.

But there is something about the last house on the block, a run-down, dilapidated house that might’ve once been cozy and tidy. The grass is overgrown, a basement window is cracked, and the three teenagers sitting on the lawn stare at him with wary bewilderment. “Hello,” Yaakov says awkwardly. “Is the high school off today?”

“We’re homeschooled,” the tallest of the teens says. He wears a yarmulke and a polo shirt, casual but put-together. “What do you want?”

A woman emerges from the house, looking harried and tense as she approaches. Yaakov shrugs. “I was just walking by,” he says, attempting to casually turn around.

But still, his feet are rooted to the ground. It’s almost like he can’t leave, like there is something holding him in place. He says, “I’m Yaakov Reichman.”

The kids stare at him. The mother says, “You don’t want to be here.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re new here.” The mother smiles at him. She’s probably a year or two older than Yaakov’s mother, and her round face matches the knitted snood and loose, unfashionable clothes. “You don’t know us yet. But talking to the Rosens won’t do you any favors in this town.” She turns to the teenagers. “Let’s go. We have calculus.”

The kids groan but follow their mother inside. Yaakov is left standing alone on the sidewalk, bewildered and strangely dissatisfied at the encounter.

“I have to go back there,” he tells me at dinner. He cuts his meat with such force that I’m worried I’ve burned it. “I couldn’t explain it to you. I just know — there’s something I have to do there.”

I wrinkle my nose. I know of the Rosens, in the way that everyone knows of the spot at the park on Cedar Street where they once found a dead coyote. “The Rosens? Why?”

Yaakov shrugs helplessly. “Who are they?” he asks instead. “The Rosens. Why would she tell me to stay away from them? Do I seem threatening? Is it the beard? I knew I trimmed it too much last time. Now I basically have a goatee. I look like Haman.” He rubs it self-consciously.

“No,” I say hastily. “It’s not that. I just know that the Rosens have this… reputation in town. It’s weird. There was some scandal back before I was born, but I don’t know much about it. I just know that their kids don’t go to the schools and the father doesn’t get aliyos. Mrs. Rosen works from home for some call center, I think. No one here would hire her. Everyone keeps their distance. I guess it was something really bad.”

Of course, I’m already imagining exactly what it might have been. Maybe Mr. Rosen was the one to leave that dead coyote on Cedar Street. Maybe Mrs. Rosen was secretly a USSR spy. Anything’s possible.

But Yaakov is frowning, unhappy with this. “So this has been going on for decades? And no one’s tried to help the family?”

Whatever they’d done, they must have alienated all the people who would have helped. I don’t know. “Maybe they don’t want help. They could have just moved somewhere new,” I offer.

Yaakov doesn’t accept that. He walks back that way the next day, and the next. Sometimes the Rosen kids are out, and they look at him with skepticism at first, and then amusement. Yaakov is good with kids, even teenagers. There’s something about his earnestness that has them softening, and they call out to him when he walks toward them.

“Hi, Yaakov,” the oldest one says. “How were the kids today?”

“Adorable. They finished Bereishis perek alef today,” he says proudly, and the teens whoop for the kids.

“I always wanted to go to the yeshivah,” one of the boys says wistfully. “That jungle gym inside the fence looks like so much fun.”

The girl kicks his leg. “That’s why? We could have just gone to the Cedar Street park. They have the best play equipment.”

“And dead coyotes,” the younger boy puts in. He wrinkles his nose. “Whenever we used to go there, the other kids would just stare at us. Ma used to take us during school hours, so we wouldn’t have to see them.”

Yaakov ventures, “The other kids didn’t play with you?”

“It’s fine,” the girl says, sticking out her chin. “We always had each other.”

Yaakov is left disturbed. How can a community just force a family out like this? The Rosens can’t deserve this. They might be a little strange, but the children are sweet and Mrs. Rosen seems to genuinely care about them. Even Mr. Rosen is pleasant when he emerges to meet Yaakov on his fourth visit to the block.

“My kids do like you,” he says, grasping Yaakov’s hand. His handshake is tight and a little desperate, as though he doesn’t do it very often. “But I have to tell you: We’re bad news. You’re a rebbi in the yeshivah. The parents aren’t going to be happy if they find out you’ve been coming by here.”

And it’s funny. Normally, Yaakov doesn’t look to stand out from the crowd. He’s unassuming and pleasant, the sort of person who does well when he’s with a group, and he’s never made waves before. But now a spark of defiance appears, unbidden, and he lifts his shoulders. “Leave me to worry about that.”

He worries plenty. At night, he tosses and turns, and he wakes up in a panic. “The Rosens,” he babbles as I sit up, unsure what I’m supposed to do. “I had this awful nightmare — I have to help the Rosens.”

“Help them with what?” It’s not like we’re in any position to help someone else financially, and we can’t get their kids into yeshivah even if they’d want that. “Yaakov, what is it about the Rosens?”

“I have to help them!” The words tear themselves from his mouth, and he shakes with intensity. “I have to…” He drops back onto the bed, his eyes wide, and he catches my gaze with his own. “I have to help them,” he says, and he drifts off to sleep and doesn’t remember the conversation in the morning.

SO I take it in stride. I’ve always kind of figured that I’d be the odd one in the relationship, and it’s a relief to find out that Yaakov is just as strange. Besides, I’m always in for a good story, and I sense that this is building up to be one.

“What we need is to get to the bottom of this,” I inform him that evening. I’ve gotten out a big whiteboard for the occasion, the one that I use for story charting. I write THE ROSENS in big letters across the top. “Why does no one talk to the Rosens? What happened there?”

Yaakov just stares at the board. I’m suddenly worried that I’ve out-stranged him, after all, gotten too into the story without thinking about how it’ll look. Part of early marriage is pretending, I’ve always thought. Two people putting on a show of being normal and compatible and their very best selves so that, when we start to falter, we can remember that the other person has potential. And I’ve veered off script too quickly, and Yaakov looks….

Alarmed, maybe. But then his eyes light up, and I breathe a sigh of relief. “It’s where we have to start, right? I don’t want to be mekabel lashon hara, but this is for a purpose. That family was wronged, I know it, and this is the only way to undo it.” He looks to me, his eyes shining. “I can’t believe you’re going to help me. I must sound crazy.”

I feel a warmth in my chest, surging strong, and I say truthfully, “Not crazy at all. Just good.”

My next step is to drop in, very casually, at my great-aunt’s house. Tante Rina has lived in Blinder’s Hollow since it was founded in the 70s, back when Zev Blinder was only a wealthy man looking to found a yeshivah. It means that she knows everything about everyone, and that she greets me at her door with a disapproving, “Zeeskeit, is it true that your husband has been talking to the Rosens?”

Husband still sounds funny to me, like I’m playing a game or acting in a play. I have a husband, a real, live person who wants to build a home with me, and if I think about it too much, my head might explode. “Uh, yeah. Why? Is that a bad thing?”

Tante Rina’s eyes bulge, her lips pressing into a fine line. “We don’t talk to the Rosens. I thought you knew that.”

It doesn’t take much to tease the story out of her. I’m like a story magnet, anyway. Everyone always wants to tell me stories hoping that I’ll use them someday. Everyone wants to show me that they, too, love stories as much as I do. I don’t mind, usually, except when Zaidy tells me the same story three times in a week.

As it turns out, Mrs. Rosen had been Zev Blinder’s secretary back in the early 90s. “I never trusted her,” Tante Rina says with a sniff. “It was something in the way that she’d say good morning to you when you came into the office. Shifty, really.”

Her morning greetings hadn’t been the issue, though. The embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Zev Blinder’s community funds had been. “All that money meant for the needy of Blinder’s Hollow gone, just like that. It was a nightmare. So many families without rent or enough groceries for months. Blinder’s Hollow nearly collapsed. And the Rosens still have the chutzpah to stay here?” Tante Rina is livid, as though she’s only just lived through the crisis. “When Zev Blinder finally discovered that Mrs. Rosen was responsible, it was too late. The Rosens had spent all of his money. He kindly didn’t prosecute them, but the community will never forgive them, and we’ll never forget!” She shakes her spindly, bony fist.

I make her tea and change the subject. It’s a horrible thing, if it’s true, and it definitely explains why the community has shut out the Rosens. But somehow, I’m sure that Yaakov won’t accept it. He’s a man on a mission right now, and I’m all in, too. Sometimes, marriage is jumping into a questionable presumption headfirst just because your husband feels really passionate about it.

I guess. I’m no pro at marriage.

At home, I focus on something else entirely. We’re getting closer to Zev Blinder’s yahrtzeit, which is always a big event here. There’s always a dinner in his memory, meant to raise money for his foundation. This year is the 25th yahrtzeit, so it’s going to be a bigger event. There’s a Chinese auction — because what function is complete without one? — and then a father-son learning session l’illui nishmaso. During the learning session, mothers and daughters will move to a separate room in the hall, where I’ve been hired to tell a story.

Nothing too offbeat, the organizers had told me, and so I sit down and consider developing a new story, perfectly framed for the event. I leaf through Zev Blinder’s biography, searching for concepts, but there isn’t much there that I can use.

I wonder how a story about Zev Blinder would go. It would probably involve saying his name a lot. No one says Mr. Blinder or even just Blinder. He’s always Zev Blinder, like some mythical figure.

By the time Yaakov returns home, I have the bare bones of a story. “If a philanthropist built a town on quicksand, and the entire thing fell in, do you think listeners will find it whimsical or alarming?” I ask him instead of saying hello.

He must be getting used to me because he doesn’t miss a beat. “Sounds like Pisom and Ramses,” he points out. “How about a giant sinkhole instead?”

“I can definitely work with that.” I move to the counter to chop red onions for the salad and tell him what Tante Rina told me about the Rosens. Yaakov listens. His face is very still for the duration of the story, except for one eye. It twitches twice: once when I get to the embezzlement part, and once when I repeat Tante Rina’s line about the community never forgiving them.

“It’s not true,” Yaakov says when I finish.

I squint at him. “You weren’t there. It was 30 years ago. You didn’t even exist for another five years. How can you know?”

“I just know.” Yaakov twists his hands. “I can’t explain it. It’s okay if you think I’ve lost my mind,” he adds, giving me a sidelong look. “Or if you want to stay out of this. I know how I sound.” He rubs the side of his beard, suddenly uncertain.

I’m reminded, suddenly, that I’m not the only person playing at being perfect right now. Maybe somewhere in that ordinary, unassuming, gentle rebbi is another 20-something who has no idea how his spouse is going to take his truest self.

I find myself charmed by the idea. “I guess we’ve got our work cut out for us,” I say, and I pull out the whiteboard again.

Yaakov is very disturbed by the accusations leveled against the Rosens. Personally, I’m a schemer. I love convoluted plans, like I’m a character in a detective novel collecting evidence that will somehow come together perfectly in the end. (Hence, the whiteboard, which is covered in lines and scrawls and question marks now.) But Yaakov deals with mysteries in the most straightforward way possible: He goes straight to the Rosens and asks them about it.

Mr. Rosen’s face falls when Yaakov mentions it. “I can’t believe people are still telling that story about us,” he says glumly. But there must be something in Yaakov’s eyes — that determination, as fierce now as it is when a little boy falls on the playground — that impels Mrs. Rosen to continue. “It was never true. My wife never touched any of the money. The paper trail that led to her was faked.” He gestures toward his rundown house. “Does it look like we secretly have money? If we stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, couldn’t we have afforded to leave town and escape the authorities?”

Yaakov listens, his dark eyes serious and his heart thrumming. There is no reason to believe the Rosens, no proof in their favor, but he feels an urge to trust Mr. Rosen. The truth of his words seems to sing in the air, to settle upon Yaakov like a rightness on his shoulders.

Once, when Yaakov had been 15, a stern teacher had accused another student of plagiarizing an essay that Yaakov had edited for him. Yaakov remembers the righteous determination that had swelled up then, the moment he’d risen to his feet and spoken out in front of the class. He’s never been a big mover or shaker, never some fierce advocate for what is right, but he feels that compulsion now, too, nearly 25 and still with the same determination.

“Is there anything that might prove that you didn’t?”

Mr. Rosen shakes his head. “Nothing that we’ve been able to get a hold of. No one is giving Zev Blinder’s old financial records to the neighborhood embezzlers.”

Yaakov pauses, his mind working quickly. “Where would I be able to find those?”

Mr. Rosen gives him a long look. “Aren’t you a first-grade rebbi at the yeshivah? How are you getting into Zev Blinder’s financial records?”

“Oh,” Yaakov says, and he flashes a grin that is blinding and wide. “I’m married to the strangest woman.”

And who am I to object to that, when it’s stated with such pride? When he tells me about it later, while I’m still puzzling over my sinkhole story, I take out my dry-erase marker and sign the corner of the whiteboard with a flourish: the strangest woman. Yaakov laughs and laughs, and then he says, absolutely serious, “How can we break into the Blinder mansion?”

I stare at him. The Blinder mansion is maintained, very poorly, by one of Zev Blinder’s grandsons. I drive past it on my way to the grocery store, where I can see the big lock on the front door and the high gates around the property. “There’s definitely a broken window on the basement level,” I say, because I’ve also noticed that. “I think I could probably slide into it.”

“Oh.” Yaakov looks chagrined. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that. I can figure out—”

I cut him off. “I want to.”

After all, what kind of storyteller avoids a chance to be a part of a story? This is how we get our stories: by experiencing the world, as wacky and whimsical as it might be some of the time. Trespassing? Breaking and entering? My stories will be so much better now. (Disclaimer: I have never before broken the law to tell a story. This is an exception for a noble cause.)

Some couples do date night at a restaurant or museum. My mother says that sometimes date night can be a visit to Costco, just she and my father together without the kids. Yaakov and I do date night like this: dressed in dark clothes, easing open the squeaky gate in front of the Blinder mansion, and turning on flashlights to peer at the broken basement window.

Yaakov is tall and thin, but I’m pretty sure that he’s just a little too broad to fit easily into the window. “I’ll go in and figure out how to get a door open for you,” I offer as I shine my flashlight into the opening.

Something skitters through the darkness of the basement, and I shudder. If I can get in, I imagine that there are plenty of animals who’ve been taking shelter here, too.

But I’m able to slide down easily, and I land on a hard floor instead of something furry. I shine my flashlight around and discover a deadbolted door up a staircase on my right. “Come around the side of the house,” I whisper to Yaakov. “I’ll open up for you.”

We don’t dare flick on any lights. Instead, we shine our flashlights around the basement and find our way upstairs. “Over here,” Yaakov says with sudden certainty, and he leads me to an office. He fiddles with the lock on the doorknob, and the knob comes off in his hand. “Oh,” he says, staring, “that works, I guess?”

We push the door inward and head into the office. It’s a plush room with a desk and a couch, carpeted and definitely not vacuumed in years, from the number of times that I sneeze. Yaakov inspects a file cabinet on the side of the room, then a desk drawer. He moves with such baffling purpose, as though he’s done this a thousand times before, and I feel a sudden flicker of concern. “You aren’t, like, secretly a bank robber, are you?”

Yaakov frowns, pulling a drawer open and leafing through the papers in it. “Give me some credit. I would have told you that on the fifth date.” So I guess I’m not the only funny one in this relationship. Our kids are going to be hysterical. “I just have a good feeling about this drawer.” He digs a little deeper into it, and says, “Ha! A key.” He holds it up.

“What’s it for?” I wonder.

Yaakov isn’t wondering. Immediately, he walks to the file cabinet and opens the bottom drawer. “It’s in here,” he says to himself. “It has to be. It’s—”

And we make it exactly that far before the door is thrown open, there is suddenly a bright flashlight beam on us, and a police officer barks out, “Hands where I can see them!”

Getting arrested wasn’t on my newlyweds bingo card. I quiet the part of my mind that reminds me that this is going to be a great story, hush the opposing part of my mind that tells me that I’m about to have a criminal record, and look to Yaakov for advice. He’s a first-grade rebbi. His specialty is defusing situations with high-intensity boys.

Yaakov holds up his hands, fully in rebbi mode. “I understand that this looks bad,” he says, smiling at the police officers. One of them raises his eyebrows. The one behind him almost smiles. First-grade rebbi, one. Cops, zero. “But you won’t believe the story that my wife is about to tell you.”

And it’s my turn. I spin the tale just like I have for you, but in a far truncated form. I talk about the Rosens, the nefarious accusations that have ruined their lives for so many years. I talk about the community as I’ve always known it, quiet and happy and completely separate from the world the Rosen children have experienced. I even talk about Yaakov’s strange compulsions and premonitions that something is rotten in the state of… well, Jersey. The police flashlights stay on me, and I imagine them like spotlights on a stage, that this is just another performance.

As I speak, Yaakov moves closer to me, and the cops don’t protest. By the end, we are standing side by side, facing the police as we await their decision. I glimpse our reflections in a mirror hanging near the door, the two of us illuminated by the glare of the flashlights. We look like a team, like an ordinary husband and wife doing slightly-less-than-ordinary things. Partners-in-crime, if you will. For the first time since I drank that wine under the chuppah, I can really see us as married.

“You’re aware of how this sounds,” one of the officers says, exchanging a glance with the other.

Oh. They think we’ve lost our minds. “Yep,” Yaakov says bravely. “But I’m sure — if you’d just let me open the cabinet — I could prove that I’m right.” He looks at them, eyes shining with earnestness. “Don’t you want to know, too?”

The officer laughs. “All right, rabbi,” he says. “Let’s see. We can bring you in after you get your answers.”

Yaakov crouches down and slides the key into the cabinet. It opens easily. We crowd around him, squinting down into the files. I see one labeled Rosen, Ashira, but Yaakov bypasses it entirely. Instead, he pulls out five other files and lays them out on the dusty desk.

We all stare at them, at the strange inconsistencies in each. The files have nothing to do with each other, might never have been compared before, and all have different dates years apart. But Yaakov looks at them expectantly, brow furrowed as though they might somehow make sense together.

And there, in one file, is the missing trail of that money supposedly taken by the Rosens… only it wasn’t taken by the Rosens. There’s a different name there in Zev Blinder’s financial records, someone who must have cleverly arranged a bank transfer and found an innocent scapegoat to blame instead.

One of the cops takes out his phone and puts in the numbers, then adds them up. They match perfectly. And the recipient on each of the other four is the same. “Wow,” Yaakov breathes. “Doesn’t this — if this is true….”

“The money wasn’t taken by the Rosens at all. It was one of Zev Blinder’s daughters,” the other cop says, just as engrossed. “According to this, she spent it all on… what is the National Selachimorpha Society?”

“Sharks,” I say suddenly. I remember the old whispers about the poor, late Chana Perel Blinder, who had spent the best years of her life obsessed with betting on shark races in the Maldives. It had been a serious problem. She’d been rehabilitated and helped by her family before her passing. “She gambled away all of the money.”

“Sharks.” One of the cops rubs his head. “You know, maybe you two should just head home instead of coming back to the station with us. I don’t think anyone would believe me if I tried to charge you with this.”

Yaakov tries his luck. “We’ll need the files for evidence. How else will anyone know the truth?”

The cop shrugs. “Your wife is quite the storyteller,” he says, looking over at me. “I’d leave it to her.”

“And that’s what I did,” I conclude to my rapt audience. I find Ashira Rosen’s face in the crowd of women, her daughter beside her, and smile encouragingly at them. They hadn’t wanted to come — had been concerned that they’d be turned away at the door — but Yaakov had persuaded them that they, more than anyone else, need to be here tonight.

The audience is totally silent for a few moments, and I take advantage of it to finish, “I’ve since gotten in touch with Moishy Blinder, who allowed us to retrieve the files — legally, this time. You can see copies displayed in the entrance hall downstairs. And I’d like to be the first to apologize to the Rosens, who have been so wronged for so many years. What better time is it than now, on Zev Blinder’s twenty-fifth yahrtzeit, to right this wrong?” I smile out at my audience. “He fought so hard to help the needy and the hurt. I know that he’d want this, too.”

The audience remains silent, stunned and uncertain. Then, a single voice shouts out, “I still want to hear the sinkhole story!” Laughter, then chatter as women stand and stretch after the story. Mrs. Rosen twists her hands and turns toward the door, but someone moves to stop her — Tante Rina, who speaks swiftly and decisively. At the end of their conversation, Mrs. Rosen is smiling and others approach, too.

Satisfied, I turn away and gather up my bag. Another story well told, though this one is leagues above any of the stories that I’ve invented myself. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.

I don’t like to stand around after my stories, accepting praise and laughing it off. Instead, I’m ready to find Yaakov and go home.

He’s waiting at the stairs when I descend them to the entrance hall (packed with curious women examining the documents, of course), and I beam down at him. “I think we did it,” I say, falling into step with him. We walk naturally now, without any of the early uncertainty that comes with figuring out a new spouse. I’ve learned Yaakov’s cadence, can recognize the sound of his shoes on hardwood floor, and we’ve adjusted our paces to move together. “People seem receptive,” I say. “They’re not laughing me off or getting angry.”

Yaakov nods as though he’d never had any doubts. “Never underestimate the power of a good story.”

The men are beginning to head out of the learning session downstairs, and wives pull their husbands over, excitedly sharing the newest rumors flying around the event space.

I can hear my own name, then the Rosens’, and I turn to Yaakov. “Want to make a quick getaway or stay for the Chinese auction?”

“I’d love nothing more than a quick getaway.” Yaakov absently lifts a hand to wave to one of the other rebbeim in greeting.

“Quite a story, I hear!” the rebbi calls. “A little bit of community upheaval for a birthday present, eh?”

I twist to frown at Yaakov. “Birthday?” I echo. “Your birthday isn’t for two weeks.”

“My Hebrew birthday is tonight,” Yaakov admits. “I didn’t mention it. I didn’t want to distract you from your big event.” He shrugs, sheepish. “Besides, exonerating the Rosens was the perfect twenty-fifth birthday present for me.”

That’s Yaakov, selfless and determined and a little bit strange. There’s no one quite like him in all of Blinder’s Hollow.

I am so, so glad that I married him. “Come on,” I say to my husband. “Let’s go out and get some cake.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1008)

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